After two celebrated decades as one of opera's reigning divas, Jessye Norman may be near that crossroads all singers dread. At age 56, she doesn't quite possess the lustrous, supple, versatile voice that distinguished her prime, although its capaciousness continues to astound. The instrument once known for its full lush tone can sound frayed at times, insecure in its pitch. In the future, should the Georgia-born soprano look to Luciano Pavarotti, who coasts along on his laurels despite a much-abused voice, or to Leontyne Price, who conserved what was left of her vocal gifts for the repertoire that really mattered to her?
Norman, one presumes, is smart enough to know the right answer, and a hint of the future she might have in mind was evident Sunday in a recital at Symphony Center. The lineup of songs by Beethoven, Strauss, Ravel and Hugo was intriguing and audacious, reflecting her noted curiosity and willingness to stretch her interpretive skills. None of the songs would exacerbate the wear and tear in her voice for the sake of showmanship.
Yet the program didn't get off to an impressive start. Norman launched into Beethoven's Gellert Lieder, six prayerful songs in response to the death of a patron, as if she were protesting to the heavens. Her delivery was way too loud and overbearing, and her phrasing rough in places. The accompaniment by pianist Mark Markham, in fact, captured better the delicate, reverential tone of these rather unremarkable songs.
Norman's rich, creamy voice has always suited the lyrical expansiveness of Strauss' songs, and she demonstrated this compatibility as well as her acting ability in the sextet of romance-imbued songs. The characterizations were tellingly drawn, especially the enveloping warmth in "Mit Deinen Blauen Augen" (With Your Blue Eyes) and the intense ambivalence of parting in "Befreit" (Freed). In three of the songs, however, she had to strain for the top notes.
These minor flaws, fortunately, didn't surface in the concert's second half, which consisted of Ravel's Sheherazade and selections from Wolf's "Italian Songbook." By then, Norman's voice had noticeably warmed up. Ravel's three songs from 1903, seldom performed, were a revelation, grand in gestures, exotic in feel and luxuriant in texture. The broad canvas of "Asie" (Asia) depicts a fabled Orient concocted by an armchair traveler. Norman conveyed vividly the wanderlust fantasy, abetted by Markham's extravagant playing. The pair were equally spellbinding with the languor in "La flute enchantee" and the indolent sensuality in "L'indifferent."
The seven Wolf songswhich trace the arc of a lovers' quarrel from remonstrance to fury to reconciliation and laughterwere dispatched with ease and a whiff of playfulness. Norman's singing was deep in emotions and radiant in sonority; Markham responded in kind.
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