For Valentine’s Day, Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann were on the stage of the Philharmonie of Paris for an evening of nostalgic romanticism with Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch
In 1860 Paul Heyse translates into German 46 popular Italian poems of the 17th and 18th centuries by authors such as Tommaseo, Tigri and Dalmedico. A few years later, Hugo Wolf sets them to music by creating a work of elegance and refinement named Italienisches Liederbuch.
By taking these miniatures and reorganizing them, as many artists did before them, Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann built a plausible storyline in the form of a four-part love story.
What a better occasion than Valentine’s Day for the Parisian stop of their European tour started in Munich on the 4th of February!
Green: the encounter
Diana Damrau, Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch make their entrance on stage. The soprano is dressed in an ample black dress adorned with a stole that will change in colour as the evening unfolds.
The singers tell the story of the early days of the love between a young woman and a young man, where small things are important (Auch kleine Dinge), he thanks God for the beauty of her face (Gesegnet sei, durch den die Welt entstund) in a seductive climax ending in pianissimo, while she celebrates the green colour of spring (Gesegnet sei das Grün).
Then follows the magnificent Ihr seid die Allerschönste, where the beauty of the woman is very refinedly compared to Italian architecture: In front of you the cathedral of Orvieto disappears / And the beautiful fountain of Viterbo / So great are your charms and your magic / Let the dome of Siena bow before you.
The romance is interrupted by the disapproving of their respective families (Man sagt mir, deine Mutter woll es nicht). This is followed by a separation and hopelessness (Heut’ Nacht erhob ich mich), beautifully rendered by the stunning voice of Kaufmann, whose emotion recalls that of Werther.
In the nostalgic O wär’ dein Haus, Damrau shares with us the sufferings of a woman who, far from her lover, imagines herself watching him from the outside of a glass house.
Rose: first arguments
In her room the woman cries, while the man sings at her window (Mein Liebster singt) until the wind stops him from breathing (Nicht länger kann ich singen).
Finally she gets mad at him and, with a vigour reminiscent of the Queen of the Night (Wer rief dich denn?), she blames him for loving other women. With a beautiful high-pitched acme, as we are familiar with, Damrau avenges herself by making her suitor believe that she loves someone else (I am in love, but not with you).
But it is with the air Verschling’ der Abgrund meines Liebsten Hütte that everything switches: by wishing her lover’s death (That the abysses engulf the little house of my love) the woman shows the deepness of her sorrow and softens her lover who tries to make peace (Nun laß uns Frieden schließen). The delightful lyrics of this tune, sung gently by the tenor, convince the woman (How could we struggle until death? Kings and princes restore peace, would it be refused only to lovers? Princes and soldiers conclude peace, Why would lovers fail?)
The Queen of the Night is then turned into a Zerline, who even if already conquered, hesitates and investigates the pretender’s intentions: I know that it’s only a game with me, You mock me, I was warned. The alleged Don Giovanni becomes a Don Ottavio and reassures her of the genuineness of his devotion: Calm my heart so full of love / That it lacks to break.
Even if the two singers have long since left adolescence, their stage engagement is such that we do believe we see two pure and innocent beings, carried away by a love of youth that becomes a matter of life or death (Wenn du, mein Liebster, steigst zum Himmel auf)
Finally peace regains its place among the lovers, who get lost in reciprocal and naive praise (Und steht Ihr früh am Morgen auf) and once again thank the Lord.
But a new separation is needed (Mir ward gesagt, from the reisest in die Ferne), emphasised by the dissonances created by the contrast between the rising line of the singing part and the descending one of the piano.
The ghost of death appears (Sterb’ ich, so hüllt in Blumen) to disappear in the humor’s lightness, when, left alone, the woman mocks her lover’s small size (Mein Liebster ist so klein): so small that he doesn’t bow down / He sweeps the room with his curls. Damrau thus shares a small time of complicity with the audience, in an aparté full of seductive smiles and winks. But Kaufmann hears her, and expresses his disapproval, even if without resenting her.
Thanks to their flawless technique, the two singers play along with each other, and in a casual manner, they have fun and share their cheerfulness.
Red: the end of the fairy tale
Instead of coming to a predictable happy ending, the artists chose to play the irony card, always supported by Deutsch’s suggestive playing on the piano. The woman is upset with the meal provided by her lover (Mein Liebster hat zu Tische mich geladen) and the man complains about the time he spent loving her. If he had worshipped God instead, he would have ensured a place in heaven (Wie viele Zeit verlor ich).
While the two singers have fun « arguing » on stage, we delight ourselves by closing our eyes and concentrating on their voices: the contrast between Damrau’s brighter and lighter voice and Kaufmann’s tenebrous and emotional one is stunning. One marvels at the soprano’s perfectly mastered vocals and her acting talents and is impressed by the tenor’s long and sustained projection, which, for music’s sake, displays a whole spectrum of colours.
The irony is increasingly present, as in Selig ihr Blinden, where the man craves the dead because they are « sheltered from the torments of love », or in Nein, junger Herr, where the woman complains about the little space he gives her in his life: I am enough for you for every day, isn’t it? which triggers a If you don’t want gold, take tin / If you don’t want love, take contempt in Hoffärtig seid Ihr, schönes Kind.
The game of questions and answers works musically but also theatrically, thanks to a combination of glances, smiles and meaningful gestures. Sitting on his bench Helmut Deutsch is also implicated: a true member of a trio and not just an accompanist — as envisaged by the score — he offers us a rich sound and a fine and subtle rendition.
The comparison of the beloved to the beauties of Italy comes back in Laß sie nur gehn, this time in a negative way because her inconstancy is compared to that of the « river of Tuscany », recalling that the beautiful memories of the early days of a relationship can later turn into nightmares.
Outraged, the woman takes revenge and, like a Don Giovanni or a Carmen, she lists her lovers from all over Italy (Ich hab in Penna), causing her pretender to be totally disheartened.
For several minutes, the crowded Philharmonie of Paris burst out with applause, and after the Schumannian bis of Unter’m Fenster, the most devoted fans came to the stage to offer flowers and chocolates to the artists, according to the « tradition » of Valentine’s Day.