Danielle de Niese, the much-marketed new star of the opera world, has been performing at the Met in The Enchanted Island this week, and came downtown on a night off this Monday to promote her new album of Baroque arias. A packed house filled (Le) Poisson Rouge, a club popular for both classical and mainstream artists, despite its unsuited acoustic. But sound quality was not on anyone’s minds listening to de Niese, whose megawatt smile, made-for-couture body, and Bambi eyes outshine any flaws.

Danielle de Niese, © DECCA, photo by Chris Dunlop
Danielle de Niese,
© DECCA, photo by Chris Dunlop

“This album represents a period of great growth in my life,” Ms. de Niese said, understating the media attention that has paved her way since her 2005 Glyndebourne début as Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. She treated us to a program of Baroque chestnuts accompanied by a chamber ensemble, beginning with Handel’s florid “Let the bright seraphim” and a legato “Ombra mai fu.” Her charm and obvious love of singing reached right to the back of the room. Her voice, however, did not always make it so far.

There are some pretty qualities to her voice, especially her middle range. She is also adept at making it do what she wants it to, though often with apparent effort. Her jaw was so clenched at first that her words were barely understandable, a quality that persisted in “Dido’s lament” by Purcell. Her breaths sounded tension-filled, and her neck and shoulder tension appeared to contribute to some pinched tones. This was especially clear in Monteverdi’s joyous “Quel sguardo sdegnosetto,” with its relentless high notes.

The enthusiasm that de Niese uses to make da capo arias exciting can have odd interpretive results. In particular, an even intensity on nearly every word, with few dynamics or phrasing nuance. This was especially apparent in her Dowland songs, which she sang with lutenist Daniel Swenberg. Lute chords decay quickly, but de Niese sang full-out sustained to the end of most phrases. In addition, she often scooped her notes, sliding up from the under the pitch: a pop effect that sounded out of place in a Baroque program.

De Niese finished the concert with Cleopatra’s “Da tempeste il legno infranto” from Giulio Cesare, which she noted was the role she sang for her European debut in the Netherlands. When the coloratura turns into rapidly repeated low Gs, she turned her hand into a gun and playfully mowed down the audience. In the context of the aria, however,
she is singing about bringing ecstasy to the soul. Still, de Niese is charming and irresistible to watch. Nothing phases her, even when her high notes bobble.

Two planned encores from lighter repertoire appeared: Lehár’s flirtatious “Meine Lippen sind Küssen so heiß” and “I’ll be seeing you” by Sammy Fain. De Niese clearly has a stronger personal connection to these songs, and her bright tone seems more suited to cabaret and musical theatre repertoire. Interestingly, her acting in these songs was better than in the Baroque repertoire. She stayed in character during the interludes, while in the quick-paced Handel, she bobbed her head and boogied as if she were just singing to herself. She certainly generated a warm reception from the crowd, and her CD is bound to sell very well.

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