Portuguese singer Dulce Pontes has constructed her musical identity from a combination of rock ballads, variety pop, and traditional folk music, all infused with fado, the music of melancholy that the late Amalia Rodrigues introduced to international ears. Making her Boston debut Saturday at Berklee, Pontes worked the range of this sonic palette in a compelling, if sometimes bewildering, performance.
The eclectic Pontes diverges from fado stars like the neo-traditional Cristina Branco or the gothic Misia, who sings wraith-like and immobile. Pontes is dramatic -- it's a requirement of the genre -- but in a dancer's expressive, kinetic way. The high theatrics dwell in her voice: she sings big, with a diva's stamina and the eerie tonal warblings of a Kate Bush. The reverb effect applied for most of the show was wholly unnecessary.
The early songs found Pontes at the piano, accompanied by a soulful cello and flute; she then took center stage, her four accompanists working mainly with an assortment of conventional and 12-string Portuguese guitars to establish a Mediterranean backdrop, all just-contained emotion and vivid melancholy. Vocal effects such as melisma and what sounded like scatting offset and embellished the fado's haunting quality.
The upbeat numbers were jaunty, almost jarringly playful. Pontes broke out 15 years ago as Portugal's entry in the famously cheesy Eurovision song contest, and though she did not win she seems to have retained from this and other television work the forced entrain of a Sunday show host. The largely Portuguese-speaking audience grooved to the music, but seemed torn between fado-appropriate reverence and mechanical hand-clapping.
The show's high point came after Pontes donned ankle bells while a musician brandished a bagpipe. To the pipe's drone and a beat cycle hammered out on a hand drum and the cello's chamber, she sang phrases and executed dance moves that evoked, all at once, Celtic, flamenco, Arabic, Gypsy, and Indian music. It was a moment of total performance, one that attested to Portuguese culture's many influences and to the wealth of material it offers an idiosyncratic artist like Pontes.