Diana Damrau’s “Grand Opera” album dedicated to Giacomo Meyerbeer was always meant to be.
From her very first encounter with the famed German composer to her first meeting with Alain Lanceron, the global president of Warner Classics & Erato, the soprano was always going to develop a strong association with Meyerbeer.
It just took a long time and a lot of obstacles to get there.
The Dream is Born
The soprano first encountered Meyerbeer’s music during her formative years in the conservatory.
“When you dive into the coloratura soprano repertoire, one of the things that will surely cross your path is Dinorah’s aria from “Le pardon de Ploërmel,” she told OperaWire.
The aria, of course, is a staple for a number of sopranos and is among one of the most widely recorded pieces of music by Meyerbeer. Most sopranos move on after learning the virtuosic waltz, but Damrau wanted to learn more. She encountered his Italian style thereafter, dove into the music and then made a major discovery.
“I found out that, like me, he was German. So that made me want to discover more about him,” she noted.
She immersed herself in his German repertoire and then had an epiphany.
“I had this dream of combining his French, Italian and German music on one CD,” she revealed. “That’s how it was born. I never forgot about it.”
The Dream Is Stalled
Of course, Damrau’s dream would encounter a number of major obstacles, mainly the fact that Meyerbeer is not a known quantity in today’s opera world. Despite being THE composer of his day, the man to inspire the likes of Verdi and Wagner, Meyerbeer has been relegated to being a mere curiosity in the 21st century.
But Damrau would not be deterred by the modern climate and her first meeting with Lanceron went as follows.
“He asked me what I wanted to do and I immediately said ‘I want to do a Mozart and Salieri CD and a Meyerbeer CD.”
To her surprise, Lanceron never doubted. He said yes on the spot.
And yet, that first meeting, which took place over a decade ago in 2006, bore no immediate fruit for Meyerbeer. The Mozart and Salieri album would immediately get its time in the sun as “Arie di Bravura” wound up being Damrau’s first set with the company. But Meyerbeer didn’t quite have such an easy development process.
“It was postponed many times. One time it was because we didn’t have the right team. At one point, I had another project that was more important to release,” she noted. “And another time I got pregnant.”
But for Damrau it turned out for the best. After plunging into the more dramatic repertoire, she feels that her voice developed the versatility necessary to tackle a composer who is the epitome of a chameleon composer.
“I am very happy it happened now. Now is the perfect moment, especially with where my voice and artistry is. Now with what I have learned and the range of colors I have developed in my voice, this was definitely the right time to release it.”
The Dream is Realized
The album mixes and blends the three different styles around one another, creating an endless array of surprises. We see selections from famous Meyerbeer operas such as “L’Africaine” and “Les Huguenots” mixed in with rare works such as “Emma di Resburgo” and “Ein Feldlager in Schlesien,” among others. The moment you start to feel comfortable in one style, Damrau hurls you somewhere else. Even within “styles,” Meyerbeer channels something completely different. In one moment, an Italian offering sounds like Donizetti. In another, it’s Rossini.
For the German diva, that unpredictable journey was essential to the listener experience. But she emphasized that this offering was “just a tiny part of the range and possibilities of Meyerbeer.”
In fact, Damrau noted that there were other potential selections she could have included but ultimately went with the ones that inspired her most.
For example, the reasoning for her desire to include to “Oh Schwester, find’ ich dich!” from “Ein Feldlager in Schlesien” comes as a surprise.
“The recitativo is harmonically and dramatically so interesting and powerful,” she revealed. “The aria that comes after is okay, but the recitativo is why I wanted to record this.”
As for her inclusion of Emma’s aria from “Emma di Resburgo,” she fell in love with the opening harp passage and “the flow of the melody.” But what really got to her was the stark contrast that follows.
“It goes into Rossini style with coloratura and high notes. These extremes can be so much fun,” she noted.
While she loves the wide range of Meyerbeer’s musical genius, Damrau acknowledges that when it comes to his music, the French works always reign supreme.
“[The French music] is so beautiful, melodic, touching and airy and has blood. It is really French and elegant. That was probably what he was truly born for,” she explained.
Her absolute favorite Meyerbeer works are “Les Huguenots” and “L’Africaine.” The soprano actually performed the former in a concert version in Frankfurt, an experience that impacted her for the work’s absolute immensity.
“I remember standing there on this huge stage and it was packed with the orchestra, chorus and so many soloists,” Damrau related. “From the dramatic tenor to the bass to coloratura soprano to mezzo-soprano. It has everything!” she stated before noting that she was particularly fond of Meyerbeer’s structural finesse and his ability to subvert musical norms. “I adore the scene of Margherita of Valois. The aria turns into an ensemble. It is long and packed with beauty from one bar to the next.”
As for “L’Africaine,” the composer’s final work, Damrau cites a passion for the story and the two arias recorded on her album.
“The two arias are incredible. The second aria, which is often cut, and it should never be cut, is one of my favorite arias. ‘Adieu mon visage rivage’ is gorgeous,” she added. “I can already imagine how it would be set on stage and how to interpret it.”
The Dream’s Future
Damrau should have already performed in her first staged Meyerbeer Opera. She was programmed to appear in “Robert le Diable” at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in Dec. 2012 in what was to be the first time the work was staged at the house since 1890.
But fate had other plans for her.
“I had a different production – I gave birth to my second baby,” she noted.
Damrau noted that she will finally perform her first staged Meyerbeer in the near future, though those details remain under wraps.
“Meyerbeer took his time, but the connection has always been there. It will always be there.”