That Waltraud Meier has been one of the reigning singing-actors of the last thirty years is indisputable. Tackling some of the most demanding roles in the operatic repertoire she first came to prominence as Kundry in the 1983 staging of Parsifal at Bayreuth, going on to be the leading exponent of the role, reprising it in all the major opera houses of the world. In the ‘90s she added Isolde and Sieglinde to her repertoire, and was pretty much untouchable as both. Now, as she approaches her 60th birthday, she is saying farewell to all three ladies. Her final Isoldes were in Munich last year, and her appearances as Kundry in Berlin around Easter will reportedly be her last as Wagner’s complex anti-heroine, which we will be there to report on.
Her London appearances have been all too rare; following a sensational Kundry at the Royal Opera in 1988, she didn’t return (following a spat with the then opera director Nicholas Payne) until 2003 when she tore the place down as Ortrud in Lohengrin. And apart from a couple of Isoldes, that’s been it, which is why the Wigmore Hall was packed for her recital this week.
Of course, the operatic stage and the recital platform couldn’t be more different. The latter offers nowhere to hide; you can be the most amazing stage animal, but if you don’t have the vocal allure, and a rock-solid technique your shortcomings are mercilessly exposed, and whilst there were glimmers of Meier’s former vocal prowess throughout this evening of Mahler and Wagner, tuning often went awry, and there were moments when you sensed that her voice was resolutely refusing to do what she was asking of it.
Opening with Kindertotenlieder was a bold step, and one that unfortunately didn’t pay off. True, Meier was magnetic on the platform and you couldn’t take your eyes off her but the lack of tonal warmth made for a particularly bumpy ride through the five songs. Luckily things improved with an impassioned performance of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, where everything – intonation, colouring and the pointing of the words were testament to her lifelong affinity with the German composer’s works.
In three songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Meier excelled at the bitter irony of ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’, which was the most successful form this group. To finish she brought much warmth and clarity to Five Ruckert Lieder but it was her final encore, Erlkonig, that really set the pulses racing as she conjured up the three characters faultlessly. Throughout Joseph Breinl was an alert and highly sensitive accompanist.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.