On Monday night the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts hosted a debut recital of internationally acclaimed German soprano Diana Damrau and her concert accompanist, French harpist Xavier de Maistre. The final concert of this season’s Celebrity Series from Washington National Opera, this event had been much anticipated by DC opera fans, especially after the soprano withdrew from her WNO 2010 gig as Ophélie in Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet.

Diana Damrau © Michael Tammaro / Virgin Classics
Diana Damrau
© Michael Tammaro / Virgin Classics

Therefore, it came as no surprise that when Damrau started off with an apology for the quality of her voice that had been “drying up” due to a bad cold, the audience responded with a warm ovation, prepared to enjoy a night of 19th-century German and French art song by such Romantic-era luminaries as Schubert, Strauss, Hahn, Chausson and Duparc. Indeed, as long as Damrau was onstage and singing, could a few slips caused by an illness be that important? Meanwhile, pleased as she was to receive such unconditional love from the audience, Damrau quickly showed us that she was not the kind of artist who rested on the laurels of her fame, and that she had every intention to give it all to the public, regardless of how sick she was. Just minutes into the program, we were moved to tears by a breathtaking rendition of Schubert’s Ständchen (“Serenade”) that boasted gleaming tone, tender pianissimos, and above all, an authentic German articulation that added unique coloring and musicality to the artist’s phrasing. And that was just the opening number!

Accompanied on the harp by the highly sensitive de Maistre (who came across as a true virtuoso in his passionate solo delivery of Fauré’s Impromptu in D flat major), Damrau offered a program that gave us a rare opportunity to sit back and enjoy foreign art song without worrying about the meaning of each and every word (with most numbers being elegies and love songs, translation was hardly necessary). However, Damrau was not looking for easy solutions. An artist at heart, she gave herself the challenge of using every shade of her tonal palette and every technique in her vocal arsenal to add depth and meaning to the performed music – and she met the challenge head on.

Featuring headspinning cadenzas in her performance of dell’Acqua’s Villanelle, the soprano masterfully word-painted speedy flights of the swallows, shooting one high note after another, as if letting the little birds that she was singing about out into the morning sky. The artist’s legendary breath control was on full display in her rendition of Strauss’ lullaby Wiegenlied (“Dream, dream, my sweet life”), which, in Damrau’s unique interpretation, sounded as if it was performed in one breath.

However, the defining moment of the night, that kept us on the edge of our seats, was Damrau’s deeply spiritual performance of Schubert’s Ave Maria. Just as famous for its technical challenges as for its heavenly beauty, Schubert’s score calls for a lot more than a compelling operatic voice. Along with tonal variety and expansive vocal range, the piece requires the singer to produce the sound of utmost purity, to help the listener mentally transcend into the sacred world of Schubert's prayer.

From the very first notes of the piece Damrau filled her performance with the shimmering light of her luminous tone. Her floating soft phrases, her melting legato line and the purity of her angelic voice breathed a new life into the music, turning this number into a rich spiritual experience and undoubtedly, a fitting climax to a truly memorable evening.

True to her credo of being generous to her audience under any circumstances, Damrau concluded her recital with not one, but two encores that brought the program to a high-spirited finale. Overpowered by the beauty of this incredible concert, I left the Kennedy Center with a feeling of deep gratitude to Diana Damrau, a true devotee of music, who, despite her illness and the obstacles that came with it, had found strength and inspiration to indulge us in an evening of truly superb vocalism.