Opera's Next Wave
Mezzo-soprano ISABEL LEONARD
© Dario Acosta 2012
Isabel Leonard sounds exactly the same way that she looks — gorgeous. A native New Yorker, Leonard has the cool beauty and wry sophistication of a heroine from Hollywood's golden age, but she is considerably more than just a (very) pretty face: she is a first-class musician whose poised, even mezzo sounds exactly right for whatever she chooses to sing, whether it be the heroines of Mozart and Rossini, the trouser roles of Handel or the songs of Reynaldo Hahn. Just six years into her professional career, Leonard has established herself as an audience favorite at the Met, where she arrived as Stéphano in Roméo et Juliette in 2007; she's also appeared with singular success at the Salzburg Festival, Vienna State Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Paris Opera, Opéra National de Bordeaux, Santa Fe Opera, Chicago Opera Theater and Fort Worth Opera.
Leonard has just finished an extraordinarily busy 2011–12 season. After her summer 2011 run at Santa Fe Operaas Costanza in Vivaldi's Griselda — a portrayal that most critics considered to be revelatory — Leonard sang Rosina and Zerlina at the Met, Rosina in Vienna and Ruggiero in a new David Alden staging of Handel's Alcina in Bordeaux. She's currently at Glyndebourne for her company debut as Cherubino in a new production of Le Nozze di Figaro, directed by Michael Grandage and conducted by red-hot young maestro Robin Ticciati, who will also pace Leonard and the Glyndebourne cast in a BBC Proms concert of Nozze on August 28.
In 2012–13, Leonard will make her role debut as Mozart's Sesto in Canadian Opera Company's February run of La Clemenza di Tito. For the balance of next season, she will be back at the Met for a trio of plum assignments — Miranda in the company premiere of Thomas Adès's The Tempest, directed by Robert Lepage and conducted by the composer (Oct.–Nov.); Rosina in holiday-season performances of Bartlett Sher's popular Barbiere staging, to be given in a new English-language translation by J. D. McClatchy; and Blanche de la Force in a May revival of Dialogues des Carmélites.
Although she is a dab hand at investing ladies such as Dorabella and Rosina with tart humor, Leonard isn't the type of performer who "sells" herself or her music to an audience. What makes Leonard so compelling is the steady, unstoppable inner rhythm that invests her characters with such rich musical life. She is an unshakably honest singer. Even if a production is on the hectic side — as was the case when she sang Zerlina in Chicago Opera Theater's 2008 Don Giovanni, set in a modern-day "Gentleman's Club" — Leonard refuses to be distracted from the matter at hand.
For a look at Leonard at her best, check out the Mezzo Live HD broadcast of Laurent Pelly's 2011 Paris Opera staging of Giulio Cesare, in which Leonard was Sesto (available on YouTube). As the unhappy boy bent on vengeance, Leonard looks and sounds superb, to be sure. But it's her balanced use of words and ornamentation that makes her performance of "Cara speme" so utterly persuasive: thanks to her scrupulously considered phrasing, the aria emerges with unforced, conversational spontaneity that very few singers can accomplish. It's a class act from a classy artist.
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