David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine.
Review: Kathleen Battle Returns to the Met
Monday, November 14, 2016 - 11:03 AM
"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.