The veteran diva conundrum / Jessye Norman Sings American Masters / Royal Festival Hall – 21 May 2012

24 May

When one refers to Jessye Norman in polite company her legendary diva demands seem to be only second to those of the justly maligned Kathleen Battle. Her history in the scene is illustrious and much storied. Even if her appearances are relatively infrequent nowadays, they still spark an excitement unlike most opera singers. I would go on to suggest that  the audience on Monday night was even more rumbustious than the one at JDF’s Royal Albert Hall recital…quite an achievement for a semi retired diva that sings jazz standards. But unlike JDF, this recital had the uncomfortable feel that the rapturous applause was in acknowledgement of her history and career and not a true reflection of what she gave us, overall, on the night.

Last time I heard her live was in 2003 at her one off performance collaboration with Steve McQueen at Tate Britain it was an amazing evening and one I will treasure for ever. Having the chance to see her in such a small venue and in such informal circumstances and the adrenaline boost it gave us all, it was unlike many an event I’ve been to since. Unfortunately in the intervening years her voice has lost some of its powerful beauty and cohesion, it seems her upper and lower register have become disconnected and when any of the three first songs demanded a gleaming, seamless pass through from messa to head voice she delivered an almost painfully dull approximation.

Starting this programme with Somewhere was clearly an over-optimistic gesture as she either lacks the ability to sing this show stopper in her current vocal state or that she was not well warmed up. Instead of Bernstein’s music sounding effervescent we got a very slow tempo that made the song droll on while she was trying too hard to live up to the requirements. It was not a pleasant sight and it was a shame to start the evening like that.

Most numbers that followed were again a battle with the voice but also a matter of suitability of the repertoire. I don’t think that she wanted to engage with the jazz standards in a truly meaningful way, all of those numbers where turned into self indulgent exercises in divadom…roll out long phrases, extent most vowels beyond the capacity of the English language and all with a voice that betrayed her a number of times.

The stand out highlights of the first half were a very slow but shimmering with colour version of But Not For Me which brought out a charm in her and also a bitterly humorous side which was a great fit. The magisterial My Man’s Gone Now which had all the gleam one would expect with scale progressions that were accurate and dreamy. Her Bess was the promise at the back of my head the second half could be much better.

For the second half she used a microphone to gently amplify her output, and a piano stool to sit on truly made a dramatic difference to both her levels of comfort on stage and to the depth of the interpretation. The upbeat and frivolous (and even updating the lyrics) dispatch of My Baby Just Cares for Me was fun and engaging. Her Stormy Weather was thoughtful and atmospheric and led to the exceptional highlight of the night. Her interpretation of Another Man Done Gone which was only accompanied by the drum like sound of Mark Markham’s right fist hitting the side of the piano. It was concentrated and beautiful, haunted and fully lived. She lifted this folk song to the realms of a spiritual, it was extraordinary and made everyone at the hall have a lump in their throat. She used her vocal range in all its expressive differentiations, reaching to the very lowest of her chest voice for a contralto like darkness. This was a flash of her past brilliance and her extraordinary ability to engage with the material and breathe life into it away from diva like posturing. One of those rare moments when time stands still and one can only hear the vocalist and their own heart beat…a moment of bliss.

The three Duke Ellington numbers closed the programme in an upbeat fashion seeing her deliver them in variable degrees of cheekiness. The fans went crazy and standing ovations followed. We were treated to two encores, first was a very straight version of A Foggy Day (in London Town) which again displayed the well known warmth of her voice to great effect. But the final number was again an amazing return to form, Summertime was sung with empathy, softness and warmth. A totally enrapturing combination of melody and lyrics. It was sublime and a great cumulative sign of artistry by one of the most magnetic stage performers of the last forty years. It surely made me lust after an all Gershwin programme. Despite the feel of a “Farewell Streisand” concert this evening had a few moments of glory that made it more than worthwhile. 

Some tweets from the evening

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One Response to “The veteran diva conundrum / Jessye Norman Sings American Masters / Royal Festival Hall – 21 May 2012”

  1. cazpacho 10 June 2012 at 6:25 pm #

    Wow, I went to the performance – and it was truly shocking. For a longstanding fan, it was quite a disappointment. Thanks, George for an insightful review.

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