Seduced, then mocked and rejected by Hamlet, who also kills her father. Shame and heartache jumble Ophelia’s senses and, singing sorrowful and lascivious songs, she falls and drowns. Although she may not have engendered as many pages of music as the equally hapless Gretchen in Faust, Ophelia has inspired at least as many song composers. So many that, in her thematic programme, Anna Prohaska did not include them all. Rather than a register of composers, her engrossing recital was her own portrayal of the character in high relief, as well as a gallery of Ophelias from different eras. In short, 19th century composers underscore Ophelia’s sadness, while their more recent counterparts bring out her madness. Ms Prohaska, waif-like in a loose-fitting gold-coloured dress, her tumbling locks half-tamed by a matching flower, embodied both Ophelia’s utter wretchedness and the chilling fragmentation of her psyche. She did so without resorting to craziness clichés and almost entirely by means of the arsenal of vocal expression at her disposal: from pointed sung-speech to floaty pianos to operatic outbursts. For a lyric soprano, her voice is full-bodied, from the effortless lower range to the penetrating top. In full technical control, she charged every phrase with a current of energy in constant modulation. The audience hung on her every sharply articulated word. Eric Schneider accompanied her with perceptiveness on the piano, at times too reluctant to share centre stage.

Anna Prohaska © Harald Hoffmann | DG
Anna Prohaska
© Harald Hoffmann | DG

Ms Prohaska set up the loss-leads-to-lunacy narrative with three Schumann selections from his Six Songs, Op.107. In “Die Fensterscheibe” a woman cleaning a window breaks the pane at the sight of a man passing by, making her hand bleed. The ferocity with which Ms Pohaska shouted the word “Hand” said everything about how intensely this woman would love. The man looks up when the glass breaks, and that is all that matters to her. Abandoned, her mind is about to collapse. And what better way to suggest this than by invoking the shadow of Gretchen at the spinning wheel? In “Die Spinnerin”, a girl bemoans the fact that she is the only one not spinning for her dowry, while the piano imitates the whirring of wheels and bobbins.

Ms Prohaska sang Brahms’ Five Ophelia Songs in English, instead of using Schlegel’s German translation of Shakespeare, then sang more or less the same text in Wolfgang Rihm’s 2012 setting “Ophelia Sings”. Repeating the English text juxtaposed the melancholic Ophelia seen through Romantic eyes with a modern, neurotic reincarnation. In Brahms she rocks gently, her insanity never less than photogenic, while in Rihm she jerks and jumps, her voice rising and dipping frenziedly. Rihm’s piece, jangling with dissonances and mimicking incoherent speech, showed off Ms Prohaska’s dramatic and vocal range. She conveyed both breakability and tremendous expressive drive. With these qualities she would make a wonderful Lulu. Alban Berg’s Lulu Suite is already in her repertoire; surely the opera must follow.

After Rihm came Schubert songs with ghostly themes, including “Der Tod und das Mädchen”, during which Ms Prohaska voiced a compassionate Death with her back to the audience. As beautiful as these songs were, they missed a Gothic, otherworldly quality. The “Romance” from the incidental music to Rosamunde, was, however, utterly spellbinding. Later on, elaborating on Ophelia’s longing for death, albeit subconsciously, Schumann’s “Melancholie” was heart-rending.

John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1852) is probably her most familiar image. Berlioz’s “La mort d’Ophélie”, predating the painting by a decade, is similarly redolent with flower symbolism. Ms Prohaska and Mr Schneider’s rendition was haunting, the vocalise sinking quietly into the rippling piano line with harrowing loveliness. Richard Strauss’ Ophelia Songs swung the needle again from dreamlike melancholy to raw mental distress. With her meticulous attention to the words, Ms Prohaska made the most of the agitated, short phrases. Both the Strauss set and the next one, four of Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok, confirmed her great affinity with twentieth century repertoire: she makes this music flow as naturally as speech. Violinist Lorenza Borrani and cellist Mischa Meyer joined singer and pianist for a volatile performance of these songs, which have the feel of fitful dreams. Ms Prohaska’s bright timbre, in sharp contrast with the gloomy instrumental colours, created a sense of unease, which in “Storm” became a veritable existential hurricane.

Ophelia tries to escape reality by singing, and the concert aptly ended with “Music”, in which the suffering poet, like Ophelia, seems bound for death. And so the evening came full circle, back to Death calling the heartbroken in Schumann’s “Herzeleid”. Nothing more to add after such a complete programme, but the audience kept clapping and the encore was Beethoven’s setting of the folk song “The Return to Ulster”, sung with a hint of an Irish burr.