Soprano Jessye Norman helped the Washington Performing Arts Society launch its 25th anniversary season Friday night, continuing its laudable tradition of presenting the world's most outstanding musical talent.
Norman, honorary anniversary chairman, sang a varied recital of English, German, French and Spanish songs, which was broadcast live from the Kennedy Center Concert Hall by WGMS radio.
Attempting to reduce to words the focused intensity and palpable richness of the quintessential Norman vocal quality is a futile exercise. Her unique instrument alone is reason enough for the full houses and scarce tickets that characterize her appearances.
The more one listens, however, the more one is struck by the seemingly limitless musicality that lies behind that gorgeous voice.
The evening began darkly, with Dido's "Lament" from Purcell's opera "Dido and Aeneas." Next, four Richard Strauss songs demonstrated why Norman earns such respect in that repertoire, the heart-rending conclusion of "Befreit" being the most moving point in the set.
Brahms's "Zigeunerlieder" offered a respite from these emotional depths, showing Norman to be equally at home with saucy or coquettish moods.
After intermission, Norman brought a purely French voice onstage, shifting suddenly to a limpid yet dramatic tone perfectly attuned to four songs by Ernest Chausson.
Further shifts of style and technique came in Manuel de Falla's "Siete canciones populares espanolas." Simply noting that Norman captured the composer's Iberian essence is not enough. One must marvel also at her flexibility in the ornamented lines in "Cancion," at her unbelievable control of pianissimo in "Nana" and at the visceral bitterness of her most dramatic song of the evening, the closing "Polo."
Pianist Geoffrey Parsons supported Norman beautifully, but the misguided choice of leaving the piano's lid up forced one to strain at times to avoid missing any of her expressive subtleties.