Violeta Urmana Recital

Châtelet, 18 February 2005

  • Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder.
  • Strauss: eight Lieder.
  • Poulenc: La fraîcheur et le feu.
  • Rachmaninov: six songs.

With Jan Philip Schulze, piano.

The conventions of a recital are bizarre. Soprano and pianist, in full evening drag, strut haughtily onstage, maintaining a stony silence and pretending the audience aren’t there. The audience, in perfectly ordinary mufti, shift stiffly in their seats as they pretend to enjoy 90 minutes of art song, coughing apoplectically between songs and clapping politely after each set. Only at the end, when tummies are singing for their supper and the scheduled programme is over, does the fun actually begin: the soprano lets down her hair, smiles and chats with the audience; the pianist breaks into a cheesy grin; the audience sink comfortably and expectantly into their seats, and the encores are wildly applauded. They, it seems, are what we really came for.

Violeta Urmana made two tactical errors at the Châtelet last night. The Wesendonck-Lieder were the wrong way to warm up her voice and a cold audience on a February evening. Too grim and German. She’d have done better to give us the Straussian hot chocolate and cream first. And though it was no doubt a well-meant gesture to France, she was wrong to include Poulenc in her programme: less than half of what she sang was comprehensible, and I could hear people behind me muttering about how excellent, en revanche, Felicity Lott was in the same songs.

No errors in the singing however. Hers is a big, bronze bell of a voice – big, but under control, with all the notes right and nuance to boot. I thought, as she sang, how odd it was, really, that the same songs could be sung by her and by the silvery soprano of Voigt. But is Urmana really a soprano, as she bills herself? Isn’t she rather a warm, roomy mezzo foundation, with sumptuous lower and middle registers, and then a kind of loft conversion adding an extra, soprano storey at the top? She can certainly hit the notes and even float some surprising pianissimo ex nihilo. But, of course, they don’t sound like Caballé’s: there’s a hint of effort, of pains being taken to succeed in this tessitura. It’s a different, less comfortable part of the house.

Well, it was certainly good to hear a real voice and hear it in full, and mezzo or soprano, Ms Urmana is planning soon to sing Ariadne, Tosca, Norma, Elisabetta and Amelia and who am I to say nay? The highlights were Cäcilie and a resounding Veseniye vody that ended the recital in a blaze, making up for the low-point, the undeservingly famous Vocalise.

The first encore was a wry little Poulenc piece. Ah, we thought, she’s tired; we’ll have dinner on time after all. Tired? She then announced “Ponchielli, La Gioconda,” a volley of bravas shot up from the front row like rocketing pheasant, and we settled in for what we’d really come for. Suicidio!, followed by some very fancy Falla, and more… Dinner could, and would, wait, after all.

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