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The Promise of Youth

May 20, 2008

On paper, American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard reads like a filly breaking free from the pack. At 25, she has already debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in Roméo et Juliette, singing Stéphano alongside Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna. Other star turns include her recent Zerlina with Chicago Opera Theater, a forthcoming Cherubino in Santa Fe, and a gig at the Cincinnati May Festival. Orchestral appearances past and future include the Saint Louis Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Boston Symphony. The recipient of six prestigious awards since 2005, Leonard seems to have already crossed the finish line.
Visually, she could be mistaken for Audrey Hepburn playing Liza Doolittle entering the ball. Slim, elegant, and perfectly poised, she’s a stunning woman who carries her iridescent indigo gown and sparkling earrings with a grace that would make many an upper-class debutante rend her garments. The looks alone make you want to applaud.

So does the voice. Shimmering and light, with substantial carrying power, her high mezzo is capable of shining freedom on top. About 99 percent of the time, especially when tempered into softly floated phrases, it is drop-dead gorgeous. Heard in the thankfully much improved (but still a ways to go) live acoustic of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Concert Hall, and presented by San Francisco Performances, the voice is ravishing.

Judging from her encores, Leonard seems quite adept in coloratura, and capable of a perfect trill. Her instrument is also clearly secure enough at the high end to enable her to soon assay the soprano solo in Mozart’s C-Minor Mass, which demands a glorious, out-of-the-blue high C that must sound as though beamed down from the heavens above.
Perfect Program
If ever there were a recital program designed to establish a presence, it was Leonard’s. Music in five languages (Spanish, German, French, Russian, and English from our two most recent centuries, plus a Mozart encore that reached back to the 18th) could have served as a model for aspiring vocalists.

Not that many of the Conservatory’s voice students bothered to notice. Although their absence may have been due to the demands of final recitals, it left me wondering what they’re studying. (Susan Graham uttered the same complaint a few years back, after her recital at the University of Indiana at Bloomington drew nary a student to a similarly half-full hall.)

As a song interpreter, Leonard is filled with promise. She is certainly no Cecilia Bartoli, who in her first Cal Performances recital at the age of 23 or 24 left a thrilled audience astounded at her interpretive maturity and shouting for more. Nor is she Kate Royal, whose emotional and vocal depth belies her youth.

Sometimes glorious, sometimes illuminating, and sometimes pedestrian, Leonard instead brought to mind the young Elly Ameling, whose voice was so radiant and appealing at first blush that it took until her 30s for her to move beyond surface glow and become one of the more sensitive and probing recitalists of her era. For now, Leonard impresses as an immensely gifted singer with enormous potential.
Lightness and Suffering
The recital began disappointingly. In the first of three songs by Havana-born Joaquin Nin, Leonard’s beautiful voice failed to differentiate the three verses of A la jota, which crashed from strophic sameness. Perhaps a more assertive and colorful accompanist than Vlad Iftinca could have encouraged Leonard to probe deeper. But in Alma sintamos (Soul, let us suffer!), she displayed a fair share of the heartfelt passion, color, and depth that are central to a recitalist’s mastery.

Leonard’s tears in her voice were equally convincing in Mein Liebster singt am Haus (My dearest’s below singing), the first of six songs from Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch. Although the requisite frustration of Schweig’ einmal still (O you beastly ranter) seemed feigned, some phrases were distinguished by lovely shading. Gorgeously floated, teasing highs as well as ideal poise and clarity graced O wär’ dein Haus durschsichtig wie ein Glas (Would that thy house were transparent as glass).

Wir haben beide lange Zeit geschwiegen (Long have we both not spoken) was the high point, poignant, glowing, and gorgeous from first note to last. Were anyone to hear it by itself on CD, they would be tempted to hit the repeat button.
Shadows of Other Voices
When former San Francisco Opera General Director Terence A. McEwen became head of London Records, he invited critics over to share in his passion, his collection of historic vocal recordings. When he asked them if they wanted to hear Claudia Muzio, several replied, “Claudio who?” Which led McEwen to wonder, how can you be a critic when you have no standards?

Some would cry foul to comparing Leonard’s first recital with recordings by the more-seasoned greats. But when those recordings play round and round in a critic’s head as she sings, it would be a disservice to censor what one hears.

Thus, following the Wolf set that was unfailingly lovely (if miles from renditions by Schwarzkopf or Lehmann in both word painting and insight), I could not help but think of Maggie Teyte as Leonard launched into Reynaldo Hahn’s L’Heure exquise (The exquisite hour). Leonard’s floated highs may have been exquisite, but the song’s three verses were dismayingly alike.

Nowhere in evidence was Teyte’s mastery at underscoring emotion by emphasizing words and syllables as though they were being spoken fresh from the heart. The phrasing was also dismayingly modern, lacking elasticity of tempo and specificity of emotion.

Manuel de Falla wrote his Seven Popular Spanish Songs for Maria Barrientos, who recorded them in 1928 with the composer at the piano. (Other benchmark recordings available are by Conchita Supervia and Victoria de los Angeles.) In them, as well as in four songs by Rachmaninov and three cabaret lied by Schoenberg, Leonard displayed gorgeous sounds, but insufficient emotion to convince. “The perfect graduate recital,” muttered my not yet legal husband.
Home Turf Letdown
If any repertoire is telling, it’s songs in one’s own language. In a nonstop medley of Porter, Kern, Gershwin, Berlin, Meredith Wilson, and Rodgers & Hart, Leonard sounded like someone from the burbs slumming in the city. The vibrato seemed an old-fashioned throwback to an earlier generation, the tone and strophic sameness wrong, the dearth of idiomatic phrasing, seduction, and swing dismaying. Till There Was You without sentimentality and I Concentrate on You without smokiness simply will not do.

In encores, the half-Argentinean Leonard failed to grab the Latin guts of De España vengo (I come from Spain). But when she sang Stéphano's aria from Roméo et Juliette, her glorious vocalism, superb technique, and supremacy on high rightfully brought the house down. “Vedrai carino” from Don Giovanni was almost as good, lacking only the ultimate little-girl charm of a great soubrette. Onstage in Chicago, she may have blown people away.

Technically, aurally, and visually, everything about Isabel Leonard is gorgeous and in place. In another year or two, she may return and leave us floored. Then, there will be no reason to sing, “Till there was you.”

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.