Diana Damrau is a great flirt. Not that I condemn her for that. She toyed with my heartstrings in Traviata and Lucia and Sonnambula and Manon, but she never pretended we were going steady. In her first Carnegie Hall recital on Sunday, she brought her flirting and her acting skills, her superb diction (in both German and French) and her cool, seamless voice, to a good old-fashioned lieder program, the kind one hears less and less often.
She was totally comfortable, cozy, on the enormous stage and she gave enormous pleasure to those crowding every level of the hall. You can’t fake charm. Damrau likes where she is and what she is doing, and she is charming.
She is not yet, I would say, at the top of the lieder craft. She cannot wrap you in her stillness, bring you out of your world and into hers, as the mistresses and masters of this deceptively slight form know how to do. But she is a highly intelligent prima donna, who does her homework and understands the personality of each piece she sings, seeking ways to create it in her voice and her affect. She has imagination, and she is eager to share her insights. She’s a great storyteller. In that and in her handsome voice and humorous demeanor, she reminds me of Elly Ameling.
Damrau’s voice changes in quality from blue, well-polished, generally well supported tones to a sunny and agile upwards extension. She makes no detectable effort moving from one register to another, an ability once highly valued, now growing rare. It is not a voice of tremendous individuality; it might be difficult to name the singer from the sound on a recording. But she knows how to use this beautiful generic sound for varied emotions, and she knows her texts.
One false note in her presentation: She sang from the music stand, though often merely drifting by it to turn a page at a well-remembered point; she did not rely on her memory of the songs. But she never seemed to be “reading” them, and this factor has been on the increase lately in song recitals.
I could wish she had not begun with Schubert’s “Ständchen,” because her voice had not warmed up yet, and this familiar melody (is it the loveliest ever composed? Or just in the top ten?) blooms on a fully seasoned voice, but her phrasing was gracious and her grace notes were flawless and exquisite.
In the second set, she opened with Richard Strauss’s “Ständchen,” and it was as if she was comparing the two composers’ notions, throughout these contrasting sets: Here’s how Schubert regrets lost love and how the more urbane Strauss does it, here’s how Schubert keeps a secret, here’s how Strauss does it. This never seemed forced or pedantic: She sang the songs beautifully and let us take what we would from them.
Her “Gretchen am Spinnrade” was not the most tragic one has heard, but she was acting the character. Her face is expressive (as one noticed in her exhausted Violetta, her nubile Manon), and one could almost perceive a tear in Gretchen’s eye.
The mix of songs included both familiar and less familiar. I did not know “Lied der Delphine,” with its curious alternation of long and short lines, is a curious piece I was glad to get to know; ditto, Strauss’s “Breit über mein Haupt dein schwarzes Haar.” Strauss’s “Wiegenlied” seemed to be sung under her breath, in a hushed voice (audible throughout the hall), like a mother anxious to lullaby but not wake the baby—Damrau is, of course, a recent mother, and knows whereof she sang.
She does not produce a “column of sound,” but isolates certain words, rounding them with tone to make them stand out: “Tag” and “Nacht” in Strauss’s “Winterweihe,” “hell und klar” in “Breit über mein Haupt.”
The second half of the program was, at first, French: a set of Poulenc’s witty songs and selections from Manuel Rosenthal’s nursery rhymes, Chansons de Monsieur Bleu. She seemed, in these songs, like a mother reading fairy tales to her children, mock solemn, inhabiting them and keeping her tongue in her cheek. Poulenc’s “Violon” was especially fine, melodramatically characterizing “ces gémissements tendus” and “la corde de malaises,” while “Fleurs” allowed her to mug freely.
She concluded with Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs, which have been on every song recital I’ve heard this year, usually in Czech. Damrau sang them in German, as is no doubt more natural to her. Nostalgia unfurled heroically in her voice, and so did the romantic trope of the “Gypsy” spirit. It was the end of the afternoon (thought there were two encores, including a touching “Morgen,”) and she could let herself go.
The experienced Craig Rutenberg was her partner in crime; they were having much fun together, each allowing the other places in the sun, with support and suavity. A model recital.