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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Donna: Opera and concert arias
Mitridate, rè di Ponto: Al destin che la minaccia – Aspasia [6.05]
Die Zauberflöte: Ach, ich fühl’s – Pamina [3.59]
Le nozze di Figaro: E Susanna non vien…Dove sono – Contessa [5.44]; Giunse alfin il momento...Deh, vieni, non tardar – Susanna [4.21]
La finta semplice: Senti l’eco, ove t’aggiri – Rosina [6.47]
Die Entführung aus dem Serail: Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln – Blonde [4.00]; Martern aller Arten – Konstanze [8.44]
Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! K.418 [6.07]
Don Giovanni: Crudele... Non mi dir – Donna Anna [5.07]; In quali eccessi... Mi tradì – Donna Elvira [5.38]
La clemenza di Tito: S’altro che lagrime – Servilia [1.47]; Ecco il punto... Non più di fiori – Vitellia [8.36]
No, che non sei capace K.419 [4.07]
Diana Damrau (soprano)
Le Cercle de l’Harmonie/Jérémie Rhorer
rec. Maison de l’Orchestre National de l’Ile de France, Alfortville, 14-20 January 2008
VIRGIN CLASSICS 2120232 [73.21]
Experience Classicsonline

I was looking forward to reviewing this disc, having been impressed by Diana Damrau when I heard her live as Zerbinetta. Like everyone else, I was wowed by her Queen of the Night on DVD and YouTube, where her rendition of that fiendish aria has had hundreds of thousands of hits. She has since declared that she will no longer be performing that rôle, but, judging by this collection of arias, I wonder if that decision is premature.
Undeniably, Damrau is hugely talented (see GF's review of her previous release - Arie di bravura): lapidary precision in coloratura, no hint of shrillness in her top notes, absolute security of intonation, an assured stage presence and considerable personal charms. She has many sterling qualities which combine to make her a gifted singer of the modern type for which productions worldwide cry out. She is, nonetheless, still a relatively young and inexperienced singer. I wonder if she has not allowed herself to be pushed too soon into assuming the grander kind of Mozartian rôles to which her voice is not (yet?) ideally suited. I need to be specific if I am to make my case. I am aware that some will think that I am being unnecessarily harsh. While listening to the majority of the arias she undertakes here, I inevitably found myself comparing her with earlier, favourite artists, as I felt that there was something wanting.
Let’s start with Pamina’s aria from “Die Zauberflöte”. I reached for three other versions for the purposes of comparison: one by Gundula Janowitz (a hissy, venerable 1964 recording with Klemperer conducting), one by Barbara Bonney (her 1992 recording on a recital disc), and a third by Barbara Hendricks (the complete 1991 set conducted by Mackerras). These performances vary hugely in speed, ranging from a pacy 2:28 with Mackerras to a leisurely 4:09with Klemperer. Bonney comes in at 3:26, so Damrau’s 3:59 is also quite relaxed. Even so, compared with the Klemperer/Janowitz version it seems to drag and plod; there is little feel for rubato or flexibility of phrasing in Rhorer’s conducting. By comparison, Mackerras (Hendricks) and Östman (Bonney) ought to sound as if they are galloping through the aria. On the contrary, they simply sound natural and unforced; their singers are able to phrase sensitively and project a real personality. Janowitz’s Pamina, in any case, is sung with such heavenly phrasing and tone that we do not notice how long Klemperer takes over it. Nor is it a question of period style versus modern instruments; Östman directs a period band whereas Klemperer has the LPO. Each is equally successful in its own way. I find myself subconsciously disconcerted by Rhorer’s use of “correct” original lower pitch for all the arias in this recording. Once you have heard Janowitz’ float her B flat, Damrau’s equivalent note, pitched somewhere around a quarter tone lower, sounds distinctly flat, being closer to a modern A – but that might not necessarily bother others. Finally, it is a question of quality of voice. All of the other ladies I use for the purposes of comparison, have, to my ears, a greater intrinsic beauty of sound, more individuality of utterance, more variety in tone, dynamics and vocal colouring. Each seems to do a better job bringing Pamina alive and give her what the late “Gramophone” critic Alan Blyth used to call more “face”.
It follows naturally that if Damrau is somewhat outshone by her predecessors as Pamina, then it is still less likely that she will be a satisfactory Countess, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira or Vitellia – and so it proves. She simply hasn’t the breadth and heft of voice to sing these deceptively demanding rôles. She can sing all the notes but essentially trills her way through them as if she hasn’t really digested the music. Most of the time, whatever she is singing, she sounds like a Susanna – which, along with her Constanze, the arias from the early operas and the two concert arias, form by far the most successful portion of this recital. Damrau is essentially still a light lyric soprano with a voice too small of scale to rival, say, Renée Fleming, Martina Arroyo or Eleanor Steber in the “grande dame” rôles in Mozart opera. I took down Dame Janet Baker’s assumption of Vitellia to reassure myself that I was not being unfair to Damrau – and there I found the attack, the variety of colour, plaintiveness of phrasing, richness of lower register and, above all, the ability to use coloratura to enhance emotion – all of which are lacking, or present to a lesser degree, in Damrau’s singing of “Non piu di fiori”. She certainly makes it sound easy, but she rarely moves us. Her Donna Anna is young and vulnerable but ultimately forgettable; even when she is singing Susanna, her characterisation pales in comparison with a singer such as Lucia Popp. In truth, I was bored by much of this recital, despite her accomplishment.
Le Cercle de l’Harmonie is certainly a talented band. They play with verve, accuracy and technical brilliance but Rohrer seems to favour extremes. They are sometimes driven too hard and at others seem too relaxed.
I am reminded of an anecdote from Beverley Sills’ autobiography in which that celebrated singer remarked that she did not think Norma was that difficult a role and that some lines in “Norma” always made her “want to giggle”. This, her stern detractors remarked, explains her lack of proper commitment and gravitas as Norma. I do not say that Damrau is guilty of such flippancy, but I wonder whether she has not fallen into the trap of severely under-estimating the challenge of the grander arias she has undertaken here. She is a major talent but this CD represents, for me, a bridge too far, too soon.
Ralph Moore


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