Barton brings power and story-telling intimacy to Celebrity Series recital

December 14, 2017 at 12:55 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Jamie Barton performed Wednesday night at Pickman Hall for the Celebrity Series of Boston. File photo: James M. Ireland

Jamie Barton performed Wednesday night at Pickman Hall for the Celebrity Series of Boston. File photo: James M. Ireland

Jamie Barton is in the midst of a major career. The 36-year-old mezzo-soprano has earned a number of high-profile prizes for singing, including the Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Artists Award and top honors at the 2013 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, the same venue that launched the careers of Bryn Terfel and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. 

Like them, Barton has become a fixture of the operatic stage, having appeared in Ring Cycles at San Francisco Opera and Houston Grand Opera. These days she is a rising star at the Metropolitan Opera where she has just wrapped up a run of Norma performances.

It’s easy to hear why she has become so popular, for the singer has a voice of remarkable power and depth. In her Celebrity Series debut Wednesday night at Pickman Hall, Barton brought lyrical grace and zeal to a wide-ranging program of songs by French, German, Austrian, and American composers.

Barton’s singing is dark, yet radiant with a voice that is smooth in all registers. Given her operatic experience, particularly in Wagnerian roles, her singing also has weight and gravity, and her sound easily filled the intimate space of Pickman Hall. Her high notes, too, rang like a bell.

But Barton’s greatest strength lies in her ability to tell stories through music. With searching intensity that found the wide emotional range of each song she sang, Barton performed as if each piece were a miniature drama.

Libby Larsen’s Love After 1950 fuses jazzy writing with stories that humorously depict the everyday struggles of women. “Boy’s Lips” was a smokey blues, with Barton coloring her lines with scoops and slides to soulful, Gershwinesque effect. “Blonde Men,” a laugh-inducing song about how the protagonist hates blondes, took on a swaggering charm.

Barton had a sensitive partner in pianist Kathleen Kelly, who deftly rendered the honky-tonk accompaniment to “Big Sister Says.” In “Empty Song” her Debussyian phrases wafted in the air like perfume. The final song of the set, “I Make My Magic,” unfolded dense cluster chords in hushed dynamics. Barton’s singing through it all had a silvery glow.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s cantata Arianna a Naxos provided another of the evening’s highlights. In Barton’s hands, this anguished tale of lost love pulsed with the emotionally resonant drama of an operatic scene. The recitatives were searchingly sung and played, and Ariadne’s longing for Theseus swelled with a poignant sorrow. The arias ranged from death-haunted grief to passages of explosive rage. Barton found a side of Haydn not often heard in recital programs.

The opening set of songs, all by women, was just as palpable. Elinor Remick Warren’s “Heather” sounded with warm, yet cavernous voice, with Kelly supplying an accompaniment that was pearly and deep. Lili Boulanger’s “Attente” was a scene of enveloping warmth, while the lines of Nadia Boulanger’s “S’il arrive jamais” rolled like waves. In Amy Beach’s “Love, but a day!” Barton’s singing took on a bright tone to capture the immediacy of newfound love.

A final set of French and German songs filled the evening with alternating repose and turbulent emotions. Ravel’s “Chanson à boire” from Don Quichotte à Dulcinée offered a bit of fun as Barton found the drunken humor of the song. Henri Duparc’s “Phidylé” was a moment of solace. And Richard Strauss’ “Cäcilie” churned with roiling energy, Barton’s voice taking on a Wagnerian breadth to evoke Strauss’ stirring, heaven-bound journey. Stories, it was revealed, are best told through song.

For an encore, Barton and Kelly offered a sweetly nostalgic “Never Never Land” from the musical Peter Pan.

The next classical music event sponsored by the Celebrity Series will feature pianist Jeremy Denk and violinist Stefan Jackiw playing Ives’ complete violin sonatas 8 p.m. January 26 at Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org617-482-6661

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