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On the Aisle



Kathleen Battle at Carnegie Hall

By Philip Anson / April 19, 2001
On the Aisle

Kathleen Battle, soprano
Martin Katz, piano
April 19, 2001
Carnegie Hall

The erasure of soprano Kathleen Battle from American opera stages has been almost complete since she was dismissed from the Metropolitan Opera back in the early 1990s for being difficult and disagreeable. Battle has limited her recent career, willingly or not, to recitals, such as the one she gave on April 19 with pianist Martin Katz at Carnegie Hall.

I have enjoyed Battle’s past recitals. At her best she had a marvellously pure sound, with a well-projected flute like top that easily fills even large houses. But this time around she fell short of her best. The voice was less flexible and seems to have lowered a bit, which often happens as singers age. In the past, Battle’s sterling sound distracted one from a too-close analysis of her technique. This time, one had leisure to focus on her diction and breathing, which were far from ideal. But despite her faults, she radiated defiance, giving a pretty good show for her many fans. Like the new Chevy Tracker, Battle is “attitude driven.”

She opened with Schubert’s Vier Canzonen, D. 688 -- pretty Italian art songs of interest inferior to his German Lieder. Schubert’s interminable Viola D. 786 had flashes of genius. Battle’s virginal timbre at times recalling Elly Ameling's, but Battle’s German diction was iffy and she skipped half the consonants, preferring to “vocalise” the lines. She floated an exquisite final high pianissimo “Ruhe”, but overall her exchange of accuracy for mellifluousness grew annoying as the concert progressed. Schubert’s sublime Der Hirt auf dem Felsen D. 965 was a disappointment. Battle made strange whooping sounds on “und singe”, and had a memory lapse in verse two and in the refrain, repeated one line and making up another. Her technique, especially on the ascending line on the words describing the echo from below (“von unten”) was far inferior to Ameling’s. The aria from Massenet’s Manon, “Adieu, notre petit table” was pretty, with superb high notes and trills, but her French accent was bad. She pronounced “é” more like long “ee” than short “eh”. So we heard “fragiliteeey.” “Petite table” emerged as “pateetah tabla”, “cherchait” as “shareshee.”

Ravel’s Shéhérazade made little impression, never getting to the seductive core of the triptych. French diction was a problem (“rêves” came out “rahv”). The audience applauded between each song and Battle smiled, whereas last month Jessye Norman had quite rightly ordered silence during the set. The concert ended with four restrained spirituals but Battle only got swinging in the final one, “Witness.” The crowd left pretty quickly.

It was a frustrating concert. Battle still has a uniquely lovely high range, with a pert, sweet, woodwind timbre. But her stage manner(ism) is distracting, as she fidgets and twitches, making faces and turning her back to the audience. She had memory problems, used crib notes half way through Viola D. 786 and flubbed the final line of Manon’s gavotte.

Sartorially, Battle was up to the mark. She wore a huge black ruched silk cape the size of a curtain over a tight black velvet gown. Between songs she wrestled with the cape, which was supposed to be an interpretive prop, but threatened to upstage her. Martin Katz followed Battle’s tempo changes and memory lapses as best he could.

> Carnegie Hall

Copyright by Philip Anson (Questions or comments?


(c) La Scena Musicale 2000