Posted by: operatheaterink | January 17, 2011

Review: René Pape Recital, LA Opera, Jan. 17, 2011

The Ultimate Lieder Recital: Absolutely Superb!

René Pape

Photo by Lenny's Studio


By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

René Pape is one of the greatest basses in the world, and his recital in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Jan. 15 showed us just why. Pape is a consummate artist, and his technique reigns supreme.

His program was the virtual duplicate of a 2009 recital at Carnegie Hall.

When I think of Lieder, I think of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the great lyric baritone who is a legend but has retired. Fischer-Dieskau is 85 now, and it is time to pass on the crown.

Men and women sing Lieder: basses, baritones and tenors; contraltos, mezzos and sopranos. It is rare to hear a bass perform this genre with extraordinary skill since the lyricism is usually captured more exquisitely with a lighter, narrower-focused tone. However I continue to enjoy Alexander Kipnis recordings. He was a great interpreter of text . . . and now there is René Pape.

My father was an opera singer in Vienna and Prague in the 1930s, and in his old age, he spent many an afternoon hopping from the old recordings of Kipnis to Fischer-Dieskau, trying to decide which “Der Erlkönig” he liked better. He sang Franz Schubert’s “An die Musik” at the beginning of his recitals, so I am an expert on this Lied, and Pape did not disappoint.

Pape began with selections from Schubert’s song cycle, “Schwanengesang.” He sang “Aufenthalt” with a bass’s power and depth. In “Der Atlas,” he communicated the poet Heinrich Heine’s clarity of self-awareness in a tragic predicament. And between these two songs, he sang of nightingales and the longing feelings of love in a sensitive rendition of “Ständchen.” Later he was able to bring us a lighter more lyrical quality with “Der Einsame.” But he missed the boat with “Heidenröslein.” I don’t think it was his fault, though. I think “Heidenröslein” might just be too delicate for a bass. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poetic story of the poor rose being picked from the hedge must be sung with delicacy, charm and ample pianissimos. This was one of the few moments when Pape was unable to communicate the charming tale to his audience. He excelled with the more powerful selections.

However as a bass, Pape’s technique was infallible in this program. Many basses sing with such low placement that they sound guttural and develop a wobble as they mature. Pape is one of the few basses today whose tones are totally focused in the mask. You can see the focus by just looking at his face. He appears to be smiling, but in reality, he is not just smiling with his mouth. If you look at his cheeks, you can see how they are raised to facilitate the technique which enables him to keep the tone up front and forward. His technique is so perfect that he is able to color his tones as he wishes. He can make them round and dark, and he can focus them higher and narrower in the mask, which is what he does with Lieder to make his sound brighter and more baritonal. He sings supported with an open and relaxed throat. He has the prescription for a longlasting voice which will remain free of a wide vibrato as he ages. And this superior technique will render him the ability to explore his expressiveness within the scope of his perfected musicianship.

His “Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren” was sheer magic, and his “Prometheus” showed his stature.

Sandwiched between his Schubert groupings, Pape sang Hugo Wolf’s “Michelangelo Lieder.” The only way to truly appreciate Lieder is to read the text before hearing it. The haunting text of “Alles endet, was entstehet” by Michelangelo Buonarroti reveals man’s bittersweet circle of life: his rising and falling. Pape’s choice to perform these later Wolf songs was admirable. He sang them with commitment and soul.

He devoted the second portion of his program to Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe”: a group of 16 songs based on poems by Heinrich Heine on unrequited love and longing. The cycle had autobiographical significance to Schumann who was feuding with his father regarding his desired marriage to composer Clara Wieck at the time.

In the wonderfully beautiful month of May
When all the birds are singing,
So have I confessed to her
My yearning and my longing.

So begins “Dichterliebe” with the very popular, lyrical “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai.”

Pape was at his best with “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome.” His voice swelled to expressive heights with “Ich grolle nicht” as he sang “I bear no grudge, even though my heart is breaking.”

His “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen” won my heart. His artistry was captured in the pianissimos and crescendos of “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet.” And he made us aware that we were hearing a great bass with his “Die alten, bösen Lieder.”

“Die alten, bösen Lieder” brings finality to the cycle since it weaves the past with the present. The poet, composer and singer bury the old songs in a large coffin. “Do you know why the coffin must be so large and heavy?” the artist sings. “I sank with it my love and my pain, deep within.”

Contributing to the success of this evening, pianist Brian Zeger displayed keen musicianship and sensitivity to Pape’s every breath. Many moments were Zeger’s moments far before “Die alten, bösen Lieder.” However this final selection enabled Zeger to show his solo artistry. At times it seemed like Pape’s voice was accompanying him.

The applause began immediately after the final selection, but the audience was slow to rise. Pape seemed surprised for some reason when everyone gave him a standing ovation, probably because at the beginning of the evening, no matter what he did, the audience refused to refrain from applauding after each Lied. Finally after intermission, an announcer asked the audience to hold all applause until the end of the final cycle. As a result, Pape was far more relaxed during the second half. He seemed to loosen up even more with his first encore, Richard Strauss’s “Zueignung.” However, his final “Some Enchanted Evening” lacked ample preparation even though he’d sung it at Carnegie Hall. He forgot some of the lyrics, yet the song was sung with much charm, and everyone was accepting of his mistakes. He’d endeared himself to the audience. After all, he’d sung an all-German program. This song showed that he was reaching out to the people who had come to hear him. It was a wise decision.

René Pape is a superb musician whose expressivity continues to grow. I applaud him on his program and hope that the next time he comes to Los Angeles he will sing “Der Erlkönig” just for me. I believe that he would do a masterful job with Johannes Brahms’ “Vier ernste Gesänge” as well. Maybe next time.