Sweden has given the world one of the most exciting singers of all times, which is Birgit Nilsson. Since Nilsson’s retirement, the world has been waiting for the next great Swedish Wagnerian soprano – and I have read many and many times that someone should be the new Nilsson only to discover that Nilsson’s name has once again been taken in vain. In any case, Swedish sopranos seem again to be the hot stuff in the Wagnerian front. I have to confess that Iréne Theorin‘s superpowerful top notes almost made me profane the incomparable Birgit’s name, but, impressed as I was with her Turandot in Tokyo, her voice lacks tonal sheen and her phrasing could be more fluent. As for Katarina Dalayman, now that is a voice with unusual warmth and richness. It does have reasonable volume, but not enough carrying power, especially in her low register. There have been many good Brünnhildes under the same description – in her concert with Simon Rattle and the BPO in Berlin she was tested by the dramatic top notes, but she did survive commendably the heavy demands on her rather velvety voice. The only piece lacking in my puzzle was Nina Stemme – but now I have completed my collection of Swedish “dramatic” sopranos.
This evening, Ingo Metzmacher and the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin have offered a concert on the theme of temptation/seduction. After an austere, non-Gallic account of Debussy’s symphonic fragments from Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien and a robust yet elegant “Mathis der Maler” Symphony (Hindemith), the audience was treated to a very special performance of the Dance of the Seven Veils from R. Strauss’s Salome. After a highly electrical beginning, the performance gravitated between a somewhat Prussian rigorousness with episodes of almost narcissitic languour. And yet the conductor never let horizontal clarity go – this is the kind of music-making that feels like reading the score in its absolute structuredness and transparency. But one could do with a bit more sensuousness.
However, the program’s focal point was Salome’s closing scene (in its usual adaptation without Herod and Herodias – and I wonder why… there are plenty of mezzos and tenors to do that in Berlin), featuring Stemme as a soloist. I won’t beat around the bush – she did not win me over from note one. Actually, I could barely hear note one… and two, three, four, five… I cannot pass judgement on a singer after one only hearing, but I regret that my first experience with her had to be with Salome, a role entirely inadequate for her vocal nature. While Salome requires a voice with a touch of metallic edge to pierce through the dense orchestration, Stemme’s mezzo-tinted soprano is all roundness and rather stays on stage than fills a hall. She has been singing Sieglinde – and that seems to be a role more proper to her talents. And probably Senta. Maybe Ariadne. But definitely not Salome or Brünnhilde and I hope she has never fancied to sing something like Elektra. I have read some people complain of Dalayman’s “restricted” volume as Isolde – and I can tell you that Dalayman’s voice was far more voluminous in the same hall. And Metzmacher was far more considerate with his soloist than Rattle was that evening.
Under those circumstances, it is very difficult to say anything of her performance. There was not much space for tonal colouring, although she could more or less soften her tone when Strauss required mezza voce from her. I cannot say much about interpretation – she was often covered by the orchestra and had to give her 100% to be hearable. In her favour, she is in very healthy shape. Even when things were really difficult for her, I could hear to no constriction, wobble, shrillnes or any kind of glitch. She did have the occasional under-the-note episodes, especially in exposed climatic passages, when the voice seemed to loose focus and power. Before you all start to think that I am being too negative, there was this moment in which she made it work for me. The first Was tut’s? was excitingly built and, when I thought she had no extra reserves, she launched the second one in a truly sensational gutsy crescendo. Then to the end of the scene she was truly shattering. Pity it was right at the end of it – I gauge that she must have more moments like that in her best days. That said, I still believe she should avoid hoch dramatisch roles – her voice is not high nor dramatic, and the frequentation of heavy repertoire will only rob the all-too-important lyric qualities of her voice. But let us wait a second opportunity to hear her before I have a final opinion.