October 19, 2009
As every understudy knows, it's very difficult stepping into a star's shoes when you know everyone has paid to see someone else in the role -- not you.
Diana Damrau is no understudy. The German soprano made Metropolitan Opera history in the 2007-2008 season when she appeared as both Pamina and Queen of the Night during the same run of Mozart's The Magic Flute. This season she will undertake four debuts, as Marie in Donizetti's La fille du régiment at both San Francisco Opera and the Met, the title role in Massenet's Manon at the Vienna State Opera, Ophélie in Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet at the Washington National Opera and Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. The soprano will also perform the title role of Aminta in a new production of Strauss' Die schweigsame Frau at the Munich Opera Festival.
Yet it must be strange for this performer, as accomplished as she is, to step into the role of Marie in a production of La Fille at San Francisco Opera which previously carried so much star power at The Met and London's Royal Opera House.
In its previous iterations, Laurent Pelly's production featured two of the biggest stars in the opera world -- Juan Diego Florez as Tonio and Natalie Dessay as Marie. Most people I know in San Francisco who have seen or are going to see the current run are going primarily to see Florez. I've even heard some patrons say how much they wish they could experience the chemically-combustive combination of Florez and Dessay like those lucky opera goers in New York and London. In short, say the name "Diana Damrau" in these parts and you're likely to get a blank stare.
So it was terrific to see Damrau not only do Marie justice but also make the character completely her own -- quite a feat considering that she was dressed in exactly the same gamine outfits complete with Pippie Longstocking-like wig as her predecessor in the role, Dessay.
Damrau isn't as waifish as Dessay, but she's slim, light on her feet and full of gumption. Her willfulness and strength of character come through strongly in both acts. She's a great stage comic but also brings incredible sensitivity to her role. I believed completely in the mutual adoration between her and Florez's character.
Damrau matches Dessay equally in her vocal abilities. There's evenness and strength throughout her range. Her ornamentation is light and pure. She enunciates clearly and manages to convey the meaning of her words deeply through the quality of her singing.
Damrau doesn't yet have the star power of Dessay. San Francisco audiences are more excited at the prospect of Florez hitting his standing ovation-prompting nine high c's in "Ah Mes Amies" than hearing Damrau ace "Il Faut Partir." But it's probably only a matter of a couple of years before this superlative soprano's name is on everyone's lips -- even out here on the west coast.