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27.7.13

Ionarts-at-Large: A Damrau Liederabend to Harp On



A Liederabend in Munich’s National Theater is normally a compromised proposition: few singers have the voice—and fewer still the courage—to look into the vast round and still sing Lied-appropriately: light and naturally. Christian Gerhaher can do it, and I’ve heard Thomas Quasthoff do a Müllerin there in an I-can’t-be-bothered-kind-of-way that was at once insulting and splendid. But most singers flip into opera-mode and shout. Even superb (but Lieder-inexperienced) ones like Anja Harteros, who floundered at a Liederabend during one of the last Munich Opera Festivals. And Lieder shouted, no matter who does the shouting, are awful.

Diana Damrau is one of the few who have the voice, the wherewithal, the experience, and the confidence to pull it off… which made this Liederabend—full of promising Richard Strauss—one of the more attractive offerings of this year’s Munich Opera Festival. That it didn’t turn out that way was not primarily her fault, but it probably still had something to do with the choice (not her choice) of venue. It was primarily a matter of Xavier de Maistre’s harp accompaniment, which didn’t take well to the Strauss nor the venue.

Bereft of an acoustic in which its sound could nicely reverberate, the harp just pling-planged into nothingness; notes falling like dead raindrops on the floor. Above it Mme. Damrau cut through the space with her voice, but even that sounded a little harsh at first, and at least very much unsupported. Whether because of the acoustic or form that night, they never sounded together; there was no sense of unity, no sense of her voice being carried by the music, as it would be in these works’ orchestral guise or with the piano accompaniment (presuming an excellent pianist). For at least the eleven Strauss songs, Mme. Damrau was left alone, and de Maistre’s hard work amounted to little more than mildly annoying background jingle-jangle. In the third song, “Leises Lied”, Damrau developed the vocal warmth one expects in her sublime Strauss, and in “Die Verschwiegenen” operatic spunk, plenty dynamic—but surprisingly little expressive—nuance, which fit the overall acoustic (and ultimately emotional) dullness.


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A little harp interlude separated the first two sets of Strauss, in part to pretend that there was some egality among the performers when of course exactly no one had come to the National Theater to hear Liszt transcribed for harp. The audience was well-behaved, though, and they humored Xavier de Maistre’s admittedly amazing Le Rossignol by showing their appreciation for this little divertissement before the main act was back on stage. A diva would have used the time to change dresses, but Damrau (who could pull it off) is thankfully above gimmicks (not counting the harp-accompaniment as such). Singer and harpist continued to subtract from each other, instead of adding… most notable in “Winterweihe”, which was a shadow of its orchestral self in this version. This lasted until after intermission, when three songs from Joseph Canteloube’s Chants d'Auvergne (sung in French, while the program helpfully offered the Occitan text, which caused many a confused look among the audience) worked much better for this voice-harp combination.

This was over too soon, giving way to another solo harp interlude, this time a transcription of The Moldau from Smetana’s Má vlast… a proud river, reduced to a trickle of treacle. The undeniable element of awesomeness in mastering such a difficult transcription—even if Xavier de Maistre showed neither the technical panache of his student Emmanuel Ceysson or the musical touch of Anneleen Lenaerts—is a bit like admiring someone for carving a turkey perfectly with a nail clipper. Amazing, with overtones of daftness. It was in any case overtaken by Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs (now the program offered a very different German translation from what Damrau sang), which were not the last word in idiomatic Bohemian folk-ness, but very beautifully done—especially the evergreen “Songs My Mother Taught Me”. Then Damrau announced updates on the state of the royal baby and context-matched Strauss songs as encores, goading the audience into a self-celebratory frenzy with the “Wiegenlied”, “Morgen”, “Nichts”, and the acrobatic Eva Dell'Acqua “J'ai vu passer l'hirondelle” (from Villanelle).

Not a night to remember, but I’m looking forward to catching the program in the much more intimate and appropriate setting of the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg.