What appeared to be a typo on the front of Saturday evening’s Spivey Hall recital booklet — Isabel Leonard’s named floated free of category yet Brian Zeger was identified as the pianist — turned out to be a statement about artistic options.
A native New Yorker, Isabel Leonard made her professional opera debut last season in Atlanta Opera’s “Romeo et Juliette” as the page boy Stephano. That she out-shined an impressive cast in the cavernous Civic Center implies that her star appeal will out in any venue.
She came to Spivey for her professional recital debut, the launch of an art-song tour that will culminate at Carnegie Hall. The Metropolitan Opera has already booked her in increasingly prominent roles into the future. Her career train, as they say, is pulling out of the station.
But what’s her voice type, what the Germans call a “fach”? Nowadays, we find comfort in tidy, fixed categories — the light-voiced Mozart tenor, for example, is distinct from the heavy-voiced Wagner heldentenor and apart from the spinto Verdi tenor. Different roles, different mindsets, different career paths.
In her Spivey program, Leonard kept us guessing. Is she a lyric mezzo with sparkling top notes? A soprano with mezzo tendencies? At 25, perhaps her voice hasn’t settled yet. Perhaps, like a Cecilia Bartoli or a Susan Graham, she’ll always sing on the cusp between the two — what was historically called a “second soprano,” best suited to the in-between range of notes and where typical soprano-y brightness flows down to a mezzo-y purr.
With pianist Zeger, one of her mentors at New York’s Juilliard School, Leonard sang a thoroughly perfect debutante’s program — in five languages and a range of musical styles and emotions.
Perfect she was. Like many young American singers, she’s fabulously well trained. Her diction is clear, whether it’s a Romance language, German or Russian. She sings the texts first and shapes the phrases around them, where communication is at least as essential as beauty of tone.
But for Leonard that’s just a starting point. In selections from Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Songbook,” sung in German but based on Italian poems, she could open a hydrant of vocal power then scale it down a line later to an almost confessional intimacy. In “Ihr jungen Leute” (“You young men”), where a lass frets when her beloved marches off to war, she offered a flash of strong personality for the concluding line, a foreboding of his death. Leonard is a strikingly pretty woman with a radiant voice and an elegant bearing, but in that instant she became the helpless peasant, inhabiting a role, drawing us into her moment of despair.
Yet unlike many educated young Americans, Leonard doesn’t put the answers ahead of the questions. Interpretively honest, she could sound naive in Wolf songs where another soprano might feign world-weariness.
She was perhaps most appealing in songs by Reynaldo Hahn, with an idiomatic sense of the French language, cool temperatures and glowing, pure tones. She excelled, too, in Falla’s “Seven Popular Spanish Songs.” Each one was delivered as a piece of theater and the building was on fire. Yet nothing felt forced, nothing was inadequately considered.
Flirty and cynical cabaret songs by Arnold Schoenberg formed a bridge from the “classical” numbers to the American songbook of Gershwin, Porter and Kern. No surprise: these were just right, not as opera or a modern pop but in an antique, 1940s flashback style. In Meredith Willson’s “Till There Was You” she shelved a controlled art-song vibrato for a slight tremor in the voice — like everything on her recital, it was very savvily sung, very fetching.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 2008