In lieu of staging operas, the Metropolitan Opera is presenting recitals, online. The series is called “Met Stars Live in Concert.” Earlier this month, I reviewed a recital by Latonia Moore, the American soprano. The recital took place in Miami and was presented by the Los Angeles Opera. That’s the way it is going these days.
Latest to appear in the Met series is Lise Davidsen, the young soprano from Norway. Find her recital here. It is available through September 9, and costs $20, like all the recitals in this series.
Davidsen made her Met debut last season in The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky). She bowled you over—at least she did me. “A phenomenal addition to the operatic scene,” I wrote. “The voice is huge and lyric—a rare, wondrous combination.”
Lise Davidsen grew up in rural Norway and played handball. She liked to sing, and play the guitar, and wanted to be a singer-songwriter, à la Joni Mitchell. She sang in choirs as a contralto or mezzo-soprano. She thought she might make a career singing Bach arias and the like. (Not that there is anything quite like Bach arias.)
In graduate school, a teacher told Davidsen that there was an operatic soprano within her. Boy, was there. In 2015, Davidsen won Operalia—Plácido Domingo’s competition—and the Queen Sonja International Music Competition, in Norway. She was launched.
How do I know all this? Well, in the course of the recital, Davidsen speaks to the audience, which is to say, the camera. There are also a couple of taped interviews with her. One is conducted by Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met. The other is conducted by Queen Sonja herself.
Incidentally, the Queen of Norway is in her mid-eighties and a knockout.
The recital—the broadcast—has a host too, or hostess: the American soprano Christine Goerke, who handles her duties splendidly.
Davidsen sings from Oscarshall, the summer palace in Oslo. The setting is beautiful. The recital is niftily filmed, too. Davidsen is accompanied by a pianist from South Africa, James Baillieu. The program is a mixture of songs and arias, highly varied. It is a wonderful program, wonderfully performed.
It begins with Wagner: two arias from Tannhäuser. The first is that traditional opener, “Dich, teure Halle.” Davidsen sings it in the appropriate fashion: big, warm, generous. How odd it is, by the way, not to hear applause at the end of a piece like that. It’s not that the audience is being quiet; it’s that it isn’t there (except in Internetland).
The second Tannhäuser aria is “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau,” which Davidsen sings with due prayerfulness and soulfulness.
Naturally, there is Grieg. A Norwegian can hardly escape singing him. Solveig Kringelborn, a Norwegian soprano of an older generation, sings him. Anne Sofie von Otter, the great Swedish mezzo, sings him. Who else? Last season, I heard the British soprano Sally Matthews sing him.
Grieg should be more standard than he is, in my opinion.
Scaling down her dramatic-soprano voice, Davidsen sings her Grieg songs very well. She evinces sincerity, certainly because she is sincere. She sings these songs purely and richly at the same time. Purity and richness is not a combo I often hear. James Baillieu plays his accompaniments deftly and sensitively.
How Grieg loved the piano, and how well he wrote for it!
All through the recital, incidentally, there are subtitles on the screen. These are quite nice—an improvement on looking down at your program. Or looking up at supertitles, in my opinion.
What next? Verdi: “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” from Un ballo in maschera. I had never heard this aria with piano, incidentally. And I wondered whether it would have bite, from this lush, Nordic soprano. The first word—“Morrò”—certainly has bite. The aria overall is not especially Italianate. But it is good enough—more than good enough—and moving.
It is also in tune. All recital long, Lise Davidsen is in tune. One may not notice, same as one is not likely to notice a dog not barking. But it is not to be taken for granted. Singing in tune is a great gift, to the audience, whether the audience knows it or not.
Moving back up north, there are two songs of Sibelius—really good songs, superbly sung and played by Davidsen and Baillieu. And then Strauss, a generous set, beginning with an opera aria.
That is “Es gibt ein Reich,” from Ariadne auf Naxos. This is not an easy aria. But Davidsen disguises any difficulty. She is in a groove. She breathes along with the music—following its contours—unerringly.
Then there are four songs—the songs that constitute Strauss’s Op. 27. These are four of the best-loved songs in Strauss, and therefore in the entire song literature.
The first is “Ruhe, meine Seele!” Davidsen maintains her concentration here—critical. She also shows a beautiful lower register, perhaps befitting an ex-alto. Next comes “Cäcilie,” that irresistible outburst. Davidsen imparts a bit of girlishness to this song. She also has the right sense of rhapsody. The same sense serves her well in the third song: “Heimliche Aufforderung.”
Op. 27 concludes with “Morgen!” It helps to be simple here—no fuss, no muss. Strauss has written the sublimity in. Davidsen and Baillieu recognize this.
Lise Davidsen seems born to sing Strauss. Can she sing Mozart, too? Sometimes those two composers go together. I think of Lisa Della Casa, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Leontyne Price, Renée Fleming . . .
Back to Italian opera, with an aria by Puccini: “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” from Manon Lescaut. Davidsen sings the opening with excellent smokiness. Overall, the aria is well judged, even exciting. Does this soprano scald, à la Callas? No, but Manon is getting her point across, regardless. Davidsen is an admirably versatile singer.
In the final section of her program, she lets her hair down (and James Baillieu does, too). First comes “Johnny,” one of Benjamin Britten’s Cabaret Songs (whose words are by Auden). Scandinavians are renowned for reserve. Can this one pull off “Johnny”? Yes, indeed. She also pulls off a spicy operetta aria: from The Csárdás Princess, by Kálmán.
By the way, this ex-alto can go way, way up high, when she feels like it, or when she is called on to do so. And she does it without strain.
Then we have two songs from the drawing room, although that sounds like a putdown—no, these are wonderful songs: “O Lovely Night” (Landon Ronald) and “When I Have Sung My Songs” (Ernest Charles). You know who sang these songs? Among many others, Davidsen’s great Norwegian predecessor, Kirsten Flagstad. Davidsen sings them with gratifying openheartedness.
She ends with “I Could Have Danced All Night.” She turns on ample charm. Birgit Nilsson, the late Swede, sang this song. Maybe we should just turn over My Fair Lady to Scandinavian sopranos.
About Lise Davidsen, I can say no more, except to repeat what I said after her Met debut in The Queen of Spades: “A phenomenal addition to the operatic scene”—and the vocal scene in general.