In a concert career spanning three decades, Barbara Cook has played tiny cabaret rooms that seat 90 as well as the classier confines of the Regency and Cafe Carlyle. Subsequent turns at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall led to acclaimed Broadway solo engagements. Now, for the first time in the 123-year history of the Metropolitan Opera House, Cook becomes the first female singer of popular song to greet an audience of some 4,000 from center stage of the hallowed hall.
The grand diva at age 77 retains a silvery voice that remains crystal-clear, and her sense of timing and emotional candor is braced with a purity that adds grace and wisdom to the songs. Her repertoire is complemented by an actor’s intrinsic sense of storytelling.
A cherished Broadway ingenue in the ’50s, Cook boasts an exquisite sense of how to sing a love song with heartfelt knowledge. Romance, both fulfilled and unrequited, dominated a repertoire that spanned historic moments from Broadway’s golden era.
Defining the genre, Cook opened with a bright and seasoned version of memorable Cy Coleman declarations, from Charity’s boastful revelation “If They Could See Me Now” to the fulfilling moment of arrival, “It’s Not Where You Start (It’s Where You Finish)” from “Seesaw.”
But it was the fervent essence of romanticism with which Cook managed to hold the capacity aud in the palm of her hand. From the wistful longings of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” to the sweet remembrance of the Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg reflection “Last Night When We Were Young,” the evening was a grand, bittersweet embrace.
The program acknowledged the recent Arlen centennial and the deaths of composer Coleman as well as Cook’s longtime accompanist, Wally Harper. There also was a jubilant and reverent nod to cabaret legend Bobby Short with an early George Gershwin tune, “Nashville Nightingale.” The song, with its down-home jazz edge, is featured on Cook’s most recent DRG release, “Tribute.”
Evening included a trio of guest appearances, from Elaine Stritch, who reprised her “Company” triumph “The Ladies Who Lunch”; a divine Audra McDonald, who revisited the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Fiorello” with “When Did I Fall in Love?”; and Josh Groban, the promising young crooner who offered a poignant take on “Not While I’m Around” and “Move On,” a complex duet with Cook from “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Perhaps the definitive interpreter of Stephen Sondheim, Cook captured the beat of the city with “Another Hundred People” and plumbed the emotional depths of “So Many People” and “In Buddy’s Eyes.”
Despite a few false starts, Cook closed her concert with “Not a Day Goes By,” performed with breathless nuance, and defined the soul-searching heartbreak of “Follies” with a reading of “Losing My Mind” that brought the cheering crowd to their feet.