Cher Public

Das Süsses Mädel and the Boy from Berlin

Diana Damrau is a finished artist, the voice full-bodied rather than tinkling, pastel not metal, her agility well-schooled and the instrument of sufficient size to fill the Met. The range is extensive if sometimes a bit thin above the staff, and the core is strong. She does not sing around the note or touch on the note, as the watery coloraturas do; she sings the note. There is an ease and a weight to her passage work, runs are a pleasure but trills sometimes unclear or fudged. She always gives pleasure though one sometimes find her bland, lacking distinctive personality. 

A Viennese friend tells me, “We call Damrau ‘das süsses Mädel,’” and it is a whirling, Olivia da Havilland amiability that she tends to project, though her Violetta was touchingly acted. She is one of our reigning divas, and a reigning coloratura soprano gets to choose whatever familiar and unfamiliar showpieces she cares to record.

Damrau has chosen for her new Erato recital disc Grand Opera 11 high-flying showpieces from ten operas by Giacomo Meyerbeer, including the ones every soprano lover knows, if only from recordings (“Ombre légère,” “O beau pays de la Touraine,” “Robert, toi que j’aime”) and a few obscure works from the earliest years of his long career. The operas represented were composed over fifty years. Only Verdi could beat Meyerbeer’s record and produce so many well-known items over such a stretch.

I’d be curious if any music lover listening to this record uninformed of its contents could deduce what these numbers had in common, which composer had written them all. Would anyone not recognizing the well-known ones detect a melodic “signature” or style that proclaimed them all “Meyerbeer” the way melodies in even Verdi’s earliest and latest operas announce they can have been fathered by no one else?

He was a bit of a chameleon. Abimelek, oder die Beiden Kalifen had its premiere in 1814, and the melody of “Nur in der Damm’rung stille” is in the style of the operas of Spohr and Weber, a rounded theme that allows Damrau’s voice to bloom as it rises with the hopeful text.

The years of his Italian apprenticeship are represented by scenes from Emma di Resburgo (1819) and Il Crociato in Egitto (1824). “Sulla rupe triste” follows the Rossini pattern of melancholy cavatina (“she begs heaven to take pity”), choral outburst (“What are you on about?”), and explosive cabaletta, and could pass for Rossini. A curiosity: obbligato instruments, which were to be such a feature of the mature Meyerbeer style, accompany the voice, harp for sorrow, clarinet for joy.

The womanly beauty of Damrau’s voice matches the melody every step until an octave leap at the very end, intended to thrill us. If the D’s and E’s are not pretty notes, I’d advise any diva to omit them, but Damrau never does. The listener will either shudder or fall down and worship, according to taste.

Il Crociato, which set the seal on Meyerbeer’s Italian years and paved his way to Paris, is beginning to be appreciated on the continent once again. The plot, as so often in seria, hangs on the tyrant, Aladino, changing his mind at the last moment. Palmide sings “D’una madre disperata,” a scena in three moods, from dramatic coloratura defiance to lullaby over her child (which touches the infidel heart) to happy ecstasy in nine minutes of sustained singing. (Choral interjections help cover the changing gears.) The fioritura does not sound like Rossini—there is a new sophistication to the harmonies as well as a brazenness to the acuti. Damrau tears up the stage.

And then we are in Paris for Robert le Diable in 1831, an opera that is proof Meyerbeer had spent a year or two absorbing the lessons of Auber and Rossini. With Scribe to write his libretti and the Paris orchestra to play whatever he asked, his template was set for the rest of his life.

Virtuoso coloratura sopranos may adore a Meyerbeer showpiece, but these roles are, curiously, seldom the emotional core of grand opera; the florid chirping is often beside the dramatic point. It is the lower-voiced ladies who are the emotional heart of the story, or share it with the tenor, as if the unselfishness of restrained passion meant more to the grand opera audience.

This was true in grand operas by other composers as well: The lovers in Guillaume Tell and La Muette de Portici are not the emotional foci of those works, and in Halévy’s La Juive and in Donizetti’s La Favorite and Dom Sébastian, too, it is a lower female voice that captures both our hearts and the tenor’s. For Meyerbeer, Isabelle, Queen Marguerite, Berthe and Inès are not the central female figures; Alice, Valentine, Fidès and Sélika hold the honors, the roles composed for the likes of a Falcon or a Viardot. Even Berlioz followed this pattern with Cassandre and Didon in the grandest opera of them all.

“Robert, toi que j’aime” is the first of Meyerbeer’s Parisian soprano arias. It occurs at a crux of dramatic tension: Will Robert make use of satanic powers to kidnap Isabelle, or will she persuade him to spare her body and his soul? It is almost the only time in the opera that one even notices Isabelle. The accompaniment, harp and two oboes (perhaps aiming for a “medieval” effect?), is unlikely to contest a singer’s primacy. It calls for a real dramatic coloratura with range and passion—Renata Scotto made one of her biggest early splashes with it.

Damrau is at her best here, singing, even speaking a few words, but never sacrificing a pure, line. Each verse of her prayer sounds a bit more desperate than the previous one, and when the orchestra joins in (as if falling with her at Robert’s knees), you know why Meyerbeer conquered Paris.

Setting off the soloist with an obbligato instrument was one of Meyerbeer’s methods, and it made happy use of the Paris Opéra instrumentalists, then the best in the world. Plenty of composers had paired flute with a soprano or a clarinet with a mezzo—but who else would set a solo cello with the tenor and then a piccolo beside a basso profundo—in successive arias in the same scene of Huguenots? This contrast of virtuosities is quintessential Meyerbeer and may constitute what Wagner detested: his “effects without causes.”

“O beau pays” is, at 13 minutes, by far the longest cut on this disk and nowadays, thanks to Joan Sutherland, it is probably the best-known of these arias. Sutherland loved the role because Queen Marguerite only sings this piece and the duet that immediately follows, and then (except for a couple of ensembles) she could do needlepoint backstage till the opera is over. Even so, she rarely sang it uncut, through all four of its sections (one of them accompanied by a trio of other ladies), and reams of roulades; hardly anyone sings it uncut.

Damrau does, on and on, the joy of a well-ordered rampage and show-off session. She’s in terrific form, the words clear, the notes individual, and only the very last high note made me wince. (Could the engineers not have re-recorded and inserted it?)

No one pays much attention to Berthe, the love of Jean of Leyden in Le Prophète, but her yodeling sortita, “Mon coeur s’élance et palpite,” sets up her naïve character so that we will be horrified by her rape. Damrau tosses it off with flourish, das süsses Mädel indeed.

In L’Africaine, Meyerbeer’s last opera, Inès is Vasco da Gama’s true love whom (it’s an opera!) he takes along on his voyage, though his heart is under siege by Sélika, who has the sex appeal expected of an exotic queen in an Orientalist fantasy. Inès may be ignored but the right singer can hold her own with two arias: the reflectively sad “Adieu mon doux rivage” in Act I and “Fleurs nouvelles, arbres nouveaux” as she all-but-succumbs to a poisonous tropical grove. Ruth Ann Swenson stopped the show with the former in the San Francisco L’Africaine. It can be done.

Damrau’s voice floats, blossoming here and there, and her liquid full-bodied sound and easy leaps about the scale are in their gracious element. The delirium of “Fleurs nouvelles” is not so ideally caught, but she ends it with a gorgeous swell and fade on a single note that would bring down any house.

“Grand” was not, in these years of his fame, the only flavor of arrow in Meyerbeer’s quiver, and opéra-comique had the advantage (for Diana Damrau in any case) that the lofty soprano was unquestionably at center stage. Grand Opera, the album, includes three such showpieces.

In 1843, Meyerbeer, appointed Prussian Kapellmeister, was asked to provide something light and patriotic, suitable for Jenny Lind. He obliged with Ein Feldlager in Schlesien. Jenny triumphed, but the opera was so Hohenzollern (Frederick the Great is the offstage flautist) that a very much toned-down version, Vielka, was required in other capitals. Ten years later, asked for a Parisian opéra-comique, he devised L’Etoile du Nord, filching six numbers from Feldlager.

In L’Etoile du Nord, the setting is Russia and the flute is played by Peter the Great; it cures the madness of his truelove, the future Empress Catherine. Damrau’s delirious Catherine recovers with in splendid staccato work, and artfully articulated slithers. In Feldlager, Therese’s “Lebe wohl, geliebte Schwester,” lamenting the death sentence of her innocent brother, is performed here with considerable dramatic emphasis. Its variety of mood suggests an ideal Gala or encore number.

For world-applauding triumph on the lighter stage, Meyerbeer had to wait for Le Pardon de Ploërmel (Dinorah), in 1859. There is more to this opera than the Shadow Song, and much to be savored (a wonderful duet of a baritone dictating a letter to a comic bass, who repeats his lines off-rhythm), but the number that keeps its name(s) alive is “Ombre légère.” Damrau loves this piece, and shows she loves it: her triplets are delicious. It is a very sunny performance for a Shadow Song. Grand Opera is, even in its melancholy numbers, a sunny album, to make one hope the diva will take up one of these very suitable roles on stage.

  • Porgy Amor

    Thanks for this, John. It was well informed, thus informative, and also fun to read (it’s not easy to do both of those at once), and I’m glad to hear she was in good shape for something set down for posterity. I do not know precisely when this was recorded, but she has been going through a bad patch lately, as much discussed here.

    • PATRICK MACK

      I saw Damrau in Hofmann here just last month and she was the greatest Antonia I could possibly imagine vocally and dramatically. I was eagerly awaiting this review because I knew it would be full of insight. I’ve been on the fence about Damrau until I saw her live. I really enjoyed this recording and especially the chance to finally hear the Prophete aria beautifully sung (my apologies to La Scotto who I love but had little business in that role). Bravo John. You should write a Meyerbeer retrospective on the exisisting recordings(!)
      I bow low.

  • actfive

    Glad that you mentioned Scotto…for my money, her Isabella in the Roberto il Diavolo live recording finds her in amazing voice throughout. Glorious singing.

  • grimoaldo2

    Wowee zowee, what a great review! How wonderful to read this composer and his works being treated with respect like this! How fabulous that even Meyerbeer’s very obscure works are now being recorded and performed!
    I guess if there is one person in the world who needs to buy this CD immediately it is me and that’s what I’m going to do.

    • John Yohalem

      Yes, all we need is for more star tenors to get on the Beer Bandwagon! But this is happening — Alagna and Fabbiano have sung Vasco, Spyres and Florez (!!!) have sung Raoul splendidly, Hymel is the go-to guy for Robert, and I’m sure Osborn merely awaits the call.

      The bel canto revival began with sopranos, although the composers wrote as extensively and thrillingly for other voices (think of Rossini mezzos, Bellini tenors, Donizetti baritones). Meyerbeer was as fond of star tenors and basses as he was of sopranos and lower sopranos, and gave them as much to sink their teeth into.

      • CKurwenal

        Osborn has just completed 1 run of Le Prophete which he is immediately following up with another, after which he tackles Auber’s Fra Diavolo. So he’s definitely interested in this corner of the repertoire.

        • John Yohalem

          I am thrilled to hear it!
          I wondered if anyone would risk that one. But hey, it was no problem for Caruso. (I heard McCracken, a different matter.)

          • grimoaldo2

            The run of Le Prophète which is coming up is at Toulouse, with Osborn and Kate Aldrich as Fidès.
            http://www.theatreducapitole.fr/1/saison-2016-2017/opera-612/le-prophete.html?lang=fr
            The website calls the work “L’apothéose de l’opéra à la française”
            Indeed!
            also “Avec Le Prophète, Meyerbeer est au sommet de ses moyens. Il ne lui reste plus qu’à trouver un sujet digne de son génie”
            yes, I think Le Prophète is Meyerbeer’s greatest work.
            The run which just finished was in Essen --
            http://www.omm.de/veranstaltungen/musiktheater20162017/E-le-prophete.html
            with Osborn and Marianne Cornetti.
            Review praises all concerned and calls the work an “unjustly neglected masterpiece.”
            It also says that Les Huguenots is now “firmly established” in the repertoire. Maybe that is true in Germany, not sure if one could say that about other places.
            These were both new productions and there is to be another new production in Berlin starting in November with Gregory Kunde and Clémentine Margaine!
            https://www.deutscheoperberlin.de/en_EN/calendar/production/le-prophete.1115921
            It really begins to seem that I have lived to see a Meyerbeer revival! Dank an die Götter der Musik sein!

        • aulus agerius

          I saw some video of the Osborn Le Prophete somewhere but I don’t remember where! Facebook? Probably. Opera Platform? Vimeo streaming? Dunno. I like him. I first saw him in Gretry at OTSL where I am returning next week for some Glass.

  • Niel Rishoi

    Excellent review, John, very welcome to have introductory info along with the critical overviews.

  • Niel Rishoi
    • Porgy Amor

      I’ve been listening to some of it this morning. This repertoire is not really a specialty or passion of mine, but it seems to be a beautiful collection, with the star at or close to her best. There is some classy support too. Kate Aldrich, Laurent Naouri, and Charles Workman are among the voices heard briefly. I am unfamiliar with Pei min Yu and Joanna Curelaru, the soprano and mezzo featured on one of the Huguenots tracks.

    • DonCarloFanatic

      Thanks for the tip.

    • southerndoc1

      Yes, thanks for the tip, but why does Warner make it available for free?

      • aulus agerius

        I wonder….. It seems to be good quality too. I really enjoyed the first half and then seemed to tire of her voice after O beau pays -- maybe that’s the blandness people speak of.But I don’t think I am listening in the intended order.

        • DonCarloFanatic

          I don’t think it’s the order. I think it’s the sterility of the album format and what I perceived as the uniformity of dramatic urgency. As in, none. I fell asleep listening to it. (Maybe that’s good.) This is standard Meyerbeer, as was explained to us, but it’s not dramatically engaging for me. Hearing these does not make me want to hear the whole operas they came from.

          In general, I find these kinds of albums a bore, no matter who sings what. Still, it’s a pleasure to hear it and I’ll listen again and maybe educate myself a bit about Meyerbeer.

  • Thanks John. This is both a great review and informative article. And I think your assessment of Damrau is on the money.

  • grimoaldo2

    “one hope(s) the diva will take up one of these very suitable roles on stage.”
    “Futures Paris Opera” sites say she is scheduled for a new production of Huguenots in 2018 --
    2018-2019, Les Huguenots -NP- ms Claus Guth -- dm Bertrand de Billy -- Bryan Hymel (Raoul), Diana Damrau (Marguerite de Valois) -- Patrick Bolleire (Thoré, Maurevert) -- Nicolas Testé (Marcel) -- octobre 2018
    http://fomalhaut.over-blog.org/2016/11/pronostic-des-futures-saisons-de-l-opera-national-de-paris-2018/2019/2020/2021/2022.html

    • grimoaldo2

      And Damrau was scheduled to be in the ROH “Robert le Diable” in 2012(absolutely dreadful, *shudder, shudder*, blecch), but she withdrew, I think due to pregnancy and was replaced by Patrizia Ciofi.

      • grimoaldo2

        I am enjoying the recital very much, delightful aria from “Abimelek”, an early work I have never even heard of before and is not mentioned in Wikipedia’s article on the composer or in “List of operas by Meyerbeer”
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_operas_by_Meyerbeer
        they don’t get much rarer than that.

        • grimoaldo2

          Beautiful singing by Damrau in French, Italian and German, and a tribute to the great composer that he could write operas in those different styles.
          Wonderful orchestral writing in all of these pieces with many lovely passages for harp.
          An exquisite gift to the world,Ewiger Dank, großer Meister!

          • fletcher

            Honestly, though, she sounds so much more lovely and natural in German.

      • Porgy Amor

        That production had a memorably bumpy course on its way to the stage. Damrau became pregnant, yes, and her initial replacement was Jennifer Rowley, then Ciofi as of the rehearsal period. Bryan Hymel replaced Juan Diego Flórez in the title role, and Marina Poplavskaya was in, then out, then in again as Alice.