Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Nina Stemme, Alice Tully Hall, New York – review

Nina Stemme is widely, also justly, celebrated as the leading Wagner heroine of our day. For some reason, however, New York knows little of that.

The attractive, youthful, obviously sturdy soprano from Stockholm, who happens to turn 50 next month, has long been a fixture in the world’s prime opera houses. Oddly, the Metropolitan has hosted her only in Der fliegende Holländer back in 2000 and Ariadne auf Naxos in 2010. With luck, she will return in 2016, showcased in a new production of Tristan und Isolde staged by Willy Decker.

At Alice Tully Hall – next door to the Met – she offered a tantalising reminder of what we have been missing. And she managed to do so, tirelessly and generously, less than a day after singing Isolde in faraway Houston, Texas.

The concert was hardly orthodox. Collaborating with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard, she spent an hour on stage acting, posing, wandering, adding and subtracting fashion elements to her basic red gown and, yes, singing beautifully. This meant singing with luscious tone, an even range, dynamic sensitivity and verbal point. Unfortunately, it also meant singing in a gimmicky milieu pretentiously labelled Love, Hope and Destiny.

The protagonist functioned as a silent observer at times, miming ecstasy or agony or agitation or reverie during orchestral diversions that included Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, Sibelius’s Valse Triste, Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte and Elgar’s Nimrod. Her vocal contributions, impeccably gauged, embraced songs by Grieg, Sibelius, Wagner, Berlioz, Schubert and Richard Strauss, not to mention the jolt of Kurt Weill’s Saga of Jenny. Surprisingly, the attending maestro stitched all these disparities together without pause, making the menu a pretentious potpourri. At least the mishmash was well executed. The audience demanded encores from Stemme, and got Wagner’s Träume plus a repetition of Grieg’s Jeg elsker dig!

After intermission Dausgaard returned to lead his responsive band through a rather fussy yet tidy account of Brahms’ First Symphony. Contrary to some expectations, Stemme did not appear as an emotive accomplice.


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