WHEN the Bratislava-born soprano Lucia Popp passed away in 1993, the opera world mourned a performer who had brought emotional depth and perspective to music. She had come close to perfecting the role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, created a sensation as Sophie in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, and charmed audiences with her acclaimed Lieder recitals. Amazing when one considers she had once studied medicine and began her artistic career as an actress.
Popp's path to stardom commenced in 1962, when she made her debut as the Queen of the Night at the National Theatre in Bratislava. The following year, the legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan hired her to perform with the Vienna Opera, where she would have many of her greatest successes. She continued on to Covent Garden in London, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and La Scala in Milan, where, in 1976, she appeared as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, under the baton of Carlos Kleiber. Audiences everywhere were enchanted by the silken clarity of her voice that made her a favourite in Mozart and Strauss roles.
Over the next several years, Popp widened her repertoire with guest appearances at small theatres, where she could learn new roles and perform them in new productions, and with recordings, which she made with some of music's greatest conductors. Her voice's warm, tonal colours shone through, and the recordings won numerous prestigious awards, including the Silver Rose from the Vienna Philharmonic.
Popp was also an incomparably communicative recitalist. According to the Daily Telegraph, her interpretations of Schubert Lieder were "imbued with a degree of perfection that had only been realised by the great performers of the past". This level of artistry eventually earned her the title of Kammersängerin, the highest honour Austria can bestow upon a singer.
Popp's health faltered prematurely and, in November 1993, she succumbed to cancer. She was just 54. But her spirit and artistry live on in the music she loved most.
It is on that note that the Homage to Lucia Popp Festival is organised each year to perform works that defined her career. Last weekend, its 10th anniversary, featured an all-Mozart programme performed by the Cappella Istropolitana Orchestra and Lucia Popp Festival Choir. The Avon Foundation, a leader in the battle against breast cancer, sponsored the event.
The evening at the Slovak Philharmonic in Bratislava began with the overture to the opera Le Nozze di Figaro. Conductor Kaspar Zehnder stood firm as he used forceful, evocative gestures to bring out deeper melodies and keep the orchestra focused and energised.
This concentration continued into the Symphony in g-minor, No. 40, during which the orchestra showed great attentiveness to tempo and dynamic change. The brass section was a bit muted during the third movement, but the orchestra recovered in the fourth, in which the wind section sailed nimbly between notes.
The final work of the evening was Mozart's Requiem. Composed during the final weeks of Mozart's life, it is a work of haunting beauty that combines dark harmonies with sublime melodies and unparalleled structures. It is both terrifying and glorious.
But the Lucia Popp Festival Choir lacked the motivation necessary to express this contrast. Though the tenor and soprano section were impressive for their power and softness of tone, the bass section was unable to produce the deep, imposing sound needed on lower notes, and lost even more depth on higher notes. This created an imbalance that misrepresented the music and never fully illustrated its defining features.
Zehnder's preference for swift tempi worked well during the Rex tremendae, but took away from the Lacrimosa, which was sped through with disregard for its tear-like musical figures, building tension, and heartbreaking longing.
Dramatic effect was also absent among the soloists. In the Recordare, the bass and tenor soloists should appear to compete for the soprano, but neither tenor soloist Marius Vlad Budoiu nor bass soloist Gustáv Beláček added any excitement, so the moment fell flat. Not even soprano soloist Simona Houda-Saturová, who showed a clarity and lightness that would have made Popp proud, was able to save it.
The whole atmosphere of the Homage to Lucia Popp Festival was much more that of a light-hearted social gathering, receptive to scenes from comic Mozart operas or light Strauss duets, rather than the more serious, sombre tone of the chosen repertoire.
22. Nov 2004 at 0:00 | Stefan M Hogan