One lasting voice and four sparkling hands
The stages of a soprano’s life, the old joke goes, are “bel canto,” “can belto,” “can’t belto,” and “can’t canto.” The joke is predicated on the idea that a woman’s voice will deepen and broaden as she ages. But not all do. Some lyric coloraturas — they of the shimmery floating voices — simply get thinner and slightly more brittle. The wonderful German soprano Diana Damrau has been singing on major stages for a good 10- plus years, and her latest album, “Fiamma del Belcanto,” finds her compensating, ever so slightly, for an instrument that, while not growing greatly larger or darker, shows tiny traces of wear around the edges.
Damrau remains a very fine artist. The new album follows a chronological arc through the Italian repertoire, from Donizetti (“Rosmonda d’Inghilterra,” a rarity) and Bellini to Verdi’s “La Traviata,” one of her signature roles, through to Puccini’s “La Bohème” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” There are also a few German connections: Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” and Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” and “I Masnadieri” are all based on plays by Friedrich Schiller.
At her best, Damrau marries radiant sound with intense dramatic conviction, of a kind that works well in the house but can seem slightly overblown on a recording. Occasionally, too, she strays over the fine line between nuance — finding a quick ping of heartbroken pain on a note in the cabaletta of the “Luisa Miller” aria, then pulling back like a wounded animal — and mannerism — the plush, indignant, matronly tone she assumes in the “Follie! Follie!” section of “La Traviata.” ( The tenor Piotr Beczala makes a cameo appearance as Alfredo.)
The limpidity, fluidity and electricity of bel canto at its best come through in the selection from “Maria Stuarda,” the highlight of a generally enjoyable CD. Accompanying her, Gianandrea Noseda and the orchestra of Turin’s Teatro Regio are perfectly and unobtrusively expert and vivid, although in a couple of places (before the “Vien, Diletta!” of Bellini’s “I Puritani,” for one) Noseda’s penchant for drawing out inner voices leads to a sense of heavy-handedness.
Some of the heavier selections remain largely curiosities in her voice. In the aria of “Luisa Miller,” one of the heaviest selections on the recording — in which she is strongly partnered by her husband, the French bassbaritone Nicolas Testé — she tiptoes around her voice’s low register, robbing the piece of some of its impact. Then, abruptly, she hauls off and hits a solid chest note on the word “disonor” that almost takes her into “can belto” territory, and makes one wonder whether a few larger roles do, after all, lie in her future.
DIANA DAMRAU: “FIAMMA DEL BELCANTO.” Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino, Gianandrea Noseda, conductor. Erato.