Opera is full of female artists and important female roles, so it’s revealing — not in a good way — that celebrating women in a recital is still something unusual. On Saturday, the mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and pianist Kathleen Kelly did just that, in a program on Renée Fleming’s “Voices” series (rescheduled from March) that combined music by women, music about women, and at least one piece written by men for men to sing that Barton, as she put it, decided simply to take over for herself.
Each half of the program opened with music by women — music that should not be as unfamiliar as it is. Amy Beach, Lili Boulanger and Nadia Boulanger, three composers of the late 19th and 20th centuries who left significant legacies in different ways, are hardly unknown names today — Nadia Boulanger not least by teaching a goodly number of significant (male) 20th-century composers, from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass.
Barton picked individual songs by each of them to open the concert, after starting with the cheerful, slightly anodyne “Heather,” by 20th-century composer Elinor Remick Warren. Lili Boulanger’s “Attente” offered evidence of the immense talent of this very young composer (she died at 24, having won the coveted Prix de Rome), chromatic and thoughtful. Beach’s “Ah, love but a day!” (from a group of three settings of Browning) was a solid dramatic effort in the parlor-song genre, much better than it needed to be, which Barton invested with operatic power.
If all of these four songs were in a familiar, neo-Romantic art-song vein, Libby Larsen’s wonderful cycle “Love after 1950,” settings of five poems by women, mined the American idiom more closely, and fit Barton like a glove. Each text is telling, each song distinct, starting with Rita Dove’s “Boy’s lips (a blues),” which Larsen imbued with a bluesy feel that Barton brought across to perfection.
Barton in any case often showed a straight tone that opened out into operatic vibrato on long notes; the straighter sound was admirably expressive in some of the Larsen pieces, while her comic gifts showed in “Big sister says, 1967 (a honky-tonk),” to a text by Kathryn Daniels. Her sung English was so clear that it hardly mattered that the theater was too dark to read the printed texts.
Indeed, the misapprehension that opera involves bigger singing and recitals a more intimate approach was blown out of the water by Barton’s large-scale approach to a solo evening. Barton is a singer with a big comfortable voice, from solid low to ringing high C (as she demonstrated in the evening’s first encore, “Alto’s Lament,” by Zina Goldrich). She is also a singer who has made recitals a key part of her career from the beginning, even before she won the Met Opera auditions in 2007, along with Michael Fabiano, Angela Meade and several other singers who have gone on to solid careers.
On Saturday, she offered operatic drama in Haydn’s long monodrama “Arianna a Naxos,” in many ways the most conventional piece on the program, and in Ravel’s “Chanson a boire,” in which Barton channeled inebriation with comic aplomb, turning each high note into a hiccup. But she also turned Duparc’s “Phydilé” into a ravishing piece of shimmering gold. And Strauss’s “Cäcilie,” on paper a conventional recital closer, was a little slower, a little more significant and resonant than the usual breathless outburst, something underscored by the rich playing of Kelly, the pianist, an adept partner throughout.
This is not to deny that Barton brings an outsized personality to the stage, and she went into high gear for her encores, having the audience in the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater (well-stocked with fans, to judge from the raucous cheers and whoops) vote between two options. The winner was “Alto’s Lament,” a signature piece of Barton’s that has her showing off her range while bemoaning the fate of a person forced to sing harmony all night (amusing, though hardly accurate in Barton’s case). The audience was so excited after this that she also sang the second one, “Acerba voluttà” from Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur,” showing Italianate verismo fire, and power to spare.