Janai Brugger’s artistry is on the rise at Kennedy Center

Sat Sep 10, 2016 at 8:52 am
Janai Brugger performed arecital Thursday night at the Kennedy Center's xx Theatre.

Janai Brugger performed a recital Thursday night at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater.

Janai Brugger’s star continues to rise.

After winning both the Operalia and Metropolitan Opera National Council competitions in 2012, the Chicago-born soprano received the Marian Anderson Vocal Award from the Kennedy Center and Washington National Opera this year. The prize of $10,000 comes with a recital at the Kennedy Center, heard on Thursday night in the venue’s Family Theater.

When Brugger made her WNO debut a year ago in the company’s Carmen, she was solid but not excellent. For whatever reason the sweet and soaring music of Micaëla did not seem to suit her voice. In only a couple of the selections in this recital did the same shortcomings appear, as in “Dereinst, Gedanke mein,” the second song in Grieg’s Sechs Lieder, Op. 48. The long note values and slow tempo of the piece require a vocal stillness and tonal simplicity, qualities compromised by Brugger’s fitfully overactive vibrato.

Those moments apart, Brugger delivered stellar performances, showing the artistry that has won her the admiration of critics and competition judges alike. Her voice sparkled with girlish vivacity in the “Jewel Song” from Gounod’s Faust, an excellent sense of intonation deployed in beautifully placed top notes. Her French pronunciation could use some polishing yet the high B at the aria’s end was confident and lovely.

Brugger’s German in the Grieg set also had its shortcomings, her lack of sureness evident by her decision to use her music for this set only. Faster and lighter songs like “Lauf der Welt” were better suited to her voice, especially the sweet first song, “Gruß.” The highlight of the set was the pearly, floating high notes of “Der verschwiegene Nachtigall” (The secret nightingale) while the low notes in “Zur Rosenzeit” revealed a region of the voice that is still developing. Brugger displayed plenty of power for the final crescendo in the last song, “Ein Traum.”

In Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, set to a nostalgic, autobiographical text by James Agee, Brugger showed poise and awareness of pacing through this long work. Here too she was able to rarify her tone to a pure thread of sound, hitting just the right note of wistfulness in both text and music. Pianist Douglas Sumi, whose playing showed a few cracks in the more challenging sections of the Gounod and Barber selections, was in all other ways a sensitive and refined musical partner.

A set of five songs in Spanish featured Brugger’s best language skills. She showed dramatic flair in “De España vengo,” from a zarzuela by Pablo Carné, a reminder that she won the Zarzuela Prize at the Operalia Competition. “Del cabello más sutil,” by Fernando Obradors, had the most elegant sotto voce singing of the evening, and “La rosa y el sauce,” by Argentine composer Carlos Guastavino, ended with a sighing vocalise that showed off Brugger’s fine breath support.

In tribute to Marian Anderson, who often performed American spirituals on her concerts, Brugger ended with five of these traditional pieces. Depending on the singer, such works can have a more church-oriented, uplifting religious sound or the listener can be distanced from the music’s plain origins by arrangements that are more composed, more typical of art song.

Somewhat surprisingly, the latter was true in this case, although Brugger sang with verve and passion, especially in “Give Me Jesus” and “Deep River.” Her single encore was a gorgeous encore of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” in much the same expressive vein, a sort of prayer made secular.

The Kennedy Center has closed the Terrace Theater for renovation this season, and it must be said that the Theater Lab will need some work before it measures up for this kind of concert. A persistent buzzing noise, possibly from one of the lighting fixtures or from the room’s ventilation system, ruined what was otherwise an adequate acoustic. Also, it is self-defeating to offer printed translations of the song texts without providing enough light to read them.

The next vocal recital at the Kennedy Center will feature mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato with the Brentano String Quartet 7:30 p.m. October 5. kennedy-center.org

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