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SCRUTINY | Lise Davidsen Makes Resplendent Canadian Debut In TSO’s Die Walküre

By Joseph So on February 1, 2019

Lise Davidsen, Sir Andrew Davis, Simon O'Neill (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Lise Davidsen, Sir Andrew Davis, Simon O’Neill (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Wagner: Die Walküre (Act One). Lise Davidsen (Sieglinde), soprano; Simon O’Neill (Siegmund), tenor; Brindley Sherratt (Hunding), bass. Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis, conductor. At Roy Thomson Hall, January 31, 2019. Repeats Saturday, Feb. 2. Details, here

To the inveterate Wagner fan, any performance of his operas is an occasion. And when it’s Die Walküre (albeit only Act One) featuring a dream cast, it’s extra special. Last evening at Roy Thomson Hall, a modest-sized but highly enthusiastic and appreciative audience was treated to a superb performance led by Sir Andrew Davis conducting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Sir Andrew is a familiar and much-loved figure in these parts, having been at the helm of the TSO from 1975 to 1988.  A self-professed Wagnerian, with him back as Interim Artistic Director, can opera be far away?  Voice fans wax nostalgic when Sir Andrew was in charge of the TSO, and complete operas in concert were the norm — Capriccio, Daphne, and Der Rosenkavalier come to mind. Ah, the good old days!

Last evening was the first of two performances of Act One Die Walküre. It might have been frigid outside, but inside Roy Thomson Hall it was pure white-hot, with three world-class singers lighting up the stage. The most accessible of the Ring operas, Act One is often presented in concert form. It requires a big band, and last night the TSO was out in full force, with nearly a hundred on stage.

The “Ride of the Valkyries” from Act 3 opened the proceedings. This warhorse (pun intended) requires big sonorities and there was no shortage of decibels.

Under Sir Andrew, who’s an old hand with Wagner and the Ring Cycle, it was a poised, well-judged and eloquent reading, with just enough showiness but not over-the-top, with just the right tempo; altogether thrilling but refined and never bombastic, a five-minute thrill ride that was over much too soon.

This was followed by Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (revised version). While Berg’s reputation as “box office poison” is unjustified, this expressionist work is indeed a challenge to those not fond of the Second Viennese School. To that end, Sir Andrew gave an illuminating introduction. Even with huge orchestral forces, there was no loss of clarity and delicacy so important to this piece. The showy third movement with its hammer blows were enough to strike fear of God in one’s heart.

Lise Davidsen, Sir Andrew Davis, Simon O'Neill (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Lise Davidsen, Sir Andrew Davis, Simon O’Neill (Photo: Jag Gundu)

The second half was taken by Walküre, unstaged, with Siegmund and Sieglinde standing on either side of the conductor. Hunding walked on and off for his brief scene. Despite this static arrangement, I didn’t feel I was missing anything.  The text was projected on two giant screens above the choir loft.  Without stage action, one focuses entirely on the musical end of things.

At only 32, Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen (Sieglinde) has already reached the pinnacle, having won many awards including Operalia and Queen Sonja. Hers is a typical jugendliche dramatischer sopran, ideal as Elsa, Elisabeth, Eva, and certainly Sieglinde. The timbre is bright, rich, even up and down the scale, capable of a whole spectrum of tone colours and dynamic levels. In other words, it’s a “force of nature,” a term reserved for very few singers — I can only think of her countrywoman Kirsten Flagstad and American soprano Jessye Norman.

Opposite her as Siegmund was acclaimed New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill, an experienced Wagnerian, in possession of a beautiful, bright and secure tenor. The third singer was renowned British bass Brindley Sherratt, a voice unfamiliar to me.  I had the good fortune of attending a rehearsal under the auspices of the Toronto Wagner Society, and I was totally blown away by Sherratt, whose dark bass rivals that of the great Kurt Moll and Matti Salminen. It really whetted my appetite for more.

Brindley Sherratt, Lise Davidsen (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Brindley Sherratt, Lise Davidsen (Photo: Jag Gundu)

And I was not disappointed, as last evening was one of the most thrilling moments in the concert hall for me in recent memory. Top honours belonged to Davidsen, who was totally thrilling as Sieglinde, singing with gleaming tone, observant of all the dynamic markings, and with power to shake the walls if she had wanted to. The beauty and ease of production in “Der Manner Sippe” and “Du bis der Lenz” were stunning.

Orchestrally too it was a wonderful evening, almost flawless playing under the assured and inspired baton of Sir Andrew. I say “almost” because there were a few fluffed notes by the horns and brass, the most obvious was one by the solo horn during the Sword Motive, in a cruelly exposed moment in the beginning of Scene Three. There was a less obvious one, during Sieglinde’s “Der Manner Sippe.” Oh well, that’s life! Almost all musicians will tell you perfection is a myth, or at least extremely rare. A few fluffed notes do not affect my enjoyment and my overall appreciation of the wonderful playing by the TSO. There were many striking moments, one in particular was the gorgeous solo by Principal Cello Joseph Johnson in the beginning of the extended Siegmund-Sieglinde scene.

Dramatically, If I were to nitpick, I would like a touch more passion, more urgency, and more connectedness between the lovers. O’Neill had the requisite ardent qualities, but I find there was a reserve, a certain shyness in Davidsen. I fully understand it’s not easy to emote in a concert setting, without costumes and sets. It’s only a minor quibble. In the final minutes, Siegmund moved to Sieglinde’s side and the two linked hands, the only moment of physical contact between the two. But with voices like these two, I will accept the non-drama in a heartbeat.

At the end, the audience rose to its collective feet and showered the artists with extremely loud and totally deserved ovations. As I was making my way home, the music kept coming into my head – when Wagner is so well done, one doesn’t want it to end. If you missed it — or better yet, if you would like a second helping — there’s one more performance Saturday, 8 p.m. Not to be missed!

Joseph So
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