Jessye Norman called her UCLA Live recital at Royce Hall on Thursday night "The Five Seasons." That's "summer, winter, spring, fall and the eternal season of love."
If the soprano expects the extra seasoning, so be it. She's 62, and her voice is in its late phase. But that she can buy time with love was without doubt Thursday. A worshipful crowd hung on every note -- the decent ones, the dubious ones and the ones just fabulous enough to remind us of what a great singer she is -- and roared its approval. More than anything, Norman remains a commanding presence, even when her voice doesn't always heed her demands.
That she is season-conscious is hardly surprising. Her career has had unusually distinct phases. She came on the scene in the early '70s as a physically ungainly singer with pipes from the likes of which legends arise.
But it wasn't until the early '80s, after working with director Robert Wilson, that Norman found her inner queen. Imposing voice and imposing frame united. She learned to move slowly, meaningfully, to take over and fill a room. Always gifted with languages, she discovered ways to make words matter musically and dramatically through tone, through timbre, through enunciation, through gesture. Her sound went from magnificent to unbelievably magnificent.
There was, however, no stopping her, and by the early '90s she had entered a phase of mannerism. What was once just the right amount became too much. She stood too straight, threw her head back too far and smiled too large and too much on cue. Her enunciation became exaggerated and her high notes became shrill. She lost old fans but gained new ones through singing spirituals and show tunes. Still, she was Norman, possessed of greatness and willing to commit herself body, brain and soul to stunningly dramatic operatic performances.
The Norman of today is a consummate singer. This is her season of wisdom. She has slimmed down physically and, though she has not entirely shed her mannerisms, she now manages to achieve heightened expression without succumbing to overbearing egotism. And she is smart. For all the dopiness of the seasons concept, she chose her "Five Seasons" program astutely, seeking out songs that may have only somewhat suited the state of her voice, but that brilliantly suited one another.
The concept itself took a back seat to musical considerations, with none of the five sections of the program evoking a single season. She chose mainly from late-19th century lieder and 20th century standards. Playing Richard Strauss' "September" off Kurt Weill's "September Song" and Joseph Kosma's "Autumn Leaves" in the fourth section was one of many illuminating choices.
Once a wonder in Berlioz, Mahler and Brahms, Norman found Thursday that she had to push uncomfortably in their songs, and she lacked the versatility for Hugo Wolf. No matter. Her interpretations were a lesson in finding the essence of a song's meaning. She, by the way, made her own German and French translations for the handout of the texts.
Heightened expression is a handmaiden of expressionism. She included three Berg songs and captured fleeting moods in all their different shades of gloom. As the evening progressed, her voice became more lubricated, and she was able to suggest in Messiaen's early "Le Collier" (The Necklace) controlled ecstasy and in Wagner's "Traume" (Dreams), which was a study for "Isolde," utter ecstasy. She poured out a creamy oracular sound in Richard Danielpour’s "I Envy Public Love," with a text by Toni Morrison. What has been lacking most from Norman's career has been more music, like this, written for her.
In the past, Norman was always too operatic for pop, and her appearances with the Boston Pops and the like could be cringe-worthy. That's all changed. She held the Royce audience in her spell for "September Song" sung a cappella with the sadness of a spiritual. She all but entered a trance when she closed her eyes and hummed in the middle of "Autumn Leaves." Her low notes were, as they always have been, out of this world.
Mark Markham was her pianist, and at every ovation Norman made a large display of thanking him. He played with exquisite sensitivity.