Review: For Danielle de Niese, greatness is still around the corner

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In her Los Angeles recital debut Tuesday night at the Broad Stage, Danielle de Niese did everything she could to seem impossibly cute. And coy.

This perky, enormously gifted young soprano who is beginning to beguile the opera world batted her lashes and opened her eyes seductively wide. She regularly flung her arms out welcomingly wide as well. She laced any lyrics she could with layer upon layer of irony.

She began the evening with a tone of self-conscious silliness, singing of endless pleasure and self-adoration in arias from Handel’s ‘Semele.’ After two hours of forced flirtatiousness, she may well have meant it when she chose for her only encore “I Hate Men,” even if the result was closer to “I Love Me” than Cole Porter had in mind.

Clearly De Niese goes too far much of the time. She’s not quite the girlish ingénue she tries to appear and, I suspect, not as superficial either. For all her emphasis on vocal glitter, she has a dusky quality to her voice that gives her more than a hint of soul.


And however much she is in real danger of becoming hopelessly mired in mannerism, she also has a real -- and rare -- spark. She lights up a stage, and she didn’t need her gown of sparkle Tuesday to prove it. She is going places, and shedemonstrated a potential for greatness, assuming she also has a potential for maturity.

What we get now is an intriguing singer with a tremendous technique, a profound sense of musicality and an exuberant spirit that helps her get away with overacting. A few years ago, she was singing bit roles at Los Angeles Opera. Now she’s an emerging star beginning to make it big on the world stage.

Born in 1980 in Australia, she is of Dutch and Sri Lankan heritage. She grew up in L.A. and is a product of the Colburn School. By 19, she was on the radar of James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera. In 2005, she starred in a production of Handel’s ‘Giulio Cesare’ at the Glyndebourne Festival in England that won her major attention, especially when it was released on DVD. Although she has appeared in Mozart operas and even done a little new music, she has made a specialty of Handel. Her first CD is devoted to the composer.

But it is time for her to break out of the Handel prison. Her CD has a sense of sameness that doesn’t present her in the best light, even with the best possible accompaniment from William Christie and his sterling Les Arts Florissants. She is clearly a citizen of the world, and perhaps the most heartening aspect of her recital was a demonstration of wide musical interests.

She also chose, once more, one of the best with her accompanist, Ken Noda, Levine’s musical assistant at the Met and a pianist with crystalline tone who made sure that no amount of De Niese’s nonsense would interfere with her musical line.

Most surprising was her choice of five Grieg songs, which are little heard outside Scandinavia. I can’t speak for De Niese’s Norwegian accent and don’t know that she needed to telegraph every gesture in the texts with a physical response, but her voice wove spells in these strange vocal tales.
She introduced a set of songs by Hugo Wolf by telling us that her mom was in the audience -- hey, Mom, where are you? -- and dedicating the first, “Verborgenheit” (Seclusion), to her. That it contains, in its first line, the phrase “Oh, leave me alone” is maybe more than we needed to know. And she continued through the short set with yet more sultry gestures. But she sang with a sense of nuance worthy of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

The second half of her recital was short. It began with three French songs by Poulenc for which she was relatively toned down. Three songs by Samuel Barber were a pleasure thanks to texts by James Joyce. The music overstates and so, naturally, did De Niese. But she lived each word and filled the hall with a love of language.

The three songs she chose by Bizet are meant to dazzle and not much else, and here De Niese dazzled to beat the band. With the right director, she could be the Carmen of one’s dreams. Then again, with a director who could focus her natural acting talent, I’m not sure there is anything De Niese couldn’t do.

-- Mark Swed