Tucked into a modest local concert series -- Music in a Great Space at Shadyside Presbyterian Church -- Denyce Graves gave an extraordinary vocal recital Tuesday evening. With Laura Ward an excellent accompanist and genuine equal in the music making, the dusky-voiced mezzo-soprano's repertory ranged from Handel's arias and Falla's folk song arrangements to opera, American popular songs and spirituals.
Only a small number of opera singers are equally adept in recitals, but the glamorous Washington, D.C., native, who has performed with almost every major opera house here and abroad, scaled down her big voice and grand personality to the dimensions of this medium-sized but very resonant church. Projecting clear, impeccable diction in four languages, she seemed to be directing her words and feelings to each audience member individually. Ms Graves has given at least two previous recitals in Pittsburgh in the larger space of Carnegie Music Hall. But here, the atmosphere was closer and more intimate, the connection between performer and listener more direct. The core meaning of each number inevitably hit its mark.
Ms. Graves' voice is a juicy, multicolored instrument, capable of strong deep "chest tones" at the bottom and solid, resounding high notes. There was some unevenness in her opening Handel group, the so-called Largo from "Serse" and "Iris, hence away" from "Semele." The baroque idiom is not ideally suited to her, but once past the warm-up stage, the singer showed technical mastery and consummate interpretive skills.
The meat of the program was Falla's cycle of "Seven Spanish Folksongs," in which traditional melodies are subjected to a highly sophisticated, virtuoso keyboard underpinning. In these songs, pianist Ward came into her own, matching but never overpowering the singer in accuracy and coloristic detail. Ms. Graves obliged by giving each song a special character -- resigned sadness in "The Moorish Cloth" (a metaphor for a young girl losing her purity), sophisticated worldliness on the subject of love in Jota and Cancion, a wild burst of bitterness and anger in Polo. Every line was tailored to express the emotional intent of the moment.
She followed with her operatic persona, familiar extracts from her two signature roles, Saint-Saens' Dalila and Bizet's Carmen. Dalila's "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix" was smoothly seductive, even though, as she explained in a few introductory words, Dalila actually hates Samson at this point. Carmen's Habanera sizzled with sexuality: If there's a hotter Carmen on the boards today, I've yet to discover her.
The biggest surprise was how well Ms. Graves switched gears for American classics for the second half. In a spectacular new gown and with less diva-like demeanor, she became a 1920s pop singer, tugging at the heartstrings in Gershwin's "The Man I Love," following with "Don't Blame Me," a ballad that has seen incarnations in modern rock style. Best of the bunch was Murray Grand's "Guess Who I Saw Today," a seriocomic narrative in which an unsuspecting wife spies her husband at a cafe with another woman. Hardly less entertaining was the carefree insouciance with which she delivered Rodgers' and Hart's "I Wish I Were in Love Again."
Three spirituals concluded the printed part of her program, followed by light art-song encores: a satirical "Grace" by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, "I Need a Dog" (rather than a man), and a tongue-in cheek "I'm Hungry" (I want food, not sex).
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.