Diana Damrau's warm reception at La Scala was appropriate for a singer who has given so much pleasure to Milanese audiences, beginning with her stratospheric debut as Europa in Salieri's opera Europa Riconosciuta in 2004 – the opera that reopened the theatre after a major renovation.
She has appeared several times on the recital platform – including an enchanting programme with harp in 2009 – but this time round her apparent secure charm seemed to be covering some insecurity. I could be wrong.
Her interpretation of 21 Lied from Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch pushed toward the comic wherever possible, accompanied by extravagant facial expressions and gesturing as though she were performing for an audience of children. It produced giggles from some, and maybe that is what was intended: to break through the language barrier. Wolf is rarely presented in Italy and so the communication problem here was even greater. However, the effect was like hearing old Met broadcasts where howls of laughter greet stage business in some Rossini or Mozart opera, as though the slapstick had been upped to offset a lack of understanding (pre-supertitles) of the libretto.
Damrau's raised eyebrows, flicks of the wrist, and petulant pursing of the lips were expertly done, with perfect timing, but it felt patronising. I wonder if she does the same in Germany?
The second half was all-Strauss, finishing with the 4 Letzte Lieder. Damrau was calmer here. She performs Strauss's music respectfully, with little decadent and indulgent phrasing, and she was most affecting during these last songs.
I'm probably singing out of tune with the chorus here because the applause was thunderous as the official programme ended. In her tomboyish way, Damrau clowned around, collapsed against the base of a column at the side of the stage, and looked genuinely surprised that the reception to her programme was so effusive — it seemed that a weight had been taken off her shoulders and her encores were more convincing than the rest of the programme.
It could be that she was nervous because of a few pesky little frogs in her throat which insisted on making their voices heard throughout. It was fortunate that she was in the secure (and expressive) hands of pianist Helmut Deutsch, who has accompanied her for most of her career, and clearly gives her moral as well as musical support.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.