Barbara Bonney has most of the virtues expected of a singer. Her lyric tone has a milky purity, and she overcomes a lack of breadth in the more dramatic songs by clever shaping and contrast. Sustained phrases are floated serenely into the air, just above eye-level, and the sound dies away into a distant white tone that merges with the piano sonority. And she is prodigiously intelligent; the urchin gaiety of Mendelssohn's Pagenlied, the pensive inwardness of Ibsen's swan, set to music by Grieg, the pain and nostalgia of the same composer's En Drom, each mood was subtly etched, with a clarity of diction that made much of the succulent Norwegian consonance.
Yet somehow, Bonney evokes admiration rather than delight. It is different with the French artist Isabelle Vernet, the nearest thing to a cabaret singer you can imagine on a classical platform. She strikes poses, rolls her eyes and tosses her head, acting out each song with glowing delight or sly humour. In the discreet absurdities of Poulenc and Reynaldo Hahn, it was delicious beyond words. In Duparc's great gulfs of sadness or the slightly formal tenderness of Faure, you became aware of her limitations, her somewhat forced loud tone and the strain in controlling entries; yet her charm, the warm slightly husky voice that seems to come straight from the heart and guts, these banished all uneasiness. She wisely stuck to French music; you wonder how she would fare in the heavy browed German repertoire. But as long as she stays at home she is entrancing.
Poulenc also featured as the composer of La Voix Humaine, a setting of Cocteau's telephone scene in which an abandoned woman sinks from manipulation to despair and suicide, which was performed at the King's Theatre. There are few sopranos who could sing and act for 40 minutes with such total realism as Elizabeth Soderstrom. She saw the work as a tragedy, not stressing the sentimentality of the heroine but presenting with agonising vividness the plight of an incomplete personality, one who cannot live without another. Richard Armstrong kept the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at her elbow, adroitly pointing each emotion or telling the truths behind the lies.
The companion piece was Cimarosa's Il Maestro di Cappella, another one-singer opera. The stage was set as for a concert; Claudio Desderi, in the usual professional evening dress, came on and proceeded to direct the overture, proving himself a true conductor whom the players were happy to follow. But then, in his familiar buffo baritone, he reproved the orchestra, commented on the music, sang an aria, quarrelled with the double basses, keeping his quite refined beat going throughout. It was masterly, the original musical in-joke.