Swedish soprano Nina Stemme teamed up with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by American Karina Canellakis to offer a spare but superb program of Wagner’s music. In three arias, Stemme demonstrated that she is not only the reigning Wagnerian soprano of the moment, but that her artistry goes beyond singing. Her voice, phrasing, diction, attention to text, and even her facial expressions all gave us a taste of a full Wagner opera that is sadly out of reach of many of us right now. Supported by the superb orchestra, her singing was true balm to heal the wound of a world suffering from the shock and fallout of the pandemic.

Nina Stemme and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
© Jan-Olav Wedin

Stemme’s voice was full, focused and sumptuous, with gleaming clarity. There was no change or break in voice as she moved across the registers, with her admirable control to maintain the continuity of sound. Most of all, she had an uncanny ability to be present as the character, drawing us into the world of Elisabeth in Tannhäuser and Isolde in Tristan und Isolde. Elisabeth’s joyful “Dich teure Halle” and her sorrowful “Allmächt’ge Jungfrau, hör mein Flehen” miraculously traced the character’s emotional journey. The latter was absolute perfection, a beautiful prayer sung with Stemme’s high notes ringing out with splendor. Isolde’s Liebestod, which I am sure Stemme can sing in her sleep, was infused with fresh interpretations as she gave meaning to every word. She took the audience along on Isolde’s transfiguration, with her gestures and facial expressions mirroring the text. The final note was whispered with tender beauty before being echoed by the clarinet. An extraordinary performance. 

Canellakis interspersed Stemme’s singing with splendid readings of the Tannhäuser overture and Tristan und Isolde prelude. She began with a deliberate tempo with attention to texture and harmony. While one would occasionally wish for a little more tautness and color, she would, with relentless care and focus, build up the ensemble to bring an exhilarating and cathartic climax. The small number of orchestral musicians responded with technical sophistication and understated passion. The Stockholm strings showed off their shimmering beauty while the woodwinds dominated with their endless legato. The brass section made itself known with its bright harmony.

Karina Canellakis
© Jan-Olav Wedin

Stemme returned after the Liebestod to offer Richard Strauss’ Cäcilie as an encore. While it was another masterful interpretation full of passion and spirit, it seemed out of place after the profound and moving Liebestod. However, it served as a perfect transition to what came after the intermission, Strauss’ rarely played suite, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Based on Molière’s play, it was originally meant to be performed alongside Ariadne auf Naxos, but was abandoned due to the length of the entire evening. The suite, consisting of nine brief movements, pays tribute to the Baroque style of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who provided the original incidental music to Moliere’s play, in two of its sections. The rest of the suite, composed for small chamber orchestra, is consummate Strauss in its theatrical, witty and colorful music, akin to his earlier Symphonia Domestica. One could picture the pompous middle-class gentleman aspiring for a higher rank, with fencing lessons, tailors fussing over him, his day culminating in a grand stately dinner. Canellakis led a lithe and delightful performance by the superb musicians, clearly enjoying themselves after the profound and shattering music of Wagner.

This performance was reviewed from the KonserthusetPlay video stream