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.