Lise Davidsen recital, Sept 14, 2023
I saw soprano Lise Davidsen and pianist James Baillieu in recital at the Met on Sept 14, 2023. This was my first event of the Met season and one of the things I was most looking forward to. She's an extraordinary young Norwegian soprano, only 36 years old, already having a major international career and with hopefully many good years ahead of her. Here's a little overview of her career:
2015: won first prize in the London Operalia competition
2017: Glyndebourne debut in title role of *Ariadne auf Naxos*, other debuts at the Zürich Opera House, Vienna State Opera, Aix-en-Provence Festival, Royal Opera House, Teatro Colón, and the Bavarian State Opera
2018: Grammophone magazine named her Young Artist of the Year
2019: Met debut as Lise in *The Queen of Spades*
2020: streamed recital for the Met
That 2020 Met streamed recital was the first time I had heard her and she impressed me a lot, I thought she was a young singer to watch. She next performed at the Met in *Die Meistersinger,* not an opera I like, but I bought a ticket for her *Ariadne* in March of 2022.
This might be difficult to explain. I heard people say this about old school divas Joan Sutherland and Birgit Nilsson - - that as impressive as their voices are on a recording or on TV, it has no resemblance to hearing the voice live. The presence and impact of the voice can only be perceived when you're in the same room when the singer is singing. I'd never really experienced that to the degree I did with Davidsen. I saw her *Ariadne* and holy wow, she knocked me out. I saw the PBS telecast of *Ariadne* and confirmed that Davidsen has that Best Heard Live situation going on - - the impact was greatly lessened in a recording.
This was the fifth time I'd heard a recital at the Met: I'd heard a solo piano recital by Daniel Barenboim, tenor Jonas Kauffman and pianist Helmut Deutsch in 2011, soprano Anna Netrebko and pianist Malcolm Martineau in 2016, and soprano Sonya Yoncheva and pianist Malcolm Martineau in 2022. Yes, it's a big ol' barn for a recital, way too big for just such an intimate form, but hey I'm not complaining.
Let's start with what she was wearing. For the first half she had a pink gown, a hot pink short sleeved silk top and a pink and white floral skirt, very sweet. She's a bit plump and her gowns were both perfect for her figure. It's shameful but I don't remember what Baillieu was wearing - - it was either a tux or a black suit. Does it matter? He looked sharp and more, importantly, he looked "correct."
I want to say a couple of other things before I delve into the program. She sang from memory. This might not seem so remarkable but it is. Yoncheva had her music on a music stand in her Met recital - - she knew the songs well enough to not hamper her connection to the audience, so it didn't bother me. A friend heard about a major singer doing a recital at Carnegie Hall completely GLUED to her music the entire time, hardly ever looking up. Come on, people. No excuse for that. And I was pleased that Davidsen and Baillieu engineered things in order to prevent the audience from applauding between songs. There were a few yahoos who applauded a bit here and there and a few big finishes to a song in the middle of a set where people burst into applause but generally the program moved forward without interruption, which is the way it should be. In my opinion.
They started with a set of songs by Edvard Grieg. "Der gynger en Båd på Bølge" is a gorgeous song. Her voice was colorful, warm, intimate, but still full of drive. She was absolutely sure of what she was doing. The biggest thrill of this opening set was she showed herself to be a true art song singer, not an opera singer slumming in art song repertoire. Her singing was artful but still direct.
"Til min Dreng" was a little dull and repetitive but she made something special out of it. "Drømme" showed off her glorious legato and expert approach to her upper register. Baillieu's postlude was full of poetry.
She surprised me by pulling a microphone out of the piano and talking for a little while. I had a hard time hearing and/or understanding her, I think it was a mixture of the mic not being loud enough, the space not being equipped for someone speaking with a mic, her being very far away (I was in my typical nosebleed seats), and her speaking with a moderately thick accent. She said what an honor it was to be asked to do a recital on the stage of the Met and a special joy for her to be singing in Norwegian.
She sang "Dereinst, Gedanke mein" with precise and meaningful word coloring. I had no idea what she was saying (the Met didn't give us translations, which is odd) but SHE knew. "Zur Rosenzeit" had a dramatic middle section which got me excited for "Erlkönig" in the second half. "Ein Traum" started with delicate playing from Baillieu culminating in lots of glamour and splash that got me excited for the Strauss songs on the second half.
Next, two arias by Giuseppe Verdi. "Morrò, ma prima in grazia" from *Un Ballo in Maschera* is a stunner of an aria. It has a juicy cello solo so why not ask my friend Kari in the Met Orchestra (or another cellist in the orchestra) to make a special guest appearance? That would have been marvo.
I'm going to give Davidsen a backhanded compliment: she sang this aria with all of the sensitivity and pathos of a German rep singer singing a Verdi aria. Of course a singer should be versatile and able to sing in a number of languages and styles but the overt emotionalism of the Verdi wasn't a good fit for her. She was a little too well-mannered and contained when what we wanted was grandeur and a noble sort of morbidity. She was like Hamlet trying to be Evita.
"Ave Maria" from *Otello* was much more in line with her talents. Mozart/Strauss sopranos have often found Desdemona a good fit and Davidsen is no exception. This would be a dreamy role for her.
Next, a set of songs by Jean Sibelius. "Den första kyssen" was a nice opener. "Var det en dröm?" had fabulous fluttering by Baillieu. Davidsen's voice didn't always bloom at the top the way I'd want it to.
"Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte" at first felt like a piano piece with a vocal part over it but then the singer took over in the middle section and OH YES some major blooming on high notes. Thank you! "Svarta rosor" had lots of thrust and bite, but her high notes were worrisome, they often didn't land right on target. I'm going to ask some soprano friends but my guess is that they read as 8.7% flat because even though the note itself is in tune the phonation is flat. Please don't check the science on this theory.
She ended the first half with what might be her signature aria, "Dich, teure Halle" from Richard Wagner's *Tannhäuser.* She spoke to the audience again - - she told a cute story about starting her studies and career as a mezzo, soon realizing that she was actually a soprano. Her teacher gave her this aria not so much as something she should be doing right then but as a sign of what she probably could expect in her future. Davidsen sang it and felt good about it, felt like it was a good fit. She sang it for the teachers in her college and they said, "Hm, big voice. She needs time to develop, see you in a while." But no, she went on singing it and won a few competitions with it and launched her international career, so there!
I wrote two words in my notes about her performance of this aria: JESUS YES. So fantastic. No problem with bloom or pitch, which makes me think those issues are more about comfort and familiarity with the thing she's singing. Wagner is totally her jam. She sang Sieglinde in *Die Walküre* at the Wagner shrine, the Bayreuth Festival, in 2021 and 2022. I hope she waits a few years before Isolde, I'm sure she's gotten a few offers for that already. Slow and steady is the name of the game.
Here she is singing it that night. The Met needs to do a better job with the sound design if they're going to post things on YouTube - - Davidsen sounds great but Baillieu sounds like he's in Hoboken.
The second half started with an aria from Davidsen's debut role, "Uzh polnoch blizitsya... Akh! istomilas ya gorem" from Tchaikovsky's *The Queen of Spades.* Actually, to be precise, the second half started with the audience applauding Davidsen's second gown! It was a beige gown with gold sequins on the bodice and hem and a beige filmy over-schmatte. Perfect for her, a great way to add a little pizzazz to the second half.
I said earlier that it was a treat to hear that Davidsen is a singer of art songs but hearing her in this aria made me realize that even though it appears that as an artist she's fulfilled and well-suited to the art song format, it's in a full-blown opera performance with an orchestra where her VOICE feels most at home.
I was a little surprised when I got to the Met and looked at the program. The Schubert and Strauss sets were comprised of eight of the best-known, most-often-sung songs by these composers. The Schubert "Litanei" is the one somewhat lesser-known song. I was surprised because if you're doing Schubert and Strauss, don't you think you'd want to balance it with a couple more songs that aren't such moldy oldies? Now, to be sure, there's a reason these songs are sung 5,000 times a day, it's because they're masterpieces. But there are other masterpieces... I would have loved to hear her do Schubert's "Die Allmacht," she would throw us out onto Columbus Avenue in that song. OK, nuff said.
The Schubert set started with "An die Musik," which was lovely, warm, direct, and not too arty. Davidsen made "Gretchen am Spinnrade" into an operatic scena. A valid choice.
I have a lot to say about their performance of "Erlkönig." It's a ghost story about a supernatural creature who's trying to capture the soul of a little boy. There are four characters in the song: the narrator, the little boy, his father, and the Erlkönig, the demon spirit. In my mind the whole point of this song is to use four distinct voices - - if I were to sing it (and that ship has sailed), I would use my usual voice for the narrator, a thin voice with straight tone for the boy, a dark and woofy voice for the father, and a sickeningly sweet voice for the Erlkönig. Davidsen didn't appear to make much of a distinction between the four characters. This puzzled me but then I decided to try and take it in as is and I realized she was singing the song as if it were someone telling a story, rather than a dramatization of the story. A valid choice.
"Erlkönig" is a demon spirit for pianists, requiring supernatural and superhuman stamina. The right hand plays fast repeated octaves almost from start to finish and how on earth do you do that without any wrist tension. A friend (a superlative pianist, no slouch by any means) tried playing this song many times and couldn't make it to the second PAGE without collapsing in a heap. Baillieu sort of cheated. OK, I withdraw the "sort of," he cheated. He inserted pauses. Like in the opening measures, he played the first five measures and then took a very brief pause before the sixth measure, when the harmonies changed. He did this many times over the course of the song. He was smart enough to do it in a clever way so it didn't appear to break the momentum but I was onto him. NOT a valid choice.
"Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen" brought out a warm, honeyed color in Davidsen's voice, a very different color than we'd heard before. It was hypnotic.
The Richard Strauss set was the highlight of the evening. Five moldy oldies but we could hardly have asked to hear them sung better. Strauss could have written these songs for her. "Zueignung" had me in tears from the get go, it was overwhelming to hear it sung with just the right voice and the right style. She sang "Allerseelen" like it was a mini *Ariadne.*
"Cäcilie" was a little troublesome. Is it just me or did she have a little trouble moving her voice around in this song? We had more under pitch phonation here, she needs to see a medical professional about that.
"Befreit," on the other hand, was her best singing of the evening. Expert navigating through the registers, spot on with every note, fabulous singing in every possible way. "Morgen" seemed to be a bit of an effort for her - - it requires a hushed stillness, which isn't really where it's at for her. But the song itself has such profound magic, it was still priceless. And Baillieu had the audience in the palm of his hand.
She ended the program with two cheesy pieces. First "Heia, heia, in den Bergen ist mein Heimatland," from Emmerich Kálmán's operetta *Die Csárdásfürstin.* Davidsen made me remember that her counrywoman, Norwegian Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, got her start singing operetta. Davidsen had just the right approach: full on vocalism leaning into the cheesiness and approaching the realm of bad taste.
The final piece on the program was "I Could Have Danced All Night" from *My Fair Lady* (music by Frederick Loewe). She had fun with it. I'm sure many of us were wondering if she would do the unwritten final high C a la Nilsson - - she did, but not the way Nilsson did it. Nilsson sang "all" on the G and the top of the staff and then launched right to the high C with "night." Davidsen perched herself on the G on "all night," then launched to the high C FROM the G. Loewe didn't write a high C at all, so she can sing it however she wants. The audience went nutso (they were pretty nutty throughout).
Her first encore was "Vissi d'arte" from Puccini's *Tosca.* Lovely but again, not really the kind of thing I want to hear her sing. Her final encore was a Grieg song I didn't know, I think it might have been "Våren." Beautiful, quiet, spellbinding. I like it when the final encore is something gentle rather than a real barn-burner.
My final thoughts: it was a glorious and impressive recital. It was only occasionally thrilling but consistently satisfying. I was smiling rather than breathless and beside myself. She's a young singer, she's still in a sense an artist in development. I will see her every time she sings in New York.
I would love to hear her in recital again. Number One on my wish list (after "Die Allmacht") would be to hear her sing the Liszt Petrarch songs with a flashy pianist, that would be stellar. And the Met had planned to do a new production of *Salome* sometime in the next couple years for Anna Netrebko. Netrebko is off the roster in the foreseeable future because of her connection to Putin - - Davidsen is singing the role in Paris this coming May. Sign that girl up, she would be such an amazing Salome.
"Der gynger en Båd på Bølge"
"Til min Dreng"
"Dereinst, Gedanke mein"
"Morrò, ma prima in grazia" from *Un Ballo in Maschera*
"Ave Maria" from *Otello*
"Den första kyssen"
"Var det en dröm?"
"Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte"
"Dich, teure Halle" from *Tannhäuser*
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
"Uzh polnoch blizitsya... Akh! istomilas ya gorem" from *The Queen of Spades*
"An die Musik"
"Gretchen am Spinnrade"
"Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen"
"Heia, heia, in den Bergen ist mein Heimatland," from *Die Csárdásfürstin*
"I Could Have Danced All Night" from *My Fair Lady*
"Vissi d'arte" from *Tosca*
A Grieg song I didn't know, I think it was "Våren"