Customarily buttoned into breeches roles such as Cherubino, Octavian and Sesto, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard traded lyric opera staples for Spanish folk songs, tapping into her Argentinian heritage with a Carnegie Hall recital. Accompanied by classical guitar player, Sharon Isbin, the duo have been collaborating, past and present, for an American tour of Spanish music in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Sharon Isbin and Isabel Leonard © Becca Fay
Sharon Isbin and Isabel Leonard
© Becca Fay

With works partially-curated from Leonard’s recent Preludios recording (in Brian Zeger’s piano accompaniment), the mezzo narrated Andalusian-tinged landscapes of scrappy bullfighters, scorned gypsies, Moorish lovers, Seville celebrations, lamenting mothers and expressive Spanish flamenco.

Under the spotlight, Leonard shone vibrant in a bespoke gown by American fashion designer, Austin Scarlett, who has ornamented opera divas for high-profile openings, concerts and galas. Over a high-gloss, commercial-ready chignon, Leonard wore a made-to-measure, satin-silk gown in a lustrous red shade. Suggestive of a flamenco dancer’s flounced skirt, the gown ended with a layered train of sculpted petals. On Isbin, Scarlett fashioned a long-sleeved gown of luminous, smoked mesh over a glittery, plummy sheath.

"So how's everyone tonight?" joked Leonard as she swanned onto a barstool before opening her concert at the intimate, 600-seat, wood-paneled Zankel Hall, kicking-off the first half with works from “Canciones españolas antiguas” by Spanish Civil War-era poet and playwright Federico García Lorca.

Well-suited to her deep, charismatic lower register, Leonard gave confident expositions of the folkloric Spanish tales, slipping into characterizations as diverse as an impoverished bullfighter or a jealous gypsy. She filled Lorca's sorrowful ballad, Romance de Don Boyso, with solid phrasing and poise. A passionate, raucous refrain for Anda, jaleo was underpinned by Isbin’s clattering guitar that mimicked castanets.

The prayer of a poor bullfighter in borrowed clothes, Los mozos de Monléon, was imbued with proper sentiment. As a bitter gypsy in Zorongo, smudged, deep plums and musky lower colors ran ragged to dramatic effect.

Isbin's intermezzo addressed Enrique Granados' Andaluza from 12 danzas españolas and Isaac Albéniz's Asturias, both written for piano and transcribed for guitar, the latter under the famous Andrés Segovia custodianship.

Stressing lyricism, Isbin decoded manuscripts and reworked pulses. Andaluza's grace notes relented to a whisper, then rallied to rattled chords. While effective in her artistry, she tuned strings concisely and fluttered scores between poem cycles. Cut-scene caesurae and broken immersions were patched by Leonard's charming banter. Yet Spanish song, lauded for its fluidity, thrives on less fuss.

Post-intermission, Richard Danielpour's varied song cycle triptych, …Of Love and Longing, made its world première. Co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the 125th anniversary of the Commissions Project, Danielpour wrote the work in 2014 specifically for the duo. English lyrics had been translated from three Persian texts by Rumi, and Danielpour’s note-making romanticized dusty, Western pulses – the understated melody Listen... swung to blushing, erotic metaphors of This Night of Love, ending with a leisurely Your Beauty serenade.

Leonard flexed her French muscle for Joaquín Rodrigo’s conservative and somber Aranjuez ma pensée. Following its introspective inflections, she swayed to Cuban-Spanish lullabies and rhythmic poems of Xavier Montsalvatge’s Canciónes negras.

The recital closed with Manuel de Falla’s 1914 Siete canciones populares españolas, sung without a score – Leonard announced that it’d been a long-admired, learned and loved work. On the strident Canción, she dipped into a stunning middle-lower voice, emitting great sentiment on the textual “Madre!”. She ended the cycle with a picante Polo to affirm the Spanish folk music outbursts, followed by an encore of Augustín Lara’s Granada.

High color repertory was matched to high color presence.