Vocal recitals are a rarefied experience — a specialty within a specialty — and yet it was no surprise that Angela Meade's Perelman Theater recital debut Sunday afternoon with pianist Danielle Orlando was sold out. The house was filled with friends — a select group from up the street at the Academy of Vocal Arts, where Meade once studied, plus the less-exclusive fan club she has gathered from being a regular at the Metropolitan Opera.
On Sunday, the soprano rewarded them all, plus regular Philadelphia Chamber Music Society listeners, by ending with a taste of her next Met assignment. She couldn't have chosen a more illuminating excerpt than one from Rossini's Semiramide, in which she has the title role when it opens next month.
Meade has a lot of wonderful qualities, but nothing anywhere else on her program approached the level of what she put on display in "Bel raggio lusinghier," — "A beautiful ray" — sung by the Queen of Babylon in Semiramide's first act. Meade showed her credentials as the perfect coloratura. The quicksilver runs, the lyricism, the startling ability to pick out notes suddenly and solidly at extreme ends of the range — it was all there. There, too, were the high notes, thrillingly nailed.
Recitals are a format for flashing strengths, but also for peering into multiple corners of the artist, and this encounter left me feeling slightly shortchanged. Familiarity comes when an artist makes the emotional commitment of expressivity, and that was sometimes missing. Meade told the audience Bellini was a favorite, and in songs by the composer she was indeed attentive to detail. Her ability to color sound with such great specificity is a rare quality. She colored the music urgent in Bellini's "Sorrowful Image of My Phillis," and in Meyerbeer's "The Daughter of the Air" she found the breathy quality of the text's cloud-dwelling poet.
On some level, though, what you need from a singer is an emotional connection to the material, and though I admire her taking a chance on repertoire that didn't suit her with Mahler's Rückert-Lieder, her Beethoven "Ah! perfido" was much more satisfying. In this piece, the drama is boldly drawn, and so was Meade. Her trumpetlike sounds at the start — those colors again — added fight to the words. ("Ah! You treacherous, faithless, barbaric traitor, you leave?") She moved from angry to vulnerable to sweet and noble, and when she said she would die of grief, no one could doubt it.
Beethoven's concert aria runs only 10 or 15 minutes, but with a few Mozartian touches from Orlando and Meade's deep well of emotion, it came across as nearly an entire opera.
Mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano and pianist Christopher Cano will perform the next PCMS vocal recital at 8 p.m. Jan. 31 at the American Philosophical Society, 427 Chestnut St. Tickets are $25. Information at 215-569-8080 or pcmsconcerts.org.