Kathleen Battle, soprano
Martin Katz, piano
April 19, 2001
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 Battles 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, Battles 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 Schuberts Vier Canzonen, D. 688 -- pretty Italian art songs of interest inferior to his German Lieder. Schuberts interminable Viola D. 786 had flashes of genius. Battles virginal timbre at times recalling Elly Ameling's, but Battles 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. Schuberts 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 Amelings. The aria from Massenets 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.
Ravels 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 Manons 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 Battles tempo changes and memory lapses as best he could.
> Carnegie Hall
Copyright by Philip Anson (Questions or comments? Philanson@aol.com).