Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano’s talent has depth

April 12, 2011

Those who missed Monday’s recital by the young mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater lost a rare opportunity to hear a fine talent with a promising future right at her doorstep. She has already appeared twice with the Metropolitan Opera and will soon debut with the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert.

For this final event in the season’s Young Concert Artists series, Cano followed Nicola Porpora’s “Alto Giove” from his opera “Polifemo” with Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer,” Ravel’s “Cinq Melodies Populaires Grecques” and Dominick Argento’s “From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.” With the first notes of Porpora’s ultra-baroque homage to Jove, it was obvious that Cano has a voluminous voice with remarkable agility in her higher range and a molten contralto quality lower down, gliding between these registers with seeming ease. Trills and other melodic embellishments were controlled yet supple.

Cano knows how to gauge tone quality to match Mahler’s multi-layered emotional depths: acid irony, bitter resentment and optimism gone sour. Some may have wished for the luminous orchestral setting that Mahler originally intended, but pianist Christopher Cano, the mezzo’s husband, captured Mahler’s despair and nostalgic longing for nature’s beauties with a thousand gradations of touch. Ravel’s settings of Greek folk songs transport the listener to a far different realm, and Cano delivered a full measure of the songs’ rapture tinged with sadness.

The concert ended with Woolf’s pathos cast in Argento’s 20th-century expressionist atonality. Cano transformed his anguished song cycle into high drama fit for the opera stage. Her sweeping gestures, expansive dynamic range and myriad tonal colors reflected Woolf’s most intimate confessions, giving them an immediacy directly felt throughout the theater. It’s a pity that the house was only half-full.

Porter is a freelance writer.

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