Cole’s program biography was one of those curiously opaque documents that informs you he’s sung with most of the big conductors in the classical world without letting you know much about the shape of his career or what he’s doing now. It omitted any mention of teaching, which he has been doing for some time now (he’s at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the University of Missouri at Kansas City). There’s no shame in teaching, particularly in your seventh decade; indeed, I’d argue that it keeps a singer in touch with his vocal equipment. Cole’s program was marked by a canny marshaling of his resources; he may no longer have the ringing top notes he had 30 years ago, but he knew how to work with what he had.
The program was one of those one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B, three-songs-per-set recitals that became standard-issue in the 1980s, when the song recital was making a big comeback among American singers. The first half offered more unusual fare, including two Beethoven settings of the same Metastasio text, “L’amante impaziente” (one joking, one serious in tone), and three songs by Joaquin Nin; the second half offered chestnuts by Duparc and Strauss, and wrapped the whole thing up with three spirituals.
Cole’s voice was curious in its unevenness: It mingled several vocal tropes without quite blending them into a unified whole. He can make a big, ringing, heroic sound, especially in the modest confines of the Terrace Theater; and he came out with all guns blazing in his opening set of three Haydn songs. He can also make a tender, soft-grained, whitish sound that explains his long-standing association with French music. However, he didn’t always apply these sounds as expected — Duparc’s “Invitation au voyage,” for example, was more clarion and sharp-edged than soft and mysterious, and the Nin songs sounded positively heroic, whereas some of the softness came to the fore in the Strauss.
There are, of course, no shoulds about when to apply what kind of sound; it’s just that the application sounded calculated and slightly random: A ringing phrase might yield to a gentle one. Similarly, his diction was precise without feeling native. His accompanist, Natalia Rivera, matched herself to his delivery with playing that was foursquare and reliable, if sometimes a little heavy.
Cole followed another recital tradition by relaxing so much in the final set — the spirituals — that, for the first time, he sounded completely compelling and at home. He made the unconventional choice to conclude the set with a low-key arrangement of “This Little Light of Mine,” quickly followed by what he called his favorite song, Reynaldo Hahn’s gentle, beguiling “A Chloris.” His second encore was “Ombra di nube” by Licinio Refice. Both encores, like the program, were pleasant and soon over.