The anxieties of these dreadful weeks receded for a while Sunday afternoon as soprano Angel Blue filled UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall with passionate song. In her debut recital for Cal Performances, the California-born singer shared her love of music and her generous heart with a very appreciative audience.
Late Romantic art song was at the core of the program, in ample sets by Gabriel Fauré and Richard Strauss. These short songs are highly dramatic, and Blue visibly and vocally inhabited their rich and varied textures.
Blue made her Metropolitan Opera debut five years ago as Mimi in Puccini’s La bohème, eliciting praise for her ability to capture both the sparkle and the sadness of the role (you can catch her charming rendition of “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” on YouTube). A similar range of emotions was evident in the Fauré songs in this recital, from the hazy moonbeams of “Clair de lune” to the tragedy of rejected love in “Fleur jetée” (Discarded flower).
Canadian pianist Bryan Wagorn was a perfect partner for Blue in these operatic miniatures. His experience of musical drama at the Metropolitan Opera (he is assistant conductor there) showed in his spirited accompaniment as well as in his two solos, Debussy’s “Clair de lune” and Chopin’s “Raindrop” prelude. Both are very familiar — almost, one might say, chestnuts — but there was nothing mundane about Wagorn’s theatrical performances.
Four Strauss songs, along with Robert Schumann’s dark “Stille Tränen” (“Silent tears”), gave ample play to Blue’s ability to spin a continuous — and continuously varying — thread of sound. Big moments are called for in these songs — especially in Strauss’s wonderful “Cäcilie,” which closed the first half. She delivered the grand vocal gestures strongly and securely.
At the same time, Blue was sensitive to Strauss’s expressive color notes and moments of introspection. In “Befreit” (Released), his heart-rending song of domestic tragedy, Blue herself was visibly moved to tears, a response that I’m sure was shared by many in the audience. Throughout the recital, Blue warmly shared her thoughts and feelings — something I wish more artists would do.
In a change of pace, the second half opened with Kurt Weill’s sardonic “Youkali,” a dramatic monologue about disillusionment that Blue delivered with breathy tone and cabaret rakishness, hands in pockets like Mack the Knife — even in her silver gossamer gown.
Blue also performed three art songs by the mid-century composer Lee Hoiby — a protégé of Gian Carlo Menotti — of which the most engaging was his fine setting of Emily Dickinson’s “There Came a Wind like a Bugle,” with its powerful depiction of a storm.
Four spirituals ended the program with verve and heart — from the excited patter of “You Can Tell the World” to the jazzy vitality of “Ride On, King Jesus.” For me, the emotional center was “Deep River,” sung with affecting sincerity.
Blue captured the hall not only with stellar technique but also with generosity of spirit. That came out particularly in the first encore, when Blue started the aria — Giacomo Puccini’s well-known “O mio babbino caro” (Oh my dear papa) — and then stopped suddenly, inviting a young woman in the audience to sing with her, whom she had recently been coaching by Zoom — and had apparently never met in person. I learned later that she was Mikayla Sager, a current Adler Fellow and a soprano who is going places, judging from her splendid impromptu performance with Blue.
A second encore brought the program to a close with a deliciously comic rendition of a patter song from the 19th-century Spanish composer Ruperto Chapí.