Russell Thomas roves widely in Vocal Arts recital with a memorable Barber “Knoxville”

Thu Feb 15, 2024 at 12:56 pm

Tenor Russell Thomas performed a recital with pianist Lucas Nogara for Vocal Arts DC Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Photo: Vocal Arts DC

Vocal Arts DC hosted the welcome return of Russell Thomas to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater Wednesday night, the tenor’s first appearance here since his 2019 turn in Verdi’s Otello with Washington National Opera.

The qualities that have made Thomas a special presence on the operatic stage were well represented here in his recital: the dark baritonal coloring—effectively deployed to add heft and drama— the beauty and warmth of his middle register, and the wide palette of vocal coloring. 

While the heavier roles of Verdi and Puccini still occupy much of his calendar, the German, French, and American programming on Wednesday’s program echoed new paths: a focus on new American works in recent concerts, his role debut as Parsifal in Houston last month and a planned Énée in Les Troyens for 2025. 

He was joined by pianist Lucas Nogara, who served as a sensitive collaborator throughout the program, achieving a transparent texture in the piano parts that unobtrusively enveloped and supported Thomas’ vocal line.

The highlight of the evening was an unforgettable performance of Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 at the close of the first half. Shorn of orchestral accompaniment, Thomas delivered this setting of James Agee’s memory poem with bracing immediacy, revealing new shades of poignancy in this familiar work. The subtle shifts in tempo he was able to realize with Nogara brought a revelatory sense of through-line to the work’s disparate sections.

German selections opened each half, beginning with Beethoven’s pioneering 1815 song cycle An die ferne Geliebte. A smoldering rendition of the initial “Auf dem Hugel sitz ich spahend” hinted at the emphasis on beauty of sound and vocal line that Thomas would maintain throughout the cycle. The benedictory “Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder” that closes the cycle began with a sense of overflowing warmth, though Thomas’ full operatic weight in the energetic closing bars felt a bit heavy for the piece.

That sound was fully at home in the four songs by Richard Strauss that opened the second half, however, in selections which all shared some significance in Strauss’ collaborative activities with his wife, the soprano Pauline de Ahna. Though the composer’s operas have not yet featured in Thomas’ staged roles, he soared in Strauss’ overripe romanticism, offering a burnished, swaggering sound in “Heimliche Aufforderung” and endless plaintive phrases in “Morgen.”

Three songs by Henri Duparc in the first half offered a rewarding foray into French chanson. An intoxicating covered sound for the opening stanzas of “L’invitation au voyage,” contrasted with rugged abandon in the work’s climaxes. For “Phidylé,” Thomas eased off the voice for the hypnotic descriptions of nature that open the piece. He supplied disarming mezza voce effects in both the repeated incantation “Repose” and in the the final selection, “Extase,” from a text by Jean Lahor.

The program closed with a cycle of three pieces commissioned by Thomas from composer Jasmine Barnes and the poet-librettist Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton. Premiered last year in Los Angeles, the work explores themes of identity and uncertainty in a searching vocal line against a sometimes thorny piano part. 

The work came together most effectively in its final song, “Ain’t I a Man,” where the poetry became more abstract and provided a canvas for a series of compelling and fine-grained interpretative choices from Thomas. A muted approach to the single encore of the spiritual “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” served as an intimate and engaging coda.

Vocal Arts DC’s season continues April 18 with a recital featuring mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack and pianist Keun-A Lee at the Kennedy Center.

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