Opera legend Patricia Racette — who was just in Washington last month for the lead in Washington National Opera’s production of “Manon Lescaut” — is switching gears radically (at least temporarily) and has released a live album of cabaret-esque standards called, appropriately, “Diva on Detour.”
The album, recorded almost exactly a year ago, finds her covering standards such as “I Got Rhythm,” “Here’s That Rainy Day” and several French numbers associated with Edith Piaf (“La Vie En Rose” et. al.). For those of us who only know Racette by her stunning opera singing, this recording is a real jolt. I wondered, going into it, if she would still sound like an opera singer using, in some capacity, her opera voice — kind of the inverse of what Aretha Franklin does when she tackles opera. No matter the aria, Franklin sings them as a soul/pop singer would. Racette, however, sings in a totally different register and little on the disc would indicate to those unfamiliar with her career, that she even possessed the stratospheric range she does.
Racette, down to earth and unpretentious with the audience, makes a joke of this telling of how her late mother Jackie used to admonish her to “sing in your chest voice.” Racette also tells how this was the music — not opera — on which she cut her musical teeth.
Racette, who’s performed cabaret sets at Alexandria’s Birchmere among other venues, is convincing throughout. Her interpretive abilities with this kind of material are impressive and she’s a master of phrasing and nuance. However the singer — who’s been out as a lesbian for years — would not likely have ever gained fame had she used this kind of music as her launching pad. While a delight to hear, no other recording I’ve heard comes close to illuminating the musical concept of tessitura — the range at which a human voice is at its loveliest. It has nothing to do with range — Racette handles these relatively low notes (for her) with ease. At no point on the album does she sound in the least bit strained or vocally “reaching.” And while it’s a delight to hear, she’s no Linda Eder or Patti LuPone when it comes to this kind of thing.While they could never hope to hit the high notes Racette hits in opera, their voices have a luster and sheen in this range that Racette’s voice lacks.
Still no one should begrudge Racette a side project like this. Her aforementioned interpretive abilities more than justify the disc. Music lovers, however, should know that this is ultimately a curiosity piece. Brilliant pianist Craig Terry — the only accompaniment here — is perfect throughout. He supports the singer skillfully by helping to keep things moving while never getting in the way. Go here to find out more about the project.