Cue the next generation of opera fans

Newsday, January 2005

While 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 can convey.

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.