On this blog, most of my reviews of performances from Caramoor have been reviews of their semi-staged opera performances like Ciro in Babilonia, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and Les vepres Siciliennes. However, on Saturday night, Audra McDonald come to Caramoor as a stop on her tour. While she has tons of accolades to her name, the classically trained musical theater singer didn’t miss a beat in making her recital an intimate occasion.
Part of what makes McDonald such a bewitching performer is her charm. Before each song, she inserted an anecdote or explanation of why it was part of her rep. It’s so much easier to enjoy a performance when you know the performer is enjoying it, too. That’s the vibe I get from Audra McDonald and her über talented backup of Brian Hertz on piano, Mark Vanderpoel on bass, and Gene Lewin on drums.
She definitely sways towards musical-theater, but in my opinion, Audra McDonald is in the tradition of singers like Ezio Pinza or Stephanie Blythe. They are all singers who have sung both musical theater and opera and have followed their voices. All three have found resounding success in each genre. It’s because of versatility like mentioned above that let McDonald expose as wide a spectrum of music as she did in her concert on Saturday.
One of my personal favorites from her performance was her rendition of “You Looked Sexy” and “Two Years Ago, My Sister and I…” from young composer Gabriel Kahane’s Craigslistlieder, a song cycle using text from Craigslist ads. It allowed McDonald to show her superb breath control and her easiness in establishing a clean, clear legato line.
In “When Did I Fall in Love?”, Audra demonstrated her ability to belt, and belt well.
While not in a staged performance, she flexed her comedic muscles in Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich’s song, Baltimore, in which the narrator’s family extol the dangers of meeting men in Baltimore. A performance of the piece by Audra can be seen below:
For me, the most emotionally provocative piece was “I’ll Be There” from Adam’s Gwon musical, Ordinary Days. The song, about a wife thinking of her husband’s death on 9/11, is an extremely emotional piece, and her clean, controlled performance of it was the closest I have ever come to crying because of music. While the funny, playful songs were the best, the emotional songs gave the listener a more complete idea of who McDonald is as a performer. McDonald has a wide arsenal of skills, one of which is an unbelievable control and mastery of vibrato. It’s what sets each one of her songs apart. In the way that a singer like Maria Callas uses vibrato and singing slightly above pitch to create dramatic effect, McDonald does the exact opposite. She sings beautifully and clearly, with none or minimal vibrato. Different? Yes. Emotional impact? Oh, yes. She performs it below:
Another song was “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady which put her playful side on display. “Are you gonna sing along? You better not,” the diva playfully teased. It was only a matter of time until the entire Venetian Theater sang along.
One of the closing songs, and the title of her new album, Go Back Home, is by Kander and Ebb (The duo behind musicals like Chicago.). The song is from their last musical, The Scottsboro Boys, a musical detailing the famous Scottsboro Boys trial. The trial is actually the inspiration for Harper Lee’s book, To Kill a Mockingbird. The audience didn’t need an explanation to see that this piece is particularly close to her heart. She sings everything with a gorgeous simplicity, and this was no exception.
While it’s different from opera, I urge anybody to jump at the chance to hear Audra McDonald live. It’s a personal experience that you rarely have in an opera house. You won’t regret it.
A complete performance of a recent Audra McDonald concert featuring many of the songs she sang at Caramoor can be found here.