Mattiwilda Dobbs sang some beautiful songs last night in the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center, winning herself a standing ovation at the end of the recital.
It is a tribute to Dobbs that she has retained, to a notable degree, the singular purity and radiant texture of her voice, for she was the toast of many of the world's major opera houses nearly three decades ago. Her recital last night came just about 30 years after she sang a concert here in the Phillips Gallery.
Following the intermission, Dobbs sang a group of exquisite French songs by Chausson, Ravel, and Faure, the Negro Songs of Montsalvatge and four spirituals. In these she offered lights and shades of sound that had no little magic, with humming phrases in the Montsalvatge that were spellbinding. When she reached the spirituals, Dobbs threw in some light wit and humor -- in "His Name So Sweet" -- that was welcome.
At the beginning of the concert there were signs of nervousness that showed up in slight discrepancies in intonation and some problems in executing the agile passages of Handel's "Oh! Had I Jubal's Lyre" and the Mozart Alleluia. But as she tossed off lovely light passages with rapid clarity, it was easy to see why Dobbs was hailed as one of the world's outstanding coloraturas.
In four songs of Schubert, there was real awareness of style, and in the witty song about wishing to be a fish, "Liebhaber in allen Gestalten," the utmost charm. Lambert Orkis was the pianist of the evening, playing Schubert, Ravel, and Faure with special beauty, and bringing both rhythmic color and just the right sonorities to the spirituals.