The chief criticism to be levelled at this, Diana Damrau's debut recital disc, is a direct consequence of the thinking behind its title, 'Arie di bravura'. The programming of opera arias chosen on the basis that all of them are florid is already limiting, but the fact that all the pieces are by three composers who were close contemporaries, and writing for mostly similar audiences, has led to a rather monotonous listening experience. Although soprano and orchestra are impressive throughout, there is very little to choose between one coloratura spectacular Salieri or Righini aria and the next, based on the selection we are offered here.
That Damrau excels in coloratura is not in dispute, and with a strong reputation aided in large part by spectacular performances as Mozart's Queen of the Night on both sides of the Atlantic, it is not difficult to see why the decision was made to showcase her facility in bravura passages. But it is unfortunate that more thought was not put into the selections for inclusion in this recital. It is laudable that the latest star soprano to release a recital disc has not fallen back on standard repertoire, and it is fascinating to hear music from opera composers whose output is still scarcely known, Bartoli's all-Salieri album notwithstanding. But when only one aria out of thirteen is slow for its duration, namely 'Ombra dolente' from Righini's Il natal d'Apollo, and that one aria, aside from some unusual orchestration, is of little interest, one cannot help but feel the bravura concept has got in the way of an opportunity to reveal range in the output of these composers which is presumably very extensive. It also means the ear longs for relief from top Bs and Cs despatched at breakneck speed which always gets wearing no matter how skilful the execution is.
On its own bravura terms, however, it is excellent stuff. Damrau's singing is hugely appealing, making you feel like she is absolutely on top of things, but without being so perfect as to feel clinical or inhuman. Her voice, although of a scale and colour which I find hard to imagine in anything other than eighteenth-century repertoire, is rich and full, obviously very flexible and well endowed with high notes, but also retains its fullness as it descends to the bottom of her range. She has enough temperament and dramatic intention to be a gripping Queen of the Night, as evidenced by the inclusion of both arias, but there is a slight tendency to loose engagement in more plaintive or even-tempered numbers. Perhaps the reason why 'Ombra dolente' and the slow sections of other arias on the disc fail to provide the contrast which the recital badly needs is that Damrau the musician is not up to the same high standard as Damrau the singer when she doesn't have a gutsy theatrical situation to get her teeth into. Phrases in the aria 'Ah, non lasciarmi' in both the Mozart and Salieri settings, lack direction, or the graceful sense of ebb and flow present in the brilliant playing by Le Cercle de l'Harmonie under Jérémie Rhorer.
The fourth Mozart aria on the disc, 'Parto, m'affretto' from Lucio Silla, is the real highlight, and shows all the artists at their best. There is some thrilling articulation and dynamism from the orchestra who draw a wide palette of colours from their period instruments. Damrau is compelling in the accompagnato recitative, urgent in the aria, and dazzling in the trills, staccati and triplets that it inevitably ends up encompassing. It is a shame that other arias from this opera were not included, or some of those from Mitridate, re di Ponto which would also display the whole range of Damrau's talents to great advantage. One can only hope that they will be considered for future projects, now that the coloratura point has been proven with this disc.
By John Woods