An unexpected thrill from Stephanie Blythe

Before she sang, Stephanie Blythe recited Tuesday at the Perelman Theater.
Before she sang, Stephanie Blythe recited Tuesday at the Perelman Theater. (KOBIE VAN RENSBURG)
Posted: March 08, 2013

Stephanie Blythe has always been an enterprising recitalist, and her ascendance into Wagneriana at the Metropolitan Opera hasn't changed that a bit.

Hearing her huge voice in the Kimmel Center's smallish Perelman Theater on Tuesday was a unique thrill. In earlier recitals presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, she had brought Eileen Farrell's seamlessness and Marilyn Horne's depth of tone; now her own voice is one future singers will be measured against, in part because she does such unexpected things with it.

Like talking. There were no song texts in the printed program, so she and pianist Warren Jones recited the words to James Legg's Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson and Samuel Barber's Three Songs Op. 10 before she sang them. Thus the audience was better able to parse the word/music relationship, particularly in the Legg cycle, written shortly before his death in 2000 at 38. His voice hadn't fully emerged, but masterstrokes are there: "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" was not mousy but ironically aggressive.

The concert's second half was popular songs from the 1920s and '30s: These, said Blythe, are America's counterparts to European art songs - not a new idea. One welcomed both her committed renditions of Cole Porter's Muslim-influenced "Night and Day" and Irving Berlin's sublime "Always," and her daring dips into humbler jazz-age and Depression-era songs such as "Button Up Your Overcoat," "You're the Cream in My Coffee" and "The Best Things in Life Are Free."

Never did she sound like a slumming opera star. She inhabited rather than enshrined the songs, giving the protagonists face and voice, her tools being good colloquial diction and an uninhibited razzmatazz that suggested how this music felt in its own time. Jones' accompaniments had an easy expression in which ragtime influences pulled rank under the vocal line.

Are such disposable songs worth the attention of singers who traffick in more durable, timeless music? The medicinal benefits are huge: Joan Morris proved how much these songs ground a singer in communicative, word-based singing. American audiences want to hear music they can own, even the arcane items unearthed in Thomas Meglioranza's all-American recital here several seasons back.

And Blythe chose surprisingly durable songs. I barely remember where I first came to know songs whose commercial shelf life expired decades before I was born. But I still knew 90 percent of the lyrics. There must be a good reason for that.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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