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An Exquisite Hour with Isabel Leonard

Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano (photo courtesy of IMG Artists)
Isabel Leonard's recital, presented by Vocal Arts Society at the Austrian Embassy on Friday night, is part of an introductory concert tour around the United States (with visits to Atlanta, San Francisco, and Fort Worth). The New York-born, Juilliard-trained mezzo-soprano goes next to Manhattan for her Carnegie Hall debut on March 14. (Is she the same Isabel Leonard, age 6, quoted in this 1989 New York Times article about what New York kids think about their child care providers?) As debut recitals go for young singers, Leonard's program was an impressive achievement, showcasing the singer's mellifluous, cocoa-rich voice and, even more remarkably, her natural stage presence and ability to incarnate a varied range of characters.

The program also revealed Leonard's facility with foreign languages, as she demonstrated capable pronunciation of German, French, Russian, English, and Spanish (the South American variant for the Joaquín Nin set and Castilian for Manuel de Falla's Siete Canciones Populares Españolas). Leonard's Hispanic heritage (her mother is from Argentina) was at least partially the point of her spirited encore, D'España vengo (yo soy española), an aria from the zarzuela El Niño Judio. (If you are curious, Plácido Domingo was not in the audience to appreciate the gesture.) The selection of songs was pleasingly varied but leaned one notch too far toward the popular (a concluding Broadway set) and the folk-inspired (the three songs by Joaquín Nin, who turns to be the father of Anaïs Nin).

Much greater impact came from the exquisitely sung set from Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch. The pissy Schweig einmal still brought out a character Leonard played strikingly well, a venemous, poison-faced malcontent. She was carried over into Du denkst mit einem Fädchen, but with the spite turned into derisive laughter ("I am in love, but not with you"). Wir haben beide lange Zeit geschwiegen was, by contrast, a lush, decadent, hands-clasped prayer for peace. The high point of the first half was a set by Reynaldo Hahn, which seemed to suit Leonard's vocal temperament, especially the languid Symbolist landscape of L'Heure Exquise (the poem, Paul Verlaine's La lune blanche, has been set by a score of composers). The spiteful character from the Wolf peeked out from another Verlaine poem, Fêtes galantes, in a reading that was new to me at least: Leonard rolled her eyes at the line "l'éternel Clitandre," as if to say, "that Clitandre can go on and on, can't he?"

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Isabel Leonard: The Total Package, And She Delivers (Washington Post, March 10)

Pierre Ruhe, In her debut pro recital, Isabel Leonard just right (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 3)

Anne Midgette, The End of the Great Big American Voice (New York Times, November 13, 2005)
Most of the Falla set was overshadowed by my memory of the overpowering and subtle performance from Stephanie Blythe that still rings in my ears. Leonard just does not have (and may never have) that kind of voice, but her Asturiana was a canvas of bright-colored abstraction and she had a certain ballsy swagger to the male-voiced Jota and the full-throated plaint of Polo. It is hard to imagine a woman as beautiful as Leonard being wasted on trouser roles, but she reportedly made quite an impression in her Met debut as Stéphano in Roméo et Juliette. Her talent as an actress makes me very keen to see what she does in her debut as Cherubino at Santa Fe Opera this summer.

A Rachmaninoff set included two of the best songs included on Anna Netrebko's Russian Album. While this style of music's soaring, long-breathed lines flatter Netrebko's voice the best, it only pointed out the chink in Leonard's vocal armor: this is not yet a huge lyric voice, with cracks just beyond the edge of her loudest dynamic. As the gateway to her concluding Broadway set, Leonard gave a delightful rendition of three cabaret songs by Arnold Schoenberg, in which the decadent chromatic harmony is just a few sharps and flats away from the border of atonality. The Broadway songs were a miscalculation for the VAS audience, although they did feature some of the most animated playing from pianist Brian Zeger, who added some much-needed zip. Some opera arias, like Stéphano's Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle, would have been much more welcome.

The Vocal Arts Society's Art Discovery series offers free concerts featuring soprano Brooke Evers and tenor Michael Gallant (March 30 and April 6, 8, and 13). The preview of the 2008-2009 season includes recitals by Sarah Coburn and Lawrence Brownlee, Susanna Phillips, Felicity Lott, Magdalena Kožená, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, and Anne-Sophie von Otter.

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