I have always had an interest in Simone Kermes. She has been some sort of puzzle I could not seem to complete: on one hand, the cool-toned baroque diva with impeccable divisions and impossibly effortless in alts; on the other hand, this soprano with leather outfit, crimson*-dyed hair and rock-band vocalist flamboyant attitude. What is hidden in the abyss that lies between both aspects is a mystery one can only solve live.
I have tried to see Kermes in the flesh many times in vain. Although she hails from Leipzig, she has made herself rare in Berlin and, when I saw that she would be here this week-end, I have sought a ticket everywhere. Despite the fact that there was little publicity about her appearance at the RBB’s Haus des Rundfunks, I could not get one of the entirely free tickets. My attempt to go to the Deutsche Oper gala concert in which she would sing just one aria was also frustrated – the few remaining tickets costed the price of six complete recordings of Wagner’s Ring cycle. When all hope was lost and I was trying to set my mind on something else while shopping at Dussman, there I saw that poster saying she would appear there on Tuesday evening – no tickets necessary. It seemed to good to be true – and I soon imagined that it would be only an interview. In any case, there I went.
It was far more than an interview. Actually, the moderator fell ill and Simone Kermes herself decided to play that role. As soon as I saw her entirely at ease with the microphone, interviewing her conductor, making insanely funny jokes and dealing with the audience face to face, one could see that although La Kermes is ultimately a “character”, this is a character she plays in real life. There is no pasteurized glamour neither cultivated intellectuality about her – she is 100% German in her heartiness. One second after she had finished to sing a heavenly lamento, noticing that some people were leaving the hall, she grabbed the microphone. “It is so disconcerting when one leaves the moment you finish a song. You feel as if you have sung really badly. Have I?”. It was not a rhetorical question, since it was put to someone seated on the first row, who timidly said something like “of course not!”.
The curious thing about Kermes’s directness is that it does not feel harsh at all. Behind the bandleader attitude that involves stamping her feet on stage, grimacing and dancing to the rhythm of her own fioriture, there is a genuine unbridled enthusiasm. The lady has tons of personality and is totally uninhibited about pouring all that on stage. Accompanied by a not entirely stylish Semjon Skigin on the piano, she offered the audience tidbits of her new CD of Neapolitan arias with Le Musiche Nove under conductor Claudio Osele.
The first item was Vinci’s Fra cento affani e cento from Ataserse, in which she was not afraid of producing some hoarse sounds while looking frantic about herself. Although the whole thing was doubtlessly over-the-top, it was the kind of over-the-top made with such gusto that you cannot help surrendering. When she later sang Porpora’s Morte amara from Lucio Papirio, she just needed a second to shift into an atmosphere of extreme melancholy and spiritual concentration. Nothing sounded affected or elaborated – the impression was heartfelt and intimate as one voice-and-guitar sad pop song, although no rule of baroque style has been overlooked. After one hour of intelligent and entertaining comments on subjects from vocal technique, baroque and classical performing styles to sexual ambiguity in XVIIIth century and Pink Floyd, she offered a coloratura display in Hasse’s Come nave in mezzo all’onde from Viriate. After all that speaking, I can understand that some gear changes were not entirely natural, but one cannot cease to marvel at her purity of tone, the naturalness of her high notes, the perfect trills, among other technical niceties. After the warm applauses, she treated the audience to two encores – a chilling account of Pergolesi’s Tu me da me dividi from L’Olimpiade, during which she became the dictionary definition of fury, and a heartbreaking, hushed Lascia ch’io pianga from Handel’s Rinaldo.
She would also sign audience members’ CDs while talking to them as if she long knew everyone, making all sort of comments and seeming to be having as much fun as her fans.
The question my five or six readers (you too, Roberto!) are dying to ask me is – why I seem to be positive about a concert which has so much in common with the one Cecilia Bartoli offered at the Philharmonie that I ultimately did not like? And I am ready to answer. First, I find Simone Kermes’s vocal technique more honest than Bartoli’s – her soprano is healthy, natural and very much hearable in its brightness which has nothing metallic about it (to be honest myself, the comparison is not fair – the Philharmonie is a big hall and there was an orchestra there). Second, although there is something theatrical about Kermes, it does not seem affected at all. She must be that way while taking her breakfast cereals at home with her family. With Bartoli, there is an uncomfortable mix of coyness and clownishness à la Roberto Benigni that might please others but that is very irritating to me. Third, there is this blend of German bluntness and love of detail and of Italianate generosity of feelings and larger-than-life quality that makes her somewhat unique. No wonder the Italian reviewers all raved about her recent concert in Rome.
One last comment: as many bright-toned singers, Kermes’s voice works far better live, when it has a lovely smooth radiance. Also, her plunges into low register sound far more natural and substantial in the theatre. Comparing her live performance with the ones available in the CD, I found that the recording made her voice less rich in colour and character. In any case, this is a release to cherish – especially for the exquisite renditions of lamenti and arie d’affetto.
*It would take me a while to realise that Kermes is basically the name of the vermicule that produces crimson dye (therfore vermillion).