Friday, October 01, 2010

Warm homecoming for diva Battle

by Janelle Gelfand, Cincinnati Enquirer
September 30, 2010

Soprano Kathleen Battle has never had a large voice. Yet even in her softest moments in songs by Richard Strauss with Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, she projected the artistry, expressiveness and occasionally that magical silvery sound that made her a star.

It was a warm homecoming for the opera diva, now 62, who earned two degrees at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and first sang on Music Hall’s stage in 1973. (On Friday, she plans to sing the national anthem at Great American Ball Park.) Looking regal in a billowy hot pink wrap over a black gown, she smiled often, and, after multiple ovations, knelt at the center of the stage, appearing touched at the response.

The occasion also launched Järvi’s 10th and final season as music director. His all-Strauss program, opening with “Also sprach Zarathustra” and concluding with “Der Rosenkavalier” Suite, dazzled for the spontaneity of his interpretations as well as for the sheer sonic glory of the orchestra in Music Hall.

Battle was renowned for her Mozart as well as her bel canto roles at the Metropolitan Opera (where she was dismissed in the mid-1990s for diva behavior). Even though age has diminished some of the tonal beauty and heft of her voice, the Grammy-winning soprano has retained her purity of tone, agility and stunning high notes.

She opened with the coloratura showpiece, “Una voce poco fa,” from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” A bit careful at first, the soprano nevertheless infused her performance with dramatic character, and her vocal flourishes into the stratosphere were truly impressive. (Too bad one cadenza was marred by a ringing cell phone.)

Strauss’ Songs are better known with piano accompaniment, but the orchestral settings are charming. Vocally, the impression of the four songs was mixed, and they stayed much on the same emotional plane. “Ich wollt’ ein Strausslein binden” (I would have made a bouquet) was richly expressive and Battle spun long, nuanced phrases. She communicated “Muttertandelei” (Mother-Chatter) with girlish charm, and “An die Nacht” (To the Night) was deeply felt. A lullaby, “Wiegenlied,” though, had some intonation problems.

Järvi kept a delicate touch in the orchestra, and was with every turn of her phrase. Battle’s encore was an exquisitely sung “Morgen!” from Strauss’ Four Lieder, Op. 27, with radiant contributions from concertmaster Timothy Lees.

Järvi launched the evening with one of the great openings in all of music in Strauss’ tone poem, “Also sprach Zarathustra..” Inspired by Nietzsche’s search for “Superman,” it is famous for its “Sunrise,” but it travels through a universe of moods, ranging from intimate to earth-shattering.

His was a masterful, spacious reading, starting with the brass-filled crescendo that rose majestically from the depths to the explosive timpani crashes. The tremendous buildups made their impact, thanks to superb playing by the brass. But there was warmth, as well. The depiction of the “backwoodsmen” was memorable for its spiritual beauty, and expressively played by the strings. The “Dance of Song” was a sweeping, irresistible Viennese waltz.

Järvi’s direction was seamless and richly detailed throughout this episodic piece, while he allowed orchestral soloists freedom of expression. The musicians responded with precise, inspired playing.

The waltzes of “Der Rosenkavalier,” too, were lush and engagingly spontaneous. Järvi took care with each theme of the opera, capturing its nostalgia, wit and elegance. The horns and oboist Dwight Parry deserve special note. It’s a performance not to miss.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday in Music Hall. Tickets: 513-381-3300,

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