ADAM WASSERMAN salutes the distinguished achievement of the OPERA NEWS Awards winner.
Photographed by Michal Daniel as Orfeo in the Minnesota Opera production of Orfeo ed Euridice, 2010
© Michal Daniel 2013
When David Daniels took the stage in Glimmerglass Opera's 1995 production of Tamerlano and unleashed a bravura performance of "A dispetto d'un volto ingrato" — flawlessly executing marathon runs of sixteenth notes in single breaths and showing off a perfectly equalized, honeyed voice across his entire countertenor range — a tectonic shift occurred. Prior to Daniels, the male falsetto seemed a malnourished, sickly-sweet instrument, as notable for its musical inflexibility as for its dramatic unsuitability in staged opera. But here was an artist who, instead of resorting to wan vocal compromises in an attempt to imitate the effect of the castratos, seemed to offer a quantum leap forward: not only could the primo uomo roles written by Handel, Vivaldi, Gluck and Monteverdi be performed beautifully by a man in a colorful, vibrant voice, without transposition, but modern audiences could witness a kind of emotional honesty and presence of which the composers themselves could only have dreamed.
Without great singing actors, opera often seems less a living art than an exercise in historical reenactment — a groping, awkward reach back into the past in search of authenticity at the expense of a pulse. Daniels has the uncanny ability to bridge the gap and make us believe that the composer's note barely had time to dry on the page before it came forth from his mouth. It seems to me that the highest compliment one can pay Daniels — now in the third decade of an unprecedented career in opera — is that the music he sings sounds both strikingly contemporary and as though it were written precisely for his voice. If it's difficult to recall the role that countertenors played in the opera world before the early '90s, when Daniels — a former tenor — began singing with what he once called his "other voice," it's probably because he has done more than any other singer to ingratiate the sound to audiences.
It's a testament to Daniels's exceptional artistry that what has come to be cherished about the individual roles comprising his repertoire now seems inextricable from what he brings to them as a performer. I can still recall the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Rodelinda in 2004. The opera's climax arrived with Daniels's thrilling rendition of Bertarido's "Vivi, tiranno," which emanated less from the singer's throat than from a place of incontrovertible moral authority; every cascading figuration and ornament seemed a dagger of virtuous outrage, thrown in the service of a man fighting to safeguard his kin and kingdom. Though I didn't hear it live, Daniels's 1999 Met debut as Sesto opposite the Cornelia of Stephanie Blythe stands as a storied performance, exemplifying how two extraordinary colleagues can merge their voices and produce something greater than the sum of its parts. Likewise, make a return visit to the DVD of Peter Sellars's 1996 Glyndebourne Theodora and witness Daniels's devout performance of "The raptur'd soul defies the sword" as an unsettling hymn to religious martyrdom. It's a performance of such unerring musical and dramatic calculation that to excise a second of it would throw the entire thing off kilter. The most affecting performance in my memory, though, remains Daniels's star turn in the Met's Mark Morris production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Daniels's guitar-wielding hero was all the more effective for the way he stood practically motionless onstage and delivered "Che farò senza Euridice?" in unbroken streams of urgent, elegiac lyricism, seemingly enshrined in his own grief.
If Daniels had limited his professional efforts to Baroque music, he would surely have continued to draw acclaim from critics and audiences alike. But time and time again he has shown himself to be as versatile and intrepid as he is attentive to the performance practices of earlier epochs; listening to the quality of his tone, it makes perfect sense that Daniels — the child of two voice teachers — should have idolized singers of unimpeachable technical security such as Marilyn Horne. Yet I'm hard pressed to think of another singer so attuned to the specifics of Baroque music whose voice has translated so easily into other styles. Take, for example, Serenade, Daniels's excellent 2000 disc with Martin Katz. Daniels may have been the first countertenor brave enough to record "Der Tod und das Mädchen," but what's surprising is how clearly the performance hinges on his humane, Bergmanesque interpretation of death. When Daniels, ever sensitive to the weight of words, later recalls the "mondlicht" in "Nacht und Träume," he delivers a tone bathed in precisely that. Similarly, Daniels's Oberon, as documented on DVD in Robert Carsen's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, features a performance of "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows" that is so perfect in its Shakespearean grace, and fits so neatly into Britten's moonlit sound-world, that it could only have emerged from a ghostly, surreal dream.
Looking back at Daniels's earliest press coverage, one gets the sense that no one has been more amazed by the trajectory of his success than the singer himself. "One of my top goals is that I would like people to listen to David Daniels as a musician and an artist, not so much as a countertenor," Daniels told OPERA NEWS in 1996. It's safe to say that Daniels's career as a musical token ended some time ago. Fortunately for us, he happens to be a musician and artist of a caliber that ensures we'll be listening to him for some time to come.
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.