There’s a great deal to admire in this release, the realisation of a long cherished idea for Diana Damrau. It’s meticulously sung, well researched and beautifully presented. And don’t be fooled by the ‘grand opera’ title: it’s not just a matter of works in the spectacular genre with which Meyerbeer is most closely associated. There’s repertoire in German and Italian as well as from French opéras both grands and comiques, plus plenty of music from before the composer conquered Paris, going back as far as the singspiel Alimelek, oder Die beiden Kalifen (1814).
Damrau’s own enthusiastic note in the booklet emphasises the variety that the programme demonstrates. And, to a certain extent, we hear that as we run the gamut from charming simplicity in the German works, Rossinian fireworks in the Italian ones to, well, Meyerbeerian fireworks in the French.
But having a whole disc of soprano arias by a composer whose major concern never seems to have been three-dimensional characterisation also seems to undermine the very point Damrau is trying to make. A third of the arias feature extensive flute obliggato, for example, others clarinet – or both. Perky coloratura, dispatched with cool aplomb by Damrau, is a standard device. Meyerbeer could certainly string notes (and lots of them) together fluently, but he struggled to hit upon truly memorable melodies.
There’s still plenty of originality, though. Take the mournful, heartfelt cor anglais solo in Isabelle’s ‘Robert, toi que j’aime’, which looks forward to Berlioz’s ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’ (while also bearing a less fortunate melodic similarity to Monsieur Triquet’s ditty in Eugene Onegin) – and Damrau rises to some exciting drama in its final moments. She’s also outstanding in Palmide’s ‘Con qual gioia’ (from Il crociato), which feels like three virtuoso arias for the price of one, and the extensive vocal fluff of Marguerite’s ‘Ô beau pays de la Touraine’ (Les Huguenots).
The soprano’s technique remains unruffled regardless of what challenges are thrown her way, a tendency to sag on trills notwithstanding. But the voice is not big on colouristic variety and only hints at steely determination rarely, emphasising the somewhat passive, generic nature of many of the women represented here. Sample someone like Natalie Dessay in the ubiquitous ‘Ombre légère’ to hear what more can be done. The scholarly and detailed booklet essay might have helped, too, had it furnished us with dramatic as well as musicological context for the music.
The Lyon Opera forces under Emmanuel Villaume offer fluent, lively support (I hope the flautist got paid overtime), as do the other singers making cameos. This is certainly a useful, generously filled and well-recorded compendium, better for dipping into rather than consuming in one sitting. Whether it will do anything to change your mind on Meyerbeer himself is another matter. (Hugo Shirley / Gramophone)