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Christianne Stotijn [Photo by Marco Borggreve]
28 Mar 2010

Christianne Stotijn at the Wigmore Hall

Unlike instrumental players, singers “are” their instrument. They aren't machines. Performance is affected by many shifting factors, which need to be understood.

Christianne Stotijn at the Wigmore Hall — Pfitzner, Wolf, Debussy, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Loewe

Christianne Stotijn (mezzo), Joseph Breinl (piano)

Above: Christianne Stotijn [Photo by Marco Borggreve]


In Tamerlano, recently at the Royal Opera House, Christianne Stotijn made her debut both in the title role and at Covent Garden. Tamerlano is a brutal tyrant, and male. Modern audiences are perhaps more used to hearing a lower voice expressing such things. But Handel isn’t Verdi. He wrote the role for female voice, which makes it all the more difficult to create the role convincingly for modern expectations. Tamerlano’s personality doesn’t come naturally to Stotijn, though part of the art of acting means becoming a character completely different to yourself.

Stotijn’s voice is attractive, capable of warmth and sensitivity. She’s Bernard Haitink’s singer of choice, particularly for Mahler. She’s very good in Lieder, so I was looking forward to her song recital at the Wigmore Hall, London.

Her programme was wide-ranging: Pfitzner, Wolf, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Debussy, Strauss and Loewe. This is the kind of recital singers often create to show their prowess, though Stotijn is well known enough to have passed the stage where she needs to show her facility with languages and styles. The danger with programmes like these is that they stretch singers out too thinly, militating against depth of interpretation.

What Stotijn needed was a vehicle to show how she could penetrate a composer’s unique idiom.The Strauss set showed her at her best. Traum durch die Dämmerung was nicely paced, bringing out the rocking motion between light and shade. The song centres near the middle of the voice, so the flow is smooth, not forced. Similarly Ich schwebe and Die Erwächte Rose benefited from her gentle, lilting approach.

Yet there’s more to Lieder than charm. Loewe’s Herr Oluf was an odd choice, for this song is brutal. It’s often a star turn for baritones who can express its horror. Stotijn was lost, even when she sings the second part, where the bride sings innocently, wondering where Her bridegroom may be. She lifts a cloth and there he is dead. But it didn’t seem to register. Similarly, her Walpurgisnacht didn’t capture the hysteria of a child witnessing demons mother can’t see. Luckily, she sang Loewe’s Erlkönig, rather than Schubert’s, which doesn’t require as much vocal dramatization.

Part of Stotijn’s problem is that her voice is currently underpowered. Sound seems trapped in her chest, not fully projected, either in volume or intensity. Building up her technique will help, and strengthening the middle of her voice. Consonants define words, so sharpening these will increase clarity and attack.

The pianist was Joseph Breinl. He made fast paced, complex tempi flow freely, almost to the extent he was carried away with the vividness of his playing. This was most marked in the beginning of the recital with the Pfitzner songs Stimme der Sensucht and Nachts. To his credit, he pulled back as the recital progressed. Part of being a pianist for song means being sensitive to the singer, especially when she needs support and confidence. In songs like Strauss’s Ruhe meine Seele! where voice is unaccompanied for much of the time, Stotijn could be heard without effort.

Unlike instrumental players, singers “are” their instruments. Unlike machines, their performance can vary, depending on many different factors. Stotijn was born with a good voice, capable of great warmth and sensitivity, but at the moment, something is getting in the way. At times like these, technique comes to the rescue. Indeed, good technique has saved many a lesser voice.

If she takes the opportunity to refine her skills and rebuild her confidence, she’ll emerge from this period with credit. Just as fire strengthens steel, perhaps these current difficulties can strengthen Stotijn in the longer term.

Anne Ozorio

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