On Sunday night Shriver Hall was packed with Baltimore opera fans who had gathered to enjoy a solo recital of the internationally acclaimed opera “anti-diva” Magdalena Kožená. True to her reputation, this Czech mezzo-soprano came on stage dressed in a casual black gown, which (ignoring the dress change tradition established by her stage colleagues) she chose to wear all night long. The program that Kožená picked for her Shriver Hall debut turned out to be equally bold and untraditional. Having neglected to include at least a few operatic chestnuts (a winning move used by quite a few recitalists today), the artist chose to conquer her audience the hard way, taking us on a journey through 19th-century art song. Even though the program featured extraordinary compositions by Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Ravel and Bartók, hardly any of the performed numbers could boast a distinct, easy-to-remember melody.

Magdalena Kožená © Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon
Magdalena Kožená
© Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon

An artist who performs a song program with no easy-on-the-ear hits to offer always faces the risk of losing the audience’s interest. Only a truly confident and resourceful recitalist with a rich vocal and dramatic arsenal can meet the challenge head-on and help the audience connect with the music on a personal level.

From the very first minutes of the recital it was clear: when it came to performing art song, Kožená was thoroughly in her element and no doubt knew what she was doing. Accompanied on the piano by the acclaimed “piano Olympian” Yefim Bronfman, the artist served up a true one-actress show, boasting superb vocalism and outstanding acting skill. Unafraid to look funny and even clumsy, Kožená charmed the audience with an endearing portrayal of the seven children in Mussorgsky’s Nursery cycle, finding a different tone and pitch for each of her characters and mastering the ever-changing meter of the child-like speech with the ease of a vocal acrobat. Kožená’s smoky tone and refined word painting achieved a truly mesmeric effect in Peacock and Swan, Ravel’s deep musical allegories, and her impeccable breath control in Bartók’s Lads’ Dance added a thrill that this wild folklore-based piece calls for.

However, it was the artist’s exquisitely poetic rendition of Bartók’s Lullaby that turned the evening into a truly eye-opening musical experience. Mesmerizing the audience with her gleaming tone and the emotional depth of her voice, especially vivid and beautiful in the low register, Kozena brought to life a simple vision of mother and child – allowing us to become witnesses to the sincere and intimate prayer that, in a way, almost every mother’s lullaby is. Undoubtedly the defining moment of the night, this song helped every member of the audience, be it someone’s parent or someone’s child, connect with the music on a personal level, and through that connection, discover its deep harmony and meaning.

I left Shriver Hall on a high, feeling as if the two hours of this recital had turned me into a more mature listener. I was most grateful to the bold anti-diva, Magdalena Kožená, for helping me discover the beauty of this repertoire and for inspiring me to look at the genre at a new angle.