J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano; Rachael Kerr, piano: Sheila Jaffé, viola; Koerner Hall, July 27, 2023
A highlight of the annual Toronto Summer Music Festival every July is a mainstage vocal recital given by a big-name international artist. This year, the announced singer was Sondra Radvanovsky, who unfortunately was indisposed and had to cancel. While Toronto voice fans were sad about her absence, they were rewarded with a worthy replacement in American mezzo J’Nai Bridges, who wowed the TSM audience with an enjoyable program of Brahms, Ravel, John Carter, and Spirituals.
Toronto opera lovers may have heard her as a striking Carmen at the COC last season, which was well received by audiences and critics. I attended opening night last October 16th and wrote in my review, “…American mezzo J’Nai Bridges combined a dark mezzo of ample volume with the requisite stage allure, giving a riveting portrayal of the Gypsy… (together with her Don Jose tenor Marcelo Puente) they burned up the stage.”
Last evening, we saw another side of J’Nai Bridges’ artistry. Instead of the blood-and-guts Carmen, we have the American mezzo singing Johannes Brahms Lieder, as well as the intoxicating Scheherazade by Maurice Ravel, and a song cycle by American composer John Carter. At the piano was Rachael Kerr, a well-known collaborative pianist/coach in Toronto.
The moment Ms. Bridges came onto the stage in a dazzling silver lamé floor length gown, we knew we were in for something special, musically as well as visually. Frankly, I don’t recall the last time a prima donna appearing in such a stunningly flamboyant gown in a staid Lieder recital, but then Bridges is no ordinary recitalist! She opened the proceedings with a surprise — a vocal rendition of The Lord’s Prayer. One was immediately struck by her rich, opulent tone and charismatic stage persona.
The first item in the formal part of the program was Brahms’s “Dein blaues Auge,” delivered in a slow tempo, sung with sumptuous tone. It was followed by “Von ewiger Liebe” and “Die Mainacht” from Vier Gesänge, one of Brahms’ most inspired creations. These songs sit well in her mezzo range, and she sang with rich tone and sensitivity. The tempi overall were on the slow side, even occasionally sounding tentative, particularly earlier on, understandable given the short time they had to prepare for this concert.
Some observations — I was struck by how instantly recognizable her timbre is, unlike so many of the younger singers today, however beautiful the voice. Her middle register has a rather veiled quality, with the vocal production quite far back. Together with the rich, dark timbre, the text — especially the German consonants — were not always ideally clear. A highlight of the first half was the chamber version of Zwei Gesänge, Op. 91, with excellent contributions by violist Sheila Jaffé and Rachael Kerr at the keyboard.
The second half opened with the exquisite Scheherazade by Ravel, which Bridges sang beautifully. In the climactic moments, such as in the high note in “La flute enchantée,” her delivery was triple forte, bordering on the operatic. While I liked both the Brahms and the Ravel, if I had to choose, I would prefer her Ravel, which sounds more idiomatic to my ears.
The formal program ended with Cantata by American composer John Carter, a cycle made famous by the great Jessye Norman. These five songs are modern settings of very familiar Spirituals the likes of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Ride On King Jesus.” Bridges delivered these with great feeling and lovely tone — Brava!
At various points during the evening, Bridges took to the mike and spoke graciously to the audience, introducing the less familiar Carter song cycle for example, much appreciated by everyone. The recital was on the short side, but the atmosphere was warm and ingratiating, the audience exceptionally appreciative. She encored with “Habanera” from Carmen, much to the delight of everyone, plus a final “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” ecstatically received by the audience. It’s safe to say everyone went home happy.
Get the daily arts news straight to your inbox.
Sign up for the Ludwig van Daily — classical music and opera in five minutes or less HERE.
- SCRUTINY | Sir András Schiff Makes A Stunning Return To Koerner Hall - November 7, 2023
- SCRUTINY | Energy And Enthusiasm Mark Glenn Gould School Chamber Operas Performance - November 5, 2023
- SCRUTINY | Opera Atelier Opens Season with a Welcome Revival Of Orpheus And Eurydice - October 31, 2023