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Soprano Diana Damrau treads some well-worn paths with her new album featuring the final scenes from three of Donizetti’s operas: Anna Bolena (1830) about Henry VIII’s second wife; Maria Stuarda (1835), about Mary, Queen of Scots meeting Elizabeth I; and Roberto Devereux (1837), also featuring Elizabeth. The composer never thought of his works as a trilogy, but they are sometimes referred to erroneously as the ‘Tudor Ring’, and very occasionally performed as a cycle by one plucky diva tackling each of the title roles; famously by Beverly Sills at New York City Opera in 1974 – she described it as ‘a kind of operatic triathlon’ – and more recently by Sondra Radvanovsky at the Met in the 2015/16 season. Some divas sing all three roles but never attempt them together, others pick and choose from them. And they do offer different vocal hurdles. Anna Bolena was composed for Giuditta Pasta, whose voice appears to have been an intriguing mix of timbres, with a rich lower voice rising to a sometimes optimistic top D. Maria Stuarda was originally composed for Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis, with a not dissimilar range. However, at a rehearsal in 1834 she had a Dynasty-style punch-up with the Elizabeth, taking the confrontation scene just a bit too far. The opera ended up being banned anyway, perhaps a political hot potato for showing a royal cat-fight and decapitation, and was hastily cobbled into something called Buondelmonte – not a success. So the following year it rose from the ashes as Maria Stuarda and was created by Maria Malibran, more of an extended mezzo. Ronzi de Begnis eventually got her chance with Roberto Devereux, creating the role of Elizabeth I, who dominates the opera and has the final scene.

So with these legendary ghosts staring over her shoulder, to which we can add more recent memories of Callas, Caballé, Sills and Sutherland, all of whom performed at least one of the roles, Damrau has quite a challenge. She has only performed one of the roles onstage, Maria Stuarda, but her dramatic commitment doesn’t betray her lack of experience with the other two queens. All three are limned carefully and Damrau colours her voice accordingly: Anna gets a softer, dreamier tone, Maria a voice of resignation, and Elisabetta a more biting sound. Her enunciation is also very clear and she is hugely responsive to each text – as Anna flickers in and out of madness she cries ‘A che mai mi riscuoti’, (‘to what are you awakening me’), and Damrau conveys the woman’s desperation as she momentarily realises her predicament. Likewise, her final cabaletta, Elisabetta’s ‘Quel sangue versato’, is spat with due venom and sounds truly unhinged.

Damrau’s technique is formidable. She makes a showy start, taking the opening lines of Anna’s ‘Al dolce guidami’ in one long breath. A listen to twenty other versions reveals only three other sopranos who have essayed the same phrasing – Sills and Gheorghiu in studio recordings and Gruberova even more astoundingly in a live performance. (Devia, Caballé, Peretyako, Lungu and Nicolesco all manage the first line unbroken, everybody else takes a breath.)

In the plaintive ‘Preghiera’ that Maria Stuarda sings against the chorus, Damrau confidently takes the G above the stave and sustains it with one breath through its ascent to the B-flat, making a total of twenty-eight beats, and at a pretty slow pace. She decorates with taste, and trills with ease, particularly confidently in Anna’s ‘Coppia iniqua’, where she places a trill firmly on the series of ascending notes, and vocalises even more elaborately in the repeat verse. She manages her voice adroitly, avoiding chest tones until she hits middle C and the D above, unless she feels that the drama warrants that extra bite. At the conclusion of Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux, Damrau nails thrilling high Ds, both hit with volume and aplomb. One criticism is that the voice isn’t always the most alluring and sometimes turns glassy under pressure – in my perambulations through ‘Al dolce guidami’, the stand-out soprano, in terms of tone, was an exquisite Ricciarelli. But it’s a matter of taste.

The recording is excellently engineered. The Accademia Nazionale di Santa di Cecila orchestra and chorus are top drawer, and Pappano’s conducting is a tower of strength. The tempi are spacious but not meandering, he supports Damrau in her rubato, and every phrase demonstrates a keen artistic relationship between the two. The overall sound is plush, but Pappano is not afraid of a touch of abrasion to ratchet up the tension and ensure that things don’t become too languorous – in the Devereux cabaletta the strings are appropriately scratchy against the venomous voice.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica


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