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Posts Tagged ‘Verdi’

Who among opera buffs have not seen the old videos from the NHK Hall with Japanese subtitles and Mario del Monaco, Giulietta Simionato et al indulging in a plethora of stock gestures surrounded by merely functional sets? I have certainly seen my share of such black and white movies, but never thought I would see one of them live – in something very close to sepia.

The Bunka Kaikan Concert Hall itself is a time tunnel – Kunyo Mayekawa’s 1961 building has an outdated charm with its hallmark wood decoration on the auditorium’s side walls that almost makes you believe that Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi are going to be your Violetta and Alfredo. However, my ticket offered me instead Daniela Bruera and Stefano Secco for this evening’s La Traviata. 

 The absence of colours other than variations of brown in the sets, the repeated use of lace curtains to hide the change in scenic elements upstage, the oversentimentalized approach of Beppe de Tomasi’s production (refurbished by Norio Baba) and a stage direction that consisted basically on indicating entrances and exits – all that could be a cherishable visit to the golden age if there were a concept behind it. And a key element of it would have to be the larger-than-life stage charisma singers of that generation used to exude. I do not want to fault the group of talented singers assembled here – it is the director’s responsibility to drench the cast in a stylistic concept. That did not happen here. When you have a singer frozen in the middle of a gesture in the end of an act waiting for the lights to fade, it is very clear that something is really wrong in the larger picture.

I have known Daniela Bruera’s previously as Despina in Barenboim’s video of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte from the Staatsoper unten der Linden and my first impression tonight was indeed that Violetta was quite a stretch for her. Her basic tone has this quicksilvery sweetness of a soprano taylor-made for the -ina roles, but Bruera is a singer capable of the necessary morbidezza in the lyric moments. She does sound stressed in more exposed passages, when diction and pitch also have its dubious patches, but she can gather her resources to pierce through the orchestra when this is necessary. She is a cunning singer and knows where her strengths lie – she is unfazed by the coloratura demands, can float soaring high mezza voce and produce beautiful legato phrasing when not taxed by the writing. However, what makes her Violetta a praiseworthy creation is the aura of naiveté and tenderness that makes sense into this story of a fallen-woman-turned-into-angel.

Violetta is a character that only makes sense if you understand her as someone whose lifetime as an outcast has developed a strong desire for approval, what she finally finds not in Alfredo, but in his father – she is ultimately a fatherless girl who wants someone to say she has done it right in the end of the day. This vulnerability, this willingness to please (who has taken Violetta to the life of a courtesan) is exactly what Bruera’s pretty but not patrician soprano was able to portray.  Her touching Addio del passato was definitely the highlight of the whole evening.

Stefano Secco’s bright easy tenor has its overly open moments but he is a likeable Alfredo who is not afraid of pulling back to softer dynamics and of colouring the text. He was particularly effective in the end of Act II, when he portrayed his character’s regret for his rash behaviour to perfection. A colourless interpolated high c following a series of unsung phrases in O mio rimorso may be overlooked considered this singer’s achievements in this performance.

Although Masato Makino seemed not to be in his best shape (his low register became quite wayward right in the moment of his big aria (here performed with the complete cabaletta), his was the most immediately impressive voice tonight: a pleasant large firm-toned baritone, a bit hard in the upper reaches. He has feeling for Verdian phrasing and is particularly musicianly too. Germont, père, is not the most eventful of roles and I would have to hear him more before I say that he seems to be a valuable Verdi baritone.

Conductor’s Giuliano Carella’s hard-driven performance suggested a Toscaninian inspiration, what placed a strong demand on his orchestra, which acquitted itself really commendably, especially in fast divisions. If Carella showed mastery in the art of giving a dramatic purpose to his phrasing, especially in what regards recitative accompaniment, I would say he failed into recognizing that some passages were crying for a moment to breathe and achieve the right effect, such as the big concertato in the end of act II. Also, his rhythmic straightjacket paired with the absence of really full-toned strings led him to the trap of making some passages sound like marching band-music.

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The real Princesa de Eboli

The actual Princesa de Eboli

 

 

Is there any role so schyzophrenic as the Princess Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo? Some roles have ambiguous tessitura, but the role of Eboli seems to require a different singer for each number in which she appears in the score. This should not be seen as a novelty in Verdian writing – in La Traviata, for example, we can understand the dramatic development of the role of Violetta exclusively through the kind of writing assigned to the role – from coquetry and high coloratura in act I to disillusion and almost lirico spinto singing in the end. We could say something similar happens in Rigoletto – the Gilda who sings Caro Nome is no longer the Gilda who sings Tutte le feste. However, for both Violetta and Gilda, the libretto offers plenty of information to explain what kind of dramatic development is going on. I don’t believe this is the case in Don Carlo.

We first see Eboli as an elegant noblewoman in the King of Spain’s court. Although everybody is really circumspect during the whole opera, Eboli seems to be having the time of her life and, considering she has been the King’s mistress, it is rather bold of her to sing a song about a king’s indiscretion. The song has also this distinctive moorish flavour and the corresponding serpentine coloratura as illustration. It is not the kind of aria you can smear a run or two and get away with it – it is all terribly exposed and catalogues a series of difficulties in both extreme ends of the range. In the next minute, Eboli is in the middle of one of those Verdian hallmark ensembles in which characters express contrasting feelings. For her part, she expresses nothing but elegant small talk. We won’t see Eboli again until the next act – here she is all anticipation for her rendez-vous with her beloved, the Infante. The duet reserves no surprises in terms of writing until the woman realizes that Don Carlos only woos her the way she always dreamed of because he mistakes her for the one he really loves, the Queen. From that moment on, she still trills, but also dives into chest voice and launches acuti as if Azucena has strayed from Il Trovatore.  We’ll see Eboli again only once more – she has wrongly denounced the Queen and Carlos to the King and witnesses the results of her misdeed as her victim is being accused by her husband. In the opera’s most famous ensemble (Ah, sii maledetto sospetto fatale), she sings almost contralto-ish low-lying phrases only to shift into her final ordeal – the horribly difficult aria O don fatale. Saying that the aria is too high for a mezzo-soprano and too heavy for a soprano is oversimplifying the problem. As the tradition for operatic portrayal of women in the middle of a nervous breakdown, the tessitura abounds in large intervals and register shifts only to settle into a low-lying expressive cantabile and then breaking into in almost Rossinian overwrought stretta. 

Reading between the lines here is certainly a challenge to any singer.  To start with, I really cannot see the point of the lightness in the Veil Song unless if it is “staged”. Let’s say that Eboli is jealous for all the attention the young Queen just arrived from France has stirred around her. The Spanish princess is a beautiful and intelligent woman and probably used to be the sensation of the court – the former queen was largely absent as well. One could reckon that the arrival of Elisabeth must have shaken her pride. One could say that she performs her number, with its elaborate ornamentation, to upstage the modest and inexperienced Queen – therefore the theme of the song. Elisabeth’s mother must have suffered something similar in Paris with Diane de Poitiers. Many a dramatic mezzo-soprano seems a bit tense having to cope with the filigree writing – and it would probably be an interesting idea to use this to show that underneath the formidability, Eboli is a bit insecure about her future in the court. I must say that, although Tatiana Troyanos had no problem whatsoever with the song, on this video excerpt from a performance at the Met, she has this stiff and overproud attitude that really makes sense if you understand the Veil Song as something like “marking the territory”. The small talk with the Marquis de Posa after that would be something like checking the effect of her grand entrance on a rival, walking in circles around her prey, talking nonsense, while taking furtive glances as Elisabeth reads the letter Posa had just delivered to her.

The deleted duet between Elisabeth and Eboli in the beginning of act II is a great loss to the understanding of the plot. The Queen is too tired to attend a party in her honour and asks Eboli to use her mask and play her part. That is the reason why Carlos is going to fall into the trap of taking her for the Queen. But before that, Eboli receives the mask and is all excitement for playing the role of the Queen for one night plus finally being in the arms of the man she loves. The musical material of the Veil songs is brought back along with the florid writing. The scene shows Eboli as a lighter character than we are used to see – there is something young and merry about her infatuation with Carlos – and the sudden shock into reality seems more violent. Probably, allowing herself to this teenager-like excitement only to be exposed back as a courtesan is what triggers the hysterical state-of-mind that leads her to the series of actions that culminate with O Don Fatale, an aria that again only makes theatrical sense as a fit of hysteria. During this aria, she a) reproaches God for cursing her with the vile gift of beauty, b) sanctifies the Queen with adoration and c) decides to atone for her actions by saving the Prince d) before she enters a convent for life. If one has seen those sinners-turned-into-religious on public TV, one knows exactly how over-the-top those conversions can be. The great test for the singer is conveying the mystical exaltation without succumbing to the frenzy, especially at the very end, when many an Eboli get nervous and start to chop or to delete entire phrases altogether.

Now the 1,000,000-dollar question – is there a perfect Eboli? Considering the ambiguous nature of the role, one is tempted to say that singers with an ambiguous voice would be the best idea.  Shirley Verrett, for many, is the dictionary example of someone who coped with both the flexibility and the dramatic writing adeptly. I cannot disagree with that opinion but, in the individual arias, for example, I also find Troyanos really compelling in the Veil Song and I cannot be indifferent either to the surprisingly intelligent and feminine performance of Régine Crespin in O don fatale (a studio recording) – for once someone who curses her beauty and sounds like a beautiful woman at the same time!

Finally, I must mention an interesting essay, in which Eboli’s vocalità is analyzed. It mentions that the first Eboli, Pauline Gueymard-Lauters, also happened to be the first Paris Leonora (in Il Trovatore). She counted in her repertory roles like Donna Anna (!) and Fidès (!!?) in Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète. As the author explains, Verdi even transposed the Veil Song up to accommodate her. Curiously, the first Italian Eboli, Giuseppina Pasqua also sang opposite roles in range such as Oscar (Un Ballo in Maschera) and Mistress Quickly in Falstaff. I can only imagine that those were mezzos with impressive upper extensions who sang those high roles in their early days. In our times, the only singer I can think of who could do something like that would have been Marilyn Horne – who curiously left no complete recording of this role…

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I have probably written something about that in the old blog – the fact is I have an unhealthy interest in Verdi/Puccini (and other verismo composers) recordings “in deutscher Sprache gesungen”. Many performances by wonderful underrecorded singers are available only in German versions and, if Irmgard Seefried was right to say the right way to sing anything it is to sing as if it were Mozart, then you could expect some unusually musicianly recordings.  The truth is less charming than that – sometimes, the text becomes obtrusive in German, the concept of “bleeding chunks” is crudely observed in the highlights available (?) in the catalogue and there is more than a splash of operetta in the approach of some singers. That said, I stick to the concept that hidden treasures abound. I am sure I have written something about Pilar Lorengar’s lovely Mimì,  Anja Silja’s chilling Tosca or Grace Bumbry’s passionate Leonora (as a matter of fact, this Leonora di Vargas is probably the best I have ever heard, regardless of the language).

My investigations has now taken me to a truly unusual Don Carlos. Giuseppe Patanè conducts the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra adeptly but without much imagination and EMI could have provided richer orchestral perspective. In these highlights, Edda Moser is reduced to her big aria – very correctly sung but, as far as German sopranos go, Gundula Janowitz (in Italian) is far more passionate. Nicolai Gedda is a rather explosive and whiny Carlos (I might be mistaken, but I don’t think he sang this role live) and Kurt Moll’s Ella giammai m’amò is a bit square. When it comes to Fischer-Dieskau’s Posa,  if you think he sounds too intellectual in Italian, you should sample his phraseology in German! The shining feature here is definitely Brigitte Fassbaender’s Eboli. It is indeed a pity she has not tried the Veil Song – I think she would acquit herself more than honourably there.  She offers a fabulous trill in the garden scene and sings a truly impressive O don fatale (I intend to write further about that impossible aria in another post) – she darts her top notes with impressive confidence, plunges into her low register with panache and elegance and has reserves of attitude. It is true, though,  that the German text has more “breathing points”, especially in the stretta. I don’t know how she would sound live in this role – but this recording is really cherishable.

The second part of my Fehrdian adventure is a  Aida – dully conducted by Argeo Quadri and poorly recorded by Deutsche Grammophon (orchestra on the dim side and singers closely recorded). It enshrines the “Verdi-auf-Deutsch”-diva Gloria Davy in the title role.  She is an American soprano spinto with a truly rich sound perfectly focused from bottom to top.  The close recording prevents her from offering pianissimo of any kind, but this is a thoroughly sung account of a very difficult role. One might think she lacks a more exquisite tone or a bit imagination, yet she is realiable in every aspect. I remember a broadcast (or something like that) from a live performance from Berlin (also in German – with Christa Ludwig and Jesse Thomas – if my memory does not fail me, Wieland Wagner was the stage director) in which she fares far better and sings an exquisite closing scene. Here she is partnered by Sandor Konya. He might have his lachrymose moments and is a bit cautious in one or two tricky passages. However, he is in truly healthy voice. There is a touch of wooliness in Hans Hotter’s Amonasro. That said, he handles the German text so musicianly that you cannot help admiring his work here. Finally, there is Cvetka Ahlin’s svelte Amneris. You might miss more impact and glamour, but it is dramatically interesting to have someone more formidable as Aida for a while. Generally, one keeps wondering why Radamès trades a sexy mezzo for a stressed soprano…

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