Norman lives up to her billing at Meyerhoff

January 28, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

What can be said about last night's recital by Jessye Norman in Meyerhoff Hall -- except to say that it demonstrated why she is one of the greatest and most beloved singers of our time?

Norman -- who appeared in honor of the 125th anniversary of Morgan State University -- sang a Schumann group, Ravel's "Five Popular Greek Songs," Falla's "Seven Popular Spanish Songs" and a fascinating cycle, "The Confession Stone," by Robert Fleming. No great operatic diva -- at least not since Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was in her prime -- sings art songs with comparable authority, conviction and artistry.

The cycle by Fleming showed how Norman was able to create an interior monologue out of the simplest materials: eight songs in which Mary anticipates, confronts and comes to terms with the death of her child, Jesus. Norman does a lot of things superbly, and one of them is to project the maternal spirit. (Her Sieglinde in the last few seasons demonstrates that no one since the immortal Lotte Lehmann has so combined the passionate ardor and maternal elements of this character.) In the song "Bring me those needles, Martha," the way in which Norman was able to convey the nervous hysteria of a mother as she is about to sew her son's shroud was heartbreaking.

The Schumann group was better because it was even better music. No singer I know of can so convey the tides of passion that carry a song like "Widmung"; can so weave intimacy of detail in "Meine Rose"; can sing with such sustained pianissimo levels in "Der schwere Abend" and then let out a torrent of sound on the final "Im Herzen uns den Tod"; and can so carry "Fruehlingsnacht" along with such coiled-spring intensity and joyousness.

The Schumann cycle demonstrated several other aspects of Norman's artistry. This is a woman with a voice so powerful she convinces one that she could cause a citywide blackout if she so chose -- yet she never abuses that power. Hers is not a conventionally beautiful voice with the kind of seamlessness that someone like Marilyn Horne demonstrated at her peak. But she is a singer who uses the natural breaks between registers to create exquisite emotional effects.

The latter came through with perhaps even more overwhelming effect -- she is the kind of singer that makes one strain one's superlatives -- in the Falla cycle. The last of these songs, "Polo," is about the heartbreak caused by love, and here Norman used the breaks in her voice to evoke exactly such heartbreak. She left conventional singing (and language) behind to create what sounded like pure cries -- torrents of sound emerging with all manner of colors -- that were nothing less than frightening. At moments like this, this singer moves a song out of the theater into life -- your life. That's why she's Jessye Norman.

The encores were a beautifully delivered Aaron Copland setting of Emily Dickinson; a version of "Ride on, King Jesus!" so extraordinary that it provoked spontaneous testifying from the audience; and the "Habanera" from Bizet's "Carmen," in a sinuous performance that was almost indecently (and marvelously) sultry.

Norman's accompanist was the superb Phillip Moll, who provided sympathetic, imaginative support throughout.

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