Bass-baritone Eric Owens is no stranger to Bay Area voice aficionados. After making his local debut as Lodovico in Otello with San Francisco Opera in 2002, Owens memorably created the diet-regiment-reciting General Leslie Groves there in the world première of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic in 2005. Most recently he did yeoman's work with a smaller role in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi in October. These respectable local credits recede next to his triumph as Alberich in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Ring in 2011 and 2012, a commanding portrayal seen here and all around the world via the company’s Live in HD series. Owens’ return to the Bay Area on Sunday as a song recitalist showed that his recent Wagnerian heights were not the pinnacle for this artist. Showing versatility, a magnificent instrument, and total commitment, this singer is clearly ascending to even greater heights. Accompanied by Warren Jones, one of the most sympathetic collaborators in the business, an elegantly clad Owens in black suit and silver tie offered an ambitious recital program, much of it exploring the darkest, most painful miseries of the human condition.

Eric Owens © Paul Sirochman Photography
Eric Owens
© Paul Sirochman Photography

The bleak content of the program’s all-German first half was balanced by an all-French second half of more abstract and airy subjects, but not exactly cheerful ones. The selected songs made for a harrowing emotional journey, but Owens proved a sturdy yet vulnerable guide through the gloom and angst. With his powerful instrument and interpretive insight, he suffered beautifully, embodying the valleys of depression, delusion, and madness; conveying through poetry and expressive vocalism the capacity to feel that make us human.

The first group of songs by Hugo Wolf, Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Michelangelo (“Three Songs on Poems by Michelangelo”), was, for me, the most affecting in the whole afternoon. This is not to imply that there was any diminution of intensity or a too-early plateauing of Owens’ performance, but rather Owens and Jones’ handling of the cycle conveyed so effective a dramatic arc, tightly coiled and satisfyingly sad, that a more heart-wrenching experience was difficult to imagine, even with Schubert’s despairing “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” still to come. The second Michelangelo poem’s final lines, “Everything ends which comes to be / Everything everywhere passes away” were uttered in a barely audible, almost gasping whisper and evoked a mental image of a broken person, crumpled into the fetal position and sighing in utter loneliness at their own ineffectiveness. Yet Owens stood tall, eyes closed and with a steadying hand against the piano – a world of misery movingly communicated in his voice alone.

Save for Schumann’s “Der Schartgräber” (“The Treasure-Seeker”), where Jones contributed exuberance and brightness in his lively piano part, and “Mein Herz ist schwer” (“My Soul is Dark”), whose text places hope in the healing power of music (and a musical passage which, for me, evoked Jerome Kern’s much later “All the things you are”), the songs of the first half of the program plumbed dark, scary terrain.

The highlight of the all-French second half was Maurice Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, a group of songs originally intended for Feodor Chaliapin to sing in G.W. Pabst’s cinematic treatment of Cervantes’ epic, but regretfully not finished in time. During the cycle’s “Chanson romanesque” (“Romanesque Song”), the upper reaches of Owens’ voice really opened up and he sounded free and relaxed within the Spanish setting. The final song on the program, Richard Wagner’s rarely performed “Les deux grenadiers”, was a special treat as it accorded an opportunity to hear both Owens and Jones expand upon the stylistic and emotional palettes heard during the preceding program.

As an encore, Owens offered Henry Purcell’s “Music for awhile”, a surprising choice as the song, with its ornamented line, is not one I associated with basses. His second encore was an ideal closer, “Shall we gather by the river”, a gently stirring hymn that revealed a sheen and luster in the voice, unfatigued by the harrowing journey it had navigated over the previous hour and a half. It was a moving afternoon of music performed by two wonderfully expressive artists. It also bears mentioning that Dr Richard E. Rodda’s program notes were excellent.

***11