Lyric-coloratura soprano Bonnie Pomfret’s recital at Duke’s Nelson Music Room on March 27, 2002, was part of an exchange arranged by Susan Dunn, head of Duke’s voice faculty. Pomfret’s recital and subsequent masterclass were in reciprocation for Dunn’s recital and masterclass earlier at Emory University in Atlanta where Pomfret heads the voice faculty.

Pomfret, who has made a specialty of song and recital literature by women composers, presented a varied and intelligently planned program of works by women spanning nearly four hundred years. A shockingly small crowd of less than two dozen attended the recital, apparently a victim of Easter vacations and Passover festivities. To make matters worse, half the audience left after intermission, unfortunately causing them to miss the best part of the evening. The second half of Pomfret’s program consisted of works by women composers from each end of the twentieth century, in which she demonstrated her true power, control and acting ability.

Although Lili Boulanger died in 1918 before her twenty-fifth birthday, she managed to turn out a number of distinguished works, especially those for voices. Pomfret chose six songs from the cycle Clairières dans le Ciel , which chart a man’s deepening depression from unrequited love. One certainly hears Debussy and Fauré in her music, but these songs can stand on their own.

Pomfret brought a full range of technique to bear on these songs, from the soft spin in “Elle était descendue” to the wonderful romantic flutterings of “Une poète disait” to the huge, firm tone pouring out in “Demain fera un an.” She skillfully negotiated the hairpins turns and sudden stops in the vocal lines and applied subtle expressions of grief, joy and desolation to the characterizations. The ease and freedom of her high notes as well as soft singing were most impressive. Her French pronunciation was quite good, although she often softened the edge of beginning consonants too much.

Throughout, her accompanist and fellow Emory faculty member, Laura Gordy, displayed wonderful dynamic control and an idiomatic feel for the impressionism.
Pomfret ended the printed program with five of the songs from Libby Larsen’s Songs From Letters: Calamity Jane to her Daughter Janey, 1880-1902 , a cycle set to actual letters from that icon of the American west. Larsen’s style includes beautifully spare and moving melodies for the serious texts and brash, Broadway extroversion for the humorous ones. Pomfret again demonstrated an extremely powerful instrument, some notes almost too big for the confines of the room. These were never harsh, however, and she was equally adept at floating a haunting pianissimo or sustaining a long-breathed mezza-voce. Here she employed a great sense of character, from the moving regret at losing her eyesight in “All I Have” to the physical rumble-tumble of the wild west show in “A Working Woman.” Gordy confidently changed with every mood, executing the daunting dissonances and jaunty syncopations with panache.

Those who left at intermission might have gone away with a different opinion of Pomfret, whose performance on the first half left a less vivid impression. She began the evening with a cantata by Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, a musical prodigy who, under the patronage of King Louis XIV of France, produced a large catalog of music, from opera to keyboard sonatas. Jacob et Rachel, based on the figures of the same name in Genesis, has four recitatives and three arias, chronicling the Jacob’s labors of love for Rachel. Accompanied by Gordy at the harpsichord and by Duke freshman, Brian Howard, on cello, Pomfret gave an uninvolved, generic reading, often seemingly unaware of the emotions of the text and in very indistinct French, her focus lessened by her use of a printed score. Only in the recitative “Que l’espoir” was there a hint of the character and mood she provided so fully in the second half. It was good to hear such a rare piece but the three participants seemed more dutiful and enthusiastic.

Things got better with a group of nine songs in German, three each from trio of mid-nineteenth century composers. Her command of the language was evident and the pieces showed off some of her beautiful high notes and gorgeous soft singing. But throughout most of the songs, Pomfret again seemed detached from the texts, smiling in seemingly inappropriate moments and giving the words little characterization.

Least effective were the three from Clara Wieck Schumann. “Er ist gekommen,” “Liebst du um Schönheit,” and “Liebeszauber,” all seemed repetitive in their turbulence and heightened emotions. In these Pomfret pushed her voice to edginess and strain. The three from Fanny Mendelssohn-Henzel, “Sehnsucht,” Das meer erglänzte,” and “Von Dir,” had rich, beautiful melodies, well-realized by Gordy, especially in the passages evoking ocean waves in the last two, and sweetly rendered by Pomfret. Best were the three by Josephine Lang. Both Pomfret and Gordy connected with the undulating, infectious melodies of “Am Flusse,” “Blick’nach Oben,” and “Perle und Lied,” supplying the fullest indication of the pleasures to come.

The hardy band that stayed to the end of the recital were further rewarded with a short punchy encore: “The year’s in spring” by Amy Beach, in which Pomfret called on her seemingly boundless reserves of power, filling the room with joyous trumpetings, sending the audience home both educated and entertained.