I was worried about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum recital on Sunday afternoon which Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and pianist Vlad Iftinca had constructed from 22 works of 17 composers (and some folksongs) and 25 poets—the first half in Spanish and the second half in English, covering the years 1914 to 2013. My preference in a vocal concert is for a complete cycle of songs by one poet and one composer. Too often recitals seem designed to show off singers’ command of languages and styles with repertoire that fails to cohere. Brahms abhorred the propensity to choose songs from various opi, recommending instead that the recitalist should offer a Lieder-Strauß (bouquet of songs) from a single poet and composer.
Yet as this recital unfolded, it seemed to be a tastefully assorted bouquet indeed. While there were moments of operatic drama, cabaret lightness, and virtual castenet-inflected Spanish dance, the prevailing mood was one of wistful regret and consolation—Spanish and American Sehnsucht if you will.
Leonard appeared in a sleek, long black dress that showed a lot of her decorated back. With lustrous black hair in a bun, she appeared to have danced out of John Singer Sargent’s “El Jaleo.” Leonard is a great singing actor too. She inhabited her roles like Callas and showed Merman’s desire to embrace every member of the audience—even those in the nether reaches. Her gestural vocabulary was large. She stretched out her arms imploringly, she swung her hips, she wrung her hands, she caressed the piano, she slapped her thighs—and she inhabited the Gardner stage with great confidence. Her creamy, mezzo soprano instrument was seamless without a detectable passagio, and she could sing at any dynamic throughout her wide range.
As a busy répétiteur at the Metropolitan Opera, pianist Vlad Iftinca must have lots of experience with props, but on Sunday, he became one. In one very cabaret-esque moment Leonard sat with him on his small artist’s bench and sang to him and flirted with him, and she even stood to rub his shoulders—all while he continued to play with refinement and bemused expression.
The Gardner stage was set with the piano lid on micro-stick and a chair at the tail. Leonard greeted the audience and at once began rotating so as to offer her frontside in turn to everyone in the surrounding audience. She even made her hands into spyglasses to get a “closeup” view of the balcony gods. These behaviors could have seemed corny with a lesser artist, but with Leonard they made for effective communication in a less-than-ideal space.
The printed program [here] left this non-specialist plenty to ponder: there were no translations of the Spanish titles, no dates of compositions and no credits for the poets. Furthermore, it left the audience unsure whether to applaud after each song or after each set. They chose the former and somewhat shattered the moods. Manuel de Falla’s “El Pan de Ronda” from Canción Andaluza: opened the first set. The artists both delivered and put all doubts to rest.
Some moments stood out for their depth of expression. For Falla’s “Oración de las madres que tienen a sus hijos en brazos,” Leonard sat in the chair at the tail of the piano, which, un-occupied until that moment, had taken on Clint Eastwood qualities. The song began, “Sweet Jesus, lying asleep / by the holy breast” and ended with the singer begging that her son not be taken as a soldier. Leonard embodied the Pietà in visage, and if we could have heard Mary sing, she might have expressed the pathos Leonard evoked.
The entire set of Cinco canciones negras (1945) (Five Negro Songs) of Xavier Montsalvatge was a revelation. Set in a mythical Cuba at a time just post-slavery, it was a real jambalaya of sailors, mulatto girls in crinoline dresses, tropical fragrances, and passion. Most unforgettable was the lullaby, “Canción de Cuna Para Dormir a un Negrito” (Lullaby to Put a Little Negro to Sleep) with the words:
Close your eyes, frightened negro baby:
You are not a slave anymore!
And if you sleep a lot, the master of the house
Promises to buy you a suit with buttons
So you can be a “groom.”
Sleep little black one,
Coconut head, my little coffee bean.
The second half comprised 12 songs by 12 American composers, from Broadway through salon in style. Leonard delivered some with quiet intimacy and others in her full-out operatic mode. Ernest Charles’s “When I have sung my songs” from 1934 could have ended any reflective concert or served as a final encore. “Where, oh where,” from Cole Porter’s 1950 Out of This World, took on comic dimensions as Leonard scanned the Gardner’s upper reaches for the missing person.
The well deserved encore was “Nana” from de Falla’s Suite Popular Española. Anyone leaving this performance untouched was untouchable.