By Janelle Gelfand
CINCINNATI – “Beauty hurts,” crooned the mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, exaggerating the words as she half-danced her way through composer Libby Larsen’s humorous honky-tonk, “Big Sister Says, 1967.” Performed as part of Barton’s recital on Jan. 26 in Cincinnati, the song offered a raucous and fun side of the rapidly rising opera singer, who this season has earned accolades for her Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma at the Met. Her exuberant performance brought down the house, one of many times during the evening.
Barton and her collaborator, the pianist Kathleen Kelly, came to the Queen City with the recital that they performed in December at Carnegie Hall. After repeating the program in stops at Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Jan. 30 and Birmingham, Ala., on Feb. 2, Barton returns to the opera stage to sing Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo with the Washington National Opera March 3-17 and Adalgisa in Norma with the Houston Grand Opera April 22-May 7.
Presented by the venerable, 105-year-old music club Matinée Musicale, the Barton’s recital with Kelly was held at the beautifully restored, circa-1908 Memorial Hall in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine historic district. Its intimate, 550-seat theater was packed to the rafters.
Although the Georgia native performed a memorable Azucena for Cincinnati Opera’s Il trovatore in 2015, the concert marked Barton’s Cincinnati recital debut. The tour is part of a big season for Barton, who was honored with the 2017 Beverly Sills Artist Award by the Metropolitan Opera. In November, she debuted the role of Léonor in a concert version of Donizetti’s La favorite at Teatro Real Madrid and this summer will sing her first entire Ring Cycle for San Francisco Opera.
Her program was a journey of discovery – with many unexpectedly delicious moments. That was partly because, in a rare occurrence on concert stages today, fully half of her program consisted of music by women: Elinor Remick Warren, the only woman among important American neoclassicists like Samuel Barber and Howard Hanson; French sisters Lili (who died at age 24) and Nadia Boulanger, one of the 20th century’s most influential teachers of composers; Amy Beach, who earned international acclaim for her Gaelic Symphony; and the prolific and versatile American Libby Larsen, a new-music advocate.
The singer told the audience that, in choosing her recital selections, she had been moved by “stories of people who normally don’t get heard. I’m a woman, Kathy is a woman, and I realized that I didn’t know very much about women composers. We were inspired to give those composers a voice.”
She opened with a set of four of them. What a treat it was to hear Remick Warren’s “Heather,” set to a lyrical text by Marguerite Wilkinson. It was neoromantic in style, and Barton’s stirring vocal lines soared over rippling arpeggios in the piano.
Lili Boulanger, the first woman to win France’s Prix de Rome, was represented by “Attente” (Expectation), set to a French text by Maurice Maeterlinck. Each word was inflected with meaning, and the piano’s lush harmonies were a perfect match to Barton’s voluptuous voice. That attention to detail was also evident in a stunning song by Lili’s famous sister, Nadia, “S’il arrive jamais” (Should it ever occur).
Amy Beach’s “Ah, love but a day!” was mesmerizing as Barton communicated the deep power of the romantic words by Robert Browning. At the piano, Kelly’s playing was both transparent and richly supportive.
This set was juxtaposed with Haydn’s exquisite little scena, Arianna a Naxos. Consisting of two recitatives alternating with two arias, it was a fine vehicle for Barton’s expressive powers and considerable dramatic gifts. The emotion that she summoned, ranging from doubt over a lover’s faithfulness to the impassioned anger of betrayal, drew the listener in. As the music climaxed, the sheer power of her voice was thrilling, and she flung out a defiant flourish in its final bars.
After intermission, Barton gave the local premiere of British composer Iain Bell’s Of You, a cycle of six songs to texts by e.e. cummings commissioned by Carnegie Hall. Its hallmarks included a very spare piano score (perhaps suitable to these minimalist poems) against long-breathed vocal lines. The music was not nearly as inventive as the singer, who brought an infinite variety of interpretive color to her phrases, particularly the animated “i like my body when it is with your.”
Three entertaining songs from Libby Larsen’s cycle Love After 1950 made a delightful segue to Ravel’s “Chanson à boire” from Don Quichotte, a drinking song that Barton believes need not only be sung by a man. Taking full advantage of its inebriated imagery, she seemed to be having as much fun as her listeners.
Henri Duparc’s “Phidylé” provided a breathtaking contrast, the picture of effortless, nuanced phrasing, impeccable control, and beautiful line. The set concluded with Richard Strauss’ “Cäcilie,” and one could only revel in the artistry of both musicians.
Having spent Thursday afternoon giving a master class for opera students at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Barton enjoyed an enthusiastic cheering section. She prefaced her encore by speaking about her obsession at age 6 with Mary Martin’s performance on Broadway of Peter Pan. Her rendition of “Never Never Land” from the show connected with listeners, as if she were singing to each of them: “Just think of lovely things, and your heart will fly on wings.”
With singing such as this, Barton seems destined to fly on wings for some time to come.
Janelle Gelfand is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area who was classical music critic and arts writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer for 26 years. She is now a freelancer based in Cincinnati.