10 August 2012

CD Review: Racette’s ‘Diva on Detour’

Over the past few years, Patricia Racette has earned the reputation of one of America’s foremost sopranos. The first time I heard her, as the title character in Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, at New York City Opera, she won my admiration, and I’m always glad to hear more of her. Since then, with her searing theatricality and passionate, clarion singing, she’s gone on racking up triumphs, in repertory ranging from Verdi and Puccini to Janácˇek and Carlisle Floyd, particularly at San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and the Met. At the last company, she’s received notable acclaim for her Madama Butterfly and for a Tosca that helped to redeem Luc Bondy’s infamously ill-conceived staging.

Strangely enough, however, this Soprano Assoluta boasts a background in cabaret: in her younger years, she enrolled at the University of North Texas to study jazz, but wound up in opera instead. Hearing her at the Met, I simply couldn’t imagine her on a spotlit barstool by a smoky piano. Surely she was making this up.

Now GPR Records has released a CD that exuberantly proclaims Racette’s mastery of an altogether different idiom. While she brings to bear certain assets of concert singing — particularly extended range and breath control that permits her to hold notes far longer than the average chantoozy — she gives herself over freely to the demands of the art form, exploiting a gutsy chest voice, alert attention to rhythm, and expressive devotion to language. She manages Billie Holiday’s trademark, singing on consonants, and she belts as if she were born to do nothing else.

Doozy of a chantoozy: Soprano Patricia Racette

Looking over the playlist of pop standards, almost all of which are associated with legendary stars of the past, you admire not only Racette’s good taste but also her courage. How the hell does any “diva on detour” open her act with a medley of Judy Garland numbers? Well, it takes her about less than two bars to dispel any doubts you may have, and once she’s got you in her grasp, she’s not letting you go.

Even in a set of Piaf numbers, she catches exactly the right style. She doesn’t imitate so much as invoke the Little Sparrow’s gargles and growls, her moans and roar, not to mention her flawless French diction. The only time she isn’t completely convincing is, paradoxically, a rendition of “La Vie en rose” delivered in what we will call her Opera Voice: though you can’t deny her emotional connection, the song becomes altogether too plummy. It’s nowhere near as bad as Renata Scotto’s legendary “Over the Rainbow,” but nevertheless it’s a mistake she won’t make twice in the course of this album.

So big deal: Patricia Racette is not Eileen Farrell — a unique artist who could use essentially the same voice in both opera and jazz. Racette needs two different voices, and the great marvel here is that her cabaret voice is so persuasive, uninhibited, and stylish.

In a sense, Racette’s affinity for this repertory is only natural, since in opera, too, she sings roles that are closely associated with monstres sacrés like Maria Callas, every bit as titanic in her field as Piaf or Garland was in hers. Racette must make those roles her own, just as she must make these songs hers and not Garland’s or Piaf’s — or, for that matter, Jack Gilford’s, when she sings “I’m Calm.” She’s very funny, as it happens, not Jack’s way but her way.

Interpretation has become the abandoned child in pop music, where we put an almost exclusive emphasis on innovation. But in jazz as in opera, interpretation is the order of the day, and it’s Racette’s achievement that she finds herself and communicates with us in any music that she sings. She’s a “diva on detour,” perhaps, but she’s not slumming: she’s got integrity. She knows what to do, and she does it — beautifully.

The album was recorded before a live audience (invited, audibly appreciative, and pleasingly responsive), and it’s distinguished by Racette’s engaging between-song banter. Has any soprano in such circumstances ever sounded less like a conservatory recitalist? I doubt it. Craig Terry, her longtime collaborator, provides expert accompaniment on piano, exercising a kind of majestic yet unpretentious command that’s a perfect match for her full-throated delivery.

Diva on Detour is a priceless souvenir of one more facet of a great artist’s talent, and I look forward to listening to it and learning more from it for many years to come.

For more information and to purchase Diva on Detour, click here.



I was there for the recording...she's the real deal.

A queer one (Julie Jordan) said...

Great, She's doing Butterfly next year in BCN! Will try to get her to sign me a CD!

Will said...

I first heard her early in her career in Boston as the four heroines in Hoffmann and she immediately caught my attention.

William V. Madison said...

I'm envious, Will. Actually, I'm long past the point that I regret every time I HAVEN'T heard Patricia Racette: she did so much excellent work while I was living out of the country. Maybe now I won't miss quite so many of her performances!

Sarah B. Roberts said...

Great review. I was there for the recording and I'm enjoying the album. I always love seeing somebody step away from their normal vocation to take a chance at the advocation they love.