COLORaturaS - Opera Arias

Diana Damrau; Munchner Rundfunkorchester/Dan Ettinger (Virgin 5193132)

21 January 2010 4 stars

ColoraturasSooner or later, every successful coloratura soprano with the good fortune of having a recording contract must issue at least one collection of 'chestnuts'. These are the arias known by every aficionado, and thus, recent singers may be easily compared with their predecessors' recorded legacies.

While every selection on German soprano Diana Damrau's newest release 'Coloraturas' has been recorded dozens of times, she has made some unexpected programming choices that give us a glimpse of the breadth of her interpretive talents. In fact, only a few of the arias on 'Coloraturas' are from the standard leggiero repertoire, while the remaining selections are culled from roles normally associated with lyric-coloratura and even straight lyric sopranos. Damrau admits herself – in her brief introduction to the booklet notes – that some of the arias are not part of her performance repertoire, and one senses that perhaps she wanted to throw in a few surprises. The result is an album full of color (as the title implies) and a wealth of opportunities for Damrau to inhabit a wide spectrum of characters from the winsome (Linda and Ophélie) to the aggressive (Cunegonde and Rosina) and everything in between.

As mentioned above, when a singer records 'main-stream' repertoire, she inevitably faces comparison with the favorite versions that play in the mind of the listener. However, Damrau has such keen intelligence, and brings such a wealth of personal insight to her characterizations, that nearly every aria on this disc stands up nicely to the recorded competition. She may not erase memories of past recordings, but her assumptions here show a great deal of individuality, polish, and virtuoso technique. What's more, she succeeds equally winningly in the lyric arias as she does on her 'home turf' in the coloratura repertoire. To a degree, it seems slightly regrettable that Damrau doesn't focus exclusively on the high-coloratura fach, since she is well known for her proficiency in the lighter, more florid pieces. Her first disc for Virgin – Mozart, Salieri, and Righini arias – showed just how incredibly effective she can be in the stratosphere. But, like another major star with similar vocal qualifications – Natalie Dessay – Damrau seems to have set her sights on a gallery of roles that extends beyond the typical 'songbird' repertoire. Unfortunately, another trait these two talented singers share, is a tendency to let the tonal focus retreat too far backward, creating a 'throaty' sound that fails to integrate effectively into the more forward, natural-sounding, brighter tones characteristic of a light coloratura. This flaw occurs quite seldom in Damrau's singing, but appears from time-to-time when she is trying for a darker tone color or singing loudly, especially in her higher register. The effect can be a rather forceful, over-powering sound that doesn't match the attractive quality of the remainder of her singing.

Fortunately, these moments are relatively few, and don't cause much harm to the overall impression of a young singer, in her prime years, reveling in the ability to use her voice for nearly any effect she desires. In the opening aria, 'Ah, je veux vivre' from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, the very first high b-flat is round, full, and frankly, huge. In truth, she has been recorded extremely closely, giving the voice absolute sonic supremacy over the excellent Münchner Rundfunkorchester. The recording engineers have given Damrau an extra boost that allows the listener to hear her every breath, but at the cost of a realistic sonic balance and a bit of orchestral detail. Still, aside from some unconventional pushing and pulling of the tempo, the aria is thrillingly secure, with more polish and precision than most lyric sopranos can provide. Damrau's amazing linguistic facility allows her to transition seamlessly from Juliette (in French) to Verdi's timid Gilda (Italian), Strauss' coquettish Zerbinetta (German), and Stravinsky's Anne Trulove (English). In all four languages, Damrau displays razor-sharp diction (words are intelligible over her entire vocal range) and excellent, nearly accent-free pronunciation. The clarity of her texts is remarkable.

So too, is her skill in vivid characterization. Her Gilda is more minx than innocent, but the dynamics and phrasing she imparts are outstanding, and the final trill shows off impeccable breath control. Her Zerbinetta is distinguished by an ability to encompass even the highest notes firmly and securely into a cohesive, evenly produced vocal line, all while creating a vivid, three-dimensional character. Her Rosina – sung in the higher key of F – is a miscalculation. Though very well sung, this young woman is surely far too aggressive for Rossini's sparkling comedy. Damrau impresses in the long scenes from The Rake's Progress and Hamlet, almost making us forget that the former ideally requires a soprano with more heft, and in the latter, she nearly outshines the French-born Dessay in what is perhaps her signature role. The purely lyric arias from Gianni Schicchi and Un ballo in maschera are as near perfect as I've ever heard. To see Damrau embody the silly Lauretta on stage would be an utter waste of her talent, but she would make an ideal Oscar – far superior to the soubrette-types usually cast in this role. Her Linda di Chamounix is a tour-de-force of light coloratura fireworks, and the much abused 'Glitter and be gay' for once truly does glitter, featuring a vivid reading of the text without the often-encountered hammy excess. Finally, in this last selection, Damrau shows off her highest register by adding an optional top F, and it is a stunner.

Dan Ettinger has been very busy in the studio lately, having conducted Pieczonka's recent Puccini disc, and again distinguishes himself here with Damrau. The orchestra – though recessed as mentioned above – sounds wonderfully at home in all of these arias. In particular, the scenes by Strauss, Stravinsky, and Thomas require as much 'color' from the orchestra as they do from the soprano, and Ettinger coaxes superb playing all around. Damrau is probably the reigning coloratura soprano of the moment, all things considered, and so this disc is required listening for all interested in her fach. But in truth, she goes far beyond basic proficiency into a realm seldom encountered – one in which an artist exults in her skills and freely shares her joy with all who choose to listen.

By David Laviska