Tenor Michael Schade and baritone Russell Braun offered a varied and well-balanced program of duets, arias, lieder and melodies at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Tuesday night, sponsored by the Vocal Arts Society. Starting with Monteverdi madrigals, both singers delved headlong into "Tornate, O Cari Baci" with much gusto, energy and to great effect with the audience. The composer, unfortunately, did not survive the enthusiasm: Carolyn Maule's clear and precise but rather timid pianism was drowned out, and the texture that makes Monteverdi unique and ahead of his time was lost.
Mozart's earthy wit was on display in four seldom-heard songs, sung by Schade. His voice is strong, very focused and clean to the point of piercing, but I found the interpretations mannered, slightly stilted and impeccable to a fault; I would have looked for a more inviting, open quality.
The torch was then passed to Braun, who sang four songs by Franz Schubert: the highlight was "Doppelgaenger," done with just the right mix of eeriness and panache. His wife, Maule, too, found some more energy that she injected into these as well as the following Schumann pieces, which were true marvels. As the valuable addendum to the program notes pointed out, these duets -- three songs from Op. 43, the Intermezzo, Op. 74, No. 2, and "Blaue Augen hat das Maedchen," Op. 138, No. 9 -- are best described as trios for two voices and piano. Utterly enjoyable, sung with much verve and all too rarely heard, they brought the first half of the program to an outstanding end.
Gabriel Faure's "L'Horizon Chimerique" was a welcome treat of little song paintings, movingly depicted by Braun. Schade was impressive in Ravel's "Cinq Melodies Popularies Grecques"; his tone seemed perfectly suited to the French text. A little gaffe when he started the long, unaccompanied section of "Quel galant m'est comparable" in the wrong key was both disarming and amusing.
What followed were all duets: Saint Saens's "El desdichado" and Faure's "Puisqu'ici-bas," beautifully set to a Victor Hugo poem (which is itself a bit ironic, given that Hugo hated music). Again, Schade and Braun excelled as the evening got progressively more enjoyable.
John Greer's setting of Quebecois folk songs were introduced by Schade with self-deprecating charm and wit (he thanked the audience for being so "Canada-friendly"). The most famous tenor-baritone duet there is, Bizet's "Au fond du temple saint" from "The Pearl Fishers," brought the crowd to its feet.