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TV REVIEW : Opera Stars Shine in PBS Special 'Spirituals'

December 07, 1990|JOHN HENKEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spirituals are one of the most complex of our native art forms. Forged in the agonies of slavery, their all-encompassing texts range from exuberant joy to deepest pain, at once personal and universal.

The music is equally wide-ranging and, despite drawing on many sources, astonishingly fresh and original. As such, spirituals served many singers as show-stoppers long before anyone thought of them in terms of "crossover" appeal.

Spirituals as show pieces are the subject of "Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman Sing Spirituals," airing tonight on PBS' "Great Performances" (9 p.m., Channels 28, 15 and 24). Although Marian Anderson provides some roots for the show in introductory clips, and Carnegie Hall is even decked out in quasi-church fashion, with a large choir in robes and a pew up front for the stars, the package is ultimately an entertainment extravaganza.

The two stars leave the viewer with no doubts about their personal connection to their material, however. Particularly in the introspective songs at the center of the 90-minute program, they are both supremely expressive of otherworldly ecstasies.

Vocally, Norman and Battle are in peak form, in a true singing spectacular. They take risks in making the music immediate in utterly compelling, vivid performances.

The repertory is mostly familiar ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "There Is a Balm in Gilead," "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands"), in wonderfully varied arrangements, such as Battle's chamber jazz number with flutist Hubert Laws and harpist Nancy Allen built around "Play on Your Harp, Little David," or the starkly dramatic combination of "Calvary" and "He Never Said a Mumblin' Word" for Norman and the choir. Accepting the inherently inflated nature of spirituals with a full orchestra accompaniment, the numerous arrangers allowed the traditional character of the music to emerge readily.

James Levine conducts with accommodating nuance, bouncing on the podium and singing along. The large chorus that he formed for the Met production of "Porgy and Bess" contributes mighty, occasionally blurred sounds in supporting work.

The production in this video relic from a live concert last March--with an audio recording from Deutsche Grammophon on the way--seems to aim at informality, to the point of pseudo-naive amateurishness. Levine's hand flutters across a camera focused on Battle at one point, and the few attempts at artifice, such as Norman's face in two split-screen images in "Deep River," prove equally awkward.

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