Veteran disappoints, but newcomer dazzles

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
March 29, 2004 Monday Home Edition

Veteran disappoints, but newcomer dazzles


A couple of decades ago, song recitals were declared dead and all but
buried. Fewer composers were writing for the exposed duo of solo
voice and piano; impresarios found vocalists a tough sell; young
singers didn’t see the benefits of all that discipline.

Well, the rumors were greatly exaggerated. This season in Atlanta has
heard terrific art-of-song performances. Over the weekend, a veteran
and a rookie came to town and, not surprisingly, arrived with
different agendas.

Mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer has been a strong presence at the
Metropolitan Opera for some 15 years. At Emory University, she and
Craig Rutenberg, a lyrical pianist, opened with a pair of “what if?”
composers — music by the wives of great men, women who didn’t
pursue composition as a career, Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler.

Where three Schumann songs from her Op. 12 sounded here like tepid,
nicely wrought parlor songs, Mahler’s set heaved with allure and
personality. In the latter’s “Balmy Summer Night,” Mentzer conveyed a
winking, almost swishy attitude.

Works by Gustav Mahler (earthy) and Eric Satie (cabaret cute) led to
Libby Larsen’s “Love after 1950,” five songs written for Mentzer and
premiered in 2000. Each song gets a treatment: One is blues, another
honky-tonk, a third tango, and so on. Fun to hear and mostly
well-written for the human voice, these songs suffer from Larsen’s
self-conscious, post-modern approach, where the music is remote from
the texts instead of interlocked. And throughout the evening, the
mezzo’s brushed velvety voice sounded a bit weary. It made for a
low-energy recital.

On Saturday, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, making her Atlanta recital
debut, sang with the giddy excitement of a newcomer, without a
horizon in sight. I first heard her in 1997, in a tiny role at the
Glimmerglass Opera, and wrote she was “exquisite in her pure tones,
generating a frisson of interest in her vocal possibilities.” Even
then, it was obvious here was someone special. Now just 29, she’s
starting to win acclaim in the opera house and through CDs.

Yet the first half of her Spivey recital — Grenados, Rossini and
Vivaldi — seemed more about wowing us with her technique than about
singing to her strengths.

Still a growing artist, Bayrakdarian’s vocal timbre is somewhere
between Kathleen Battle’s and Sumi Jo’s, equal parts soul and
diamond-sparkle coloratura. She summoned despair for Vivaldi’s “The
Scorned Wife,” although she left a few tones (like the word “fida”)
curiously uncolored, like it sat between two regions of her voice and
she couldn’t quite reach it. And was it fatigue that caused some
misfiring vocal pyrotechnics in “Buffeted by Two Winds”? Her pianist,
Serouj Kradjian, proved an inadequate accompanist, flashy and
oblivious to the subtleties of the texts.

In any case, after intermission the Canadian-Armenian soprano finally
let us savor more than just her splendid technical gifts: She became
an interpreter and an actress, telling moving stories with her voice
— the crux of a song recital. She was at turns naive and manic in
Tchaikovsky’s “The Cuckoo” — both funny and scary — pronouncing
the bird’s song like an antique clock gone haywire. She sounded like
a non-smoking Edith Piaf for a set of cynical Kurt Weill love songs,
squatting over the low notes with a seductively nasal drawl. Is the
term “vocal charisma” adequate to describe a singer who makes time
stop, who conjures magic? Whatever that intoxicating property is,
Bayrakdarian has it in abundance — the future of the art form.

GRAPHIC: Photo: In her Atlanta recital debut, Canadian-Armenian
soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian sang with the excitement of a newcomer.
When at her best on Saturday, she was magical.; Photo: Susan Mentzer,
a regular at the Metropolitan Opera, sounded a bit weary in her
Friday recital.; Graphic: CLASSICAL REVIEW
Mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, Friday at Emory University’s Emerson
Concert Hall; and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, Saturday at Spivey