One astute observer noted as Jessye Norman returned for something like her seventh bow over 15 minutes at the end of her concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall yesterday, "She just stands up there like Juno."
Fair enough. But even Juno gets tired of encores. The first one had been a gorgeous little Richard Strauss song. Then there were more curtain calls and much laying on of bouquets. There was another Strauss song, followed by more clamor.
Then Norman launched into what clearly was intended as the end, a breathtaking improvisation on "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" that seemed to extend to the top of the soprano range, to the bottom of the contralto range and to touch just about everything in between.
But the capacity house still wouldn't yield, breaking into rhythmic clapping, a very rare occurrence around here. Finally Norman had the last word (or note), communicating an unmistakable message with that delightful patter song "Go on Home, Li'l Chillun, Go on Home." The listeners roared with laughter at the first line.
It is putting it mildly to say that the majestic Norman has a commanding stage manner. Juno is the right idea.
Norman's is one of the most powerful voices in the world, and that means by comparison with Domingo. Perhaps in a song recital it can't quite engulf one the way it did last year at Washington Cathedral in the Mahler Second under Bernstein, but from the imperious opening line -- appropriately enough, Handel's proclamative "How music raises and quells the soul's flight" -- the sound was unmistakably Norman.
There was that enormous resonance, those bullet-like attacks (I can't think of another singer who can quite match them), that breath control. The latter characteristic allows her, for instance, to extend and color final notes of songs in striking ways -- that coy little low note at the end of Schubert's "Rastlose Liebe"; the power she turned on at the end of that masterpiece, Schubert's "Erlko nig."
It can be argued that the voice is sometimes less than ideal for quieter lieder, because when she scales it down it loses much of its resonance, and the bottom is the least secure end of her range.
Yet in a song like "Erlko nig" she used this vocal discrepancy to the song's advantage -- the lines of the desperate father trying to save his dying child sung with enormous power, and the child's lines very faint. With Norman, "Erlko nig" became a monodrama, enormously exciting.
"Death and the Maiden" received similar treatment. That soft low voice, used with light vibrato, was also very useful in Ravel's "Cinq Me'lodies Populaires Grecques," expecially the racy final one, "Tout gai!"
Then there was her diction, which was spectacular in four songs in English by Samuel Barber. A listener sitting halfway back in the Concert Hall could easily understand every syllable of James Agee's text for the poignant "Sure on This Shining Night."
The event was electric. And I doubt I was the only person there who wondered why Norman does not sing more often in Washington, where her career began at Howard University. Sure, she sang at the inauguration last month, but that's different.