PHILADELPHIA — Soprano Ana María Martínez and pianist Craig Terry were set to do a recital for the treasurable Philadelphia Chamber Music Society exactly two years ago last week, as the incipient pandemic began to slam theater and concert hall doors shut. The Houston-based Martínez was literally heading for the airport when called and advised that it was better not to come. But the artists and the chamber music society were able to regroup, and on March 16 offered an appreciative audience a very well-executed and musically instructive all-Spanish recital at Kimmel Center’s intimate Perelman Theater.
A lirico-spinto with a darkly gleaming personal timbre, Martínez is a highly regarded operatic performer. With major appearances including Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden, the Paris Opéra, Munich, and Buenos Aires, she would rank high on anyone’s list of current international-class American singers. One could, however, make a longish list of Slavic and London-based lyric sopranos of lesser or more transient merit whom the Metropolitan Opera has employed while keeping Martínez moderately engaged : a run of Micaëlas in 2005, some Musettas ten years later and — as a replacement — a fine series of Cio-Cio-Sans in 2016. But she’s placed her mark on a range of roles in different styles, from Mozart through Donizetti to Verdi, Gounod, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Puccini, and Daniel Catán.
At 51, the soprano is still in fine vocal fettle, but she is wisely tackling some different repertoire. The Philadelphia recital came between performances at Washington National Opera of her first-ever Despina in Così fan tutte. A more disciplined, less visually jokey production might have stimulated more specific results from an artist who is arguably the most impressive American Fiordiligi (at Salzburg and Ravinia) since Carol Vaness, but under Erina Yashima’s judicious baton, the best moments showed promise for new, more centrally placed roles including Offenbach’s Giulietta, Massenet’s Charlotte, and Cilèa’s Adriana. This is not to imply that her high notes have departed — sometimes in the course of the recital they landed dead on — but there can be a “bite” to her tone at high A and above, suggesting that the likes of Pamina and Marguerite now lie behind her.
Martínez is always deeply invested in words, which make her exploration of recital repertory a welcome move. Born in San Juan to a Cuban father and Puerto Rican mother, she moved expertly in this recital between the worlds of classical Spanish song and Latin-American lighter and theatrical music. Half of the program was devoted to each, and she took different approaches sartorially and artistically. Clad in classy but austere black and midnight blue satin, she started with three cornerstone groups of Iberian songs, presenting them forthrightly but with restrained movements and no commentary. After intermission, clad in a brighter, flashier dress, she addressed the audience quite a bit to situate the geographical and stylistic sources of the material as well as to provide some personal responses to the songs and composers.
Both Martinez and Terry cast a considerable spell in Joaquin Rodrígo’s archaizing Cuatro madrigales amatorios. Among the key aspects of Martínez’s artistry is a keen sense and command of dynamics, wedded to the ability to taper phrase endings. The third song, “¿De dónde venís, amore?,” also showed off precise, aerian staccati. Joaquin Turina’s Poema en forma de canciones showed the soprano’s facility in melisma — an essential part of this repertory — and also, in the Schumannesque dialogue of the final “Las locas por amor,” her ability to portray different voices within a song. As Cori Ellison pointed out in her fine pre-concert lecture, Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas, with its roots in different regional traditions and dance elements (not least flamenco), remains the foundational text of subsequent Spanish song composition. Singer and pianist did honor to its variant parts, from the shade-throwing of “Seguidilla murciana” to the tenderness of “Nana” to the profound duende implicit in “Asturiana.”
Martínez dispensed charm and theatricality aplenty in zarzuela arias like the title character’s multipartite entrance aria from Gonzalo Roig’s 1932 Cecilia Valdés and the hauntingly melancholy title song from Ernesto Lecuona’s 1930 María la O, which demands and received both fine legato and a good florid technique. The musicians programmed several numbers by female composers, including two gorgeously sentimental songs (“Muñequita Linda” and “Alma Mía”) by María Grever (1885-1951), a pioneering Mexican Hollywood hitmaker. No matter what the style, the soprano always strung the words precisely and comprehensibly on long musical lines.
Spanish-language repertoire seems to hold a special place in Terry’s pianistic arsenal, and he helped Martínez chart the shifting rhythmical contours of a range of music. The Turina group begins with a Debussy-like solo dedication for the keyboard, which he handled with grace. Other admirable achievements included the beautiful opening arpeggiation of “Asturiana” and its concluding downward modulations, and the opportunties he found for jazzy riffs in numbers like Mexican pop singer Rosario de Alba’s 1969 “Soy loca por tu amor.”
The only puzzling detail of this highly rewarding recital was the choice of a non-Spanish encore in Lauretta’s thrice-familiar plea from Gianni Schicchi. As Martínez and Terry continue evangelizing with this material — which demographics as well as artistic criteria richly warrant — that can easily be rethought.