Isabel Leonard: The Total Package, And She Delivers

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2008

"She's got the whole package" is something people say about certain striking young performers. Whatever the "package" is, Isabel Leonard has it: looks, stagecraft and a pleasing midweight mezzo-soprano voice that can be sultry or floating, and moves with astounding ease from low notes to an effortless, silvery high, raising shivers along a listener's scalp.

When she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in "Romeo and Juliet" last fall, she achieved the considerable feat of making a strong impression in a cast that included Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna.

So there was every reason to expect that her recital at the Austrian Embassy on Friday, presented by the Vocal Arts Society and the Marilyn Horne Foundation, would be worth hearing -- and it was. Leonard took the stage with elegance and a program that covered a lot of ground, touching some familiar bases without lapsing into the altogether conventional. She can animate a song with an actress's skill; she can shade the color of her voice to adapt to different repertories, from a slight causticity in Spanish-language song to a liquid line in French.

The evening's highlights, in fact, were three songs by the French composer Reynaldo Hahn -- including his best known, "L'heure exquise," which was exquisite indeed, ending with a rapturous fullness like moonlight made audible -- and six songs from Hugo Wolf's "Italienisches Liederbuch." Wolf's miniatures are highly compressed dramas, and there was nothing miniature about Leonard's nuanced reading of them, which brought out a tragic tone in "Mein Liebster singt am Haus" and a delightful, not-too-cutesy flirtiness in "Du denkst mit einem Faedchen mich zu fangen" (which ends with the deflating line "I am in love -- but not with you!").

It was notable that her best songs were also the most difficult. The risk of being a "total package" is that one can come off as packaged. If Leonard has a weakness, it is in defaulting to a mode -- particularly in less demanding repertory -- in which she is more product than artist: a beautiful woman making lovely sounds in a way that is pleasing enough, but smacks of the generic.

Her Spanish-language sets -- which seem to have become de rigueur for mezzos these days -- had a sense of obligatory touching of bases. The dark-haired Leonard is optically a more convincing Latina than Joyce Di Donato, Elina Garanca or Stephanie Blythe (to name three who have recently probed their inner Spaniards), but her renditions of Manuel de Falla's "Siete Canciones Populares Espa¿olas" (a veritable recital chestnut) and of three songs by the Cuban-born Joaqu¿n Nin were less persuasive. There was a hint of stridency, as if she felt compelled to make her voice do things that in other songs it simply, effortlessly did; and the Falla sounded rather fierce and unidiomatic.

And after the intermission, with a set of Rachmaninoff and three of Schoenberg's "Brettl-Lieder," it seemed the default mode was taking over. She did not get a lot of support from Brian Zeger, her accompanist, the artistic director of Juilliard's vocal arts department and a kind of Tim Gunn of the vocal scene: an urbane and ubiquitous mentor. He offered the competent playing of a busy musician, able, usually accurate, generally indicating the mood of the song, but with a music-box tinniness in the Hahn that swelled to an emphatic percussiveness in the Falla.

The final set sought to elevate American standards -- by Gershwin, Kern, Porter et al. -- to the status of art song, but it was here that what I term Leonard's default mode actually undermined her artistry. There was nothing specific about her performances of any of these lovely songs; they became a kind of attractive wallpaper. It was notable that after this, and her single encore, the audience was politely enthusiastic but not torn from their seats. With the package she offers, Leonard raises great expectations, and she can do even more than she did on Friday to fulfill them.

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