Jessica Jones is a promising young soprano, and her Sunday afternoon recital at the Terrace Theater had much to commend it.
Indeed, it was positively courageous of Jones to step in and open the 2004-05 Vocal Arts Society season, after baritone Nathaniel Webster was forced to bow out due to illness. And so, at virtually the last minute, Jones assembled a program of works by Ravel, Berlioz, Poulenc, Sibelius, Richard Strauss and Samuel Barber to sing before what may be Washington's most discriminating audience, with a music professional in every other row. Although she will doubtless sound more relaxed and comfortable in future performances, Jones displayed a healthy, attractive voice (some full-throated fortes were especially winning), interpretive versatility and that precious intangible called charm.
Poulenc's "La Dame de Monte-Carlo" melds the composer's tidy technical mastery with an agreeable, blooming sentiment. Set to a text by Jean Cocteau, it is a cautionary tale about love, gambling and dissolution that might have been written for the public image (if not the voice) of Edith Piaf. Jones and her pianist, Michael Baitzer, offered a lusty, vigorous performance, suggesting, in true French style, that dissolution, however regrettable, has pleasures of its own. (One recalls the composer Virgil Thomson, who knew both Poulenc and Cocteau, writing home to a Missouri friend that he always had a "lot of vice" to get out of his system whenever he arrived in Paris.)
A Sibelius song cycle sounded like an unlikely hybrid of the sweet, simple, not overly bright directness of Edvard Grieg and the neurotic, multidimensional depths of Hugo Wolf: Jones's interpretation seemed cautious, as if she were only slightly less mystified by the songs than I was. She did better by Samuel Barber's "Despite and Still," a neat structure of straightforward poetry and opulent music that she inhabited comfortably. A final selection of Strauss songs left a mixed impression: Jones basically has the right type of voice for this music, but she has not yet learned to mine the luster to make it magical. Nor was her concentration all it might have been. I liked her best in "Morgen," which had a sense of fresh, tremulous ecstasy. What an unusual song this is, though -- the "big tune" is finished before the soprano opens her mouth, after which all is afterglow.