(above: publicity from Vivimilano for Magdalena Kožená's Scala recital)
Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená gave a resoundingly lukewarm recital in front of a la Scala crowd so out-of-touch with reality that when Scala GM Stephane Lissner took the stage at the beginning of the performance and announced that Giuseppe Di Stefano had passed away earlier today, there was a loud collective gasp and shocked stirrings from every level. Lissner spoke about the legacy of Di Stefano, and then called for a moment of silence, to which the audience rose humbly. Although Scala was crowded enough, the central Palco Reale was completely vacant and neither film crews nor photographers were anywhere in sight.
Kožená took the stage with pianist Malcolm Martineau. She may be counted among the recent "with child" singers that we've been sheltering lately, as homegirl looks about 4 months preggers. Her blond hair was up in a twist with some Nellie Oleson curls falling forward. Her dress was very pea-in-a-pod inspired: a formless blood-red layered column of 9 ruffled pleats split in the middle (yes, I counted) finishing in a high empire waist of two bikini cups holding her assets in. When she walked on and off stage, the pleated ruffles split apart gently, and she's either painfully bloated with gas, or her and Rattle's first son Jonas will soon have a playmate. Her shoes were fierce black stilettos, pushing her tall frame to almost towering. Her dress was so blood red, that it actually brought out every hint of green undertone within her skin, and she looked rather pallid and flat on stage.
After Lissner's eulogy, there was another announcement that the Debussy, Mahler, Dvorak, Poulenc recital order would be slightly modified.
Her Dvorak was overall proficient, without too much strain, but with an icy wash and detachment to her color. She was cold as ice, never sweaty, but never broke out of her minimal posturing. And that in a nutshell is the parting note of the recital... Kožená didn't bring a hint of flirtatiousness, playfulness or connection to the recital performance. Even the grounded and serious Devia and Meier, in recital, made attempts at breaking the ice, and we've even witnessed fallen-from-grace divas like Gheorghiu charm the pants off the crowds. But Kožená remained aloof, while the warmest part of her presence was her wardrobe. Her Mahler Rückertlieder was noteworthy, but it was her Debussy Chansons de Bilitis and Trois ballades de François Villon that were the sensational highlights of the evening (Poulenc's Fiançailles pour rire, selection from Quatre chansons pour enfant, and Les Chemins de l’amour) also wasn't too shabby. Her voice, when she was required to hit the upper registers, reached surprisingly delicate warmth, but those moments were too few and far in between. She seizes-up alone on stage, and the result is an icy and harsh vocal quality. The Dvórak instead was horribly boring and uncharismatic. Ew.
She concluded the evening with four bis: Henri Duparc's Chanson Triste was a nice standout from her flat Strauss selection. And it was only after her Cherubino's Voi Che Sapete that the Scala audience finally gifted her with a nice hit of brava, throwing the traditional Italian crowds a much desired familiar bone.
When Kožená has to embrace a character onstage such as Cherubino or Dorabella or Zerlina, she is magnetic, and easily outshines her counterparts on stage. She channels each role and pwns it, appealing as an actress, and spinning desirable vocal control. Her pathos and charisma are defined by the studied libretti. Adversely, when she sings alone on the stage in recital, she cannot morph into any alternative roles, and she lacks the spark to make it worthwhile. Although I’ll follow Kožená to the end of her performance days (girlcrush on the half Miranda Richardson/half Uma Thurman statuesque beauty), I’ll prolly skip the next solo recital and catch her instead in scena where there's more to inflate her flatness.