Last Saturday I heard Lise Davidsen, the 32-year-old Norwegian lyric-dramatic soprano, sing her debut role at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Lisa, in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades. She started the afternoon a relative unknown. By curtain call she held the house in the palm of her hand.
Last week Boris may have won five years in Number 10 with a majority of 80. Davidsen’s achievement is comparable. But, she is set fair for longer residence at the Met than Boris in Downing Street. So, let’s take it for granted that Boris can “Get Stuff Done”, take a weary eye off the Brexit ball for a while, and focus on Davidsen instead.
She is breathtakingly talented. Don’t take my word for it. Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, has described her as being in “a league of her own”, Sir Antony Pappano, music director of The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden since 2002, considers her voice “one in a million”.
Sir Anthony is a musician whose judgement and depth of musical insight are second to none. His four-part 2015 BBC series on the human voice – currently available on BBC iPlayer – is a masterclass guide to what differentiates the occasional “great” voice from the impressive number of “excellent” voices that grace the world of opera today. Davidsen is headed towards the “greats”.
His is a rare talent, the ability to explain how the technically complex art of voice delivery has a very simple purpose – to assault or cajole the emotions and senses of audiences, transporting them to a different place. That is what all the opera hoopla is for.
And, that is what Davidsen does. It helps that she commands the stage with an elegant 6’ 2” presence. Statuesque. In The Queen of Spades the role of Lisa involves a lot of standing around in a ballgown, as the annoying Prince fiancé she doesn’t fancy tries to tell her – so long as she marries him – she can do what she likes. She is in love with gambling perma-loser, Hermann. God knows why. Cue the most unlikeable, useless hero in the opera canon.
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The duet with the Prince suitor is a turning point in the plot, in which the soprano singing role may be slight, but the emotional input is set at max. I saw Galina Gorchakova perform Lisa in the Met’s 2011 production and, excellent as she was, she could not match Davidsen’s eloquent body language in response to the Prince’s pleading. Sheer presence.
She has a standout voice. There are few opera singers who are truly distinctive in timbre. In an off the cuff roll call, I nominate Joan Sutherland, Janet Baker and Jessye Norman as three that illustrate my point. Now there is a fourth. Davidsen joins that pantheon. Her voice has an immediately recognisable, distinctive, weighty quality – good Claret rather than light Burgundy. (‘Nuff Christmas boozy metaphors, ed.)
That’s probably because she started out as a mezzo-soprano, then was persuaded to move up the register to soprano. There is no disguising the huge power that drives that voice, especially at the lower end of the range. Her ability to deliver even soft pp passages to the back of the house is astounding.
She always seems relaxed, running well within her capacity. I find coloratura sopranos exciting, but in the manner of dangerous high wire acts. Half the fun is expecting they might come a cropper. In her delivery Davidsen starts phrases with a straight, clear tone that cuts over the orchestra and slowly melts into an unexaggerated vibrato full of colour. Never does she sound strained.
What am I doing? That’s it with the voice description, already. What’s the point of wrestling to find inadequate words to describe exquisite sound? Go and listen to Lise Davidsen. Much better. I just hope I’ve given enough reasons to tempt you. She boasts a growing discography, five CDs to date. Plenty to get your ears into.
Good news for future Met seasons. Davidsen has been nabbed by Mr. Gelb to sing Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio, Chrysothemis in Richard Strauss’ Elektra, Eva in Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and The Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. These are mostly feisty heroines – save for the wuss Chrysothemis, Elektra’s meek sister who remains on good terms with their murdering mother, Klytaemnestra – roles that will showcase Davidsen’s strengths. Smart casting.
She is at London’s Barbican on February 10th 2020, singing a programme of Brahms, Schumann, Sibelius, Grieg and – most importantly, Strauss.
Until now the three star performers of his Last Four Songs – in my view the most intensely emotional and soul-scorching twelve minutes of song ever crafted – were Margaret Price, Elisabeth Schwarzkov and Jessye Norman. Now, add the name of Lise Davidsen. She delivers them in her recent Decca recording with a poise and dignity up there with the very best.
Aside: A few years ago, after a Leonard Bernstein memorial concert at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall, I was at a post-concert party in the 21 Club when a voice said, “Young man, I can’t make it to the rest room in one go, may I sit beside you for a moment?” “Miss Norman, it would be pleasure”. Star struck burble: “May I say, I’ve treasured your recording of Four Last Songs since 1983.” “Hey, Stephen, come over here. Meet this young man from England who likes my singing.” And so, I was introduced to Jessye Norman and Stephen Sondheim. Brief, maybe. But, only in America!
Back to Strauss. Davidsen’s voice blooms through his long and difficult phrasing – and never falters. It takes a sensitive, measured approach to explore the depths this music offers. A perceptive interpreter is essential. She nails it every time, especially in the final section of September, that song of fading phrases with which I find an increasing affinity.
Hear her in vivo for yourself. In Spring 2020, at Covent Garden, Lise sings Leonora in Fidelio from March 1st through 17th, then, at The Royal Festival Hall, she delivers Mahler and Beethoven recitals on March 19th and April 4th.
Davidsen took her Masters Degree at The Royal Danish Academy of Music in 2014, where her teacher, Susanna Eken, coaxed her into the soprano register – a brilliantly perceptive move. Her rise since has been stellar. She has triumphed at Glyndebourne, Stuttgart, Zürich, and in that fiery cauldron of Wagner purity, Bayreuth. No surprise that the Met snapped her up.
At the curtain call, Davidsen stepped forward to take her bow, visibly overwhelmed by an acclamation of a heartfelt “Bravas”. Almost imperceptibly, she gave the slightest shrug of her shoulders. It was a self-deprecating sign to herself that the seemingly impossible had happened. She had been taken to the heart of one of the most critical audiences in the business – well, maybe not as critical as Milan’s La Scala, where derision constantly stalks the unwary.
Lise Davidsen had won the Met, a new star fixed in its firmament. Quite an end to 2019. And, what a beginning for Davidsen.