German-born opera singer Dorothea Röschmann has been a hot commodity in the world of opera since 1995 when she debuted as Susanna at the Salzburg Festival in its production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Her career — singing at her home theater, the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, and throughout Europe — has resulted in her distinction as a Mozart specialist. The accolade is well deserved; Röschmann has sung most of Mozart’s heroines at high-stakes venues to great acclaim.
Yet, although Röschmann has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and has appeared in recital at Carnegie Hall, American audiences don’t often have the privilege of hearing her on this side of the pond. That changed on Sunday afternoon at Spivey Hall when Röschmann and her pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, gave a flawless recital of Schumann and Berg lieder. The duo launched their 2015 American recital tour in Chicago earlier this month.
Röschmann’s Pamina is immortalized on DVD in a 2003 BBC production of Die Zauberflöte from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in which she sang alongside vocal powerhouses like Diana Damrau and Simon Keenlyside (another recent Spivey Hall recitalist).
Of her several recordings, I particularly cherish her interpretation of Handel’s “Nine Deutsche Arien with Akademie für Alte Musik” that was released over 15 years ago. It was all the more fascinating then to hear Röschmann perform German art song with her maturity of years and acoustically efficient sound.
The pair opened the recital with twelve songs from Schumann’s “Liederkreis von Josef Freiherr von Eichendorff, Op. 39.” Each song was a vignette, sung operatically by Röschmann as if it was the most dramatic aria. Her diction was scrupulous; she hummed through nasal consonants in “Auf einer Burg,” giving us impossibly sustained phrases.
Afterward, it was a delight to hear her sing Alban Berg’s “7 Early Songs for Voice and Piano.” Here, the composer adopted the 12-tone principles of Arnold Schoenberg, but his tone rows often have tonal references and triadic outlines so in some cases we are still given glorious, memorable melodies. Röschmann highlighted the lyricism within these gems jubilantly onstage.
Röschmann’s open-throated high register is grounded and downright remarkable; the high A in Berg’s third song “Die Nachtigall” was blissfully resonant. Every high note this afternoon would have dazzled the acousticians and architects who designed Spivey Hall 25 years ago. Röschmann elegantly displayed the principle of resonance; fundamental frequencies were abundantly reinforced by their upper partials within the overtone series. Our ears adjusted, but at times I wondered if her voice was almost too big for the hall.
Spivey Hall is an intimate space. Listeners can see and hear each change of countenance and every vocal nuance. While Röschmann is petite — diminutive even — in form, her voice is hearty in its low registers as well. This was aptly showcased in her interpretation of Robert Schumann’s low-lying song cycle “Frauenliebe und Leben.”
Röschmann and Uchida proved to be ideal collaborators. Uchida, a stellar musician, is an active soloist with obvious flare. After her tour with Röschmann, she travels to Berlin to perform the Piano Concerto No. 24 K491 in C minor with Ivan Fischer and the Konzerthausorchester. She also serves as director of the prestigious Marlboro Festival. Uchida’s role within Schumann’s song cycle about a woman’s life and love is not virtuosic, but the atmospheric demands placed upon the pianist are paramount to the cycle’s success in performance.
The eight songs with texts by 18th-century poet Adelbert von Chamisso begin with a woman’s initial infatuation with her future husband. As the cycle unfolds, she progresses through disbelief that he has asked for her hand in marriage, the wedding day, the birth of her child, and eventually her husband’s death in the final song.
In the sixth song, “Süsser Freund, du blickest,” the pianist is called to respond to word painting within the vocal line, to offset chromatic writing, and prepare the listener for text repetition. Uchida was sensitive and invested in every word. Often she could be seen lip-syncing the poetry as Röschmann gave it voice.
One couldn’t help but to compare and contrast Röschmann’s afternoon offering of German lieder with Stephanie Blythe’s recital of Poulenc and cabaret songs at Spivey Hall just a few weeks ago. Both women boast exceptional vocal prowess but applied it differently and allowed us access to their artistry in unique ways, through demeanor and repertoire choice.
It reminds me that whether it is my first time or my 50th hearing of a work or song, every performance is something new, a musical gift waiting to be revealed.