Eric Owens possesses a pleasingly stentorian speaking voice, with a warmth and welcoming tone behind its imposing depth and authority. That warmth has been magnified, in my mind at least, by his appearances during intermissions during the Met’s Live in HD broadcasts, where he somehow strikes that perfect balance between confidence and diffidence. Recent years have brought Owens’ to that point where he seems on the verge of achieving something big, especially since his appearance as Alberich in the Met’s recent Ring Cycle, where he delivered a performance (and interpretation) that others will be measured against for a long time.
Balance is a key element running through Owens’ career. In an Opera News feature from January 2012 he discusses appearing in new, contemporary works against those of more standard rep, trying to counter every appearance in an Adams opera with one by Verdi or Mozart in order to avoid being pigeonholed by directors and audiences.
In his recital with pianist Warren Jones last weekend on the UC Berkley campus, he took this balancing act to a more immediate and personal level in a bifurcated program of German and French composers, the first part of which was largely Sturm und Drang, followed by a second half of joie de vivre.
I arrived to the 3:00 PM concert slightly late (ah, BART, how I love thee), so I went upstairs to the viewing galley, where I almost stepped on a strange woman splayed out in the dark on a yoga mat with her eyes closed. Even by Berkeley standards this was a bit odd. She surrendered her occupation of the space with a bit of attitude, as if my late arrival was a rude intrusion- not to the performer, but to her yoga practice.
Owens, sporting a massive and mostly grey beard, stood stiffly before the piano and sung songs of Wolf, Schumann and Schubert with deliberate gravity that was undermined by an exceptionally stiff stage demeanor. As I mentioned, I was late, so if Owens introduced the material or said anything at all to the audience beforehand I missed it. What I saw was a succession of stoically delivered songs, without comment and with little acknowledgement of the audience. It felt stilted and uncomfortable to me, as if Owens, who can clearly sing this material and sing it quite well, was somehow struggling with how he wanted to come across as a performer.
After the intermission an altogether different Owens walked onstage, said “Hi” with a sheepish grin and a quick wave, and proceeded to talk with the audience a bit before launching into Debussy’s Three Songs. It was a bit of shock to see this fellow after the earlier one, and I liked this guy a lot more. Not only does he sing wonderfully in French, but he also looks like he’s enjoying himself a lot more than the dour guy who was onstage during the first half. With a little more work (or some coaching) Owens could be one of the most magnetic performers to grace a stage. The barrel-bodied man has incredible presence but he’s not capitalizing on it- at least on this afternoon, where the house was shockingly and inexplicably only about half-full (maybe it’s the 3:00 start times?).
Owens performed two encores, the first was Purcell’s “Music for a While” which he described as one of his favorite songs, which he followed with the spiritual “Shall We Gather by the River” which was simply marvelous, but served to illustrate how much potential was left unfulfilled by the afternoon’s performance.
The concert was presented by Cal Performances.