The program for Angela Meade’s debut recital with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (PCMS) resembled a plate of food at an all-you-can-eat buffet. At those establishments, warming tables of disparate dishes mingle side by side; by the time diners fill their plates and chow down, everything tastes roughly the same.
How else could you describe pairing selections from Mahler’s elegant, introspective Rückert-Lieder alongside “Bel raggio lusinghier” (“A beautiful ray”), the heavily ornamented showpiece from Rossini’s grand opera Semiramide? Do you enjoy your General Tso’s chicken with a side of macaroni and cheese?
A matter of taste
Judging by the ecstatic reactions of the near-capacity crowd that filled the Perelman Theater, many do. Meade has been a favorite on local stages since her student days at the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA). She still calls Philadelphia home when she’s not appearing with opera companies and orchestras around the world.
Meade’s steady ascent to the first rank of classical music artists somewhat baffles me. Her singing has many fine qualities — extraordinary breath control, lovely pianissimo capabilities, and the ability to dispatch florid coloratura — but as an interpreter, she comes across as hollow, lacking introspection, style, and wit. Those detriments were on display throughout the nearly two-hour program.
Take, for example, her interpretation of Beethoven’s classic concert aria “Ah! Perfido” (“Ah! Traitor”), a recital standard. The heroine begins by forcefully cursing her wayward lover, warning him, “You won’t flee from the wrath of the gods.” She then implores her lover to return; if he leaves her forlorn, she will perish from grief.
Meade sang with focused intensity, although her free use of vibrato occasionally caused pitch to waver. She confined her acting mostly to stock gestures — wrist-flicking, shoulder-shaking, and dramatic posing — that did little to communicate the emotions embedded in the text. Her moody but vacant facial expressions made her seem like a whiny toddler who was told she couldn’t have ice cream before dinner.
Who's the star?
A similar lack of introspection accompanied her interpretation of Rückert-Lieder. Meade’s German pronunciation sounded far from fluent; although I know these songs well, I found myself consulting the printed texts out of confusion. At one point during “Liebst du um Schönheit” (“If you love for Beauty”), she lifted both arms above her head for no apparent reason. This bit of choreography looked like something left over from a run of her signature operatic role, Bellini’s Norma. Overall, she sang gracefully, but with little feeling for Rückert’s delicate poetry.
Meade appeared more comfortable in other selections. A quartet of art songs by Meyerbeer exhibited bell-clear French diction and a fine amount of textual engagement. In “La Vœu pendant l’orage” (“The Vow made during a storm”), I was struck by how uniquely she shaded the repeated closing phrase — “Calm the tempestuous winds / on the raging sea” — over the course of three verses.
The Meyerbeer songs also allowed Danielle Orlando, Meade’s superb accompanist, a moment to shine. A master coach at Curtis and AVA, Orlando played with such dynamic flair that I sometimes wondered who the star of the recital really was. But neither Meade nor Orlando ultimately made the case for these obscure bagatelles to enter the standard repertory.
And although Meade dispatched vocal pyrotechnics culminating in a high E-flat for Semiramide’s aria, one rarely sensed the story behind the notes. Meade attempts the full role at the Met beginning next month; one hopes by then she’ll gain some sense of the character, a proud and treacherous queen of Babylon.
Ultimately, this buffet, though enjoyable, lacked nutritional value. Is it too much to ask for something that feeds the ear and the soul?