For listeners convinced that countertenors are simply falsetto-singing successors to the baroque-era castratos, their less fortunate, surgically altered forebears, Thursday night’s recital at the Terrace Theater was a welcome corrective. This Washington National Opera-sponsored program featuring the countertenor John Holiday, winner of the 2017 Marian Anderson vocal award, journeyed far afield from the 18th century.
Sure, Holiday kicked off the evening with Handel’s ubiquitous, and quintessentially baroque, “Ombra mai fu,” which revealed a small, supple voice of distinctly feminine tonal color, with none of the petulant edge or awkward drops into the baritone range so often heard from others of his voice type.
But he immediately moved into the perfumed world of French “melodie,” treating songs by Debussy, Poulenc and Hahn with sensual phrasing and a series of ravishingly floated high notes..
Two seldom-heard American song cycles — the poignant, Langston Hughes-based “Three Dream Portraits,” by midcentury African American composer Margaret Bonds, and contemporary composer Theodore Morrison’s floridly showy James Joyce setting, “Chamber Music” — drew nuanced and emotionally communicative performances from Holiday, as well as chiseled, perceptive work at the piano from Kevin J. Miller.
But it was in the recital’s second half, after the addition of a microphone (and, for some reason, a feather-trimmed fedora), and a keyboard change to the elegantly stylish jazz pianist, Neeki Bey, that preconceptions about what countertenors should sing truly fell away. In a set of American Songbook standards (“Summertime,” “ ’Round Midnight,” and an especially evocative “My Funny Valentine”), Holiday — mixing his falsetto with a mellow, natural tenor register and some idiomatic jazz phrasing — channeled not the legendary castratos, but a more recent generation of high-voiced singers, from Little Jimmy Scott and Johnnie Ray to Frankie Valli and Barry Gibb. It was instructive to hear how such a fine and sensitively used countertenor voice could be made to sound so timeless.