The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra officially opened their 2017-18 season with a well-chosen, festive programme. In the presence of Her Majesty Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, conductor Thomas Hengelbrock led an all-Mozart first half, introducing arias with anecdotes and great enthusiasm. Antonín Dvořák's optimistic Eighth Symphony took up the second half. The RCO players, in light formation for Mozart and then reinforced for Dvořák, displayed their usual high level of individual and section musicianship, but the Dvořák in particular lacked narrative conviction. It was soprano Diana Damrau, in splendid vocal form, who created a sense of occasion and immediate theatricality.

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

With curiously rushed opening chords, Hengelbrock started off with a sinewy overture to Don Giovanni. A certain stiffness at the beginning soon disappeared, but the performance never went beyond matter-of-fact, with abrupt transitions between themes and tempi. Much more satisfactory was Mozart’s short Symphony no. 32 in G major, a logical break between the arias, with its structural resemblance to an opera overture. Hengelbrock brought off a lithely brilliant Allegro spiritoso, followed by a warm-toned Andante. The final movement, precise and balletic, worked itself up to a handsomely honed finale. Between the overture and the symphony, Damrau sang “L'amerò, sarò costante” from Il re pastore, then the concert aria “Bella mia fiamma”. Damrau’s voice, with its metallic shine, has undeniable presence, but it is her dramatic eloquence that turns it into a kind of sonic searchlight. She showed impressive control, tapering and filling out her sound at will, relishing the trills and carving delicate ornamentation. Never just for effect, however, but always guided by the words. Everything about Damrau is heartfelt and unfiltered. She phrased Aminta’s pledge of fidelity with quiet intensity, her performance enhanced by Joris van Rijn’s beautiful violin obbligato. The more tragic and fiery the subject matter, the more Damrau blazed. The recitative in “Bella mia fiamma”, a desperate farewell, showcased her expressive fierceness and she delivered her finest singing of the night in the subsequent aria.

Damrau is a diva in the best possible sense. She not only sang as if her life depended on it, but also took care of frock changes. She sang the first two arias in a black tiered dress with a removable embroidered layer. For her third aria, the sorrowful “Dove sono” from Le nozze di Figaro, she made a surprise entrance at the corner of the balcony in silver and pink satin. Once again she reaffirmed her Mozart credentials with her grasp of the recitative. In the aria proper, her middle register was compact and the ascents into the penetrant top register full of psychological urgency. With Damrau high up amidst the gala audience, Hengelbrock had difficulty keeping taut coordination. The orchestra had to wait for, or catch up with, the soprano as best they could. Then it was time for the break, and chocolate dessert, the conclusion to the walking dinner that preceded the concert.

There were numerous fine moments in Dvořák’s Eighth, a work brimming with hummable, jubilant tunes, the bird flute solo, for example, which made one forget the uncertain opening bars. The woodwinds relaying motifs to each other, the infectious dance at the start of the Allegretto grazioso, and the big, colourful fanfares of the last movement. Indeed practically all the separate parts were worth putting on one’s glad rags for, but ultimately they did not form a seamless whole. Momentum dragged in places, with the sober introduction of the Adagio turning positively lugubrious. The main issue, however, was one of connection, not pacing. As to balance, the cellos placed centre stage gave the strings a warm core, but at times the woodwinds behind them, and even, on one occasion, the brass, were overwhelmed by the rest of the orchestra. The symphony’s euphoric finale, however, guaranteed an audience on its feet, rhythmically clapping for more.

More was Damrau, in her third frock, a black-and-orange creation cinched at the waist with a jewelled buckle. Making maximum use of the stairs on the Concertgebouw stage, she sighed and drooped and shuddered her way through Cunegonde’s coloratura aria “Glitter and Be Gay” from Bernstein’s operetta Candide. Truth be told, Damrau could have been singing in any language, and the highest notes had a hint of shrillness, but she made a technically fluent and airtight case for the character being on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After all, Cunegonde has had to sell her favours to the rich and powerful to survive. A crumbling of the psyche would be almost inevitable, despite all those pretty baubles. Like many before her, Damrau tripped on those infamous steps, a hitch that she dismissed with a graceful sweep of her arms. With any luck, the endearing diva's first engagement with the RCO will not be her last.