‘Grand Opera’ Review: Diana Damrau’s Meyerbeer Album Is An Extraordinary Exploratory JourneyBy Francisco Salazar
For years Meyerbeer’s music has been ignored or gone into obscurity. In recent years, some of his operas have been able to make resurgences thanks in part to star singers. But even so, the composer, one of the most famous of his time, remains an obscurity in the modern opera world.
Now Diana Damrau is finally paying homage to a composer she has adored since her student days with her latest album “Grand Opera.” The new CD is not what most would expect as it features a number of arias from the composer’s more popular operas as well as two world-premiere recordings and a number of unknown pieces.
But what is most surprising is the diversity of languages heard and the number of styles that audiences will discover as they take the journey with Damrau. More incredible is how the soprano navigates said styles with a seemingly endless palette of vocal colors. So much the joint genius of interpreter and composer that at times, you will feel as if you were hearing different sopranos taking on different composers.
I begin this review by noting that I will not go in order of track listings but by the style of the pieces.
The album includes two world premiere tracks in German from the operas “Alimeklek, oder die beiden Kalifen” and “Ein Feldlager in Schleisen.
The first German track [Track 3] from “Alimeklek” is very much in the style of Mozart. The aria “Nun in der Daimm’rung stille” contains orchestrations that are light and place the sonar world in the control of the strings. There is a very baroque quality to the rhythms in the first section. Damrau sings this section about solitude as a lament with her middle voice resonating and emphasizing that loneliness in her character. But in the second section which introduces an oboe and a more cabaletta feel in the vein of the aria “Dove Sono” from “Le Nozze di Figaro,” Damrau sings with much more vigor, the tone regaining a brighter sound. Still, the colors are varied as she enters into the middle section of this cabaletta, singing with a more pianissimo sound. In the recap, the vocal quality regains a weight before ending the aria with a beautiful piano color.
The second German track [track 8] “Ich dich!” begins with a dramatic outcry from the orchestra before entering a semi-recitative dialog between Therese and Viedlka. Here Damrau is a far cry from the light and delicate voice we are used to, her soprano hinting at its dramatic potential. Featuring Kate Aldrich with a small cameo, Damrau sings each line with authority as she tells her sister that her lover will be killed. The passage turns to a propelling passage as the tempo speeds up in a Beethoven-style rhythm before ending suddenly. Damrau delivers “Auf dunklem pfad” in the lowest parts of her voice with heft to underscore despair before turning to a melancholic. This dramatic gesture is most noticeable in her emphasis on “Goodbye.” In many ways, the waltz is a contradiction to the text but Emanuelle Villaume is careful not to only emphasize the om-pah-pahs of the 3/4 rhythm but to also bring out all of the tempestuous interruptions Meyerbeer has written throughout. The clarinet’s accompaniment adds to that melancholy following Damrau as she goes from a forte to a piano.
The two Italian tracks will immediately take us to sound world of Rossini and Donizetti with a hint of Mozart’s orchestral coloratura runs in the vocal writing.
The first Italian track [Track 6] “D’una madre disperata” from ‘Il Crociato in Egitto” begins very much in the style of Mozart’s most difficult coloratura arias. Damrau slowly enters with a commanding tone before dispatching the fiendishly difficult coloratura runs with great agility. In fact, she kicks them off with minuscule tone, slowly crescendoing with each passing line.
The piece then goes into an Andante cantabile. Damrau relishes in the lines emphasizing the trills and bringing out the long phrases with a warmer sound. In the final section, the cabaletta, the soprano’s sound brightens as her character’s fears are turned to joy. The coloratura, which began with a harsher attack, is lighter here and it is evident that Damrau is enjoying each moment through her virtuosic variations. As with a Bel Canto aria, Damrau dispatches a C# to close the aria in true virtuoso form.
The second aria [Track 9] “Sulla Rupe triste, sola” from “Emma di Resburgo” begins with a sweeping harp solo that paints an image of lament before Damrau enters with a weeping tone that comments on her character’s solitude, the soprano extending the phrases as if trying to dwell on each note as long as possible. A joyous chorus interrupts the bleakness, the music shifting to a joyful cabaletta laden with bravura runs that are dispatched with freedom and relative ease. Damrau’s voice may be gaining in heft these days, but this particular passage harkens back to earlier days in her career and a clear reminder that she remains a vocal virtuoso of the highest order. Each vocal cascade brims with delight, climaxing in a wonderful high note.
The French masterpieces
As expected the CD features arias from the best-known operas of Meyerbeer. It all begins with Berthe’s aria “Mon coeur s’enlance” from “Le Prophète.” The aria’s brilliant start is depicted by Damrau’s coquettish tone as she delightfully waits for the return of her lover. The middle section exhibits a warmer sound that fascinates for the youthful timbre that Damrau projects. The cadenza here features a continuously quickening coloratura line.
Isabelle’s aria from “Robert le Diable” does not contain the coloratura spectacle of other arias, but allows Damrau to really use her middle register, unleashing her power. The soprano takes liberties with the line, giving a sense of rhapsodic freedom with tempo, all while making a progressive diminuendo from fortissimo to pianissimo over the course of the musical number. Her voice is accompanied so brilliantly by the oboe and harp imitating the nostalgic qualities of Damrau’s timbre. Most brilliant is how Damrau builds the aria to its final climax and where she finally lets out a visceral outcry, the sound coming out with dramatic emphasis as she builds to the higher extensions of the voice accompanied by a full orchestra.
“Ah. mon dieu” from “L’Etoile du Nord” begins with continuous declamation, Damrau expressing each phrase with a poetic touch all while accompanied by the solo flute. But in perhaps the most unique musical moment of the entire album, the aria turns to a duet between one flute and soprano. Imagine the mad scene from “Lucia Di Lammermoor” but longer and more challenging technically. Damrau follows each flute queue with exactness. As the flute’s rhythm grows in its bravura, so does Damrau’s coloratura. A second flute arrives on the scene, transferring the passage into a trio before the chorus and the full orchestra enter in a waltz-like rhythm. However, when the flutes enter once again the orchestra stops and this time they are all accompanied by chorus creating the impression of a full orchestra. This happens all the while Damrau continues her coloratura line playfully.
Ines’ first aria “La-bas, sous l’arbe noir” from “L’Africaine” sees Damrau once again using her lyric side to express the fear, frailty and wonder in Ines as she explores the unknown world. Damrau effortlessly goes from shimmering pianissimo lines to the fortissimo. Tenderness dominates this aria.
No Meyerbeer album can be complete without Dinorah’s famous aria from “Le Pardon de Ploermel.” Damrau, however, adds the playful recitative that precedes the famous waltz. Damrau, singing to the shadow depicted in the aria, creates a story between the character and the shadow by changing the coloratura attacks and emphasizing different consonants each time. This helps the virtuoso singing to never take over and turn it into a mere vocal showpiece. Damrau does include the middle section which is often eliminated in other interpretations and this allows the aria to obtain more dramatic substance, giving Damrau room for lyrical passages before diving back into the dance. The final cadenza, however, is cut short, a move away from more traditional approaches. However, Damrau varies the dynamics as she repeats the phrases building each time before releasing the final D.
The scene from “Les Hugoneouts” sees Damrau’s voice travel into many different sections. It starts in the more lyrical passages as she describes the beautiful landscape around her. The brilliance of her higher registered comes through as she shifts from the middle to the high notes and changes her dynamics holding out each line. The following section is a quartet with three other soloists. Damrau accompanies spinning coloratura passages adding to the brilliance of the quartet before the piece becomes a cabaletta of sorts. The cabaletta once again gives Damrau the chance to create ethereal colors before returning to tricky coloratura runs at the extremes of her voice. The coloratura really shines as Damrau easily ends with an E Flat to conclude the aria.
Ines’ second aria from “L’Africaine” is a great send off for the entire album. While it doesn’t include the lavish virtuosity found throughout, this aria is powerful for its warmth and glorious legato line. As Ines says farewell to her land, Damrau connects the lines with a peaceful ebb and flow in her timbre. The final line she sings is “Adieu” and here she holds out the sound for a good few seconds, letting it slowly fade into nothingness.
Emanuelle Villaume is a great accompanist to the album as he moves from each style with great distinction. The French pieces are freer in their tempi while the Italian and German arias are heavily concentrated in the rhythm and far more precise.
Overall this CD is quite a surprise. I must admit when I first came into this album, there was much hesitation. I knew nothing about Meyerbeer and, quite frankly, didn’t really see any reason to seek him out. However, Damrau taught me a valuable lesson – give everyone a chance because you never know when it might be his or her turn to make a big impact. On the balance of this album, Meyerbeer’s time for resurrection is now.