Greek sopranos have been much on my mind of late. I’ve recently reviewed an Australian Eloquence reissue of Decca recordings by Elena Souliotis, herself proclaimed as the great successor to Maria Callas, who briefly blazed across the operatic firmament before fizzling out, the cost of countless Abigailles taking its inevitable toll. Or perhaps not so inevitable, for the Greek soprano Dimitra Theodossiou, appearing in this latest Rosenblatt Recital, has made a very decent career in such dramatic repertory as Abigaille, Odabella and Lady Macbeth, without seeming to succumb to their voice-sapping demands. It’s been ten years now since her Covent Garden debut as an exciting Odabella in Attila, a booking strangely absent from her printed biography, and I was keen to see how her voice – notoriously unpredictable – held up in a demanding programme; no lieder or romanzas here, but a succession of operatic heroines.
According to her website, Theodossiou currently has seventeen Verdi roles in her repertoire, with another three in preparation. We heard four of them, with Amelia and Lady Macbeth coming off the best. Theodossiou has a big spinto soprano and it was noticeable that she was trying desperately to scale it down to accommodate the size of Wigmore Hall during the first half of the programme, sadly not terribly successfully. She made a careful start in ‘Pace, pace mio Dio!’ from La forza del destino, approaching octave leaps, such as the B flat to B flat at “Invan la pace” incredibly tentatively and so piano that she could swiftly adjust her pitching. A creditable “maledizione” crowned the aria well enough, indicating that hers is essentially a dramatic instrument at heart.
Perhaps Desdemona isn’t a role greatly suited to her talents. In the ‘Willow Song’, she used her pianist, Eldo Laro, as her Emilia, addressing remarks towards her. I really missed the orchestration here – Laro let the score go for very little with as unimaginative an account as you’re likely to hear, with very little of the colour Iain Burnside brought to it at a previous Rosenblatt with Ailyn Pérez earlier this year. Laro was a reasonably late replacement for the advertised Simone Savina, although not so late that the glossy programme wasn’t changed in time. Theodossiou’s attempts to rein in her soprano weren’t entirely convincing. You could spot the clunky gear changes a mile off and, when singing softly, the voice lacked support with the result that – in the Ave Maria especially – she resorted to snatching breaths in places where sopranos really shouldn’t take one – between “Prega” and “per chi adorando”, for example.
Liszt’s Il mormorio del bosco (Waldesrauschen to you and me) is obviously a party piece for Laro and was the single change I’d noticed from the previously advertised programme. The pianist balanced left and right hands sensitively, never allowing the rippling right hand notes to over-dominate.
It’s easy to see why Donizetti roles are such an attraction, but – with piano accompaniment especially – they expose flaws in a singer’s technique mercilessly, especially in descending chromatic runs. ‘Al dolce guidami’ from Anna Bolena found Theodossiou fumbling for the note desperately on a few occasions and her ornamentation wasn’t always pitch perfect. It was a pity that we didn’t get Anna’s ‘Coppia iniqua’ cabaletta, as this would have suited her more. Instead, we shifted to another Donizetti scene, where she was also off-key in the final notes of ‘Vivi, ingrato’ from Roberto Devereux.
Theodossiou engages in some overtly operatic diva semaphore, whereby pianissimos are telegraphed by the delicate raising of the right wrist to the forehead, something which became ever more amusing as the recital went on. She ended Desdemona’s ‘Ave Maria’ in prayer and began several items staring into the well of the piano – searching for inspiration, perhaps?
In footballing parlance, someone like Harry Redknapp might well have proclaimed this ‘a recital of two halves’, with Theodossiou considerably stepping up her game after the interval. It was a pity there was no prelude to ‘Ecco l’orrido campo’ from Un ballo in maschera, as it would have been one of the few piano solos in the recital to call for some sort of bravura. (I’m not convinced that the preludes to La traviata and Aida were great vehicles for Laro; having heard her penchant for Liszt, perhaps one of his Verdi paraphrases might have made a more satisfying interlude.) Now, I recognise that bringing comparisons with Montserrat Caballé to bear is a trademark of another particular correspondent of this parish, but it would be remiss not to mention the great Spanish soprano here, for Theodossiou seemed to be channelling her in the endless pianissimos in which she indulged in Amelia’s Ballo recitative and aria, along with a slightly cloudy tone. However, the finale (from "Mezzanotte!") was both barnstorming and brilliant. She was even more histrionic in ‘Voi lo sapete’ from Mascagni’s Cavalliera rusticana. If there had been any scenery to chew, it would have been toast.
After the soporifically dispatched Act I prelude to La traviata, we side-stepped from one consumptive to another and a poor ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ with some mannered dolce phrasing – ‘Vivo, sola, soletta’ – and she completely ran out of steam in the phrase “il primo bacio dell’aprile è mio”. Intonation and breath support also let her down badly at the very end of a ‘Vissi d’arte’ which was otherwise passionately sung.
In the final scheduled item, I missed some of the rich mezzo depth in the opening phrases of Lady Macbeth’s ‘La luce langue’ but Theodossiou found a chilling whiteness of tone for the word “l’eternità’ before the voice opened up to a simply magnificent closing section – “O voluttà del soglio!” which left the audience cheering with delight.
Theodossiou really pulls out the operatic stops in these dramatic roles and they show off her voice to its considerable best when running at full throttle. Sadly, on the evidence here, it is also very uneven, even within the space of a few minutes, illustrated by the encore, (which I took to be Puccini’s ‘Salve Regina’), which didn’t exactly leave the audience begging for more.
Photographs © Stagedoor