Even a great artist can have an off night. Joyce DiDonato appeared to be having one Wednesday. The American mezzo, a reigning singer in contemporary opera’s pantheon, joined the adventurous Brentano Quartet in the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater for half of a far-flung program that contrasted Bach fugues and a Haydn quartet with Richard Strauss songs and a song cycle by Jake Heggie. Swathed in a voluminous, fluttering red dress, she brought the look and feel of a great singer to the stage, but in the Strauss songs, the high notes kept getting away from her, lending a touch of shrillness to the proceedings.
However, in the Heggie cycle, “Camille Claudel: Into the Fire,” she seemed to find her footing. The songs, with texts by Gene Scheer, add up to a monodrama about the French sculptor and lover of Rodin who ended her days in an asylum. The piece is not without its weaknesses, invoking cliches of the mad wounded artist and portraying her artistic sensuality in a kind of Carmenesque frenzy (in the song “Shakuntala”), but it is engaging, dramatic and has a poignant close, in which Claudel, subdued and sweet, thanks friends for coming to see her in the asylum. Here, DiDonato was very effective.
The evening was relatively tame by the standards of the Brentano Quartet, which has long explored various links between words and music, but which here focused on more subtle departures. Playing four selections from Bach’s “Art of Fugue” as a string quartet certainly casts this music, most often heard on keyboard, in a different light, emphasizing the individuality of each of the four voices, although it made the violins sound slightly strident in their repeating tones in “Contrapunctus XI.” There followed a warm and nuanced performance of Haydn’s first quartet.
But it was hard to say just how the Strauss songs fit in with those first two pieces, particularly when DiDonato kept slightly missing her marks. Strauss calls for a particular combination of lightness and heft, and the songs, in arrangements by Brentano players Mark Steinberg and Misha Amory, didn’t seem to fit her well; she kept losing color on individual notes (notably in “Die Nacht”), and then offering those shapeless top ones (starting with “All mein’ Gedanken,” the first in the five-song set). Not until the final “Traum durch die Dämmerung” did she find the full richness and impact of her sound — and even there, the upper notes didn’t lose their penetrating edge.
“Camille Claudel,” however, was written for DiDonato in 2012, and was an audibly better fit. Scheer, the librettist for “Moby-Dick” and other Heggie works, is a fine wordsmith, but I found that the texts had a slightly generic air, and that the reliance on rhyme led the whole thing slightly toward musical-theater territory. It’s a tall order to present a woman your listeners don’t know much about in a few songs. Specificity helps, as does expressiveness, and the final song, “Asylum, 1929,” had both — a fine cap to a somewhat unsatisfying evening.