From Spirtuals to Mozart, a Bass Displays His All-Around Game

12.04.08
Morris Robinson
The New York Times

Before Morris Robinson began studying voice and working his way toward the opera stage, he was a college football star - an all-American offensive lineman at the Citadel, in Charleston, S.C. - and seemed to have a future in that line of work. He has the build for it: 6 foot 2, broad boned and weighing more than 300 pounds, he's not someone you would want to crash into you accidentally during a frenetic Zeffirelli party scene.

But Mr. Robinson's hefty build also contributes to his big, sonorous bass voice, with a strong, slightly steely top and a sepulchral bottom. Once he decided to hang up his helmet and shoulder pads, he made headway in the opera world quickly. He didn't see his first opera until 1999 - and he was in it, a Boston University production of "Aida." But only three years later he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in "Fidelio."

Mr. Robinson offered an overview of his strengths in a varied, if oddly organized, recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Tuesday evening. On the first half of the program he offered a sequence of arias and art songs, performed as individual pieces rather than in groups, and left the stage after most, however brief.

You couldn't help wishing he had programmed more expansively: hearing only two of Wolf's three "Gedichte von Michelangelo" was a bit like watching a potential touchdown run come to grief at the 10-yard line. And the richness of his account of the "Trepak" from Mussorgsky's "Songs and Dances of Death" made his decision not to sing the full set seem downright ungenerous.

That said, Mr. Robinson gave a haunting reading of Schubert's "Doppelgänger" and vividly characterized performances of "O, wie will ich triumphieren," from Mozart's "Entführung aus dem Serail" and "Il lacerato spirito" from Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra." He is clearly at home in German, and his Italian was impeccable, down to the crisply rolled R's in the Verdi and in a Mozart concert aria, "Mentre ti lascio, o figlia" (K. 513).

After the intermission Mr. Robinson sang American works, beginning with a shapely, warm-hued performance of Bernstein's "Greeting" and including folksy pieces by John Jacob Niles and a pair of powerful Langston Hughes settings by Margaret Bonds. He closed the program with a spirituals group, which included two songs by Wendell P. Whalum and a robust version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and added a single encore, Jerome Kern's "Ol' Man River."

Ken Noda was Mr. Robinson's supportive, unassertive pianist.