BWW Reviews: Stephanie Blythe Channels Kate Smith - with Heart
What could be more luxurious than to bask in the glow of a truly great opera star singing song after song of a beloved icon from the previous century? In a word, nothing. Those who were fortunate, and prescient, enough to avail themselves of tickets to Stephanie Blythe's glorious San Diego Opera concert presentation, We'll meet again:?The Songs of Kate Smith, were treated to an evening as indulgent as musical chocolates and champagne bubble bath.
Accompanied by her equally billed pianist Craig Terry, who is her constant pillar of support on the concert stage, Blythe did more than evoke the wildly popular, much beloved mid-twentieth century crooner; she became Kate Smith. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XogKGeSuonY)
The acclaimed mezzo-soprano has made it known that her identification with the iconic American songstress, who was known during her astounding five-decade career as "The First Lady of Radio", is total and complete. "Kate Smith is the quintessential American singer. I just plain admire her," Blythe says. "Her story is remarkable, her zest for life and her passion about the country and about performing and connecting with audiences - exceptional."
Smith's support of the troops during World War II was crucial to the overall disposition of Americans, boosting the outlook of the populace, bringing them together and helping them endure those extraordinarily difficult times. Blythe feels that the music in her show has something for everyone; thus she has made a commitment to perform Smith's songs all over the US. "There is not a single audience in this country that I've performed this show for that hasn't felt touched by it in some way," she says.
That statement rang true as popular favorites, at times humorous, at times seemingly spun from unadulterated nostalgia, cascaded one after another from Blythe's superb instrument: Leigh Harline and Ned Washington's beloved "When You Wish Upon a Star"; Smith's signature "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain", written by Harry Woods, Howard Johnson and Smith; Hughie Charles & Ross Parker's "We'll meet again", in which Blythe urged the audience to sing along. During each of these and the panoply of others a collective vibration of joy and nostalgia seemed to resonate throughout the packed Balboa Theatre.
Blythe purposely omitted the list of selections from the program, in order to engage the audience as much as possible. When the time came for her to bid adieu to them for her rousing version of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America", perhaps the song which best evokes Smith's persona, Blythe had so captured the heart of the audience that they spontaneously joined in the singing.
With each number, the audience became more enthralled, completely taken with Blythe's lush, gorgeous voice and the emotions that were evoked as a result. One could almost feel the theatre swaying along with the soothing rhythms and lush melodies.
Blythe belted out the tunes as if born to them. Her renditions seemed effortlessly produced from a canny knowledge of what made Smith tick from the inside out. Her voice was sheer perfection, utterly fluent in every part of her register. The lower range scintillated, each display of her immense power in the upper range sent shivers up the spine, and brief hints at her stunning "opera voice" were thrilling. Her love for the songs flowed from every pore.
What made the presentation even more exceptional was Blythe's running commentary before and in between each song, as she shared tidbits of her own background, her reasons for identifying with Smith, and little known details about Smith's history. Blythe's humor, candid perceptions and heartfelt affection for her vocal icon were infectious, and further captivated the audience. Her comment likening 1930s radio to today's social media was truly insightful.
The performance of her companion and collaborator Craig Terry easily proved worthy of Blythe's insistence that he receive equal billing with her. Blythe handpicked Terry, a product of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and currently an Assistant Conductor at Chicago Lyric Opera, not only for his outstanding technical command, but also for his artistic sensibilities and ability to convincingly demonstrate the exuberant qualities of Smith's music.
He obviously was an excellent choice. Their collaboration seemed effortless and totally in sync on every level, and their obvious fondness and appreciation for each other were positively inspiring. At times Terry's enthusiasm was so effusive it seemed as if he and the piano would go soaring into the stratosphere. He superbly captured both the subtleties and the full-out rollicking aspects of the music. An all too brief taste of his Chopin evoked a desire to hear him play more classical repertoire.
Blythe also has become recognized for her advocacy of American song in general, commissioning song cycles from well-known American composers. Since making her SDO debut last season in Verdi's A Masked Ball, she has also made known her affection for the city of San Diego, and for her pledge to help support San Diego Opera in any way she can. Thus the company is grateful for Blythe's presence and her contribution to the 2014-2015 season.
Verdi isn't her only strong suit. In recent years she has sung everything from Wagner to Bizet to Stravinsky, in virtually every major opera house and concert hall in the world. All the more reason why an evening of nostalgic favorites performed by her seemed like such an indulgence: a guilty pleasure with mostly pleasure and very little guilt.
Kate Smith, Blythe has said, was an amazing woman. Stephanie Blythe surely is an equally extraordinary singer and performer. And like Smith, Blythe is, in every way, a star. San Diego Opera is truly fortunate to have this stellar artist as a champion and advocate of the company's valiant and successful efforts to maintain this valuable arts organization as a key part of the city's heritage.
God Bless America.
Photo credit: Kevin Yatarola