Monday 31 August 2020

Lise Davidsen and James Baillieu live from Oscarshall Palace in Oslo

James Baillieu and Lise Davidsen rehearsing in Oscarshall Palace (Photo Hallvard Bræin)
James Baillieu and Lise Davidsen rehearsing in Oscarshall Palace
(Photo Hallvard Bræin)

Wagner, R. Strauss, Verdi, Puccini, Grieg, Sibelius, Britten, Kalman, Lerner & Loewe; Lise Davidsen, James Baillieu; Oscarshall Palace, Oslo

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 August 2020
The young Norwegian soprano in recital from Norway, combining opera with song and lighter items

On Saturday (29 August 2020) it was the turn of Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen and pianist James Baillieu to perform live as part of the Metropolitan Opera's series Met Stars Live in Concert. Davidsen and Baillieu performed in Oscarshall Palace in Oslo. The recital included operatic arias by Wagner, Richard Strauss, Verdi and Puccini, alongside songs by Grieg, Sibelius, Strauss, Britten, Landon Ronald, Ernest Charles and Lerner and Loewe. [Available on-line until 9 September]

Oscarshall Palace was built in 1852 (before Norwegian independence from Sweden) by King Oscar I. It is rather bijou, a Summer villa rather than large palace, and in the then fashionable neo-Gothic style. The decoration in the dining room, where the concert took place, is a celebration of Norwegian artists. The palace is a venue for the Queen Sonja International Music Competition which Davidsen won in 2015, and which I saw in 2019 [see my article].

We had an introducer to tell us how special the occasion was, though this was soprano Christine Goerke who performed the role with great humour, a short interview between Davidsen and Queen Sonja, and another interview between Davidsen and the Met's Peter Gelb (talking about Davidsen's Met debut as Lise in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades). But the meat of the event was Davidsen and Baillieu's recital.

We started with Elisabeth's arias from Tannhauser, and the space seemed almost too small for Davidsen's wonderfully bright tone in 'Dich teure Halle', but what we could admire here and in the second aria, 'Allmächt’ge Jungfrau', was the beautifully even production throughout the range, the sense of ease of phrasing and the attention to the words. This was an Elisabeth who sounded and felt convincingly young. Next came a trio of Grieg songs, the best-known being the final one Våren (Spring). Here it was lovely hearing Davidsen singing in her native tongue, and also the way she brought a lovely freshness and directness to the music. 

'Morrò, ma prima in grazia', Amelia's aria from Verdi's Un ballo in maschera was perhaps not strictly Italianate in tone, but what was impressive was the way she shaped the line, and was able to fine the voice right down. The pair of Sibelius songs (Säf, säf, susa, Op. 36 and Var det en dröm? Op. 37) were entirely new to me and I wondered why I had never heard them before. Both were complex, with a striking sense of drama to them, and Davidsen and Baillieu brought out the carefully wrought beauties of the music. 

We returned to opera for Ariadne's 'Es gibt ein Reich' from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, and again the ease and directness of Davidsen's performance meant that we got a real sense of Ariadne's youth and naivety. This was followed by the four songs from Strauss' Four Songs, Opus 27, which contains some of Strauss best loved song. Davidsen and Baillieu certainly did not disappoint here. The opening song, 'Ruhe, meine Seele!' was operatic in scale yet still full of details, 'Cäcilie' was beautifully impulsive whilst 'Heimliche Aufforderung' was highly characterful. 'Morgen' started with a fabulous piano introduction from James Baillieu (and we didn't miss that solo violin), leading to a superb performance from Davidsen. In her introduction, the soprano talked about the song's message of a looking forward to a better tomorrow. The fascinating thing about this is that the poet, John Henry Mackay was homosexual and the words can be read in this context. It is probably that Strauss did not know this at the time of setting them, the link between the two men was an interest in anarchism (see my article for more).

The more serious side to the recital ended with 'Sola, perduta, abbandonata' from Puccini's Manon Lescaut, not obvious repertoire for a dramatic soprano where Davidsen brought interesting dark-tones to bear, with she and Baillieu creating a fine dramatic moment.

We finished with a group of lighter songs, a way of altering the mood. Britten and WH Auden's Johnny was perhaps too much sung, yet beautifully so, but the line dominated over the text. The Czardas from Kalman's Die Csárdásfürstin  was simply terrific, with a fun piano introduction from James Baillieu, then came two songs from another era, O lovely night by the English composer Landon Ronald (1873-1938) and When I have sung my song to you by American composer Ernest Charles (1895-1984). Then to complete things, a wonderfully infectious account of 'I could have danced all night' from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • At the Gates of the Twighlight Zone: 19'40" explores Bernard Herrmann as part of its eclectic recording series - interview
  • Forty-part reflection: Thomas Tallis' 40-part motet and James MacMillan's contemporary reflection on the latest disc from Suzi Digby and ORA Singers - CD review
  • Powerful advocacy: Kiveli Dörken, Christian Tetzlaff and friends in piano music and chamber music by Josef Suk - CD review
  • Neeme Järvi conducts Elgar's Violin Concerto with all-Estonian forces - CD review
  • Is the opera world ready for a Lesbian Cherubino: how opera remains rather tame when it comes to exploring some areas of gender and sexual relations - feature
  • Going on-line: Guy Johnston on how the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival plans to bring the house alive with music and to explore the house and its collections - interview
  • Taking us on a remarkable journey: the choir of St John's College, Cambridge in Pious Anthems and Voluntaries, a programme of Michael Finnissy premieres - CD review
  • What makes the disc work is the sheer verve & engagement of the performances: Adrian Chandler & La Serenissima's Extra Time  - CD review
  • Opera returns: Mozart's Cosi fan tutte and Jonathan Dove's Ariel at Waterperry Opera Festival - opera review
  • Co-founder Jonathan Darbourne introduces The Vache Baroque Festival's debut staging of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Katie Bray as Dido  - interview
  • Words and line: Stuart Jackson and Jocelyn Freeman's fine recital disc, Flax and Fire, moves from Purcell to Britten, via Liszt, Wolf and Schumann - Cd review
  • 'Home


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