The major young dramatic soprano of our decade, Norwegian Lise Davidsen, has just released her second Decca recital, Lise Davidsen: Beethoven - Wagner - Verdi. Recorded last August with the masked members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, the recording showcases Davidsen in music by Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi, Cherubini, and Mascagni. It is, in many ways, a superb album, displaying the full measure of Davidsen’s instrument and artistry. Even if parts of the recital reveal dramatic deficiencies that, with sufficient coaching and guidance, Davidsen may have the potential to overcome, it frames those weaknesses with singing so impressively secure and glorious as to instill anticipation for future glories.
Davidsen starts at her strongest with Leonore’s knockout aria from Beethoven’s Fidelio, “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?” (You monster! Where will you go?). Many sopranos and higher-placed mezzos have recorded this aria, but few have done so with such an equal measure of strength, surety, and tonal beauty. As throughout the album, Davidsen sings with a voice pliant, free, and far more liquid than that of one of her great predecessors, Birgit Nilsson. A sense of drama is innate, as is the ability to retain both tonal body and beauty as she pairs her large instrument down to a mere whisper at key moments. It’s a wonderful performance. Ditto for Beethoven’s extended scene and aria, “Ah! perfido” Op.65, where Davidsen pours everything she’s got into the opening recitative before singing music that harks as much back to Mozart as it looks forward. Only in the absence of ultimate freedom in some rapidly descending runs, if we’re getting nitpicky, do we sense any sign of weakness.
Davidsen’s Wagner portion of the recital is devoted to all five of the Wesendonck Lieder, some of which served as compositional studies for the opera Tristan und Isolde. The soprano, who was 33 at the time of the recording last summer, has already recorded Wagner — her first Decca recital contains two arias from Tannhäuser. Nonetheless, she intends to introduce his music to her repertoire with caution. As quoted in the liner notes, “It’s not that I don’t want to do these roles, and indeed I do want to sing Isolde or Brünnhilde one day, but I want to be able to enjoy them for a long time and not to shorten my career with the really heavy parts too soon.” In this respect, her approach seems similar to that of former Adler Fellow Elza van den Heever, who snared two prizes in Seattle Opera’s now defunct Wagner Competition before heading to the Met to perform very different repertory.
Again, the innate sense of drama is strong, and the easy transition from soft to full throttled extremely impressive. Note how gorgeous and poised she sounds in the third song, “Im Treibhaus” (In the greenhouse), and how equally beautiful she sounds in “Schmerzen” (Pain).
Yet, there are more than a few “almost” passages. This may have more than a little to do with Elder’s conducting. Listen, for example, to the great Eileen Farrell’s rendition of these songs with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein generally eschews strict tempo. This is especially the case in “Traüme” (Dreams), where the mating of flexibility with perfectly poised legato conveys the sense of suspended animation that comes with sleep. Listen carefully to how well Bernstein conducts the repeated pulsing notes of the song’s opening to suggest the spell of sleep rather than, as Elder does, mark a steady beat.
Another sure recorded benchmark for “Traüme” is the 1929 orchestral rendition by Lotte Lehmann, who at age 41 was at her absolute peak. She brings a sense of hushed wonder and an incomparable sense of rising and falling — of tension and release —to the song’s most passionate and ecstatic passages. Perhaps Davidsen has all this within her, but we fail to hear it on this recital.
Davidsen has already sung Luigi Cherubini’s Medea onstage and the role suits her very well. No one since Callas has brought such searing power to the repeated word “Crudel!” in the aria, “Dei tuoi figli la madre” (The mother of your children).
Which leads to the big question marks: Santuzza’s “Voi lo sapete” (You know what happened, mamma) from Mascagni’s blood and guts Cavalleria rusticana, Leonora’s “Pace, pace, mio Dio!” (Peace, peace my God!) from Verdi’s La forza del destino, and Desdemona’s “Ave Maria,” sadly shorn of its recitative, from Verdi’s Otello. In each of these, the soft tones are produced with great beauty and ease — the final “amen” in Desdemona’s prayer will be the envy of many a professional soprano, including many of the greats on record — and the more animated passages are admirably full-voiced. Another plus is Elder’s ability to coax virtually diaphanous tones from the LPO’s violins in the “Ave Maria.”
But two vital elements are missing: the dark, sometimes blood-chilling low range of many a classic Italian lyrico-spinto, and the emotional abandon that runs through this music’s core. Davidsen may understand full well how to express suffering, fury, helplessness, and self-pity, but she fails to wallow in the madness as 19th-century Italian opera tradition dictates. She’s just a little too clean.