Letter from Munich: Diana Damrau Liederabend
What can I say about Diana Damrau? She is simply the hottest coloratura around these days. I saw her incredible Zerbinetta last year right here in Munich, also at the Prinzregententheater, in the Robert Carsen production of Ariadne auf Naxos that starred Canada’s own Adrianne Pieczonka. Not only is Damrau a great singer, she is also a totally alluring actress. One got a real taste of it tonight. Her program included songs by Faure, Debussy, and Richard Strauss, all “chestnuts” – not a single unfamiliar song. The only rarity on the program was a song cycle called Day turned to night by contemporary composer Iain Bell (b. 1980), with song texts from Queen Victoria’s writings concerning her love for Prince Albert! It turned out to be a very interesting and accessible cycle of five songs, beginning with a letter the then Princess Victoria wrote to her uncle, King of the Belgians, upon meeting Albert. The last song is from a letter by Queen Victoria to her daughter, the Crown Princess off Prussia, after the death of Albert. This cycle for some reason reminds me of Frauenliebe und Leben, of course only superficially as the content is very different. Damrau sang it with great dramatic commitment, in really quite good English. I read the text over once at intermission and did not refer to it during the performance, wanting to see how much I could understand what she was singing. I was able to understand quite a bit of it. At the end of the cycle during the applause, Damrau gestured to someone sitting directly in front of her in the audience. This person turned out to be the composer, who joined Ms. Damrau for a bow onstage.
Given that it was a contemporary cycle and in a “foreign language”, it would be fair to say that the Bell cycle drew warm enough applause but not the tumultuous reception the audience reserved for the more familiar pieces on the program. Damrau began with a group of six Faure songs. These pieces sit very well in her voice. Despite being a high soprano, Damrau has an unusually warm and full middle voice, and she sang these with plenty of expression and attention to the textual nuances. The seven Debussy songs that followed were even better. Her silvery tone is absolutely ideal and it was a scintillating performance. Damrau’s voice is blessed with a whole palette of tone colours, unlike so many high sopranos with glassy voices and relatively little dynamic variation. Damrau sang with plenty of chiaroscuro, including some wonderful pianissimos tonight! She was also playful onstage when called for in the text, altogether a winning first half. After the intermission, she sang the Bell cycle, followed by Strauss’s Drei Lieder der Ophelia, op. 67. I can’t say this is my favourite Strauss, but Damrau’s performance was superb in every way. She saved the best for last, three of the most beautiful of Strauss songs – Morgen, Wiegenlied, and Cäcilie. These brought the house down, needless to say! Throughout the recital, her pianist, the great Helmut Deutsch, offered expert support. He is certainly among the half-dozen or so greatest collaborative pianists on the circuit today. Damrau gave three encores, all Strauss, but the only one I can recall is Nichts. A lovely Liederabend is always something to treasure, and this was one of them. Now onto Lucrezia Borgia with La Gruberova tomorrow!