Tristan und Isolde at Santa Fe, Wagner Notes October 2022, Harlow Robinson
“The Valkyries” at Hollywood Bowl, Wagner Notes September 2022, by Harlow Robinson
The Annotated Ring Cycle, translated and annotated, Wagner Notes July 2022, by Simon Williams
Elijah Moshinsky’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Wagner Notes May 2022 by Bryan Gilliam
Lise Davidsen: Two Recent Recordings, Wagner Notes March 2022, by Susan Brodie
Tristan und Isolde at Santa Fe
T. Wilson, S. O’Neill, N. Brownlee, J. Barton, E. Taylor, D. Leigh, J. Hoskins, D.M. Davis, E. Grendahl. Cond.: J. Gaffigan; Directors: Z. Winokur, L. Heijboer Castanon. Performance of August 12, 2022.
The majestic natural setting of the Santa Fe Opera structure–open on the sides and stage to fresh air and awe-inspiring views of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains at the breathtaking elevation of 7000 feet–would seem to be a perfect place to stage Wagner’s operas, where the wonders of the natural world (floods, fire, forest, mountain peaks) often play such an important role. And yet this summer’s new Tristan and Isolde is the first production of a Wagner opera here since a Flying Dutchman in the 1988 season, more than 30 years ago.
It was definitely worth the wait. Mounted by Zack Winokur and Lisenka Heijboer Castañón, both making their auspicious directorial debuts at Santa Fe, this is a vocally thrilling (for the most part) Tristan in film noir style. Music and action unfold amidst an abstract realm of light and shadow that convey the gradual changes in the emotions of the principal characters as they make their long physical and spiritual journey from Ireland to Cornwall to Brittany, from love to death. Winokur, co-artistic director of the convention-bending American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), is a dancer and choreographer, so movement is a dominant feature of the production, especially in Act III, when the gravely wounded Tristan sees, in his delirium, a procession of ghostly images of his beloved Isolde before she finally arrives. The Dutch-Peruvian Castañón, a young rising star in the opera world, especially in Europe, approaches music “as a tool for storytelling and community-building with a strong instinct for physical theatre.”
Although two of Tristan’s three acts involve long voyages by ship, no ocean or boats are to be found here. The sets by the LA-based team of Charlap Hyman & Herrero consist of enormous gray panels that are be shifted into various geometric configurations. They serve primarily as a screen for the subtle range of lighting effects designed by John Torres. Perhaps the most effective moment comes in Act II, when Isolde seems to be suspended in a blinding triangle of light during her ecstatic duet with Tristan. Realism is banished in favor of a world of “suspended animation” that suits the opera’s intense psychological focus on the erotic entanglements of Tristan, Isolde and King Marke, and their relationships with their trusted confidants (Brangäne, Kurwenal, and Melot). The monochrome set and limited range of color (from gray to white back to gray) became a bit wearisome over the course of four and one half hours, however. In Act II, a mysterious tree stump occupies center stage. In Act III, a lone white pillar stands to the side, an apparent suggestion of Tristan’s ruined ancestral castle.
Now for the singing. The cast included a number of distinguished Wagnerians, including Tamara Wilson (Elsa in the upcoming Lohengrin at the Met) in her Santa Fe Opera debut. Her Isolde was a triumph, an awesome display of power and tonal beauty that commanded attention from the first note to the last. A woman of impressive physical stature and poise, she dominated the stage and the drama, and frankly overshadowed (both literally and figuratively) her Tristan, sung by renowned New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill (also making his SFO debut). On the night I saw him, O’Neill seemed to lack the heroic physical swagger we expect from Tristan. He sang all the notes bravely and with sensitivity to the text, but at times struggled with pitch and volume, and his tone occasionally sounded weedy and insufficiently supported. Wilson’s steely vocal muscle dominated the proceedings; the balance between the two lovers felt more like Isolde and Tristan than Tristan and Isolde.
Baritone Nicholas Brownlee’s vocally eloquent and robust performance as Tristan’s worried and protective servant Kurwenal only strengthened this impression. Brownlee dominated all his scenes with O’Neill with a ringing true tone and dynamic physicality; perhaps the directors should have advised him to tone down the bravura just a bit.
|Brangäne (Jamie Barton) with Isolde (Tamara Wilson)|
Mezzo Jamie Barton was a perfect vocal and dramatic match for Wilson as Isolde’s loyal companion Brangäne, their scenes together sparkling with exciting vocal and dramatic energy and urgency. Both wore long plain robe-like dresses that stressed the production’s timeless atmosphere. Tristan, on the other hand, was encased in a puffy armor-like costume that seemed better suited to an alien on one of the UFOs sighted so often around the New Mexico landscape.
Eric Taylor, a company apprentice, made an appropriately menacing Melot. On the evening I attended, the role of King Marke was taken by David Leigh rather than Met veteran Eric Owens. He had the necessary physical stature and presence, but his voice lacked projection, especially in the lower range. Tenor Jonah Hoskins, another apprentice, brought a lovely lyrical approach as the Sailor who opens the opera with his melancholy song (“The wind so wild blows homeward now”). Smartly, the directors had him sing from the first row of the balcony rather than on stage, creating a sense of expanded inclusive space in the large auditorium. Apprentices Dylan M. Davis (as the Shepherd) and Erick Grendahl (as the Steersman) made solid impressions.
|Tristan (Simon O’Neill) and Isolde (Tamara Wilson), who holds the potion.|
Under James Gaffigan, the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra turned in an impassioned and sensitive performance. The string tone was not as luscious and creamy as one might have desired, but there was outstanding solo work from various players, especially Julia DeRosa, whose tender English horn solos in Act III brought me to the edge of tears. The orchestra accompanied the singers with fine sensitivity; the final scenes of Act III, particularly Isolde’s Liebestod, found a perfect balance and sympathy.
At the end of the long evening, after Tristan’s death, and after Isolde’s love ecstasy had run its divine course, Isolde walked very slowly towards the back of the stage as the panels finally opened wide to reveal the dark starry splendor of the New Mexico midnight sky, stretching into infinity. In a flowing white robe, she merged with that void, transported into reunion with her lover, as the orchestra at last reached the welcome B-major chord that resolves the unsettling harmonic ambiguity of the “Tristan chord” which has been haunting us throughout the evening.
Happily, Santa Fe Opera audiences will not have to wait another 33 years after this ambitious and thoughtful Tristan for Wagner to return. The Flying Dutchman will arrive next year in 2023, the company’s 66th season.
A WSNY member, Harlow Robinson is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University, and the author of Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and other books. He has written on a wide variety of musical topics for national publications and the Metropolitan Opera, and he has lectured for the WSNY and the Metropolitan Opera Guild.
Photos: Curtis Brown, Santa Fe Opera
© Wagner Notes, October 2022, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.
“The Valkyries” at Hollywood Bowl
Die Walküre, Act III. C. Goerke, M. Goerne, J. Faselt, L. Krumm, R. Miller, T. Mumford, D. Nansteel, A. Shiner, R. Tatum, L. Wilde, A. Wagner, L. Wilde. Cond.: G. Dudamel; Director: Y. Sharon. Performance of July 17, 2022.
The Hollywood Bowl–site of so many glittering performances under the balmy Southern California skies–is celebrating its 100th anniversary this summer. Wagner was invited to the birthday party, which seems only fitting considering the outsize role his music has played in the history of the movies from the silent era to the present. (See Alex Ross’ recent article in The New Yorker, “How Wagner Shaped Hollywood.”) At sunset on July 17, the Los Angeles Philharmonic collaborated with the ever adventurous and innovative director Yuval Sharon and several distinguished Wagnerian singers (headlined by Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and Matthias Goerne as Wotan) for a cutting-edge and very Hollywood performance of Act III of Die Walküre that takes the Ring narrative into a “retro-futurist universe” of virtual reality and video games.
|Wotan (Mathias Goerne) berating his daughter. Photo: Timothy Norris.|
Sharon is of course no stranger to Los Angeles, a city he has said he finds more open to his experimental ideas about opera than New York. It was here that he founded The Industry, a company dedicated to disrupting the operatic status quo with interdisciplinary and multi-media projects presented in alternative spaces including moving vehicles and escalator corridors. Sharon is also no stranger to Wagner’s operas, having staged them in various unusual settings (a recent Götterdämmerung at the Detroit Opera House Parking Center), and even at the shrine at Bayreuth, where in 2018 he became the first American ever to direct (Lohengrin).
As former Artist-in-Residence at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Sharon maintains a close relationship to the orchestra and its enterprising conductor Gustavo Dudamel, considered by many to be the most exciting and risk-taking maestro of any major American orchestra today. Dudamel, currently Artistic Director of the Paris Opera in his spare time, also continues to find new approaches to this traditionally conservative art form, such as the LA Philharmonic’s semi-staged production of Beethoven’s Fidelio this past season with a double cast of deaf and hearing performers.
“The Valkyries” — as the event was publicized — is a joint effort with Detroit Opera. Sharon currently serves as that company’s artistic director; the production will be staged in Detroit for three performances in September. In a video message on the Bowl’s website, Sharon warned that “if you are an opera lover, I hope this is something that you have never experienced before. We are presenting Act III of Die Walküre as a stand-alone opera, and creating a video game in real time before the audience’s eyes.”
|Siegmund (Amber Wagner) and Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke), surrounded by her sisters. Photo: Timothy Norris.|
The real action occurred on two enormous screens placed at either side of the shell housing the very large orchestra (there are 22 brass players alone). The singers stood mostly stationary in front of a green screen in back of the orchestra, in costumes that would have looked quite at home in Star Trek–lots of shiny chrome and high puffy collars. An army of technical wizards (with titles like “technology integration lead” and “disguise programmer”) produced the video imagery that appeared on the two screens in amazing three-dimensional space. It was a witty touch to have Sigourney Weaver, star of the kindred Avatar and other alternative-reality films, provide a short taped introduction, giving a recap of what had preceded. “Wotan has constructed a virtual universe,” she said, but the message of Die Walküre is that “Love is greater than the law.” Brünnhilde is the real hero Wotan is looking for, and what she offers are “love, hope and resistance.”
Instead of horses, the Valkyries (Alexandria Shiner, Laura Wilde, Tamara Mumford, Ronnita Miller, Jessica Faselt, Laura Krumm, Renée Tatum, Deborah Nansteel, all in excellent voice) arrive at the start of the act on futuristic motorcycles with urns attached to hold the ashes of fallen heroes. The dominant colors of the video projection are pink and blue and silver, constantly shifting, along with the respective placement of the characters, reflecting their emotional states. When Wotan is berating Brünnhilde, for example, she becomes tiny in the distance as Wotan looms in the foreground. Huge facial closeup shots challenge our sense of proportion.
With so much busy visual activity going on, the music could feel almost like an afterthought. But Goerke and Goerne gamely rose to the challenge, demonstrating their deep experience with these roles. Their voices (and the orchestra) were subtly amplified, so they were always audible, and without distortion of sound. Known for her willingness to push the boundaries of convention, Goerke appeared to thoroughly enjoy her identity as a virtual reality heroine, and gave the sort of polished, nuanced vocal performance we have come to expect of her. Goerne was vocally somewhat underpowered, especially in the lower register, but conveyed with touching clarity the conflicting emotions of love and duty Wotan feels towards his disobedient daughter. Amber Wagner made the most of her brief appearance as Sieglinde.
Under Dudamel, always in control but never overbearing, the LA Philharmonic sounded fresh and inspired, with clean attacks from the brass and a rich, creamy string tone.
It was a memorable night at the Bowl, for sure, and showed us once again (if we needed persuading) that Wagner’s music and storytelling possess almost infinite possibilities of dramatic, visual and emotional re-creation and renewal. Now that the video is in the can, perhaps you can expect to see “The Valkyrie” at a theater near you in the future.
A WSNY member, Harlow Robinson is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University, and the author of Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and other books. He has written on a wide variety of musical topics for national publications and the Metropolitan Opera, and he has lectured for the WSNY.
This production will be performed at Detroit Opera on Sept. 17, 18, and 20, and will be conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.
© Wagner Notes, September 2022, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.
By Frederick Paul Walter, 4 vols. Lanham, MD, Rowman & Littlefield, 2021 & 2022 (each volume is sold separately).
Over the last several decades, interpretations of the Ring have become so various that it is difficult to find any scholarly analysis or staged production that has not been touched by the countless philosophies, ideologies, and beliefs that characterize the artistic life of our time. This is, of course, greatly to the credit of Wagner’s tetralogy, as we tend to attribute the infinite capacity to absorb changing interpretations as being distinctive only of the greatest works of art. The Ring has accumulated a mighty tradition of social, political, and philosophical polemic.
Under these circumstances, it can be salutary, every now and then, to engage in an “originalist” endeavor, to re-examine the text as written and composed by its creator. This has been attempted by Frederick Paul Walter in his new annotated translation of the four music dramas. In his introduction he refers to the contemporary abundance of stagings and “the countless opinions of critics and scholars” as “amazing and befuddling” and proposes that The Annotated Ring Cycle will act as an antidote to all of this by going “back to the basics – the work’s lyrics, stage directions, and plotline, what’s actually happening in the narrative.” This is a mighty claim and one that is not entirely met.
The main element of Walter’s project, the translation of Wagner’s poem, succeeds in its principal aim, which is “to provide a clear rendering of Wagner’s libretto in modern English” and to give some idea of its alliteration, colloquialism, and humor. This is a tricky undertaking. Wagner’s language in the Ring was not that of “modern German” even in his own time, while the layers of irony that are built into the action, from the opening scene of Das Rheingold on, can often instill complex and ambiguous meanings into his words, which deliberately cloud clarity. Alliteration is, of course, always a challenge for a translator, but in the case of the Ring it cannot be avoided. Overall, Walter does well with the alliteration. English does not alliterate well and in general English-speakers are trained to avoid it when writing. In the Ring, alliteration often dominates, at times heavily so, but Walter often employs it to give a light lyricism to the lines, so that they read easily. Take, for example, the opening lines of Siegmund’s Spring song in Act I of Die Walküre: while Wagner alliterates fourteen of the first twenty-one words with only two letters, “W” and “L”, Walter alliterates ten words with five letters, to produce: “Winter’s storms gave way / to the Maytime moon, / and its gentle sparkle / means spring is here; / his breezes are so balmy, / light, and loving, / they work wonders / as they blow.” There would, of course, be problems fitting this to the music, but the translation is for reading only. Not only is it easy and fluent; the action emerges clearly throughout. However, without the music, it is impossible to determine the full meaning of the words alone and therefore to ascertain the degree to which they can be trusted. As a result, the clarity Walter seeks may often be deceptive.
Whether the translation will attract new admirers to Wagner is difficult to tell. In his introduction to each drama, Walter emphasizes that the Ring is akin to epics of our own time, specifically The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and the Harry Potter novels. This assertion, an interesting one, could itself be the subject of a fascinating book, but in The Annotated Ring it is just presented and then forgotten. The formatting of the publication seems to be aimed at an audience unfamiliar with the Ring. Each music drama is presented in a separate volume, and both the cover and the formatting for Das Rheingold and Die Walküre suggest that this might be a graphic novel, in which sex and derring-do abound. The German with the English translation is only printed on the verso pages, while the recto is used for annotations, for pop art representations of scenes from the action, and for neo-Romantic illustrations, notably by Arthur Rackham and late 19th-century German painters. In the Siegfried and Götterdämmerung volumes, the pop art has vanished, and the neo-Romantic illustrations have survived, but only in murkily registered black and white, not in color, as in the first two volumes.
It is on these recto spaces that the publication misses its opportunity. The pop art illustrations by Cliff Mott tend to trivialize the action, keeping it solely within the realm of folklore, while the neo-Romantic pictures may, I fear, be wearyingly familiar to aficionados of Wagner. Above all, the annotations are disappointing. Scholarship on major artists as complex and influential as Wagner should regularly provide up-dated annotated versions of major works, to reflect both new discoveries about the origins and history of the work as well as its significance to consequent generations. Walter has only promised to provide “the basics,” so one assumes that should involve observations and commentary on the poem and other primary material on the first performance, as well as the insights of subsequent scholars into that basic material. But he does none of this. Instead, the annotations are scattershot. He comments on issues, some major, some incredibly minor, without any discernible pattern. There are some very informative notes, especially in Act II of Die Walküre, when it comes to defining the underlying causes of the tragic dilemma in which Wotan finds himself, but such passages are all too rare. Too often the annotations are trivial, without use, either for the seasoned Wagnerite or for the Wagnerian neophyte.
“Originalism” has its value, but it needs to be more coherently presented than in this publication.
Simon Williams is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Theater and Dance, University of California at Santa Barbara. He lectures widely on theater and opera and was the Society’s Bayreuth lecturer from 1998 to 2000.
© Wagner Notes, July 2022, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.
Elijah Moshinsky’s Ariadne auf Naxos
L. Davidsen, I. Leonard, B. Rae, W. Brendel, B. Jovanovich, J. M. Kränzle, S. M. Plumb. Metropolitan Opera; M. Janowski, cond., E. Moshinsky, dir.; sets and costumes, M. Yeargan. Performance of March 12, 2022.
This is a Wagner newsletter, and I am writing about Strauss, but there is an important Wagner connection to Ariadne, perhaps less a connection than a push-back. Hofmannsthal and Strauss wanted to redefine a Gesamtkunstwerk for the 20th century, one where the divergent art forms work all and severally, eac0h component retaining its integrity. Hofmannsthal’s criticism of Elektra (1909) was that his text was swamped by the music (“like rich gravy on fine roast beef”). His later self-criticism of Der Rosenkavalier (1910) was that there was too much text. That search for middle ground took the form of Ariadne auf Naxos, initially a theatrical experiment that turned out to be their most prolonged operatic project, spanning some six years. Hofmannsthal believed that from this experiment he could learn how to create a libretto where musical numbers regain their “paramount importance.”
The model for a modern Gesamtkunstwerk was to be found neither in German music drama nor the 19th century, for that matter, but in the French baroque, more specifically the comédie-ballet, which included singing, dance, and the spoken word. Strauss, too, was eager to get away from the aura of Bayreuth and its metaphysical associations, and he followed Hofmannsthal’s lead, though, at first, not enthusiastically. The poet’s plan was to construct a divertissement at the end of a truncated version of Moliere’s play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, where five acts became two and instead of the final “Turkish Ceremony,” there would be an “Opera” instead. The original contours of their opera seemed simple enough: two opposing worlds—seria and commedia—both in the spirit of Molière. The opera libretto provided ample opportunities for dance, solos, duets, trios, even a quintet. Hofmannsthal encouraged Strauss to express himself on a reduced (i.e., non-Wagnerian) scale.
Strauss threw himself into the work, complete with incidental music for the Play and six convincing numbers for the Opera: 1) double aria for Ariadne (“Ein schönes war”/ “Es gibt ein Reich”), 2) Harlekin’s Song, 3) Zerbinetta’s coloratura aria (“Grossmächtige Prinzessin”), 4) male buffo quartet + Zerbinetta, 5) male buffo trio, and 6) finale (Ariadne and Bacchus). Premiered in 1912, it was, simply put, a flop: neither play nor opera. Poet and composer rightly ditched the play and created a chatty Prologue rich with behind-the-scenes jokes and a light “tutorial” on the meaning of the Opera, especially its focus on transformation: Bacchus and Ariadne become a god and goddess. This revised work (Prologue and Opera) of four years later was a success, and it is nearly always performed in this way.
|Bacchus (Brandon Jovanovich) and Ariadne (Lise Davidsen)|
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera
On the surface, the “Opera” would seem to be about the classic pairing of Bacchus and Ariadne, immortalized in Titian’s greatest painting, but Strauss was not fond of tenors, and, though he did not cut Bacchus from the score, he made it an opera about the major dualities of life, manifested by Ariadne and Zerbinetta: fidelity-promiscuity, eternal-momentary, transcendence-illusion, negation-acceptance. A third and shorter leg of this triangle is the Composer, a mezzo, who creates Ariadne, but who also (momentarily) falls in love with Zerbinetta.
Elijah Moshinsky, the Australian (post)modernist, directed this 1993 production. Part One, The Prologue, is set in its original, almost hyper-realistic 18th-century setting; it is a very busy, active stage, which is fun, but risks overshadowing the main themes at hand, especially the ways in which The Composer must negotiate the transient and the everlasting, finding the solution in transformation. Stronger, more impassioned acting by the striking Isabel Leonard (Composer) might have helped, though her passion came across better on HD, which I saw after the March 12th matinée. Leonard is a wonderful high mezzo, the ideal match for this trouser role, which was originally conceived for regular soprano. I enjoyed seeing Wolfgang Brendel in the role of the Major-Domo, a speaking role, a switch from his role as the Music Master in past Met performances. It was over-acting at its best as he mixed aspects of ennui with the fussy and intolerant.
From hyper-realism we go to surrealism for The Opera, where the stage is stripped of the setting promised by the backstage of the Prologue. Instead, we have a flat, beautifully lit back wall with stars, including the Northern Crown, which Bacchus, according to legend, created by throwing Ariadne’s crown into the sky. There is no scenery as such, just panels in the back that open and shut with commedia characters coming in and out, and, of course, opening up in the end as hero and heroine walk to the ship.
And speaking of stars, Lise Davidsen was simply tremendous, on the verge of superstardom; she has great power but also vocal nuance, a sheen that is both bright silver and burnished gold. Her mezzo-soprano beginnings served her well for this opera, especially in those moments when she refers to death, as Strauss reaches downward to the realm of death (“Totenreich”); only Jessye Norman did better in that marvelous low phrase. At 6’1”, Davidsen is a unique, statuesque presence, which makes acting, especially in the female role, more challenging. But Ariadne really doesn’t have much to do in this production, which was originally designed for Jessye Norman, whose movements were limited in her mid- to late-career. Davidsen’s voice will not reach its pinnacle for several years; I hope she chooses her roles wisely: Ariadne, Marschallin, Chrysothemis, Countess; and Sieglinde, Elsa, Eva, or Elizabeth. She has already recorded a magnificent Agathe and Leonore with Janowski, which I highly recommend.
|Zerbinetta (Brenda Rae) and Harlekin (Sean Michael Plumb) in the Prologue|
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera
Davidsen’s counterpart, Brenda Rae as Zerbinetta, was not at the same artistic level. Zerbinetta is one of the most challenging coloratura roles in the operatic repertoire. Rae sang well, but with an effort that audiences should not have to notice, as her character is flighty, whimsical, and carefree. Her male counterpart, Sean Michael Plumb, made his Met debut as Harlekin, and it was a great success; we look forward to future Met productions with this wonderful baritone.
Strauss did not like tenors, and he proved it again in Ariadne with the heldentenor role of Bacchus who is frequently intentionally put in sonic danger against Ariadne or the full-tilt orchestra. Few tenors (James King and Jess Thomas are exceptions) have ever been able to cut through the Straussian polyphonic thicket, and Brandon Jovanovich did admirably well. He brought warmth and lyricism to a role that many tenors prefer to “bark.”
It was a thrill to see Marek Janowski in the Met pit again; I hadn’t seen him live since his Met Arabella in 1984, though his last performance at Lincoln Center was Salome in 1989. He is a great Straussian and a man of moral conviction. While most careerist conductors might give in when confronted with an unacceptable piece of Regietheater (often in conflict with the composer’s wishes), Janowski refuses to participate, so much so that he stopped conducting live opera altogether in the early 1990s. His Wagner recordings are exemplary, especially his Ring and Tristan und Isolde, and though his Strauss recordings are smaller in number, his experience with the composer in live performance is vast: Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Arabella (his Met debut in 1984). Nonetheless, he remains a leading Strauss-Wagner conductor today. Born in Poland and trained in Germany, Janowski excels in the German operatic repertoire, which means that he maintains an ideal balance between voices and orchestra, does not get overwhelmed by counterpoint, or intoxicated by the Teutonic sound; to the contrary, the conductor should intoxicate the audience, as he did on March 12th, with the 38-piece “chamber” orchestra: gorgeous colors in the strings, wind, and brass, as well as phantasmagoric sounds in the harmonium, celeste, and harp. We can only hope for more Davidsen-Janowski collaborations at the Met in the near future. They apparently love working together in the recording studio and on the stage. And we love that, too.
Bryan Gilliam served many years on the musicology faculty at Duke University where he is now Professor Emeritus. He has published five books on Strauss, the latest one being Rounding Wagner’s Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera (Cambridge, 2014).
© Wagner Notes, May 2022, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.
Lise Davidsen: Two Recent Recordings
“Lise Davidsen: Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi.” London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder. Total timing: 63.28. A Decca Classics Release, made in Germany, 2021.
“Edvard Grieg”: Lise Davidsen, soprano; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano. Total timing: 79.48.
A Decca Classics Release, New York, 2022.
Gallons of ink have been spilled in praise of the ravishing instrument that soprano Lise Davidsen brought to the opera world when she burst on the scene in 2015. It was clear from the start that she was destined for the great Wagner roles when her voice was ready. She has been working her way gradually into the Wagner repertoire, having already sung Elisabeth and Sieglinde at Bayreuth. Strauss has become a calling card; she’s singing Ariadne and Chrysothemis at the Met this spring, and the Marschallin next season.
After her 2019 debut album which emphasized Strauss and Wagner, Davidsen’s repertoire choices for her second album were telling. Davidsen herself considered titling her disc “Next Chapter,” to indicate her intended direction for the next five years. For all that Wagnerians may be eager to hear her Brunnhilde, Davidsen makes it clear that she has no intention of rushing into the heaviest roles too early. “Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi,” with Sir Mark Elder conducting the London Philharmonic, gives an idea of her middle ground.
Recorded in the fall of 2020, Beethoven was an obvious choice in his anniversary year, and after her triumphant brief run of Fidelio at Covent Garden a few months earlier. In Leonora’s aria, “Abscheulicher! Wo ellst du hin?” Davidsen rode the scene’s peaks and valleys with ease, though the rising chromatic scale was a little unruly (understandable – passage work in a voice that size is like driving a Mack truck on a slalom course). Her second Beethoven selection, “Ah, perfido!” pairs well, expressing heightened but contrasting emotions with similar vocal demands.
Staying in the same era, Davidsen revisits an aria from a role she sang in 2017, Medea, at Wexford Festival Opera: “Dei tuoi figli la madre.” The formal elegance of Cherubini’s writing is shattered by the power and violence of her outbursts on “crudel!”; one would like to hear her sing this as alternate Met casting next season.
On to Mascagni: “Voi lo sapete” (Cavalleria rusticana), surprisingly, though she performed the role of Santuzza at Wexford in 2017. Again, the force of her natural voice provided enough emotion to make the usual sobs and breaks of verismo style unnecessary.
Verdi probably will never be a mainstay in her repertoire, but her “Pace, pace, mio Dio!” from Forza was, again, thrilling, for her soaring lines and command of the dynamic range; her pianissimo top is lovely. Desdemona’s prayer from Otello was one of those “might have beens”: she has already been told that she is too vocally developed to be cast in that role.
Finally, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, a touchstone of any Wagner singer’s repertoire. This reading lacked both the perfumed languor and the stentorian weight of many performances. Davidsen simply sang the songs, and one reveled at the sound. It will be interesting to hear her sing these again in several years.
Davidsen’s other pandemic project was a recital with her compatriot, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, titled simply “Edvard Grieg.” This selection of 28 songs from the Norwegian composer’s output of nearly 200 songs for piano and voice (Grieg’s wife was a soprano) is a rare collaboration between two Norwegian artists in their prime.
The Grieg songs are well suited to the soprano’s voice and musical temperament: the writing is mostly sustained, syllabic, and emotionally restrained, though with opportunities for the big moments that she executes so thrillingly. Davidsen’s singing is honest and straightforward, with an understated directness and modesty. Andsnes, as collaborative pianist, is both supportive and expansive, filling out the colorful textures of the natural world.
The disc opens with Haugtussa (The Mountain Maid), Op. 67, Grieg’s only true song cycle, written for his wife in 1898. The eight songs, on a popular verse novella by Arne Garborg, follow the cowherd girl Veslemøy as she moves about the woods, communing with nature, finding love and losing it. The texts are enigmatic, sometimes impressionistic, filled with nature imagery, expressing emotions in a frequently elliptical fashion, sometimes with great passion.
Andsnes’ musical personality stands out immediately in the piano’s opening bars; his touch is liquid and the notes sparkle. In his playing one can hear the sounds of nature often characterized in the text. The two artists seem to share a delightful conversation.
In this recording Davidsen’s voice sounds at times more relaxed and natural, and at other times more mature and “operatic” than in her aria album; you can on occasion hear her wind up for a climax. But she largely connects with the song texts more directly and intimately than with the arias, which require her to assume a character. It’s also a different experience to sing in one’s native language.
The remaining songs come from a variety of compositional periods, and most are in a quasi-dialect form of Norwegian (six are in German). Some are frequently heard on vocal recitals — “The Swan” (text by Ibsen), “I Love You” (Hans Christian Andersen), “The Way of the World” (Johan Uhland) — others are less familiar, but there’s barely a dud among them.
Of the six Opus 48 songs in German, I was particularly taken with “Die verschwiegene Nachtigall” (the Secretive Nightingale). Davidsen’s dreamy delivery and delicate ornaments recall not only the song of the nightingale, but also a lydarslått (listening tune), a type of quasi-improvisatory solo for hardanger fiddle, the national folk instrument that inspired some of Grieg’s piano music. I haven’t heard other singers capture this very special flavor, an important element of the composer’s fascination with his country’s folk music. Davidsen’s singing of these songs does not sound like Norwegian kveding (a folk style of unaccompanied solo singing), but she approaches its straightforward, vibratoless style in some of the songs.
Davidsen is musical and expressive, but her sense of drama is restrained compared to some in her fach. She has yet to develop a heightened sense of language, though her German diction is more inflected than her pronunciation in Norwegian. Above all, these two discs are a sampler and a record of an important voice with an exciting present and a promising future.
A reservation common to both albums is the fidelity of the voice capture. In both cases the soprano initially sounded distant, and I found myself adjusting the volume frequently. For the orchestral album, the miking gave her room to open up for some very dramatic climaxes; it surely is difficult to capture an instrument with such a wide dynamic range. Possibly very high-end equipment could handle the challenge, but this is a singer best heard live. That said, these two albums nonetheless can offer great listening pleasure while we wait for her Brünnhilde. “Edvard Grieg” is the album I will return to more frequently for the sound of her voice and the musical discoveries.
Susan Brodie, a Society member, writes for MCANA’s online journal, Classical Voice North America, and manages their Facebook presence as well as WSNY’s social media.
© Wagner Notes, March 2022, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.