NEW YORK — Lise Davidsen’s recital at the Metropolitan Opera with pianist James Baillieu on Sept. 14 proved a largely joyous occasion, providing a stirring opening event for New York’s vocal-music season. Over the past four years, Met audiences have heard the refulgent-voiced Norwegian soprano as Tchaikovsky’s Liza, Wagner’s Eva, and Strauss’ Chrysothemis, Marschallin, and Ariadne (as well as in Strauss’ Four Last Songs), and she is justifiably a favorite: “Someone with enough,” as one expert hailed her countrywoman Kirsten Flagstad at her 1935 company debut. In her remarks over a hand-held mic between sung offerings, Davidsen also showed herself to be charming and remarkably modest company.
Just 36 and only a few years into her full-fledged operatic career, Davidsen has certainly become a major property at the highest international level. On Sept. 9, she headlined the iconic BBC Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall with the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra under Marin Alsop. On Sept. 28, she and Baillieu will give a similar voice-and-piano program — with Fidelio‘s “Abscheulicher!” instead of the Strauss group — at the Vienna State Opera, with varying programs following in October in Valencia and at London’s revered Wigmore Hall. The intimate Wigmore enables and demands a level of interpretive detail from song exponents that Davidsen, on the Met evening evidence, does not yet command; but in the last few years she has clearly made strides in her ability to achieve a wide range of dynamics, so one can hope that greater attention to diction (Italian vowels maybe needing the most work) and more fully owned embodiment of texts will follow.
As it is, while Davidsen doesn’t yet master the precision in phrasing of other large-voiced song interpreters like Christa Ludwig or Jessye Norman, she deserves praise for her presentation of songs here on several levels. First — and, to my mind, a key and now often neglected aspect of this particular art — she sang the entire program without recourse to a music stand. (Twenty years ago, this would not have merited even mention, but year after year, major vocalists now offer recitals at important venues with eyes glued to their scores and thus not communicating directly to their auditors.)
In the recital’s first half, even though initially the voice sounded a little harder at full volume and sharper than it soon became, Davidsen offered a very pleasing sampling of less familiar and expressively sung Grieg songs (in both Norwegian and German), plus four in “Swedish Finnish” by Sibelius. Here she projected the texts’ often melancholy mood and showed remarkably supple and alluring singing at piano and even pianissimo dynamics.
At no point in the recital did she adopt an insincere or unmusical gesture; the forthrightly vocalized treatment of such songs as “An die Musik” and “Zueignung” recalled the similarly unmannered approaches of Flagstad or Jussi Björling in song literature. (Historically, not every recitalist has adopted the Elena Gerhardt/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau interpretive mode now prevalent.) The only non-success was “Erlkönig,” in which the four participating voices were not sufficiently defined and she indicated rather than executed the seductively menacing fairy king’s triplets.
One could object that the Schubert and Strauss groups contained, with the welcome exception in the former of the exquisitely delivered, “Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen,” the most predictable “old chestnut” numbers. Yet this might have reflected the singer’s acknowledgement (about which she spoke onstage) that Schubert Lieder in particular marked a new artistic phase in her career, one that neither she nor many listeners expected. It also underlined the reality of performing, both live in the house and via Sirius and livestream, to a large audience, including many probably not familiar with this repertoire and its conventions. Certainly, some hadn’t encountered the idea of letting the artists perform a whole group without constant interruptions for applause: One lost soul unleashed a “Brava!” after the stunning, long-held high A flat in Desdemona’s “Ave Maria,” something I’d thought one would have to travel to the Verona Arena or the oligarch-filled Mariinsky to hear these days.
Davidsen hasn’t yet achieved the timing and precise weighting to do justice to the emotionally delicate “Morgen,” but Baillieu — who has — was done no favors by having a cell phone obbligato over the song’s exquisite postlude. Davidsen had an excellent, eloquent partner in Baillieu. He has shown himself an able collaborator in New York to such different artistic personalities as Pretty Yende (Zankel, 2019) and Allan Clayton (Armory Board of Officers Room, 2023). At the Met, with the piano lid wide open, his playing was sensitive and revelatory throughout, not least in the judiciously gauged accompaniment to the Schubert and Strauss groups.
The operatic and music-theater side of the menu started ambitiously with Verdi. “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” from Un ballo in maschera showed rather alien linguistic skills but good line and an astonishingly executed cadenza up to high C-flat. As with the Otello prayer, Davidsen might be not my ideal choice for the role, but if announced I would quickly get in line to witness it She brought the first half to an exciting end with the hoped-for Wagner: Elisabeth’s “Dich, teure Halle,” a perfect fit to her talents. She revisited Liza’s third act scena (shorn of its cabaletta) with musical and timbral distinction, and if clearly not a Russophone, she showed commendable improvement in phrasing over her debut sally. This is a conscientious artist.
The printed program ended with two upbeat crowd pleasers: “Heia, heia, in den Bergen” from Emmerich Kálmán’s Csárdásfürstin (1915) and Eliza Doolittle’s “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Were they the most idiomatic versions imaginable? No. Did it matter? Not a whit. Two warmly offered and received encores followed: an again un-Italianate but moving and quite impressively long-breathed “Vissi d’arte” and a radiantly traced version of Grieg’s haunting “Våren” (Spring), which she can be heard performing on a Decca recording of the composer’s songs with a compatriot, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.