Although the vocal croupier hasn’t been doing Jessye Norman any favours of late, she certainly knows how to make the best of the hand she’s been dealt, and as last night’s concert in Gent in Belgium demonstrated, she also still has plenty of aces up her sleeve. A perplexed public were quickly won over, and continued to warm up through the evening, as did Norman’s voice.
Gent, a mid-sized city with big ideas, is a good metaphor for Jessye Norman herself. Although it has a long tradition – with its magnificent churches and van Eycks – it has cleverly known how to reinvent itself. Unlike neighbouring Bruges which keeps itself as a perfectly maintained museum, Gent has contemporary art shows, light installations, is constructing a brave wooden and glass building to host events right in the antique centre. Even the 55-year-old Gent Festival of Flanders no longer has only baroque music in its cathedral and vocal recitals in its opera house, but this year its director Serge Platel presents a tango show and there’s also the exciting presence of the El Sistema trained orchestra from Caracas.
Similarly, Jessye Norman during the last decade or so, has slipped into American song and jazz, leaving the opera repertoire which required too much from her ageing voice, and lieder which needed more precision. Norman has adapted well, and has more astonishing qualities in her singing today than many singers have at their prime. She juggles carefully, but musically, to avoid certain zones which don’t respond so well, and jazz styles allow her to do that. The colour of her voice is still warm yet big, the vibrato is beautiful and controlled, and her breath control is astonishing. Still managing to maintain the slimmed-down Jessye2 figure, she flashes her famous smile and looks ten years younger than she is.
But most impressive about last night’s American Masters concert was the intensity of her approach to each song, each becoming a mini-scene, completely convincing with its sadness, tenderness or sheer joy. Jessye Norman gave much joy to this audience member, and to the city of Gent who have the courage to think big.
Photo: Jessye Norman with pianist Mark Markham by Graham Spicer