The Great Diana Damrau

Damrau as Queen of the Night

My regular readers know that, as a rule, I am not all that crazy about most modern opera singers. When they have fine voices, they often lack interpretation and, many times, good diction, and when they show good interpretation they often have defective voices.

German soprano Diana Damrau’s voice, as such, has gone in and out of focus throughout her career. Like the late Eleanor Steber, another singer I admired, she often takes a while to warm up, and even then her voice can go a bit awry later in the performance, but in her case, as in the case of the late, great baritone Gabriel Bacquier, it doesn’t matter because Damrau is so locked into the characters that she sings that the total impact is greater than the parts.

Since I don’t get around to opera performances any more, my experience with Damrau has come by bits and pieces. I have, however, made up for lost time by listening to a great many of her recordings and watching several videos of her on YouTube, and have thus come to some conclusions.

To begin with, although I will make a few small comments about her occasional (and it is occasional) vocal unsteadiness, I rush to point out that the voice is a very fine one. At times she can make it sound bright and brilliant, almost like a French or Italian coloratura, and at other times she can make it sound warm and plangent. My years of study into vocal methods tells me that Damrau employs two entirely different methods of vocal placement to achieve this: singing in head voice, with the high notes placed in the sinus cavities above and just between the eyes, and singing in what is considered a normal chest placement using diaphrammatic breathing. Even more unusually, she can apparently “slide” between these two voice placements in the course of a single aria. When she places the voice in chest, it has more power as well as richness, but the head tone also carries well because it produces a more piercing sound.

I also think that her occasional vocal lapses stem from a problem she had while still studying voice. According to Wikipedia, she developed edema (a buildup of fluid in the tissue) on one of her vocal cords. Wisely, she chose an alternative medical treatment rather than surgery. It took about a year and a half for this condition to heal, but when she did she had no scar tissue to contend with.

Naturally, her voice was higher and brighter in her early years, but as she approached age 34 the voice began to sound rounder and fuller. Damrau wisely adapted to nature rather than fighting it; by age 37 she gave up singing such roles as the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte because the high placement such music required was no longer natural or comfortable. It was then that she moved into what I would call “medium coloratura parts” like Lucia, Violetta, Donna Anna and Anna Bolena. And throughout this entire period, she sang a great deal of lieder, and very well, too. This was another unusual aspect of her art.

In some respects, Damrau had predecessors in what she did. The great German soprano Edda Moser could also alternate between the Queen of the Night and Donna Anna—I saw her in person singing both roles—and although she did not possess the huge, cutting power of her famous Dutch rival Cristina Deutekom, Moser had a more beautiful timbre and was a much better stage actress. Yet even here, Damrau has gone Moser one better because although she is an intelligent and careful singer she is even more of a “stage animal” than Moser. People still rave about Maria Callas’ acting ability, but most of what she did was with the voice. Onstage, Callas generally drew attention not by acting up a storm but by standing very still (unless the drama called for her to move around). Damrau’s artistry is much closer to that of the great opera singers of the past such as Feodor Chaliapin, Magda Olivero, Jon Vickers, Teresa Stratas and Gabriel Bacquier. I saw all of these except Chaliapin in person. What they did was to so completely “inhabit” the characters they portrayed that you became convinced that they WERE the character, at least as long as they were onstage. And each of them—Damrau included—used subtlety in their facial expressions, eye and body movements, to achieve their effects.

With Damrau, then, the total package is what bowls you over. Never mind the fact that she takes a while to warm up or occasionally has a flutter in the voice. In the end it doesn’t matter because of her total commitment to the drama is presenting. When you watched Bacquier onstage, for instance, you had the impression that he had a magnificent baritone voice. It was only when you just listened to that same performance without seeing him that you noted that his voice was not perfect. The eye fooled the ear. That is what the great singers do; they so mesmerize you that even a slight defect has no negative effect on the overall performance.

A perfect example, which is available for viewing on YouTube, is her performance of “O zittre nicht” from Zauberflöte, from the 2003 DVD release with Colin Davis conducting. From the very beginning of the aria, Damrau interprets the words, almost as if pleading with Tamino to understand her suffering. She puts on the act of the grieving mother; but at one point glances sideways at Tamino as if to say, “Am I laying it on thick enough for this boob?” I’ve never seen or heard anyone do the aria this way—and her commercial recording of the aria, though taken at a faster tempo, contains the same subtleties.

Perhaps Damrau’s greatest achievement was in singing all three of the ladies in Offenbach’s Contes d’Hoffmann, a performance preserved on video but never released on DVD because tenor Rolando Villazón didn’t like the way his voice came out in the last act. As someone who not only heard but saw Joan Sutherland perform the same feat in person at the Met, I can attest that Damrau surpassed her achievement with excellence to spare. Yes, Sutherland had the larger voice and yes, for a coloratura soprano Sutherland had an exceptionally good middle and low range, but onstage only her Olympia was impressive because she had a ball “camping up” the character. Once she had to act and sing more dramatically as Giulietta and Antonia, she was far less impressive than Damrau.

Damrau Lucia 4

Damrau and tenor Charles Castronovo in the mad scene from “Lucia di Lammermoor”

Sifting through her various recordings, one finds so many jewels to place in Damrau’s crown that it is almost an embarrassment of riches: lieder by Schumann, Schubert, Strauss and Mahler (the complete Des Knaben Wunderhorn with baritone Iván Paley), songs by Verdi, plus opera arias from Un Ballo in Maschera, La Traviata, Anna Bolena, Pagliacci, I Puritani, La Sonnambula, The Rake’s Progress, the difficult aria of Zerbinetta from Ariadne auf Naxos, plus her Queen of the Night (a studio recording of the two arias plus two live performances of the complete opera on DVD) and her Donna Anna (with Villazón as Don Ottavio). She has made a studio recording of Lucia di Lammermoor, but the dull, stodgy conducting of Jésus Lopez-Cobos make it a poor souvenir of her work in the role compared to her 2008 Metropolitan Opera and 2016 Covent Garden live performances. I would go so far as to say that Damrau’s Lucia is better sung and better acted than Callas’; I would place it on the same high level as Leyla Gencer’s live 1957 performance, which for me is the touchstone in this oft-performed chestnut.

Another interesting aspect of her art is her ability to sound like an almost different soprano depending on the language and the material being sung. In lieder she sounds like a fine German lieder singer while in German opera she opens up her dramatic approach to a new level. When singing Italian opera, she sounds Italian, not only in style but in her correct diction; when she sings French opera or songs, she sounds French. Even in English, one understands every word and for the most part her pronunciation is completely idiomatic. This talent places her quite a bit above many artists of the past, including Chaliapin and Vickers whose pronunciation in languages foreign to them was pretty bad.

The only chink I see in Damrau’s artistic armor is her reluctance to sing modern music. In this respect other coloratura sopranos, particularly Barbara Hannigan, Sarah Maria Sun and Anu Komsi, have a wider repertoire, but none of them possess her incredible histrionic gifts or the chameleon-like ability she has to change their vocal placement and color the voice somewhat differently from role to role. In this respect, Damrau reminds me of tenor Marcel Wittrisch, who possessed the same ability, and I consider him to have been in a class of his own in the 1920s and ‘30s, but ill health and his unwise decision to sing Siegmund curtailed his career and caused his voice to deteriorate by the mid-1940s. At age 49, Damrau appears to be still going strong, albeit in somewhat different repertoire from her early years. She brings an opera singer’s enthusiasm to lieder and a lieder singer’s sensitivity to opera, and these are among the qualities that make her unique.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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