Coloratura Diana Damrau charms in Washington National Opera debut despite illness

April 9, 2013

Diana Damrau, one of the finest coloraturas of her generation, finally came to Washington National Opera on Monday night.

It was not exactly the debut one might have hoped for, not on the main stage and not in her typical repertory. Still, in a recital of largely ethereal German and French songs, the German soprano showed herself a gifted storyteller, set against the evanescent backdrop of arrangements for harp played by Xavier de Maistre. Many hearts leaped into many throats when she announced that she was sick, but she put on a brave face and persevered.

Damrau was to have made her company debut as Ophélie in the 2010 production of Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet,” part of the reconfiguration of that season after the financial crisis forced the company to postpone its “Ring” cycle.

She was unable to travel to Washington when she became pregnant with her first child that year, but a performance was announced featuring Damrau in the Celebrity Concert Series for this season.

Instead of a program of opera excerpts with orchestra, like other performances in the series, she ended up presenting this recital with de Maistre in the Eisenhower Theater, just before they take the same program on a European tour.


Diana Damrau. (Michael Tammaro for Virgin Classics)

One had every right to be disappointed, but the result was a charming recital with many beautiful moments. Damrau produced a clean and lovely tone, intense but without ever having to force the sound, with only a few uncomfortable clicks as the voice shifted between registers, just a touch of gold worn off the surface that confirmed the illness. Her French and German diction were excellent, with all of the poetry savored, and there were even a few fireworks in the bird-twittering cadenzas of Eva Dell’Acqua’s “Villanelle.”

The choice of songs was favorable to the harp, which as an accompanying instrument could easily become tiresomely monochromatic: The whirring spinning wheel of Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” the harp mentioned in the same composer’s “An die Musik,” light as a feather in Strauss’s “Standchen” and “Schlagende Herzen.”

The Strauss set was the high point for Damrau — she has an excellent disc of Strauss songs to her name — but the harp was most strained when approximating Strauss’s lush orchestration.

De Maistre was a sensitive accompanist, with only a couple slips due to page-turning problems, and his two solo turns were daringly virtuosic.

Although it seemed cruel to expect encores from a singer who was so sick that she woke up “unable to breathe,” the audience prevailed on her to offer two of them.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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