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Music lounge (40)

Most sopranos sing Ach, ich fühl’s from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte as a concert aria – and it makes sense, if you are a lyric soprano, it shows everything you got in a competition. The problem is – they still sing it as a concert aria even in a complete performance of the work. So today we’re not speaking about _that_ Ach, ich fühl’s but about number 17 in the score of Mozart’s Singspiel. Is there a difference? Unfortunately, yes – the concert aria is taken at a funereal tempo, the accompaniment is a spineless sequence of chords, the soprano sings very, very, very long lines almost rhythmically indistinct, and all that does not make any sense in the story.

Pamina grew up as a princess, but daddy and mommy had a conflicted relationship, daddy is dead nove and mom cares more about politics than her. Then, she is kidnapped by a dogmatic sect-leader who treats her decently but distantly too. She is basically left to the care of a pervert (Monostatos), who manager to keep her tied up while planing to rape her. Then someone out of nowhere appears and tells her that there is a prince in love with her. When she hears that she is loved by someone, she is so overjoyed that she just runs after him. But she gets caught and barely has 5 minutes with the guy – and finds all five of them the best thing that ever happened to her. But then she escapes from another rape attempt and finally sees her mother after many years and believes her ordeals are over. But no, the mother doesn’t want to take her home. She puts a knife in her daughter’s hand and asks her to kill someone – and, in the first scene opera Sarastro really shows some affection for her, he tells her not to be worried, nobody is getting killed. Relieved, she runs to Tamino to tell him everything that happened in the last hours, but – unbeknownst to her, he has taken a vow of silence and refuses to have a conversation with her. Then she sings Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden! Ewig hin der Liebe Glück… Nimmer kommt, ihr Wonnestunden, meinem Herzen mehr zurück! Sieh’, Tamino, diese Tränen, flüssen, Trauter, dir allein. Fühlst du nicht der Liebe Sehnen, so wird Ruh’ im Tode sein. (“Ah, I feel it, it is all over. Forever lost the joy of love… O wonderful moments, my heart will never experience you again! See, Tamino, these tears flow because of you alone. If you don’t feel the longings of love, there is nothing [for me] but to find peace in death”). First question – Wonderful MOMENTS?!

I am no psychologist, but while the “concert aria perspective” implies a depressive mood, I’d rather say that Pamina’s behaviour should be described rather as “manic”. Let’s see what the oracle Wikipedia informs us: “During mania, an individual behaves or feels abnormally energetic, happy, or irritable, and they often make impulsive decisions with little regard for the consequences.” Check, check, check, check. So here we see this girl who has been suffering from neglect for a long while finally see a light in the end of the tunnel in the shape of a guy who basically only had to say that he loved her. But he apparently turns his back on her. This is when her overwhelming and sudden joy turn into an anxiety episode whose peak is the “staged” suicide scene (I’ll call it that way for it’s “talking about suicide for a long time” rather than actually doing anything – and she finally gets the attention she craved for). Hence my puzzlement while hearing the aria sung as if Pamina were acutely depressed.

So, yes, the first thing we have to talk about is the tempo. Mozart writes “andante” in the score. With recordings taking sometimes longer than five minutes, we have to wonder what these conductors believe to be “andante”. In the booklet to his studio recording, Charles Mackerras writes that Georg Nikolaus von Nissen (Mozart’s first biographer and Constanze Mozart’s second husband) was critical of the excessively slow tempo often adopted for Ach, ich fühl’s. If we take the situation depicted in the libretto and hear the music in true andante, then we can hear Pamina’s heartbeat in that moment of anxiety – taTA… taTA… taTA – and it is as if the whole concept finally got into focus. Arturo Toscanini, in his Salzburg live recording, had no doubt about that – there we hear this increasing tension of Pamina’s panic attack – the possibility of loosing her newly found happiness is too much for her – and yet she had not given up yet. Ach, ich fühl’s is no passive acceptance of a dark fate, but a last attempt of making things right again. This is why the text is so over the top – she is basically saying that she is not dead YET, but if Tanino carries on acting like that, she’ll soon be. This is despair, and Toscanini’s tempo shows you that. Mozart makes also a point of showing the singer that he does not want a long, absolutely seamless legato here. The first phrase is an example of his typical pressure-release dynamic style – Ach, I-ich FÜ-ühl’s, two subtle hiccups to depict the fact that Pamina is not making a rational speech here, but immediately reacting to her own emotions – almost all her lines here have something “broken” at some point. If you have the right tempo, the next phrase is a perfect illustration of the dramatic situation “ewig hin” – forever gone – is a phrase where the most important note is evidently is the low f# with the appogiatura – hin (gone). The four descending notes under the slur in “-wig” should be sung absolutely a tempo to create the impression of something unfolding and falling down. It’s gone, she’s lost it. The end. This is the kind of sentence no-one (maybe Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, but there she is fatally ill and doesn’t want to die at all) says slowly – it’s over, finito. And now let’s about the “big, odd phrase”

“The big odd phrase”

Many years ago, I met a soprano who was supposed to sing Ach, ich fühl’s in a competition and kept discussing with her accompanist that there was somethhing odd in the coloratura right in the beginning of the aria. I asked her “what’s so odd about it?” She answered “the way Mozart wrote, it doesn’t make sense”. Actually, she was wrong – the problem is rather that sopranos rarely sing it the way Mozart wrote it. As we can see, there is no “stringendo” or “ritardando” mark in the score. It should be sung a tempo – what makes it hard for the singer to breath, for it is a long phrase with many high notes. So what sopranos usually do is adjusting it to give them time to manage the two high b flats. After she has navigated the two ascending phrases followed by a minor second interval with a hiccup rhythmic pattern (yes, she is sobbing and now she is going to abandon the text in the word “heart”), we have the long melisma on HERzen. If we look attentively at it – we have one long note on a quaver that actually goes on to the first semiquaver in the next “set” and then the melisma starts to “move” from the high c not in a strong note, but in a weak note. What happens after that is that we have another strong note in the next group of semiquavers in a b flat and then always in the high f. What does that mean? Both high b flats are on a semiquaver in a weak note, the next strong note being the f down in the interval. When you do it this way, the phrase has a clear sense of “coloratura”, with very fast staccato notes near the end (and the pulsation in the bass is kept a tempo, as Mozart wanted it to be). But you’ll say, “hey, sopranos always linger in the high b flats!”. Yes, they do, and in order to do that, they generally start the melisma (the first middle c) right on the strong note, making the high g (rather than high f) their point of support, what gives them an extra while for their first high b flat. Then, when they go back to the f (staccato), they take a while to breath and end the phrase ad libitum, i.e., with disregard for the tempo. And that is why the phrase feels awkward – the conductor cannot follow the taTA-taTA rhythmic pattern and what they generally do is try to catch the singer when they hit the pitch where the orchestra is supposed to produce a chord until the end of the phrase, when everything goes “back to normal”. I find it disturbing – the audience can feel that everything is amiss, the rhythmic pattern is lost and everything feels displaced. The phrase does not sound like a phrase anymore (especially in the ascending staccato notes) but rather as some sort of textless chanting. When the tempo is slow, the phrase sounds even odder, with many pauses in strange places. One might say that a) the phrase is very hard to sing (true); b) that it feels more musical if the soprano has some liberty (_some_ liberty, yes…); and c) maybe Mozart wrote it that way precisely to illustrate some sense of disorientation (hmmm….). I only agree about the fact that the phrase is difficult and that the soprano needs some help there. Of course, it will be almost impossible to keep the phrase truly a tempo there (and it would also sound a tad mechanical that way), but this flexibility must happen in the context of the rhythmic pattern (and, no, I don’t think Mozart wanted ad libitum there – he would have written that). Although I am not a great fan of Sylvia McNair’s recording with Neville Marriner, they both manage that phrase better than probably anyone else (Sumi Jo probably is almost as efficient as McNair in her Mozart studio recital). If you ask me what Mozart wanted with the big odd phrase, I would say that it is no coincidence that the text is “my heart”. This is a “what about me?”-phrase. Nobody has cared for Pamina and now that she has tasted the joy of being wanted and cared for, she doesn’t want to stop – she is experiencing a withdrawal symptom after being supplied with love. So the phrase is a long cry for help. We don’t really need the text here, she is basically weeping and the staccato in the end should seem as if she had no air left even to cry at that point. So, yes, the singer can manage to sneak in breathing points, but they have to make sense in terms of expression AND NEVER INTERRUPT THE RHYTHMIC PATTERN.

Even before that soprano called it “the big odd phrase”, it has always called my attention. Mozart would generally use technically challenging phrases like that rather in more complex arias, with two tempos (such as Non mi dir, Per pietà or Dove sono). Ach, ich fühl’s is, in structure, closer to Porgi, amor or S’altro che lagrime (from La Clemenza di Tito), both of them built entirely in regular, lyric phrases without anything close to coloratura. In Ach, ich fühl’s, the big odd phrase calls attention for being not only big in compared to every other phrase in the while aria, but for being clearly showier than everything else. Dramatically, this makes sense. She has tried to call Tamino’s attention with well-balanced, well-behaved phrases in vain. Then she goes for the works there – and it doesn’t work either. That is why she changes the approach next – beautiful words haven’t worked, so now she is resorting to visuals “see these tears rolling down on my face?!”.

It is important to observe that the big odd phrase is not the climax of the song. So, if the singer sounds a bit exhausted or if there is an “energetic valley” after that, the sense of increasing tension that we need to feel peaking in the Fühlst du nicht der Liebe Sehnen? marked forte is entirely lost. Pamina has been using a very repetitive text and melodic pattern to convince Tamino that he is killing her with his silence, but it’s all in vain. And that is why she is so emphatic here – “so isn’t it love what you feel?”. But again, no answer. And that is why the next one (which takes her again to the high b flat) is marked piano – now she is no longer responding to reality, but to her own spiritual torment. “No, it is not love what he feels”. We hear again the ascending phrases followed by the minor second interval (first heard before the big odd phrase) in a harmonically tenser context, but there is no long melisma now – here we have a leap to a long high g on the word Ruh’ (rest). Pamina is not crying anymore, she is no longer talking to Tamino now. Now she is deep in her own neurosis – she knew happiness was too good to be true, it had to vanish as easy as it appeared. It is just like when Elsa von Brabant, in Wagner’s Lohengrin, says in act 3 “Ach, nein… Doch dort, der Schwan der Schwan!” Again, I don’t think Pamina is really suicidal here, but the end of Ach, ich fühl’s is like the eye of the hurricane – it is the point of repose in the middle of chaos. Pamina’s life has been about being abandoned. For a short while, it seemed as if things had changed. And yet she’s got used to the way things were. They made sense that way. And until the genii tell her that she’s wrong, she will almost actively pursue misery. It is only an evidence of Mozart’s genius that the first phrase she sings after her transformation – Tamino mein, o welch ein Glück! (My Tamino, ah, what joy!) in the scene with Tamino and the men in armours deeply touches the listener even if it is very short. We feel, that the weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She is still a bit hectic (she gives a wordy and unnecessary explanation about the magic flute after that), but now she is no longer doomed to be unhappy.

No you may be wondering which recording I have chosen for our music lounge this week. This was a really tough choice – the ideal performance would be a Frankenstein monster with Gundula Janowitz’s voice, Toscanini’s conducting a post-Harnoncourt version of the Vienna Philharmonic and modern engineering. But I am happy enough with Sophie Karthäuser’s intelligent and perceptive account of the aria. We have increasingly heard silvery-toned Paminas and I particularly like that Karthäuser has a golden, round tone, what makes a good contrast with the voices both of the Queen of the Night and Papagena. She is especially satisfying with René Jacobs live in a staged performance (even if she breathes à la baroque specialist right after the long note in the big odd phrase) – there you see that she is not singing the concert aria. This is the character Pamina experiencing the beginning of her manic episode, palpitation, uncontrolled weeping, attachment to her own sad experiences included – it’s all there and in perfect Mozartian style. Yet, as I am not sure if there is a geographic limitation to that video, I’ll add first her live recording with Kazushi Ono, whose tempo is a little bit more relaxed and yet the rhythmic pattern is clear and Karthäuser is even more polished (if a little bit less intense).

Music lounge (39)

I had a friend who used to say that Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, the fourth of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder was the saddest song in the world. He would listen to José Van Dam’s recording and then remain silent for a while. Then I showed him Anne Sofie von Otter’s recording with John Eliot Gardiner and he was silent for a very long while. He loved this recording from the very first time he heard it. After listening to it, he said that Von Otter entered his pantheon. Indeed, her singing there is beautiful, expressive, it is one of her very best recording and this could have been the item chosen for this week’s Music Lounge until I listened to it again. To my surprise, I didn’t like it as much as I used to do. But before we talk about that, I have to say that the last time I spoke about my friend’s opinion about this song, someone replied “you’re friend is wrong – this is not a sad song at all!” According to this person, it is a song about finding one’s true harmony within oneself. At the time, I said “Well, it is sad that one has to leave the world behind to find that, isn’t it?” So I ask you, is it sad or not? Is that relevant at all?

If one knows Gustav Mahler’s biography, one will tend to answer that this is a sad song. Throughout his lifetime, Mahler experienced an increasing sensation of alienation. Beside the famous quote “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed”, he also struggled within his own family in a conflicted relationship with his wife Alma Schindler and the loss of their daughter Maria at age 5, while a heart disease finally made him hostage of his own body – he more than once referred to the diagnosis as a premature death sentence. Therefore, if one has the composer’s life in mind, the text appears under a rather depressing light: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen/mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben/Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen/Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!/ Es ist mir auch nichts daran gelegen,/ Ob sie mich für gestorben hält./ Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,/ Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt/ Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel/und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet./ Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,/ In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied. (“I am lost to the world/with which I have wasted too much time anyway./ It has not heard anything about me for so long/ That it may really believe I am dead./ I could not also care less, if it considers me dead./Nor can I deny it ,/for I am actually dead to the world./I am dead to the tumult of the world,/ and I rest in a silent place/ I live alone in my heaven/In my love and in my song”). As we can see, this is a story in two parts: in the first part the poet was in touch with the world and “has wasted too much time with it” (i.e., he invested in it, had hopes about it, wished to make something in it); in the second part, he had turned his back to it and made a point of having nothing to do with it. Now he is in a silent place which he calls “heaven” and lives further in his love and his song. Well, this places sounds just like he had really died – and not only to the world, but away from this world in the afterlife. He still lives in what he loved – although everybody translates “in my love”, the text does not have the noun “die Liebe”, but rather the substantivated verb “das Lieben” (the act, the ability, the fact of loving) – and in his song (i.e., the legacy of his art). No, I don’t think this is the poet’s ghost speaking, don’t worry! I do think the poet’s experience with society was so frustrating, so bitter that it has killed his ability of living in it. Therefore, I wouldn’t call his a “new age” attitude – he is not looking back with a smile to the memories of his former days now that he has embraced an alternative lifestyle with the love of his life and plays the guitar in the orange grove he himself planted. In other words, he has not really chosen to cut his ties with the world. He just couldn’t do it any longer. From a safe distance, he is able to relate to it with love through his art – but only from afar. Is it a sad song after all? It is and it is not – “one eye wet and the other dry”, as Richard Strauss used to explain how the final scene of Der Rosenkavalier’s first act should be performed.

The question “how sad should Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen should sound?” is not useless. When we look at the discography of the Rückert-Lieder, we notice that, while Bruno Walter, an acknowledged Mahler specialist (Mahler himself would have put it that way), takes 5′ 33” to perform it in his recording with Kathleen Ferrier and the Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein goes for 7′ 48” when he recorded it with the same orchestra and Thomas Hampson. Why? Well, Mahler himself wrote Äußerst langsam and zurückhaltend (“extremely slow and restrained”) on the score. As a matter of fact, almost no recording of the orchestral version takes less than six minutes, but the question now is “how slow is ‘extremely slow'”? In a video with soprano Irmgard Seefried on Youtube, we notice that she has to push forward to keep the flow of the melody, while the conductor clearly thinks they should go in a slower pace. Although Mahler had composed these songs both in voice/piano and voice/orchestra versions, they feel a bit “empty” in the piano version – and that is why pianists never try to make it longer than the piano can sustain. The truth, however, is that – at least in Ich bin der Welt… the orchestration is almost chamber-like and, as Bruno Walter shows us, nothing is actually gained in the pseudo-depth of lethargically slow tempi. As we can hear, Walter’s version doesn’t sound “fast” at all. It sounds slow, restrained and heartfelt… and also structurally clear, melodically appealing and truly “song-like”.

There is no doubt that the “restrained” atmosphere is not only a matter of interpretation – there are many moments in which the singer only has woodwind and/or the French horn with him or her, and the parts for strings are almost always marked p or pp. Actually, they start on mutes. In some recordings, however, the conductor goes for the kind of pianissimo that only dogs can hear. And, to be clear, Mahler writes “senza sordino” very soon. To be honest, the tempo plus a string section very hard to hear is the reason why I gave up the Gardiner recording. If you ask me, the slow tempo, the almost silent strings seem to me an attempt to make this song more profound than it actually is. Rückert’s text is very clear and relatable, and Mahler is very successful in creating a melancholic atmosphere. It is a sad song in an almost feel-good way, almost like some pop songs from the 1970’s with smooth vocalism, long lines, poetic texts and a slow tempo. You might think that Mahler is turning on his grave when I write this, but I don’t think so – Mahler clearly liked melodies with a folklore-like appeal and that is why the excess of profoundness doesn’t help it at all. On the contrary. There must have a splash of cheesiness.

As I’ve decided I did not want the Von Otter/Gardiner recording – and this is our mezzo/alto week – I’ve listened to all recordings with mezzo sopranos. I was surprised to find Bernarda Fink with the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich and Andrés Orozco-Estrada so close to the Bruno Walter example and I almost picked it, but I found Fink lacks the last ounce of spontaneity, something that afflicts many mezzos in this song. Most of them seem to feel a bit uncomfortable with coping the low tessitura and floating pianissimo around the middle of their range. My final choice was a surprise even for myself – here we have a singer not among my favourites and a conductor I frankly don’t care for.

I have always Frederica Von Stade’s voice a bit odd. For me, it is like a light mezzo on steroids. The way all registers are pumped up certainly had an effect of terms of presence in the auditorium, but there is very little naturalness left high register somewhat bit edgy and the booming, almost cabaret-like low notes. And yet, I have more often than not found her effective in a wide repertoire. I don’t dispute the claim that she is the definitive Cherubino (but I am not so fond of her Dorabella and I frankly dislike her singing in the Bernstein recording of the Mass K 427), the Octavian in Edo de Waart’s recording is very charming, the Mélisande for Karajan is ideally appealing, she really wowed me in her recording of Liszt’s Oh, quand je dors… and her Maria in the recording of The Sound of Music with Hakan Hagegard is a guilty pleasure. The mention of that musical theater item is no coincidence – for I find the pop-like directness the secret formula for her success in the her 1979 recording of Ich bin der Welt… made in London. Singers in German repertoire are so brainwashed to illustrate the text in their voices à la Schubert that sometimes they just forget that some works only require you to “carry the tune”, exactly like in a pop song, no matter how sad, philosophical, politically motivated etc it might be. When a singer sings like this, the audience doesn’t feel that there is someone trying to explain you anything – you’re in direct contact with the music. And that is how Von Stade does it here. The song flatters her voice in every way – while she has the necessary lightness for the pianissimi, she can use her boosted low register to maintain some presence in passages when many a high mezzo sound ill at ease. In her performance, it is indifferent how sad the song is – it is up for the listener to decide.

For someone with the reputation of a kapellmeister (in the wrong sense of the word), Andrew Davis makes some bold choices here. In terms of tempo, he goes for a safe 6′ 21”, but in what regards dynamics, the first thing you notice is that he definitely goes beyond the piano marking and you definitely can hear the strings. Whenever Mahler asks for a crescendo, Davis doesn’t hold back. He really takes the opportunity to go for broke. Does that makes the song schmaltzier? Yes, please. The crescendo marks always appear in the parts of the song when the poet seems to be saying “You know what, world, I’m doing really better since I left you” and that makes it less of a post-mortem statement but rather a declaration of survival, and I’m afraid I find the song “dramatically” more interesting and musically more varied that way. The London Philharmonic’s strings are not glamorous in sound as the Vienna Philharmonic, but at least they’re there, you can hear them, there is no sense of emptiness in the sound picture. Even in pauses, there is a clear sense of continuity. This recording, which I had never heard before this week, was definitely a good surprise for me.

New Parsifal from Vienna

The Vienna State Opera has invited Russian director Kyrill Serebrennikov to direct their new production of Parsifal. The opera house’s website makes a point of informing us that Mr. Serebrennikov had been placed in house arrest due to an accusation of a fraud scheme involving public funds and considered guilty in a verdict found suspect by human-rights NGOs. As the curtains open in act 1, we see Jonas Kaufmann visiting a nondescript place that can gradually be recognized as [SPOILER ALERT] a prison. Gurnemanz is the old inmate who has earned the trust of the wardens and who makes tattoos for the other convicts, Kundry is some kind of journalist who has been around for a while and exchange favors – cigarettes, magazines, mail – with both wardens and prisoners and has gained some privileges there and Amfortas is Gurnemanz’s cellmate whose long and incurable disease involves delusional episodes. A young man, the expressive Russian actor Nikolay Sidorenko, storms onstage and we understand that he is the young Parsifal, being accused of killing another inmate, an albino fellow with wings tattooed on his back who tried to seduce him in the showers (“the swan”). Gurnemanz preaches him about the holiness of life, but the wardens seem to be ok about it. Everybody goes to their cells, but during the night Amfortas has another episode of pain and hallucination in which he hears his dead father’s voice telling him to shed his own blood. The man’s suffering seems to bring forth the convicts’ own humanity: they try to help him and the young Parsifal is particularly touched by the scene. There are graffiti on the prison’s wall “Made wise by pity, the pure fool – wait for him”, and Gurnemanz thinks that there is something about the young man. However, when asked about what happened during the night, Parsifal has nothing to say. Kundry (in the libreto, an invisible “alto voice”) has the same impression. Nevertheless, when she approaches him, he contents to undress and let her take pictures of him.

Act 2 shows us an office. My first impression – and that would have been a really interesting idea – was that Klingsor was the prison’s director, making for an unexpected juxtaposition of Montsalvat and Kingsor’s realm. There are photos of half-naked young men on the walls and he seems to be busy with computer porn. Kundry works for him and screams not for being waked into life from her own nightmares, but because Klingsor spills hot tea by accident on her. Again I thought that Kundry’s improbable journalism was a façade for some sort of illegal distribution of pornography involving the prisoners of something like that, but my mistake. They actually work for a magazine called Schloss and the sets show the publisher’s headquarters. The young Parsifal shows up there for a shooting (we assume he was set free) and the Blumenmädchen are a team of hairdressers, make-up artists, cleaning ladies, secretaries. They all want to see him, probably because the report about life in prison made him some sort of celebrity. But the older Parsifal, Kaufmann, is there too – and the girls ask him autographs. Kundry makes them leave and conjures the presence of three imaginary Herzeleiden and of Amfortas in a cool jacket and turtleneck sweater. The old Parsifal is upset by these memories and tries to separate Kundry and the young Parsifal, who at this point are clearly making out (the kiss was only the first part of it). When she realizes she has been rejected, she gets a pistol, points at the young Parsifal, then at herself and finally shoots Klingsor.

Act 3 shows us that the prison is now some sort of workshop where old ladies produce images of the Christ. Kundry is now one of these ladies and she seems irritable and hard to deal with. Gurnemanz is there too, still talking of the pure fool one. Parsifal shows up, Kundry recognizes him, the old ladies worship him, they tell him he is their “king”, give him a white shirt and they leave. But, hey!, they come back from the same door to what seemed to be the deactivated-prison-made-into-a-workshop, but the place is… surprise!… THE prison (there still are wardens there at least), with the same prisoners looking as young as they were in act 1. Anyway, Parsifal, Kundry and Gurnemanz just open the door and get in. Amfortas still has his cool jacket from the scene he has been spirited away to the fashion magazine and has an urn and says he won’t perform “the ritual”. For some reason, all other prisoners were paying attention to his delusional speech. But that is not a problem, for Parsifal – and the young Parsifal! – open all cells and the doors and everybody is free.

Why I am writing all this? Because, frankly, I am hoping that someone can make any sense of all that. As far as act one, the whole scenario seemed crafty rather than effective. It involved lots of lines sang “as if they were ironical” and many nonsensical situations, but as the Personenregie was effective, the video projections powerful and well made, I was playing along. For instance, the whole grail ceremony taking place only in Amfortas’s mind was an interesting idea, for, let’s be honest, it rarely works out if staged as Wagner describes it. I still have a problem with the idea of Gurnemanz and Amfortas as “submissive victims of the system”, for the libretto describes them as part of the system – Amfortas is the king and Gurnemanz is a Knight of the Grail. We could say that Amfortas is a victim of that very system, but he does rule there, while Gurnemanz is only unhappy because the system is not working anymore. He doesn’t want to be freed – he wants it to be what it used to be. My own predicament started in act 2 – the magazine made the scenario even more distant to the plot in terms of practical problems. I am not even speaking of symbology anymore, for act 1 made it clear that there is no symbology going on here. And the two Parsifals were too often more than “an older guy reminiscing”, as we had the other actors increasingly interacting with both of them. I gave up understanding at all in act 3. I’ve decided that “understanding” is a bourgeois concept and that I should simply surrender to the experience of watching whatever was going on there – it didn’t work. In the end, I was puzzled by the whole thing. I’ll be honest – the prison setting has its own agenda, ok, I get it, this is what the director wanted to talk about even if the opera were Mozart’s Così fan tutte. No problem. But it would be helpful if this parallel story had an ounce of coherence.

For many an opera goer, this afteroon’s broadcast had nothing to do with the staging, but by the fact that Elina Garanca was debuting in the role of Kundry. She has been often – and I’d say unjustly – accused of being too cold an actress. Here I thought she was terrific and rounded up many corners in the concept. She also sang really well. Hers was probably one of the smoothest sung Kundrys I have ever heard. She sang with unfailing sense of line, a judicious use of portamento, tone colouring of a singer whose last CD was a Schumann/Brahms recital and the focus of low register of someone who sings Italian opera. In other words, a lesson for any singer whose voice is not really the one for the role. As it is, Ms. Garanca’s mezzo is a tiny bit lightweight for the part – and one could feel that by the way her middle register could sound veiled now and then and fall behind in terms of projection. But that this is me trying to be accurate in order not to seem too enthusiastic. If you ask me if her Kundry could be a little bit more demented and tortured, yes, but that’s not what the director required from her (I’m not speaking of the conductor yet). Jonas Kaufmann’s best Wagnerian role is arguably Parsifal, even if his tenor is now a bit rusty in the heroic passages, when he pushes more than he should. Elsewhere, he is still very clear in his textual delivery, is not afraid to scale down and has an interesting color for the role, especially here as the “older Parsifal”. He too works hard in terms of acting and should be praised for trying to make something of what is essentially nonsensical. I am not sure if this is Ludovic Tézier’s first Amfortas. I know he had sung the part of Wolfram before. In terms of style, he is a commendable Wagnerian Heldenbariton: vocally, it is basically carefree and his German is more than good enough. I would still say he is too used to Verdi – the whole is expression is too extrovert, one feels that he instinctively looks for climaxes and likes to emphasize syllables in key moments. The part of the “inner torment” is largely absent. Again, this was amazing singing – and I start to wonder if he should not try other Wagner roles. I was a bit surprised to find Wolfgang Koch as Klingsor. One usually expects a higher and brighter sound for the role – and Koch rather sounds warm and a tad unstable in his high notes. That said, he looked really convincing in the part as conceived by the director. I have already seen Georg Zeppenfeld as Gurnemanz in Bayreuth and have found him less meditative than the usual take of the role, but here it is the ideal approach. This Gurnemanz was streetwiser than wise – and Zeppenfeld dark, firm, uncomplicated singing worked to perfection.

Philippe Jordan has an ideal orchestra for this score – the Vienna Philh… the Vienna State Opera Orchestra’s translucent strings are a special effect in itself and one can only marvel at their sound right from the first bars in the overture. Nevertheless, a great car won’t show all it can do with the wrong driver. Mr. Jordan – and this was something I had noticed in his COVID Ring from Paris – is unable to build a long arch in this repertoire. We feel phrases coming to life and quickly sagging back to silence without a real sense of continuity. We hear pauses, all of them. Sometimes I felt that the cast could grab a cup of coffee, sip and come back for the next phrase. If he tried to emulate the Boulez Parsifal here, more vital tempi could have hidden the problem, but beauty of sound alone doesn’t make a Wagner opera. Act 2, with considerate tempi, mushy accents and very little structural clarity, sounded interminable, and act 3 required all my ability to concentrate. I was bored to death.

Die Zauberflöte from Paris

When one looks to discographies of Mozart operas, it is hard to overlook the fact that there are very few French names there – but this fortunately seems to have been changing. That is why I was curious to hear the telecast of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte recorded last January at the Opéra Bastille with an empty auditorium during the lockdown: with one exception, all main roles are taken by French singers, what is even more surprising in an opera with German dialogues. As a matter of fact, the single DVD of The Magic Flute recorded in Paris (in 2001) has a German Pamina, an Italian Queen of the Night, a Polish Tamino, a German Papageno and a Finnish Sarastro. The 1995 CDs with Les Arts Florissants has a French Queen of the Night (Natalie Dessay), Armin Jordan’s 1989 recording with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris has no French singer in a main role – the same situation seen in Alain Lombard’s 1978 recording from Strasbourg.

Nobody expects an international cast to deliver German dialogues with absolute idiomatic quality, but I would say that the singers in Paris have done a decent job out of it, actually better than one usually hears outside German-speaking countries – accents nonetheless, there was no sense of tentativeness or lack of spirit, especially in what regards the Queen of the Night, who scores many points in the acting department as a whole. I follow Julie Fuchs’s career with interest since I saw her as Servilia in a Clemenza di Tito at the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées. She has the right voice for Mozart, a spontaneous sense of style and more than solid technique. At this point, Pamina is an ideal role for her. It benefits from a lyric soprano and has been cast too often with singers who would have done a better job as Papagena. There is nothing to fault in Ms. Fuchs’s performance – she sang with unfailing golden tone and instrumental poise, but too much expectation is always a bad thing. Having seen her live float soaring mezza voce to perfection both in La Clemenza di Tito and as the Countess Adèle in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, I found her a bit ill at ease producing high pianissimo with complete evenness of tone, especially in Ach, ich fühl’s , when the conductor did not help her at all with a funereal tempo. When I first heard recordings of Sabine Devieilhe as the Queen of the Night, I wondered if her voice was not a bit light for the role. Although I have never seen her sing Mozart live, her performance from Brussels and this telecast from Paris show that she has found the measure for the role. Now she could be taken as a reference – the coloratura and the staccato are faultless, she has developed her low register and is also able to produce fuller tonal quality to avoid any hint of soubrettishness. And she also uses the text expertly. Brava. It has been a while since we last heard a Mozart tenor to the manner born, and Cyrille Dubois meets most requirements – the tone is dulcet, he is comfortable with soft singing, has admirable flexibility and phrases with elegance. That said, the part of Tamino is on the heavy side for his voice – and his fondness for upwards decoration only made that more evident. He is a bit fussy too, sometimes in a way that tampers with legato – and his intent to produce clear German sometimes veers into mis- or overpronunciation. In any case, he delivers his dialogue lines with unusual animation for an opera singer. Italian baritone Alex Esposito is now an experienced Papageno, and I found this performance in every way superior to the one he recorded on DVD live in Milan, when I found him too emphatic and almost awkward. I understand Florian Sempey was listed in an alternative cast and I am sorry that the Opéra missed the opportunity of having a French Papageno too. Nicolas Testé has the range, the color and the scale of the part of Sarastro. His intent to sing his intervals with absolute clarity is praiseworthy, but the result is rather angular and lacking affection. I wonder how the present circumstances have affected this performance. In France artists are very critical of the way the government has dealt with their situation and the Opéra de Paris itself was obliged to cancel many performances in the last minute because of sudden changes of public health policy. Sometimes, I had the impression that some singers seemed a bit off their game, and the chorus was clearly below their usual standard, now and then lagging behind the beat, the women particularly unstable in tone. After a somewhat buoyant overture, conductor Cornelius Meister seemed to settle into a rather bureaucratic performance. Again we don’t know how were the conditions during rehearsal, but the atmosphere of the empty theatre and the polite tempi made for a rather joyless impression in a work that requires playfulness above all.

What we see here is not a new production, but rather Robert Carsen’s 2014 staging first seen in Baden-Baden and available on DVD with Kate Royal, Pavol Breslik, Michael Nagy, Dimitry Ivashchenko, the Berliner Philharmoniker and Simon Rattle, where superior camerawork and, above all, recorded sound. As heard here, the microphones on singers were sometimes problematic and, at some point, they seemed to be capturing some offstage conversation.

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In a conversation with someone who used to attend all major European music festival back in the 70’s, I heard the story of how this person passed by the baritone who was singing Papageno in Giorgio Strehler’s production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in the Grosses Festspielhaus (Karajan – Mathis, Gruberová, Kollo, Van Dam, Meven) and couldn’t help smiling at him, who smiled back and they kept smiling until a friend of hers say “Who is this man? You are a married woman! You can’t flirt like that!” She only answered “But it’s Hermann Prey! I love him!” Well, it’s true, everybody loves Hermann Prey – her friend should have known that! I, for instance, have been an unconditional fan since I first saw him as Figaro in the Ponnelle video. Besides the warm voice with an irresistible smile in the sound, he could also be a terrific actor. Although I’ve watched the Barbiere di Siviglia with Berganza hundreds of times, he makes me laugh every time.

Prey’s baritone has always been a matter of discussion. He had a huge repertoire – you could hear him in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, R. Strauss, Loewe, Lortzing, Humperdinck, J. Strauss, Orff, Flotow, Pfitzner, Korngold, Mahler, Marschner, Weber… and there was the Rossini Figaro in virtually idiomatic Italian. He would also appear in a recording of Verdi’s La Traviata (with Stratas and Wunderlich) and of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (with Maria Chiara and James King) in the original language. There are other Verdi and Puccini items auf Deutsch – a Forza del destino (with Bumbry and Gedda) for example. And yet he was often asked why he didn’t venture in more heroic repertoire – Rodrigo in Verdi’s Don Carlo to start with. He himself said he didn’t think he had the vocal weight for Verdi roles – and he was always very careful with Wagner. If we overlook a recording of Das Liebesverbot with Sawallisch, he had two Wagnerian roles: Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and, more famously, Wolfram in Tannhäuser. While I agree his voice lacked the scale of Verdi and Wagner roles, it had an unusual dark color for a Mozart baritone, especially one who never had problem with high notes. If you look at his discography, he did sing the part of the Count Almaviva (for instance, in Milan under Abbado with Mirella Freni as the Countess) but would more often appear as Figaro (as in the Ponnelle film under Böhm with… Mirella Freni as Susanna). On the other hand, I have never found any example of Prey as Leporello, while there are more than one recording of his Don Giovanni. As we can hear in his countless recordings, the first quality one hears in Hermann Prey’s voice is the velvetiness – his was a voice with no edge. It is wrapped in fleece-like lower resonance, even in its higher reaches. And no matter how wordy the text or irregular the intervals, he made everything sound melodic and appealing, in an almost Frank Sinatra-ish way.

And there is the apparently inevitable comparison with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. If it is true that their repertoire occasionally overlapped (especially in what regards their all-encompassing Lieder recordings), but I guess that this is pretty much it. In terms of vocal appeal, I would not say that there wasn’t any kind of advantage from both sides when they were young – those were very different but equally appealing voices. DFD’s didn’t age well, while Prey still retained most of the quality of his voice when he retired. Although one would not guess it, those who heard both of them on stage would mention that Fischer-Dieskau’s voice was more hearable against an orchestra, and the fact that he ventured in roles ranging from Scarpia to the Rheingold Wotan is an evidence of that. However, the comparison has little to do with voice but rather with approach. DFD is taken as the example of “verbal specific” singers (pointillistic, to use Barthes’s terminology), while Prey is usually placed in the “melodic” team. It’s not as simple as that. I would rather use the Schubert singer vs. Schumann singer classification. Although Dieskau was terrific in both composers, he was an exemplary Schubert singer, micro-reacting to the text in a classical rather than truly Romantic way, while Prey clearly shone in Schumann, building atmosphere rather than shaping word by word, and phrasing “like a cellist”.

To be honest, I wouldn’t choose a Schubert recording with Prey to the Music Lounge, although most of them are beautiful and some of them particularly expressive. It took me a while for me to decide what track would show Prey at his most congenial. In this recording, you find the velvet, the Innigkeit, the charm, the legendary legato, the congeniality. It’s all there.

Richard Strauss’s Freundliche Vision opens the set of five songs with piano accompaniment in the composer’s Op. 48, all of them completed in 1900. Unlike the other items, the text of which are all by Karl Friedrich Henckell, Freundliche Vision is a poem by Otto Bierbaum, a writer and journalist connected to the literary cabaret scene who provided lyrics for light music songs and wasn’t really highly regarded as a poet at the time. Strauss, however, had a fancy for non-complicated poems and chose Bierbaum’s poems in his op. 29 (Traum durch die Dämmerung, Schlagende Herzen and Nachtgang), in the last song of his Op. 32 (Wir beide wollen springen), in the second song of his op. 39 (Junghexenlied) before he worked on Freundliche Vision, their last collaboration. Bierbaum would later write a negative critic of Strauss’s cantata Taillefer and the composer would take offence, what put an end to their friendship.

The text of Freundliche Vision (A pleasant vision) is Nicht im Schlafe hab’ ich das geträumt/Hell am Tage sah ich’s schön vor mir/ Eine Wiese vollen Margeritten/Tief ein weisses Haus in grünen Büschen/Götterbilder leuchten aus der Laube/Und ich geh’ mit Einer, die mich lieb’ hat/ Ruhigen Gemütes in die Kühle/ Dieses weissen Hauses, in der Frieden/ Der voll Schönheit wartet, dass wir kommen (“It was not in my sleep that I dreamed about it/In plain daylight I saw this beautiful scene:/A field full of daisies/A white house deep in green bushes/Images of gods shine from the leaves/And I go with the one who loves me/In a peaceful state of mind into the coolness/of this white house, in the peace/That waits full of beauty for us to enter”). This is a very peculiar poem, the title of which contradicts its first line. A vision usually is something that looks real, but it is actually a product of the mind, but the first thing the poet tells us is that this is not a dream. Of course, that is how he felt in this dream. The way the poem is written is exactly how one experiences a dream – new elements and sensations come one after the other in a non linear way. First there is this field, and then there is this house, and then there are the strange images of gods, and then there is the poet’s beloved who appears out of nowhere, and then they are magically entering the house (as the song starts, one has the impression he is seeing it from afar) and then there is this sensation of coolness and peace. I have to say that what I like most about the text (which is not exceptional per se, I would agree) is the mention to the statues of gods, simply for its quaintness. No-one objectively describing the scene would care to talk about them at all. My first impulse was to translate it as “divine images”, but all English translations go for “images of gods” indeed. I first wondered if this could be some sort of idealised Arcadian image – the white house, the green foliage, the statues of gods. But it could simply be a neoclassical pavilion as one sees in Germany, with copies of Greek statuary and daisies in the garden. In any case, the dream is not about a kitsch macmansion with plaster statues of Venus and Bacchus. The real wonder there is in the verse Strauss decided to repeat in the end of the song: there is someone who loves the poet, and the way it is written one could say this person only exists in the dream. He doesn’t say he is walking “with his beloved one” or with Laura or Beatrice or Bertha. It is “someone who loves him”. Again, not “someone he loves”. In this dream, he knows he is loved and the feeling is not passion or excitement – it is peace. He has a pure, white house in an idyllic landscape, the sun shines everywhere, there are no shadows, no secrets, images of gods bless this union and there is a place just for them, it has been waiting for them, he is finally home.

If the text is not a masterpiece, it is exactly what Strauss needs to create a dreamlike musical landscape. When the song begins, even if one does not really have any notion of harmony, they will realize that there is something “unsettled” there – you feel the atmosphere shifting but you can’t really tell which direction it is taking. It is just like the first moments of a dream before you really understand what is going on. And this is what going to happen in hell am Tage sah ich’s schön vor mir (“in plain daylight I saw this beautiful scene”), when the composer finally tells you “D major – that’s what you were looking for”. Until this point, the song gravitated around c sharp major, a chord in the vicinity but not truly related, just like reality looks like in a dream. It almost looks like the true deal, but there’s always something odd. At this point, you’ll have realized that there is a motivic pattern in the piano accompaniment, an ostinato-like figure repeating at every bar always ending in a single high note. This is not Schubert and it is not supposed to “describe” anything, but it truly creates a magical atmosphere in its gentle rhythm and this twinkling high note in the end. To me it only reinforces the non continuity of these images – as if each cycle showed you a new flash: the daisies, the white house, the green foliage, the images of gods. As if time never elapsed in this magic place, it always starts again for you to see something new in it. You might be thinking that I am a bit obsessive about the “images of gods”, but it is actually Strauss who underlines their appearance with a modulation from E7 to B flat major – added by a mf dynamic marking – that creates a feeling of something uplifting – and that is why I wrote that there is a sensation that these gods are blessing the scene. Their appearance moved the poet, in a way, upwards. But we will be back to our home key – D major – for the first mention of the “one who loves the poet”. Strauss also adds a p marking there. This ideal woman is not outside, he just has to whisper for her to hear him. Strauss would use a similar effect of modulation when he describes the peace experimented by the poet when he enters the house – we feel as if we have crossed a “portal” when we move from again E7 to G minor and on to G major. In terms of dynamic too, we are coming from a crescendo that shift into a pianissimo. It has a goosebump effects that gives you the impression you’re witnessing a miracle happening. It takes us a while to go back to normality – also in terms of harmony. Strauss goes all chromatic in order to get us back to our D major, again in the phrase “And I walk with the one who loves me”, because she is what makes he feel home. Not the white house, impressive as it might be. This is Strauss at his absolute best – the whole concept is deceptively simple, but it is crafted with almost classical precision in his very special way of making immediately expressive harmonic twists and melodic lines that would seem just awkward and pedantic if composed by someone else in 1900.

I have no idea of who sang Freundliche Vision first, but the fact is that Mrs. Richard Strauss, the soprano Pauline de Ahna, sang it with her husband at the piano as early as 1901 in the Frankfurt Museums-Gesellschaft concert series. He praised her singing of this particular song for her complete evenness of tone and poetic interpretation. Strauss made an orchestral arrangement of the song in 1918 – and a program of a concert with Lotte Lehmann (and other singers) and the Vienna Philharmonic in the Musikverein in 1920 has the item described as “Freundliche Vision, op. 48/1, für hohe Stimme (D-Dur). It is not clear, however, if Lehmann sang the orchestral version. That said, in Vienna, tenor Leo Slezak sang it in 1913, tenor Alfred Piccaver in 1915 and baritone Anton Tausche in 1918. In other words, even if Strauss might have composed the song with his wife’s voice in mind, he did not seem opposed to the idea of a male singer for it. Being a baritone, Hermann Prey does not sing it in the original d major in his studio recording with Gerald Moore, but transposed down a whole step exactly as in the edition “for low voice” I could find online. Although I generally tend to prefer Strauss’s song in the soprano voice, the amber-like glow in Prey’s voice rather than a soprano’s bright sunlight (as the famous critic Eduard Hanslick described de Ahna’s voice) particularly suits this song.

The two qualities mentioned by Strauss in his opinion about his wife’s singing, as we’ve just seen, were consistency of tone and poetic interpretation, and there is a reason for that. The very quality of the text establishes a need for soft singing, and poor schooling might expose all kinds of unevenness in vocal production when a singer needs to shift to mezza voce. So, yes, Strauss was right to praise the fact that his wife could transit between all levels of soft dynamics while keeping the basic tonal quality of her voice. I would say that the challenge is even higher for a male singer who risks veering into falsetto while trying to produce some sort of float in his pianissimo. And this makes Hermann Prey’s performance even more praiseworthy. He establishes a very intimate atmosphere from the start and yet he knows that he has to save his softest pianissimo singing for the end of the song. In between, he resorts for all kinds of effects in tone colouring to keep the illusion of Innigkeit in public spaces, i.e., a concert hall. With the natural velvet of his voice, he manages to suggest that without really making an effort. He sings in a natural, pop-like voice, hits the highest notes in phrases very lightly (as in GEträumt), while letting an extra dose of head resonance in the mix. When Strauss first asks for a crescendo in hell am TAge, he still finds a way to keep the line softer by shedding a tiny bit of the tonal fleece and producing a slightly more open sound, the one he would use to sing Bach and, before it hardens, he softens if with a discrete downward portamento. To mark the belated appearance of the key tonality, he uses a similar effect: EINE Wiese also appears in this slightly more open sound (and we have the some vowels in both passages…) and a iota louder in dynamics. There is also this accent ei-ne, which feels a bit like a ta-da: look what I saw in my vision! I have written that this song has a sensation of flashes, which the piano ostinato seems to emphasise. But Prey intuitively makes something of that cyclic feeling – we feel a a descending dynamic curve for each phrase, and Götterbilder leuchten aus dem Laube is no exception. The next phrase is relatively more difficult in its peak-valley shape and requires special attention from the singer to keep it flowing and homogenous. It is also the first moment in which the poet mentions the “one who loves him”. Prey finds a brilliant way of avoiding a mechanical sensation of up/down/up/down. He lingers a bit in all the high notes of the interval, allowing the syllables EIne DIE mit LIEB’ hat to float. There is a hit of a frisson in the way the word Lieb’ (“love”) soars in voix mixte, only to contrast with the warmth of Prey’s lower notes in the next phrase. Now we move to the passage with the highest pianissimo, which also has a peak-valley profile and Prey is at his lightest, more open-toned and Bachian before he goes dangerously close to the frontier of falsetto-land in the word Frieden (“peace”). He makes an interesting choice for the last phrase of the poem. As the song repeats one line of the poem (Und ich geh’ mit Einer die mich Lieb hatvoll Schönheit – technically, more than one line, for it incorporates bits of other lines) marked by Strauss pp immer ruhiger (always softer), Prey had two options – carrying on piano on Der voll Schönheit wartet, dass wir kommen and then shifting to an impossibly softer ending for the end of the song or singing the previous line one step louder to allow him leeway to soften when Strauss asks to. The second is the wise choice – and that is what he does. It is not only a matter of practicability but also of contrast. By singing the line before last with a subtle surge of energy, the phrase sounds more emotional too, as if the poet were overwhelmed by this feeling of homecoming, of fulfilment. And then, after the pause, one feels that this is all happening because he has the one who loves him by his side, as if he had been transported to this higher dimension of love and peace just by the softness of the singer’s voice.

Gerald Moore is an ideal accompanist here. It is said that Strauss recommended that performers should avoid any kind of sentimentality here and adopt a flowing line. Moore does not overdo anything – the piano has a very subtle palette even when in the crescendo passages and “breathes” together with the singer as it should. Although the orchestral version is also very popular (and suits the soprano voice), I find the original piano version preferable in every way. This is a song about a vision, about an inner world and the voice plus piano setting naturally places the audience in the right atmosphere. On YouTube, you can find Hermann Prey at his most relaxed singing the same song (with a different pianist) in the living room of a country house – and I almost prefer it to the studio recording. In the video, although the circumstances are casual, we can see in the singer’s face how he instantly and spontaneously connects to the text and the music – and that is in the core of the appeal of Hermann Prey’s artistry, the ease and the naturalness with which he communicated with his audience.

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Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore is one of the most famous arias in the repertoire. There is no tenor that has never sung it – the discography shows us recordings from basically everybody from Julius Patzak to Sergei Lemeshev, via Mario Lanza and Michael Bolton. And this only makes it more puzzling the fact that it is most often than not poorly sung. Last year a friend who is not into classical music at all sent me a tape of a young man who was being labelled “a great promise” and asked me “is he really good?”. The aria was, of course, Una furtiva lagrima – and it was an atrocious performance. In order to show this friend why, I’ve decided to send her one ideal recording – and I was shocked to realize that not one among 20 recordings with important tenors were minimally close to showing the aria as it should be sung. Finally, I’ve sent her Pavarotti’s with Bonynge – definitely a nec plus ultra in tonal glamour and technical ease. When I first decided about this week’s Music Lounge, that recording was supposed to be my choice, but then I listened to it again.

During a voice lesson, I once hard a teacher say “please don’t sing this as a Verdi aria, sing it like Un’aura amorosa [from Mozart’s Così fan tutte] and you’ll be closer to what is required here”. And, beautiful as Pavarotti’s recording is, it is not that. Therefore, I’ve proposed myself the following challenge – I want to hear a recording where the tenor would sing it as closely as possible to the spirit of the aria. It is curious to realize that some singers early on got it almost right (if you overlook some old-fashioned mannerisms), such as Tito Schipa, but soon it would be sung, even by people who were usually considered exemplary in Mozartian style (such as Francisco Araiza or Gösta Winbergh) in a broader “Italianate” style – overgenerous use of portamento, the kind of emphasis that tampers with legato, a fondness for heroic top notes. Most of all, a complete disconnection of the meaning of the aria in the context of the opera.

As it is, L’Elisir d’Amore is a comedy – and not a broad one, it is more like a rom com than a ROTFL movie. Nemorino (i.e., “the little nobody) is an extremely ordinary guy who is in love with the rich, beautiful and intelligent Adina, who is so busy basking in her own awesomeness that she barely notices he is there. He manages to declare his feelings, but is dismissed with a condescending “look for someone else”. Suddenly two foreigners arrive in town and change everything – first, the handsome, macho-man military officer Belcore and the quack Doctor Dulcamara. When the former sees Adina, he decides that he has found a prize-wife worthy of his ego, while the latter promises to help the disconsolate Nemorino win Adina’s heart by selling him a love potion. Although the elixir is just regular wine, the news that the young man has inherited some money reaches town and all single girls run after him. When this happens, Nemorino (inebriated by the “potion”) snobs Adina when she tries to speak to him. She is not ready to be overlooked by a loser like him and teases him by saying she will marry Belcore that very day. When Nemorino realizes that all his hopes are frustrated by that move, he begs her to postpone, but is ultimately mocked by everyone in town. Out of sheer misery, he enlists in the army. Adina is finally moved by the poor man’s devotion and tries to dissuade him of becoming a soldier. As she is not ready to admit that she really loves him, Nemorino doesn’t change his mind. Overcome by her own feelings, she can hardly control her tears. And that is when we hear Una furtiva lagrima.

Just like in Così fan tutte, the tenor doesn’t win his sweetheart’s heart with his irresistible looks, heroic deeds or sexiness – the baritone is the alpha male. Both Ferrando and Nemorino reach their goal by passive-aggressiveness. They don’t fight, then don’t threaten, they just resort to intense emotional blackmailing. And that’s the key to understand Una furtiva lagrima – Nemorino is alone, he has told his tale of woe and has the first sign that Adina might – most surprisingly – love him after all. And this was not because he is the testosterone-high guy in the plot – but because he is a sweet, unpretentious and likeable person. He doesn’t feel he has to conquer Adina’s nature or prevail upon her in any way – he knows she is more accomplished than him and he is ok with that. And that is what you should hear in the aria. If the tenor sounds like Radamès or Manrico, then it’s the wrong story. And this is not me saying it – you just need to look at Donizetti’s notes to notice that. First, the aria has a nocturnal quality – actually it has a splash of Chopin here – in its B flat minor tonality, the prevailing soft dynamics, the strings first in pizzicato, the harp, the bassoon. It is intimate and devoid of any showiness. Donizetti tells you from the start the kind of sound he expects from the tenor – he has him singing the Italian vowel “u” (oo) right in the passaggio area. Either you hit it softly and dead on the note or you’ll come too strong and ruin the phrase. Donizetti will avoid a truly congenial note in a vowel like “ah” as long as he can. It’s mostly an Italian “e” (as in hair). An exception is the high a flat in festOse, marked with an emphasis but still in the context of soft dynamics – it is almost inevitable, that’s the kind of word an Italian would emphasise anyway. The first forte (not fortissimo) in the score appears in M’ama (“she loves me!”) – there we have also the first high note in an ah, we’re now in d flat major, but look again at the score – it’s only for the first syllable (M’a…), the second one is quickly back to piano. Nemorino is not boasting “I’m irresistible!”. He is really surprised that a girl as amazing as Adina really corresponds his feelings.

The second part of the aria is even more subdued, although this is the point he is imagining his dream come true – being able to feel her heartbeat next to his own chest, to mix her sighs to his own sighs. You would guess that imagining physical proximity would make Nemorino more agitated, but, no, that’s not what Donizetti is telling us- all high notes are in “ee” (what makes the tenor voice sound its brightest and purest) and he even marks the score with a pp in per poco a suoi sospir. The tenor is only allowed a forte in “Cielo, si può morir” (Heaven, now I can die) – he is truly content with just imagining. Here, the composer lets the tenor stays in forte for one whole bar, but soon brings him back to piano in a Mozartian phrase full of minor second intervals and appogiature – this could really be Un’aura amorosa. We’ll stay in Mozart-land until the final cadenza. As written, Donizetti places the tenor in the first octave and allows him to climb no higher than a high g with the fermata before the closing note on a d. This means exempting the tenor of any strain and letting him sound his most relaxed and dulcet. But you know tenors; “strain” is their middle name. In other words, nobody wanted the aria to end without a tenor-ish climax. Donizetti himself couldn’t resist the pressure to change it – he himself would write a couple of cadenze in the following years, each one going a little bit higher, one of them extending the melisma to a high c and back to the first octave, followed by a phrase starting on a high g and climbing to a high b flat. All of them, following the same pattern Non (b flat)-chie (a)-e (g)-e (f)-e-(g)e-e (a)-e-e-… Tenors would adapt it according to their whim until Enrico Caruso recorded it and established what we always hear today. It is curious that Caruso had a different text for the last two phrases – No, no, morir, no, no, morir d’amor!, what makes things a little bit hard to follow. One could understand “No, I want to die of love! ” rather than acknowledging that one can indeed die of love. Soon tenors adapted it to something closer to the text: Si puo morir, ah, sì, morir, d’amor! (It is possible to die, oh yes, die of love!”), which suits perfectly the music and the atmosphere of the scene. The Caruso cadenza too has the same pattern of Donizetti’s own alternative cadenze – it climbs to a high a and then goes back in an arpeggio back to an a in the first octave. Then it climbs up first to high g then to high g flat with a fermata on a high f.

How many times have you heard Una furtiva lagrima sung like that? Not with Pavarotti, who, again, fills these lines with gorgeous tone and sounds marvellously idiomatic, but can’t help oozing animation there. It fits his take on the role of Nemorino, rustic rather than shy, unglamorous but full of life, a country-boy rough in the edges but golden-hearted nonetheless. I have to say that I was surprised to discover that Vittorio Grigolo, a singer whom I’ve invariably seen giving the cavalier treatment to the score, keeps it really subdued. Yet his phrasing doesn’t flow and the tonal quality is not seductive enough. Similarly restrained, Michael Spyres is more consistent and stylish, but the tone is on the nasal sound and one wants a little bit more warmth and charm. Marcelo Álvarez too makes a serious effort in keeping the aria smooth and hushed, but one can hear the effort. None of them can compete with Pavarotti in vocal appeal. However, I’ve decided I should try a little harder and that is why I found Ramón Vargas in recital with the English Chamber Orchestra under Marcello Viotti. That is a recording that has an irresistible appeal in purely vocal terms, entirely smooth in an almost bolero-ish tenorism. The kind of voice our grandparents would call “beautiful”. And although he indulges in some portamento and emphasis, he does it judiciously, in a way that only adds flavor to the music. Vargas sang Mozart and Rossini before he ventured into heavier repertoire – and this recording was made in the first phase of his career. It is sung with classical poise, exactly as I wished: the tone is homogeneous, the high notes are integrated, nothing is done for show, this is elegant, smooth vocalism.

I’ve seen Ramón Vargas live a few times. First at the Met in 2005, in the title role of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette with Natalie Dessay, when he sung richly and with great poise. Three years later in the same theatre, I would see him again in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, unfortunately not in his best voice, but still dispatching his coloratura in the grand manner and with more volume than one would expect in the part. Later in 2012, there he was in Berlin in a concert performance of Verdi’s I Due Foscari, the part heavy for his voice – and yet he sang with his customary beauty of tone and sense of style. One year later, in Tokyo, I heard him as Riccardo in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. And then one could feel that he was really being naughty with his repertoire. While I still enjoyed the performance, the flutter and the lack of substance of his low notes were hard to overlook. I heard him last four years ago again as Tito in Paris – now the texture a bit slacker and the passaggio a bit overdark, but again, he is a singer of irresistible naturalness. There is a performance of Vargas I haven’t reviewed (it was a busy trip and then I didn’t feel I would be able to give a faithful account of that afternoon) – Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, i.e., his “home theatre”. It was endearing to see how he was adored by the audience, who would cry out “Bravo, Ramón!” every time he finished an aria (or a tiny little bit before that…)

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Although the most famous of all castrati, Farinelli, had the range of a soprano, modern audiences tend to expect a castrato part to fall in the “alto” slot. And why is that? According to Patrick Barbier’s book L’histoire des castrats, baroque composers tended to prefer to write “central” music for the castrato voice, even when the singer was capable of sustaining soprano tessitura. If we consider that the castrato voice tended to be bright and that their high notes were trumpet-like, we can infer that they sounded quite metallic and, therefore, not shown at their best in soft affetti. As castrati tended to take the leading man (primo uomo) roles, they were supposed to be capable to deliver arie d’affetto (i.e., tender or “romantic” in atmosphere), which would benefit from the exceptional clarity of their middle and lower registers. To be honest, the reason why you and I would reckon that a castrato part is meant for an alto is the fact that most baroque operas we see in the theatre have countertenors in alto parts (or a mezzo soprano en travesti) – and Handel has a great share of responsability there. All leading roles in Handel’s most famous operas – Alcina, Giulio Cesare, Orlando, Rinaldo, Rodelinda, Serse – are meant for the alto voice. While Handel often had female sopranos in breeches roles (such as Sesto in Giulio Cesare), he did write specifically for soprano castrati. A notable example can be found in the opera Radamisto.

In the first edition of Radamisto, used for the London première on April 1720, the part of Tigrane, Prince of Pontus, a soprano (the title role was sung by soprano Margherita Durastanti) was taken by Caterina Galerati. However, Handel was eager to have a new group of stars in the December revival. Therefore, not only did he recast the opera, but he even rewrote it to accommodate the roles to his new singers: Durastanti was now Zenobia, Galerati was given another breeches role, Fraarte, Senesino was the new Radamisto and the soprano castrato Matteo Berselli took over the part of Tigrane. One can only wonder how exciting it must have been to follow the season of the Royal Academy of Music and not only being able to witness the creation of an opera by Handel, but also having the opportunity to hear it rewritten for an exciting new cast eight months later. Although Berselli was said to be a rather inexpressive performer, Handel seems to have heard something in his singing, if one takes in consideration that Galerati sang three arias in April, while Berselli sang five in December. Also, both replacement arias (L’ingrato non amar instead of Deh fuggi and So ch’è vana la speranza instead of Con vana speranza) are nobler in tone and catchier in terms of melodic invention. As a matter of fact, Berselli’s claim to fame were his top notes and Handel seemed to be eager to let him use them. His arias are relatively high in tessitura (and he must have gone even higher in decoration in the repeat of the A section) and tend to use the full orchestra rather than the continuo (as often with secondary characters). If one has in mind that Tigrane is an entirely irrelevant character in the plot, the inevitable conclusion is that Handel liked Berselli’s voice and wrote these arias because he thought the audience would enjoy his singing for purely musical reasons.

It took me a while to choose among Tigrane’s arias, for I have found all of them appealing, either for the writing for the voice or for the way the orchestra was used. And that is why I picked Vuol ch’io serva – the way singer and orchestra interact is very effective and pleasing. Radamisto is based in an episode recorded in the Annals of Tacitus adapted into a libretto by Domenico Lalli for Francesco Gasparini’s opera L’Amor Tirannico, reworked by Nicola Haym in what we know as “Radamisto”. The plot is extremely convoluted and hard to explain, but I’ll try, even if it may be useless for the appreciation of Vuol ch’io serva. Tiridate, King of Armenia, is married to Polissena, the daughter of Farasmane, King of Thrace, who has a son, Radamisto, married to a lady named Zenobia. Tiridate is furiously in love with Zenobia, who is instead faithful to her husband. Outraged by her rejection, he decides to invade the city of Artanissa (which would be in what we call today Georgia) to take her by force. Tigrane, Prince of Pontus, an ally of Tiridate, loves Polissena and is shocked by her husband’s behaviour. He confesses his feelings and urges her to leave the king, but in vain. Meanwhile, Radamisto sees that his forces won’t resist Tiridate’s siege and makes the decision of running away with Zenobia in hope that the enemy will spare the city. The princess, however, blames herself (even if she is the victim) for the whole situation and asks her husband to kill her and save himself and the people of Thrace. However, Radamisto is incapable of hurting her. Zenobia understands that she will have to take her own life and jumps in the Aras River. When Tigrane’s army arrives at the scene, they find the dismayed Radamisto, who surrenders without putting a defence. However, Tigrane is aware that he is the brother of his beloved Polissena and, instead of taking him as prisoner to Tiridate, offers instead to guide him to his sister. And that is the moment he sings Vuol ch’io serva Amor la bella,/e salvo a quella/ ti fa scorta il mio valor. / Quanto gode l’alma mia/che desia/ di piacere al suo bel cor. (“Love wants me to serve that beauty/and in safety/ my valor will escort you to her/ How my soul rejoices,/for it longs /to please her noble heart”).

As you can see, the aria – as all Tigrane’s arias – has no dramatic purpose but to show that he loves Polissena and wants to win her heart. I wish I could explain all the subtleties of Handel’s dramatic points in the writing of Vuol ch’io serva, but the truth is that these arias are almost concert items in the middle of an opera. The next number in the score is the hauntingly expressive Ombra cara; in comparison, Tigrane sounds polite at most. I’ve looked for a long while at the notes of Vuol ch’io serva to see if I could come up with something. I might pretend that there is something behind the fact that the number “3” is all over those pages – it is a triple tempo (3/4) with triplets everywhere. Indeed, it is a love declaration by proxy. Tigrane has no special feeling for Radamisto, not even friendship, but he loves his sister, Polissena, and is being nice to the prince just to please HER. On the other hand, Radamisto could not care less about Tigrane or even Polissena at this point – his mind too is fixed in a third party, Zenobia, who had been swept away by the waves. This explanation is, of course, total bullsh**. However, I can’t help hearing the waves in the triplets in the orchestra. They are by the river, which means two different things for these two men: for Radamisto, is the resting place of his wife; for Tigrane it shows the way to his Zenobia. It means hopelessness for one of them and hope for the other one. But I am positive that Handel did not think of anything like that when he composed it. What we can hear in Vuol ch’io serva is a music of a courteous dance-like atmosphere. It is really graceful in a “feel good” way. We can objectively say that Tigrane is totally indifferent to what is going on with Radamisto – he is living his own lucky strike. The B section actually has nothing to do with Radamisto at all – he only thinks of the moment when we comes to Polissena and says “I have a special gift for you – ta da! – your brother”. In a way, it almost serves a dramatic purpose: the audience has just seen an extremely dramatic scene (Radamisto tries to hear Zenobia’s pleas to be killed and save her country only to see her drown in the next second) and instead of hearing a powerful lamento, gets to see Tigrane arrive with his army and in perfectly good mood offer a deus ex machina that means absolutely nothing to our hero. Radamisto has to suffer that explosion of serendipity before he has the opportunity to go all minor chords, chromaticism, dark affetti in an imaginary conversation with his deceased wife in Ombra cara.

Of course, Vuol ch’io serva, charming as it is, does not go into the top ten list of baroque opera arias, maybe not even the top 100, but the reason why I chose it for the Music Lounge is the singing of soprano Dana Hanchard. I first heard Hanchard as Nerone in John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and it took me a while to process her voice. Was it a countertenor? No, the range extended to high notes that flowed spontaneously without any hint of pushing or forcing. Was it a soprano then? The color is so androgynous throughout the whole range, it was odd. Was it a computer trick like in the Farinelli movie? No, no audible clicks. That voice was simply the most convincing sound for a soprano castrato role I have ever heard – and I still believe that. Of course, nobody has ever heard a soprano castrato – and I would bet Berselli’s voice was at least brighter than Hanchard’s, but hers is perfectly androgynous and homogenous throughout the range to create that illusion. The high notes have an almost eerie sound, blooming but also slightly earthy. To make things better, Dana Hanchard is entirely at ease with baroque music, phrases with great musicality, has feeling for the text and handles the ornaments very well. She had a very restricted repertoire, though: mostly baroque music. As far as I understand, she now concentrates on composition and teaching and lives in Japan (good for her!). Her recordings involve two soprano castrato parts: the Nerone in Gardiner’s Poppea and the Tigrane in Nicholas McGegan’s Radamisto. There is still a Monteverdi Orfeo and a collection of Bach secular cantatas with Reinhard Goebel. On Youtube, one can see her as the Incoronazione Poppea too. I wish she had considered a Sifare in Mozart’s Mitridate or the other Nerone in Handel’s Agrippina as well.

In Vuol ch’io serva, Hanchard seems to have understood Tigrane’s state of mind here. She projects a dignified self-satisfaction that has a dreamy “in love with love” vibe at moments. We can hear that right in the first moment when he thinks of Polissena by the way Hanchard pronounces “la bella” (the beautiful one) and also when he refers to her again (to her) by the way she caresses the high g in “a quella. Handel even make the tempo slower here; Tigrane takes a deep breath and remembers that Radamisto is still there. We hear the wave-like triplets in the orchestra and Tigrane now sings a higher and slightly more complicated version of the first material that takes him to his first high b. I particularly like that Handel doesn’t have the orchestra simply accompanying the singer, but increasingly dialoguing with him always with the wave motive, as if to reminds us that bigger things are happening around Tigrane’s own hormones. It is curious that Handel chose for the melisma the words valor (bravery) on triplets as much as the wave-motive. With its many pauses, it sounds more elegant than heroic. The second melisma is on the word salvo (safe), but here the triplets are going higher and higher to a high a. Hanchard does a curious portamento in the end of it. At first, I wished she didn’t – it sounds almost unstylish – but now I get it. It is not only the waves that are swelling at this point, but also Tigrane’s own pulse. The portamento adds a touch of exaltation to this increase in ardor.

The B section has the orchestra and the singer dialoguing right away. It is harmonically contrasted with the A section, but minimally. It is an intensification of the feeling in the first part rather than a different perspective from it. In the repeat, Hanchard is not very adventurous with ornamentation, but adds extra high notes, as Berselli would have, even if I suspect he might have been a little bit more showy with his high register.

It has not been long since the Lindenoper had a new production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro: Jürgen Flimm’s in 2015, as seen on video with Dorothea Röschmann, Anna Prohaska, Marianne Crebassa and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, Claus Guth. One could say there is nothing exceptional there – Thomas Langhoff’s 1999 production too was in duty for six years too. Le Nozze di Figaro is a tough assignment to a director – I don’t believe there is one person in the world willing to see a traditional staging at this point, but it is also challenging for a Régie approach, not only for the the time-specific circumstances (droit du seigneur, household servants requiting authorization for marriage from the lord of the house etc etc), but also because of the nature of the relationship between these characters. Yes, although the level of power a master (especially an aristocrat) had over those who worked for him gradually decreased since the days of Beaumarchais to a post WWII situation where there was practically none (in a purely European context, of course), it is odd from a 21st century perspective to see a household with so many people outside the family strictu sensu – unless we are speaking of very rich and extravagant people. I mean, Figaro, Susanna, Cherubino, Barbarina, Basilio, Bartolo, Marcellina, Antonio are not only a cleaning person, a cook, a gardener etc: they are intimate to the Almavivas in an entirely unprofessional way. And that is why Vincent Huguet’s idea of showing the Count and the Countess as celebrities in the entertainment business seems particularly insightful: due to the very nature of their activities, famous singers, actors, producers require lots of people working for them and, most often than not, they become “part of the family” in a way. It is a small milieu and, if you’re fired, you might not get another job like this – so this means you would be more willing to subject to your bosses’ whims than if you were a salesperson (with a significantly lower wage). I still have to understand why it was important to set the action in the 1980’s. The only reason I can think of is that everything was possible in the 80’s and all kind of bizarre and inexplicable behaviours were considered normal back then. This choice also involves a certain visual humor in the way costumes, make up, wigs and sets are designed. However, much of what was supposed to be “period colouring” ends up mostly as noise to the communication. I couldn’t make any sense of the extras training in gym suits in the Almaviva’s kitchen or the Countess’s bunker-like bedroom/music studio with a “magical” wall instead of a simple door for the closet, but that’s secondary to the fact that it was very well directed, everyone on stage in character, interacting coherently with perfect timing. I never expect to laugh in a performance of a comic opera, and yet I found some scenes funny this afternoon. And act 4 was particularly successful – the use of animal masks for all characters added an extra layer of meaning, to start with. Only the “trailer” for La Mère Coupable in the last 10 seconds could have been better developed during the rest of the opera.

The stage direction had a positive effect in the cast, all of them acted well. I had seen Nadine Sierra’s Susanna at the Met, but this telecast is a complete improvement from what she did in New York. There she seemed excessively knowing and arch. Here rather than being someone who is on top of everything that might happen, Susanna is someone who likes to believe that she is on top of everything that might happen. When she is not, she just acts as if. This seems a nuance, but it is the difference between acting like a OCD-afflicted goblin and an energetic young person. I find her Italian here even more spontaneous than it was in New York – both in terms of pronunciation and in the way she used the text. It is difficult to compare a live performance with a recorded one, but it seems there is also more of a bloom in her middle register too. Although she didn’t make me forget a Lucia Popp or a Mirella Freni in both her arias, her performance as a whole was extremely consistent and pleasing. Elsa Dreisig does not possess the most distinctive sound in the operatic scene, but one can feel that this is the repertoire in which she was trained. It is a second nature for her. Most singers sound straitjacketed by Mozartian style, you just look at them and feel that they are really unhappy by having to control a phrase as if it was a neurosurgery, but not Elsa Dreisig. She could sing Porgi, amor or Dove, sono in her sleep. And she sang her own high c’s in Susanna, or via sortite as if they were nothing. I can feel that some people would call her performance unspectacular for some reason, but that is precisely why I like her as the Countess. She sings it with complete naturalness. And that is rare. Emily d’Angelo looked so convincing and “handsome” as Cherubino and acted so well that I feel badly for saying that, vocally, I found her lacking. Her voice has developed a squillante quality that is plainly wrong for Mozart. Also, she tended to end her phrases abruptly – the result was earthbound and short of charm and smoothness. Gyula Orendt, on the other hand, has the suaveness of tone that could be helpful in the role of the Count, but the truth is that he would benefit from some edge. As it was, his singing lacked substance and tended to disappear in ensembles. Long before act 3, I could tell that he would struggle with Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro and I can only compliment him for his solid technique. He fought with his dying breath to get to the end of the aria and, even if we feared for his health, he managed the melisme and the high f sharp better than some people with the right voice for the role. Riccardo Fassi is just the kind of singer you would expect to hear in the role of Figaro – a young bass, velvety of tone and firm in his high notes, idiomatic in his native language and he’s also a funny guy. Sometimes the director forced his hand in what he required from him, but Mr. Fassi made it happen in a way or the other. I have the impression his voice might develop in something a bit larger than what Mozart requires. But, again, at this point it is very well suited to the role.

Daniel Barenboim’s history with this score could be the theme of a thesis. From a heavy-handed, joyless recording with Heather Harper and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau we saw him gradually acquiring the necessary lightness and balance in live performances in Berlin. Curiously, there seems to have been some sort of negative development here. As recorded, the performance was a bit thick in sound, heavy-footed in beat but very keen on horizontal clarity – woodwind working really heard for accuracy. Unfortunately, this did not mean true transparence of ensemble – the big act 2 finale, at least as recorded, sounded tangled and messy to my ears, and the finale ultimo a bit band-like and a dark-ish in sound.

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Nobody sings like Brigitte Fassbaender. She is one of those singers you just need two or three notes and you’ll know it is her. I was going to write that no German mezzo sings like Fassbaender – and, yes, most German mezzos are quite soprano-like in sound and we often hear “it’s difficult to tell the Isolde from the Brangäne'”. That never happens with Fassbaender, especially when she shifts to her low notes, definitely chestier than what you hear across the Alps. And I would not say she sounds “Italianate” either – the voice is more middle-centric than what you’ll find with Italian mezzos, who tend to shine in both ends of the range. And that takes us to another conundrum around Fassbaender’s voice: if you look at her repertoire, you’ll be tempted to say she was a dramatic mezzo, but you soon realize that this was never the grain of her voice. Yet she didn’t either sound like a light mezzo soprano – the voice sounds dark-ish, a bit heavy and there isn’t really a float there. Sui generis is the word you must be thinking about.

The word I’m thinking about, however, is “naughty”, but that was not the beginning of the story. Fassbaender could be a “good girl”, as her recordings ranging from Bach to Rosina’s Una voce poco fa tell. It is noteworthy that Mozart always seemed a bit claustrophobic for her personality, but the fact is that she gradually walked away from niceness. She was a singer that needed to go for broke – she could force her low notes, drive her high register dangerously tense. She did have a solid technique (and the fact that she managed the passaggio so adeptly is an evidence of it) but she needed to test her limits – and that made her singing particularly exciting. You felt that one inch more would mean rolling downhill into the abyss. And this is why she was able to convince us that she could sing dramatic roles. In any case, apparently she convinced Riccardo Muti she could sing Amneris and Carlo Maria Giulini that she could sing Azucena. Fassbaender was not only a matter of guts – she is a highly intelligent woman and she makes a point of doing things her way. Even if one acknowledges that Verdi requires a different voice for parts like these, you feel compelled to hear what she is doing in them because you’ll never hear them sung like that anywhere else. Curiously, Fassbaender was less adventurous in Wagner. As far as I know, she sang Fricka, Brangäne, Magdalene and Waltraute (beside the inevitable Flosshilde), but (wisely, I would say) no Venus, Ortrud or Kundry. Her most famous operatic role, in any case, is Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, on paper a soprano part. Even compared to other mezzos, Fassbaender sounded darker and clearly less “Mozartian” in it. It was indeed an intense account of the role, matched by her alert stage presence (although everyone mentions her father, baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, as an influence on her, we can’t forget that her mother, Sabine Peters, was a theatre and movie actress).

The heavy duty eventually had a cost, of course. After a while, the texture in Fassbaender’s tone sounded increasingly loose. The vibrato became prominent and the dynamic range shorter. This is the beginning of what one could call Fassbaender’s second career in Straussian “character roles”: the Amme in Frau ohne Schatten and Klytämnestra in Elektra, performances usually described as “demented”. She was also an active concert singer and recorded many alto parts in symphonic works, as in Giuseppe Sinopoli’s Mahler series. However, one cannot play down her importance as a Lieder singer. Although Fassbaender’s vocal personality was a bit too exuberant for chamber music, her unique take on text and music made her revelatory, even when the voice lacked some finish. For instance, if you want to hear a woman singing Schubert’s Die Winterreise, then her recording with composer Aribert Reimann is unavoidable.

You might be curious to know what we are going to hear with a singer whose repertoire was so wide and whose discography was so extensive. I’ve always regretted the fact that she didn’t leave any complete recording in the role of Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo. No doubt it sat on the limit of her possibilities, but her studio recording of highlights in German with Edda Moser, Nicolai Gedda, Kurt Moll, the Berlin Radio Symphonic Orchestra and Giuseppe Patanè treasures one of my favorite accounts of O Don Fatale (here Verhängnisvoll war das Geschenk). First of all, I must explain that, even if I’d rather listen to opera in the original language, I make an exception for Verdi auf Deutsch, not only because of the effect of the wordiness in the German text but also because this allows us to hear singers not usually recorded in that repertoire in roles actually apt for their voices. In this case, Fassbaender has the flashing personality for Eboli and her élan makes the character a little bit more believable than it usually is. Moreover, she sounds young in it and has the right touch of vulnerability behind the excesses of passion. I won’t write about the role or the aria itself, for I have done it already here in 2008 (I thought of rewriting the text, but part of me like the fact that it sounds like my 2008 self).

The first thing one notices about Fassbaender’s O don fatale is that she doesn’t start at 100%. Here she avoids, as most mezzos do, tossing her desperation right at our faces, but rather walking us through many layers of feelings. As the text tells us, she realizes for the first time that being attractive is the reason why she finds herself in such a dire situation; she is still processing this insight, even weighing pros and cons – yes, beauty is something that makes women like her stand out, but it is also a curse in disguise and she regrets it now. This is no self-piteous whining – Eboli is a princess and one must feel that she is settling a personal matter with God at this point. She is that important. And Fassbaender enunciates the text in the grand manner – hear the way she spits her consonants in Wie Du so stolz, so eitel mich machest (=Tu che ci fai si vane, altere). After she has cursed her own beauty, the extent of her predicament finally dawns on her: she is an outcast now, a traitor, a despicable person. On top of her own proudness, she despises herself. The next phrases (in Italian, Versar, versar sol posso il pianto, speme non ho, soffrir dovrò, il mio delitto è orribil tanto, che cancellar mai nol potrò – I can only let my tears flow, I have no hope, I must suffer, my crime is so horrible that I will never be able to revert it) fall right in the middle register in an aria that tends to require a lot of both low and high notes. I.e., the singer may sound a bit off here. Yet Fassbaender delivers them with absolute clarity. The text, especially in German, is wordy – all those ideas are running through her head. It is important for the singer to keep these treacherous phrases focused for they are building up to a powerful climax – a c flat (high b natural), a very high note for a mezzo soprano. Fassbaender hits it with absolute precision. It is a radiant note which she holds as long as she can and then, with the help of a downward portamento seamlessly transitions for another c flat, this one two octaves lower. Here, not only Fassbaender’s control of chest resonance pays off but also she finds the right touch of snarl in the corresponding text, Ah, sei verflucht! (I curse you!) It must be said that this makes more sense in German than in Italian, because of the inversion in the translation (in Italian, the lower part of the phrase has the text O mia beltà – “My beauty”).

After this tempestuous introduction, the aria itself, which is more lyric in nature, begins. Here is the part when she regrets everything she has done. In the introduction, it was all God’s fault (who has cursed her with beauty). Now Eboli is taking responsabilty for her own actions in an imaginary dialogue with the queen (whom she has betrayed by falsely accusing her of doing something she herself was guilty of). The way Verdi wrote it is very testing for the singer – it involves again and again navigating the passaggio (so-olo in-UNCHIOS-TRO). With Fassbaender, one hardly notices any change in the quality of the sound. But this is not the only challenge here. There is a very subtle building climax – phrases are very repetitive and Verdi requires each instalment to be sung a little bit louder only to allow for some relaxation in dynamic before it all starts over again and again. The middle register is a tough place to put some weight on the voice – if you go ballistic there, then shifting into high register is going to be really tough – and that’s exactly what is happening next. Fassbaender creates this cumulative effect by letting these notes spin rather than force them – you can feel that they’re becoming more and more vibrant rather than pressed hard upon. When she finally has to attack directly a high b flat, you see how much of a risk-taker she was. She handles the tricky passage with poise, but you can see she ends the phrase in the last molecule of air available to her at this point. Verdi has another peril in reserve in the a flat – g – a flat “shake” in al mondo omai dovrò cellar il mio dolor (I’ll must hide my pain from the world). Here’s generally the moment you feel the singer is desperate for some repose (unfortunately, this is not going to happen). The text in German is more congenial (she has only vowels) and there’s room for an extra pause for breathing.

Now we have a recitative before the stretta (some would call it a cabaletta, but it’s really so brief that I feel unsure if this would be the right way to call it). This is the moment when she thinks of Don Carlos. The fact that he did not correspond her feelings is the reason why Eboli wrongly accused the queen (who happens to be the one the prince really loves). Yet she realizes now that he is the one who’ll receive the blow of the king’s revenge. Again in German, this passage sounds even wordier and that’s how it is supposed to sound – Eboli is quickly considering everything that can go wrong with Carlo. Cleverly, Fassbaender sings it as lightly as possible as if a bit in shock and saves the energy to let out a dark Ein Tag bleibt noch mir (=Un dì mi resta, I still have one day left). Once more Verdi is asking from the singer everything she still has left to offer. Eboli sees that her single hope of atonement is saving Carlos and she’s going all for it. The passage starts in a high a flat marked ff. Verdi makes the mezzo plunge down to her low register just once more before gradually lifting the tessitura in phrases that require almost Rossinian precision until he makes her sing two b flats, while she repeats she’ll save Carlos, she’ll save him, God helps her. Fassbaender makes it very exciting, for she doesn’t spare herself, while keeping the voice focused and bright (which is the wise way of doing it if you’re not a dramatic mezzo – I’d say “even if you’re a dramatic mezzo”). The first b flat (which comes in the end of a half-scale) is the one singers usually like to cut short as fast as possible – Fassbaender still finds some leeway to round it off with aplomb. The second one is actually tougher: the way Verdi really wrote it, there is no place to breathe in the whole phrase and you still have to end it in a long high a. What mezzos do with it in real life is unpredictable – the text is reorganised, the phrase is chopped, there’s always an “ah!” to save the day. I don’t really know how the German text is supposed to be – it could be anything, for Verdi himself never wrote a German version (as we know, until a scholar comes with a new theory, the opera was originally composed in French instead). As most singers do in the Italian text, she finds a pause before the high b flat, but she proves to be bit naughtier by making a second pause after that: Ich rette ihn (pause) ach (pause) ja! She makes it work like that. Frankly, at this point she had already sold me her account of O don fatale anyway…

Otto Schenk’s production was in use in Munich since 1972. We have seen it on video with Gwyneth Jones, Brigitte Fassbaender and Lucia Popp and, when I finally caught it live a couple of yours ago, I couldn’t help thinking that it was high time the Bavarian State Opera listened to the Feldmarschallin when she says Versteht Er nicht, wenn eine Sach’ ein End’ hat? The day for its retirement has finally arrived: a new staging by Barrie Kosky has been unveiled in a telecast. I wonder what would have been the audience’s responde if there had been an audience in the theatre. I have to be honest that my first impression was very negative – I’ve found Rufus Didviszus’s sets and Victoria Behr’s costumes hideous. The Marschallin must have the best curtains in Vienna – for it all looks dark even when characters say that it is daytime. Even with the scarce lighting, the stylisation of the “original” (or for that matter, Jürgen Rose’s) set designs looks gaudy. This is not the first Rosenkavalier I’ve seen where there is a hard-to-explain fantasy with jungle. Although the Marschallin and Octavian are supposed to be alone in her room, there comes an army of stagehands to bring samples of the tropical flora for them to play Adam and Even in a messy, busy and regrettable blocking. There is also an old gentleman doubling as Cupid and Time who stands in for many characters in the plot. The good thing is that he barely has a costume – so it’s one less ugly piece of garment on stage.

Barrie Kosky seems to have become one of these directors who have to advertise his “signature” in every staging so that the audience remembers he directed it at all times. And subtlety is not part of it – the man can’t do subtlety to save his life. Rosenkavalier has two contrasting atmosphere’s – and Kosky’s all-out approach could work for Ochs’s farcical, physical-comedy world, but it’s definitely too much for the Marschallin’s boudoir. Although he has a fine actress for the role, she is so busy cavorting and crawling and running around that she could get an olympic gold medal rather than an Olivier for her acting there. I was disappointed, however, to see that even the comedy scenes are done in the same underlined, bold plus italics manner he has staged operetta in the Komische Oper, for instance. The Faninal Palais is a mix of the National Gallery and Disneyland, where young unmarried ladies are allowed to receive male guests in her bed and silver carriages with horses are welcome. Since Salzburg is only a one-hour train ride away, horned extras from the Orpheée aux Enfers were invited for the whole engagement signing ceremony. Maybe it was low expectation at that point, but I’ve found the concept for act 3 (where the tavern is a shown as a theatre stage) insightful and efficient. After all, everybody is putting an act there. All that said, there is a great deal to praise here. While everybody moved bureaucratically in the Schenk staging after more than 40 years since its première, this one had truly compelling Personenregie. Kosky got the relationship between the Marschallin and Ochs right – they really behave as cousins. He looks charming in a slightly obnoxious way, while she doesn’t bother to act grand-dame-ish in her own bedroom. They react to everything each other say in a telling and believable way. I am not so sure about the oversexed Mariandl – I can’t see the point of Octavian wanting to tease another man, especially one who boasts to be some sort of beastly Don Juan. In act 2, the whole thing is so broadly played “for gags” that it is hard to speak of “insight”, but some members of the cast are really comfortable with what is required for them.

It is very difficult for me to speak about Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting in this performance, for most inexplicably the Bavarian State Opera has decided to use the orchestration of an Eberhard Kloke, unless I am made to believe that this gentleman understands orchestration better than Richard Strauss himself. If this has something to do with sanitary measures due to the pandemics, it would have been wiser to stage something the original orchestration of which is safe enough, maybe La Finta Giardiniera. They certainly could have used Kosky’s staging exactly as it is. The obsessive use of the piano and other keyboard instruments alone made it hard for me to keep listening to this performance. I know it is a matter of taste, but for my taste this has brought a “polite” atmosphere to scenes that should be frankly emotional. I have the impression that other tampering with Strauss’s original orchestra was responsible for the peculiar orchestral sound picture. The amount of “tingle” factor in this performance was reduced to almost zero, due to the absence of Schwung in key moments. Also, although there was vertical clarity enough, it seems that a decision has been made in favor of indistinct articulation that made some famously kaleidoscopic moments (such as the orchestral introductions to act 1 and 3) a bit blurred. Mr. Jurowski seems to have a fondness for brisk tempi in this score – and, considering that Kloke’s orchestration is the non-lactose, skimmed version of the Straussian cream, it is a reasonable option, although entirely free of expression. The Marschallin mused about the passage of times objectively, Octavian gave Sophie her silver rose perfunctorily and the three of them duly move on from their present troubles in the end of act 3.

Malis Petersen has sung the role of Sophie both in Munich and Vienna (and elsewhere) and, as much as Elisabeth Söderström, Lisa della Casa, Lucia Popp, Helen Donath or Edith Mathis, is graduating to the role of the Feldmarschallin. She has many advantages in the part: a pure, trouble-free soprano that climbs to high notes without hesitation while being audible enough in the lower reaches, crystalline diction, expert word-pointing, instrumental phrasing and the necessary poise. This Marschallin means everything she says – and her fully-engaged acting is helped by a very expressive face that looks young and radiant at one moment just to seem worldweary and melancholic in the next second. Yet we are used to richer tones and a bit more volume in the role. As a result, Ms. Petersen may sound monochromatic now and then and tends to disappear in ensembles. In any case, I am eager to listen to her Marschallin audio only to form an opinion. Samantha Hankey’s fruity, slightly grainy mezzo is the kind of voice one expects to hear in the role of Octavian. She finds no problem in the high tessitura, sings the German text with clarity, looks convincingly boyish and acts well. As many singers in the role, she goes a bit over the top as Mariandl, but here I would say she must have been encouraged by the director. The lovely Katharina Konradi could be an ideal Sophie – the voice shines in its high reaches, she sings with great affection and sense of style – but lacks the floating mezza voce for the delivery of the silver rose. Christof Fischesser has been the second-best option in German bass roles all around Europe for a while but it seems that this Rosenkavalier might be an opportunity for him to go to the top of the list. As recorded, it was a very solid performance – sung uncut – the voice firm and rich throughout the whole range. He is not the kind of Ochs who floats a high f in his big act 1 scene and tends to make his point through crispy delivery of the text, sometimes almost parlando in style, but within the limits of musicality. He also acts the part with restrain (considering what is required from him by the director) and in the end seems more believable than most singers who go for open buffoonery in this role. Minor roles were cast from strength, especially bête-de-scène Johannes Martin Kränzle, a forceful Faninal.