What do Puccini and Hindemith have in common? Exactly – they’ve composed operas about nuns. That is more or less the spirit of the concert offered this evening by conductor Hans Graf and the DSO Berlin. Although the one-acters couldn’t be more different from each other, the very contrast made this evening interesting: while Suor Angelica is about daylight, compliance and forgiveness, Sancta Susanna is nocturnal, transgressive and unforgiving. Both are richly orchestrated, in spite of the “intimate” atmosphere, and feature big roles for soprano and mezzo.
Barbara Frittoli was supposed to sing the title role in the Puccini opera, but fell ill and was replaced in the last minute by Maria Luigia Borsi. I had never heard this Italian soprano before and the clips on Youtube did not sound promising. Her voice has a bright, immediate, almost conversational tonal quality in its middle register reminiscent of some great Italian sopranos from the past; her high register lacks roundness, though, even if she has stamina enough for exposed acuti and there are bumpy moments now and then (the high pianissimi were not really there, for example). Although she acted (the concert performance was semi-staged) with passionate conviction, she had the score on her hands and I suppose that, should she have had more time to prepare herself for an unexpected debut in the Philharmonie in Berlin, maybe these minor flaws could have been dealt with. What matters is that, even if one has famous recordings in mind (Tebaldi, de los Angeles, Ricciarelli, Scotto, Popp – as you see, the discography is extremely glamorous), Borsi could nonetheless offer an extremely touching performance. In spite of a disappointing final note, Senza mamma was phrased with extreme musical sensitivity and feeling. She has a lovely personality, very akin to the role in its sincerity and fervor – and was received in similar mood by the audience. Her Zia Principessa was the versatile Lioba Braun, whose creamy mezzo, blossoming in rich low notes, and dramatic intelligence and concentration made her performance three-dimensional and almost congenial. The remaining roles were well cast, especially with soloists from the Deutsche Oper: Heidi Stober as a youthful, innoncent-sounding Suor Genovieffa; Jana Kurucová as a clear, firm-toned Suora Zelatrice; Ewa Wolak rock-solid as the Maestra delle novizie and Liane Keegan as the Abbess. Although choral singing from Cantus Domus and Ensemberlino Vocale sounded a bit on the white-toned side for Puccini, it was, maybe because of that, particularly clear harmonically speaking and ultimately “realistic” (I mean, there is no Monteverdi Choir in a regular Abbey). The richness of the DSO playing, guided by Hans Graf’s simultaneous respect for the style and his eagerness to show the score in its more “modern” guise just demonstrated why Puccini was so proud of what he did here.
I confess: I have never heard Sancta Susanna before. It is rarely staged (well, I can guess that particularly not in catholic countries…) and its 25-minute length makes it even difficult to stage it as a double-bill. In any case, it is a very interesting piece, with a mysterious atmosphere and two really well-written leading parts. Melanie Diener was utterly compelling in the title role, a great performance, unfailingly rich and sensuous toned, even in its most exposed moments, full of insight and magnetism. Lioba Braun was again an alert, fruity-toned partner as Klementia, and Ewa Wolak made a strong impact in her short contribution as the Old Nun.
The program would also feature Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase, which is the right kind of piece for the lush sonorities of the DSO, one of Germany’s greatest orchestras, the massive sound produced by its strings never overshadowed by the brass being its hallmark, here featured to grandiose effect.