Urmana is no whisperer like Schwarzkopf or Dieskau and the results of a discreetly played CD will not convince you. But the moment you are safe at home (with or without headphones), turn up the volume and you will be rewarded. Urmana is a big- voiced opera singer and she makes no secret of the reasons why she gives a lot of lieder recitals. In recent interviews in the German press she emphasised that up to now she had taken care to avoid most madmen who think themselves a director; but, nevertheless, she is fed up with the pretensions of the lesser fools in that profession who think of a singer as just another prop on the scene and don’t even talk with their singers. They just order them around. And she hates the 6- to 8-week rehearsal time, as most directors waste everybody’s time concentrating on a few details. (As I write reviews for magazines and not newspapers, I usually visit the third or fourth performance when singers give in to ill-health once the première is over. I get a more than usual number of “just arrived by plane” replacements and I’ve never noticed any accident or even clumsiness with singers who have rehearsed a new production for one hour instead of 2 months). Ideally Urmana would be a great catch for an operatic concert but these are very rare nowadays in Europe. Orchestra unions are always asking for extra rehearsal and overpay for arias they can play blindfolded and one single pianist is cheaper for the management. Moreover, in the heavily subsidized European houses audience revenue is not very important. General managers favour lieder recitals because lieder are “art” and “operatic arias” are just fun. You could hear the public relax in the Brussels Paleis voor Schone Kunsten (Fleming) or the Ghent Opera (Studer) when the encores appeared and the pianist played the first measures of Adriana Lecouvreur or Rusalka. I think it no coincidence that Richard Strauss is so popular with opera singers giving lieder recitals.
Take “Fruhlingsfeier” (track 14) with its massive ascending cries of “Adonis, Adonis”. Most people, even knowledgeable opera lovers, will immediately believe you if you told them this is an alternative aria from Daphne or Friedenstag or whatever lesser known Strauss opera you care to mention. It is also an aria, pardon a lied, that proves that Urmana is a full-fledged dramatic soprano and not a singer with a mezzo tessitura and good top notes à la Bumbry or Verrett. After all, Urmana studied for several years as a soprano until a teacher convinced her she was a mezzo, as she has a good and warm voiced lower register. But the central part of the voice is indeed that of a soprano; and when I first heard her a few years ago in the Verdi Requiem, Michéle Crider sounded more a mezzo than the Latvian. A song like “Die Georgine” (track 4) is ideal for her as she can show the velvet in the middle register, the rich tone while at the same time she can open up and show the tremendous volume as well. Mind you she is not unsubtle. She can lighten up the voice and use a slender tone like she does in the amusing “Schlechtes Wetter” (Bad weather). She masterfully dominates the leaps in Berg’s Frühen Lieder and she shows her true mettle as a singer with an astonishing messa di voce in his “Traumgekrönt” (track 18). I can understand why some British critics are so severe as, according to them, the rapture of an Urmana concert derives “from the beauty of tone and not from understanding”. Nevertheless, anyone who has suffered and survived a Bostridge recital will cry out for some beauty of tone after such an overwhelming amount of understanding.
My only complaint is with the programme. If nobody wanted to take the plunge and introduce the soprano with an operatic recital, then an all-Strauss one would have been a better substitute. The Liszt lieder are not very inspired—dull is the correct word; and the Berg lieder are an anti-climax after the beauties of Strauss. So when is that operatic recital coming?