She doesn't exactly sweep on stage. Rather, Kathleen Battle takes a demure stance, almost preferring an introvert's notion of a song recital to that of some other reigning goddesses.
So did she present herself Sunday night at Ambassador Auditorium, luxuriating in her considerable vocal wealth and nearly ignoring an image of the elevated status she enjoys. But signs of that status were to be seen everywhere, mostly in the rapt attention of an audience that overflowed to on-stage seats and the orchestra pit.
The lyric soprano from Ohio dispels old notions of what a diva is. For one thing, she seems to lack the last degree of proud self-assurance that the title usually calls for. Neither does she exude the warmth or graciousness often cultivated by other recognized practitioners.
Right from the beginning and through the end of her French-German-English program (identical to one she gave last week in New York), she surrounded herself with a reserve guaranteed to keep diva followers from falling at her feet.
Make no mistake, though. Battle is a cunning seductress. She relies predominantly on the sheer beauty of her high lyric soprano, which she pours out in endlessly ravishing streams of sound.
She hardly needs to indulge in artifice or try for an elusive personal charm when the essences of musical taste and refinement occur so naturally.
Those essences come to the singer through a variety of techniques. Although she operates within the limited scope of her relatively small voice, Battle knows how to project everything from a lilting softness to heroic exultation. She can push the sound forward for incisive word-pointing and she can cover it for a plush pianissimo caress. In between, she soars, embracing phrases with a full-weightedness that benefits from momentum. Not a note-pecker, she luxuriates in the fusion of words and music.
Matching her in wondrously subtle dynamics was pianist Lawrence Skrobacs, who offered inspired accompaniments. The same goes for clarinetist Michele Zukovsky, who contributed to the perfect blend in "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen." With their help, Battle went from wide-interval exuberance to heavy-hearted lament, creating a whole dramatic realm in the process.
But it was "Du bist die Ruh' " in the same Schubert group that proved irresistible. Here the singer reveled in the plummy gorgeousness of her voice, with which she took the long-lined chromatic ascents, capturing, no doubt, the most hardened heart. The opening Purcell hinted at these pleasures and for a Mendelssohn group, she offered both narrative excitement and more seduction by way of a lullaby.
After intermission, Battle returned wearing the same red silk gown, but added a satin stole in almost-diva tradition. Even more seduction followed, via intimacies courtesy of Faure, Duparc and Hahn.
Battle's strength lies in the simple outpouring of song, where she aligns herself with singers of all sorts. So it stands to reason that she can make the gospel song fit a recital forum--which she did with choice examples, particularly with the fervent sorrow of "City Called Heaven."
A languid "Summertime" dominated the set of five disparate encores.