The exact balance might differ across contexts, but most musical performance aims for a sweet spot between command and abandon — skills and thrills. For much of Michelle Bradley’s D.C. debut Wednesday at the Kennedy Center, presented by Vocal Arts DC, one had the sense of an exceptional talent working out how to hit that spot consistently. When she did, the results were resplendent.
Bradley, a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s young artist program, has an impressive soprano, big and vibrant, with surprising power on the lower end and high notes extending from finely spun to fierce. In her opening set of melodies by Henri Duparc, much of that voice was reined in. Both Bradley and pianist Ken Noda approached the songs — “L’Invitation au voyage,” “Chanson triste” and “Phidylé” — as elegant baubles: delicate, restrained, every high note feathery and narrowly focused. Bradley barely even moved. It was lovely but reticent.
Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs” were immediately more engaging. The settings of marginal poetry by medieval monks run the gamut from austere to earthy, and Bradley dove into each mood with enthusiasm. Sometimes too much, though. In a couple of the more boisterous numbers, the energy uncentered her pitch. But the balance was interpretively and vocally aligned: “Saint Ita’s Vision” dramatic and tender, “The Monk and His Cat” warm and genial, “The Desire for Hermitage” imposing and emotive.
Verdi has featured prominently in Bradley’s nascent career; Lina’s Act 2 aria from “Stiffelio” was sharp, forceful and agile. The autumnal “Four Last Songs” of Richard Strauss present a very different challenge, to which Bradley rose in estimable fashion. The set’s bookends, “Frühling” and “Im Abendrot,” were notably fine, Bradley unspooling Strauss’s grand, unhurried lines with lustrous composure. (The last song also was Noda’s highlight, beguilingly stretching the long, slow-fade coda into a powerful silence.)
Bradley offered a pair of substantial encores. Margaret Bonds’s arrangement of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” a favorite of the late Jessye Norman, started off uncannily Normanesque, but Bradley made it her own by the end with more contemporary gospel embellishment. That was followed by more Verdi, “D’amor sull’ali rosee” from “Il Trovatore.” It was a full-throated, even forceful reading that, at its best, embodied the paradox: a performer with enough control to throw caution to the wind.