Music lounge (8)

We’re crossing the alps this week for an Italian item in the music lounge, which is the aria In quelle trine morbide from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. This is the Italian’s composer first truly big hit, in its curious 18th century setting*. The title role is challenging in many ways. The character itself – as devised by the Abbé Prévost – is very elusive. Manon is not a mean person. She only finds it unfair that some people have so much and she has very little, while she sees no obvious reasons for that. Actually, in one scene, she even says that, unlike her sugar daddy, she looks like someone who should have money. Her attachment to Des Grieux is sincere from the beginning, although she is so self-centered that she rarely cares about his feelings. That is also why she is not ashamed of telling him things as they are – from her point of view, of course. This means that you can’t really build an interpretation from a virago point-of-view, for Manon is not making a stand for anything. If she had been born in a rich family, she might have been a “classically” good girl. Vocally, it is basically very tough singing – the tessitura is often low, the high notes are exposed, the orchestra is big – and to add an 18th century flavor to the proceedings – Puccini asks for trills and other other baroque-ish turns of phrase. The last act is plainly dramatic soprano repertoire.

I have always found that no other soprano competes with Renata Tebaldi in the role. Tebaldi is a singer who has gone a bit off the radar these days. Some consider her singing old-fashioned, some point out technical glitches (especially her high notes), some choose to put things into a Callas vs. Tebaldi perspective, in which the latter is supposed to be “dull” one. There is some point in today’s audience lack of enthusiasm about Tebaldi. First, we who never heard her live miss a very important element of her singing – it was a truly big voice, albeit a lyric one, with heavenly pianissimi and smooth legato. Second, her official recordings show her in a very restricted repertoire – basically Puccini and Verdi – while she was a rather adventurous performer within the realms of opera in Italian language (or in translation). She sang Mozart, she sang Wagner and some very obscure composers. Even if Tebaldi could be variable – mostly in her late recordings – she was one of the first Italian sopranos I’ve really listened to and I took immediate liking to her. I can’t say she has set a standard for me – because I find her unique. I am curious about how she was trained – it is evidently a natural voice (and that is why she got away with some technical problems a less naturally gifted singer would have to master if she wished to have a professional career) whose natural qualities were left… natural. There are no tricks in her voice – it sounds almost as a spoken voice on steroids in its firmness, sheen, tonal congeniality and clarity of diction. It is a voice that sounds real. Even as Manon Lescaut, a role in which she opts for a “girlish” sound, as sopranos used to do in the first part of the 20th century. Actually, it is notable that in a part with a difficult tessitura such as Manon, Tebaldi could manage the girlish voice as successfully as she does. In the book, Manon is very young – and although the music requires almost Wagnerian passion – Tebaldi copes with both demands comfortably.

Tebaldi was not a marathon-runner as an interpreter – such as Callas was, for instance. She worked with micro-objectives, responding directly to the text, small paintbrushes. One could rightly point out that in the end, she would not build a fully coherent character (the way Callas did), but she rarely let down in what each line required. I don’t really believe – although everybody likes to describe Tebaldi as not particularly bright (I must say that this description usually comes from people who conversed with her in a language other than Italian) – that her interpretative touches were fully spontaneous. Sometimes, she would indulge in formulae – like singhiozzi – but she really knew how to use them and, most importantly, WHERE to use them.

In Manon’s In quelle trine morbide, I believe she has no rivals. It is an exquisite concoction in every detail, almost vocally immaculate, in which she concentrates only in bringing that woman to life, young, beautiful, ambitious, egoistic and passionate. YouTube seems to have a problem with Tebaldi – almost all video have terrible sound quality. I first thought of choosing Poveri fiori from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (in which Tebaldi reigns unrivalled), but I couldn’t find a decent clip. But after a long process of selection, I did find a good clip of the Puccini item. I warn you that the cover image with Giulini as the conductor is probably wrong. It seems to me that this is only the Erede recording after a good remastering.

One special feature of Tebaldi’s singing is the fact that she was able to produce bell-toned singing in such large scale. I can’t think of anyone else able to do this – maybe Fiorenza Cossotto in her good days. And this is how she starts, singing the words In quelle trine morbide (among these soft curtains) in absolutely pearly tones, you can almost see those wonderful, smooth velvet curtains all around, but she really got me in the lovely portamento in MORbide (soft). It adds a touch of disdain, as if she said “right, they’re expensive, but booooring”. The purity of tone with which she descends to nell’alcova dorata (in this golden sleeping room) is short of miraculous. She is not scaling down to achieve the effect, she is just able to keep this creamy lyric quality in an area most lyric sopranos need to shift to the second gear to move on. It is amazing how she creates a dramatic effect here – you have this lovely voice describing a golden room with velvet curtains and when she says v’è un silenzio (there is such a silence), you get it is not a “good” silence. The voice gains body when she says it – she hates that room. And when when she repeats it, it’s in her softest of voices with luxuriant portamenti, “yes, but being poor is worse than glamorous boredom”. But that’s the problem with Manon – she is not as scheming and self-controlled as she wished – she wants the money and the comfort, but in her soul she wants more than that. And that is why the whole legato and lyric tone goes away in un freddo che m’aghiaccia (it just freezes me). Then we have this beautiful transition to the part when she describes what she lost from the days when she chose love over money (i.e., when she lived with Des Grieux in his student quarters). Her whole voice sounds laden with a new energy in Ed io che m’ero avezza a una carezza voluttuosa (And I who got used to voluptuous caresses), but still Tebaldi does not let herself entirely go there. She is able to suggest the passion but she avoids all the easy tricks here – she doesn’t overstress syllables like caREZza or volutTUosa (in a later recording, that is exactly what she does). She softens the tone in both these syllables. She is not desperate here – and this is not obvious – because as much as she liked being loved, she likes money and luxury even more. She is just melancholic, she wished she could have both. Even in the climax of the first part of the aria she keeps it within the realms of longing rather than anguish. Di labbra ardenti ed infuocate braccie/Or ho tutt’altra cosa (of ardent lips and fiery arms/And now… what a difference!). The transition of the fulness of tone of “or ho” to the flicker in TUTt’altra cosa tells you everything you have to know about Manon. This is not heartache, dejection, depression – that shimmer in the tutta is like a gentle laugh. She is there, all comfy, thinking, glamour is great, but sex is better.

Then we have another transition, this time she goes a little bit deeper in her recollections. Although she is in this golden, velvety room, the simple, unadorned room in which she lives with Des Grieux appears in front of her. It looks brighter, whiter, happier because it was full of love. Ah, mia dimora umile, tu mi ritorni innanzi (Oh, my humble dwelling, I can see you again) is sung with her bell-toned voice, the slow portamento in innanzi as if she didn’t want that image go. Gaia, isolata, bianca (cheerful, isolated, white) is the single moment when we can sense Tebaldi’s Achilles heel – the note in bianca (white) feels a bit tense, but she uses it to her favor as a contrast to the lovely spun piano in the end of the phrase, rounded off with a lovely gasp: the image is gone. The last phrase Come un sogno gentile (as a sweet dream of peace and love), is sung in a new tone, entirely shimmering, floated, a dream-like sound. She sings di pace (of peace) in her most silvery voice and again uses her breathing before the creamy pianissimo in d’amor for the dramatic purpose of the sudden realisation of the luxury good really in shortage there: love.

It is a memento of Tebaldi’s artistry how she managed to show you that this is no tragic scene – it is not Vissi, d’arte – it is just fancying, it is heartfelt and superficial at the same time. This is Manon – she wants it all – but she knows that nothing is worse than poverty. Only when she faces real misery she finally understands what is important to her. But that’s later in the opera and the whole approach to singing is different. And Tebaldi does it in the grand manner too.

As Jerold has kindly pointed out in his comment, the YouTube video embedded above is not available in all countries. I will keep it, though, because it is in exceptionally good sound. But the Erede recording with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande can be easily found on YouTube anywhere.

*Actually, this is not the only verismo opera set in the settecento – there is always Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur to start with.

Music lounge (7)

In one of the most famous standards of bossa nova repertoire, Tom Jobim’s Wave (the original title in English), one line says “it is impossible to be happy when you’re alone”. Well, German poet Richard Dehmel begs to differ. I used to joke that his Waldseligkeit is the most German of love poems. You only discover that there is a beloved one in the last verse, and what the poet actually tells her is that he is truly hers when he is at his 100% himself, i.e. alone in the woods. That means – she is not even there! But Richard Strauss – who had a strange way with choosing the texts for his songs – makes this happen. And – curious as it may sound – you would believe your beloved one if he/she told that strange amorous feeling about you when away from you if he/she told you just the way Strauss composed it. Especially if you heard it from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in her studio recording with Georg Szell and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. If I had to pick one recording to prove why she was so famous, this would be the one. Here, everything plays to her strengths and her husband Walter Legge should be praised for producing such a special recording – ideal singer, ideal conductor, ideal orchestra, ideal Tonmeister. It is the crème de la crème of recorded music.

It is said that Strauss composed the song having his wife’s Pauline de Ahna’s soprano in his mind. It seems she did not sing anymore when he composed it, but she was the model for the vocalism required here, for one of her special talents was the ability to float sustained notes. I never thought the piano version was what the composer had in mind as a final idea. It feels empty and the accompanying figures in the orchestra – even with the very best pianists – are hard to make out. Norman del Mar in his Critical Commentary of Richard Strauss’s Life and Works even says the piano version had always been a draft for the orchestral version, although he cannot prove that. He is right – you just need to hear the orchestral version and the whole spell is there. The orchestral sound picture for the first stanza is a miracle of musical description. The low tessitura, the warm sounds of strings give an impression at once intimate and wide – a forest. And there is this up-and-down figure that works like a “walking bass” in Klangfarbenmelodie technique shared among wind instruments – the trees stirring, gently touching each other in the night breeze. And the soprano sings very long lines that has an almost hypnotic effect – one feels spirited away to this magic landscape. Actually, this magic moment that makes the forest so special. As much as in the closing scene of Daphne, the tessitura gradually rises – there to depict Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree (Karl Böhm used to say that we could hear the tree rising in the very orchestral sound), here to depict the poet’s bosom swelling with the magical moment, he is one with the forest and as wide as the forest, he is at his fullest – and that is how he can defines how he feels towards his beloved. He has to be alone in this forest because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to grasp the immensity of his feeling. And that is why the last word in the poem is so important – and what is usually called Schwarzkopf’s mannerisms is here something of a hyperconsciousness – she doesn’t let go any expressive device to show this unusual declaration of love – it has to be one long, seamless gesture that ends in “Dein!” (yours). And she does it.

In many interviews, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf explained how she cultivated her trademark felt-like tonal quality. When you see her sing, you can actually understand the whole method employed by her to cover her tone in a way that you would not hear any metallic overtone in it, something she would consider vulgar. But she was also able to shift to a more “open” sound, especially when she thought that the material required something more “natural”, folklike – then her voice had an appealing, almost pop sound. And, not surprisingly, she builds her Waldseligkeit from the “natural” sound towards her “cultivated” sound. You can hear the natural sound in “Der WALD”, it is almost white, childish-like in tone. You can almost hear her wide-eyed facial expression in it – as if she was eager to tell us something. Now she got your attention and keeps it by means of absolutely perfect legato. You hear her breath, but it’s part of the same arch, she starts over with the exact same sound and she “inhabits” every long note. It’s not the fixed, computer-beep sound many singers believe that they have to produce there, they are shimmering as the dusk through the canopies of leaves moving to the breeze. The way she attacks the mezza voce in Nacht (night) is one of the loveliest sounds every produced by a singer. You can feel what she is talking about only by listening to that sound. The way she sings als ob sie selig lauschen” (as if they were blissfully listening) is another example of the tonal contrast – she starts the phrase with the roundest of sounds, relishing the chromatic descent that effectively describes the sensation, the bliss until she goes back to the “natural” sound in lauschen (listening). It sounds almost childlike – but it adds a touch of excitement, she is describing something out of this world (actually – it is just the forest, but under the right light it sounds something out of this world). Then we have the very long high d in the vowel ü in which Schwarzkopf’s again shimmering sound soars over the woodwind buzz of crickets and other night insects that gradually merges with her voice (Szell… and the Tonmeister…. do it exactly as it should be). Again, this long floated note cannot sound like an instrument – it has to be alive, spun by the singer and not just kept there. This is a song of details and a tiny mistake kills the atmosphere. It is the same with the orchestra, which is reminiscent of the scene in Tristan und Isolde when we hear the sounds of the night and Isolde says Nicht Hörnerschall tönt so hold.

The first stanza is about the setting. The second one is about its effect on the poet – and Strauss marks that change by having the soprano sing in a very uncomfortable area pretty close to the end of a soprano’s “natural” register. This is the moment in which, for instance, Felicity Lott (whose recording is otherwise very good) almost speaks and the effect is the opposite of sensuous. Here the text says Und unter ihren Zweigen, da bin ich ganz allein (And beneath their branches, I am completely alone). This line – in the bottom register of the soprano voice – for me has an almost “studied artlessness”, an “innocent sexiness” that makes me think of the suspended, harmonically ambiguous lines sung by Mélisande in the scene in the tower in Debussyé Pelléas et Mélisande, when the soprano says apparently meaningless lines such as Il fait beau cette nuit. Schwarzkopf manages it through her “natural” sound – it is hard to keep a flowing line that way and one can almost hear the technique working there. It is at the same time sincere and insincere – I don’t think that this what Dehmel had in mind but it adds an extra layer here. And the way she handles the pause before allein (alone) as if she was stressing “alone, in the evening, in the forest”. It is at once fairy-tale-like and provocative, as if she were confessing something. The next line is a difficult transition back into the second octave. Sometimes one hears a bump in the line – not here. Schwarzkopf does it very smoothly, slightly covering the tone, everything fleece-like in sound, especially the first long “ganz”. It colors the harmonic shift just happening there in its absolute floating quality. She increases the dynamic very smoothly and breathes very expressively after the word nur (only) as some sort of frisson. It comes just before the word Dein (yours) which Strauss saves for later. She is not ready yet to say it. The last phrase is so multifaceted, I could hear it again and again. We’re in the “cultivated” sound when she sings again ganz (entirely), she moves from note to note with increasing concentration, some very elegant and extremely discrete use of portamento until again she says nur and breathes, but the breathing is entirely different here. Here she gathered the impulse to say dein (which she finally says) in her “natural”, artless, but no longer childlike tone. The way she manages this note is something to be studied – it is again an almost white sound but it keeps changing color, it verges on breathiness at one point and intonation is almost suspect at another moment.

Szell and the Berlin Radio orchestra are always ideal in it – the way the orchestra blends with the soprano voice, especially in long notes is short of miraculous. Some may say Schwarzkopf risked all that because it is a studio recording. Yes, this is true, but it doesn’t mean that she couldn’t make something of that song in concert. If you look on Youtube for her video in Paris with Berislav Klobucar, you’ll find an entirely different interpretation, less multifaceted than in the studio one year before but still vocally effective. Someone comments “she’s struggling there, but it is still interesting”. My answer is “everybody struggles there – and they are rarely interesting”.

Dame vs. Kavalier

Der Rosenkavalier is arguably R. Strauss’s most popular work and often appears among the most performed operas in German language. The opera’s final trio was performed in his funeral (with Marianne Schech, Maud Cunitz, Gerdam Sommerschuh, Solti conducting). It has been a staple in the repertoires of opera houses under the world greatest conductors, Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber – and yet I have rarely found anyone who doesn’t find it too long – especially act 3. I personally enjoy a performance of Der Rosenkavalier, but everything from 15 minutes after the delivery of the silver rose until the arrival of the Marschallin in act 3 only really hits home if the orchestra is phenomenal, the conductor is a master and the Ochs is… Kurt Moll. That means, this never happens. On the other hand, I really have a great time whenever I watch Arabella. Maybe the Fiakerball could be a bit shorter, but it is not that long either. I mean, Hofmannsthal died before he could prepare a final edition of the libretto and I bet he would have adjusted one or two things, but I find it the way it is superior to the one he wrote for Der Rosenkavalier.

Yes, Der Rosenkavalier has a great character – the Feldmarschallin – who isn’t even the opera’s main character, although Strauss’s music makes us believe otherwise. Other than this, all scenes she is not involved (i.e., most of the opera) are dramatically underdeveloped and rather broad in their slapstick comedy. I am convinced that this is due to the concern with propriety and audiences’ sensibilities. There are some very serious issues dealt with too superficially: the first one is Herr von Faninal’s disregard of his own daughter’s welfare as long as he gets her married into blood aristocracy. There is nothing new there – many 18th century comedies have a plot like that, a girl engaged against her will who only gets to marry the nice young man she loves after she and her servants put in place a plot to show the unwanted fiancé’s bad character. Yet Faninal is particularly odious in the way he pretends not to see Baron von Lerchenau’s true colors. The intended husband behaves disgracefully from moment one, even the servants are shocked – but he does not care. It is different from Orgon in Molière’s Tartuffe, for instance. Orgon has a strong admiration for Tartuffe and believes that he is a man of superior moral standing. The moment he realizes his future son-in-law is a ruffian and a hypocrite, he immediately expels him from the house. Not Faninal, who is ready to accept Ochs’s lack of respect as long as he gets what he wants: aristocratic connections. Faninal’s venality is rather glossed over by the libretto. The character is shown rather under a positive perspective, a likeable fool.

The other and most complex issue is the gender issue. Everybody says Octavian is a soprano roles because Strauss liked the soprano voice and wanted to write a role like Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. However, one has to understand that act 3 would have been a bit challenging for the audience if we had back then a male singer being made love to by another male singer. I wonder how many important tenors or baritones would have accepted a role that involved being dressed as a girl for so long. It would have also been musically difficult to compose the scenes with Mariandl. The usual solution – falsetto – would have been testing for the singer and also the audience in such long stretches of music. More than that, it would have exposed something obvious: that Ochs is sexually attracted to a guy. Many productions have touched indirectly at the issue by relating Ochs’s misogynistic behaviour (the only female character he treats courteously is the Marschallin, because she is superior in social standing rather than for the fact that she is a woman) to some sort of sexual dysfunction (i.e., his lack of interest for women). One production from Salzburg made things even more complex by having Ochs using his own natural son, Leopold, as a sexual proxy. Anyway, the fact that this central question is left unspoken makes Der Rosenkavalier rather vacuous as a drama – and it is no wonder that Strauss himself felt tempted and pressured Hofmannsthal in making the Marschallin the main point of interest in the story. There we do have the whole story told – I can’t help making a connection between her and the Marquise de Merteuil in Laclos’s Les liaison dangereuses. Both are women married straight from the convent only to discover how disappointed and cheated they felt by everyone and tried to get the best of what they could do – having some fun. While the Marquise inflicts an unjust revenge on the younger woman very like herself some decades ago (she claims the revenge is against the husband to be), the Marschallin finds empathy for the young woman and rediscovers her personal worth in something beyond beauty, youth, fortune and social standing: her own goodness.

On the other hand, I find Arabella’s libretto – unrevised as it is – a masterpiece in terms of structure. It is the intelligent’s person version of a romantic comedy. And Hofmannsthal did it on purpose. We can tell that from the first scene with the fortune-teller: she tells us straightaway everything that is going to happen in the story. So, yes, it is a clichéed story, now let’s pay attention. As much as in Der Rosenkavalier, we have a secondary character promoted to the the pole position. But here that was the idea from the start. Hofmannsthal’s inspiration for Arabella was a story about a girl dressed as a boy (i.e., Zdenka), but soon the pretty and shallow sister took pride of place. But not so fast – in the end of the story, Arabella acknowledges that Zdenka is the best sister. She is the one who has done the great generous action that redeemed all other characters, although all other characters had taken her for granted and practically abused her good nature without thinking twice. She received nothing and gave everything – when Arabella realizes how indebted she is to her sister, then she finally rises to title-role status. It is no coincidence, that Arabella is written with an A and Zdenka with a Z – they are the alpha and omega. When she learns from Zdenka’s example, Arabella helps her marry her beloved Matteo and forgives her fiancé, because she has learned that not everything has to be about her. Then she is worthy of the happy end the fortune-teller promised her mother in the first scene. And differently from Der Rosenkavalier, everybody’s dark sides are there for everyone to see. Even Zdenka’s. And that is why one feel more comfortable to like all of them, even the father who wants to marry her daughter for money. When Mandryka freaks out and is disrespectful to Arabella, Waldner immediately looks for his gun to defends his daughter’s honor (only he had pawned them to have money to gamble…).

Musically, Arabella has an immediate advantage over Der Rosenkavalier: it is more concise. Many critics say that Strauss lacked inspiration, that he borrowed traditional Slavic songs for the most emotional moments. I don’t care – beautiful as the duet with both sopranos is, it is not my favorite moment in the opera. The way he integrated cantabile in fast dialogue scenes – as in Arabella’s farewell to her three suitors – is an exemplary balance between music and theatre. Also, Arabella’s monologues are not what one could call an “aria” in a Musikdrama (such as Du bist der Lenz in Wagner’s Die Walküre); these are real scenes that only produce their final effect in the context of a performance. They are different too from the kind of monologue as we find in Der Rosenkavalier, in which the soprano has a chamber-like orchestra and a comfortable tessitura that allow her to color her tone as in a Lied. Arabella is lost in thoughts with the full orchestra and it is always a tough piece of singing. This takes me to the real reason why it is not staged as often as Der Rosenkavalier: it is hell to cast. The role requires a glamorous stage presence and a big lyric voice with easy high notes. And it must be a beautiful voice too. I have seen competent Arabellas short on tonal glamour – it is just half the story. As everybody sings on a rather full orchestra, the roles of Zdenka and Matteo are challenging for the ligher-voiced singers cast in these roles. And Mandryka is like Wotan in Summer vacations. The role requires a singer able to scale down. We must feel that he is formatting herself for salon proportions. That’s what Mandryka is – we have to feel that there is more to what we’re hearing. If we hear it all in full resonance, then it would be too much. Arabella knows that he is from an entirely different world – but she cannot be too afraid of it. This unseen dimension must be fascinating, not frightening.

Unfortunately, I have missed Kiri Te Kanawa’s Arabella on stage. On video – and in her studio recording – I find she achieves the coolness, the chic, the warm-hearted. She was never a very specific interpreter, but in this role she doesn’t need to. The character comes very naturally to her – both in terms of singing and acting. I don’t think that the singer in the role has to make Arabella too clever – she is a woman entirely at a loss there. She doesn’t like who she is, she feels trapped being that woman, but she cannot see a way out. That is why Mandryka rings a bell – he is an outsider. In Kiri Te Kanawa’s biography, she speaks about being different from everyone else and of having to be what is expected from her – and I guess this is why she connects to the role (as she did with Amelia Grimaldi in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra). I find it extremely sad that Felicity Lott’s Arabella was never properly recorded. I have a broadcast from La Scala in very poor sound, and she sounds mesmerising in it. I have hopes one day we’ll be able to have a memento of a successful interpreter of a role rarely performed with success. It would be a beautiful and well-deserved tribute to Lott’s artistry.

Music Lounge (6)

I have noticed that the music lounge had featured no tenor so far. Singing as a tenor is tough, and when one wants to refer to paramount recordings made by tenors we end up in a very limited group of singers. And even then, the level of enthusiasm can be restricted to “he doesn’t mess up”. Especially in Lieder, where tenors are considered tonally unvaried and lacking Innigkeit. Yes, Lieder are specially challenging for tenors – the tessitura generally gravitates around the passaggio, there is an unending amount of high g’s (the least favorite note of 9 out of 10 tenors) and no real “high” note to wow the audience.

The problem of tonal coloring for tenors – especially from a high f up – is no fantasy, notably for tenors who sing Romantic opera. Bach tenors usually are those who are well regarded for their Lieder singing – the tessitura, the style, the expressive tools and the approach to the high notes in these songs (i.e., high f#, high g, g# and a) is interchangeably effective. That is why I have always been intrigued by Ian Bostridge’s performance of Lieder, which are central to his repertoire.

Bostridge was for me an acquired taste, for I find his vocal method essentially very complicate. One can sometimes hear the strenuous mechanism in his singing, even see it in his stage attitude. There is some manipulation around the passaggio that makes the voice darker than it naturally is, balanced by very intense focus in the emission. It is very difficult to sing like that, and he is generally successful nonetheless. There is some instability sometimes, but considering the tightrope he is walking on, the final results are remarkable. Some call this technique “floating larynx” or similar names. I generally don’t like to discuss vocal technique, but it is usually defined as actively shifting the larynx position (rather than letting it naturally sit) to achieve either a darker… or a lighter sound. And Bostridge’s mezza voce in that difficult “area” of the tenor voice is almost as fluffy as a soprano’s. Generally, tenors scale down to piano or pianissimo there with “wiry” and fixed sound. Bostridge’s pianissimo is no studio gimmick – you can hear it very well in the theatre. In the end, the balance is very positive – you don’t find here the instrumental clarity and firmness you’d hear with Peter Schreier, for example, but there are surprising perks in terms of variety.

Ganymed is one of my favorite Lieder by Hugo Wolf. His characteristic ambiguous, elusive style fits Goethe’s poem to perfection – the harmony has a peculiar progression that seems to never reach a conclusion, the piano’s kaleidoscopic accompaniment involves the listener like golden droplets shimmering in every direction, one feels what Goethe is talking about. It is impossible to resist the comparison with Schubert’s setting – and I won’t – since it is also a masterpiece in its descriptive writing. Bostridge has actually recorded both. Therefore, it is peculiar that I plainly dislike his account on the Schubert – I find it coy, almost as if he were telling the story to a child. Even the pianist is too forward-moving and square in a poem which is essentially sensuous. Almost everyone resists singing the Schubert from that point of view – and that is why I like Cheryl Studer’s recording. But the Wolf setting leaves the singer no other option. Ian Bostridge has his Schwarzkopf-like mannerisms (and some may point out that she is a reference in Hugo Wolf), but he holds nothing back in this song and chooses a very special point of view – there is something androgynous in his singing here. His technical approach is used a powerful expressive tool – it is like the struggle between the darkened, muscled sound and the soft-textured, floated, heady voice.

Let’s remember the text. The shepherd Ganymede is abducted by a Zeus in the shape of an eagle, infatuated by his peerless beauty and, most curiously, the young man’s status of a hero is then finally revealed. One would expect his heroic quality would emerge of some exploit, but here it comes across as yielding to a superior entity – Zeus, of course. He is then in charge of being the cupbearer of the gods, a task formerly carried on by a goddess, Hebe, finally relieved of her duties because of her marriage to… Hercules. Now let’s talk of a hero. When Hercules was 8 months old, he strangled two giant snakes and played with them as toys. So, no cupbearing for Hercules. Back to Ganymede.

Among his many special effects, Zeus seems to be fond to transform himself into an eagle. He used that when he abducted Semele. Yet differently from Semele, Ganymede had no idea of what was going on at the moment. And that is what Goethe describes – the shepherd is bathed in sunlight and feels overwhelmed by spring. Then he wishes he could embrace it. We’re still using the verb in the active voice at this point. Then – yes, Romanticism – he feels one with nature. In nature’s bosom, all his desires are quenched, but he hears a call from above – a nightingale? – and he feels he must answer. He is ready to follow it – but where to? Then he is lifted and suddenly he is flying – there are no more flowers and meadows, only clouds. Now he is embracing and being embraced. Now he is on the bosom of the all-loving father. Notice – he doesn’t know what happens, but he surrenders nonetheless. He is ready to… cupbearing, It is curious that Semele wanted to be “upgraded” by Zeus, but she was too active and got fulminated. Ganymede did nothing; he surrendered and was raised to the status of a hero. Now back to Hugo Wolf.

When the song begins, we hear Bostridge in his “floating” voice. The mood is immediately sensuous in the way he sustains the line with absolute legato, the kind of Mozartian legato that gives the impression that time stops. This feeling of suspension is challenged by the development on the word Liebeswonne (love bliss) – in the sound “ie”, we feel the tension caused by the subtle gradual darkening of the tone that unbalances the “o” in Wonne. The effect is of a something that goes out of control – longing, desire. Once here, we are no longer in the first “tonal atmosphere” – the voice darkens intermittently from now on in words like “WÄRme” und UnENDlich”. We can feel that there is something missing in this perfect union between Ganymede and nature. He wants more and he says it next: he wants to embrace it with his own arm. It is interesting that Bostridge does not darken the tone for the word “Arm”. That is a spot where he could be tempted to do it – but he attacks it with a straight, Bach-tenor voice. It is still a desire without a body. It is indeed marvelous how Wolf is able to depict this sensuous, but not erotic feeling – and I like the way Bostridge voices this desire with absolute purity of tone. It is different from the moment when he says Liebeswonne – there he was not expressing any thoughts, just experiencing the sensation.

The next stanza – when Ganymede languishes on the bosom of nature until he hears the call – shows Bostridge at his most soprano-ish. The upper note in every phrase floated almost void of chest colouring, while his middle register is often dark in sound, almost baritonal. This creates an interesting contrast – we’re not still in the stanza when he is being flown, but we’re getting there. There is this call from the sky, a nightingale maybe; is it the increasingly hypnotically syncopated line in the piano? When we finally reach the third stanza, there is a sense of climax and it is natural that the singer uses a little bit more voice. But let’s remember – this is not really high and you don’t need to shift to the next gear to keep up with the tessitura. But Bostridge wants to keep some warmth and increasingly uses his “covered” tone, the voice vibrates a bit nervously and there is almost an operatic feeling in his realization that the clouds are bowing to him – to him. He only shifts to his floated tone – and rightly so – when he sees that this is about him serving the all-loving father, that this is why nature is bowing to him.

This is a song tenors rarely sing. One look at the discography shows us that John McCormack is the other notable tenor who recorded it (in 1932). There, he uses mostly a bright, forward sound, which is what one could expect from a tenor in a piece like that. Most recordings feature a soprano – Schwarzkopf, Augér, Upshaw – and the atmosphere couldn’t be more different with a female singer. The tension of having a tenor balancing his registers through the passaggio adds an entirely new dimension to the song – and Bostridge embraces that very difficulty and makes it a musical idea that tells the story beyond the text.

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Bach’s music is often described as “cerebral” – and it is indeed. In terms of harmony, counterpoint and structure, each piece is a microcosm with new richness in complexity found at every level of analysis. At the same time, 75% of what Bach wrote is based in dance rhythm. Almost all numbers in Bach sacred pieces are guided by dance rhythms. This means that this cerebral music is also a “corporal” music, if you come to think that its rhythm was based on movements of the human body. We tend to see everything filtered by Romanticism – it is everybody’s “default” aesthetic approach – and many subtleties of baroque music are lost when we see it through Romantic lenses. For instance, 19th centuries audiences tended to find Bach’s dance-like sacred music improper to the seriousness of religious matters and until recently conductors tended to efface this seemingly “disrespectful” cadence and increase the weight of sound to suggest the gravitas a liturgical text had to exude.

I often like what composers do with the credo – it is a very wordy part of the mass and if you don’t keep things moving forward, it could take forever. And my favorite version is the one in Bach’s Mass in B minor, especially the duet between soprano I and alto. It has a contagious rhythm; it is difficult not to move to this rhythm. And that is exactly what Bach wanted you to feel – an impulse stronger than yourself that draws you to what is being “said”, in other words, the joys of Christian faith. The whole structure of Et in unum is about “becoming one with”, with both voices intertwining as if they were whirling in mystical dance steps around you, crossing their melisme and their consonants in fantastic long words such as unigenitum and consubstantialem.

That is why I have always enjoyed this number in Andrew Parrot’s recording with the Taverner Players. Parrot just does not buy the idea that the Mass in B minor is supposed to be imposed on the audience with the weight of religion. He approaches it from the “Bach cantata” point of view, i.e., as some kind of musical advertisement of the advantages of believing. Members of the congregation in 18th century led difficult and boring lives (even when they were rich) and you wouldn’t engage them by showing that spiritual life was a duller version of what they already had – Bach was showing them how happier and brighter is life for someone who believes. Andrew Parrot shows the duet in its brighter colors in the pointed playing of his instrumental group, balanced in equal standing with his two ideal soloists. Emma Kirkby is of course an acknowledged Bach singer with her boy-like soprano whose high register shows instrumental poise and purity. Here, however, pride of place goes to the extraordinary singing of the boy alto Christian Immler* (who has now a career as a bass). As Bach was used to write to boys’ voices, which descend into their low notes without any break (unlike countertenors and female altos), the tessitura is rather uncomfortable for adult singers. Immler handles it famously – the treacherous “passaggio” (inexistent for him) delivered with unusual clarity. His freshness of tone blends beautifully with Kirkby’s soprano – and his purity of intonation is remarkable. Once you listen to these two outstanding soloists, it is difficult to hear this duo with anyone else!

* There are two boy altos in Parrot’s recording: Immler and Panito Iconomou (who also sings today as a bass with the first name Panajotis). The singing in the duet is sometimes credited to Iconomou. Judging from Harnoncourt’s video of Bach’s Johannis-Passion, in which both Immler and Panito can be seen, Immler’s voice sounds a bit smokier than the alto in the duet with Kirkby. Boys’ voices are variable and, even if I first tended to believe that it was Iconomou there, the latter said in an interview on the Bach Cantata Website: “The only things I noticed was that I was being put much further away from the microphones than anybody else whilst recording with Harnoncourt or Parrott and that I wasn’t allowed to sing the duet in Bach’s B-Minor (BWV 232) with Emma Kirkby after our first microphone check.”

The voice of experience

A couple of years ago Gramophone magazine published an article about sopranos who resisted against leaving soubrette roles behind and embracing lyric repertoire. Their case example was Kathleen Battle – years after her debut still in -ina roles. She was not interviewed by the author, but Barbara Bonney did add her two cents. I won’t be able to quote her verbatim, but her whole point was that Lucia Popp’s career helped to create the myth that it is natural to start as Sophie and end up as the Feldmarschallin. That was not her story; her voice did not develop outside her original Fach the way Popp’s voice did. Maybe because actors simply are not cast in roles decades younger than themselves – and we live in a world where movies are omnipresent and opera is not – reviewers and members of the audience expect that singers evolve in the same way. I would guess that singers themselves would prefer it that way. I remember an interview with Christa Ludwig in which she said that at some point of her career she did not feel anymore in the mood to sing about maidens and their sweethearts, flowers in blossom etc. The question remains – is there a choice there? Are all voices supposed to grow heavier and stronger?

It is a fact that singers – as much as everyone else – grow older and their bodies and also their mental disposition change in the process. So, yes, their voices are supposed to change in the process – women’s especially (there is childbirth and menopause, to start with). Saying that voices “decay” in the process is an oversimplification. The curve is not necessarily a descending straight line. Some singers actually “blossom” later in their careers – especially those with dramatic voices. As we have discussed here before, these singers often take a while to mature their muscles and their “energy management” before they tackle such demanding roles to full satisfaction. And there is also experience – when one becomes aware of his or her limits, he or she increasingly understands where “safety zone is” and can be a little bit more adventurous about taking risks. But the fact is – lighter voiced singers experience a similar development too. And yet Lucia Popp’s story is indeed “outside the curve”.

I unfortunately know Popp only from recordings, but when I ask those who saw her live, I generally hear the same description – “more vertical than horizontal”. I.e., it projected well but was not voluminous. Some mentioned that in heavier repertoire her high notes could acquire a metallic edge that jarred a bit with the usual smoothness of her vocal production. In any case, even in her earlier recordings, in which the voice is brighter and lighter, we can hear that its gravitational center is lower in comparison to someone like Edita Gruberová or Arleen Augér. She has always had a middle register richer than those of other singers in these roles – and her low notes were always actually pretty solid. She herself said that she couldn’t wait to stop singing the role of the Queen of the Night and felt that Zerbinetta was simply too high for her. And there is the above-mentioned metallic edge she could occasionally resort to when she needed to shift to the fifth gear. In other words, her potential for lyric roles was there since the beginning.

Helen Donath’s is usually the second case example in this case. Unlike Popp, her voice always sounded pretty ina-ish when she was indeed singing lighter repertoire. When Herbert von Karajan convinced her to sing Eva in his recording of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, what he probably sensed is that the natural radiance of her soprano could pierce through a Wagnerian orchestra, especially in his hallmark “smoother” garb. If she was first hesitant about this career move, she finally embraced it by singing the role live, as much as other lyric parts such as the Feldmarschallin. I would say that Donath is a lesson in how to sing heavier roles with a light voice. As one can hear in broadcasts and recordings, she never tampered with her basic sound. Her “superpower” was the extraordinary brightness of her soprano – and she never let that go. The sound remained light – one could say that her Eva was ina-ish in sound – and yet she had an extraordinarily long career in which she was also able to keep her first roles to the very end. Let’s not forget that her last “big” official recording was in the role of Despina on the 2006 video from Salzburg. This may sound self-evident, but experience shows us that most singers who try heavier roles actually believe that they should “adapt” their voices to the new repertoire, generally by darkening the sound and overcompensating the lack of volume by forcing the tone.

Vocal technique is full of contradictions and non-evident truths, but a darkened sound rarely pierces through in the auditorium, especially in the context of a voice naturally less voluminous. These singers end up sounding tremulous, effortful and rather pale in tone. We have spoken of sopranos so far, but tenors are generally those who end up beefing up their tones, especially if they were trained with “Italian technique”. If there is one vocal category in which singers always need a little help from their voice teachers, these are tenors. The demands made by composers on the tenor voice are always a bit unreasonable – what they do could be only explained as “let’s imagine that all soprano roles were like the Queen of the Night” – and they are particularly dependant of tonal manipulation to survive the “high altitude”. It is not unusual to leave the theatre saying “the tenor had good high notes, but the rest of the voice was a bit hard to hear”. This is in most cases healthy – the problem is when the tenor starts to play with their middle register. That is when everything sounds puffed up, hollow and laborious. It is curious that many an opera-goer is ready to take this vocal production as appropriate in Verdi and Puccini roles. You know what I’m talking about – the glottal attacks and releases, the lachrymosity, the uncontrolled vibrato, the edge. When a tenor takes that direction, it is a path of no return. If you ask him “sing Don Ottavio’s Dalla sua pace“, he would realize he is unable to do something minimally acceptable.

That takes us back to the situation of singers whose voices may have gone stronger but still remain in their original Fach. Is there any fun for them in being avuncular Taminos or Zerlinas too long in the tooth? It depends. I knew Edita Gruberová’s Zerbinetta from the video from the Vienna State Opera (with Janowitz and Kollo under Karl Böhm) and finally saw her live in the role in her farewell run of performances, some decades after that… in the same production with the same costumes. When she first appeared on stage, I had to adjust my memory of her younger self to her then present age, but then I realized that she had done that herself. Gruberová was not pretending she was young then – she was showing us a Zerbinetta who had been at it for a while, almost a bit tired of the whole thing. It was actually a fascinating and fully convincing performance. It is easiest said than done, of course – but it can be done. Actually, one of the great things about opera is that anyone can climb on stage and be anyone else. To keep with R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, let’s remember (again) Jessye Norman’s Ariadne. She would have never been cast in that role in a movie – but on stage (and on video) you just need two minutes to see that she is Ariadne. The fact that there is an art form when one’s limits are entirely one’s talents is a reason why opera – in spite of many predictions – never goes away…

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Many years ago, I was invited to introduce a video of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in a culture centre and, when we we have finished listening to Sarastro’s O Isis und Osiris, a gentleman in the audience asked me “I’ve read that this aria is supposed to be an aural image of the sublime – and that wasn’t my impression”. I was at a loss there, for a) I had never promised him the “aural image of the sublime”; b) I couldn’t say that to him. He paid a ticket to be there! We were listening to Lászlo Polgár on the video from the Drottningholm Court Theatre, whom I have always found an elegant Mozartian. As I saw the laserdisc from the Met on a shelf, I said “we can always listen to Kurt Moll”. So I changed the disc, everybody was impressed with Moll’s voice and asked me if we could go further with the Levine performance instead. This is a non-story, nothing exciting happens here, but I always thought of this “aural image of the sublime”.

Sometimes I would listen to Kurt Moll to see if he gave me that impression. It is a exemplary Mozartian piece of singing, firm-toned, clear in diction, something we could say a “force of nature”. But I have to be honest – it never suggested me the aural image of the sublime. There is something too objective, the low notes are maybe too much “on your face” and maybe too dark – and I feel uncomfortable writing all those “too”, because Kurt Moll is the reference of how a bass should sing Mozart. For instance, no Osmin comes even close to him. Since that day in the culture centre, in the theatre or listening to a recording, I ask myself “have I heard the aural image of the sublime?”. At best, the answer is “almost”. There are tiny turn-offs that bring me back to earth when I listen to it – singers who slide down to their low notes, for instance. Lack of clean attack make is also a problem, but I feel for the bass singing this aria, because we can read his mind “every note must be perfectly pure” and most often than not there is very little legato there out of the sheer intent of producing an instrumental line. Also, because of the long lines, if there is some instability in the vocal production, it is going to be cruelly, mercilessly exposed. This is to basses what the Countess’s Porgi, amor is to sopranos. But nobody cares if the soprano is not really expressing the Countess’s depressive mood. Now in O Isis there must be some sort of fatherly, spiritual authority. And velvetiness and fulness of tone is essential. Even if everything else is going smoothly, if the voice is not rich, warm, dense and involving, then it just doesn’t work. Then there is something else, a game-changing feature very rare in this aria. Sarastro exerts a gentle authority (as we hear in his other aria) and a bass who can delve into his low notes gently, smoothly embodies this quality in musical terms. These low notes’ gentleness opposed to the violence in the high notes sung by the Queen of the Night are what this story is about.

That is why I was so impressed by Karl Ridderbusch’s account of that aria accidentally found on YouTube. As far as I know, there is no official recording of his Sarastro. This seems to be a TV show in Hungarian TV. There, Ridderbusch finally offered me the “aural image of the sublime”. It is a noble voice – my favorite König Heinrich in Lohengrin – whose purity of line does not involve any constriction of tone. The notes spin freely and firmly. In its highest reaches, their very vibration seems to exude spiritual force. He descends to his low register with naturalness, every note acquiring a natural and gentle darkness in the context of perfect legato. It is an immense performance – not ideally accompanied or recorded, unfortunately – and a great memento of a singer not always remembered as he should.

La voix du rôle

We often hear about singers who should not sing a role because it is not advisable for his or her voice: lyric voices in dramatic roles, mezzos in sopranos roles, singers unprepared for the technical demands of a certain role (e.g., coloratura). That is not what I want to write about today. As much as when we read a book and imagine how a character looks like, audiences expect a certain color in the voice of a singer in a particular role, a voix du rôle. This might not be true for all parts in the repertoire – the title role in Carmen, for instance, is often mentioned as a part that could be sung by all kinds of female voices. So one may wonder if there is something like a specific sound for a role at all. I mean, do composers expect to hear a specific sound as much as when they write “oboe” on a score and intend to hear an oboe, neither a clarinet nor a flute?

As everything in opera, there is no simple answer. We know that some composers did write for specific voices, most of them not really because they made a point on hearing that singer – they just knew that this particular singer was going to sing what he was writing. That would be the case of someone like Handel or Mozart. They could not risk writing something that would not fit the voice of the singer cast in that run of performances – this would have had financial consequences, to start with. They depended on the success not only of their writing, but most often than not on the success of the performance of what they wrote. That is why they would often adapt the part for a new run with a different cast. Of course, sometimes they had just the singer they imagined the part for. Sometimes, this singer’s abilities would even influence what they were writing. For instance, the aria Ach, ich liebte in Der Entführung aus dem Serail. Mozart admits he had to write something so impossibly florid for Caterina Cavalieri, because everybody (he included) wanted to hear the sounds produced by her “flexible throat”.

In any case, without being scientific about it, I would say that what establishes the “sound” of a role is rather the audience than the composer. Certain singers are so successful in a role that everybody just wants it sung like that. This is particularly true after the creation of phonography. Before that, theatres would generally have their ensembles with favorite singers tackling all kinds of parts with the occasional visit of a famous diva. For instance – and this was way after the invention of LPs – when Renata Tebaldi gave a guest performance as Desdemona at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, all reviews were astounded that a lyric voice could be so big. They were used to hear more “Mozartian” voices in the role before that, probably because this is the kind of lyric soprano a German theatre would have in their roster those days. Anyway, recordings and reviewers probably share the responsibility of convincing the audience that this is the sound they should hear. With standards set “on stone”, criterion for casting became increasingly more “objective”. For instance, anyone with a voice similar to Tebaldi’s or Callas’s could claim one of their parts under the epithet “the new Tebaldi” or “the new Callas” – and audiences would be curious to hear.

For instance, the first singer to appear in the role of the Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier was Margarethe Siems, whose voice and interpretation style couldn’t be more different from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s, the singer referred to as “standard” for the part for a couple of decades. Siems was something of a soprano assoluta, who sang roles like Isolde, Lucia, Carmen and even Zerbinetta in the première of the original version of Ariadne auf Naxos. As we can sample in her recordings, she was extremely direct in her interpretation, what makes her curiously “modern” to our contemporary ears. Schwarzkopf was a purely lyric soprano with a fleece-like tone whose performances are the specimen shown to anyone interested in understanding what “mannered” means. But maybe because of Paul Czinner’s film, maybe because she looked the part and sang it everywhere, maybe because of Karajan’s LPs with Christa Ludwig, she – and not Lisa della Casa nor Marianne Schech – was the model for everyone who thought of singing the role in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s. You just need to hear Evelyn Lear or Claire Watson as the Feldmarschallin to realize that.

That is why I – and I am not alone here – am always curious for a voice that challenges established opinion of how the role should sound. For instance, Jessye Norman. Her voice was so “outside the box” that one could not resist the possibility of hearing it in a particular role. My first complete opera recording with Norman was – believe it or not – Haydn’s La Vera Costanza. There she takes the role of Rosina, a poor girl with whom a hothead count falls in love with and secretly marries. During most of the opera, Rosina is the odd woman out among aristocrats – and Norman’s smoky soprano made that “hearable” to me. She sounds different from everyone else in that cast, there is some fascination in that big voice kept at its lightest, a fascination those stuffy ladies and gentlemen cannot really comprehend. In spite of her uniqueness, Norman would even later establish a “golden” standard in the title role in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, but her Elsa will always be controversial. I am particularly fond of Norman in Wagner lighter roles – I cherish her Elisabeth recorded live in London and the video from the Avery Fisher Hall of her Senta’s Ballad remains my favorite rendition of that aria. And, yes, I really like her Elsa – and how she shows the character under an entirely different light.

I have friends who cannot bear to watch Lohengrin because the role of Elsa exasperates them with her dreamy silliness. I myself have never seen Elsa like that – and Norman is the singer who showed me what I already suspected. When she first appears, there is no “little woman” there. It is a regal, full-grown woman voice. She is above everyone else there – and indeed she is, she is the heiress of the country’s ruler. She refuses to reply to those below her, she speaks to God only. Her champion has to be someone sent by heaven, and by heaven only. And, well, she’s right – special effects, high pianissimo in the violins, swan carrying a fellow with a sword – a miracle proves that she is indeed unlike everyone else. And we’ll soon discover what is the character’s undoing: her proudness. This Elsa can risk anything but mésalliance. Ortrud doesn’t need any particular witchcraft to destroy her peace of mind. She just asks – do you really know if the nameless guy is an aristocrat? As we have read in the Bible, most of God’s chosen ones are not. Jessye Norman makes it a grand tragedy – how could she put a commoner, special as he might be, in her father’s place as the ruler of her own land? This would be subversive! True – it is not all in the sound of her voice, although it carries the chicness of her Elsa. Her whole approach has a splash of grand-dame-ness, and that just makes sense and also the story more interesting than what we are supposed to hear. I wonder what Wagner would find of Norman’s Elsa. I bet he would have liked what she does there. It seems some of Wagner friends thought that he was too hard on Elsa in the end of the story, but he insisted that those were the consequences of her acts and this is how the story should end. In other words, no innocent victim.

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When talking about Handel’s greatest operas, it is rare to find Ariodante classed up with Giulio Cesare, Alcina or Orlando. Yes, the libretto has its weaknesses – but the score has numbers of great depth and one of the best villains in Handel operas, Polinesso. Anyway, the title role, written for the famous castrato Giovanni Carestini is almost Romantic in its passive-agressiveness.  He has one arioso and five “important” arias – Scherza, infida being the most famous. It is crucial to understand the character of Ariodante too.

Ariodante is in love with Ginevra, who is in love with him. She is the daughter of the king of Scotland, who finds in Ariodante, a “vassal prince” the perfect husband for her. Every other character in this story is unhappy – Polinesso, the Duke of Albany (what is he doing in Scotland?) is in love with Ginevra. Dalinda, a lady-in-waiting for the princess, is in love with Polinesso. Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother, is in love with Dalinda. Polinesso believes that he could do something about it – and stages an “infidelity scene”. He has Dalinda wear Ginevra’s clothes in a moment when Ariodante can see them kissing in a hidden corner of palace garden. This is when we can hear Scherza, infida. Ariodante is shocked by what he sees – the audience wonders – is he killing Polinesso? is he killing Ginevra? Is he killing them both? Is he killing HIMSELF? After considering all possibilities, he kills nobody. He makes his brother spread the news that he killed himself (he did not) because of his fiancée’s infidelity. The king is horrified to hear of his daughter’s immodesty and decides to disown her. The girl has no idea of what is going on – her fiancé is supposedly dead, she is accused of being guilty and the only person on her side is, of course, Polinesso, who offers to be her champion in a duel with Lurcanio (that was the plan). Only when Dalinda exposes the whole scheme, Ariodante reappears to reaffirm his love for the poor Ginevra, who is at this point half insane. Back to Scherza, infida.

It is easy to understand why singers and conductors are usually mistaken about Scherza, infida. It is a show made for no audience. Ariodante is alone, but he is not lost in melancholy and misery. He is not depressive at all at this moment – he is manic. And he puts up a great display of despair. His imaginary audience is Ginevra and her presumed lover (Polinesso). This what he says “Go on, have fun with your lover, unfaithful one, while I leave in the arms of death because of your infidelity!” It is pure emotional blackmailing – “don’t mind me dying here…”, even if there is no-one to hear. Ariodante could have gone directly to Ginevra (actually, Dalinda disguised as Ginevra) and Polinesso and said all that (he would have discovered that Ginevra wasn’t even there), but he preferred to have this imaginary dialogue, just like people who suffer from mania do. You probably know what I am talking about here – not being able to sleep thinking “If my boss/husband/wife/parent/child says this, I’ll say that and if he or she answers this, I’ll reply that…”. This is not the kind of emotional circumstances when you feel your heartbeat go slower, actually one generally feels the pulse running wild. And that is the key for Nicholas McGegan’s success over all other conductors: one must feel the heartbeat in the bass. Minkowski, Christie, Curtis make it sound like glamourised suffering, almost Schubertian in style. No, this is not what Handel and the librettist wanted. This is baroque music – this is a SCENE, not a Lied. In his mind, Ariodante will wrench bitter tears from his unfaithful lover. She’d feel so bad out of guilt, she might even kill herself to atone. Ariodante himself is doing nothing – he is the dictionary definition of passive-aggressive.

Handel has the heartbeat “framing” the rhythmic structure of this aria – the pulse in the bass, the octave-leaping figure in the strings and the marvellous, expressive long bassoon line that makes us feel for Ariodante. He is being terribly silly there, but he is really unhappy. If the tempo is too slow (as elsewhere), the first theme in the vocal line, the two triples -Sche-e-erza-a-in-FI-DA, will miss the right impulse that seem as if Ariodante were pointing fingers, spitting the inFIda on her face. The A section alternates passive and aggressive moments – Lorraine Hunt makes clear which is which with the very sound of her voice . She marks the rhythm in the triplets as if she were pronouncing each letter in b-i-t-c-h and she explodes in the “fi” or inFIda (as she should!). In the second “io tradito a morte in braccio” Hunt’s tone softens, Ariodante is the total victim there. The octave-leaping figure appears in the vocal line and we finally understand what it is – this is an old rhetorical figure for drops, especially tears (we hear it used and abused by Vivaldi in the cantata Cessate, omai cessate). This singhiozzo will be made very clear again in another figure – a repeated broken descending chord on “men vo”, first in B flat major than in F7 Major. If the singer is not rhythmically crispy there, then you’ll miss it. Again, Lorraine Hunt does it without exaggeration, but there are tears in her voice. The repeat of the “passive” theme is brilliantly done, she pulls all the stops, including a very chesty sound for the low d in “per tua colpa” and again in “infida!” before a fantastically melodramatic “a morte!” with a slight portamento on MOR. And she can only build up the drama like that because McGegan gave her the right tempo – Handel is repeating the text “I’m dying/because of you/because of YOU, I’m dying!”. Nobody would say these words on a slow tempo. You are trying to suffocate your unfaithful fiancé(e) with guilt – you don’t want to do it gently.

B sections sometime let a bit off steam piled up in A section. Not here – the B section intensifies everything that goes in the first part “I’ll break up this unworthy relationship – I’ll be a sad ghost that will return from the dead to torment you!”. This is a usual baroque image – I’m a helpless person defeated by fate, but I’ll be a deadly ghost! Cleopatra uses it in Piangerò la sorte mia in Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Here it rings particularly true – he’ll be a sad memory, dead because of her. The octave-leaping rhythm here become a very small interval repeating itself as the aural image of nagging. Hunt is perfect here – using the consonants and her registers to depict Ariodante’s mental state. The ornament in the second “mesta” shows us how resentful he is.

Lorraine Hunt is the perfect voice for this part – she sounds perfectly androgynous here. We will never know how a first-class castrato sounded, but what Lorraine Hunt does here comes close: the brightness, the plangency, the forcefulness. It’s all there. The repeat is a lesson – instead of overornamenting to fill in the blanks, she only chooses figures that boost the expressive content of the aria. All the special effects are built on the power of interpretation. A great recording, unmatched so far.





Beautiful voices

I knew a guy, a friend from a friend, whose opinion about singers everybody duly ignored. “He only cares if the voice is beautiful”, was the general comment. He was the first person I knew who had seen Jane Eaglen live, and I was curious about his impressions but I was advised: if he found her voice “beautiful”, she could get away with anything else and he would still find her marvellous. Better wait for someone else to hear her and give us an account. I have to say that I see his point. As much as with good-looking people, we tend to overlook flaws in singers with beautiful voices.

The problem with vocal beauty is the usual issue with beauty – it is a matter of taste. That said, when we come to voices, for some reason the subject is more complicated than with physical appearance. The concept varies depending on category, Fach and repertoire. For instance, sopranos are generally the main victim of the demand for beauty. And vocal beauty for sopranos invariably means “an angelic voice”. When we hear someone say that a role such as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro must feature a singer “with a beautiful voice”, one immediately think of someone like Gundula Janowitz. I remember an interview with Margaret Price when she grimaced every time she spoke the words “angelic voice”. She refused the role of Elsa because she was tired of being typecast and increasingly looked for roles distant from the lyric Fach because she wanted people to hear her and think of something else. That is probably why she increasingly sang Verdi and less Mozart. Verdi famously wanted “an ugly voice” for the role of Lady Macbeth, but the fact is that the kind of soprano we hear in roles like Aida, La Forza del Destino, Il Trovatore and Un Ballo in Maschera generally offer something more “complex” than “angelic”. I would guess that Leontyne Price has a great share of responsibility in that perception – she alone created a demand for dark, multilayered, almost visceral sounds that suggest rather the earthy, the sensuous. The very sound of Leontyne Price’s voice made these damsels in distress immediately more interesting as characters. Her Forza Leonora, especially, is a woman in the middle of a war between hell and heaven – her attachment for Alvaro clearly being of sexual nature of which she has very little control. That is why she transfers that tension to her martyrdom with a passion as intense as the one she had for him. In her Pace, pace mio Dio, it is not only world-weariness what we hear; the flame is still burning beneath the hopelessness. It could set fire on the world.

Nobody expect tenors to sound “angelic”, but everybody wants them to seem dulcet and honeyed, especially if they are singing Mozart or bel canto. One wishes to hear a voice at once sweet and vigorous in an aria such as Nemorino’s Una furtiva lagrima. There has never been a tenor who has done for the lyric tenor repertoire something similar to what Leontyne Price did for lyric sopranos. And, curiously, it is tough to sound honeyed around the passaggio. Stop reading for a while and think of how many tenors really beguile the audience in Un’aura amorosa. Feel free to think of tenors of the past. You’ll still get less than 10, maybe less than five.

The demands for tonal beauty in low voices are significantly less extreme. Mezzos and baritone are supposed to sound “warm” and “velvety”, even if the tone is not truly dreamy. When one think of someone like Hermann Prey, the appealing quality of his baritone is considered a “plus”. In Italian repertoire, it is even more secondary to forcefulness and richness. I remember hearing the name of someone like Matteo Manuguerra as “the baritone with the beautiful voice”, again a bonus feature. The fact is that dramatic roles – such as those for Verdi baritones – are usually the repertoire when one actually does not expect a voice to sound beautiful at all. Nobody goes to the theatre expecting to hear a sweet-sounding Abigaille, an angelic Elektra or a dulcet Tristan. And yet one is always ready to speak of Helge Brilioth’s Siegfried or Ursula Schröder-Feinen’s Ortrud with the comment of “he/she made it sound like music”.

Actually, as much as disarming tonal beauty is important in roles like Arabella or Amelia Grimaldi/Maria Boccanegra – these are radiant characters and must have the audience on their spell from the moment one – there are other roles that gain from “complexity”. For instance, Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito. I remember when I first heard Anna Caterina Antonacci in it, my first impression was “well, I’ve heard more pleasant voices in it”, but again Vitellia is not seeking to please anyone. Antonacci’s peculiar tonal quality made Vitellia sexier, more provocative and more imperious. You hear that voice and understand why Sesto is so intrigued by her. She sounds different from all the classically “Mozartian” voices in the cast. The same goes for Waltraud Meier in Myung Whun Chung’s recording of Saint-Saens’s Samson et Dalila from Paris. When you compare her to, say, Olga Borodina, the disadvantage in vocal allure is enormous. Borodina’s Dalila is one of the highlights of my opera-going experience, but when I listen to Meier’s recording I can’t help finding the lack of vocal allure the aural image of the “haughty beauty” in the story. You feel that this is a voice that you have to hear a bit more to discover what it has to tell. That is at least what Samson did.