Wagnerian Nina Stemme in Berkeley with not-your-usual Lieder

United StatesUnited States Various: Nina Stemme (soprano), Magnus Svensson (piano). Presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 7.5.2023. (HS)

Magnus Svensson accompanying Nina Stemme recently in Toulouse, France © Patrice Nin

WagnerWesendonck Lieder
Wagner (arr. Liszt) – ‘Am stillen Herd’ from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Sigurd von KochDie geheimnisvolle Flöte
Weill – ‘Surabaya Johnny’, ‘Nannas Lied’, ‘Youkali’

Some singers with big voices can tone it down for recitals in a large hall. Nina Stemme, known for Wagnerian roles such as Brünnhilde and Isolde, found a way to convey a level of intimacy in her collection of song cycles despite a richly expansive voice which had no trouble filling the 2,000-seat Zellerbach Hall.

Her rare ease and flexibility with a large voice was an impressive attribute in a 2011 Ring cycle debut at San Francisco Opera, an even bigger house. The singing in that role’s more intimate moments lost none of the power required for the bigger scenes, and it should not have been a surprise that she started this concert with Wagner. Though Wesendonck Lieder is a climactic work for most sopranos, this was a warmup for her.

From a purely vocal standpoint, her richly endowed low notes emerged with the power of a mezzo-soprano. The midrange and nicely colored high notes felt like extensions of the same character. She conveyed the subtleties of Mathilde Wesendonck’s poetry with broader strokes than we usually hear, but the qualities of her voice carried the day.

Pianist Magnus Svensson, from Sweden like Stemme, followed with a solo moment – Liszt’s elaborate expansion of Wagner’s ‘Am stillen Herd’, Walther’s preview attempt at the prize song in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Svensson’s playing confirmed the modest impression of his contributions to the Wagner song cycle, showing clarity and poise but little of the extra personality that can make more of the music in a voice recital. Much of his work receded into the background. There was little to distinguish Wagner from Mahler or even Weill, let alone a set by the lesser-known Swedish composer Sigurd von Koch that concluded the first half of the recital.

Koch’s Die geheimnisvolle Flöte sets Hans Bethge’s German adaptations of works by Li Bai and other Chinese poets (which Mahler also used for his Das Lied von der Erde). Where Mahler focused on humanity’s baser traits, such as drunkenness and braggadocio, Koch aimed for romance. The slow drift of ‘Die Lotusblumen’ (The Lotus Flowers) and the modest charm of ’Taurige Frühlingsnacht’ (Sad Spring Night) carried shadowy undertones that played nicely into the underlying power of Stemme’s polished surface sound.

Mahler colored his music for these sources with hints of Chinese gestures, but Koch resisted that until the final song, ‘Herbstgefühl’ (Autumn Moods), in which the second verse got a vaguely pentatonic treatment on the phrase ‘black swans against dark blue sail like my black thoughts’. Stemme’s low notes flowed like the poem’s words. A low note in the previous movement, the title song, capped the phrase ‘my song flew … through the blossoming night’ and made me sit up straight with its power and richness. Though not at all flute-like, that song kick-started the set and led directly to that marvelous moment in the finale.

Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder usually calls for a lighter voice, but Stemme’s stage-savvy presence and acting ability caught the heavier undertones of the songs as they explore adults’ reactions to children’s deaths. Her range conveyed the relief (if not quite joy) in the first song that invokes the sun rising for another day, and the wistful fog that shrouds the second song.

If Svensson’s plain playing in the uncredited piano transcription of Mahler’s piece for voice and orchestra didn’t quite bounce in the third song to the music of ‘Wenn dein Mütterlein/Tritt zur Tür herein’ (When your mother comes through the door), Stemme’s voice embodied the pain in that memory. The final song seemed too slow to make the best of references to howling winds and horrible weather (both literal and musical), and it ended with a sigh of resignation.

To finish, Stemme turned to a set of Kurt Weill songs from the composer’s collaborations with Berthold Brecht in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There was nothing of the sardonic style of Lotte Lehmann, nor Ute Lemper-like. Stemme’s approach reflected a different, and individual, worldliness as she maintained an operatic richness.

The lesser known ‘Nannas Lied’ seemed to set the tone, an older women’s account of being used sexually since she was seventeen, told with a sense of resolute survival made manifest in the final ‘Gott sei Dank’ (Thank God). A similar attitude invested her interpretation of the ballad of a love-hate relationship, ‘Surabaya Johnny’, which opened the set, and Weill’s extraordinary tale of a mysterious imaginary island, ‘Youkali’. Even if Svensson accompanied that last song with a tango beat that lacked tang, Stemme got the message through.

The encore turned to Weill in his later Broadway mode with a lyrical and lovely ‘My Ship’ (words by Ira Gershwin) from the 1941 musical Lady in the Dark.

Harvey Steiman

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