Married couples in the world of opera world are not always fated to Papageno/Papagena connubial delectation, although Mirella Freni and Nicolai Ghiaurov, Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Júlia Várady were examples of successful personal and professional partnerships.  A recent addition to the singing spouses club is German mega diva Diana Damrau and French bass-baritone Nicolas Testé.

Diana Damrau © Rebecca Fay | Erato
Diana Damrau
© Rebecca Fay | Erato

The idea of an evening of opera arias by one composer is something of a bygone divertissement and the novelty if it being performed by a husband and wife team in solos and duets had considerable appeal. Throw in the marvellous music of Verdi, rising wunderkind conductor Ivan Repušić leading the exuberant Münchner Rundfunkorchester and the superb setting of the Wiener Musikverein, and it sounds like a marriage made in musical heaven. However, whilst there was certainly much to savour, this concert was not entirely of unalloyed pleasure.

One of the main problems was the relatively limited amount of music Verdi wrote for soprano and bass, which made the duets much less interesting. The duo selections from lesser known works such as I masnadieri and Luisa Miller were not Verdi sans pareil.

After a rollicking overture from Nabucco which showed the Munich Radio Orchestra trombones equal to their more celebrated Bavarian Radio Orchestra cousins, Testé got the vocal part of the concert off to a sombre start with “Il lacerato spirito” from Simon Boccanegra. The recitative could have been better articulated and top notes didn’t really resonate but there was an absolutely knock-out low A natural on “perdona”. The wailing “Miserere” chorus was unsurprisingly absent, which diminished the impact of the scena, but all was forgiven with another fog-horn resonant low F sharp on the concluding “per me”.

Apart from being the only opera Verdi composed for London, I masnadieri was written for the so-called “Swedish nightingale” Jenny Lind. Whilst Diana Damrau may not exactly be the “Günzburg Galan”, there were plenty of chirpings soaring into the stratosphere. The pianissimo grace notes on “fa gioa in ciel” and “il tuo felice avel” had a delicious delicato and the chromatic scales were pristine. There were no messengers to bring Amalia the good news but Damrau’s natural exuberance made “Carlo vive” infectiously ecstatic. The rapid trilling scale passages on “sorriso” were impeccable and multiple trills Sutherland-solid. The following “Mio Carlo, Carlo, muoia” duet exposed Testé’s diction deficiencies although once again the extreme low range was impressive. The French bass had the opportunity to show off his narrative skills in Ferrando’s scena from Il trovatore and although the absence of supporting chorus was regrettable, there was much better diction, judicious portamento and some crisp grace notes.

The first half ended with the perennial coloratura showpiece from Act I of La traviata. In both the aria and cabaletta, Damrau’s beautifully controlled crescendi and pianissimi, immaculate phrasing and precise trilling were evident but the high D flats were barely flicked at, there was no fermata on the second “gioire” and her usually dazzling top E flat on “pensier” was left behind down the Bösendorferstrasse.

The Ave Maria from Otello which was easily Damrau's best interpretation of the evening. There was a dark timbre in the recitative followed by the most filigree ppp on “salce”. The crescendo and floaty top on “cantiamo” were flawlessly executed and the pianissmo pure vibrato-free concluding arpeggio was lyric singing at it absolute finest.

Sorrow seemed to permeate all of Testé’s selections and nothing could be more miserable than “Ella giammai m’amò”. The French bass sounded thin in the middle register and there was far too little nuanced word colouring. His lower range was much more reliable with a really resonant deep G natural on “da miei occhi”. The concert concluded with the lengthy duet for Wurm and Luisa from Luisa Miller which had minimal impact.

The audience elicited two encores, the first being “Un ignoto tre lune or saranno”, again from I masnadieri. Testé was accurate enough without being particularly interesting. Conversely, Damrau was almost skipping around in excitement before singing the celebrated  “Bolero” from I vespri siciliani. This was a favourite encore of Sutherland and Caballé and the German coloratura showed she is no less an interpreter of this bravura piece of bel canto.