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Stephanie Blythe review: poetry and pizzazz

10.15.11
Stephanie Blythe
San Franciscoo Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

We already knew that mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe could put an indelible mark on both operatic roles and the art-song repertoire. Did you know that she's also a wonderfully funny and touching music-hall entertainer?

For the second half of her magnificent Herbst Theatre recital, presented Thursday night by San Francisco Performances, Blythe brought out a trunkful of Tin Pan Alley numbers - tearjerkers, romances and novelty songs by the likes of Victor Herbert and Irving Berlin. And she delivered them with a degree of ease and theatrical authority that most divas could only envy.

But that was only the crowning glory of the evening, which featured characteristically brilliant work from pianist Warren Jones. Most of the first half of the program was devoted to "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson" - no, not the familiar Copland cycle, but a sensitive and alluring collection written for Blythe in 2000 by the late composer James Legg.

Taken together, Blythe's program came as a reminder of how much wider a range is possible in a vocal recital than what we usually encounter.

Of course, it helps to have vocal gifts as imposing as Blythe's - her extraordinary breath control, her range of warm and lustrous tone colors, and the remarkable clarity of diction that allows her to ask presenters not to distribute song texts until after the recital.

Plus, she's a naturally personable and communicative presence, with a salty streak that does nothing to lessen her air of regal command. Lamenting the temperature in the stuffy hall at one point, she confided to the audience, "I'm sweating my bazooms off" - then, in response to the general surprise, helpfully explained, "That's what you call a mezzo-soprano's breasts."

That sauciness, combined with vocal fluency, helped Blythe sail through such zippy American numbers as "Coax Me" by Andrew Sterling and Harry von Tilzer, or Berlin's "If You Don't Want My Peaches," as well as the fascinating erotic insinuations of Berlin's "You'd Be Surprised." But sentiment came through just as tellingly, especially in the heartbreaking "What'll I Do?"

Legg, a promising composer who died in a freak accident in 2000 at age 38, left a luminous and winningly responsive score in his Dickinson cycle. The harmonic language is straightforward - conventional tonal structures adorned with vivid extra notes - and the melodies boast a Puccinian grace.

What's most effective, though, especially as one song follows another, is the skill with which Legg varies the potential sameness of Dickinson's rhythms and phrase structures. He gives the essential four-line stanza its due as a structural device - the chorale-like setting of "It dropped so low in my Regard" is a particularly effective example - without letting it overwhelm the musical phrasing.

The songs are cannily arranged as a cycle, from the plainspoken emotions of the opening "There's Been a Death in the Opposite House" to the philosophical incisiveness of the concluding " 'Tis Not That Dying Hurts Us So." Blythe and Jones gave a majestic performance, marked by broad, sweeping phrases and bursts of anarchic wit.

Barber's Three Songs, Op. 10, settings of Joyce's "Chamber Music," filled out the program nicely, and Jones offered a trio of Scott Joplin rags, played far too fast and frantically to have their intended effect. The encores were the hymn "How Can I Keep From Singing," superbly sung without accompaniment, and Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer."