Music review: Rene Pape in Los Angeles recital debut

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The main Music Center excitement Saturday night seemed to be at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where there was a long line hoping for returned tickets to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Across the street, the empty seats in the larger Dorothy Chandler Pavilion could have easily held the Disney overflow and then some for a rare and magnificent recital of art songs by René Pape.

Pape is without question the finest German bass of his generation and was making his local recital debut as part of the Los Angeles Opera season. But this was a hard sell. The Chandler has poor bass acoustics, and Pape programmed none of the Wagner or Mussorgsky in which he excels. Instead, an imposing opera star offered intimate songs by Schubert, Hugo Wolf and Schumann in a room and with a voice seemingly far too large for them.

All bets, it turned out, were off. Pape began with three late Schubert songs from the collection, “Schwanengesang” (“Swan Song”). And from his first agitated utterance in “Aufenthalt” (“Dwelling Place”), it was clear that … no, it wasn’t clear, he was clear. He was more than clear, he was present. Schubert describes a surging storm as a metaphor for the swelling of a broken heart. Pape delivered lyrics with the shocking immediacy of tweets reporting devastation the second it happens.

There is something old school about Pape. He has the large build, square head and the slicked-back hair that white ties and tails were designed for. The concert dress costume deserved mothballs decades ago, but it perfectly suits, so to speak, Pape, who looks as though he might have stepped out of an elegant nightclub in 1920s Berlin. Pape’s stage manner is old school as well. He stands and sings. Yet he is a riveting presence, internalizing the expression of each song. He may represent the past -– so much so as to be an unapologetic chain smoker offstage –- but what he conveys is that same unforced intensity of expression heard on old recordings of the great singers of the past.


Among Pape’s Schubert was “An die Musik” (“To Music”), its lyricism not tailored for this burly bass, more comfortable as a commanding tyrant or holy man on stage. But sweetness is also in his bag of bass tricks.

Vocally, Pape is a complete singer. His lows vibrate with a satisfying subterranean buzz, his highs have a baritonal smoothness. He doesn’t fuss. Wolf’s three “Michelangelo Songs” were the closest he came to soul-searching opera, these examples of raw, inconsolable inner anguish. Pape ended the first half with Schubert’s “Prometheus,” a Goethe text in which the distressed poet (the evening was an exegesis of self-pity) rails against Zeus. I would not have liked to have been that god facing Pape.

The second half was devoted to Schumann’s song cycle, “Dichterliebe” (“The Poet’s Love”), its 16 short poems by Heinrich Heine fashioned into a musical wonderland of shifting moods. The beautiful month of May, the month of love and lilies, is illusion and delusion, the consequences of which fill an unsettled half hour. In many songs, the singer trails off and the pianist moves into new realms, adding further context into the agony of love’s changeability.

Brian Zeger was the evening’s respectful, supportive accompanist, but Schumann asked for the perspective of an outsider, another personality. Zeger needn’t have worried about overpowering this bass, and I suspect a stronger approach from the piano would have made Pape’s gripping performance even bolder.

The bass needed coaxing for his two short encores, a Strauss song followed by “Some Enchanted Evening.” Though dressed for the part, Pape evidently doesn’t trot out “South Pacific” often. He charmed the audience by messing up a line and hitting himself, dummkopf, on the head. He probably needed a smoke.

-- Mark Swed


Opera star René Pape likes recitals’ intimacy