30 Aug 2020

Met Stars Live in Concert: Lise Davidsen at the Oscarshall Palace in Oslo

The doors at The Metropolitan Opera will not open to live audiences until 2021 at the earliest, and the likelihood of normal operatic life resuming in cities around the world looks but a distant dream at present. But, while we may not be invited from our homes into the opera house for some time yet, with its free daily screenings of past productions and its pay-per-view Met Stars Live in Concert series, the Met continues to bring opera into our homes.

To date, Met Stars Live in Concert has offered performances by Jonas Kaufmann (in Polling, Bavaria), Renée Fleming (in Washington DC), and Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak (in Èze, France). This weekend, the fourth of the twelve live concerts was given by Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, accompanied by pianist James Baillieu, in the Oscarshall Palace in Oslo - the summer home of the King and Queen of Norway, and the venue where Davidsen performed after winning Norway’s Queen Sonja Competition in 2015, shortly before she also triumphed in that year's Operalia competition.

She began, inevitably, with Wagner: Elisabeth’s ‘Dich, teure Halle’ ( Tannhäuser), an aria which Davidsen explained, “has followed me since the beginning of my soprano career.” She described how, twelve years ago, she took some Bach cantatas to her first lesson with a new teacher: “She looked at me, and she listened, and then she gave me ‘Dich, teure Halle’ and said, ‘I believe this is where you will be in the future.’ I was in shock and at that time I’m not even sure that I knew where that aria was from.”

But, as Davidsen acknowledged, “it turned out she was right”, and it was with this role that she made her debut at Bayreuth last year. With relaxed, animated accompaniment from James Baillieu, the Norwegian soprano displayed the plushness and gleaming shine that we have come to know well during the past five years, and used her seemingly effortless vocal power to place and sustain the gentlest of pianissimos while retaining lyrical fulsomeness. While the vocal peaks were sunny, there was an occasional tightening of the tone and loss of depth lower down, and it’s quite understandable that Davidsen may have felt a little tense at the start of this recital. Elisabeth’s ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau’ had a wonderful dramatic intensity and Davidsen’s concentrated vocal power is compelling but Baillieu was called upon to guide her through an uncharacteristic minor memory lapse and the intonation wasn’t flawless.

It was a reminder of both the ‘strangeness’ of such recitals communicated to an unseen audience spread across the globe - Met Stars Live in Concert performances are directed by Gary Halvorson, the Met’s award-winning director of the company’s Live in HD cinema transmissions, and are broadcast via a control room New York City where the programme’s host soprano Christine Goerke, is situated. And, of the strain that singers and musicians have been under during the past five months, unable to make the music which is their life-breath, and to share their music-making with colleagues and listeners. In a short, filmed discussion with Queen Sonja of Norway, Davidsen spoke of the speed with which her career had taken off following her 2015 competition victories: that turning point was a fairytale. She hoped that, whereas initially she was “just going along and trying to do the best I could”, “at this point in my life I can understand what I am doing, where I am”, words that seemed all the more poignant give the subsequent distressing disruption of a dream that really had come true.

Oscarhall Palace.jpgOscarshall Palace, Oslo.

Turning to songs from her native Norway seemed to relax Davidsen. Grieg’s ‘Ved Rondane’ had an easy, gentle lilt, the stanzas unfolding in long, even breaths, delicately decorated by Baillieu’s countermelodies. ‘En Svane’ began with dulcet calm. Davidsen’s middle range was soft and silken, the slightest vibrato enrichening gently, hinting at the expansion and growing urgency of the central section in which the piano’s glistening ripples and the soprano’s climbing line were sparkling complements. ‘Våren’ had assurance and stature, though Baillieu brought it to rest with exquisite delicacy and consoling warmth. Subsequently there were two songs by Sibelius. The harp-like strumming of ‘Säf, säf, susa’ established a tender melancholy and the duo communicated the narrative persuasively, swelling to dramatic heights in the central account of Ingalill’s tragic fate. The swirling, densely coloured turbulence of ‘Var det en dröm’ followed segue. Sibelius described this as ‘my most beautiful song’ when he presented the manuscript to its dedicatee, the soprano Ida Ekman. Here it was radiantly romantic and sumptuous.

The repertoire was wide-ranging: perhaps surprisingly so - there are not many recitals that place Wagner alongside Puccini, Sibelius beside Verdi, and throw in a Britten a cabaret song and some musical theatre too. Davidsen turned next to Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera: ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’, in which the condemned Amelia pleads with her husband Renato to let her see her son for one last time before she dies. The sound might not be very ‘Italianate’, but the power, easy transference of register and concentrated lyricism which make Davidsen such a wonderful interpreter of Wagner served her well here, and there was a surprising fruitiness to her lower range to complement the soaring gleam at the top. Baillieu offered eloquent drama and support in ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ from Manon Lescaut; again, the sheer size of Davidsen’s truly dramatic soprano enabled her to convey, with paradoxical ease, the terrible depth of the ailing Manon’s exhaustion and despair.

In 2018, Davidsen was highly esteemed for her performances in the Festival d’Aix’s production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. After portentously throbbing piano chords and a burnished vocal plunge, ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ was increasingly energised by Ariadne’s hopes and anticipation for fulfilment, denied her in life, in the land of death. Both Baillieu and Davidsen imbued the aria with a dynamism which strove towards a gleaming transfiguration. Then came Strauss’s four Op.27 songs, an opus which Davidsen never gets tired of, she explained: “It captures all aspects of life in an uncompromising, charming and beautiful way.” The slow tempo of ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ enhanced the song’s weight and gravity, before a flood of passion was released, coursing fervently through ‘Cäcilie’. After the sensual sumptuousness of ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’, ‘Morgen’ cleansed and refreshed. Davidsen’s soprano creamily shaped the eloquent vocal lines. Who could not concur with her? “This song I feel says everything about what I am hoping for these days - a better tomorrow.”


Davidsen explained that she was keen, when asked to devise a programme for such an occasion, to include diverse voices, and so the duo’s final sequence presented cabaret, operetta, drawing-room ballad and musical theatre. Their rendition of Britten’s ‘Johnny’, one of the Four Cabaret Songs which set texts by W.H. Auden designed to evoke the spirit of 1920s Berlin, was a bit strait-laced; Hedli Anderson, for whom the songs were composed, reportedly used to perform sitting on the top of the piano, swinging her gazelle-like legs, and ‘Johnny’ needs to be more of a riot if its humour is to hit home. ‘Heia, heia, in den Bergen ist mein Heimatland’ from Emmerich Kálmán's Die Csárdásfürstin was certainly exuberant as Baillieu’s strong, agile fingers chased themselves around the accompaniment’s spinning whirls and Davidsen conjured the wild party-spirit of a Budapest café. Landon Ronald’s ‘O lovely night!’ was bursting with romance and rapture; Ernest Charles’ ‘When I have sung my songs’ was noble and sincere.

Before the final song, Davidsen invited the audience at home to join in, using social media, so that after the performance she could see the audience at home dancing and swaying in their living rooms. “I could have danced all night,” she rejoiced, luxuriantly. I bet she could have sung all night too. As Christine Goerke bid us good-night, and invited us to return in a fortnight for the next concert in the series, by Joyce DiDonato, the tele-screens behind her showed Davidsen, smiling broadly at Baillieu, sink gracefully to the floor, hugging herself with what imagines was a mixture of joy, fulfilment and exhaustion. No doubt Loewe and Lerner expressed her excitement and happiness perfectly: “Sleep, sleep I couldn't sleep tonight, Not for all the jewels in the crown.”

Tickets for each recital are $20 and can be purchased on the Met’s website at metopera.org; the performances will be available for on-demand viewing for 12 days following the live event.

Upcoming concert schedule (1pm, Eastern time zone):

September 12 - Joyce DiDonato, live from (location TBD)
September 26 - Sondra Radvanovsky and Piotr Beczała, live from (location TBD)
October 10 - Anna Netrebko, live from (location TBD)
October 24 - Diana Damrau and Joseph Calleja, live from Malta (castle location TBD)
November 7 - Pretty Yende and Javier Camarena, live from Zurich, Switzerland (location TBD)
November 21 - Sonya Yoncheva, live from Berlin, Germany (location TBD)
December 12 - Bryn Terfel, live from Wales (church location TBD)
December 19 - Angel Blue, live from New York City (location TBD)

Claire Seymour

Lise Davidsen (soprano), James Baillieu (piano)

Wagner - ‘Dich, teure Halle’ (Tannhäuser), ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau’ (Tannhäuser); Grieg - ‘Ved Rondane’ Op.33 No.9, ‘En Svane’ Op.25 No.2, ‘Våren’ Op.33 No.2; Verdi - ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’ (Un ballo in maschera); Sibelius - ‘Säf, säf, susa’ Op.36, ‘Var det en dröm?’ Op.37; Strauss - ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ (Ariadne auf Naxos ), ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ Op.27 No.1, ‘Cäcilie’ Op.27 No.2, ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ Op.27 No.3, ‘Morgen!’ Op.27 No.4; Puccini - ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ (Manon Lescaut); Britten - ‘Johnny’ (Four Cabaret Songs); Emmerich Kálmán - ‘Heia, heia, in den Bergen ist mein Heimatland’ (Die Csárdásfürstin); Landon Ronald - ‘O lovely night!’; Ernest Charles - ‘When I have sung my song to you’; Lerner and Loewe - ‘I could have danced all night’ (My Fair Lady)

Oscarshall Palace, Oslo; Saturday 29th August 2020.