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Homecoming

Soprano Angela Denoke returns to the Salzburg Festival this season as Montezuma in Die Eroberung von Mexico. FRED COHN reports.

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As the Marschallin at the Met, 2005
© Beth Bergman 2015

Angela Denoke is most definitely not a “stimm diva” but a “kunst diva” — a soprano who makes her mark through artistry rather than sheer vocal prowess. But even if her voice has a tendency toward astringency, it’s an exciting instrument to hear, brilliantly projected and completely responsive to the singer’s considerable musical intelligence. Her vocal attack is razor-sharp, and every phrase she produces is shaped to a specific musical purpose. Still, watching and listening to her, one is hardly aware of the voice as such but fully conscious of the theatrical effect it creates. “I’m interested in the playing of a role, not just the singing,” she says. 

This summer, she returns to the Salzburg Festival as Montezuma in Wolfgang Rihm’s 1991 Eroberung von Mexico (The Conquest of Mexico), an engagement that marks a return to the beginning of her career. She initially played the role back in 1993 in Ulm, in Die Eroberung’s second production, the year after its Hamburg premiere. Denoke’s Ulm stint was her first professional contract and Montezuma only her second assignment — after, of all things, Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow

A fantasia on the fateful encounter between Montezuma and Cortez, Die Eroberung veers toward abstraction: the Salzburg program note cautions that to consider it a “historical drama” would be “a profound mistake,” and Rihm himself described it as “an encounter with the Self.” The two leaders aren’t embodied just by the lead singers; instead each vocal line is augmented by two offstage voices, turning the figures into archetypes more than conventional operatic characters — which is why, when I ask Denoke, by phone, about Rihm’s reasons for making Montezuma a “trouser role,” she is quick to correct me: “It’s not a trouser role — it’s more complex. Even if I’m playing a man, I’m not totally a man. It’s more a higher way of thinking about these figures.” 

Although Denoke, now fifty-four, has not sung the work in more than two decades, it holds a special place in her affections. “I’ve forgotten a lot of it, but somehow parts of it are still in my brain,” she says. “The music is very clear and very singable — it’s beautiful music.” She welcomes the assignment for another reason, as well: it’s a chance to return to the Salzburg Festival, a venue that has served as a cornerstone of her career. She started there during Gerard Mortier’s tenure as artistic director, and she credits Mortier with launching her as a star. She had an audition for the First Lady in a 1997 Zauberflöte; instead, Mortier cast her that summer as Marie in Wozzeck (under Claudio Abbado) and at the same time offered her the title role in Kát’a Kabanová for the following year. “He was a very kind and interested person,” she says of Mortier. “If you were rehearsing a production, he was in the audience. He had a gift for bringing together people with whom he could work. It created a kind of family feeling.” 

That “family feeling” only intensified during the 1998 Kát’a Kabanová, in which American tenor David Kuebler played Boris. The final scene of the Christoph Marthaler production called for the lovers to stare into each other’s eyes for three long minutes. “Something clicked between us in that moment,” Denoke says. The two have been together ever since; they got married in 2006. 

Denoke has returned to the festival for Cherubini’s Médée (2000),the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro (2001), Die Tote Stadt (2004) and The Makropulos Case (2011). “It’s a very special place to work,” she says. “You’re in this sleepy, provincial town, where it’s raining a lot. Most of the singers and directors travel to Salzburg and live there only for this period. We end up spending a lot of our private time together, and normally that doesn’t happen. The resulting ensemble feeling bears fruit in the productions — it’s all about concentrated work.” 

As esoteric as it may be, Die Eroberung fits comfortably in the range of works Denoke tackles. She is a singer who often seems to gravitate to the outskirts of the repertoire: Janácˇek’s Kát’a, Jenu°fa and Emilia Marty; Berg’s Marie; Korngold’s Marietta/Marie, Gluck’s Alceste, the Daughter in Hindemith’s Cardillac. In the standard rep, in roles such as Salome, the Marschallin and Kundry, her approach is marked by a similar risk-taking spirit and unquestionable dramatic commitment. 

Denoke’s career has been based in Europe; American audiences have had only rare opportunities to encounter her in the flesh. But next season she brings her celebrated Marie to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Wozzeck.(New Yorkers got to see her searing assumption of the role at Avery Fisher Hall in 2012,in a semistaged concert version with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen.) Her only Met stint to date has been her Marschallin in a 2005 run of Rosenkavalier — a portrayal of extraordinary freshness. One was aware not of a prima donna making her mark in familiar territory but of the character herself: it seemed as if this Marschallin were breathing the air of her actual milieu. 

The spontaneity Denoke projects, she says, is no accident but the result of thorough preparation. “I’m a good musician — I’ve studied the piano since I was four,” she says. “I work hard on the music, which gives me the ability to forgetabout the music onstage, which is important — I can just doit. It gives me the freedom to act.” Another factor that keeps her performances so thoroughly in the moment is her responsiveness to her colleagues. In that Met Rosenkavalier, she shared the stage with Susan Graham, who brought noticeably different qualities to the role from those of Denoke’s previous Octavians. “I usually have shorter Octavians, so I develop a more motherly relationship” she explains. “Susan was an equal [in height], which worked especially well for me. You find your reactions based on her Octavian. When Octavian gets mad, you think, ‘How would you react as this woman, the Marschallin?’ It’s a matter of acting and reacting.”

This February in Stuttgart, she took on a new assignment, moving from the title role to Kostelnička in Jenůfa. “I could still sing Jenůfa, but it’s the right time for this,” she says. “You see productions where she’s very old, but she’s not that far from Jenůfa's age — maybe fifteen or twenty years older. In the important scene in Act II, where she’s talking to Steva, asking him to take Jenůfa and the kid back, it’s almost sexual music between them — not from Steva’s side, but from her side. This is a good part for me.” 

Denoke typically finds herself working in the kind of regie productions seldom staged in the U.S. She generally welcomes the opportunity but stresses that the work is a collaborative process. “If I have a feeling something’s not right, I have a discussion with the director and find a solution,” she says. The incendiary Calixto Bieito, preparing a 2006 Wozzeck, at Barcelona’s Liceu, asked Denoke to hurl a vase of flowers across the stage during the Bible scene, illustrating Marie’s rage at her “captive life” with Wozzeck. Instead, Denoke suggested that she tear up the pages of the Bible itself — and she prevailed. “If you have a good director, he’s interested,” she says.

Quite a few of Denoke’s key performances have been captured on DVD, a medium well suited to her histrionic gifts. Stephen Langridge’s 2014 Covent Garden Parsifal presents Kundry as a patient in a cancer ward; Denoke’s shockingly feral portrayal makes the pain seem real. In Marthaler’s 2011 Salzburg Makropulos Case, she is utterly unsentimental in her presentation of Emilia Marty’s chilly nature, yet the character is nonetheless deeply, pitiably human. Audiences — especially those of us with scant opportunities to see her perform live — can only be grateful that these portrayals have been captured on disc. But Denoke herself finds the process something of an encumbrance. “I wish I could be onstage and just sing for the audience,” she says. “But now you always have this mic. It starts in the dressing room, where people are fixing the microphone on your head, and then you always have to think about it. It takes a lot of extra work, which makes the real work a little harder.”

Given her rigorous work ethic, Denoke takes pains to build in periods of R&R. In fact, she avoided all staged opera for the second half of 2014, singing only an occasional concert. (She has put together a Kurt Weill recital, “Two Lives to Live,” which she has performed in Barcelona, Berlin and elsewhere.) She spends her down time in the house she and Kuebler share outside of Hamburg, dedicating herself to leisure — gardening, biking, golfing.

“I like to be onstage,” she says. “Going into a character, finding a way to feel like this person, to think like this person — to be able to do this is a gift. But in order to have joy and fun in the profession, you need time to recover. If I’m doing it just because I have to, that’s not good. I need my private life in order to have a good time in the theater.” spacer 

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