Last time Jamie Barton was in London, she was headlining the Last Night of the Proms and transforming the Royal Albert Hall into a joyful, drag-fabulous celebration of queerness. For her recital at Wigmore Hall, joined by pianist Kathleen Kelly, Barton may have toned down her outfit but retained her commitment to exploring queer themes, offering a thought-provoking programme centred around women composers, poets and muses.

Jamie Barton © Stacey Bode
Jamie Barton
© Stacey Bode

Barton and Kelly’s programme shifted the balance in favour of female composers, including some lesser-known works from American composers. Barton’s plush, velvety mezzo soared through the neo-Romantic yearning of Elinor Remick Warren’s Heather and Amy Beach’s Ah, love, but a day, all the while retaining absolute clarity in text which held the audience rapt. Songs by the Boulanger sisters found Barton on slightly less comfortable form, though Lili’s Attente featured one of the most remarkable diminuendo high notes I’ve encountered. A laugh-out-loud rendition of Ravel’s Chanson à boire found Barton in far more comfortable form, showing off both a cavernous chest voice and insouciant ease with the text. Barton’s true French home, though, was in Duparc’s Phidylé, sung with rapt intensity that bloomed into a glorious column of sound. Here, as well, found Kelly in peak form, tracing Duparc’s Wagner-influenced chromaticisms with finesse.

Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos, a dramatic cantata for voice and piano, found Barton slightly outside of her comfort zone. Barton’s Wagnerian mezzo sounded tentative in opening recitative, surely one of the most inspired depictions of sunrise in the Classical era, though it was impressive to hear a voice of that size navigate the presto finale with such ease. It was a delight, though, to hear Kelly’s expressive, idiomatic playing, conjuring up the colours of a full orchestra even though Haydn never got around to orchestrating the cantata. The other substantial work on the programme was Libby Larsen’s Love after 1950, a song cycle setting text by Rita Dove, Julie Kane, Kathryn Daniels, Liz Lochhead and Muriel Rukeyser. These texts, a sort of Frauenliebe und -leben for the contemporary woman, explore topics ranging from blond men to tweezing eyebrows, achieving surprising depth and pathos in their exploration of the pressures of a patriarchal society. Larsen interprets these texts as a dance suite and Barton and Kelly clearly relish the opportunity to dig into the blues, honky-tonk and tango rhythms.

If the Larsen set established Barton as a top-notch recitalist, with her expressive coloration and easy camaraderie, Strauss’ Cäcilie reinforced her operatic abilities. Ably supported by Kelly’s rich arpeggios, Barton’s sumptuous mezzo, radiant across all registers, filled the hall and looked forward to future appearances at Covent Garden. It was the single encore, though, of Arlen’s Over the Rainbow that truly reinforced what a special artist Barton is, combining impeccable singing, utter simplicity and unashamed social advocacy – truly an artist for the 21st century.

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