22 June 2017
Yet another CD devoted to the music of Giacomo Meyerbeer appears, such a remarkable development for a composer whose music was once unknown and unobtainable, whom many have sought to disparage, and even tried to airbrush out of history. Now an accomplished and popular soprano has realized a life-long dream sustained since her student years to record a recital devoted to Meyerbeer's music. This music has always attracted her by its variety, beauty and power, and here she has the opportunity to show what she means. The preparation for this recital came in October 2014 in Rome, when with Antonio Pappano and the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, she presented on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Meyerbeer's death, a concert devoted his music, with some overtures by his contemporaries Rossini, Berlioz and Wagner. She also gave a recital in Berlin in early June 2017, following a similar type of programme. Now we have a CD that presents a hugely interesting series of arias from 11 of the composer's 17 operas—a programme that reveals the range and breadth of Meyerbeer's work and inspiration through the span of his creative life. Some of these arias are famous (like the Shadow Song from ‘Dinorah'), but others are heard for the very first time (like the two numbers from the German operas). So the comprehensive nature of the recital is a fundamental factor of this undertaking. Of its own this disc presents an introduction to so many aspects of the composer's work, revealing the chronology and diversity of his life and inspiration.
One of the most unusual arias is from Meyerbeer's second opera ‘Wirt und Gast' (or ‘Alimelek'), written in 1813 in Munich when he had just completed his studies in Darmstadt with the Abbé Vogler. It is charming in its simplicity and clarity, as it reflects on the heroine Irene's concealment in the cool of the evening (beautifully evoked by the cello), with hope of seeing her beloved (captured in the lovely horn writing and sprightly allegretto). This is an endearing piece looking back to Mozart and expanding the language of contemporary Romantic opera. The impassioned and extended number from ‘Ein Feldlager in Schlesien' (1844) is heard for the first time ever: the aria was copied from manuscript never having been used before in any production. The opening recitative is overwhelmingly fervent, as Therese hears that her beloved is condemned to death. The 3/4 time of the aria that follows belies the usually happy associations of this waltz rhythm, and is used as an ironic comment on the anguished situation and feelings. This is a most remarkable discovery of a very considerable piece of dramatic writing.
Arias from the four grand operas are better known. "Robert, toi que j'aime" for Princess Isabelle from ‘Robert le Diable' (1831) and ‘O beau pays de la Touraine' for Queen Marguerite de Valois from ‘Les Huguenots' (1836) are among the most famous and beautiful of all the soprano repertory. Both are known from many recordings: the former by the Americans Anna Moffo, Beverley Sills, and June Anderson; the latter in numerous versions, from the legendary old 78 rpm of Margarethe Siems in 1910 (with it stupendous sustained trills) to Joan Sutherland's various recitals in the 1960s. The aria from ‘Robert le Diable' is a plea for grace and redemption, and is almost the most beautiful soprano aria in the world, with its solo harp and cor anglais creating a rapt faraway aura of sacramental mystery, and the increasingly impassioned refrains underscoring the urgency of pleading. The Queen's aria is a tone poem celebrating the beauty of nature and peace, as opposed to the horror of religious intransigence and violence. The scene is given in its entirety, with the central quartet, as in the versions by Beverley Sills and Joan Sutherland (from the complete opera), a glorious animated scene for coloratura soprano. Diana Damrau captures the different moods of these arias with real poetic flair. No one has ever distilled the dreamy atmosphere of this music like Margarethe Siems, however.
Berthe's cavatine from the beginning of ‘Le Prophète' (1849) depicts the joyful anticipation of reunion by a young peasant girl: the coloratura must be light and aspirational to capture the breathless mood of joyful innocence. Diana Damrau manages this well, avoiding the abrasiveness of Renata Scotto in 1976, but without quite the vulnerability of Margherita Rinaldi in the 1970 Turin broadcast of the opera. The two arias from ‘L'Africiane' (1865) belong to the Portuguese beloved of Vasco da Gama, Inès, rather than to the tragic heroine of the title. The Ballad of the Tagus, famously recorded by Elisabeth Rethberg in 1933, is hauntingly exquisite, and provides the motto theme of this posthumous opera of farewell and parting. The second aria is from Act 5, where Inès hails the exotic beauty of the new world in the East where she has been shipwrecked—fragrant with its exotic trees and new flowers. In recent times only Ruth-Ann Swenson has recorded this reflective piece with its intensely vivid woodwind writing.
Meyerbeer's most famous soprano aria is of course the Shadow Song from ‘Dinorah' (1859), recorded by every major coloratura artist in innumerable recordings over the past 120 years. As with Joan Sutherland, Diana Damrau includes the melancholic middle section, which adds nuance to this famous nocturnal evocation of moonlight, fleeting shadows and alternate states of mind. The other piece from Meyerbeer's opéras-comiques is the aria with two obbligato flutes from ‘L'Etoile du Nord' (1854), the highpoint of an extended mad scene. The crisp purity of the flutes evoke the freshness of the spring morning referred to in the words, and the famous vocalise with the concertante flutes provides a brilliant variation on this operatic topos of demented other-worldliness. This performance is eminently worthy to stand alongside the recordings of Joan Sutherland and Sumi Jo, but also adds something extra by its strict adherence to the score. To hear the choral interjections in the flute fantasia is a really marvellous experience.
The two pieces from Meyerbeer's Italian operas present thematic opposites, and carry the listener into the composer's youthful experiences in Italy which was a a garden of delight for him, and fostered his enduring love of the human voice and the bel canto tradition. "Sulla rupe" from ‘Emma di Resburgo' (1819) tunes into the Romantic imagery of Ossianic mystery and Scottish minstrelsy—with its extended, lovely harp writing, and light delicate fioriture along the top of the treble line. "D'una madre disperata" from the last and greatest of Meyerbeer's Italian operas ‘Il Crociato in Egitto' (1824) could hardly be more different in its anguished declamation and impassioned rhetoric that looks back beyond the contemporary style of Rossini to the world of Mozart's concert arias.
Diana Damrau has complete control over the various styles required by this music spanning a composer's artistic lifespan (1813—1864). She understands the drama, the lyricism, the poetry, and shows how coloratura is integral to the vocal trajectory of the 19c. She has created the emotional landscape of each piece without affectation, and with admirable control of her medium. Only sometimes do the very high notes have a element of squalliness and a hint of vibrato. Otherwise it is a supremely virtuosic performance throughout. The soprano has a tendency to use her own cadenzas. In the case of the Shadow Song this is a mistake. Meyerbeer himself wrote the cadenza for this aria, and all the great recordings use it. Its absence is somewhat jarring, specially since Damrau's own cadenzas are not always very inspiring, and sound a little ‘manufactured'. It is always better to sing what the composer has provided.
The conductor directs the orchestra dn chorus of the Lyons Opera with engagement and sympathy, without exaggeration or violation of tempi. Why, however, is the clarinet, which plays such a big role in the pieces from ‘Le Prophète' and ‘Dinorah' sometime barely audible? This also applies to the upward rising cello figures in the Queen's great scene in Chenonceaux. The first part of the aria is carried on these deep undulations, like the hidden currents and eddies of the River Loire flowing by, and they should be much more audible and prominent, as is the birdsong represented throughout the piece by the prominent flute writing. And how could the conductor sanction the curtailment of the famous ritornello at the end of the Queen's famous cabaletta ("A cet mot seul")? To those who know and love this music it is an irritating distraction.
Otherwise this is an enthralling album by imaginative and dedicated artists. The repertoire reveals the extent and multifarious fascination of Meyerbeer's music, the beauty of his inspiration, his supreme mastery of the operatic craft.