Jessye Norman - Royal Festival Hall, 21 May 2012
Birgit Nilsson once described the chief requirement for singing Isolde as “comfortable shoes”. Jessye Norman went one step further at last night’s recital, dispensing with shoes altogether in favour of fluffy mauve socks, a perfect colour match for the shimmering silken tarpaulin swathing her generous curves. With a huge sparkly brooch competing with her dazzling smile, she filled the stage. And I don’t mean in the Johan Botha sense.
Although she retains the regal bearing of a diva, Ms Norman has of course long since retired the role of Isolde from her repertoire – along, it seems, with all other material of an operatic nature.
Instead, we were treated to an ambitiously wide-ranging programme of idiomatically sung ‘American Masters’ with a sparse solo piano accompaniment nestling between the notes. The first half was drawn from Broadway’s golden age, beginning with a quivering Somewhere (West Side Story) and ending with a heartfelt, bluesy My Man’s Gone Now (Porgy and Bess).
Much of Ms Norman’s astonishing range remains. She can belt with admirable solidity for her vintage, and the few passages she hit in gleaming full voice suggested opera is not yet beyond her. But at softer levels her tuning goes awry and wobbles emerge unpredictably. Even the famously well-prepared singer herself could be caught out by her misbehaving vocal cords, as her agonised gurning after a botched ending to The man I love heartbreakingly demonstrated. But she has the rhythmic flexibility and ear for a phrase that are crucial to selling a show tune. And I never felt she was slumming it. Unlike most opera singers who dip a toe in popular waters, she sounded as if she respected both the material and its performance traditions.
For the jazzier second half she picked up a microphone and parked herself on a spare piano stool. Perhaps she was warmed up and relaxed, perhaps songs like My Baby just cares for me, Stormy Weather and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore sat more comfortably for her – at any rate, this half had fewer of the nailbiting uncertainties of the first. The piano tinkling was replaced by slow thumps on the lid for the highlight of the evening, the old chain gang blues Another man done gone. She had pulled some of the other numbers around, but this one was done absolutely straight, eyes shut, vocal colouring alone showing the pain.
In opera, the artist is the servant of the music and an oversized personality can obtrude. That's not with the popular songs Jessye Norman chose to perform. These songs, generally deprived of a readymade character to portray, positively need a big and open personality to bring them to life. Whatever time has snatched from her technical abilities, it has repaid Jessye Norman with the experience and generosity of spirit to do them justice.