London Foundation opens season with a winning artistic duo in Leonard and Bybee

Mon Oct 10, 2016 at 1:36 pm
Isabel Leonard and Jared Bybee perform at the George London Foundation concert Sunday at the Morgan Library. Photo: Shawn Ehlers

Isabel Leonard and Jared Bybee perform at the George London Foundation concert Sunday at the Morgan Library. Photo: Shawn Ehlers

Isabel Leonard, the celebrity alumna in Sunday’s London Foundation concert, is scheduled to sing Charlotte in Werther later this season at the Met. So when the program advertised on the Morgan Library’s website promised selections by Massenet, it was fair to wonder whether we might get a brief teaser.

That turned out to be a tease of sorts–the Massenet item was in fact Hérode’s aria “Vision fugitive” from Hérodiade, performed with enormous power by a 2016 London Foundation competition winner, baritone Jared Bybee. Bybee sang with strong, consistent tone, charting powerful ebbs and flows of passion throughout the aria, whether bellowing his emotion or uttering soft, gauzy reflection.

Bybee had opened the program with Ravel’s three-song cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. His voice is a fine fit for this songs, a lean kind of instrument, rich but with a hint of a rasp. He was always firm in his singing, producing formidable, confident sound, and bringing conviction to his reading of “Chanson épique,” even if his French diction left a little to be desired.

Ever at home in Spanish song, Leonard again showed her mastery of that repertoire with four selections, beginning with Joaquín Valverde Sanjuán’s “Clavelitos.” These songs allowed her to luxuriate in the naturally dusky shade of her voice, even as she rattled off impressive patter. Leonard’s upper register sounds somewhat less focused than it did in years past, but her lower range has developed into an instrument of various and fascinating colors, as well as tremendous body.

Her account of Adalgisa’s recitative and aria “Sgombra è la sacra selva,” from Bellini’s Norma, was earnest and well crafted, though the selection seemed an odd fit for her voice. Much more convincing was the “Habanera” from Act I of Carmen. This was a memorable, hair-raising interpretation, far more playful than many mezzos allow it to be. Leonard showed off all the best parts of her voice as well as her musical and dramatic sense, relishing the sultry tones of the vocal line and delivering the text with wit and flair. It’s hard to make so common a chestnut seem so original, but her performance will be difficult to forget.

The evening’s pianist, Djordje Stevan Nesic, proved serviceable, following the two singers closely and supporting them at the keyboard, but contributed little imagination of his own to the music. Even the seductive spirit of the Habanera wasn’t enough to stir him out of a fairly straightforward rehearsal-accompaniment style.

Among the most intriguing items on Sunday’s program were Bybee’s selections from Gene Scheer’s Voices from World War II (1998). The baritone showed a deep connection to these powerful songs, particularly “The German U-Boat Captain,” a sort of sailor’s lament, tinged with the grief of having survived the war thanks to the mercy of a German officer.

As in all of the London Foundation concerts, the program featured a pair of scenes for both singers, though in this case the selections felt pro forma. The first was “Il core vi dono,” the scene from Così fan tutte in which Guglielmo seduces Dorabella. As winningly as the scene was played, neither voice sounded particularly suited to Mozart—Bybee’s overly rough, Leonard’s dark and full-bodied. “Crudel! Perche finora” from Le nozze di Figaro showed the same problem, and is so brief that it seemed little more than a throwaway at the end of the program.

A slate of encores gave us both singers at their best. Bybee showed himself to be perfectly at home in the Neapolitan style with a red-blooded rendition of Salvatore Cardillo’s classic “Core ‘ngrato,” which he finished off with an impressive, clear high note. Leonard, meanwhile, conjured up shades of Helen Forrest in a disarming account of the Gershwin staple “Someone to Watch Over Me.” “If I loved you,” from Carousel, at last gave the audience a chance to hear the two collaborate in a duet that suited both their voices.

Paul Appleby and Sarah Mesko will perform in the next London Foundation recital 4 p.m.  March 5, 2017 at the Morgan Library & Museum.

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