A recension of recent operatic happenings in Berlin being long overdue, it is only fair to start with one of this season’s top highlights, showcasing the German-Greek soprano Anja Harteros at her considerable best. In a microcosmos plagued with ever more complex casting puzzles, Harteros, who turns 39 this year, stands among the vocal wonders of our age. Hers is a singular career, though, one that largely unfolds under the radar, at a steady yet measured pace reminiscent of the bygone-era when extremely promising artists had a great deal less marketing and PR-related pressure bestowed upon them. The winner of  the 1999 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, she has managed to remain remarkably independant even following this major career breakthrough, limiting her appearances both to a number of top-league theaters and to a carefully-selected variety of roles to which her rich lirico spinto is admirably suited. There certainly is a case to be made for this prudent, slightly old-fashioned conception of a singer’s artistic and professional development. On the one hand, essaying roles at venues of lesser exposure before taking them to more prestigious stages typically allows for greater interpretive freedom and maturation potential; on the other, geographical proximity and a tendency to cap the number of concert engagements during a busy opera season make for a healthier, more-balanced lifestyle often craved by sought-after performers who would otherwise travel constantly – and often become prone to cancellation. The “downside” of such wise planning, if one might call it as such, is that it usually doesn’t come with the sort of mediatic attention a high-octane, label-supported career commands. Local followings and reputation, built and earned over time, prevail over faster worlwide fame.

Having garnered resounding successes in the German capital with her portrayals of Violetta, Mimi, Amelia Grimaldi and Desdemona during recent seasons, it is no wonder that her single operatic appearance here in nearly one year, a revival of Götz Friedrich’s somber yet dignified take on La traviata at the Deutsche Oper, quickly became the hottest ticket in town (I was blessed to be able to sneak in at the last minute – there really was not one ticket to be found). And with reason. While readers are at liberty to discuss to which diva-category Edita Gruberova belongs (if any!), Harteros, as she enters her first maturity phase, represents the perfect balance of “Kunst” and “Stimm” features, blended into one absolutely first-rate performer. Even if her Violetta has received comparatively little attention outside of the German-speaking world, it certainly is one of the most complete portrayals around, vocally and dramatically. The intrinsic qualities of her much-lauded Elsa, Contessa, or Elettra, each heard recently in Munich, New York or Salzburg, were again on display here, if only matched by her penetrating insight into the character’s multilayered psychology. A statuesque figure, she has an uncanny way of translating, in purely musical terms, each and every of her dramatic intentions: playful and defiant – yet classy – in Act 1, tragically resigned in Act 2, soul-wrenching in Act 3. It stands as testimony of her amazing resources that none of Verdi’s diversely taxing writing poses any form of threat to her. In an evening of highlights, the intelligence and nobility with which she imbued the second stanza of Dite alla giovine, as well as the extraordinary emotional refinement of her Addio del passato, remain with this listener as two examples of supreme artistry. A towering achievement, on the occasion of which she was aptly supported by the Germont of Kammersänger Marcus Brück (filling in on short-notice for an indisposed Simon Keenlyside) and the slightly-strained and consequently less compelling Alfredo of debutant Pavel Černoch.

Though she shies away from the liability of an exclusive recording contract, Harteros’ discography is by no means meager, and novelties appear with some regularity. Besides the Lohengrin mentioned above, opera lovers should not miss her Elettra in Idomeneo, filmed in Salzburg in 2006 and also released by Decca (a cherished personal memory). Lower-key labels Berlin Classics and Farao Classics have respectively released her latest recital disc, devoted to Strauss, Schumann, Wolf, Brahms and Haydn (a program which she performed splendidly in Salzburg last August), and two “lives” from the Bayerische Staatsoper, an Alcina and a Traviata from 2004-2005. The reigning Contessa Almaviva and Donna Anna of her generation, both of which she now performs sporadically, she debuts the Trovatore Leonora this week in Köln, a role she is slated to bring to the Metropolitan in 2012-2013. Repertoire-wise, this surely is a direction to which the darkening of her complexly-colored timbre, the length and breadth of her voice, as well as her ever-clever artistic appetite have been pointing for a little while. Already a fêted Arabella and soon-to-be Marschallin, her first Ariadne shouldn’t be very far ahead – as for Verdi, we might be in for a surprising development.

We’ll have to wait another couple of weeks before the three main Berlin opera companies announce their plans for next season. Hopefully her local calendar will include more than a handful of sold-out dates.

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