Last night, Lise Davidsen sang a recital in the Metropolitan Opera House. Accompanying her was James Baillieu, a South African pianist. Davidsen is a Norwegian soprano—and one of the outstanding singers in the world today. It is a rare privilege to sing a recital at the Met.

In recent years, René Pape did so. (For my review, go here.) Anna Netrebko did so. (Here.) Those recitals were in 2014 and 2016.

Is the Metropolitan Opera House—the “mighty Met,” as Martin Bernheimer used to call it (both the house and the company)—a fit venue for a recital? Not really, but it helps to have a big voice, as Davidsen does.

And it is not only big, of course, it is extraordinarily beautiful, and it is undergirded by a solid technique.

Davidsen sang a recital for the Met in 2020. She did so via livestream, from Oslo. The Met hosted (if that is the right word) a series of recitals via livestream during that pandemic time. For my review of Davidsen, go here.

The program she sang last night was similar to the one she sang in 2020—similar in repertoire, I mean (and in execution, for that matter). It was a generous and varied program.

There is an old debate, an old question: Which is better in song recitals? Texts in programs or supertitles? Should audience members have their head down in their program or should they be looking over the head of the singer? I’ll tell you what’s best of all: seatback titles, such as they have at the Met.

But that is rare and luxurious.

Davidsen and Baillieu began with Grieg—six of his songs. She sings in walls of sound, or strong, steady streams of sound. She can also put pliancy—bend—in her sound when she wants. Last night, when she went high and loud, there was a touch of stridency in her voice. Just a touch. This is perhaps something to watch (or listen for).

Mr. Baillieu was stylish in his Grieg. He was smart, supple, and civilized. He is a good pianist and an excellent accompanist. We hear him regularly in New York. (At the end of last season, he accompanied Benjamin Appl, the German-British baritone, in Weill Recital Hall.) (Review.)

After her first three Grieg songs, Ms. Davidsen stopped, reached into the piano, and withdrew a microphone. Uh-oh. Yes, she talked. Norwegian though she may be, she seems to have caught the American disease: talking throughout a recital.

To my sense, the spell was broken. The magic of the song recital was taken away. The elevated was forced down to the level of the mundane.

Davidsen acted as, in effect, the emcee of her recital. She told us what she had sung and what she was about to sing. I often want to say to these talkers, “Don’t you know that they gave us a program at the door?”

Last month, I attended several recitals at the Salzburg Festival. Not only does a recitalist not talk his way through the evening; it would be unthinkable to do so. It would be no more shocking if the recitalist took his clothes off.

(They don’t do that during recitals in Salzburg. They do it during opera productions.)

In any event, this is what American audiences seem to want (or what American concert organizers seem to want). And Lise Davidsen was ever charming and lovely.

After Grieg, she sang two arias by Verdi—though the second is more akin to a song. First came “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” from Un ballo in maschera. Was it Italianate, from this Norwegian Wagnerian-Straussian? It was Italianate enough, yes. Then came the Ave Maria from Otello. Davidsen let it be simple. She didn’t do anything to it, thereby doing it a great favor. I have seldom heard better.

When she had concluded her high A, some in the audience applauded, without waiting for the “Amen.” A pity—but a vicissitude of live performance.

Davidsen next sang four songs of Sibelius. With Karita Mattila nearing the end of her career, someone has to sing these songs—and Davidsen does a first-rate job of it. She conveyed the music with power: emotional and vocal.

And she ended the first half of her recital with her signature aria: “Dich, teure Halle,” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. She sings it over and over again, with orchestra or piano. And she sings it with such authority, beauty, and rhapsody, I already look forward to the next time.

Another half, another dress—which the Met audience robustly applauded. Davidsen and Baillieu began their second half with another aria: Lisa’s aria from The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky). It was in this role that Davidsen made her Met debut, in November 2019 (Lise portraying Lisa). She sings the aria in her forceful, but unforced, Davidsenian way.

(How odd this aria sounds with piano, incidentally—no offense to Mr. Baillieu.)

Then came a Schubert set—four of his best-known and most beloved songs. Davidsen ordered her program interestingly. In the usual course of things, these songs would come at the beginning of a program, not after a Tchaikovsky aria in the second half. But there are no rules. And if there are, they are made to be broken, with taste.

On the first note of her first song—“An die Musik”—Davidsen sharped. Sometimes, it takes an off-center note to tell a listener: “Man, does this singer sing in tune.” An off-center note—a note that is exceptional—wakes a listener up to that fact. Davidsen exhibited good intonation all night long.

Her “Gretchen” was marvelously restless. (Hers and Baillieu’s, I should say—the pianist plays his part.) “Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen” accomplished something important: it was hushed and prayerful without being precious.

After the Schubert set came a Strauss set—five of his best-known and most beloved songs. They began with “Zueignung” (the most frequent encore in song recitals, in my experience). The end of the song practically demands applause. Next to me, a man said to his companion, “Yeah, why not?” And they began to applaud. A man sitting in front of me turned around and glared at them.

The last two Strauss songs were “Befreit” and “Morgen!” They are so abused, night after night, recital after recital. People sing (and play) them cautiously, waywardly, with self-absorption. Davidsen and Baillieu avoided that. These masterly songs were properly touching.

Davidsen let her hair down with two arias she loves to sing: “Heia, heia . . .,” from The Csárdás Princess (Kálmán), and “I Could Have Danced All Night” (Lerner & Loewe). Did I call the second item an “aria”? Anyway, it is a kick.

Reviewing Davidsen in 2020, I wrote, “Birgit Nilsson, the late Swede, sang this song. Maybe we should just turn over My Fair Lady to Scandinavian sopranos.”

Speaking of Scandinavian sopranos: there is a statue of Kirsten Flagstad outside the Oslo Opera House. I would not be surprised—at all—if they put up one of Lise Davidsen someday.

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