Is this the '90s look of a recital by an operatic personality?: The large, concert-grand piano, turned at an unusual angle to the audience, its lid open as high as physics and Steinway will allow, its player dressed in New York black--but without a tie--and the singer, also garbed in formal, somber and jet-black, ensconced comfortably in the curve of the instrument.
That was the look chosen by Metropolitan Opera soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, who, with pianist Warren Jones, gave an often splendid performance at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena Wednesday night, marking her local recital debut.
Much of it seemed to work--the visual ambience, the easy teamwork of singer and pianist, an accessible but unhackneyed program and the charms of its delivery. Swenson is an artist with ample and lustrous voice, resourceful technique and varied, colorful sounds at her command. Her program of Italian, English and French art-songs and arias gave her many opportunities for musical communication and vocal display. In both, she usually held her audience.
What Swenson sang most beguilingly, besides a number of reliable and effortless high notes, were those pieces stressing nimbleness, fluency, a voluptuous tone and no poetic probing.
With the solid, musical and corraborative support of Jones--he remains a paragon, for all to hear--the high points included excerpts from Rossini's "Serati musicale," two arias from Handel's "Semele," Bellini's "Almen se non poss'io" and the aria "O luce di quest'anima," from Donizetti's "Linda di Chamounix."
What she performed less than compellingly was music dependent upon textual nuance, word-pointing and minute note-grooming. Her singing of a group of four songs by American John Duke barely scratched the surface of his word-reliant, meaning-borne musical lines; in a Romantic French group--actually, three famous songs by Dell'Acqua, Hahn and Bachelet--the sound was gorgeous, the emotions merely generalized.
At the end, in a fearless but superficial run-through of Anne Trulove's aria from Stravinsky's "Rake's Progress," the kind of musical understanding and fastidious detailing that the piece absolutely requires never materialized.
But the near-best was last, when, by way of encores, Swenson and Jones offered two: "O mio babbino caro," from Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi," and Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow," both performances being strong examples of a dovetailed word-projection and emotional point, qualities inconsistently delivered earlier in the evening.