was looking forward to reviewing this disc, having been
impressed by Diana Damrau when I heard her live as Zerbinetta.
Like everyone else, I was wowed by her Queen of the Night
on DVD and YouTube
, where her rendition of that fiendish
aria has had hundreds of thousands of hits. She has since
declared that she will no longer be performing that rôle,
but, judging by this collection of arias, I wonder if that
decision is premature.
Damrau is hugely talented (see GF's review
of her previous
release - Arie di bravura
): lapidary precision in coloratura,
no hint of shrillness in her top notes,
of intonation, an assured stage presence and considerable
personal charms. She has many sterling qualities which
combine to make her a gifted singer of the modern type
for which productions worldwide cry out. She is, nonetheless,
still a relatively young and inexperienced singer. I wonder
if she has not allowed herself to be pushed too soon into
assuming the grander kind of Mozartian rôles to which her
voice is not (yet?) ideally suited. I need to be specific
if I am to make my case. I am aware that some will think
that I am being unnecessarily harsh. While listening to
the majority of the arias she undertakes here, I inevitably
found myself comparing her with earlier, favourite artists,
as I felt that there was something wanting.
start with Pamina’s aria from “Die Zauberflöte”. I reached
for three other versions for the purposes of comparison:
one by Gundula Janowitz (a hissy, venerable 1964 recording
with Klemperer conducting), one by Barbara Bonney (her
1992 recording on a recital disc), and a third by Barbara
Hendricks (the complete 1991 set conducted by Mackerras).
These performances vary hugely in speed, ranging from a
pacy 2:28 with Mackerras to a leisurely 4:09with Klemperer.
Bonney comes in at 3:26, so Damrau’s 3:59 is also quite
relaxed. Even so, compared with the Klemperer/Janowitz
version it seems to drag and plod; there is little feel
for rubato or flexibility of phrasing in Rhorer’s conducting.
By comparison, Mackerras (Hendricks) and Östman (Bonney)
ought to sound as if they are galloping through the aria.
On the contrary, they simply sound natural and unforced;
their singers are able to phrase sensitively and project
a real personality. Janowitz’s Pamina, in any case, is
sung with such heavenly phrasing and tone that we do not
notice how long Klemperer takes over it. Nor is it a question
of period style versus modern instruments; Östman directs
a period band whereas Klemperer has the LPO. Each is equally
successful in its own way. I find myself subconsciously
disconcerted by Rhorer’s use of “correct” original lower
pitch for all the arias in this recording. Once you have
heard Janowitz’ float her B flat, Damrau’s equivalent note,
pitched somewhere around a quarter tone lower, sounds distinctly
flat, being closer to a modern A – but that might not necessarily
bother others. Finally, it is a question of quality of
voice. All of the other ladies I use for the purposes of
comparison, have, to my ears, a greater intrinsic beauty
of sound, more individuality of utterance, more variety
in tone, dynamics and vocal colouring. Each seems to do
a better job bringing Pamina alive and give her what the
late “Gramophone” critic Alan Blyth used to call more “face”.
follows naturally that if Damrau is somewhat outshone by
her predecessors as Pamina, then it is still less likely
that she will be a satisfactory Countess, Donna Anna, Donna
Elvira or Vitellia – and so it proves. She simply hasn’t
the breadth and heft of voice to sing these deceptively
demanding rôles. She can sing all the notes but essentially
trills her way through them as if she hasn’t really digested
the music. Most of the time, whatever she is singing, she
sounds like a Susanna – which, along with her Constanze,
the arias from the early operas and the two concert arias,
form by far the most successful portion of this recital.
Damrau is essentially still a light lyric soprano with
a voice too small of scale to rival, say, Renée Fleming,
Martina Arroyo or Eleanor Steber in the “grande dame” rôles
in Mozart opera. I took down Dame Janet Baker’s assumption
of Vitellia to reassure myself that I was not being unfair
to Damrau – and there I found the attack, the variety of
colour, plaintiveness of phrasing, richness of lower register
and, above all, the ability to use coloratura to enhance
emotion – all of which are lacking, or present to a lesser
degree, in Damrau’s singing of “Non piu di fiori”. She
certainly makes it sound easy, but she rarely moves us.
Her Donna Anna is young and vulnerable but ultimately forgettable;
even when she is singing Susanna, her characterisation
pales in comparison with a singer such as Lucia Popp. In
truth, I was bored by much of this recital, despite her
Cercle de l’Harmonie is certainly a talented band. They
play with verve, accuracy and technical brilliance but
Rohrer seems to favour extremes. They are sometimes driven
too hard and at others seem too relaxed.
am reminded of an anecdote from Beverley Sills’ autobiography
in which that celebrated singer remarked that she did not
think Norma was that difficult a role and that some lines
in “Norma” always made her “want to giggle”. This, her
stern detractors remarked, explains her lack of proper
commitment and gravitas as Norma. I do not say that Damrau
is guilty of such flippancy, but I wonder whether she has
not fallen into the trap of severely under-estimating the
challenge of the grander arias she has undertaken here.
She is a major talent but this CD represents, for me, a
bridge too far, too soon.