Soprano Kathleen Battle made her Washington recital debut at the Kennedy Center last night, and it was clear before she was very far into the program that Battle is one of the genuinely important young American singers.
Her Purcell was pure and elegant. Her Schubert was deeply felt. Her Mozart was penetrating. Her Faure' was suave and light. The spirituals that ended the regular program were spectacular, as was her first encore, "Oh, Had I Jubal's Lyre," from Handel's "Joshua." Then, just to finish the evening in style, she tossed off Rosina's "Una voce poco fa" from "The Barber of Seville" in a manner that had the capacity audience in the Terrace Theater on its feet and cheering for minutes.
Battle's newly emerging stature is so great that the Washington Performing Arts Society already plans to bring her back next season, in the much larger Concert Hall.
Battle's voice is one of exceptional purity and agility. The evenness of its tone as she races up and down the scale is just about perfect. In size it lies somewhere between the smaller size of, say, Judith Blegen, and the larger size of Kiri Te Kanawa. The vibrato is tight and the focus is sharp. In addition, her platform manner is very winning. She is beautiful and charming.
Her success last night was not a total surprise. She appeared here with the Met two seasons ago, and her sparkling Zerlina gave life to a "Don Giovanni" that was mostly a real downer. She will return with the Met in the spring.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in last night's diverse recital was the depth of the six Schubert songs. One would not quite expect that yet from a singer of her experience. In "Du bist die ruh," among the greatest of the tragic songs, the mood was absolutely rapt. Battle was greatly varying tone and dynamics with each succeeding verse. She was particularly animated in "Die Ma nner sind me'chant" and in the latter moments of that idyll of the East wind, "Suleika," was quite autumnal.
Throughout the evening she showed strong and precise senses of mood, including the sensuous sounds of Faure''s "Notre amour," with some gorgeous highs.
Lawrence Skrobacs was a worthy pianist.