Not every opera singer is a song recitalist. Recitals, traditionally, involve art songs with piano accompaniment; it’s a slightly different art than pumping out opera arias over a full orchestra. Some opera singers — Luciano Pavarotti, for instance — don’t really care, and have given recitals that mingle opera arias and art songs, piano accompaniment or no piano accompaniment, with diva panache to carry them over any artistic gaps in the presentation. The soprano Angela Meade is this kind of singer: one with a huge voice to whom art song does not come naturally. And yet a little more diva attitude would have greatly helped her recital at the Terrace Theater on Saturday night.
The Washington National Opera, looking for new ways to add performances to its season, presented Meade as a foretaste of things to come: She will be singing “Norma” here in March. Meade gamely went along with the idea, squeezing herself into an old-fashioned recital template that mingled opera arias with art songs and checked all the boxes from Mozart to a contemporary American piece.
But being a good sport is not always the best way for a singer to excel. Had Meade put her hands on her hips and said, “Honey, I don’t sing Mozart, and I don’t do a lot of lieder, and Italian repertory is what fits me best and is what I’m going to sing,” it would have made for a better performance. The message about Italian repertory came through loud and clear in any case, but so did a lot of not-quite-optimal singing.
There’s a lot to like about Meade, starting with a powerhouse voice that rattled the rafters of the small theater and the eardrums of her listeners. She’s an appealing presence. She’s a big woman who appears to have lost some weight and who wore a striking and flattering black gown (I have mixed feelings about discussing a singer’s appearance in a review, but if there’s a compliment to be made it seems justified).
And she’s got some very good instincts. I loved the way that she changed her whole vocal timbre, in her set of Strauss songs, between “Befreit” (big singing, a little overblown) and “Cäcilie” (fresh, light, youthful). I loved the way that, in John Kander’s setting of a letter from a soldier killed in the Civil War (written for Renee Fleming, and a real tear-jerker), she gave the spoken introduction in such a natural tone, without the self-conscious narrative or “acting” voice assumed by so many people in such situations.
She oversang most of the songs, delivering them at a full-bore pitch that was less operatic than simply screamy, including a set of four Liszt songs in French (“Oh! Quand je dors” and other familiar numbers) that were especially battered by this treatment. (Her energetic pianist, Bradley Moore, did nothing to counteract it; he tended to be a little wild himself.) Still, there are signs of some solid musical and dramatic instincts, and I hope she continues to develop them.
My criticisms of Meade are less of the singer than of the machine that got her where she is today. Meade has sung leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera and is viewed as a rising star with reason: Her Verdi and Bellini offerings on Saturday (arias from Bellini’s “Beatrice di Tenda” and “Norma,” and Verdi’s “Il corsaro”) were very fine. But she generally came across not as a temperamental artist but as a person who had memorized something and was being careful to do it all correctly. Nobody in all her training, it seems, has found a way to help her connect her own personality and humor with her performance, and make this music fully her own.
So it doesn’t matter so much that she was nervous in the first half, or that she had a few slips in the Strauss set or that she demonstrated yet again that Mozart is not actually great for every voice by hacking her way through an aria from “Mitridate, re di Ponto.” I wouldn’t even have cared that she read nearly everything from a music stand had that music stand not started to serve as a barrier between her and the audience. The second half of the program was certainly better than the first — everything from the “Beatrice di Tenda” aria, before intermission, on; she even sounded more at home in her second Liszt set, three songs from Schiller’s “William Tell.” And she doesn’t have a whole lot of competition in the Italian repertory; even her encore, “Io son l’umile ancella” from Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur,” was pretty good.
What matters most, though, is that a Washington audience sat through an entire evening’s introduction to a talented singer, and we still don’t know who she is. I hope she finds a way to show us as her career develops.