Stephanie Blythe Brings Big Personality to Composers from Barber to Berlin, and a Set of Emily Dickinson Songs

United StatesUnited States  Legg, Barber, American popular composers: Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano), Warren Jones (piano), presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Hall, San Francisco. 13.10.2011 (HS)

She’s earthy. You might not guess it from her opera performances, but the volcanic mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe becomes an earthy woman in the intimate confines of a recital. Midway through the first half of her Thursday concert in Herbst Hall (the 2011-2012 season opener for San Francisco Performances), before launching into a set of three songs by Samuel Barber, she looked up at the audience and asked, “Is it just me or is it hot in here?” After a beat she continued, “I’m sweating my bazzooms off up here.” Another beat. Deadpan, she added, “That’s the proper term for them for a mezzo-soprano.” Pianist Warren Jones piped up, “Recitals with Stephanie are always an adventure.”

If this one is any indication, they certainly are, and for more than repartee. This program of American music included a set of 12 songs to Emily Dickinson’s poetry by James Legg (who wrote them for Blythe before his untimely death in 2000 at the age of 38), a set of three songs by Samuel Barber, plus selections from Tin Pan Alley (including four classics by Irving Berlin). Blythe invested each one with a distinctive, emotionally direct personality.

Pairing Legg’s music with Barber’s in the first half emphasized how much the more recent composer owes to the most lyrical of American mid-century classical composers. The musical language is similar, and so is how specifically they set the words. And words certainly mattered in the Dickinson songs and in Barber’s settings of James Joyce.

Blythe can deploy a huge sound. Her voice peaks at what seems like a dozen decibels more than most mezzos and loses nothing in intensity as it descends below the staff. It makes her devastating in roles such as Mistress Quickly or Fricka. But she can also lighten it up, coming off as positively girlish in softer passages. This range of expression conjures distinct emotions such as the apprehension of youth in the face of death in Dickinson’s “There’s been a Death, in the opposite house” or the poignancy of victory seen by the defeated in “Success is counted sweetest.” She can sketch discrete images in Dickinson’s scene painting, as in the dusky colors of “I’ll tell you how the sun rose” or the garden world of the humorously epistolatory “Bee! I’m expecting you.”

To encourage the audience to look at her instead of following the texts, the words didn’t appear in the program book. Instead, she and Jones recited the poetry before launching into the music: Blythe with an actress’s attention to nuance, vocal color and facial expression, Jones with a musician’s sense of rhythm.

The Joyce songs have a moment or two of humor, especially in the second one, “Sleep now,” but the third, a militaristic “I hear an army,” reaches a huge climax that not only displayed the power of Blythe’s voice in full cry but sent the audience into intermission wide-eyed.

The fun in the second half consisted of songs by American popular music composers of a century ago, plus two Scott Joplin rags energetically played by Jones. Each was a gem. Blythe harnessed that big voice, turning positively flirty in such songs as “Coax Me” by Sterling and van Tilzer, “After You’re Gone” by Creamer and Layton, and especially on Irving Berlin’s “You’d Be Surprised,” famously sung in sultry mode by Marilyn Monroe. She knew just when to hold back and when to open up and let ’er rip at a climax. She was mesmerizing.

The Berlin set was the best, relishing the double entendres on “If You Don’t Want My Peaches,” going full-on sexy on “You’d Be Surprised,” heartbreakingly pensive on “What’ll I Do?”, finishing off with a rousing, “I Love a Piano.” Jones, who played Joplin’s “Peacherine” and “Magnetic Rag” a bit fast for my taste, ramped it up for “Maple Leaf” as a rousing solo encore. Then Blythe sang the fervent Christian hymn “How Do I Keep From Singing,” expressively and with enormous dynamic range. The sound was thrilling. They finished off with Stephen Foster’s delicate “Beautiful Dreamer.”

Harvey Steiman