Vocal Arts D.C. presented two major debuts Wednesday night, the first local recital of Toby Spence and the first appearance of Leos Janacek’s “The Diary of One Who Disappeared” on its concert series. The English tenor’s fine performance at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater brought that mysterious Czech song cycle to life, as well as Robert Schumann’s poignant “Dichterliebe,” in the original high keys.
Sadly, this milestone almost did not come to pass, because Spence, 43, had thyroid cancer diagnosed in late 2011. In February, he underwent a delicate surgery to remove his thyroid and some lymph nodes, an operation that involved many of the muscles and nerves crucial to his voice. It was not certain whether he would be able to sing again, but with excellent medical care and vocal rehabilitation, he has taken the stage, making his debut at the Metropolitan Opera last fall.
Most of what distinguished his voice, a sweet lyric sound and dulcet ring at the top, has returned and will probably continue to improve. Spence seemed at ease, glowing with all of his former charismatic confidence, aside from a few scratches and moments of strain. His voice had heroic fullness when he needed it, including a resonant high A in Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht,” taken here at a slower tempo to accentuate the sense of bitter disbelief in the text. Only the high C’s at the ecstatic conclusion of the Janacek cycle — a daring choice of repertoire — were not quite in control.
Spence’s take on “Dichterliebe” emphasized a jaw-clenched defiance over outright rage, aided by the avid storytelling of pianist Carrie-Ann Matheson, a narrative quality so important in this cycle, in which the piano is a co-starring character. Spence took his time with many of the tempi, giving a rueful quality to “Hor’ich das Liedchen klingen” and a stark, seething tenseness to “Ich hab’ in Traum geweinet.”
Janacek’s dramatic cycle, set to poetry by Ozef Kalda and performed here in a semi-staged way, follows a headstrong farm lad who runs away with a bewitching gypsy girl. Sarah Mesko, familiar to local audiences as a Washington National Opera Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, had a seductive turn as the gypsy girl, her voice rich and smoky at the bottom. The magic of her sultry appeal was incarnated by the three offstage siren voices of Stacey Mastrian, Rachel Carlson and Lindsey Paradise, marred only by a slightly out-of-tune final chord as they disappeared. Except for the portion featuring the women, the work can seem overly introspective, but Spence’s gift for narration, his animated face and his strong stage presence made it hypnotic.
Downey is a freelance writer.