Mezzo Stephanie Blythe sang big in a small hall

September 16, 2012

Stephanie Blythe can bring it. The world-renowned mezzo is taking some time out from her operatic engagements this season to tour with two American songbook recital programs, one of which she presented at the Kennedy Center on Friday evening. She offered a “classical” set in the first half (songs by James Legg and Samuel Barber) with Tin Pan Alley and jazz after intermission.

The intimate Terrace Theater was too small for Blythe, whose speaking voice is more powerful than some of her colleagues’ singing voices. She is built for halls that seat thousands and can drown out a concert grand piano at will; when she sang full-out, I imagined the needle on a recording dial going into the red zone. I discerned no effort to scale the sound to the venue, and some of the patrons sitting up close were probably uncomfortable.

That said, it was a greatly enjoyable evening, not least because of the artistry of Warren Jones, a full partner who was given two solo numbers of his own (including one of the encores) and whose piano-playing was imaginative and lively throughout.

The opening work, Legg’s “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson,” was perhaps the only weak part of the concert. It was written for Blythe, and she focused all of her considerable dramatic powers on it. But the three Barber songs (Op. 10) that followed immediately showed how Americana can be simply raiment for deeper, more universal musical ideas.

In the second half, Blythe chose mostly humorous material, and she had us all in stitches with Cole Porter’s “The Tale of the Oyster.” She struggled with intonation slightly in “Night and Day” and in Irving Berlin’s “Always,” but the singing was otherwise a thing of wonder. That, of course, is always the knock on these forays by opera stars into Broadway repertoire; the songs were intended for singing actresses with “human” voices. Blythe’s blazing vocal opulence, particularly in her lower range, injected an element of high art that took the music somewhere else; not necessarily a bad thing, but vaguely disorienting at times.


Stephanie Blythe devoted the first half of her recital to classical songs by American composers, and the second half to Tin Pan Alley and jazz. (Kobie van Rensburg/Vocal Arts DC)

The recital was presented by Vocal Arts DC.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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