St Stephen’s Church in Dulwich may not immediately spring to mind as one of the must attend cultural venues in the metropolis, but on the evening of Saturday the 26th of June, the Dulwich Choral Society managed to put on an evening of truly superb entertainment, showcasing a soprano whom I can confidently predict, will become one of the truly great voices of the future. Consequently it is worth travelling anywhere to catch a performance featuring Elisabeth Meister. All praise therefore is due to Aidan Oliver (the Musical Director of the Society) who managed to secure Meister’s services whilst it is still possible. The end result was the sort of evening which will become ingrained in the memory of all who attended for a very, very long time.
The programme for the evening (called "Sure on this Shining Night") was inspired by the passing of the Summer Solstice; being comprised of opera arias, choruses, part-songs and poetry – all with a theme revolving around summer, night, love and reflections on the human condition. It was an imaginatively put together programme and worked especially well within the superb acoustics of St Stephen’s. Sophie Thompson and Tom Espiner delivered fine poetry readings ranging from John Clare and Christina Rossetti to WB Yeats, Arthur Symons and Charles Baudelaire. The chorus had plenty of opportunity to shine with excerpts ranging from Puccini’s “Humming Chorus” from Madama Butterfly to Kodaly’s eerily mesmeric Esti Dahl, but it was in Thomas Tallis’ Glory to Thee, my God,This Night that they proved to be at their best. Occasionally a couple of very minor pitching problems became apparent, but on the whole their performance was enjoyable and enthusiastically received. Presumably some new blood might freshen the collective tone somewhat, but they are certainly among the better amateur choirs one can hope to hear. On the 4th of December the Choir is performing Haydn’s The Seasons, and based on what I have heard so far, I would certainly recommend going to see them.
Since joining The Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at The Royal Opera in 2009, Elisabeth Meister has been steadily garnering both audience and critical acclaim, most notably when she stood in for an indisposed Emma Bell as the Fox in Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, but also for her High Priestess in Aida (which proved to be the vocal highlight of that opera). What always surprises me about Meister is that her progress as an artist is developing at a truly rapid pace, consequently you assume that you have the measure of her talent, when in fact you have only experienced but a fraction of it. This was the case at the Dulwich concert, with Meister testing her mettle with some powerhouse performances which left you surprised that the church was still standing.
First up were a couple of Grieg songs from Op.48, “Lauf der Welt” and “Die verschwiegene Nachtigall”, both of which proved to be exquisite tasters for what was to follow. “Beim Schlafengehen” is one of Strauss’ Four Last Songs and it is a mature work by the composer, which requires a certain maturity from the artist. One often associates this work with the sort of singer who can look back on her life and fill these songs with great emotional resonance, as well as technical brilliance, as was the case with Schwarzkopf, Janowitz and perhaps even more perfectly, Margaret Price. Meister still has a little way to go before she can bring the same level of emotional intensity to Strauss’s most heartfelt composition as these great ladies do, but on a technical level her performances of “Beim Schlafengehen” left me rapt at her mastery of Strauss’s soaring line, whilst communicating much of the song’s sorrowful subject matter. Strauss is a composer made to measure for Meister, perhaps before long we will therefore hear her sing the full complement of this remarkable composition – maybe supplemented by some of Strauss’s great orchestral songs, such as Frühlingsfeier?
The Countess’s recitative and aria “E Susanna non vien....Dove sono” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, was further demonstration that a quality voice, well schooled and with sufficient flexibility, need not be constrained by the restrictions of Fach. Although Meister is undoubtedly a powerful dramatic soprano, she scaled down her instrument to sing an incisive account of the Countess’s aria, which demonstrated crystal clear Italian diction, real bite in the voice during the recitative and a sonorous flowing line in the aria. Even at reduced volume Meister’s voice is a mighty instrument, so the aria could probably have benefited from taking a further vocal step backwards during the most climactic moments, so as to emphasise Mozart’s sweet and melodious lines all the more effectively. Like Christine Brewer, one is left surprised at how such a voice can indeed sing such a role, but it is never a question really of size, but one of technique. And technique is something in which Meister positively excels.
The penultimate solo for Meister was also the veritable showstopper. Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka, was the most rollicking and super-charged account of this aria I have ever heard. Singing at full cry, Meister delivered a monumental high B which nailed me to my seat. One suspects that there is not another dramatic soprano performing today who has quite such a lustrous, yet ferociously incisive top. Instantly you think Nilsson, but not with that singer’s cold blade, instead the blade is there, but it is coupled with the beauty of a young Sutherland. It was a prodigious performance that made you want to either leap out of your chair screaming bravo, or just fall about laughing at the sheer incredulity of it all. Some people seem to have such an abundance of talent, that it becomes pointless to attempt any sort of critical reserve. I can of course try and remain detached, but when you have heard the sort of voice that only comes along only once in a generation, then what is the point in sitting on the fence? One tip however to all audience attendees who no doubt will one day hear Meister singing a role such as Turandot, and that is to sit well back - you have been warned!
The final performance from Meister was an understated and beautiful rendition of Strauss’s (superbly accompanied by the evening’s pianist, David Elwin) Morgen, which proved all the more effective coming after the barnstorming “Song to the Moon”. Meister isn’t just a prodigious voice, she is also an excellent communicator of the text and a vivid personality to boot. You can catch her next at The Royal Opera Summer Concert, an annual event showcasing all the young artists. However, I hope that her agent will not be long in organising a recital where we can hear tasters of her roles to come – Salome, Aida, Turandot, Elisabeth (Tannhäuser) and so on. For now, I strongly advise you to keep an eye on her website (click here) for future performance details, as it really will be a case of catch her whilst you can.