Matthew Polenzani has been a constant presence at the Met for well over twenty years now, frequently inspiring reviewers to adjectives like "reliable" and "always X" that are no small achievement on the fickle operatic stage. The reasons why the Met and other leading houses around the world keep returning to him, are clear enough: that winning marriage of a light, attractive sound with plenty of ping, volume capable of filling the biggest Met-sized barns, and an easy stage presence shows no signs of dissolving anytime soon. He is the kind of singer that makes everything look effortless without stopping to assure you its difficult, and yes, that kind of thing can be easy to take for granted.
So it was a welcome treat to hear Polenzani take on unfamiliar rep in an intimate space last Wednesday with collaborator Julius Drake at the piano, in a recital presented by Vocal Arts DC. Perhaps the least successful selection of the evening was the opening number, Beethoven's "Adelaide" (Op. 46), a tough choice for a lead off that Polenzani had trouble making sense of while still in warm up mode. But things quickly corrected themselves with two winning sets of songs by Franz Liszt. Polenzani and Drake, who have recorded a volume of Liszt's songs, easily made converts of the room. Both sets, a grab bag of texts by German poets and a French series on poems of Victor Hugo, entrance with intimations of Debussy and other things to come. Polenzani carefully etched the character of each in thoughtful readings--marred only occasionally by the opera singer tendency to punch up the volume beyond what the recital will bear.
The second half offered a set of amuse-bouches by Erik Satie, slightly more substantial settings by Ravel that allowed Polenzani a bit more of a chance to deploy his more familiar lyric gifts, and closing with a curious set of Barber songs. Encores did a nice job of balancing a bit of indulgence without sacrificing the overall tone of the evening. Reynaldo Hahn's familiar "Parquetto" from his songs of Venice, offered something adjacent to the Italianate splendor we love in Polenzani's Alfredo without taking us out of the recital setting.