Tara Erraught is a bonny Irish lass who is almost aggressively likable. That’s her personality as a performer, and she plays it up to the hilt. Erraught is a mezzo-soprano who’s doing well for herself in Europe and, since her 2015 U.S. debut in the second cast of the Washington National Opera’s “Cenerentola,” in the States. On Tuesday night, she gave a recital through Vocal Arts DC at the Terrace Theater, together with the pianist John O’Conor, which made it an Irish lovefest of an evening.
Erraught comes off like a character in a historical drama from the 1950s, all creamy-white skin and pert ripostes and wide-eyed freshness. This is all very agreeable, and arguably appropriate to an art form that has a certain amount of period flair itself (nothing on her program postdated the mid-20th century). Her program, too, had exactly the accepted amount of range and variation: a French set, consisting of three Liszt songs in that language; two German sets, of Wolf and Strauss; an English-language set, of Roger Quilter songs, sung with veritably operatic plumminess; and, to finish, some Italian, in the form of a less-known and delicious short cantata about Joan of Arc that Rossini wrote after he had retired from writing opera. She then responded to the warm but not rapturous applause with two Irish encores: “Gortnamona” by William Percy French and, inevitably, “Danny Boy.”
What Erraught is not is a deep or penetrating artist. Indeed, she needs to shift into a higher artistic gear as she looks ahead to an age at which all this vivaciousness may not play quite so well. At the moment, she seems to view a song as something to which things must be done, and she does those things with a great deal of commitment: modulating her voice, articulating her words and offering little stock gestures (the singer’s trope of the earnest, I-am-having-deep-feelings back-and-forth shake of the head). All of this is done, though, with a textbook obedience. What she doesn’t do is relax into the music, and into her own voice, and allow the music to bloom and soar beyond the outlines of what’s written on the page.
As a result, some of the surefire hits on the program fell a little flat. She made a point of telling the audience that she has lived in Germany for years, but while her Wolf songs were excellent, her set of beloved Strauss favorites was disappointing. Although her forte seemed to be sentiment, her presentation remained so external and by-the-book that she didn’t touch the sentimental ache at the heart of “Allerseelen” or “Morgen.” And though the sprightly “Ständchen” would seem to be right in her expressive wheelhouse, she couldn’t deliver, vocally, on this light song’s deceptively weighty climax.
And yet, since her whole focus was on communication, she was often vocally careless. She tended to drift sharp (starting with “Enfant, si j’etais roi,” the opening Liszt song, in which O’Conor’s piano threatened to bury her). She often approximated the middle pitches in a phrase, which blunted the impact of the delicate Wolf miniatures like “Begegnung.” And she offered only smeared ornaments in the final Rossini cantata, where her obedience was a particular hindrance: The piece is a big fat gift to a singer who can take it and run with it, but it wasn’t, here, the orgy of vocalism that it could be.
This is a harsh evaluation of a likable singer. But likability is not enough for a lasting career, or a deeper impact, and Erraught has the goods to offer more. O’Conor, though sometimes over-loud, showed how it can be done with telling details on the piano, like the little bubbling watery lines in Wolf’s mermaid song “Nixe Binsefuss.” In Erraught’s case, the talent is certainly there, but the artistry is a work in progress.