Angel Blue excels at Strauss, Weill and traditional spirituals in her Berkeley recital

United StatesUnited States Various: Angel Blue (soprano), Bryan Wagorn (piano). Presented by Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 6.3.2022. (HS)

Angel Blue (c) Cal Performances, Berkeley

Lee Hoiby – ‘Lady of the Harbor’; ‘Winter Song’; ‘There Came a Wind Like a Bugle’
Debussy – ‘Clair de lune’ (piano solo)
Fauré – ‘Clair de lune’; ‘Mandoline’; ‘Fleur jetée
Schumann – ‘Stille Tränen’
Strauss – ‘Allerseelen’; ‘Befreit’; ‘Morgen!’;‘Cäcilie’
Chopin – Prelude in D-flat major (piano solo)
Weill – ‘Youkali’ (from Marie Galante)
Traditional – ‘My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord’; ‘You Can Tell the World’; ‘Deep River’; ‘Ride on King Jesus’

It is sometimes the little things that set a singer apart in recital. A sharp eye may have noticed, before the emerging soprano star Angel Blue took the stage in the University of California’s Hertz Hall on Sunday afternoon, that the piano was set a little farther back than usual on a stage large enough to accommodate an orchestra and chorus in the 678-seat venue.

The extra space allowed Blue to roam freely, sometimes edging closer to the rapt audience when she sang softly, helping to create an intimacy that simply standing in the crook of the piano usually doesn’t. She also forged a tighter connection with listeners with off-the-cuff comments between (and sometimes within) songs. She talked about college days at that other University of California campus in Los Angeles and about faking German words in a Schumann lied in her master’s recital. Introducing a set of traditional spirituals, she confided to the audience about growing up in a gospel-music family, often singing with her mother, father and grandmother in their kitchen.

Rather than distracting from the music on a program that also touched on Schumann and Weill, this only enhanced a sense that her music was coming from a special place. An opera star, she recently scored hits in New York at the Metropolitan Opera starring in Porgy and Bess and Fire Shut Up in My Bones; and at Carnegie Hall in Beethoven’s Ninth with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Moving around the stage enhanced an innate sense of drama, bringing extra specificity to the songs, especially in the second half of the recital.

Things did not start perfectly. A well-meant opening gesture to acknowledge the tragedy of Ukraine – a moment of silence for those suffering before a setting by the American composer Lee Hoiby of Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty – felt awkward. Pianist Bryan Wagorn’s pale rendition of Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ was meant to link with the first of three Fauré songs, set to Paul Verlaine’s poem of the same name, but the performers going on and off the stage didn’t help, and neither did Blue’s approach to the songs. Muscular rather than shaded with French finesse, her big, thrilling sound was not what the music wanted. The intimacy of Schumann’s ‘Stille Tränen’ was also missing (although this time she got all the words right).

Those first few songs were last-minute replacements for the planned openers, perhaps because Mozart’s ‘Exsultate, jubilate’ and a set of Russian songs by Rachmaninoff did not fit the political context.

Maybe that was why the replacements seem to fall a bit short, or maybe she just needed to get warmed up. Because something clicked when she got to Richard Strauss. ‘Morgen!’ cast its spell, framed with some of the pianist’s most sensitive playing, and the ecstatic ‘Cäcilie’ soared with a dynamic arc that hit home with all the power – and finesse – needed.

That energy carried over after intermission with one of Kurt Weill’s lesser-known earworms, ‘Youkali’. Written in 1934 for the forgotten musical play Marie Galante during Weill’s exile in Paris, the six-minute chanson wasn’t given lyrics until 1946. With magnificent control, the soprano nailed both the attitude and meaning of Roger Fernay’s words and Weill’s weary tango, a dream of a faraway place where pleasures abound. This soprano shows that she has her own way with Weill. More, please.

Two of Hoiby’s songs followed and underlined Blue’s strengths – the sustained mid-range and ringing top notes in ‘Winter Song’ and a palpable sense of dignity and power in ‘There Came a Wind Like a Bugle’. (Although Blue didn’t mention it, Leontyne Price debuted these and many other Hoiby songs.)

A set of four traditional spirituals concluded the program. The pianist lacked the rhythmic vitality for these songs (he also offered a bland Chopin’s Prelude in D-flat major between Weill and Hoiby), and Blue could have delivered ‘My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord’ and ‘Ride on King Jesus’ all by herself.

Like Price, in true opera-singer fashion Angel avoided some of the voice-straining gospel-singer musical gestures commonly heard in this music, but she got to the essence with her own style. Her joy is what was missing in the accompaniment. The big moment, though, was a slow, relatively quiet, beautifully sustained ‘Deep River’, delivered with the same ability to stop time that she found in Strauss’s ‘Morgen!’

In the first encore, Puccini’s ‘O mil babbino caro’, she interrupted the piano introduction to invite another soprano to the stage. Mikayla Sager, a first-year Adler Fellow in San Francisco Opera’s training program, had been working with Blue over Zoom. Blue told the audience she wanted to hear the voice in person, so they teamed up for a ‘Three Tenors’-like shared performance that indeed demonstrated the beauty of two richly endowed voices in Puccini’s familiar melodies.

The second encore, ‘Carceleras’ by Ruperto Chapì, showed another side of Blue’s talents – the ability to deliver a saucy patter song. With accompaniment this time played with snap by Wagorn (an assistant conductor at the Met), the excerpt from a Spanish zarzuela sent the audience out into the late-afternoon sun with smiles.

Harvey Steiman

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