Renata Scotto's recital Saturday night at the Kennedy Center was as delightful as it was unpredictable -- delightful because she uses her fine voice with an even finer musical intelligence; unpredictable because she was called in on less than 48 hours' notice to substitute for the ailing Marilyn Horne.
Nobody can really replace Horne, whose voice is unique and also used with uncommon intelligence, but Scotto proved an excellent substitute, dazzling the too-small audience not only with her vocal and dramatic artistry but also with a superbly chosen program of fresh music by familiar composers.
A recital by an Italian singer is a ritual in which enormous skill is usually needed to counterbalance sheer predictability, but Scotto gave her audience the skill without the cliches. Familiar names on the program included Rossini, Bellini, Puccini and Mascagni -- but for each of these composers she avoided the hackneyed favorites and chose to explore fine, relatively unfamiliar work.
Mascagni's little song "M'ama! Non m'ama," for example, was presented as a dramatic monologue whose rapidly shifting passions I would not have traded for the whole of "Cavalleria Rusticana." There was one "top-40" item among her four Rossini songs, his "Tarantella" -- but she sang carefully, with musical phrasing and a technical demonstration of breath control, a piece that is usually sung like a horse race.
In the encores, she relented with two pop items, "Vissi d'arte" and "O mio bambino caro," both beautifully sung and all the more impressive becuase she had earlier sung Debussy's "C'est l'extase langoureuse" in such flawless French.