Concert review: Soprano Diana Damrau dazzles with technical prowess and emotional depth

German soprano Diana Damrau headlined the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's Kings & Queens Of Opera programme which focused on royal subjects. PHOTO: JACK YAM

Kings & Queens Of Opera
Diana Damrau (Soprano) & Nicolas Teste (Bass)
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Last Friday, 7.30pm

Opera singing is not just about beautiful voices and pretty faces. It involves the faithful and vivid transcendance of personal experiences, and those of legends and fictional characters, to relatable personalities onstage. Dramatic feeling and good acting play big parts, but great opera singers possess qualities that draw listeners into innermost thoughts of the characters.

German soprano Diana Damrau is blessed with that X-factor and her return to the Singapore stage after a magnificent 2017 showing could not have been more welcome. The same forces that spelt success also came with her, including her husband, French bass-baritone Nicolas Teste, and Bulgarian conductor Pavel Baleff, who led the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

This year’s programme, themed around royal subjects, was less popularist than the last. Focused on Italian bel canto and 19th-century French opera traditions, Damrau opened with Bel Raggio Lusinghier (Alluring Ray Of Light) from Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide. Her command and control of tricky running notes seemed effortless, with thrilling flights in high registers negotiated with stunning aplomb.

More importantly was her expression of joy and love, with lyricism and theatricality indelibly captured in a perfect aria that belied the opera’s convoluted and violent narrative. This queen would later be slayed by her lover, who turned out to be her “long-lost” son.

More pathos was mined in the Cavatine and Aria from Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, where another queen pondered last moments before her impending execution. Damrau’s portrayal of anguish amid vertiginous high passages was palpable and real.

One rarity was the Prayer, Veliki Bozhe, Chui Moiata Molba (Great Lord, Hear My Prayer), from 20th-century Bulgarian composer Parashkev Hadjiev’s Maria Desislava. Another queen is betrothed to marry a king she neither knows nor loves, and her beautifully seamless lines reflected both solemnity and deep contemplation.

Teste also had moments in the spotlight. His richly burnished and stentorian voice shone in portrayals of Claudius (Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet), Solomon (Charles Gounod’s Queen Of Sheba), Don Carlo (Giuseppe Verdi’s opera of the same title) and Prince Gremin (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin), demonstrating that his was no undercard act.

As there are not so many famous duets for soprano and bass (as opposed to the more glamorous soprano-tenor tandem), the audience had to be satisfied with just one. Donizetti’s Recitative & Duet from Maria Stuarda, Oh Mio Buon Talbot! (Oh My Faithful Talbot!) was the evening’s highlight, as Damrau’s ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots found solace and peace in the comforting arms of Teste’s Talbot, her keeper.

Opening each set of arias were well-selected orchestral overtures and excerpts from stage composers including Rossini, Adolphe Adam, Leo Delibes, Vincenzo Bellini and Tchaikovsky. The relative unfamiliarity of these, wholly compatible with sung numbers, provided an added allure.

There had to be one showstopper and Damrau got the final word in Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma. Has there been a more powerfully emotive aria than this in all of opera?

Smoothness and suppleness of delivery were the rule and despite two well-received encores, one suspects this to be the most abiding memory of an unforgettable evening of opera.

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