The audience played it all wrong yesterday afternoon for Leontyne Price's concert at the Kennedy Center. The standing ovations started in the first half while Price was still warming. So by the time the vocal clouds had lifted and the fabulous voice finally burst through, there was no choice but standing ovations for everything.
So it was up and down, up and down. So often that your correspondent lost count.
And it was finally in the encores -- five of them -- that the voice of the singer, who is now 59, took on its full, breathtaking resonance. It is a sound like none other in music.
Among the encores' magic moments:
*In "Vissi d'arte" from "Tosca," the fabled Price breath control was so formidable that she held those final two notes on the word "cosi" to a length that even a Callas would have been pressed to emulate. It was stunning.
*Recalling a role "from way back when," the most celebrated of all Besses sang "Summertime" from "Porgy and Bess." In the opera, of course, the song belongs to Clara, not Bess, but that has never gotten in the way of Leontyne Price. It was a jazzier version than she usually uses, with a touch of Aretha Franklin in some of its unexpected accents. The most fabulous moment came, though, at the end, with a portamento (a slide down the scale) that she extended to amazing proportions.
*"Io son l'umile ancella," from Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur," that concluded with a soft floating high note that was possibly the most gorgeous single note of the afternoon -- perfectly placed and sustained in the legendary Price manner.
Leontyne Price, of course, is more than just one of the greatest singers of the century. There is a majesty in her stage bearing that few other singers match, and audiences seem unable to resist it. She seems personally unaffected, yet there are those huge diamonds that sort of proclaim, to anyone who might not know, exactly who she is.
Price is the first black performer to reach opera's highest ranks. Her stature is so exalted that, over the years, this has come to seem almost beside the point. Still, there were an unusually high number of blacks in the capacity audience at the Concert Hall -- certainly a healthy sign for the arts of this city.
In this kind of program, at least, age is taking its toll on the Price voice, mostly in minor ways. She doesn't have the quite the power at the top that she once had. But the midrange seems unimpaired. And the bottom was never all that strong.
She does take longer to warm up. In fact, the fairly restrained program was almost itself a warmup for the dazzling encores.
Yet even before the encores there were remarkable moments. Leonora's "Pace, pace, mio Dio" from Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," one of the great Price vehicles, was perhaps a bit less lustrous that it once might have been, but Price compensated with a biting intensity that sometimes had a brittle edge. She positively snarled her concluding repeats of the word "maledizione!" -- most effectively.
Other high points included a beautifully colored, if somewhat cautious, rendition of the Countess' "Dove Sono" from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" -- the kind of coloratura singing at the end of the aria has never come easily to Price; an especially rapturous version of Strauss' "Ca cilie"; and an engaging new song by Lee Hoiby called "Lady of the Harbor," keyed to the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. As always, David Garvey was the model accompanist.