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Stephanie Blythe Woos and Wows

May 3, 2014

Stpehanie BlytheBefore a Nourse Auditorium audience that whooped and applauded on Saturday night as though she could do no wrong, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe dedicated her take-no-prisoners voice to a winning program of French song and American popular classics from the 20th century. Partnered by pianist Warren Jones, who did far more than accompany beautifully, Blythe wowed her audience with her enormous instrument, engaging repartee, and delightful shtick. If, in the end, her American Songbook renditions failed to efface memories of her great predecessors, they were nonetheless delivered with a sincerity, power, and love of music and language that proved downright infectious.

Eschewing program notes and translations, Blythe and Jones set the evening’s tone by introducing songs Francis Poulenc, Léo Ferré, and Jacques Brel with recitations of their English translations. It was not the wisest decision. While Blythe did fairly well, Jones made all too clear that what he could play with feeling and, when appropriate, humor, he could only recite as if delivering a eulogy. Thus did the quasi-mystical poetry of Baudelaire’s hashish or opium-fueled fantasy, “L’invitation au Voyage,” devolve into a dreary dirge.

Thankfully, once the music took over, it alone held sway. Although Blythe’s voice took a while to warm up — some higher notes initially beat a bit under pressure, and hooted rather than flowed — she wasted no time in displaying her assets. In Poulenc’s five Poèmes de Ronsard, her lower tones were gorgeous, and the effect of her huge instrument echoing off the walls simply amazing. She also revealed an impressive mastery of the French language, whose colorful nasal sounds she transmitted without apology. Artistically, she most made her mark in “Le Tombeau,” with a palpable sadness lingered long after the song had ended.

Blythe discovered the music of Léo Ferré while researching, for her summer teaching gig at Tanglewood, composers who had set the poetry of Baudelaire. Urging us to check out Ferré’s YouTube videos, she revealed that the music of the supposedly high-fallutin’ anarchist and poet could be both gorgeous and delightful. “La Vie Antérieure” was quite touching in its quiet intimacy — it helped that Jones’ playing was like water — and “L'invitation au voyage” like a gentle stroll through a field of poppies.

Blythe’s Brel, which served as an apt transition into the American vernacular, showed her at her best. “Les Pieds Dans le Ruisseau” was adorable, and the artistry she brought to the quiet, gorgeous lows, impassioned exclamation and surprisingly whispered ending of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” most impressive. Then came the force and venom of “Amsterdam,” whose knock out punch was something to behold.

Only one thing was missing from these songs and those of Nöel Coward, Cole Porter, and Buddy DeSylva/Lew Brown/Ray Henderson that followed: the last iota of charm. Admittedly, charm is not an only an elusive and virtually indefinable essence — defined as “a power of pleasing or attracting, as through personality or beauty: charm of manner; the charm of a mountain lake,” which says everything and nothing at the same time — but also something that is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Few would question that Fred Astaire, Mary Martin, Noel Coward, or, to take an octogenarian who is still going strong, Barbara Cook, were/are gifted with charm. In fact, even fewer would argue with the statement that Ethel Merman, the quintessential belter of the American theater, somehow defined “show biz” in a manner that, if not ultimately charming, nonetheless convinced you that no one could sing her rep better.

To this heart, on the other hand, Blythe amazed more than charmed as she sang the roof off, swayed side to side and, on one occasion, moved her arms and hands as if channeling Ginger Rogers. Who ever thought that, as powerfully as Jones could possibly play, you would hardly be able to hear him over Blythe’s full-out singing? And who could have anticipated that shortly before she belted out the end of “You Do Something to Me” like nothing else in the world mattered, she would begin the intro to “Night and Day” so softly?

Yes, Porter’s “Tale of the Oyster” was hilarious, with the visuals the icing on the cake. And the sadness of the second and final encore, Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I do?,” suited Blythe to a “T.” But when it came to Coward’s “Zigeuner” and “Mad About the Boy,” or Ned Washington, Herb Magidson and Michael Cleary’s “Singin’ in the Bathtub,” that last little bit of charm, humor, or whatever it is that might make you want to play a recording over and over again and say, “Here’s how it should be sung,” was missing.

Perhaps the song that made this clearest was “Button Up Your Overcoat.” Jones, a perfect accompanist who would never ever intentionally upstage his partner, was teasing away on the keyboard and having a ball. Blythe, too, was a joy to watch. But the manner in which she colored her voice and words wasn’t quite there. She was a load of fun, and a joy to behold. But inimitable? In the end, that quality belongs to others.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.