Bass René Pape in Fine Los Angeles Opera Lieder Recital

Review by David Gregson, Sunday, January 16, 2011.

Los Angeles. 01/15/2011.

Basso René Pape is indisputably one of the greatest opera singers living. Any opera in which he is cast is greatly enriched by his presence. One thinks immediately of his King Marke in "Tristan und Isolde," Rocco in "Fidelio," King Henry in "Lohengrin," Sarastro in "Die Zauberflöte," and, his most important new achievement, Boris in the Met’s "Boris Godunov".

That Pape is also a recitalist who sings German lieder apparently came as a surprise to a substantial percentage of the audience who showed up to hear him and his collaborator, pianist Brian Zeger , last night in the Los Angeles Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The program was presented by the Los Angeles Opera – so some people who arrived were perhaps eager to applaud each number in a rousing roster of operatic hits.

Instead they were confronted with a whole song cycle (one of the very greatest ever composed), Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” (Opus 48), which was programmed as the ultimate item on a program that also featured songs by Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf – most of them excellent although hardly offbeat selections from the perspective of experienced lieder lovers.

Pape and Zeger delivered polished performances of everything, although I felt the entire evening lacked a sense of dramatic urgency and emotional depth – ironic in the light of the program’s description of Pape as a “singing actor.” My personal reaction, however, may be more subjective than usual. I am not so accustomed to hearing a bass sing these familiar pieces. As a result, some of the highlights (in the most literal sense of “high” — as in high notes) were missing for me. Anyone who has heard one of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings of “Dichterliebe” with pianist Jörg Demus will know what I am talking about. And, of course, most lieder lovers have a preferred vocal range for art songs.

In this LA Opera recital, Pape’s singing itself would be difficult to fault. His is a genuine bass voice which is midnight rich and smooth throughout its range. It can be both gentle and powerful, the intonation always precise. Pape’s German diction is also superb. Even if you do not understand what each word means, you can make out each word clearly — which is a terrific aid, by the way, to sorting it all out in your brain if you have studied the text beforehand.

What was missing for me, especially in the “Dichterliebe,” was any sense of urgency. In some of the songs (“Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome,” “Ich grolle nicht,” “Der Atlas,” “Prometheus,” just to cite a few examples) there was much sound, but little fury. Zeger, one of the very most distinguished collaborators for recitals like these, also seemed emotionally detached. To these ears, something was missing. It was all lukewarm. And I am almost afraid to say this – but I found Pape’s Boris at the Met, however superbly sung, to have something of this failure of intensity, especially in the final scene.

For me, the finale encore served as a metaphor for the entire evening. Pape served up as a lollipop “Some Enchanted Evening,” cribbing his English words from a printed sheet in his right hand. The English words he pronounced were clear, but — because Pape did not have the text wholly by heart – other words were elided or mumbled. When he finally reached “Once you have met her, never let her go,” you didn’t believe it because the song wasn’t really memorized, it wasn’t coming from the heart, and the emotion conveyed at the end of it was clearly faked.

In the case of the lieder, of course, Pape needed no crib sheets. Those great German poems are embedded in his consciousness. But he did not bring fresh vibrant life to the songs on this occasion. What he did was very, very good, but for what ever reason, his heart was not entirely in it. Zeger seemed to be on an identical wavelength – also a fine player, never rising above business as usual.

For many good-hearted listeners, however, this concert was a genuinely new and foreign – even alienating experience. Only after Pape had repeatedly made rather gentle silencing gestures with his hand, did it gradually – very gradually — dawn on the crowd that applauding after each song would not be appropriate behavior for this sort of affair.

For some time I sat there positively dreading what would happen during the 16 songs that comprise the “Dichterliebe”. Applause after each and every lied would destroy that great glorious emotional arc of words and music that must be experienced without interruption.

Fortunately, an extremely helpful announcement made over the theater’s public address system headed off this disaster at the completion of the first and only intermission. Cheers arose from over half the audience – which just goes to show you, there were, in fact, many people present (perhaps most) who were not lost in a cultural fog.

Now, it must be said – audiences have come to expect some sort of projected translation of foreign language texts (even at symphony concerts), and in this case, their only clue as to what was being sung was the printed text in the program. Unfortunately, the level of the lighting in the auditorium made this almost impossible. You simply had to be prepared as in the “olden” days when I was first experiencing lieder recitals and opera. Yes, you had to know what the opera was about way back those blighted times. It was very hard to peek at the librettos usually sold in the lobby.

I am not quite certain what the new solution to the lieder recital dilemma will be. Turning up the lights so the program can be seen clearly still seems like a good idea. The concertgoer can not only read the words but figure out when to and when not to applaud.

VIEW PROGRAM : Includes all texts.

René Pape, bass, and collaborator, Brain Zeger, piano.


Franz Schubert: From “Schwanengesang”

Aufenthalt (D. 957, No. 5)

Ständchen (D. 957, No. 4)

Der Atlas (D. 957, No. 8)

Hugo Wolf : “Michelangelo Lieder”

Wohl denk ich oft

Alles endet, was entstehet

Fühlt meine Seele

Franz Schubert: Selections

Der Einsame (D. 800)

An die Musik (D. 547)

Lachen und Weinen (D. 777)

Heidenröslein (D. 257)

Der Musensohn (D. 764)

Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren (D. 360)

Prometheus (D. 674)


Robert Schumann: “Dichterliebe” (Opus 48)

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai

Aus meinen Tränen sprießen

Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne

Wenn ich in deine Augen seh

Ich will meine Seele tauchen

Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome

Ich grolle nicht

Und wüßten’s die Blumen, die kleinen

Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen

Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen

Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen

Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen

Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet

Allnächtlich im Traume

Aus alten Märchen winkt es

Die alten, bösen Lieder

Richard Strauss: (Encore)


Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein:

Some Enchanted Evening from “South Pacific”

LA Opera expresses its appreciation to Yamaha for providing the concert grand piano for this evening’s recital.

Yamaha is the Official Piano of LA Opera

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