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Review: Jamie Barton Brings Her Charms and Talents to Songs of Love, Longing, and Sex at Zankel Hall

By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, December 22, 2017

As predicted, Jamie Barton’s latest performance at Zankel Hall was quite an evening. Barton is a wonderful recitalist, and this was a terrific program, having to do with love and longing and sex, and tacitly asking questions about sexuality and “Who can sing what?” (as Barton put it in a brief summary towards the end) that stuck in the memory long afterwards.

Also as predicted, the hit of the evening was the selection of songs from Libby Larsen’s Love After 1950. These are spectacular pieces—carnal, wild, wised-up, happy-sad, sad-happy, angry-rueful, mad as a wet hen and happy to squawk about it—and Barton’s talents aligned perfectly with Larsen’s. Barton doesn’t color text—she embodies it. Her acting is powerful but finely judged: every word is alive and specific, but never floats entirely free of real speech. By the same token, her diction is so magnificent, and her projection of it so finely calibrated to the hall, that after a while you just stop looking at the printed texts.  Her final exploratory “Mmmmm,” in “Boys Lips” was an erotic education all by itself.  Her “But oh, oh, insomniac moonlight,/How unhoneyed is my middle of the night,” in “The Empty Song,” found a balance of voluptuous pain and wry self-mockery that’s precisely right for a song that’s sparked by an empty shampoo-bottle. And anyone who can get seven distinct, hearty laughs out of a mere fourteen lines of text, plus applause and bravos in the middle of a group, as Barton did with “Big Sister Says,” is assuredly cooking with gas.

All of this stood in stark contrast with the work that preceded it, Iain Bell’s six-movement cycle ofyou, to texts by E.E. Cummings—a Carnegie Hall commission, receiving its world premiere. Bell is a bit of mystery: he seems to have “risen without trace,” as our English friends put it, only four years ago, but he has already had operas produced at Theater an der Wien, Houston Grand Opera, and Welsh National Opera, and has produced a number of shorter vocal works. Bell’s biography speaks of his “love affair with the voice,” and it’s certainly true that his vocal lines sound well. On the other hand, his ideas, while attractive, don’t seem to develop very much or relate to one another, and his text-setting often defies normal accentuation, phrasing, or even pronunciation (“viSION,” “Looked up/with impertinently [pause] exquisite faces,” “wires” with two syllables, “sho-hoc-KIIIIIIIIING!”) to no clear expressive purpose.

There was little in the musical elaboration that Britten or Rebecca Clarke hadn’t done, and nothing that would have been out of place in setting Mallarmé.  It was a curious match for Cummings, who, for all his technical innovations, was a New England idealist crossed with a Greenwich Village voluptuary, and American to the core. Lines like “suddenly a smile, shyly obscene” and “exact warm unholy” should smell of cigarettes and rye whiskey and wet afternoons on Patchin Place, and “i like,slowly stroking the,shocking fuzz/of your electric fur,and what-is-it comes over parting flesh” should sound—well, sound damp with what-it-is. I’d love to hear what Larsen would have made of it.

Actually, I’d love to hear what Warren, Beach, Lili Boulanger, or even Haydn might have done with it.  Their pieces were all strong, compelling, and original in unexpected ways, and Barton did them to a turn—her furious final flourish in the Haydn was especially moving. Come to think of it, add Jule Styne to that list: Barton’s first encore, “Never Never Land,” Styne’s signature-tune for Mary Martin’s famous production of Peter Pan, was bliss pure and simple.

Kathleen Kelly was wonderful at the piano. The opening of the Haydn was perhaps a little too restrained, but the rest of it was terrific.  Kelly’s deep-toned blues-, honkytonk-, and tango-playing in the Larsen were perfection itself.

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Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano and Kathleen Kelly, piano in recital at Zankel Hall on Monday, December 18, 2017, at 7:30 p.m.

ELEANOR REMICK WARREN “Heather”

LILI BOULANGER “Attente”

AMY BEACH “Ah, love but a day,” from Three Browning Songs, Op. 44

NADIA BOULANGER “S’il arrive jamais,” from Les heures claires, No. 8

HAYDN Arianna a Naxos, Hob. XXVIb:2

IAIN BELL ofyou (World Premiere, commissioned by Carnegie Hall)

LIBBY LARSEN “Boy’s Lips,” “Big Sister Says, 1967,” “The Empty Song” (from Love after 1950)

RAVEL “Chanson à boire,” from Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, No. 3

DUPARC “Phidylé”

RICHARD STRAUSS “Cäcilie,” Op. 27, No. 2

Encores:

JULE STYNE “Never Never Land,” from Peter Pan

CILEA “Acerba voluttà,” from Adriana Lecouvreur

 

Cover: Kathleen Kelly and Jamie Barton in recital at Zankel Hall; photo: Richard Termine.


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