The Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall is the kind of space that can quicken the pulse with its novel visual design. But by seating the audience on all four sides of the performers, the space poses unique challenges for singers in particular. To whom, exactly, should you sing?
At her recital on Sunday afternoon, the mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard adopted the sensible compromise of a slow spin, directing individual songs to different sides of the hall, and even went as far as apologizing for turning her back on those audience members seated behind her at any given moment — in effect, half of the hall.
A less poised performer might have handled it all, well, less gracefully, but Leonard’s casual composure carried the day. A young rising star, she has been touted as part of “opera’s next wave,” and as a singer whose “sloe-eyed allure hints at a young Gina Lollobrigida.” Her current season includes two major role debuts at the Met: Miranda in Thomas Adès’s celebrated opera “The Tempest,” for which she won praise this fall, and Blanche in Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmélites,” scheduled for May. It’s safe to say you will be hearing a lot more of her.
The first half of Sunday’s recital brought particular pleasure, as Leonard, a native New Yorker of partly Argentinean descent, delivered an eclectic mix of Spanish-language repertoire with stylistic assurance and idiomatic flair, including songs by Falla, Granados, Mompou, and the more rarely encountered Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge. Her voice has an added dimension of warmth in its lower range but overall maintains a striking tonal evenness and flexibility all the way up. Songs such as Montsalvatge’s “Canto Negro” showed off a vocal athleticism to fine effect. Yet it was the Falla selections in particular that brought out the afternoon’s most distinctive singing, including her glowing account of “Preludios” and a deeply felt performance of “Oración de las Madres que Tienen a sus Hijos en Brazos,” a mother’s heartbreaking prayer that the sleeping baby in her arms should not one day become a soldier.
The recital’s second half was given over to American songs, new and old, by composers ranging from William Schuman and Charles Ives to Cole Porter and Adam Guettel. It felt at moments like a somewhat scattershot collection of encores, but there was still plenty to appreciate, especially with the well-honed directness of statement she brought to selections such as Ives’s “Two Little Flowers” and Ernest Charles’s wistful “When I Have Sung My Songs.” She was deftly supported throughout the afternoon by pianist Vlad Iftinca.
When it came time for an actual encore, I was grateful that Leonard returned to the music of Falla, selecting the lullaby “Nana” from the composer’s “Seven Popular Spanish Songs.” She sang it with such distilled tenderness, purity of tone and streamlined elegance of phrasing that it landed — one imagines, on all sides of the Calderwood cube — like a gift.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org