Plush Singing from Jamie Barton, and a Jake Heggie Premiere

United StatesUnited States Turina, Chausson, Schubert, Heggie, Dvořák: Jamie Barton (mezzo soprano), Robert Mollicone (piano), Emil Milland (cello), presented by San Francisco Performances, San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall, San Francisco. 16.12.2015 (HS)

Jamie Barton introduced herself to San Francisco audiences last year as a last-minute substitute Adalgisa in Bellini’s opera Norma. It was an incendiary performance that displayed a rich voice and ability to plumb the depths of the mezzo soprano range with power, as might be expected from the top prize winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World. Her first recital here Tuesday underlined those attributes and displayed an impressive command of a wide range of musical styles, not to mention five different languages.

Although there was no discussion of a theme, songs in Spanish (by Turina), French (Chausson), German (Schubert), English (Heggie) and Czech (Dvořák) touched on lyrical issues of love and death. Those may been the connecting threads, but Barton’s magnificent voice provided the fundamental bond. With total command of her vocal resources, she delivered a steady diet of shapely phrases, shading one with darker tone, the next with something lighter, rising in a crescendo to a shattering climax in one song, or in the next, falling in a diminuendo to an evanescent filament of sound.

Barton may not be as tall and imposing as some of the great mezzos of our day, but she can marshal extraordinary sonic power. At times she could sound almost like a baritone and, moments later, spin out a delicate strand in one long breath that ventured into the soprano range.

All that was on display in Jake Heggie’s The Work At Hand, written for Barton, who debuted it at Carnegie Hall in February. The composer has written songs for Frederica von Stade, Renée  Fleming, and Joyce di Donato, among many others, and has completed eight operas (Dead Man Walking, Moby Dick, Great Scott), with two more in the works.

For this emotionally gripping cycle, Heggie was inspired after reading Laura Morefield’s poems, which she wrote after being diagnosed with colon cancer, and traced the wrenching process of saying goodbye to all those one loves. Heggie added a cello to carry an extended introduction and transitional material, and provide a second voice to weave through Barton’s. (A version for full orchestra, also featuring the cello, was premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony in May.)

It makes for a rich and rewarding 20 minutes of music. The cello (played with warmth and expressiveness by Emil Miland (a member of the San Francisco Opera orchestra) sets a different tone for each of the three parts, varying the introduction them to suit the mood. Pianist Robert Mollicone, a coach and assistant conductor with San Francisco Opera, proved an able collaborator, spinning out Heggie’s delicately colorful textures with ease.

Barton has remarkable ability to focus her powerful voice into service for the words, which are alternately aggressive and heartbreaking, and ultimate affirm the primacy of life to the end. Heggie’s music underlines those aspects, and shades each line with an appropriate tone. This is a composer who believes in real melody and seldom strays far from familiar harmonies, but always makes the music feel unconventional and fresh.

The recital started with Turina’s Homenaje a Lope de Vega, the Spanish composer’s take on three sultry poems about sexual desire. Barton wove her supple voice around exotic melodic turns and delicately sensual rhythms. Three songs by Chausson traced the course of love from youthful ardor to—in “Le temps de lilacs”—the realization that death is near and sweet memories are all that’s left. Barton sang with consummate grace and poignancy.

Four Schubert songs concluded the first half. What made Gretchen am Spinnrade, stand out as the best was Mollicone’s delicately insistent tracing of Schubert’s allusion to the spinning wheel and the way Barton captured Gretchen’s anxiety at losing her lover. She reached a searing vocal climax at the finish, describing an imagined final kiss.

Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs included a gorgeous treatment by both Barton and Mollicone of the familiar “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” and ended the recital with flair, and a lone encore, Harry Burleigh’s simple and soulful arrangement of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” brought out Barton’s earthy edge. I would plan to hear her any chance I got.

Harvey Steiman

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