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Posts Tagged ‘Diana Damrau’

It is not that I am in a disliking-mood – to start with, I have found Mary Zimmermann’s staging of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor silly and cheap-looking from the moment-one, when Natalie Dessay was the selling-feature of this production. It remains so – it is particularly annoying to have extra twenty minutes in the theatre due to problems in the change of such uninspiring sceneries. In any case, the reason for my second visit to this Lucia was Diana Damrau. I have to confess that it was rather the curiosity to see how she would deal with a role which is, on paper, unsuited to her voice.

Before I am thrown stones at, I rush to say that I like Damrau – I find her extraordinarily intelligent and creative, but I wish she could transcend this coloratura-label. Because she does dispatch some amazing fioriture, one tends to indulge the snags, particularly the alternately overmetallic and unfocused quality of her vocal production.  In other words, this is a voice without the hallmark morbidezza an Italian soprano is supposed to have, especially in ingénue roles. As far as we are speaking of mezza voce, this German soprano is adept in producing effortless soft phrasing in every register, but the rest of her singing comes forth as rather harsh and unable to pierce through.  Most of Regnava nel silenzio was a guessing game for the audience and, most inexplicably for a high soprano, she tended to be overshadowed by her partners in duets and ensembles and some of her in alts, true in pitch as they were, could be barely noticed. If I am blunt about this, it is only in the hope that such a serious artist be able to fix these minor but noticeable drawbacks before it is too late.

But let’s speak of the positive aspects in Damrau’s Lucia. First of all, even if Natalie Dessay pulled out a far more polished and coherent performance, I must say I could connect more to Damrau’s work, particularly because of its sincerity – somehow she embraced the character without any “added” attitude or underlying comment. I would say more – in spite of Dessay’s acknowledged talent for acting, I find the newcomer even more compelling in comparison.

When on stage, Damrau is not expertly repeating carefully throught-through and rehearsed routines, but very much “alive” there – reacting to the actual situation of being on stage in a way only experienced actors do.  She also has excellent intuition for finding stage meanings for musical ideas and has personality and vivaciousness to make all that work. It is only a pity that she did not receive enough attention from a director – sometimes she would try too hard and spoil the effect of a good idea by overusing it or doing it in the wrong moment. It is the task of the director to review and correct this, what makes it doubly regrettable that such a skilled performer could not benefit from that.

The problem was particularly bothersome in the mad scene, without any shadow of doubt the highlight of the whole performance (as it should be). There,  Damrau could go beyond the Romantic lyricism and let through just the necessary ounce of nastiness to transform something merely beautiful into something touching. But at moments when she should invest in some repose, to let the effect work, she would try something else or repeat a bit of what she had just done to semaphoric effects.  From the musical point of view, the lighter orchestral accompaniment enabled her more comfort to play with tone colouring and also add a sense of story-telling through phrasing alone. Only in the very end, she could not avoid some hardness and shrillness, but by then she could twist the audience around her little finger.

Her Edgardo was tenor Piotr Beczala, whom I knew from healthy but rather unsubtle Mozart performances. At first, he is more at ease in bel canto repertoire. His voice is pleasant, light but compact. He has considerably elegant phrasing and is sensitive to the text. I can see a Nemorino there, but not much beyond that – Bellini would be too high for him, Rossini would be too fast and, although he has been singing Verdi, I find it heavy for his voice. In any case, Edgardo is a good fit for him – and, even in the closing scene (where the demands were a bit hard on him), he never showed himself other than in an elegant manner. He also interacted beautifully with Damrau in their act I duet and looked believably dangerous in the wedding scene.

In the role of Enrico, Vladimir Stoyanov displayed a velvety middle-size baritone that would work to perfection in a smaller house. At the Met, some of his high notes sounded a bit pale. As in his Leporello, Ildar Abdrazakov’s bass seems to be shorter on both ends this day. The timid low register was particularly problematic. 

As for the musical direction, Marco Armiliato showed us the cliché of a Donizetti performance – lively tempi, unpolished phrasing, noisy ensembles and a general idea that the expressive aspects are the singers’ responsability.

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Mozart’s over-the-top-on-purpose Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail has been performed only 67 times in the Metropolitan Opera House. Some might say that the German dialogues might have something to do with that; I would rather blame the impossible casting: something like the German version of a soprano drammatico d’agilità, a flexible lyric tenor with an absolutely free top register, a soubrette with in alts and a basso profondo (profondissimo?) with perfect control of divisions and ease for patter… in German. If you check the discography, most symptomatically no recording features a cast like that.

You might imagine how much of a challenge this work is for any opera house. If the Met did not produce a cast in the standards of a Gruberová/Araiza/Moll-team, it is only because singers like that do no exist these days. Before I am accused of ungenerosity, I hasten to explain that I am convinced that today’s is the best possible casting one could think of. In the case of Matthew Polenzani, I still wonder if he does not belong to the shortlist of great Belmontes. It is true that the frequentation of heavier roles has robbed a bit of the golden quality of his tenor, but he still sings it with impressive fluency and richness of tone. Probably only Wunderlich would offer such liquid warmth in this demanding role. What I’ve missed is precisely the way the legendary German tenor caressed his fioriture, while Polenzani sounds a bit as if he were really looking forward to the end of every fastidious melisma. Belmontes less gifted by nature – such as Kurt Streit or the late Deon van der Walt – finally pulled out more convincing results in those tricky moments. Maybe this unease explains the adoption of the simplified version of Wenn der Freuden.

Diana Damrau could be a great Konstanze – she does have a most spontaneous high register, impressively clean fioriture and some heft. More solid low notes would help, but that is a problem even some very great Konstanzes (such as Gruberová) had to deal with. However, what will always remain a liability in Mozartian repertoire (with the possible exception of the Queen of the Night, the role that made Damrau famous) is an impure, metallic, harsh quality in her vocal production that devoids it entirely of loveliness. I am dying to use the word “focus” (because I use it a lot), but that is exactly what her soprano wants. The lack of focus prevents her from producing clean trills, from piercing through ensembles when in her middle and low registers and finally and most seriously from offering truly consistent legato. I notice she is a very energetic person – and sometimes singers with such disposition tend to overkill a bit. In any case, I don’t wish to complain about her performance: Diana Damrau is an extraordinarily intelligent singer, who invests her lines and phrases with such dramatic understanding and meaning that one cannot help enjoying her work. Her ease with mezza voce is also a strong asset. The descending serpentine phrasing in the end of Traurigkeit has rarely been so expressively handled and the way she blended her voice with the strings in des Himmels Segen belohne dich (in Matern aller Arten) was spellbinding.

Kristinn Sigmundsson was an excellent Osmin. The extreme low notes were not his best moments (as with almost every bass in this role), but his dark firm tone, his flexibility, imagination and sheer charisma were more than compensation. I had only seen this Icelandic Bass in serious roles and did not know he had such a bent for comedy!

Aleksandra Kurzak has the right quicksilvery voice for Blondchen and did not seem fazed with the very high notes in Dürch Zärtlichkeit. On the other hand, the voice lacks some substance and Welche Wonne, Welche Lust was a bit brittle. I felt somewhat sorry for Steve Davislim. He does not seem to be a very playful fellow and did seem a bit annoyed with having to play the ebullient Pedrillo. That did not prevent him from offering a firm-toned Frisch zum Kampfe, though.

It must sound surprising, however, that the shining feature of today’s performance was David Roberton’s masterly conducting. Rarely have I seen the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra so adept in Mozart style as today – the strings were entirely at ease with the rapid passagework, the level of clarity was admirable, not to mention the sense of animation so important in this score. Robertson offered vigorous, crystalline and dramatic alert conducting – the overture itself was exemplary in the way it filled the “Turkish” and “European” themes with the sense of storytelling.

If I am not mistaken, John Dexter’s is the Met’s old production from 1979. It still looks well in its Henri Rousseau-like portrayal of a cardboard Turkey. Some costumes look a bit 70’s-bound and the stage direction is only fair, if unobtrusive. I have to confess a more positive Selim than Matthias von Stegmann would be helpful. His portrayal is so devoid of menace and passion that it makes difficult to understand why Konstanze would fear or respect him at all.

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