It is hard to believe that mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, one of the brightest talents on the American opera scene to emerge in the new millennium, will turn 40 next February. Is it really almost 15 years since her career took off in 2007, at age 25 when, she made her debut at The Met (New York’s Metropolitan Opera) as Stéphano in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette?
Just one year later, in 2008, Leonard debuted in Santa Fe as Cherubino in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Trivia buffs will note that her path virtually duplicates that of Frederica von Stade in 1970-71. Like von Stade, Leonard possesses superb, evenly produced sound with free top notes, an engaging personality, physical beauty, charm, and an ability to move beyond opera and art song to sing Broadway, jazz, and more.
Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete” is a perfect place to start to appreciate Leonard’s gifts. In this modified, modern-dress production, she sings the aria pretty straight until the reprise. There, as tempo slows, she softens her voice to show the young Cherubino’s more vulnerable side, turning toward the Countess as the page forgets his nervousness. It’s a lovely performance, and more or less consistent with an earlier and faster paced performance from Glyndebourne in 2012, where conductor Robin Ticciati’s inflexible tempo prevents Leonard from fully expressing tenderness toward Rosina. (Ironically, in that performance, it’s the silent Countess, played by Sally Matthews, who seems most carried away by emotion.)
One mark of a superb artist is the ability to change the voice to fit the situation. In Live with Carnegie Hall: Isabel Leonard, note that the extra body Leonard adds to her undertones in excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro is intentionally absent in her lovely rendition of the lullaby “Nana” from Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas. Joining guitarist Sharon Isbin for “Jota,” vocal depth is added discretely, as appropriate for the song. Finally, for the “hot with anger” knockout of the group, “Polo,” Leonard lays it on thick, adding as much weight and force to her low range as she can muster.
Listening to these songs, it’s impossible not to think of two artists with whom they are indelibly associated, soprano Maria Barrientos (who recorded them at age 45, four years after she ended her career at The Met, with Manuel de Falla at the piano) and the incomparable mezzo coloratura Conchita Supervia (age 35). Leonard’s renditions seem like a bridge between the two, uniting the sensitivity and grace of Barrientos with the fire of Supervia. You can also hear Leonard’s performance of two of these songs, with Sharon Isbin on guitar, on the 2017 album, Alma Española (Bridge Records).
Leonard’s other sides, as it were, hold sway in jazz excerpts with Wycliffe Gordon and Michael Feinstein (where, curiously, she seems to have an easier time playing around than does the frozen smile jazz vet), and in “Tu n’es pas beau, tu n’es pas riche” (You are not handsome, you are not rich), the oft-performed aria from Offenbach’s operetta, La Périchole.
Leonard constantly experiments. Here’s a 2016 duet performance of Norah Jones’s “Don’t Know Why” with Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek, who spent a while in San Francisco. Vocal afficionados will revel in how masterfully Leonard pares down her top notes to a silver sliver, to winning effect.
Also, don’t miss Leonard’s single contribution to An AIDS Quilt Songbook – Sing for Hope (GPR Songbook), where gorgeous vocalism elevates a passionate and sincere performance of Paola Prestini’s “Union,” accompanied by Thomas Bagwell.
Sticking with songs in English, catch Leonard on Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony’s superb recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles, (SFS Media, 2016) where she’s joined by Ryan McKinny. Given that MTT and Lenny premiered the work in a version for piano four-hand duo with four voices, this recently recorded version, orchestrated by Bruce Coughlin, bears the stamp of authenticity. Copies may be hard to come by, but you can stream it in high resolution on Tidal or find the entire recording in lower quality sound on YouTube.
The Leonard-MTT connection continues in a live hi-resolution recording (SFS Media, 2018) of two of his own works, From the Diary of Anne Frank & Meditations on Rilke. In the former, Leonard does a pretty convincing albeit sometimes overly self-conscious job speaking a role created for Audrey Hepburn.
Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere recording of Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer’s Cold Mountain, features Leonard as Ada, singing movingly. You can buy the recording as a high-resolution SACD from arkivmusic or stream it in high-resolution on Qobuz.
I’m quite partial to Preludios (Delos, 2015) Leonard’s gorgeous recital with pianist Brian Zeger. The very first song, Mompou’s “Damunt de tu, només les flors” (Over your body, only the blossoms), will stun you with its beauty. The recording includes all of Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas, inviting comparison to Leonard’s versions with guitarist Isbin.
Hungry for more? Leonard has a complete list of her CDs and videos on her website. Her music page offers fine sounding audio clips from a live Atlanta recital at the start of her career, and rare excerpts of her forays into florid soprano Mozart territory. There are also plenty of video links to YouTube.