After several months maternity leave, Elīna Garanča returned to the stage in early May and is touring concert halls in Europe. One of her first stops was the Amsterdam Concertgebouw where, accompanied by the excellent Robert Vignoles, she gave a very polished performance of songs by Schumann, Berg and Strauss. The celebrated Latvian mezzo-soprano is not unknown to the Amsterdam public. She already performed to great acclaim with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of her countryman Mariss Jansons, most notably in a Christmas matinee concert in 2008. Since then, her star risen further: she is a successful recording artist and a frequent guest at top venues such as Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. It is therefore quite surprising that the Great Hall of the Concertgebouw was far from sold out on Tuesday evening. In these difficult economic times, it appears that even high profile internationally acclaimed artists find it difficult to fill in the house with a program of art songs, which is regrettable.

Elīna Garanča © Karina Schwarz | DG
Elīna Garanča
© Karina Schwarz | DG

Ms Garanča, looking beautiful and elegant in her blue gown, descended the famous stairs of the Great Hall. And beautiful and elegant is how one could qualify her performance too. Her sound is utterly splendid, remarkably even throughout the wide tessitura, and possibly one of the most beautiful I have ever heard. Her timbre is rich and warm, and her voice powerful and produced with remarkable aplomb – she has mentioned in interviews she is now preparing for the heavier roles of Leonora (La favorite), Eboli and Santuzza. Her German diction is superb, her phrasing refined. Yet as the evening advanced, I found that, for all the vocal beauty and assurance, her interpretation often felt too composed and lacked that little extra something that brings Lied to life.

The recital was constructed around Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben (A Woman's Love and Life), a cycle he composed in 1840, the “year of songs” when he famously composed 138 Lieder. Inspired by his love for Clara and his long-awaited wedding (they finally married in September after he was able to overrule her father’s opposition), the songs of this cycle describe the course of a woman's love for her man from her first meeting with him through to marriage and motherhood and then to his death, from her point of view. Ms Garanča expertly employed colour and dynamic shading to express, in turn, the naivety of a young girl (“Seit ich ihn gesehen”), the joy of a new bride (“Helft mir, ihr Schwestern”) or the grief of a widow (“Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan”). Her detailed attention to the words was evident at all times and, for all her reputation as a cool North European performer, she actually used more facial expression and hand gestures to emphasize the text that one might have expected. However, this attention to detail often felt too polished to be sincere, and although the singing was by all means gorgeous, beyond the accomplished singer, I never really believed in the character.

The second part of the concert started with Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven early songs) by Alban Berg. This is an exquisite cycle of love songs, more immediately dramatic than the rather domestic love described in Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben. It demands frequent leaps into the upper range and Ms Garanča’s treated us to some powerful highs notes, emitted without edge and with great ease, especially in Die Nachtigall. Here as well, as impressive and generous as her singing was, I found her interpretation did not go beyond a certain reserved point. Most notably I felt she missed the expression of Sehnsucht (Yearning) in the beautiful “Liebesode“ (“Ode to Love”).

The calculated feel remained throughout the selection of Strauss Lieder, and she only really let go during her first encore, Strauss’ Morgen, superbly delivered, after she addressed the public for the first time, joking in relaxed manner about the difficulty of handling the infamous flight of stairs of the Great Hall in a concert gown.

I certainly at no time wish to undermine the accomplished artistry of Ms Garanča. In many situations, the sheer listening pleasure her beautiful sound provides would suffice and I would gladly listen to her again, probably rather on an opera stage than in the more intimate setting of a song recital. This is of course also a matter of taste. In an interview with the New York Times in 2009, she said : “I’m analytical, not wild, when I’m onstage my brain is running like a computer” and added “To me, it’s not professional to go onstage and burn up. My first goal is to present my voice (…) I’m a singer after all. Otherwise I would have been an actress”. I cannot say I was not warned.