The charismatic Jennifer Larmore is difficult to resist. Her effervescent performances in operas such as The Italian Girl in Algiers, together with her plush mezzo-soprano and breathtaking agility, have made her one of the leading Rossinians of her generation. Recordings attest to her excellence in Handel, Mozart and French opera, and she keeps diversifying her repertoire, recently performing in operas by Janáček and Berg. On Tuesday night, she presented a five-language, eclectic song recital with her regular accompanist, French pianist Antoine Palloc, at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. It was a demanding evening that yielded rather mixed results.

Jennifer Larmore © McArthur Photography
Jennifer Larmore
© McArthur Photography

Ms Larmore started with Rossini’s three-song La regata veneziana. Although theatrically convincing as the nail-biting woman watching her lover scull to victory, her voice seemed unresponsive and Rossini’s jaunty rhythms never really took off. Then something happened halfway through “Asie”, the first song in Ravel’s Shéhérazade, a hymn to pining for all things oriental. At a certain change in key and tempo, Ms Larmore’s voice suddenly seemed to settle onto its characteristic plum-coloured lower range, unfolding a sensuous play of colours. The voice is, understandably, not as opulent as it used to be, but the smoky middle range is still vividly eloquent and the top full and peeling up to high B flat. Unfortunately, Antoine Palloc was not at his best here. In “La Flûte Enchantée”, however, he proved the singer’s equal in expressing dreamy longing. Ms Larmore was wonderful in the final song, "L'Indifférent", mixing just the right measures of bittersweet desire and resignation. Her elegantly sensual stage persona was ideal for Ravel’s exotic reverie. Fiery passion followed in a set of Spanish songs, a good fit for Ms Larmore’s temperament and vocal colour, even as the melismas taxed her breath control. Mr Palloc’s rather heavy-handed playing at first undermined Joaquin Nin’s heel-clicking rhythms, but the first half of the programme ended with synchronised Spanish flourish in Nin’s spirited “El Vito”, in which a cash-strapped man is determined to dance and make merry.

Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs followed after the break and they were the least successful part of the evening. While these songs of yearning and dreamlike rapture seemed to bring out Mr Palloc’s expressive best, they were sadly unsuited to Ms Larmore’s voice. She was unable to suspend Berg’s flowing, climbing vocal lines and, consequently, the atmospheric idiom of the songs eluded her. How different were the 20th century and contemporary American songs that followed! John Duke’s explosive “Heart, We Will Forget Him” was a heart-rending flare of desperation, in spite of Ms Larmore’s ironic comment on Emily Dickinson's poetry: “She’s so melodramatic!”. With well-judged textual and physical nuance, she went on to recreate the chilling rejection vignette in Samuel Barber’s “Solitary Hotel”. Even the epigrammatic “The Astronomers” by Richard Hundley, an epitaph set to music, was a perfect miniature. She was delightful in Charles Ives’ patter song “Memories: Very Pleasant”, about an opera audience anticipating a performance, in which she delegated the whistling to her pianist (“I can’t whistle, sorry!”). Knowing she would become too emotional, Ms Larmore skipped the second part of the song, subtitled “Rather Sad”, because it reminds her of her recently deceased father. Finally, she was in great form in Jake Heggie’s setting of the folk song “The Leather-Winged Bat”. Mr Palloc’s sensitive accompaniment greatly contributed to these richly satisfying songs, and it was a pity there were not more of them.

Ms Larmore ended the concert with a semi-staged rendition of Victor Herbert’s concert favourite “Art Is Calling for Me”. She visibly revelled in conducting Mr Palloc, charming in the role of servile accompanist. Imbuing the would-be diva with faux grandeur and twinkle-eyed self-parody, she even interpolated a few lines from one of her signature Rossini roles, Rosina in The Barber of Seville. This risk-ridden evening encompassing such varied musical idioms might not have been an unqualified success. Nonetheless, Jennifer Larmore is an intelligent, absorbing interpreter with great comic timing. Following her career as she continues to expand her repertoire is bound to be insightful and rewarding, not to mention a whole lot of fun.

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