Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton sings at Kennedy Center

YOUNG LIONESS: Jamie Barton hit the Terrace Theater.
YOUNG LIONESS: Jamie Barton hit the Terrace Theater.
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 12, 2009

The young mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton positions herself as a barrel of laughs. She clearly loves to be onstage, and to be cute. When she was among the winners of the Met Auditions in 2007, she sang the Witch's aria from "Hansel and Gretel," an unusual but very character-ful choice -- not unlike auditioning for a drama competition with a Carol Burnett monologue. At her recital at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Thursday night, presented by the Vocal Arts Society in collaboration with the Marilyn Horne Foundation, she showed the same penchant for mugging. She's got a big voice, and she sings very well, but she's happiest when she's playing to the crowd.

She opened her recital with two early English songs arranged by Britten and Mahler's five Rückert Lieder: all very highbrow and a little bit careful. She had the young singer's slight uncertainty about just how much she should be doing with the musical lines, trying a little too hard to make something happen in, for instance, the first verses of "Liebst du um Schönheit," before lapsing into a beautiful delivery of the opening of the final verse, "Liebst du um Liebe." In "Um Mitternacht," there was a sense of reserve, which was welcome in that some singers practically leave a lung on the stage in the final verses of this intensely emotional song, but which also took the edge off the song's potential to grip its listeners.

Barton wisely opened the second half with a set of cabaret songs (by Satie, Schoenberg and Bolcom) that on many recitals would have been the last set because of their resemblance to encores: wise, because it let her tap into the above-mentioned sense of fun that seems to anchor her as an artist. She also gets credit for an interesting variety in her program: The next set was a cycle by Libby Larsen called "Love After 1950," a modern response to Schumann's "Frauenliebe und -Leben" with poems by women about moments in a woman's life and love. The idea, and texts, and shape of the songs are good (each is written in a different style: blues, honky-tonk, tango), but none is as catchy as it initially sounds, and the cycle's dramaturgy is flawed in that it ends on a pretty but slow song after lots of efforts at rhythmic vivacity. (Kathleen Kelly, the head of the Houston Opera Studio, was a strong and expressive accompanist.)

The contrast between Barton's serious and comic sides was clearest in the leap from the final set -- three Rachmaninoff songs, powerful but unfocused -- and her cute encore, "The Alto's Lament," about the travails of always having to sing harmony rather than the top line. The latter was a pure comedy routine with some singing thrown in. The former showed her main weakness, evident all the way through the evening, of hammering out one note of a climax and then pulling back or even trailing off for the rest of the phrase. Between hammy and phlegmatic, there is a happy medium, and Barton may well, as she matures, come to find it.

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