Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, mezzo Jamie Barton made her San Francisco recital debut as the featured artist in the first Young Masters Series concert in the 2015–2016 San Francisco Performances season. Barton had previously taken San Francisco by storm when she made her debut with the San Francisco Opera in September of 2014. She had been called upon to replace Daveda Karana in the role of Adalgisa in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, the opening night production of the 2014–2015 season, resulting in an impressively notable star-is-born occasion. Since then she has taken her Adalgisa to both the Los Angeles Opera and the Metropolitan Opera and filled her opera schedule with commitments in both the United States and Europe.
With a keen sense of the dramatic, Barton clearly knew how to introduce herself to the recital stage. Performing with pianist Robert Mollicone as her accompanist, she made her first impression with Joaquín Turina’s Opus 90. Turina called this piece an homage, written in 1935 on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the death of Lope de Vega, Turina set three of the Baroque Spanish author’s short poems. His vocal lines had a chant-like quality that reflected not only the familiar flamenco style of singing but also the Mozarabic chant that secularized itself into flamenco practices.
Turina was a pianist as well as a composer (having studied piano with Moritz Moszkowski); and a generous share of piano virtuosity complements the passionately declaimed vocal lines. Indeed, Barton showed great confidence by opening her recital with an extended piano introduction, thus building suspense for the first notes she sang. They were definitely worth the wait; and, while these poems amounted to brief glimpses into the Spanish soul, Barton knew exactly how to make those glimpses register with the attentive listener.
She then proceeded in reverse chronological order to a late nineteenth-century composer somewhat more familiar to vocal recital audiences, Ernest Chausson. Two of the selections were from his Opus 2 collection of seven songs, “Le colibri” (the hummingbird) and “Hébé,” the name of the goddess of youth in the Greek pantheon. These are settings of short poems by Leconte de Lisle and Louise-Victorine Ackermann, respectively. This was followed by a setting of Maurice Bouchoir’s “Le temps des lilas” (the time of lilacs), which would eventually find it way into the conclusion of the Opus 19 cycle Poème de l’amour et de la mer (poem of love and the sea).
These selections provided Barton with the opportunity to take a more nuanced approach to the delivery of her texts. Through her performances she also made it clear that she understood how the poems were structured and when Chausson had decided when to work from that structure and when to complement it. In the vocal repertoire, Chausson tends to be best known for his Opus 19 with little regard for anything else. Barton make a solid case for listening to the Opus 2 selections, leaving one hoping for an opportunity to encounter to the full set.
Her understanding of the different relationships that take place between composer and poet then came into full flower with her selections of four of Franz Schubert’s settings of texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It is interesting how many of Schubert’s Goethe settings were early works, and all four of Barton’s selections were written in his teens. Two of them were written by Goethe as songs for the first part of Faust, while the other two, “Schäfers Klagelied” (shepherd’s lament) and “Rastlose Liebe” (restless love) were written as poems.
Both of the Faust songs are sung by Gretchen. She sings “Der König in Thule” (the king in Thule) after her first encounter with Faust, while in “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the spinning wheel) she is overcome by erotic fantasizing. Goethe gave both of these simple strophic settings; but, while Schubert tended to follow the straightforward structure of the former (D.367), in the latter (D.118, one of his earliest efforts), he went for the underlying passions churning away to the steady spinning of the wheel, all but totally rejecting Goethe’s far more simplistic structure.
D. 118 was definitely a high point of the evening. Barton clearly grasped the scope of the dramatic arc that Schubert was able to distill down to only a few minutes of singing. She was more than capably assisted by Mollicone’s keen sense of subtle shifts in dynamics that kept the turning of the wheel from sounding monotonous. The climax comes as Gretchen fantasizes Faust’s first kiss, a musical experience that is so much more than that of a mere teenager with raging hormones. This is one of the most familiar songs in the vocal repertoire; but Barton and Mollicone combined to create one of those experiences that made the encounter feel like a first-time meeting.
If things came to such a peak just before the intermission, it is perhaps understandable that such intensity could not be sustained. The major work in this half of the program was the West Coast premiere of “The Work at Hand,” which Jake Heggie wrote for Barton’s Carnegie Hall debut recital. The piece also has an extended cello part, written for Anne Martindale Williams of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and performed last night by Emil Miland.
“The Work at Hand” is a poem in three parts by Laura Morefield, written after she learned that she had been diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. In his notes for the program book, Heggie described this text as “shatteringly beautiful.” Looking at the text, one would have to have a heart of stone to contradict him. Nevertheless, this is very much a poem for the eye. Not only are does the layout of the words frequently reflect their import; but also the eye quickly notices how each of the beginning of each part establishes a temporal flow to the entire poem: “Some moments:,” “Other times:,” and finally, “And then:.” The beauty of these poems is as much visual as it is verbal.
Indeed, it may be more so. The challenge comes when one tries to read these texts aloud. There is a strong risk that the flow of words on the page can devolve into being merely talky when those words are uttered, and Heggie never quite managed to compensate for that risk. Instead, he chose to frame each poem with a cello introduction; but, at the end of the day, the instrumental expressiveness (which, ironically, seemed highly evocative of the Turina selection that opened the program) was so powerful that the singing of the words, even with all of the understanding that Barton brought to them, could not overcome it.
She then concluded her program with Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 55 set of seven Gypsy songs. While they cover a wide spectrum of emotions, these are relatively lightweight but well-crafted. Just as important as Barton’s ability to capture the distinctively individual spirits of each of the songs was her command of the Czech language, no mean feat for any vocalist unfamiliar with that language. This definitely made for a highly-charged conclusion to her program.
Barton’s encore was Harry T. Burleigh’s arrangement of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” This is one of the more syrupy arrangements of the familiar spiritual. Barton gave it a dutiful reading, but it made for more than a bit of an anticlimax following Dvořák’s more spirited account of his own folk sources.