United States Met Stars Live in Concert : Lise Davidsen (soprano) and James Baillieu (piano). Broadcast live in HD (directed by Gary Halvorson) from Oscarshall Palace, Oslo, 29.8.2020. (JPr)
Wagner – ‘Dich, teure Halle’; ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau’ (Tannhäuser)
Grieg – ‘Ved Rondane’, Op.33, No.9; ‘En Svane’, Op.25, No.2; ‘Våren’, Op.33, No.2
Verdi – ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’ (Un ballo in maschera)
Sibelius – ‘Säf, säf, susa’, Op.36; ‘Var det en dröm?’ Op.37
R. Strauss – ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ (Ariadne auf Naxos); ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ Op.27, No.1; ‘Cäcilie’, Op.27, No.2; ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’, Op.27, No.3; ‘Morgen!’ Op.27, No.4
Puccini – ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ (Manon Lescaut)
Britten – ‘Johnny’
Kálmán – ‘Heia, heia, in den Bergen ist mein Heimatland’ (Die Csárdásfürstin)
Landon Ronald – ‘O lovely night!’
Ernest Charles – ‘When I have sung my song to you’
Lerner and Loewe – ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ (My Fair Lady)
We were in Oscarshall Palace (located on Bygdøy outside the Oslo city centre) – described as the summer home of the King and Queen of Norway – and in the Dining Hall, with its Romantic neo-Gothic decorations, including oak-panelling, landscape paintings, candelabras, and chandeliers. Lise Davidsen first sang there in 2015 during a masterclass for the Queen Sonja International Music Competition that she subsequently won and was presented the award by the Queen herself at the grand finale at the Opera in Bjørvika. We saw a TV clip of that and this recital which, thankfully, had more music than chat saw Davidsen being interviewed by the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb (online) and – in person – by Queen Sonja herself. Along the way we learnt how Davidsen was a ‘late bloomer’ who grew up in rural Norway in a family more interested in sports than music. Indeed, Davidsen herself wanted to be a handball player when growing up. Apparently, in starting to learn the guitar it was with the aim of being a singer-songwriter like Joni Mitchell. Her interest in music obviously deepened and then – as we will discover – ‘Dich, teure Halle’ came into her life. Davidsen was now back in the Dining Hall as a ‘Met Star’ having made her Metropolitan Opera debut not too long ago as Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. The acoustics of the room seemed fairly warm though James Baillieu’s piano had a rather bright sound.
Davidsen explained: ‘“Dich, teure Halle” is an aria that has followed me since the beginning of my career. Almost 12 years ago I came to my new singing teacher [Susanna Eken] with some alto arias and some Bach cantatas, she looked at me and listened and she gave me “Dich, teure Halle” and said “I believe this is where you will be in the future”. I was in shock, at that time I’m not even sure I knew where the aria was from, but it turned out she was right. And since then it has followed me through entering exams, competitions, and to last year at my debut at the Bayreuther Festspiele in Germany’.
Hearing a voice such as Lise Davidsen’s through laptop loudspeakers makes me loath to dissect her performance but after a rather nervous start – and one very brief vocal blip proved these concerts are indeed live! – it became clear where her true musical heart lies: controversially I am not certain it is in Wagner and Verdi, but more probably in the marginally lighter, though often more beautiful and unashamedly romantic, works of Puccini and Richard Strauss, and a myriad other composers. Of course, Davidsen has a big voice and is rather statuesque and that pushes her only one way and that is towards Wagner. I should have been seeing her this summer singing Sieglinde in Bayreuth’s new Ring.
Hindsight is a marvellous thing and I suspect Davidsen just had to begin with Elisabeth’s two arias from Tannhäuser, the opera in which she made her first appearance at Bayreuth last year (review click here). However, she seemed a little vocally – and slightly physically – inhibited. The trio of Grieg songs helped make her relax and – as I have discovered before – although these have a Norwegian accent, they are rather Schumannesque. I have seen and heard James Baillieu play for Davidsen in other recitals and he is always an ever-responsive accompanist; intriguingly following all the music this time on a tablet. Davidsen was – as expected – an eloquent advocate for her compatriot’s songs, as she would later prove to be for those by Sibelius, and in particular, Richard Strauss. Her Grieg was reflective, often melancholic, culminating in an affecting ‘Våren’. Sibelius’s’ ‘Säf, säf, susa’ was suitably sorrowful whilst ‘Var det en dröm?’ was dreamily(!) romantic but with an underlying sadness. Davidsen brought a fine depth of feeling (thanks to the warmth of her chest voice) to yet more introspective and emotional songs, this time Strauss’s Vier Lieder, Op.27 beginning with ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’. ‘Cäcilie’ – fine as it was – could be a little more extrovertly euphoric. Davidsen was at her most impassioned in ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ with Baillieu providing an eloquent postlude before he expressionistically allowed dawn to break as the lead-in to ‘Morgen’ which was full of unfulfilled yearning.
The operatic arias we heard interspersed with all these lieder also got better and better. The Wagner – as I have mentioned – was too early in the programme and lacked, as appropriate, the ecstasy or religious fervour expected in the theatre. I felt Davidsen was keeping her emotions in check rather more than she might have for ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’ (Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera) considering her character, Amelia, wants to see her son for the last time. Considerably better was Strauss’s ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ when Ariadne hopes for someone who will take her to another world where everything is better. It was this ‘better world’ that Davidsen wished for all of us, and indeed we do have fervent hopes for that even though currently that seems a long, long, way away. From the evidence of her sublime ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Davidsen could be an outstanding Tosca, but would anyone cast her in that? (More importantly, are there any good Cavaradossis tall enough to appear opposite her?) Davidsen made Manon’s aria a true cri de coeur about the life she had lost, her sense of abandonment, and in her railing against impending death, she was totally convincing.
The hiatus in Davidsen’s career has possibly offered some opportunity to take stock on what she wants from it after the whirlwind it has been since she won several prestigious awards and prizes around 2015. Intriguingly she said, ‘I know myself and the world I work in much better’ and I wonder if this will be reflected in what she now does in the future. I suggested earlier how I had picked up on where, I believe, Davidsen’s singer’s heart truly lies and it became more apparent when she said that to conclude her selection of songs ‘It is important to show some different sides’. She began with one of Britten’s Cabaret Songs and whilst Davidsen had said she was in love with Johnny, it could be a matter of debate who actually was due to the probable subtext in W.H. Auden’s poem. Nevertheless, Davidsen had the opportunity to be more animated, more playful, than previously and ‘Johnny’ was sung ardently but with increasing regret each time he ‘went away’. James Baillieu really came into the spotlight relishing the high-spirited Csárdás underpinning Davidsen’s equally exuberant ‘Heia, heia, in den Bergen ist mein Heimatland’ from Kálmán’s Die Csárdásfürstin which ended with a final note that must have tested the solidity of the fixtures and fittings in the Oscarshall’s Dining Room and a ‘Bravo James!’ to her pianist. Landon Ronald’s ‘O lovely night!’ was radiant and Davidsen imbued Ernest Charles’s ‘When I have sung my song to you’ with a quiet rapture. Introducing her last song, the totally disarming Lise Davidsen said ‘I would like you to join us [on social media] … I want to see you guys … I want to see you hum or sing along or dance in your living room to this last song.’ I hope many did accompany her in some way during a joyous ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ from My Fair Lady.
Unlike some singers who cannot fail to sound overly operatic in lighter fayre, Davidsen seemed totally as ease and this was very revealing. Whether she could have sung all night is another matter; the broadcast having returned to host Christine Georke in New York, on the TV screen from Oslo behind her Lise Davidsen slumped to the floor then rose to hug herself. Read into that what you will.
For more about Met Stars Live in Concert click here.