There has, as many readers will know, been much discussion of the question of the viability of the solo concert recital. Audiences are getting smaller and older with, as some see it, an ever-shrinking degree of public interest in standard presentation of the masterworks.
Marie-Josée Lord, a Canadian soprano born in Haiti, presented her own answer to this ongoing question in her concert at Thalian Hall. Her performance mixed popular songs with musical theatre and arias. The singing was interspersed with engaging commentary, sometimes explanatory or biographical or openly funny. With her demonstrative presentational style and periodic change of lighting, she acted like an MC for herself. Ms. Lord has thereby devised a way to make opera, and dramatic singing in general (the program included no lieder or chansons), accessible to listeners who might otherwise not be amenable to such music. “Opera is for regular people,” she asserted, to audible audience approval.
Her program was titled "Jambalaya." She explained that this is the name of a West Indian dish put together with a large variety of ingredients; it was the metaphor for the spirit and content of the music she sang. She described herself as a “lyric” singer rather than an operatic one. In reality she is a dramatic soprano with a powerful operatic voice, a strong high C, and a presentation that is consistently theatrical. Her impressive performances, especially in the second half, made clear that beyond her audience-building approach, she is an artist of power and conviction.
Her rich tone presented itself in her first number, a song called “Les gens de mon pays” (The People of my Country) by Gilles Vigneault. Her theatrical character came more to the fore in the second song, “Papa Can You Hear Me” from Yentl. This was sung in the emotive fashion which turned out to be her dominant style as a singer. The habañera "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" (Love is a rebellious bird) from Carmen gave her a chance to flaunt a more seductive mood; “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana,” from La Wally by Alfredo Catalani showed long, sumptuous phrasing.
The weightier second half brought out the logic of her presentation. She began with two songs from Bernstein’s West Side Story, both lusciously sung, though with a voice far too resonant and powerful for the normal vocal character of musical theatre. This was followed by “Summertime” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, rendered, after a beautiful, gentle beginning, in an almost mannered gospel style. The core of the half, indeed of her concert, was in the last three songs – two major opera arias and, to end, a musical theatre piece of considerable emotional substance. These were the culmination of the program, and of her presentation of dramatic singing.
First among these three was a captivating performance of the “Song to the Moon,” from Dvořák’s Rusalka. This was followed by a gripping account, vocally and dramatically, of “Sempre libera” from La Traviata. The concluding song was “Stone” from the musical Starmania. This began as a lyrical, yearning number, then became highly impassioned and finally ended quietly and wistfully. The Verdi aria would have been a more brilliant final piece, but clearly Ms. Lord had a different concept in mind for ending her rather unusual program.
It may remain to be seen how effective her approach will be in introducing audiences to dramatic singing. The enthusiastic Wilmington audience had few of the younger people who presumably would be an important target of such a program concept. On the other side, the more seasoned listener, while impressed with her artistry, is left somewhat unsatisfied with the musical content she chose to present. At the least, more detailed explanation about the songs, or texts in the program, would be a help. Vocally, her rather wide vibrato sometimes seemed less than ideal. And her use of a microphone – due to the acoustics of the house and the low range of some of the popular songs – seemed less than fully fitting for a performer of her caliber. One would look forward to a program of arias and suitably chosen lieder from this singer of such strong artistic presence.
Ms. Lord was accompanied by two performers of the highest ability: Antoine Bareil, violin, and Hughues Cloutier, piano. Together they captured the widest range of sound, from powerful to delicately nuanced, with tight rhythm and flawless balance.