By William Albright
HOUSTON — Award-winning American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, whose assured and eloquent vocalism provided a strong start to Ars Lyrica Houston’s 2015 ̶16 Zilkha Hall season on Sept. 13, probably doesn’t sing much medieval or Renaissance music. Her potent voice is more suited to the opera stage or recital platform than to the choir loft. But the rest of Western classical music seems to be her oyster.
Winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions in 2007, the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2013, and the Richard Tucker Award last April, the Houston Opera Studio alumna has sung in opera houses and concert halls all over the world. Her repertoire ranges widely, from Monteverdi, Bach, and Handel through Mozart, the bel canto era, Verdi, and Wagner on up to Honegger, Menotti, Poulenc, Bernstein, Previn, Rorem, Hoiby, and Heggie. But like many mezzo-sopranos of recent times — think Cecilia Bartoli, Joyce DiDonato, and Vivica Genaux — she seems to have a special affection and affinity for Baroque composers.
Thus, she has become something of a house mezzo for Ars Lyrica Houston, which specializes in historically informed performances of music from the 17th and 18th centuries. Her work with the ensemble — founded in 1998 by harpsichordist, conductor, and University of Houston Moores School of Music professor Matthew Dirst — has focused on some rarely performed pieces. The group has used her as soloist on its recordings for Sono Luminus of Domenico Scarlatti’s comic intermezzo La Dirindina and Hasse’s Antonio e Cleopatra, the latter garnering a Best Opera Recording Grammy nomination in 2011. But Barton and the 13-member Ars Lyrica ensemble climbed a little further out of the musical weeds on Sept. 13 with a program devoted to Vivaldi, Gluck, Handel, and Haydn.
Conducting from the harpsichord, Dirst got the Baroque ball rolling with the Ouverture, Allegro, and Gigue and the opening aria “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s Serse. The stately song to a tree was a favorite of modern mezzo-sopranos and contraltos (not to mention sopranos, tenors, and baritones) well before today’s illustrious countertenors came to the fore. Barton and Dirst’s band (the upper strings played standing) imbued the aria’s recitative with unhurried expressivity and eschewed sluggishness in the piece nicknamed Handel’s Largo.
It was followed by “Iris, hence away” from Handel’s Semele, a sprightly aria preceded by a dramatic recitative. Barton dispatched the vocal fireworks with aplomb, lightly embellishing where appropriate and, as elsewhere, unleashed booming chest tones worthy of Marilyn Horne, a Handel champion who recorded this piece and liked to sing it in recitals.
The third item on the program, the Autumn section of Vivaldi’s Quattro Stagioni, launched Ars Lyrica’s first-ever season-long theme, “Seasonal Rituals.” The other parts of the Vivaldi will be performed on later programs as temporally appropriate. With concertmaster Adam LaMotte incisively dispatching the virtuosic solo violin part, the performance was admirably tight and crisp. There was a lovely transparency and sweetness in the softer moments, and the work’s concluding Allegro boasted stirring, Ländler-like bounce and heft.
Barton closed the first half of the concert with two more contrasting arias, the poignant “Che farò senza Euridice” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and the exuberant “Ho il cor già lacero” from Vivaldi’s Griselda. There was no lingering or wallowing in sentiment in the former, and Barton gave a hot-blooded account of Griselda’s fervid denunciation of her cruel fate, whatever that might be.
A lively performance of the Allegro from Handel’s Concerto Grosso in E minor, Op. 6, No. 3, was the brief warm-up for “Where Shall I Fly?” from Handel’s Hercules and Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos, both of which showcased Barton’s vocal and expressive range.
Although the fastest notes in the former perhaps weren’t ideally chiseled, Barton reveled in the violently shifting, over-the-top emotions of Hercules’ widow Dejanira. The 20-minute Haydn cantata is the Baroque era’s version of Lucia’s Mad Scene (Lucia da Lammermoor) or Brünnhilde’s Götterdämmerung peroration. After an extended opening recitative aquiver with tenderness and nostalgia, the mythological Ariadne laments her desertion by husband Theseus (of Minotaur fame) with a prayer for the lover’s return; then she explodes with feverish fury before collapsing into exhausted self-pity followed by agitated outrage. Barton sang with both power and tenderness and served up two encores: the title character’s sunny “Vo’ cantar” from Scarlatti’s La Dirindina and, in the spirit of encore again, the Griselda aria minus its recitative.
William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston.