aging, unhappy opera fans bemoan the current day's supposed
lack of great singers—as aging, unhappy opera fans have
ever done—mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe makes a mockery
of their grousing.
In the star-studded vocal fest that was the Metropolitan Opera's
production of Handel's "Rodelinda," Blythe upstaged
her celebrated cast mates. Her voice is huge, flexible and
voluptuously rich in color. The military crispness of her
enunciation would put many a soldier to shame, and she seems
to reach out and embrace her listeners with the warmth and
generosity of her personality.
Add to these qualities a manner of no-nonsense dignity, and
you have the makings of a great recitalist. Although Blythe's
Alice Tully Hall recital on Sunday did not quite reach the
level of greatness, give the lady time and space. She is a
young artist, and the sheer lushness of her sound sometimes
overwhelmed the relatively intimate hall.
Indeed, the audience exhaled in awe between songs in her Gabriel
Fauré set—a good and not-so-good thing. Blythe
seemed to drape her satiny tone over these delicate works
instead of inhabiting them from within. Nonetheless, there
was much to admire: her prodigious breath control and lilting,
impetuous lines in "Notre amour," and in "Les
berceaux," the sense of compassion and wisdom hard won
that only a thrillingly dark voice wedded to a great heart
Pianist Warren Jones offered gorgeous, half-lit washes of
color in "En sourdine" and a compelling reading
of a rarity: Percy Grainger's 1939 transcription for piano
solo of Fauré's "Après un rêve."
For a moment, before her Frank Bridge group, Blythe seemed
to stare down David Heiss' cello as if daring it to best her
soulful timbre. She needn't have worried. Heiss played beautifully,
but Blythe was mistress of these songs' demands, including
a textbook-perfect diminuendo in the closing lines of "Far,
far from each other." Her healthy, radiant sound did
seem fundamentally at odds, though, with the anguish of "Where
is it that our soul doth go?"
Similar issues marred Blythe's wondrous singing of Ralph Vaughan
Williams' "Songs of Travel." She unleashed torrents
of gleaming sound for "The infinite shining heavens"
and brought a raffish swagger to "The vagabond."
Still, her "Whither must I wander" was unburdened
by regret or nostalgia, and Blythe delivered many of these
songs with a smile—an odd choice for a cycle touched
by the darkness of Schubert's "Die Winterreise."
Blythe's high spirits served her well in Nicolas Slonimsky's
1924 "Songs Parodying Advertisements." Friend and
collaborator to Frank Zappa and compiler of the indispensable
"Lexicon of Musical Invective," Slonimsky was one
of last century's underappreciated geniuses. He pillaged Viennese
operetta, Russia's doleful folk songs and modernist cant to
skewer the momentous claims made by peddlers of laxatives,
cosmetics and other consumer goods. Blythe and Jones poured
on the raunchy, outrageous wit, and their audience rewarded
them with whoops and roars of delight.
STEPHANIE BLYTHE, MEZZO-SOPRANO. Warren Jones, piano and David
Heiss, cello. Attended Sunday at Alice Tully Hall.