Battle returns to the Met with touching glimpses of past vocal glory

Mon May 13, 2024 at 12:45 pm
Kathleen Battle performed a recital Sunday night at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera

There were no sold-out banners across the marquees announcing Kathleen Battle’s recital outside the Metropolitan Opera on Sunday. Once inside the house, however, there was nary an empty seat to be seen. 

It was the soprano’s first appearance at the Met since she performed Underground Railroad: A Spiritual Journey there in November 2016. Her return undoubtedly was due to her long-standing professional relationship with Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. Prior to coming to the Met in 2006, Gelb was president of Sony Classical Records, the label for which Battle recorded many of her finest and most popular releases.

Without Gelb as her champion, Battle would likely never have again graced the stage of the Met. In the early 1990s, Battle earned a reputation for being difficult and demanding. In February 1994, Joseph Volpe, Gelb’s predecessor, dismissed her for unprofessional behavior during rehearsals for an upcoming production of La fille du régiment. Battle never appeared in opera again.

This concert was conceived by Robert Sadin, who has been instrumental in the soprano’s career since she was a student at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music over 50 years ago. He urged her to work with young people, which prompted this collaboration with harpist Bridget Kibbey and guitarist Chico Pinheiro for this recital. The delicate sounds of their instruments proved the ideal accompaniment for Battle’s voice with balance never an issue.

It was as much, perhaps more, a celebration of a beloved artist, than a musical experience. A less sympathetic audience would have undoubtedly bristled at Battle’s quirky behavior. There were prolonged breaks between songs, excessive rustling of pages as she sorted through music, and the prodding of Kibbey and Pinheiro to either play louder or reposition themselves for reasons unbeknownst to the audience.

Battle’s diva allure and demeanor remain intact. She accessorized her elegant black-lace dress with two enormous shawls, one in turquoise and the other in violet. She rearranged them repeatedly and preened before the audience, which drew appreciative applause from many. Her switch from black to red-sparkling shoes for the second half of the concert prompted a shout-out from one enthusiastic fan. 

There were many in the audience who remember Battle at the Met in roles such as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. Then her voice was sparkling and crystalline with roulades and runs perfectly executed. She was always an engaging presence on stage due to her diminutive, almost doll-like appearance and perkiness.

Now 75, Battle still has charisma, but her voice is, understandably a shadow of what it once was. Yet she programmed songs for the singer of former days.  Her ability to beguile an audience by one means or another was as impressive as always. Intonation though could be hit or miss and shortness of breath was masked with finesse.

Kathleen Battle performed with guitarist Chico Pinheiro and harpist Bridget Kibbey Sunday at the Met. Photo: Evan Zimmerman / Met Opera

Battle entered the stage to a standing ovation as Kibbey and Pinheiro played a rather spicy introduction to Purcell’s “Music for a while.” In it, as in “O, sleep why dost though leave me?” from Handel’s Semele, her voice was tiny and almost childlike in sound. Battle’s wit and a somewhat fuller tone served her well in Purcell’s “Man is for the woman made.”

In songs such as Schubert’s “Seligkeit,”  Mendelssohn’s “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges,” and Reynaldo Hahn’s “Si mes vers avaient des ailes,” vocal muscle-memory seemed to kick in revealing glimpses of Battle’s voice in its prime. Her sound was suddenly richer and more vibrant. The Hahn in particular permitted Battle to float beautiful high-flying phrases with impressive ease.

Battle began the second half of the recital with the Ária from Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, which here was more a showcase for guitar and harp, than it was for the soprano. She graced it with some lovely, floating phrases, but Kibbey and Pinheiro provided the real musical interest through their combination of subtle playing and elegant style.

The selection of Spanish songs which followed were also a mixed bag. If Battle found the perfect placement for the first note or two, the voice was heard at its best. Otherwise, it emerged thin and wan. The successes were Joaquín Rodrigo’s “De los álamos vengo, madre” and Jaime Silva and Neuza Teixeira’s “O Pato” with which she ended the recital. This was Battle fun and light as she quacked like a duck.

Kibbey was afforded a solo spot performing her arrangement for harp of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. It showcased not only the harpist’s virtuosity, but also her ability to draw dark, complex sounds from her instrument. Pinheiro was heard solely in his role as collaborator, but his playing consistently provided atmosphere, color and rhythmic vitality.

Battle ended the recital with a rousing rendition of “Ain’t That Good News” and a tender and moving “Heaven Is One Beautiful Place” which she sang without accompaniment. She returned for two encores, an unannounced Spanish song and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” In the spiritual, she again sang alone center stage embraced by the audience with admiration and affection. 

11 Responses to “Battle returns to the Met with touching glimpses of past vocal glory”

  1. Posted May 13, 2024 at 4:56 pm by Robin L. Rubendunst

    This is a very accurate review. She is beloved, and her audience adored her.

  2. Posted May 13, 2024 at 7:14 pm by William Davis (L.A)

    Lovely review, plenty of delicious detail,and audience reaction. Thank you. Bill

  3. Posted May 13, 2024 at 8:36 pm by James Brooks

    Beautiful performance vocal crystal clear, trills nicely done. Tone and pitch was near perfection. Ms Battle performance was beautifully executed. Well enjoyed.

  4. Posted May 13, 2024 at 10:04 pm by Christine Moore Vassallo

    Her first encore was “Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito” from Cinco canciones negras (1945) by Xavier Montsalvatge

  5. Posted May 13, 2024 at 10:07 pm by Belinda Williams

    Bellissima! Elegant maturity seasons her pure and pristine vocal dynamics. Applause of deep adulation for her significant musical dignity are appreciatively in order from her adoring fans!

  6. Posted May 13, 2024 at 11:19 pm by Glenda

    I throughly enjoyed Kathleen Battle’s recital after her long absence. Hoping to see/hear some more from her in the same setting. Love You Kathleen Battle.

  7. Posted May 14, 2024 at 1:39 am by Armando Pazos-Balenciaga

    Such an amazing and beautifully researched and enlightening review. Thanks for giving an ages-old fan facing similar experiences with age something to truly smile about. Bravo!

  8. Posted May 14, 2024 at 3:14 pm by Paul K Ferington

    The world will never experience another voice like Kathleen Battle’s! You KNOW there is a God when you hear that voice.

  9. Posted May 14, 2024 at 5:11 pm by Patrick D. McCoy

    This review is spot on! I was there! The “Nacht und Traume” was a standout as well.

  10. Posted May 15, 2024 at 7:59 am by Vinny

    Of course she’s a legend and I was honored to be in her presence, hear her beautiful voice, but why all the delays? Walking off the stage numerous times (including after the first song) in addition to her intermission, her continual “thumbing through the pages” to apparently find the correct lyrics.

    And why not ever merely speaking to your adoring audience? A thank you, or anything, would have been nice.

  11. Posted May 16, 2024 at 2:48 pm by Jackson Caesar

    Thanks for sharing an insightful review to those who missed out on this wonderful opportunity. I was glad to hear that Battle paced herself accordingly. A repertoire with a variety of languages, and genre after so many years deserves a good pace. Battle provided her audience with an acoustic approach that proved that she didn’t have to hide her talent, not her skills.

    I hope for the opportunity to experience this. Again, thanks for sharing!

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