In 2006 my wife Lilamani and I had the unforgettable good fortune to experience Danielle de Niese’s dazzling performance in UK as Cleopatra in the Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), directed by David McVicar. That was the one that catapulted Danielle to stardom aged 26. She went on to perform [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Under the spell of a diva

Handel to Broadway – Terry Benson reviews Danielle de Niese’s Concert debut in Asia

In 2006 my wife Lilamani and I had the unforgettable good fortune to experience Danielle de Niese’s dazzling performance in UK as Cleopatra in the Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar), directed by David McVicar.

That was the one that catapulted Danielle to stardom aged 26. She went on to perform as Cleopatra for an unprecedented three seasons in five years at Glyndebourne, also in the same production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2007, and in a different production at the New York Met also in 2007. At Glyndebourne she looked ravishing and had a different outfit for each scene which must have meant at least six changes, including a bikini top encrusted with diamonds. Her bright, silvery-toned lyric soprano coped admirably with the demands of the part. In one scene, Da tempeste, she astonishingly danced and acted out a vigorous Bollywood-style routine seemingly forever, whilst simultaneously singing on and on in joy and hope of victory. How could she possibly have the breath to do all that together, and so well? The audience held their breath and then went wild …and not just the men!

Taking a bow: Danielle with members of the Chamber Music Society of Sri Lanka. Pic by M. Pushpa Kumara

So we were full of expectation for Danielle’s Asia debut recital at Colombo’s Cinnamon Grand Ballroom on November 14. What an evening, what a festive event it proved to be, organised flawlessly by impresario Mano Chanmugam whose birthday it was, and attended by 750 or so of the Who’s Who of Colombo music lovers who had all come to experience first hand the singing voice, the acting ability and the star personality of Danielle de Niese, as she approaches the prime of her artistic life.

The Mano Chanmugam Music Foundation is much to be thanked and congratulated for arranging Danielle’s Asia debut concert as their first major event. The performance was partly designed to help establish the Foundation and its aims to raise much needed funds, to foster Western music in Sri Lanka, to help talented young musicians with their education costs, and to organize regular concerts exposing young talent, enabling them finally to realize their goals. Several of these aims were promoted through the concert.

Still only 33, Danielle’s lyric soprano voice is becoming more substantial. Lyric has a specific meaning ‘somewhere between light and heavy vocal weight, capable of sustaining long flowing lines’(ODM). She feels her voice is developing in that direction, helped no doubt by her studies with the famed New Zealand soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and with Gerald Martin Moore, the acclaimed teacher of Renee Fleming and many other opera stars. By composer, she is now moving from the baroque music of Monteverdi and Handel via Mozart to the bel canto operas of Donizetti.

The evening’s programme progressed delightfully through Danielle’s current opera composers; followed by Gershwin and Cole Porter show songs; then Beecham lollipop pieces; and ending with her charming, personal choice of encores.

The celebratory “Let the Bright Seraphim” by Handel began the concert. As Rajeev Aloysius said in his programme notes, “The excitement of a solo trumpet sparring with a brilliant coloratura soprano line makes this an ideal curtain opener”. The result was truly spine-tingling. Both Danielle and Naveen Fernando, the piccolo trumpet player, gave splendid performances and I commend Naveen for his courage as well as his musicality “sparring” with the bright-voiced Danielle in the very first work of the concert. They were idiomatically accompanied here and in other works by the Ensemble of The Chamber Music Society of Colombo led by their concertmaster Lakshman Joseph de Saram,

Moving on, I surrendered totally to Danielle in her performance of Handel’s Lascia chio pianga (Let me weep): so very moving was her singing.

The Renaissance songs of Dowland were a discovery – “Come again: sweet love doth now invite” and “What if I never speed”. These romantic-erotic works were beautifully sung by Danielle with crystal articulation and a very suitable youthful eagerness appealing to many in the audience, judging by their applause. Jude Peiris accompanied her on the guitar.

Danielle completed her classical half in triumph, surmounting the technical difficulties of Mozart’s “Exsultate, jubilate” motet with superbly accurate coloratura lines- it was written originally for a famous male castrato – and ending, with a dazzling, exultant account of the “Alleluia”. She was accompanied again very professionally by the Ensemble of the Chamber Music Society of Colombo.

Throughout the concert Danielle was restricted in her acting and movement by the limited space of the platform stage at the ballroom. In compensation, she communicated emotion and meaning with astonishing facial and eye mobility, varied expressions, head movements and mime, supported by eloquent hand and arm gestures. With her these expressions seem to flow quite naturally from within: responding to the music, words and situations, and changing expression at the blink of an eye. This helps her hold her audience spellbound in rapt admiration.

During the first half, Danielle wore a very elegant near-black, backless dress. And for the second half, a blue sequined, figure-hugging, ‘mermaid’ gown. … Now it was Show Time! And time to be bowled over by Broadway and a great entertainer.

In quick succession, Danielle gave us stunning, definitive interpretations of six of the most famous songs written for American shows or films by Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Whiting superbly accompanied on two pianos by Soundarie David Rodrigo and Eshantha Peiris – except for “I Hate Men” when as part of the fun Eshantha was temporarily banished from the stage! The other songs were “Summertime”, “Let’s call the whole thing off “, “You’re just too marvellous for words”, ’I get a kick out of you”and “I got rhythm” which all brought roars of delight from the audience as she sang, acted and lived the songs with all stops pulled out.

Danielle is a consummate entertainer.  Whether it’s interpreting each piece with such artistry and feeling and passion, whether it’s being inclusive and taking bows with her accompanists, whether it’s turning some stage gaffe into a joke, or being funny, or sunny, or melancholy, whether it’s paying tribute to her mentors and family, or felicitating Mano Chanmugam, she rises to each moment with such naturalness, such artless sincerity and sensitive timing! It’s outside the realm of conventional stagecraft.  It’s just Danielle, and it’s a God given gift, but honed and perfected by a near lifetime of practice and professional dedication to improvement.

Of the last three items on the programme Delibes’ “Les Filles de Cadix” (The Girls of Cadiz) is a catchy art song/bolero reminiscent of Bizet’s “Carmen”. One important difference being, Danielle said, that “Carmen” was written for a mezzo whereas “ Les Filles…”is for a soprano! She sang it with infectious Spanish rhythms and panache accompanied by Soundarie.

At this point, I must pay tribute to the gifted piano accompanists. With just two days between the first rehearsal and concert they absorbed Danielle’s interpretations of ten songs, and were accurate, fully sensitive and supportive to her on the day. I rate Soundarie and Eshantha both as first class voice accompanists. As well of course as performers.

Danielle completed her highly memorable programme with two lollipop arias. An intensely passionate performance of Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” (O my beloved Father). And a virtuoso rendition of “Quel guardo il cavaliere” “How to win a man” from Donizetti’s comic masterpiece Don Pasquale which she is to sing at Glyndebourne Opera next summer.

But, then there were encores…

Danielle has had immense support from her Sri Lanka-born parents, her mother Beverly and father Chris, first as a gifted child and then in her artistic and career development. For this, the family moved from Australia to the entertainment capital Los Angeles where Danielle won a TV Emmy aged 16. Then they moved to New Jersey to be close to the New York classical scene and good teachers. She became the youngest ever singer in the Young Artists Studio at the Metropolitan Opera, where she debuted aged 19. Beverly is her first and present music teacher, and with Chris they are her mentors. They attend all her debut performances.

So in Sri Lanka for the first time, it was entirely natural that Danielle should dedicate encores to her family members. She sang “Danny Boy” to her mother Beverly and “I’ll be seeing you” to her grandmother, both in an intense, legato half voice, full of emotion, which was very moving.

The finale was Franz Lehar’s romantic, sensual song “Meine Lippen Sie Kussen So Heiss”.”(My Lips give So Fiery a Kiss)”of 1934. This encore was, of course, for the ‘birthday boy’ Mano Chanmugam who had initiated and organised Danielle’s debut concert over more than a year. Events moved imperceptibly into speeches, a cake and celebrations, with Danielle of course in charge adding fun, joy and style to every moment. An evening truly to remember!

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