Advertised as the concert of “three vocal giants” by the Concertgebouw, last Tuesday concert in the Great Hall gathered international opera stars Piotr Beczala, Diana Damrau and Nicolas Testé – you’d be excused for not having heard of the latter who happens to be Ms. Damrau’s husband in real life. The first of this season’s “Great Voices” series at Amsterdam’s prime concert hall had a bit the feel of a gala night, in spite of (strangely) not being completely sold out. For the public of the Dutch capital, it was a rare occasion to hear two of most acclaimed opera singers of our days, whose schedules currently tend to stick to hopping from New York to Milan, London and Vienna. Their vocal prowess certainly did not disappoint but, in my opinion, did not really compensate for a somewhat ill-constructed program.

I guess this is a problem inherent to any opera recital: how does one present a succession of excerpts from various operas by very different composers without the final result to feel bitty. How does one render the experience of opera with an eclectic follow-up of scenes and arias, each of them taken totally out of their context? In this case, the exercise seemed to be even more problematic than usual: how do you build a programme for a tenor whose career currently focuses on spinto roles by Verdi and the French repertoire (Piotr Beczala), a soprano who, apart from recent carefully-chosen incursions into Verdi, is mainly renowned for bel canto and a Mozart (Diana Damrau) and a bass full stop (Nicolas Testé)?

Nicholas Testé © Nicholas Testé
Nicholas Testé
© Nicholas Testé
The first part of the program was, in that respect, particularly bizarre: a series of early and mature Verdi numbers, interposed with two Bellini arias and a scene by  Donizetti, whose only common factor was that they all were composed by Italian composers. A bit like putting your phone music library on shuffle – which I never do for opera. Perhaps I should just lighten up, but this somewhat interfered with my enjoyment of the evening. And this is regrettable because, as far as the singing went, there was much to be enjoyed.

Piotr Beczala © Anja Frers DG
Piotr Beczala
© Anja Frers DG
Listening to Piotr Beczala live is quite simply unforgettable. The Polish tenor is such a generous performer and his voice is so utterly seductive: rich and full-bodied, powerful and luminous, with golden ringing high notes. Starting the program with Riccardo’s aria “Di’ tu se fedele” (Un ballo in maschera) was a bold choice with which wowed the public from the start. The other two Verdi excerpts (from Rigoletto, one of which the famous aria “La donne è mobile”) were just as good, but the Massenet and Gounod selection of the second part of the concert left an even stronger impression. Colour, style, French diction: everything was there. The way he coloured his voice in the second stanza of “Pourquoi me réveiller” (Werther) literally made me shiver. 

My enthusiasm about Diana Damrau’s performance will be more measured. With her reputation and track record as a singer of bel canto, I must say I expected more from the Bellini arias. Her technique is absolutely flawless, but I found the voice lacking in roundness for this kind of repertoire. Also, I would have wanted to hear more legato and I did not find the choice of ornamentation in the cadenza of “Vien’ diletto” (I Puritani) particularly stylish. 

Diana Damrau © Michael Tammaro, Virgin Classics
Diana Damrau
© Michael Tammaro, Virgin Classics
 

It got much better with her Gilda in the duet from Rigoletto with Mr. Beczala “Signor nè principe… addio, addio…”. But one of the highlights of the evening was definitely Massenet’s gavotte “Je vais sur tous les chemins”, in which she sang a delightfully coquettish Manon, with jaw-dropping high notes. In this aria, as well as in her duet with Mr. Beczala’s intense Des Grieux, she also demonstrated what a compelling actress she is.

Nicolas Testé’s voice is much darker than I remembered it from performances at the Dutch National Opera – admittedly in a very different repertoire. The French bass' international career is more modest than the two other stars of the evening, but he proved a worthy singing partner and in the excerpts from Gounod’s Faust, portrayed a dark and threatening Méphistophélès. 

The overall performance was unfortunately marred by the rather pedestrian accompaniment by the Noord Nederlands Orkest. Their playing was unrefined and did not show much affinity with any of the musical styles on the program that evening.

The public of the Concertgebouw audibly did not share any of my reservations and the applause and cheers seemed to get louder as the evening was advancing, to the point that Ms. Damrau had to signal the audience with the hand twice to stop premature clapping during Manon’s gavotte. The first encore was the very predictable “O mio babbino caro” (from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi). I much preferred the second and last one: Mr. Beczala’s radiant “Ah! Lève-toi soleil…”  from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.