Last month saw the latest recording by German opera singer Diana Damrau released on the Erato label. The title is Fiamma del Belcanto (the flame of beautiful singing); and, as one might guess, it is a survey of the floridly passionate style of operatic expressiveness that could be found primarily among Italian composers of the nineteenth century. In this style the compact structure of a da capo aria by George Frideric Handel, dominated by a single emotion with a middle section that reflects from a different point of view, has given away to far more extended elaborations that tend to involve wild swings across sharply contrasting moods. Versatility and virtuosity are the two orders of the day; and, when these numbers are performed in the context of a full-length opera, the flow of the narrative tends to come to a screaming halt while the soloist has an extended look-at-me-sing episode. (Calling it a “moment” would create a false expectation of brevity.)
In this context Damrau’s new album draws upon such episodes from nine operas by “the usual suspects.” Two are by Vincenzo Bellini (La sonnambula and I puritani), two by Gaetano Donizetti (Maria Stuarda and Rosmonda d’Inghilterra), and three by Giuseppe Verdi (I masnadieri, Luisa Miller, and La traviata). The transition from “extreme” bel canto into verismo then concludes the recording with single (and shorter) selections by Ruggero Leoncavallo (Pagliacci) and Giacomo Puccini (La bohème). Damrau sings with the Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. There are also brief appearances by mezzo Nicole Brandolino (Anna in Maria Stuarda), tenor Piotr Beczała (Alfredo in La traviata), and bass Nicolas Testé (Wurm in Luisa Miller).
In many respects the bel canto style (and, more specifically, the bel canto aria) is the very antithesis of the concept of opera as an integration of extended narrative into music. The last time I had to cover a performance of Bellini’s Norma by the San Francisco Opera, I accepted the premise that I would tune out everything that did not involve listening to the pretty voices (although I did take the trouble of praising the conductor for the support he provided). On this new recording that strategy worked for me just fine. Damrau definitely has a lovely voice, and she has a gift for jumping through all of those circus hoops without showing any sign of strain. However, as is the case with the solo violin caprices composed by Niccolò Paganini, as long as the soloist does what is expected, one execution is as good as another. The result is a classic instance of that clever quote that is usually attributed to Abraham Lincoln:
For people who like that sort of thing, that is about the sort of a thing they would like.