Review: Kathleen Battle Returns to the Met

Monday, November 14, 2016 - 11:03 AM

Kathleen Battle returns to the Met performing a concert of spirituals, Underground Railroad – A Spiritual Journey, with The Voices of the Underground Railroad. (Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera)

"That's our girl!" said a Kathleen Battle admirer when her grand return to the Metropolitan Opera House on Sunday was 30 minutes late and showed no sign of starting. You wondered if it was happening at all.

Once underway, though, her concert, "Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey" — with guest appearances from Wynton Marsalis and Cicely Tyson — showed no signs of stopping, finally winding down roughly four hours after its appointed curtain time. Easily exceeding the printed program, Battle saved some of her best singing for last. The magic was back and nobody (including her) wanted it to end.

At age 68, her voice isn't nearly as full and round as in 1994, when her temperament was re-defining diva-dom and getting her fired from the Met for "unprofessional actions during rehearsals" (the words of Met management). Her star-making succession of soubrette roles — Susannah in The Marriage of Figaro, Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos — also ended, leaving her with a concert career so sporadic you could easily assume that she had retired. Among the great conductors she has worked with in her program bio, the majority are now dead. But Met chief Peter Gelb has been inviting her back for years. And after presenting her "Underground Railroad" program elsewhere, a New York appearance was overdue.

Her well-focused but always diminutive voice always warranted a careful showcase in a house the size of the Met. But with nothing to get in her way, her voice in its current state was easily heard in the main floor standing-room section during her unaccompanied rendition of "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord." This was easily some of the best singing of her career, as she built the five verses masterfully with a combination of vocal color and ornamentation that was mesmerizing. Elsewhere, she regularly plucked high notes of out the air with spot-on pitch. Her vibrato has not widened with age. Some of her trademark tone returned in full during the second half. Nonetheless, her main means of communication was harnessing the power of the text, which she did with insight and elegance. So whatever the state of her voice at any moment, the expression was there. And though we always sort of knew this, Battle knows how to swing. 

Still, an all-spirituals program can be tough to sustain because this is music of affirmation, consolation and arrival — in contrast to blues and tango that have the tension of betrayal and longing. While this program had favorites such as "Give Me Jesus" and "Go Down Moses," this performance had the variety afforded by the chorus Voices of the Underground Railroad. Marsalis was good for some marvelously funky solos afforded by using a derby hat as a wah-wah mute. Pianists Joel Martin and Cyrus Chestnut gave an anything-can-happen recklessness to their solos. Spoken interludes comprised an Underground Railroad oral history (much of it from Frederick Douglass) read by Jussie Smollett, plus a brief but penetrating reading by 91-year-old Tyson (whose entrance had the biggest ovation of the evening). All of this couldn't help but having an extra charge in the wake of the election: A 50-year-old reference from poet Robert Hayden to "gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians" drew knowing gasps from the full house.

Even with the concert's theme, it never turned into a gospel church service. The girlish quality of Battle's voice isn't the sort to incite that. She also maintained firm control over the proceedings. Occasionally, she conducted the excellent chorus and gave any number of cues to any number of people, but was so happy to shine the spotlight on its individual members that she put an end to the audience clapping along to keep the singers from being drowned out. And if anybody can keep 4,000 people from being moved to participate, it's Battle.

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Comments [5]

AM from NY

A number of comments reflect what I have long suspected about Battle's former operatic career--many simply want to see the worst in her and no matter what, will see exactly that. Their reasons are their own. And unfortunately, many continue to seek to prove that her treatment was justified, even when it was clear that the vast majority of audience-goers had little problem with her performance or quirks. Quite the opposite actually. Had Ms. Battle decided to sing for another hour entirely, we certainly would have sat there and enjoyed every minute.

The program would make a very nice studio recording.

Nov. 16 2016 06:46 PM
Rich from Manhattan

This show was not worthy of a Met production. Never mind the unexplained 40-minute delay, unnecessary diva exits and entrances, long gaps between songs and narration, and her conducting of the musicians and choir over the shoulder of the conductor – all of which sapped the intensity out of a program with a dramatic theme. All this would have been worth enduring had the quality of the singing been exceptional. Instead, one was presented with just the potential of her voice. Yes, the beauty and purity were still there, but diminished and dimunitive. The opening number was a whisper. It took an hour, at the start of the second half, for her voice to be warm enough to blossom -- to the accompaniment of a harp that was wheeled out after the 2-minute song, in yet another distracting onstage activity. However, whatever vocal beauty that she could still summon up was emotionally empty. How could spirituals yearning for Jesus, life and liberty end up sounding just pretty and precious? I was wishing for a less gifted singer who could deliver power and meaning. Some of the choir soloists sounded more interesting. All these shortcomings didn’t matter to many in the audience who lapped up every high note and attempt at virtuosity, in a manner appropriate for Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater.

Nov. 15 2016 08:20 PM
Ariana Miller from New York

This was a phenomenal concert all around. Having been introduced to Battle only after her operatic career had ended, I never thought I'd have the opportunity to hear her live. Given her age I tried to manage my expectations, but I didn't need to. She exceeded them and the concert on the whole was more than I had hoped for. There was such refinement in the musicality, and the collaboration between Battle, the instrumentalists, the choir and soloists, and the narrators seemed so warm. I am pretty sure they didn't have Wynton Marsalis or Cicely Tyson on the program when the tickets first went on sale, so that was a special surprise treat on top of it all. And the choir soloists were awesome, and Battle graciously encouraged everyone's time in the spotlight. The selections were thoughtful. And even though some texts were somber, the tone of the concert was a joyful one, sometimes even jubilant.

I am very happy to have been there.

Nov. 14 2016 05:38 PM
David from Flushing

I considered myself privileged to have attend the Carnegie Hall celebration of Handel's 300th birthday performance of Seleme with an all star cast including Battle in the title role. Even after all these years, I have not attended anything of its equal. Though the recording quality, microphone placement, and audience noises detract, this live radio recording is a gem.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIzmBDzon_E

Nov. 14 2016 03:58 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

This concert,long awaited,and enjoyed by her forgiving fans,is an accurate microcosm of her career.The late start (40 minutes by one account) can almost certainly be attributed to one of her disgraceful episodes of unprofessional,antisocial,and often hateful behavior.The well-chosen material allowed her to make the most of her diminished resources,and those in attendance that could listen and overlook her abhorrent behavior enjoyed themselves immensely.There were also stories about issues with the non-union chorus being employed.Hopefully,there will be follow up articles about this,and exactly what was the cause of the delay.

Nov. 14 2016 02:12 PM

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