Vocal Arts D.C. is celebrating its 25th anniversary in style. After a knockout season opener by Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton gave a well-rounded recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Thursday evening. The Georgia native’s voice continues to grow, and her musical sense of how to shape a phrase with sensitive rubato is expanding right along with it.
Barton’s big, juicy tone is matched now with an ability to float lighter high notes, heard right from the first striking phrase of Joaquín Turina’s “Homenaje a Lope de Vega,” Op. 90. In these three songs, mostly in the stark style of dramatic recitatives, Barton had the presence to hold musical attention, her voice and facial expression even revealing a machismo edge in the middle song, “Si Con Mis Deseos.” With fine Spanish pronunciation, colored by Castilian accents, she brought the set to a thrilling close, using her searing chest voice to make an extremely low, almost male sound on the words “¿Para Qué Te Escondes, Niña Gallarda?” (“Why Are You Hiding, Lovely Girl”).
While one might not expect a voice this heavy to excel in French “mélodies,” a set of three unusual songs by Ernest Chausson was even more pleasing. It was not that her voice lost its character to become falsely transparent, but Barton used her power wisely, creating beautiful contours with each phrase of “Le Colibri.” Pianist Bradley Moore, head of the music staff at Houston Grand Opera, where Barton got her start, supported his singer expertly in this song especially, his whirring trills and other figures creating the sounds of the eponymous hummingbird. Barton applied an undulating melodic line to “Hébé,” not in any rush that might spoil this slow song, and showed excellent, seemingly endless breath support in the tragic “Le Temps des Lilas.”
Schubert’s “Der König in Thule” could be a challenge, as a rather plain strophic song, but Barton’s expressive stage presence made it compelling. While “Rastlose Liebe” was an exciting conclusion to the Schubert set, it was her anguished performance of “Gretchen am Spinnrade” that stood out, a sharply etched psychological portrait and the high point of this recital.
All the languages on the program had been superbly coached, down to the Czech of Dvořák’s rather gorgeous “Gypsy Songs,” Op. 55. In some of these songs, Barton showed her fierce side, producing a solid, meaty sound for the first song, “My Song of Love Rings Out at Dusk,” introduced by Moore’s evocative playing on the keyboard, perhaps in imitation of a gypsy tambourine. Slower songs oozed with sentimentality, such as “The Forest Is Quiet All Around” and “When My Old Mother Taught Me to Sing,” the latter almost too misty-eyed. Moore kept himself in lockstep with Barton even in the accelerando and rhythmic fluidity of more folk-influenced songs like “The String Is Taut.”
The concluding set of American Gospel pieces was a slight disappointment, only because the arrangements, especially those by Jay Ivey, felt too saccharine, too disconnected from the tradition. Acknowledging vociferous ovations, Barton offered three encores, including volcanic renditions of Sibelius’s “Var det en Dröm?” and the Princesse de Bouillon’s aria “Acerba Voluttà, Dolce Tortura” from Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur,” as well as a reprise of one of the Dvořák songs, “When My Old Mother Taught Me to Sing.”
Downey is a freelance writer.