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Music Lounge (52)

As much as Alfred Hitchcock, Georg Friedrich Händel had a special relation with his prime donne. At some point, he famously threatened to thrown one of them out of the window, but mostly what he did was serve their talents with arias that highlighted all their special qualities when they were willing to serve his music. He was particularly fond of Italian soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò, for whom he composed some of his best roles. One could say she was something like Händel’s Grace Kelly. So when she left England, Händel was in desperate need of a new muse – and he found one in Élisabeth Duparc, often called La Francesina. We know little about La Francesina – we can’t even say if she was really French. It is established that she studied in Italy, sang in Florence until she was engaged by the Opera of the Nobility in London, where she often shared the stage with Farinelli until she met Handel and, as we say today, it was a match (in purely musical terms, of course). He composed 12 parts for her in opera and oratorio – Clotilda (Faramondo), Romilda (Serse), Rosmene (Imeneo), Deidamia (title role), Michal (Saul), soprano solo (Israel in Egypt), Penseroso (L’Allegro, il Penseroso e il Moderato), Semele (title role), Asenath (Joseph and his Brethren), Iole (Hercules), Nitocris (Belshazzar) and the soprano solo in The Occasional Oratorio.

Ms. Duparc’s voice was described as “bird-like” due to her ability with trills and fioriture. Her technical facility was not the single quality praised in her voice – her singing was considered expressive and apt to suggest melancholy. Although we can only imagine how this voice was, I notice that singers who succeed in any of these roles often have a shimmering, floating quality that works wonders in this kind of writing. Curiously, they tend to avoid the part of Romilda, which seems to be plagued by miscasting both live and in recordings.

Serse is a curious work written in semiserio style filled with short song-like arias. Some numbers were entirely puzzling for contemporary audiences in their unusual structure and adherence to the dramatic action. It is probably Handel’s most visionary work in the sense that audiences today will find it more “modern” than some of his most famous works, such as Giulio Cesare in Egitto or Alcina. No wonder Stefan Herheim’s staging for the Komische Oper was enthusiastically reviewed in Berlin with phrases like “unmissable even for those who dislike opera”. The plot is predictably convoluted with misunderstanding galore. The eccentric King Xerxes of Persia is first in love with a plane tree (as we hear in the überfamous aria Ombra mai fu), but when he is made fun of by the beautiful Romilda, his brother’s girlfriend, he is immediately enamoured. To the young woman’s dismay, he stalks her, spurring her boyfriend Arsamene’s jealousy (and her sister Atalanta hopes, for she too is in love with the king’s brother). Arsamene refuses to act as a go-between and is banished from the court. Serse finally decides to court Romilda himself, but she doesn’t respond at all. When the irate king leaves her alone, she sings one of the loveliest arias ever composed by Handel, which we are listening today in our music lounge.

Nè men con l’ombre is a perfect example of the simple, direct arias that made this score infamous at the time of its première. This is the perfect opportunity for a grand aria (as we hear, for instance, in Ariodante when Ginevra sings Orrida agli occhi miei), but instead Handel goes straight to the heart of the matter by showing – in a simple, touching melody – the straightforwardness of Romilda’s feelings. It establishes her congeniality and puts us immediately on her side. I am incapable of listening to it just once and it always stays in my mind for a while. The text is unusually direct too for a baroque libretto: Nè men con l’ombre d’infedeltà/Voglio tradir l’idol mio/E se mio bene suo mal si fa/Incolpi amore, non gelosia. (“I won’t betray my beloved one/Even with a shadow of infidelity/If he makes his own harm/Let him blame love, not jealousy”). Actually, it shows Romilda as a very practical person too. Both Xerxes and Arsamene will test her patience throughout the opera and, at some point, she looses it entirely, but she holds no hard feelings. In her last aria, she explains the audience why: when you really love someone, you don’t get to hate him or her just because things are going wrong.

In Nè men con l’ombre, the mood is essentially very tender. This is the kind of simple aria that comes across as a masterpiece because every little note achieves its intended effect. As an aria d’affetto, it has very sparse accompaniment. The orchestra has one figure – a gently rocking repeated descending interval. It is extremely gentle and, although it is not descriptive of anything in particular, it suggests some sort of pondering. On the one side, she has reason (Xerxes is the king and it is not very wise to oppose his wishes). On the other side, she has her feelings – she loves Arsamene and she is very sure about it. But, you see, she hasn’t made a scene, she just refused to answer. For now, her resistance is pacific. This aria is also a good example of why many coloratura sopranos fail in this repertoire. A Handel soprano’s secret weapon is her middle register. It must be warm and colorful. High notes appear to add some zest, but the real work is to be done in the middle. Basically, Handel wrote this aria to flatter the soprano’s power of expression. It is almost like a Schubert Lied. Only in the end we have a very, VERY long melisma on the word anima (“soul”, here used in the expression “anima mia”, a term of endearment). It is no accident that Handel chose it – here we hear Romilda clinging to her beloved one, saying it to the end of her breath. It is the aural image of her faithfulness. We don’t need to hear much after that.

In her recital of arias written for La Francesina, Belgian soprano Sophie Junker leaves Nè men con l’ombre for last. She has the ideal voice for it – its warm, shimmering quality evokes Romilda’s loveliness and the tenderness of her feelings. It has also a very important sexiness. As we know, sweethearts in opera are always very anxious about getting married and we know why. Every delay is taken as the end of the world, because, yes, considering the options of entertainment, that’s exactly what it is. So, when Romilda thinks of Arsamene and how she chooses to wait for him (he has just been banished from the court), for a while the closest she’ll get from him is in her thoughts. And she is thinking about him right when she is singing this aria. This is also a one-part aria – it barely has a repeat (Handel reprises the first phrase midway but develops it differently from its first appearance) – and Junker decorates throughout. Maybe because Duparc was supposed to be French, the decorations used in this performance are rather French-like in style, what is a creative touch anyway. It called my attention that she inserts two breath pauses in the long melisma – Isabel Bayrakdarian, in the video from Dresden, sings the whole phrase on the breath and, to makes things more difficult, Christophe Rousset’s tempo is rather slow. This could have been a turn-off, but I don’t know, it has a tight-corseted appeal… And she compensates by offering an exquisite high a pianissimo the next phrase. Even with that proviso, I can’t praise enough Sophie Junker in this aria. It was love at first sight. I wish she recorded the whole part – and I am glad she realized that her voice is so effective in the music written for Handel’s last diva.

Music lounge (51)

There is very little left to write about Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, I guess. Even those who dislike it have seen it many and many times. Yes, it is a very popular opera – and, as much as I am a die-hard Mozartian – I wonder why. To be honest, it is my least favorite among Mozart’s mature operas. It feels long, especially if the cast isn’t uniformly excellent (and it rarely is). But my puzzlement has more to do with the libretto, which requires a certain level of awareness of how ordinary life was in Europe in the 18th century for someone to make complete sense of it. Directors have been busy updating it in all possible ways – but there is always something important left behind when you don’t understand the original context. There is also a structural problem – it is the middle item in Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais’s trilogy about how things were changing in pre-revolutionary France. The audience usually forgets that these are the same characters from the Barber of Seville – and nobody ever stages The Guilty Mother to understands what is finally going to happen with these characters.

For instance, although directors do not seem very keen on doing that, the audience can still find remains of Rosine in the Countess Almaviva. Even if she is depressed in her entrance scene, we soon realize she is still playful, scheming and not to be trifled with. It is the Count Almaviva, however, who is shown as an entirely changed person in most productions of Le Nozze di Figaro. We have seen him in the Barber of Sevilla as charming, congenial guy – he can sing, he plays the guitar, he has a terrific sense of humor, he runs under assumed names, disguised as a soldier or a music teacher. However, when we find him again, he is a philanderer, a neglecting husband and a spoilsport always in bad mood.

In The Barber from Seville, the Count was in love with Rosina, a rich beautiful orphaned girl practically kept as a prisoner in her own house by an unscrupulous guardian. He places all his energy in getting her – and he does get the girl in the end. At the same time, Rosina is a spirited, bright girl who wants freedom and to enjoy life and her only hope is the Count. She didn’t even know he was an aristocrat – only that he was in love with her and wanted to help her escape. In other words, these two people had very high expectations about each other, while what they really want was… adventure. But that was the 18th century, they were both well-born and marriage was the only possibility on the table. If you keep that in mind, there is far more depth Le Nozze di Figaro than at first sight. The Countess is not melancholic about the beautiful moments in the past – they were never there. They were just a promise “from those lying lips” (as we hear in her aria). The moment the Count got her, she lost all her appeal to him. He only wants what he doesn’t have. The libretto informs us he would be always chasing foreign beauties, until he found something really tempting – a girl truly in love with her fiancé (i.e., Susanna). The fact that both Susanna and Figaro are gladly giving up freedom to be together triggers all frustrations in the Almaviva household. The Countess and the Count don’t hate each other – and the beautiful forgiveness scene in the end shows us that. They are not bad people, they are just miserable, jail mates in their own golden cage. That is why it is important to know what happens in The Guilty Mother – all dark secrets are discovered (their only child is actually Cherubino’s son and the Count does have a daughter outside wedlock too), there is a lot of plotting, but in the end they forgive each other and bless the union of their children. So in Léon and Florestine’s wedding we’ll finally see a true union between the Count and the Countess Almaviva. They did not bring each other any kind of personal fulfilment, but they finally brought each other peace.

We have to be honest: Mozart does not help us connect the dots between the two plays. The part of the Count Almaviva is written in a way that brings out almost exclusively the bad side of the character. From his first entrance, he mostly blusters in angular lines, closer to recitative than to song, as we can hear in the terzetto with Susanna and Basilio in act 1, then in the act 2 duet with the Countess and then throughout the act 2 finale. He does mellow now and then – but even then Mozart does not want us to believe about his sincerity. For instance, in the act 3 duet with Susanna, Crudel, perchè fin’ora?, we hear these little bouts of laughter in the strings telling us not to take him seriously. When he believes to be wooing Susanna in the garden, there is some suaveness in his singing, but the sprightly rhythms in the orchestra show us that the whole thing is just staged. The single moment when we believe he is being sincere during the whole opera happens a little bit later near the end of the opera, as he asks for the Countess’s forgiveness. There Mozart clearly tells us that this is a moment unlike any other in the opera – we’re transported to the realm of sacred music, which is the trick he uses to shows that the character is being truly serious (as when he borrows the melody of the Agnus Dei in the Coronation Mass for the Countess’s big aria).

I have written all that to say that I really dislike when the baritone in the role of the Count portrays him as “evil and loving it”. I have to be honest, most baritones skate on the surface of the role and content themselves in working with what Mozart apparently gave them – all those nervous, blustery vocal lines. But aren’t they too nervous and too blustery? Doesn’t the gentleman protest too much? There must be some palpable vulnerability there. Susanna sees that when she pretends to accept his advances. That’s the beauty of their duet: she feels bad for tricking him, even if he has been a total a******, because she senses that deep down he is suffering. When we can, just like Susanna did, feel his misery, then the forgiveness scene in the end gains an entirely different meaning. But this week we’re listening to his big – and difficult – aria, Vedrò mentr’io sospiro. If we read the text, we’ll see that this no declaration of war, but a cry for help – he is literally saying: why do I have to be the only unhappy person in the end of the story? (Actually, there is the Countess too – but he only realizes that in the garden scene). Let’s read it: Hai già vinta la causa! Cosa sento!/In qual laccio cadea? Perfidi! Io voglio/ Di tal modo punirvi… A piacer mio/ la sentenza sarà… Ma s’ei pagasse/la vecchia pretendente?/ Pagarla! In qual maniera! E poi v’è Antonio,/ che a un incognito Figaro ricusa
di dare una nipote in matrimonio./ Coltivando l’orgoglio/ di questo mentecatto…/ Tutto giova a un raggiro… il colpo è fatto. ARIA: Vedrò mentre io sospiro,/ felice un servo mio!/ E un ben ch’invan desio,/ ei posseder dovrà?/ Vedrò per man d’amore/ unita a un vile oggetto/ chi in me destò un affetto/ che per me poi non ha?// Ah no, lasciarti in pace,/
non vo’ questo contento,/ tu non nascesti, audace,/ per dare a me tormento,/ e forse ancor per ridere/ di mia infelicità.// Già la speranza sola/ delle vendette mie/ quest’anima consola,/ e giubilar mi fa.
(“I’ve won our case”? What have I heard?/ I was falling into a trap! Traitors, I will/Punish you in a way… To my own satisfaction/I’ll impose the sentence… What if he [Figaro] was to pay off/The old woman’s [Marzellina] claim?/Pay her? But how? And there’s also Antonio/Who is refusing to give his nice [Susanna] to a Figaro, a man whose family is unknown./ If I work on the pride/ of a man as stupid as him/everything favours my scheme:/ the blow is dealt!/ ARIA: While I languish and I sigh,/Am I supposed to watch the joy of a servant of mine?/Is he supposed to know/The joy I long for in vain?/Am I supposed to see the one who roused unrequited passion in me /united in love with a lowly vassal?/Oh, no, I won’t leave you in peace/I don’t want you to be content/An insolent fellow like you were not born/To bring me torment/or even to laugh/of my own unhappiness.//The very hope/of getting revenge/is a solace to my soul/and makes me rejoice!).

Yes, it is difficult to feel for the Count’s predicament. We have heard again and again this kind of “what about me?” growling from privileged men when, for a change, they are not the lucky ones. Especially here, when he is being particularly vicious and trying to ruin everyone’s lives. Yet Beaumarchais (and Da Ponte) are showing us that the Count is a walking cliché – he is miserable, he is in pain and it makes him hurt even more when he sees someone happy around him. In the aria, he is not referring to merely having sex with Susanna, but being in love, being contented by what one has, feeling well about him or herself. That’s what he envies. Those are not beautiful feelings to witness, but the singer has to be able to let us see the suffering in the bottom of all that ugliness. This makes the experience of listening to Verdrò mentr’io sospiro far more interesting. Again: Mozart waits until to the end of the opera to show us that the Count deep down is not a monster and here the music is all about cursing, complaining, threatening. And yet this is clearly an Ersatz for true satisfaction. By the end of the scene, he is enthusiastic about his plan, he acts as if he is happy about it: fake it until you make it.

The boundaries between recitative and aria are quite blurred here and I feel we could almost call it a scene. Although there is just one person on stage, it almost feels like a dialogue. To start with, it is almost entirely made of questions, mostly answered by the orchestra in the recitative. We hear the count pacing up and down in “Hai gia vinta la causa? Cosa sento! and then in the following plain loud chords, that swift gesture with the arm – In qual laccio cadea? Then the finger pointing, the punching in the air in Perfidi! Io voglio, io voglio… Then the musing, hand on chin in the dotted figures Ma s’ei pagasse la vecchia pretendente? Then we hear the laughing in Pagarla? In qual maniera? Then he feels more comfortable – there’s a plan being formed here. We hear that in the long chord that follows. He sits down. Then the orchestra is marked piano, there is a catchy, pleasant figure in the violins – he’ll convince Antonio do do whatever he wants, there is nothing to fear. The laughing figure is everywhere in the orchestra now – he’s got this under control.

The aria begins with a series of swift downward scales – the count punches the table – and there is a solemn figure, a trill, quite old-style, and an ascending sequence of plain chords marked forte. He gets up, in all his aristocratic proudness – Who does that fellow take himself for by trying his luck against (powerful, marvelous, formidable, handsome) me? As always, the Count’s vocal line are not truly Mozartian in a melodic, catchy way (as Figaro’s, for instance) – it is always recitative-like in style. The Count’s bravado does not last long – he soon has doubts. He starts to think about what could happen – Figaro and Susanna lovey-dovey right in front his eyes – the woodwind brings a certain harmonic tension, we have a series of nagging little figures, first many trills and then a provoking figure in the strings turning around second minor intervals. But the Count wants to believe he’ll succeed and, after an upward sweep we have the closest to a melodic line in the aria an up-and-down phrase on the words Vedrò mentr’io sospiro, infelice un servo mio and then E un ben ch’invan desio ei posseder dovrà. This is the very image of the Count’s state of mind – he is a bit down, but he’s acting out and trying to lift his mood (by making everybody around him as down as he is right now). Again it doesn’t last long – the nagging figures are all back when he figures Susanna and Figaro together. This time the whole thing is too much for him – he asks again and again Vedrò? (“Am I to see that?”) We hear short upward sweeps, almost as an engine whirring before it finally takes off. And it does – the count explodes from Ah, no, lasciarti in pace. We’re in a different tempo (allegro assai), the strings have a restless rhythm, the vocal line follows the text, we hear him shouting: audace! (“insolent!”), there is a chromatic line in “to bring me torment”, the nagging trills are all over the place, there is a laughing quality in the vocal line when he says che giubilar mi fa (“that makes me rejoice”). In the first time, it is a descending figure with slurs connecting notes two by two. In the end of the aria, it develops into a small piece of coloratura, quite challenging to baritones – mordente-like triplets up and down, a trill. The next phrase takes the baritone to a difficult high f sharp and that’s the end of the aria, the orchestra seems to be hysterically laughing with the singer.

How is the baritone supposed to make this tridimensional? Almost every singer goes to an all-out approach here, spitting consonants, snarling a lot, “acting with the voice” and going through the final coloratura in an almost impatient way, generally blurring the whole thing before he finally screams a high f sharp. First, this is Mozart. Yes, you can snarl, but you still have to keep the line, follow phrasing instructions, save energy for the difficult end of the aria – and, most important, take advantage of the downbeat moments (in which the character has doubts about himself and his plan) to show a more relaxed voice, some beauty of tone. We have to understand that the Count is not getting a machine gun and killing the rest of the cast in the next scene. It is a “what about me?”-moment, it’s a cry for help. You are right to feel annoyed by his tantrum and egocentrism, but you have to feel a bit sorry for him. You’re not calling the police, but rather searching for a psychotherapist’s visit card and saying “do yourself a favor and get an appointment”.

I first took notice of Boje Skovhus (his first name had four letters back then) in a Schubert recital on Sony. Back then, I found his voice beautiful and his phrasing sensitive. Then, he was cast as the Count in Claudio Abbado’s studio recording of Le Nozze di Figaro, a release not entirely well received by reviewers. As much as I can see why, I find Abbado’s conducting and the Vienna Philharmonic admirable. And Cecilia Bartoli is a vivacious, charming Cherubino. But there is also Skovhus – a replacement, if I am not mistaken – in the role of the Count. Although he recorded this part many and many times, he became increasingly heavy-handed and unidiomatic in it. That said, I consider him very well cast in the Abbado recording – and his Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro the most smoothly sung, richest in contrast – and he offers there the best rendition of the difficult final bars in the discography. It sounds what it is – a tantrum. He doesn’t seem dangerous at all, just overwrought, and there is still some aristocratic poise in his bullying. And Abbado is all the way with him, showing us all the detailed “stage action” and psychological variety in Mozart’s orchestral writing.

Music Lounge (50)

I have no interest in voice/piano recitals with operatic reductions. I believe vocal scores exist for study and rehearsal and I find it disconcerting to hear someone singing Puccini for the last seat in the hall over piano tremolo. There is a huge repertoire for voice and piano – and singers are supposed to know it. That said, it is harder when you have a big voice. Most artsongs require a leaner and more flexible sound to express feelings of a more intimate nature and also clear vowels for the audience to understand the text. There are, of course, big-voiced singers who know how to scale down for a Liederabend, but there is always an impression of someone walking on eggshells. That is why the Russian songs are so interesting – they are generally composed with a large dynamic range in mind and the piano part is conceived in a way that it rises to the occasion. All famous Russian singers have performed and recorded the repertoire, especially the Tchaikovsky items, which are revered both by musicians and concert-goers in the country (and abroad). Among his romances, those in the 1893 set of six songs, op. 73 (his final works in the genre) are famous for their highly emotional atmosphere.

Tchaikovsky was an avid reader and received with interest the poems from a 24-year-old Law student called Daniil Maximovich Rathaus, sent with the purpose of having them set to music by the renowned composer, who immediately expressed his intent of using them in his next romances. The Op. 73 was published one year later and helped to establish Rathaus’s reputation: Rachmaninov, Glière and Cesar Cui would later use his poems in their songwriting. What calledTchaikovsky’s attention in Rathaus’s writing was the prevailing melancholy and pessimism, and therefore I chose for our Music Lounge the most depressing item in the group, the last one, Snova, kak prezhde, odin (“Again, as before, alone”): Snova, kak prezhde, odin,/Snova ob”jat ja toskoj/Smotritsja topol’ v okno,/Ves’ ozarjonnyj lunoj//Smotritsja topol’ v okno/Shepchut o chem to listy/V zvezdakh gorjat nebesa/Gde teper’, milaja, ty?//Vsjo, chto tvoritsja so mnoj,/Ja peredat’ ne berus’./Drug! pomolis’ za menja,/Ja za tebja uzh moljus’! (“Again, as before, alone/Melancholy has me again in its embrace/Through the window a poplar looks in/bathed in moonlight.//Its leaves whisper about something/The sky is ablaze with starlight/Where are you, my love?// I am not able to tell/All that is happening to me/My friend, please pray for me,/Just as I am praying for you!)

Although it sounds simple at first glance, this is a song about nuance – and there are many here. It is written in a “melancholic” A minor and follows a patter of bass note + repeated chords. But there’s more to it. For instance, a recurring descending, sigh-like figure in the upper hand – a dotted crochet followed by a quaver. It first appears with the notes f and then e and it stays, bar after bar, like that for a while, as long as the harmonic development follows its own pattern: A minor and then a German sixth chord (apparently one of Tchaikovsky’s hallmarks). It is no coincidence that the pattern is first shown with the lines “AGAIN, as before alone” and “Melancholy has me AGAIN in its embrace”. It is a very clever way of showing us the deadlock in the poet’s own feelings. The repetitive vocal line too goes along the same lines: cbacbac (we could image that the long c in the end feels rather like “and so forth”). Things start to change from the verse Trough the window a poplar looks in”, which is no longer in A minor, but chromatically slides down to a D minor in the next verse. The vocal line no longer follows the pattern but concentrates it – cccbbba… There is something claustrophobic about this song (maybe because it is rhythmically straitjacketed) and this “concentration” of the vocal line feels regressive in a certain way – I can’t speak Russian and maybe I got the translation wrong, but the way I read it, we have an inanimate object looking inside the house rather than the person inside the house looking at it, to start with. The next line (the one in D minor) is even more regressive, it is almost annihilating – it’s only a sequences of a’s on the text “bathed in moonlight”. It sound as if the world had moved over and left the poet behind. And back we’re to the pattern, although the text takes us to a strange description of the outside world. At this point, the poet’s state of mind is imprinted in the landscape – the tree whispers “something” (he can’t hear or doesn’t bother to hear), the sky is ablaze in starlight. The sigh motive adapts itself to harmonic shifts, but it’s always there – we know from the start that there is no salvation for the poet. He is confined to this state of mind.

I have the impression that Tchaikovsky would disagree with what I just wrote. The poet is not confined there, but rather has confined himself there, for the moment he gives some leeway to his feelings, things get too intense, it is too much for this worldweary soul. And we’ll hear that in the next verses. The composer informs us that the atmosphere is changing – the “flame” in the sky has nothing to do with stars and their silvery shine. In the middle section of the song the poet is speaking directly to his or her beloved – the dynamic is no longer piano, the pattern is no longer there and the vocal line gradually goes higher and higher above the c-b-a scheme up to a high g flat. The whole passage is harmonically tense and rich in dissonance. Now we know what the poet is repressing and why he keeps it locked. If he surrenders to his own despair, he might not survive. He probably won’t – the sigh motive is still there, disguised in the middle of what seems to be a more developed melodic line in the pianist’s right hand. After the outburst, Tchaikovsky chromatically brings us back to the first tempo of the song. While the poet asks his or her absent beloved to pray for him, for he is already praying for him or her, again we hear the pattern, the c-b-a-c-b-a-c… vocal lines. The A minor chords repeat themselves until they sink into silence.

This is our mezzo week and I decided we would listen to Olga Borodina, whose recording with Larissa Gergieva is a classic. But that is only a matter of taste – almost every important Russian mezzo soprano recorded this song and every recording is revelatory in its own way. Irina Arkhipova, for instance, offers a very cantabile account of it. At first, she sounds almost too objective. She does not make it a small operatic scene. It is clearly a song and she understands that each part requires a different approach. In her performance, only the repetition has a hushed tone, as if the poet crashed under the weight of his own feelings in the middle section. In purely vocal terms, Elena Obraztsova offers the wow-element, especially in the video recorded for Russian TV in what seems to be one of Tchaikovsky’s living places. It is impressive in cantabile and legato. She floats beautiful mezza voce and unleashes her formidable means in the middle section. It is heartfelt in a rather generalized but truly impressive way. Borodina, however, seems to have paid attention to the text when it says “again” and sings both first and the final section in the same “dead” tone, which she seems to have “learned” from Galina Vishnevskaya’s recording and taken things even further. She sings the first part in an almost non-voice. It is purely confessional in its small scale, lack of vibration and color. She does follow Tchaikovsky’s demand on crescendo and descrescendo with very discreet paintbrushes. It is a study in grey. She gradually lets her full voice develop in the middle section and, in its full color, we can hear the strength of the poet’s passion which, deprived of its object, weighs in his or her heart like a heavy stone. One might say that it feels a bit studio-ish in its extreme dynamics, but I find it effectively descriptive of the emotional landscape in the poem and, at least to my ears, she doesn’t come across as mannered at all. Moreover, Larissa Gergieva is really sensitive to the mood shifts and produces really rich, full sonorities in the middle section. On YouTube, one can find Borodina again – many years later – with Daniil Trifonov in concert. There, her voice is evidently less fresh – the “dead tone” feels a little bit unstable and her full voice less velvety. And yet the feeling is so genuine – her older self seems to have understood how to sing it “from within” and even the slight decay in the tone is an expressive tool. And Trifonov tries to squeeze the last ounce of color from his Fazioli there.

I was lucky to see Borodina in her prime – unfortunately, never in Russian roles – and she left nothing to be desired back then. I first heard her in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and I remember that I wrote “Rarely has the triumph of goodness sounded so triumphant”. Then I was lucky to confirm that she was my ideal Dalila not only in recordings. Her Carmen seemed as if she could fight the bulls herself, yet vocally I still was under her spell. I would hear her again – always at the Met, but for a Verdi Requiem with Riccardo Muti in Salzburg – in Italian roles (Amneris, Laura, the Princess of Bouillon), which never completely flattered the velvet of her voice. Even then, in terms of glamour, musicianship and expression, there was always something you could refer back to in your memories.

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There is very little science in Fach. It is not like taxonomy; there has never been a Carl Linnaeus in the history of music. It is a classification simultaneously based in various criteria. Sometimes it has to do with the writing for voices, sometimes with types of role, sometimes with models established by a specific singer etc – and it definitely is specific to national repertoires. Critics generally try to establish (inexact) parallels between Italian and Germany categories, but French voices are a law unto themselves. For instance, the voice of haute-contre is a specimen exclusively observed in French baroque music. The name itself could mislead the uninitiated to believe it is a French word for countertenor, but that is not the case. The haute-contre is closer to a tenor than a countertenor will ever be (although there is “tenor” in the name): he basically is a tenor who sings in very high tessitura by means of voix mixte (not falsetto). One might point out that, in the baroque, all tenors would produce their high notes like that. Yes, but the tessitura for a tenor in a Handel opera or a Bach cantata is basically lower. For some reason – maybe the very sound of French language – contemporary haute-contres (we can only imagine how they sounded in the 18th century) have a clearly brighter sound that makes them a little bit more metallic in tone than the warmer sound of a Handel or Bach tenor, even when they sing a high g or a high a. This also means that the voice of haute-contre can be an acquired taste. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said its very unnaturalness meant it was usual a bit acidic in tone and rarely true in intonation.

When we look at the discography of French baroque opera, we observe that haute-contres are not only a domestic product of France. Belgium, the United Kingdom and even the US have their share of hautes-contres. French hautes-contres sometimes veer into light lyric repertoire, for the tradition of high notes in voix mixte did not disappear in the end of the baroque era in France. In any case, this is a very special niche of the repertoire, a little bit less unknown these days due to the recent growth of Rameau’s popularity with the audience. This week, we’re listening to one of the most popular works by Rameau and probably what is the most famous aria for the haute-contre voice (in the score, an “ariette’), which is Règne, amour from the acte de ballet Pygmalion.

An acte de ballet is actually a vocal work – a one-act work with a simple romantic intrigue, generally of mythological inspiration with as much dance numbers as you can imagine. As it is, the plot of Pygmalion does not require any explanation. Règne, amour is the last vocal number in the score. Amazed by the power of the child god, Amor, who transformed a beautiful statue in a woman, the enamoured sculptor announces the miraculous event: Règne, Amour, fais briller tes flammes,/ Lance tes traits dans nos âmes./ Sur des coeurs soumis à tes lois/Épuise ton carquois./ Tu nous fais, dieu charmant, le plus heureux destin./ Je tiens de toi l’objet dont mon âme est ravie,/ Et cet objet si cher respire, tient la vie/ Des feux de ton flambeau divin. (“Reign, o Love, light your flames/ Shoot your arrows in our souls./ On hearts subject to your laws, empty your quiver./ You procure us, o charming god, the happiest fate./ I receive from you the object that enraptures my soul,/ and the dearest object breathes, receives its life/from the fire of your divine torch.”).

When you see a text like that, you know this is going to be a superflorid aria. And it is! This is a very tough piece of singing. First, it mostly stays in the second octave – it’s like the tenor aria in Der Rosenkavalier… with coloratura. Second, the coloratura always has a weird vowel. We know, tenors love nasalizing their runs because, yes, it help keep everything in focus, especially around the passaggio. But singing bars and bars of of divisions on the French “an” without sounding a bit grotesque is a tough assignment. Third, you need crystal clear diction. And, last but not least, this is French. It is the hardest language to sing idiomatically.

Finding the right recording of Règne, amour is not difficult if you have in mind that, when hautes-contres are involved, you’ll never find anything ideal. Rousseau was right. Singing an aria like that is like walking on a tightrope – and the singer will have his tense and/or acidic moments and those when intonation is perfectible, especially in the end of long phrases. This is a celebratory aria and it must feel exhilarating in the fast tempo for the singer to form the ideal contrast with the slower tempo, when he must rather sound elegant and poised. So it needs a truly balletic tempo – you must feel like moving to the rhythm. As this requires extraordinary flexibility for the tenor, few conductors go for it. In the end, we have Hervé Niquet with Le Concert Spirituel and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and Michi Gaigg with L’Orfeo Barockorchester and Anders J. Dahlin with Michi Gaigg. In terms of orchestra, L’Orfeo has a warmer sound and less bumpy playing – but, of course, in the end, choosing a recording turns around the singer in the role of Pygmalion.

Both Fouchécourt and Dahlin are regarded as Rameau specialists, and Fouchécourt appears in some extremely famous recording of French baroque music. I have to say that I first heard Règne, amour in concert with Luciano Botelho, a bel canto/Mozart tenor, who delivered it in a warm, round tonal quality that made me believe that you can expect some velvet there. Maybe the fact that he is not French made me think that a little bit less nasality than what the authentic French pronunciation requires might have been the reason for it. That is why I first checked Dahlin, who, yes, is marginally less nasal than Fouchécourt and therefore a little bit easier on the ear. His intonation is also a bit truer, but once you hear Fouchécourt, his naturalness, firmness of tone and truly astounding flexibility makes you understand his reputation. This is an aria with a cruel amount of attacks in high g’s and a’s. Without the da capo, the aria has 17 high a and three high b flat and an endless demand of high g’s. As an element of comparison: Handel’s Ev’ry Valley (from The Messiah) has no high a or b flat, Bach’s Frohe Hirten (from the Christmas Oratorio) has four high a’s… and Mozart’s Ah, lo veggio (from Così fan Tutte) has 20 high a’s and 13 (!) high b flat (I might have missed some). With Fouchécourt, we don’t feel that Règne, amour is high at all, although you’ll tend to agree with Rousseau here and there.

I’ve seen Jean-Paul Fouchécourt twice, never in baroque music, always in character roles. First at the Met in a Massenet’s Manon, then late in his career in Berlin both in Bizet’s Carmen and Chabrier’s L’Étoile and finally in the Saito Kinen Festival in a double bill L’Enfant et les Sortilèges/L’Heure Espagnole. Although he didn’t command then the ease with high notes we hear in the Rameau item this week, he was always characterful and impressively clear in his diction.

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Richard Strauss’s 6 Lieder, Op. 56 is an odd assortment of songs. The first three items, settings of poems by Goethe, Henckell and Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (a Swiss poet), were composed in 1903, while the last three items date from 1906 and feature all of them texts by Heinrich Heine. All but the first song are dedicated to Strauss’s mother, and this makes the presence of the fifth song in this collection. Frühlingsfeier (Rite of Spring) even more curious in comparison with the other items in the group. The description of the Adonia, an annual fertility rite celebrated by Greek women before the Christian era, hardly sounds like the theme for a voice/piano song (or something you would dedicate to your mother). As it was, these festivals involved mock funerals for Adonis, Aphrodites’s handsome mortal lover killed by a wild boar when he was hunting. Women would sow seeds of lettuce and fennel in potsherds on their rooftops and then wail in processions calling his name “Adonis, Adonis!” through the streets of Athens and other cities. This description sounds a bit outlandish – I guess almost everyone would imagine something a little bit wilder on hearing “fertility ritual” – and so is Strauss’s song.

To be honest, Frühlingsfeier could be described as kitsch. It goes against everything we imagine in a German Lied. The vocal line is not central in tessitura and intimate in atmosphere, but frankly heroic in an operatic manner, and the piano part is extremely busy and grandiloquent. It simply doesn’t work in the context of a Liederabend. If the soprano has the voice for it, she will sound too loud in a way that overpowers the piano, which here reminds us that it is a percussion instrument; if the singer doesn’t have the voice for it, it’ll be sheer screaming. It is no coincidence that between 1903 and 1906, Strauss composed his first successful opera, Salome, and what we hear here has some similarity with the soprano solos in the scene in which she tries to seduce Jochanaan. Actually, the similarity has to do with the multicoloured accompaniment and the kind of vocal writing. Both in terms of harmony and invention, Salome is more daring than Frühlingsfeier, which comes across rather as conventional and, therefore, somewhat kitsch. And yet, the impression of exaggeration, of lack of true substance fits somehow Heine’s poem, which describes the mock funeral rather than Adonis’s death itself. In any case, although Strauss only wrote a version for voice and orchestra 27 years later, anyone who hears it will agree that it is far preferable. The big orchestra wraps the exposed writing for the soprano and fills the texture in a way the piano cannot do. Some may claim that it sounds rather as an operatic aria in the orchestral version, but who cares? Regardless of what Strauss might have thought when he composed it, it never was a Lied, neither in the essence of the text nor in the nature of the music. Some critics consider it a weak link in Strauss’s opus, and I would only agree if you regard it as a Lied. Then, yes, it’s a failed one. But when you embrace its peculiarity, then it is indeed original in its flashiness.

Let’s read Heinrich Heine’s poem first: Das ist des Frühlings traurige Lust!/ Die blühenden Mädchen, die wilde Schar,/ Sie stürmen dahin mit flatterndem Haar/ Und Jammergeheul und entblößter Brust: /‘Adonis! Adonis!’// Es sinkt die Nacht bei Fackelschein/Sie suchen hin und her im Wald,/ Der angstverwirret widerhallt/Vom Weinen und Lachen und Schluchzen und Schreien:/‘Adonis! Adonis!’// Das wunderschöne Jünglingsbild,/ Es liegt am Boden blaß und tot,/Das Blut färbt alle Blumen rot,/Und Klagelaut die Luft erfüllt,/‘Adonis! Adonis!’ (“This is the mournful delight of spring/ The young women in bloom, the wild throng/ They rush ahead with streaming hair/rueful cries and bared breasts:/ Adonis, Adonis!//The night falls, by the light of their torches/They seek here and there in the wood/which, confused in fear, echoes/Weeping and laughter and sobbing and screaming:/ Adonis! Adonis!//The gorgeous young man/lies on the ground, pale and dead/The blood dyes all flowers red/And wailing fills the air: Adonis! Adonis!”). As we see, the poem offers a very impressionistic description of the ritual. We can’t call it a scene because time and place are not part of the equation here. First we witness the procession taking place – hundreds of women wailing, unruly hair, half-naked, uttering wild sounds, the name of Adonis being repeated over and over again. Then we see the procession disperse in the wood. It’s dark, we only see shadows and frightening sounds everywhere – we still hear “Adonis, Adonis” repeated in a hypnotic way, we’re reaching the point of ritual hallucination. And then, carried away by all those strong stimuli, we see what is not actually there: the death of Adonis, the blood. It’s just a fleeting impression, the rite is about to end.

Strauss did not choose any classic Lieder form to compose this song, but rather goes with the dramatic flow and descriptive needs of the text in almost “symphonic poem” style. The key word is “almost” – this is a very short piece and we have no time for true motivic development. So the composer works from two basic elements: in the vocal part we have a recurrent figure, which is the cry “Adonis, Adonis!”; in the orchestra we have a study in arpeggio. Not only they illustrate the whirlwind of impressions, but they also work as a quasi-motivic figure. There is also a short, sensuous twirling theme. It first appears on Die blühenden Mädchen in flutes, oboes, clarinets and violas. In a way, it is what comes closer to a Leitmotiv, since it does appear in fragmented form and in different harmonic contexts throughout the song. Chromaticism is used here generously, but not really boldly, almost as Mozart would use dissonance as colouring. The orchestra also echoes the vocal part to add flavor in the most declamatory passages.

The first stanza has the singer in full heroic mood – the soprano wrestles the orchestra on and around the passaggio before she is taken to a high b on die wi-i-lde Schar. For the nightly atmosphere of the second stanza, the entire sound picture is changed, first the tessitura is lower for both singer and orchestra, the arpeggi are now simpler too. The texture gradually becomes a little bit more complex and the singer is tested with a series of high a and finally a high b flat (a long one, in Schreien, “screaming”) Of course, Strauss creates an entirely new atmosphere for the vision of Adonis’s death.The arpeggi disappear and we have plain chords, there is an uncanny stillness now, the singer no long produces heroic notes, but rather a lyric flowing line. There is a famously difficult octave leap that requires a floated a sharp (on Wunderschöne, “gorgeous”). It takes a while before we’re suck back to reality, which manifests itself with the cries of Adonis. First we hear them still in the “insight” atmosphere before they’re repeated just like in the previous stanzas, if now taken to a long high b (followed by a b flat and an a)in an atmosphere close to the Immolation scene before it dies out in an orchestral upward sweep.

For the obvious reasons, there aren’t many recordings of Frühlingsfeier. It is curious, however, that dramatic sopranos aren’t usually tempted to sing it at all. It would have been interesting if we could have listened to Birgit Nilsson or Gwyneth Jones in it, for example. Strauss himself would have disagreed, it seems – he prepared the orchestral version for Viorica Ursuleac, who could rather fit into the big lyric drawer*. Luckily, she did record it with her husband, Clemens Krauss, and produces round, rich, high notes. It is indeed a very good recording that shows us what Strauss himself would expect to hear in it. Ursuleac premièred, among other Straussian roles, the part of Arabella – and I had to choose between two Arabellas before I finally picked the recording we’re hearing in the Music Lounge this week. Although I have her complete recording of Strauss orchestral songs, I had never noticed before this week that Felicity Lott actually recorded it. It is a light voice for this music and she has her fluttery moments. That said, she sounds younger than all her rivals and really makes more of the music and the text than everyone else. Neeme Järvi too offers an analytic account of the score and there is a lot to discover there. In the last minute, however, I chose Karita Mattila’s recording with the Berliner Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado.

Mattila’s CD with Richard Strauss’s orchestral songs was a bit of a disappointment when it was released, I’m afraid. Everybody had really high expectations about her Vier letzte Lieder, but the result is hardly groundbreaking. Abbado’s live recording with Melanie Diener in Salzburg proved to be surprisingly more effective in comparison. Yet the program has unusual items, and Mattila is at her best in them. The first thing we notice in Abbado’s recording is that he definitely listened to the Ursuleac/Krauss recording. It is dramatic, intense and orchestrally dense. He doesn’t make his soloist’s life easier in any moment. Mattila’s velvety, round voice lacked cutting edge in both ends and she always had to force her high notes a bit, which could acquire a matte finish. And yet she never lacked stamina. Here we feel that she goes dangerously close to her limits, but in a good way. This makes the whole experience particularly exciting. Also, there is a sexiness in her singing that adds an element of primal femininity that is in the very core of what is being described in Frühlingsfeier. To her credit, she offers the best rendition in the discography of the “vision” episode – it is at once sensuous, warm and classy. She floats the high a sharp better than anyone else (even Lott). And the closing bars are truly climactic – Mattila goes for the white-heat treatment in the difficult phrase with the high b, we can almost feel how much energy she used to keep that note in focus. And Abbado, well, he makes the Berliners go totally for broke there. The last orchestral swoosh is ecstatic, out of this world. Everybody knows that the most famous operatic urban myth is that there is a hidden studio recording of Elektra in Deutsche Gramophon’s vaults (with Jessye Norman and Helga Dernesch). Until we find if this is true or not, this account of Frühlingsfeier shows us what we’re missing. As a last note, Abbado did conduct Elektra live in Salzburg with Karita Mattila as Chrysothemis. At least one performance was recorded – and I sincerely hope it is going to be released some day.

* I am aware that some critics have described Viorica Ursuleac’s voice as a “dramatic soprano”. Indeed, she sang mezzo parts (Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther, for instance) and even the title role in Turandot. It is said that her recordings invariably found her not in her best voice and do not show the impact of her gleaming and forceful high notes. Yet reading some contemporary reviews and listening to these recordings I still hear a big lyric voice – which is also the kind of singer we usually hear in the roles Strauss wrote for her voice. Everything about Ursuleac is controversial – even the fact that she was a good singer (and Strauss’s favourable opinion certainly is an evidence of that). I have the impression that those who are negative about her tend to form their opinions – as I myself have at first – on her recording of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer with Hans Hotter, in which, yes, she is not in top form at all.

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At first sight, Bellini’s La Sonnambula is a quaint, sentimental piece of nonsense. Maybe at second sight too. Yet there’s something there to be discovered if you’re willing to give it some time. As I wasn’t at first interested in buying a recording, I first saw it in a live performance in which everything felt like reverie wrapped in exquisite melodies. I have to say that I even liked the silly plot, in which we can get a glimpse of these characters’ secret desires behind the alpine pageantry.

While the opera turns around the characters of the sweet sleepwalking Amina and her jealous fiancé Elvino, Eugène Scribe’s scenario for the ballet-pantomime La Sonnambule (on which Felice Romani found inspiration for his libretto) had the subtitle L’Arrivée du Nouvel Seigneur (The Arrival of the New Lord of the Land). In Scribe’s text, M. de Saint-Rambert is young, handsome and a womanizer. He has some decency and, when Thérèse (Amina) walks in her sleep into his bedroom, he realizes it would be plainly wrong to take advantage of the situation and leaves. Later on, he tries to fix things by explaining the situation to Edmond (Elvino). When the young man refuses to believe him, Saint-Rambert contents himself with laughing about the whole absurd situation. I am not sure how Romani decided to make things more complex by inserting in the plot a story we’ve read more than once in literature – the Count Rodolfo (Saint-Rambert) comes to his estate in the countryside where he fell in love with a local girl many years ago only to find a young woman who looks just like her. In different versions of this story, the moment when he discovers that she is his own daughter varies, sometimes too late. Curiously, Bellini did not like Romani’s idea and made him delete the scene where the truth about the girl’s paternity is found out. There is only one remain of the ghost subplot in the libretto – right in the cabaletta of Rodolfo’s aria, Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni (“I see you again, pleasant places [of my youth]”), when we hear him say “That adorable beauty is revived in my thoughts/she was then as you are now: in the morning of her life”.

Although we’re not listening to the cabaletta, the item in our Music Lounge this week is precisely Rodolfo’s Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni. As usual with Bellini, this is an aria that requires absolutely perfect legato, noble tonal quality and, above all, poise. Rodolfo is not the womanizer in Scribe’s pantomime. Maybe in his youth – here he just revives those days in his mind on seeing a girl who looks just like his teenage sweetheart. Although Romani probably imagined that his resisting his own impulses in the bedroom scene was due to an instinctive realization that there was a family bond between them, the final version of the libretto just shows him as a decent man who knows how to draw a line between what is proper and what is not. It is a cruel role in a sense – the audience’s impression about Rodolfo depends entirely of how the bass is singing this first aria. If he does not deliver it in impeccable bel canto style, then he’ll just look like an old cad who was for some reason not in the mood that evening. As almost everything composed by Bellini, it is difficult to describe its charm. The strings basically produce an arpeggio pattern throughout the entire piece, while woodwind and horns season the vocal line. The text is very simple – we are in a cavatina pattern – Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni/, in cui lieti, in cui sereni,/si tranquillo i di passai/Della prima gioventù./Cari luoghi, io vi trovai/ma quei di no trovo più. (“I see you again, pleasant places/ where I calmly spent/the happy, serene days/Of my early youth./Dear places, I may find you now/but I’ll never find those days again.”). The other characters and the chorus comment that he seems to know the village well and they wonder why.

When the aria starts, the singer first has the clarinet with him, soon to be joined by the French horn basically adding some harmonic zest to the string arpeggi. In the first phrase, Rodolfo experiments again the contentment of his youth, but the second one is about the present emotion of feeling young again. In order to mark the change of mood, Bellini adds more woodwind to the mix: flutes and oboes double the singer’s voice. And yet the composer insists that the dynamic should be kept piano. He even adds some morendo to prevent everyone from getting too perky here. The increase in emotion is made exclusively by tone colouring. As the text of the aria reflects Rodolfo’s thoughts (he is not speaking to anyone here), Romani and Bellini have the audience listening to the villagers talk about the stranger who has just arrived there. In the recitative, he voices the fact that he finds everything in the same place where they used to be the last time he was there. Now an extra clarinet and bassoon join the other woodwind and we hear Rodolfo’s almost repetitive melody, as a sweet memory we’re not ready to let go, intertwined with the chorus. that sound pictures remains the same until the end of the aria but for the interruption for the singer’s cadenza, where the bass usually sings a low g before he ends in a low a flat.

The only reason why we’re not listening to the cabaletta is because the clip featured this week only shows the cavatina. This is a favorite aria, especially in vocal competitions and you’ll find recordings with almost every bass in the Italian repertoire. Cesare Siepi, for instance, recorded it more than once, and I bet his deluxe, ultrarich singing is considered the reference for all Italian basses. There is absolutely nothing to fault there, and yet I was looking for a performance with Mozartian grace and a real sense of Innigkeit. In Mario Lafranchi’s film with Anna Moffo, Plinio Clabassi sings with the right balance of nostalgia and nonchalance. Siepi’s fans won’t be wrong to find his voice slimmer in comparison, though. However, in the last minute I found László Polgár’s performance on YouTube and he comes really close to the way I would like to hear this aria. First, his voice is so gentle, smooth and velvety there – this is truly classy. Although the conductor rushes him forward, he still sounds absolutely chic. The legato is seamless, every note is round and fruity. Also, his use of portamento is very subtle, there is no unnecessary emphasis in any syllable (as usual in the first della prima gioventù). This is a lesson in bel canto singing – and the cadenza is delivered with flexibility and rotund low notes. I wonder why the audience applauds so bureaucratically in the end.

Although I really like Polgár’s voice – he is a musicianly and elegant singer – I am not an unconditional admirer. He could sometimes sound detached in an almost abstract way, especially in his recording with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. His Leporello, for instance, is so unresponsive that you could almost call him Il Sonnambulo. That said, there is plenty to cherish in his video- and discography, such as his Sarastro for Arnold Östman in Drottningholm. His recordings turn around Classical repertoire and early Romantics , but it seems that in his native Hungary he would sing all kinds of roles – you can hear his Filippo in a Don Carlo with Ilona Tokody, for instance. His performance in the title role in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle has been recorded more than once, the last time with Jessye Norman as Judit, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Pierre Boulez.

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I knew Jan DeGaetani’s name as someone connected to the contemporary music scene in the US and that she was considered an artists’ artist or something like that, but I had actually never any of her recordings until two years ago when I found the track featured this week in our Music Lounge. I was then looking for a recording of Schubert’s Lied der Mignon (Nur wer die Sehnsucht…) and, after having checked all usual suspects, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to give her CD a try. It took me entirely by surprise – the way she and the pianist establish the emotional atmosphere of the song from the first bar was a revelation for me. It has remained my favorite recording of that song, although the recorded sound is far from ideal. To start with, it places a hard edge in her voice and lacks some space. But still – once you listen to it, all other performances sound a bit artificial in comparison.

In 1826, Schubert composed a group of four songs – Gesänge aus “Wilhelm Meister” – inspired by Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (“Wilhelm Meister’s Aprenticeship”). I won’t even try to summarize the plot, for in truly Romantic style, it is impossible to summarize. Among its many characters, there is Mignon, a teenage girl rescued by the title character, who takes her under his protection, since she is lost to her family (not entirely – but it’s too complicated to explain). She is a highly emotional young person who happens to be infatuated with her protector and finally dies of a broken heart when she discovers he is love with someone else. In more than one occasion, the characters in the book sing – and their songs are part of the novel itself. Schubert’s 1826 set turns around Mignon – first there is a duet referred to as Mignon und der Harfner with the text Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, while the three remaining songs share the title Lied der Mignon and generally are named by their first verse. The last song, which we are hearing today, has the same text of the duet – Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt/weiss was ich leide./Allein und abgetrennt von aller Freude/Seh’ ich ans Firmament/Nach jener Seite./Ach, der mich liebt und kennt/Ist in der Weite./Es schwindelt mir, es brennt/ mein Eingeweide./Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt/weiss was ich leide. (“Only those who know longing/Understand what I am suffering/Alone and cut off from all joy/I look at the firmament/In that direction [i.e., where she comes from, Italy]/Ah, he who loves and knows me/Is far away/I feel dizzy/My entrails are aflame/Only those who know longing/Understand what I am suffering”). The text appears in the eleventh chapter of the novel’s fourth book. Wilhelm Meister is ill and melancholic and hears Mignon and the Harper (who is actually Mignon’s unknown father)sing a song that mirror his state of mind.

It is indeed a very sad song, a bit Italianate in its melodic flow and very simple in accompaniment, meant to evoke the harp playing just like when Mignon sings it in the book. Its structure is very similar to many Schubert’s settings of short poems. We have an introduction with the main theme plain in octaves, there is a significant dissonance to emphasize a key word (here Sehnsucht – “longing”). The above mentioned upward three-note arpeggio is used for the first two verses. When Mignon says she is alone and cut off from all joy, the accompaniment acquires a different pattern – a bass note followed by a chord, which settles with a repeated bass note for the last lines in the first part (Ach, der mich lieb und kennt… ). The change in the accompaniment is not accidental. The arpeggio is used for the verses in which Mignon is appealing to the listener who has gone through her predicament too. It is supposed to be enticing. The bass + chord is the part in which she explains how she feels – and the new accompaniment is sparser and therefore a bit gloomier. It also provides a more convincing transition for the short B section (the one in which she has a manic episode) with its repeated chords, the traditional musical representation of agitation. The B section is more recitative-like and also little bit more “German” than the sensuous melody that represents her longing for Italy.

In Jan DeGaetani’s interpretation, the song sounds downright depressing. First, she and her pianist Gilbert Kalisch adopt a very slow tempo. As many performers of contemporary music, DeGaetani had a particularly good ear for tonal coloring and uses it as an element of discourse rather than just emotional expression. Although Schubert died one century before most of her repertoire was composed, DeGaetani’s artistry was an ideal match for his music. First, her voice was an ideal instrument for his “descriptive” style of Lieder. If she billed herself a mezzo, the bright sound is rather soprano-ish in tone though. It may be my imagination, but I hear a faint splash of Régine Crespin (albeit in miniature) in the warmth behind the tight focus that acquires an edge in the upper register. It is also a voice that sounds believably young, but not childish. And that makes her well-suited to the Mignon Lieder (which she sings one whole tone lower than the original, in a “medium voice” edition). When we first hear her, the sound itself suggests some weariness, at some points glassy, as if it was about to break. Most singers try to make the repetition of the first two lines a little bit more emphatic – and I find this unconvincing. Although the reinstatement goes a bit higher than in the first time, I don’t think that, at this point, Mignon is being emphatic at all. Actually, the text of the song is not about convincing anyone – she says “you’ll only know what is going on with me if you have been there too”. That is why it is so effective the way she fines down the voice in the end of the repeat to almost whisper after a weiss that sounds like a sigh, a slight hesitation before she ends the phrase. The way she colors her voice when she says “Alone and cut off from all joy” is pure vulnerability. We feel at each phrase there is a small surge of energy that quickly dies away, as in the descending notes in nach jener Seite (as Schubert expressly requires), and this is a good way of suggesting the kind of languor Mignon experiences when she thinks about how alone and far away from home she is. DeGaetani ends the first section with a hushed, slightly breathy tone that has a taste of tears. It is a very touching and expressive piece of singing.

Although this is supposed to be only a text Mignon is singing (i.e., not her own words), this is a small sample of her character, since she is prone to nervous outbreaks, fainting spells etc. Accordingly, Schubert was very clever to make the next two verses a disruption of the overall mood of the song (just like he did in the duet with the same text). DeGaetani sings them with a brighter tone and a little bit more energy, which is the right way to prepare the repeat of the first two verses, first sung a tad louder, as if still under the effect of the agitation of the middle section, only to end in an almost lifeless tone.

DeGaetani insisted that a Liederabend is chamber-music, pianist and singer sharing the same importance. It seems that she always worked with Gilbert Kalish, whom she met in the beginning of her career. It is indeed remarkable how he shared with her the ability of tonal colouring. On listening to their Schubert/Wolf CD, we hear how they both favored slower tempi precisely because they were capable of rendering the slightest mood in change and hue in a phrase. Again, it is sad that the sound engineering in this recital is below optimal. Yet it is not a drawback at all. I’ve listened to it again and again with great pleasure.

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Some candles burn at both ends in the operatic scene, and Rolando Villazón’s flame shone intensely for a while. There are some YouTube channels in which all new tenors are vilified for not being Franco Corelli – and Villazón is their pet peeve. They are not wrong when they say that his technique was problematic: he thrusted himself through the passaggio in an glaringly open tone that would have made Giuseppe di Stefano envious, lunged at notes, had a habit of regularly tensing up in a fixed emission for emphasis, darkened his middle register, resorted to glottal effects, you name it. And yet the tonal quality was so alluring that you would only seldom mind until he got himself nodes in the vocal cords and went through surgery. I have seen him for the first time soon after that – as Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin. Although he sang beautifully, one could notice that the bad habits were all still there – he was still pushing his high notes, which – pleasant as they sounded – were evidently taut. I saw him twice again in 19th century repertoire – as a white-heat Werther that kept us at the edge of our seat for all the good reasons and then as a barely functional Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. Later I would only see him in music composed one century earlier – as Alessandro in Mozart’s Il Re Pastore, in which he dispatched his fioriture adeptly, the tenor solo in Mozart’s Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic and finally as Lucanio in Handel’s Ariodante.

I could say he should have been more careful or waited a bit more, but the truth is that Villazón evidently liked to go for broke. That’s his natural attitude and that is why he thrilled his audiences – he never spared himself. Of course, it was sad to hear him gradually losing his voice and slowly reinventing himself towards backstage. But a man gotta do what a man gotta do – and he did it his way. As matter of fact, his incursions in baroque music were something I followed with utmost interest. I always have very low expectations about tenors in a Handel opera, and I more ofter than not feel frustrated by hearing such beautiful music sung in a nasal and/or pinched tone, rarely dulcet and often strenuous. And then then Villazón left behind Verdi and Puccini to tour in a full Handel recital with an orchestra with period instruments. I even had a ticket for that one, but he canceled the concert in Berlin.

Villazón is not the single “mainstream” opera star to try his luck with baroque opera since the days of historically informed practices: for instance. Renée Fleming recorded Alcina with Les Arts Florissants and William Christie together with Susan Graham and Natalie Dessay, both of them collaborators of Le Concert d’Astrée and Emmanuelle Haïm. However, the “crossover” is a little bit more problematic for a tenor. As we know, the tenor voice is precisely the one that experienced a radical change in technique during the 19th century, making it almost unrecognisable for someone used to a tenor trained “the old way”. Rossini himself was unwilling to hear “new style” chest-infused high notes (which he found vulgar) singing his music. So, when Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Jordi Savall, Charles Mackerras et al tried to recreate the sound universe of 18th century, this involved having tenors singing their high notes “the old way” in mixed voice and pure vowels. Stylistic matters apart, Bach tenors have always had the same “specialized” approach to vocal production. But that is not the case with Handel – we must not forget that Jon Vickers is the tenor in Thomas Beecham’s recording of The Messiah. If we take a look in the Handelian discography in the 50’s and 60’s, we would more often than not find a light Rossini tenor in a recording of Rodelinda or Serse. So, yes, having a Verdi/Puccini tenor in this repertoire – even one who was no longer able to sing a complete Verdi or Puccini opera – is something unusual. So the 1,000,000-dollar question here is not “is this authentic?”, but rather “does it work?”.

One of the reasons why Villazón was so popular is that he sang everything more or less like a pop singer – not in terms of technique, of course. What I mean is that he sang opera as if that music had been composed just for him. He sings from a very personal vocal perspective. For instance, if a pop singer has breathy high notes, he or she doesn’t try to make them sound focused – the breathiness is his or her “hallmark”. Pop singers make do with what nature gave them and they use what some would call shortcomings as expressive tools – that is why they are so unique. You hear someone singing on the radio and you never wonder “Is it Lady Gaga… or Adele? Maybe Rihanna?” Therefore, I understand the reason why the Corelli-worshippers in those YouTube channels hate a singer like Villazón – they probably grew up listening to popular singers with well-schooled voices, while younger generations had entirely different experiences, such as hearing Jeff Buckley sing When I am laid in earth from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. In other words, a guy like Villazón presses all the right buttons in someone coming from that background. And I can share a story – a friend with no previous interest in classical music asked me to record a CD. I included Villazón’s singing Monteverdi’s Si dolce è’l tormento and next she was asking me for more. My second CD for her included the item we’re listening today – Grimoaldo’s aria Pastorello d’un povero armento from Handel’s Rodelinda.

Grimoaldo is a very curious bad guy. He usurped the throne of Lombardy and is determined to marry the deposed King Bertarido’s wife, Rodelinda. However, he is engaged to Bertarido’s sister, Eduige. It is, of course, an engagement of convenience, but he had been in love with her long ago, when he was not as powerful as he is now. Therefore, he resents the fact that she rejected him back then only to welcome the perspective of marry him now that he is the head honcho in Milan. The problem is: he finds rejection again, this time from Rodelinda, who would never consent to marry the man who supposedly killed her husband (he is actually alive, but she doesn’t know that). Grimoaldo, however, does not care – he is in love with her and seems to find pleasure in being snobbed by her (something she does in the grand manner). He basically behaves like a teenager during the whole opera – bullying all other characters while in love with love. In one of his arias he says “My soul is a prisoner of sorrow, but these chains are so lovely that it does not seek to free itself”. It takes a while before he comes to his senses – Bertarido is back and plans a coup to be reinstated. Before he does, Grimoaldo has this a-ha moment when he realizes that all he wants is to find true love – and that politics won’t give him that. The text of the aria is Pastorello d’un povero armento/Pur dorme contento/Sotto l’ombra d’un faggio o d’alloro.//Io, d’un regno monarca fastoso/non trovo riposo/Sotto l’ombra di porpora ed oro (“Even if he has a small herd, the contented shepherd has a good night’s sleep under the shadow of a beech or a laurel tree, whereas I, the ruler of a rich kingdom, can’t find peace under the shadow of the royal purple and gold”).

Before we even listen to the aria, we’ll know that it is composed in siciliano tempo – here 12/8 – which was associated to pastoral life. Its characteristic lilt here has a sense of a gentle rocking and, alone as he is, Bertarido is practically singing a lullaby to himself, the tonality of e minor makes the scene even more pathetic. The first thing we notice when we hear it with Villazón is that the voice is at once darker and denser than what we would hear from the tenor usually cast as Grimoaldo in a performance of Rodelinda. Actually, the first thing we hear is the tiny scoop he uses to attack the first note in a phrase, which is one of Villazón’s favorite mannerisms. Many pop singers do that and I have to say that, the way he does it, it doesn’t bother of me at all, for it feels spontaneous as in a indie/alternative voice-plus-guitar song. What would Handel think of that? In Handel’s days, a composer would gauge if his opera was successful of not if its arias were sung by people in their homes, in bars etc. There were no radios back then – so if you felt like listening to Pastorello d’un povero armento, you would have to sing it yourself. Although the voice sounds a bit “on steroids”, Romantic-style, Villazón sings the text with Innigkeit, favoring a conversational dynamic and almost crooning his low notes. If his high f# and g are a bit “driven”, he emits them with an almost bell-like tone, which seems at once gentle and pure. Because this is baroque music, he avoids portamento and is rhythmically precise, but you never feel it like a-note-after-the-other. It has a pop-like flow that really fits the situation. This aria is sung for no-one else to hear. Bertarido has done many terrible things to fill the void in his soul – and now in the middle of so many signs of his glory, he feels poorer than ever – and the sound of a voice that could do far more than this simple siciliano is something like the aural representation of what this aria is about.

Now we reach section B, predictably in G major. Here Villazón adopts a more incisive line, there is little dynamic variety and one might even say that there could be a tad more legato. While I would agree, his choice makes sense. In section A, Grimoaldo is speaking of what he considers an ideal situation – peace of mind – and now he is talking about the torment he is presently facing. That is why the singing is more angular, the tone less caressing. He ends it with a trill and now we listen to the repeat. While one would expect he would go for a softer tonal quality, Villazón prefers subtle variations more often than not downwards than upwards (what is more suitable to his voice, especially in this repertoire, in which a specialist would offer high notes of a smooth and light quality). As the libretto explains us that Grimoaldo is finally overcome by exhaustion and falls asleep by the end of the aria, Villazón fines down the tone in the end to suggest something like that.

Pastorello d’un povero armento is not a showstopper, but rather an expressive melody, unchallenging in terms of technique, and yet Rolando Villazón brings some drama to it. To be honest, when I first listened to this recording, I found other tenors a bit lifeless in comparison. It is an unusual and revelatory recording at the same time. Most of all, a memento of a singer who – in spite of all shortcomings – did bring a breath of fresh air into the operatic scene.

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This week we’ll talk about a controversial performance in a recording considered by many unconvincing: Jessye Norman’s Elsa in Georg Solti’s studio Lohengrin with the Vienna Philharmonic. When Solti first recorded it, he had already committed to the discography every other main Wagner opera with the Vienna Philharmonic a while before – and if you’re wondering if he was waiting for an ideal cast or something like that, I am afraid that this was not the reason. He basically didn’t like Lohengrin very much and probably only agreed to do it to round off his achievement as a Wagner conductor. The cast must have something to do with Decca wanting to produce it – here we have two superstar singers the conductor had often worked with, Norman and, above all, Plácido Domingo. The rest of the cast, however, was hardly in the same PR level, and yet Solti had also collaborated with them in this repertoire: Eva Randová and Hans Sotin had sung the roles of Ortrud and the King for him in Stuttgart not long before, Siegmund Nimsgern was his Wotan in Bayreuth. That said, the less glamorous names in the cast were not the reason why this recording never achieved consensus as a recommended item. As with many Decca recordings those days, reviewers tended to see in it a bureaucratic affair with a conductor seen today not higher as the top name in the B-list and a miscast tenor in a vanity project and, yes, some unspectacular singing in the low-voice department. Although Solti is not my favorite conductor, I find that the lukewarm reputation is unfair. Although there are few examples of reference performances under his baton, he was consistently efficient in a very wide repertoire and that’s something that deserves respect. He could be an exciting Wagner conductor – his Decca Rheingold, for instance, is impressively clear and dynamic – but I can see why Lohengrin was not his favorite work. Solti was always his best with forward-moving, rhythmically vital music and his straightforwardness could be refreshing in works too often fussed about by “metaphysical” conductors. But when the page tended to be elusive in terms of structure and demanded a chess-player-like control of long-winded episodes, especially in declamatory passages in which the orchestra pops up motivic reference here and there, one can’t help noticing a certain slackness. And Lohengrin is infamously challenging in its rhythmic squareness and thematic lack of variety.

Before you throw tomatoes at me, let me finish here: Lohengrin is one of my desert-island operas. And what some people call “lack of variety” is for me structural cohesion, but the score does require from the conductor the ability to fool you into not noticing that. If you start to think “haven’t I heard that before?”, then it’s not a good performance of Lohengrin. And, yes, we have a bit of that in some moments of the Decca recording. And when your leading tenor feels uncomfortable with the natural flow of the German language, then this can be especially problematic. Most people, however, don’t care about the good guys in Lohengrin and want to know about the baddies. Here again the recording inspires less than awe: Nimsgern is a bit past his prime and the comparison with his earlier recording with Karajan leaves no doubt about that. Furthermore, while Randová is acceptable as Ortrud and well-contrasted to Norman, the result is a bit underwhelming. She has alright a distinctive tone and an Italianate use of chest register as few other mezzos in this role, but the role demands her 100%. We can hear how she cannot sustain the intensity in the wildest passages, clinging to her breath pauses as if her life depended on it and dealing with the exposed dramatic high notes in business-like manner. Also, it is a role that requires the kind of verbal acuity she does not really provide. So, no, she is not the yang to Norman’s yin. And that is precisely why we hear that Norman is the one miscast: she is allegedly too regal, too sophisticated, too intense and that is confusing considering that she is supposed to be the silly-goose Elsa. Well, I beg to differ.

First, yes, Norman’s Elsa required a force-of-nature Ortrud to make complete sense. Randová sounds basically plebeian while she was supposed to be the one in full control of the situation. Now you’ll ask me – if Ortrud is the one in control, does it make sense to have a regal, sophisticated Elsa? Well, yes… Most sopranos behave as if Elsa thought herself to be a bit of a dummy behind a smoke screen of soaring pianissimo. And if we think about it, real life shows us that the great majority of silly people have a high opinion of themselves. That is why Norman’s take on the role is so special and also the recording’s raison d’être. Elsa is, of course, the heiress in Brabant. She feels confident enough to reject Telramund’s marriage proposal – and that required some guts. He is the de facto ruler in her land and can manipulate the establishment at will – and so he was doing since he was rejected. And yet she still behaves as if she doesn’t need to respond to anyone beneath her. When summoned to defend herself to her judges – the king included – against the accusation of fratricide, she basically refuses. She just looks up to heaven and says Mein armer Bruder… (“my poor brother…”) Then she looks down to everybody else and says that God told her in a dream that a special envoy would come to her defense. This is normally shown to the audience as a sign of Elsa’s weak mind and fragility – but read again. She does not behave like a damsel in distress at all – this is no mad scene. We’re talking of those courtroom movies when a rich heiress goes to court and says “seriously, you’re not going to arrest me, I have connections…”. And Elsa really does – the heavenly envoy comes in full silver, looking like a million bucks in a boat propelled by a miraculous swan. And Jessye Norman’s Elsa sounds all the the time as if she were saying “Told ya so…”.

In spite of an Ortrud that does not keep up with the competition, act 2 is actually Jessye Norman’s best singing in the recording. She is entirely convincing in her egocentric socialite routine there. In Euch Lüften, we can hear how self-satisfied she is about the whole thing. Finally, events are going just the way she wanted and she keeps repeating the favorite parts of her own phrases until Ortrud shows up. It is not difficult to manipulate a vain person – and Ortrud knows exactly how to do it. She makes the whole story turn about herself – is Elsa doing all those mean things just to hurt her? Elsa’s first reaction is Um Gott, was klagest du mich an? War ich es, die dir Leid gebracht? (“In God’s name, what are you accusing me of? Is it me the one who brought you misfortune?”). When Ortrud insists that this is the case, Elsa is dismayed by the scene – Allgüt’ger Gott! Was soll mir das? (“Good Lord, what am I supposed to do with this?”). So, here we have it – Elsa can’t have anyone thinking that he or she is in any position to judge her. So, she looks again up to heaven and confers with God – what kind of person would she be if, blessed with joys as she is, she were to cast away a miserable person? No, Ortrud, I’ll dazzle you with my generosity. When she is finally face to face with her, the first thing Elsa says is: Gold help me, I’m shocked to see you in lowly clothes, you who used to go about so well dressed… And when Ortrud tries to say anything, Elsa is not inclined to hear. She cuts it short – Spare me the entreaties, you’re forgiven, you forgive me, let’s get you some good clothes for you to attend the wedding tomorrow. Norman’s Schwarzkopf-ian fuss there makes you see Elsa as everything but angelic. Yet Ortrud knows again how to reach up to the girl’s vanity: everything that magically appears can also magically disappear. I.e., shouldn’t Elsa be a little bit suspicious about her new, shiny, perfect husband-to-be? This is the track we’re listening this week (although I recommend you to listen to the whole scene).

It begins with the moment when Ortrud skilfully lets in that there is something that she can do to repay all the kindness Elsa is showing her. Wagner has already introduced us in the first scene of act 2 to the motivic material associated to Ortrud – a gradually descending melody originally in F# minor (as opposed to the A major of the grail’s motive in the opera’s prelude) – and we hear the way the composer subtly uses it here. At this point, Ortrud is not sure if she’s finding a leeway to instil doubt in Elsa. So she beats a bit around the bush. First she says she owes Elsa something and we hear a lot of repeated notes in what some musicologists like to call “warning motive” (I wouldn’t call it a motive but rather as an expressive tool we’ve always found in opera right from the days of Monteverdi’s stile concitato). This is a classic Wagnerian recitative-style scene – the orchestra is just commenting and it is up to the singer to move it forward. Randová does it quite well – it’s not Christa Ludwig’s mean-and-loving-it or Waltraud Meier’s superchic. It’s rather evil-stepmother-like in the way the voice occasionally betrays its real nature by the way chest resonance takes over among splashes of portamento. One can hear that Randová is trying to make us see that it’s all hypocrisy. It’s a bit too obvious, but let’s be honest – it’s better than what we are used to hear in the role these days. First Elsa says Wie meinst du? (“what do you mean?”) and Norman sings this in an almost matter-of-fact way. Then we start to recognize the harmony from the act’s first scene, when Ortrud convinces her husband that he should listen to her (and that’s exactly what she’s doing here too). Only around the moment when she says Unheil (“misfortune”) that the motive finally appears in the bass clarinet and the bassoon – Elsa has bitten the bait. We hear it in Norman’s tremulous mezza voce in Welch’ Unheil? (“What misfortune?”). And here Wagner shows us another important motive in the English horns and the bass clarinets – the one either called “interdiction” or “question” motive, which is thematically close to Ortrud’s. This is the one sung by Lohengrin when he says “I’ll defend you and marry you, but there is one condition – you can never ask about my name, where I came from and which is my lineage”. Of course, Ortrud does not speak about the forbidden question right now, but when she says that he could disappear as magically as he appeared, the whole point is “darling, you’ll never find him again, for you don’t know nothing about him”. Elsa’s reaction is depicted by the orchestra alone in tremolo and suspended harmony. The libretto says “Taken by horror, turns away reluctantly”, but it is almost as if we could hear the hard disc spinning in Elsa’s mind. Vain people often are unable to deal with circumstances when they don’t have the upper hand. So when they don’t, they just act as if they had. By saying “I didn’t really want that to begin with…”, for instance. And that’s just what Elsa does here. We know, the libretto says “Full of sorrow and compassion, turns again to Ortrud” and I am sure that Elsa believes that she is being the best person in the universe when she says what she is going to say, but let’s read it again: Du Ärmste kannst wohl nie ermessen,/ wie zweifellos ein Herze liebt?/ Du hast wohl nie das Glück besessen,/ das sich uns nur durch Glauben gibt? Kehr bei mir ein! Laß mich dich lehren, wie süß die Wonne reinster Treu’! Laß zu dem Glauben dich bekehren: Es gibt ein Glück, das ohne Reu’! (“You poor woman, is it possible that you’ll never understand how the heart loves without any doubt? Have you never experienced the joy that only reveals itself to us when we believe? Come inside! Let me teach you how sweet is the wonder of the purest trust! Let me convert you to believing: there is a joy without regrets!”).

Let’s for one moment pretend Ortrud was indeed an unlucky woman in a serious predicament who tried to give a sound (well, it is…!) piece of advice. How would you feel if you heard a text like that from: a) someone who has met her fiancé one day before and is trying to teach you, a married woman, about relationships?; b) someone who is not really good at trusting anyone, as the following scenes will show us. Yes, Ortrud is a scheming b***, but that does not make Elsa less a spoiled brat than she is. That is why Ortrud thinks to herself that Elsa’s pride (that’s the word in the libretto – Stolz) is gong to be her downfall. And it is – Jessye Norman’s take on Elsa let us very clear that, in spite of all his glamour, Lohengrin might not be an aristocrat, and what she really, really fears here is a mésalliance. Once there is doubt about her husband’s pedigree, Elsa won’t rest until she knows if she has made a good match. Only when she confirms that, she’ll regret losing him. It is said that Wagner was asked why he was so hard on Elsa in the end of the opera, and he seemed to believe she got what she deserved. And in a performance like Jessye Norman’s we can see why. Lohengrin becomes a far more interesting experience when we are not confronted with a Manichean approach in which Elsa is 100% good and Ortrud 100% evil, because that is not what the libretto is really telling us. If we think of an Isabel Archer/Madame Merle dynamic, the libretto gains a lot in nuance. But back to our scene.

When you read about Lohengrin, there is always a reference to Bellini and how Wagner found inspiration in the soprano/mezzo duets in I Capuleti e i Montecchi to write the end of the Elsa/Ortrud scene. We can hear that in the long melodic lines, the ornaments and the way they sing together. We find here thematic material associated to Lohengrin’s and Elsa’s wedding – they have first appeared when the issue is first mentioned in act 1 and is further developed throughout act 2. These pages are some of Wagner’s most exquisite music and are more than well served by the Vienna Philharmonic’s refulgent strings in this recording. And Jessye Norman sings it surpassingly. Here her voice sounds its most velvety and soaring, each word and each note caressed with the right tint of melancholy. She sounds at once lovely and also a bit mannered. The way she sings the word Ärmste, for instance, is so delicate, as if she did not really wants to put off Ortrud. We hear also how she puts a bit of emphasis in the word zweifellos, which she lets vibrate a little bit more and in which she uses some portamento to show us she really means it. There is real Innigkeit in her invitation to Ortrud to go home with her and again lass mich dich lehren sounds a bit overcareful in its overpronunciation. The way she sings Es gibt ein Glück is so sweet you almost hate her (well, Ortrud does hate her at that point as never before). The contrast between Randová’s and Norman’s voices is effective when they sing together. Solti could have made it move forward a little bit more – but these singers use the extra time. Norman, especially, spins some lovely full golden toned high notes.

Norman is always a controversial singer – she has used every little overtone and resonance in her voice and there was a point where everybody seemed to think she was capable of singing everything from contralto to soprano repertoire, but my humble opinion is that the lyric/jugendlich dramatisch Fach was the one that flattered her voice best, as we can hear in her Euryanthe, Elisabeth and Sieglinde. I am sad she never recorded a Marschallin or more than just Senta’s Ballad but rather the complete role. In her early days, an Agathe might have been an interesting idea too. Who knows?

Music lounge (43)

I have often read singers in interview saying that it is not easy to make their way into inhabiting Adalberto von Chamisso’s poems in Frauenliebe und -leben from a 21st-century woman’s perspective. Chamisso was a botanist, and these poems at face value seem indeed to restrict the life of a woman to her naturalistic roles as a wife and a mother. Not one of these poems seem to share any of her thoughts about any other subject – and I am pretty sure that statistics would have shown that most women were not radiantly happy about their lot those days… even as wives and mothers. In any case, the woman in these poems has found happiness in love and she believes that meeting the man who would become her husband was the most important thing that has ever happened to her. I guess that many people can relate to that – and one doesn’t need to be a housewife or a married woman or even a woman for that. If we think of Robert Schumann, who composed the most famous setting of these poems, this is especially true. His wife, Clara Wieck, was no housewife, but someone with a successful career who had the upper hand in most decisions in their household. I would bet that meeting Clara was the most important experience in Schumann’s life – and one can feel that he very much puts himself in the place of the woman in the poem rather than that of the poet who writes about her. That is why these songs resonate so deeply in one’s own life experience in a way that go beyond male or female perspectives, even if their text requires some adjustment to our present sensibilities. It is no coincidence that Schumann’s song cycle is so popular with singers. They ultimately are about being transformed by finding a person and sharing one’s life with him or her.

Although I find all songs in Frauenliebe und -leben consistent in quality and expressive power, the first song, Seit ich ihn gesehen (“Since I have seen him”), is the one that fascinates me the most, maybe because it speaks of things yet to happen, expectation and fantasies. It involve some of the key themes of Romantic literature – being subject to mysterious (natural or supernatural) forces beyond reason, taking refuge in one own’s private inner world… A great deal of what was written those days involved life-changing situations and writers would dwell in the expectation of fateful moments. They could describe nothing in particular for pages, but rather take their time to share an emotional state – and that’s precisely Schumann’s specialty as a composer. The way I hear it, Seit ich ihn gesehen describes a religious experience. This young woman has seen this man – and this encounter had an immediate effect on her. It has altered her perception of the world. The very fact that she is not in her presence makes the memory of him something sacred, something she reveres in secret. It makes me think a passage of Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow: “For everything sacred has the substance of dreams and memories, and so we experience the miracle of what is separated from us by time and distance suddenly being made tangible. Dreams, memories, the sacred – they are all alike in that they are beyond our grasp. Once we are even marginally separated from what we can touch, the object is sanctified; it acquires the beauty of the unattainable, the quality of the miraculous. Everything, really, has this quality of sacredness, but we can desecrate it at a touch.” You just have to compare Seit ich ihn gesehen with the next song, Er, der herrlischste von allen, in which she speaks about everything she sees in him. It is an entirely different experience – there she has her eyes open and even the tempo of the song shows us it is rather a physical than a spiritual experience. But let’s get back to Seit ich ihn gesehen.

Before we talk about how Schumann creates this mystical experience in this song, let’s take a look at the text: Seit ich ihn gesehen,/ Glaub ich blind zu sein;/ Wo ich hin nur blicke,/Seh ich ihn allein;/ Wie im wachen Traume/ Schwebt sein Bild mir vor,/ Taucht aus tiefstem Dunkel,/ Heller nur empor. // Sonst ist licht- und farblos/ Alles um mich her,/ Nach der Schwestern Spiele/ Nicht begehr ich mehr,/ Möchte lieber weinen,/ Still im Kämmerlein;/ Seit ich ihn gesehen, /Glaub ich blind zu sein. (“Since I have seen him [for the first time],/ I believe I’ve become blind/ Wherever I look/ It is him the only thing I see./ As in daydream/ His image floats before my eyes/ It emerges from the deepest darkness/ and floats brightly to highest levels// Everything else lacks light and color/ Around me/ Playing with my sisters/is something to which I don’t look forward anymore/ I’d rather weep/ Silently in my room/ Since I have seen him/ I believe I’ve become blind.)

The first thing we hear in the song is the piano and how the chorale-like accompaniment immediately transports us to the world of church hymns. A century before Mies van der Rohe said that less is more, Schumann had already shown us that in songs like this. Differently from the organ, the piano does not fill the sound picture in this sequence of chords – and the sparseness does not suggest emptiness in any point. You feel inside this dark, virginal room with the young woman in the poem. You sense that it is only physically empty – there is some sort of repressed energy behind these chords. I’ve always had the sensation that the way we first hear the singer’s voice sounds as if she had started one beat too early. The first phrase just escapes from her, it does not even sound like the beginning of a thought. Schumann keeps then the singer in her middle register, the more conversational in sound. There are no long lines here, it all feels short, almost as if this woman did not know what to say. How do you tell someone about a miracle? Is it something believable? Is it possible to share with someone a sensation like that? She cannot indeed describe it, but we can feel it when she explains her day dream. We hear it in the very sound of her voice. Of course, Schumann takes her now to her high register. The voice acquires brightness, the lines are now all long and legato-ish. We’re in an entirely different level. And that is why it is so effective when we hear the major seventh interval leap and the dissonance when she says that the vision emerges from the darkness. We can experience this vision disappearing and the sense of the dark reality of the present moment without it. It is a genius touch of Schumann to make the singer repeat the word heller (“brighter”), there is some exaltation in this moment and the way the voice keeps for a while the word empor (“upwards”) over an unresolved harmony. Again, these are unresolved business – once she has seen this blinding light, everything will be meaningless for her. She has learned a higher truth, she cannot go back to what she was before that. Hagiography tells us of how ordinary people had a vision or heard a voice and then they abandon everything they knew before to embrace something that has often been described as a spiritual marriage.

And that is more or less what Chamisso’s young woman says in the second stanza of Seit ich ihn gesehen, which is set almost by Schumann almost identically to the first one. She does not want to play with her sisters anymore, everything is dull and colorless. She would rather vow herself to the vision – alone in the dark in her room, there he can see him. It is the only place when she can see this scorching light, and the unresolved harmony shows us this won’t be enough. The fact that Schumann did not wrote new material or developed it for the second stanza is the perfect choice for this poem – the more “hesitant” music goes for the lines in which the young woman says she does not want to play anymore and everything is now dull for her, the “exalted” music goes for the lines in which she describes she would rather be alone in her room (where she has her visions) and the trimming in the last line comes exactly where we had the repeated heller in the first stanza. And that also makes sense – the first stanza ends with the sensation of seeing that vision soaring in its brightness, while the second stanza is about the longing provoked by that vision. In the first stanza, it is a presence; in the second, it is absence.

For the Music Lounge, I’ve listened to almost every recording sung by a mezzo or a contralto and it took me a while to decide which I’d pick among three singers. It was hard for me to let go Lorraine Hunt’s performance live at the Wigmore Hall. Although her German could be a tiny little bit more spontaneous, she was a uniquely communicative singer imbued with rare emotional generosity. There is no affectation in what she does – and one can hear that the young woman in the poem is speaking to you in some sort of altered state, as if she had reached a higher, purer level. I though I would choose Magdalena Kozená live in Tokyo (on YouTube only) because, as a Bach singer, she instinctively goes for the “chorale” approach. Vocally, it is at once warm and bright and there is a sustained yet calm intensity in her singing that is everything I expect to hear in this song. However, to my surprise, I’ve finally chosen Anne Sofie von Otter’s studio recording with Bengt Forsberg. I have an up-and-down relationship with Von Otter. From a certain point, her voice developed a grainy quality, a veiled puffiness in the middle register that robbed it of spontaneity, making her – at least to my ears – no longer the kind of singer I like to hear in 19th century German Lieder. To be honest, her recording of Frauenliebe und -leben is far from my favorite. And yet she scores all points in the first song – and that is why I finally chose it.

First, although one catches a glimpse of the graininess, it was still a voice with the right weight for the song. By then, it was ideally placed between complex and pure-toned. Establishing the right tone for he opening “hesitant” phrases is less simple than it seems. Some singers deliver them in a matter of fact manner that almost kills the mood, but when you sing them too knowingly, then it’s entirely out of character. I particularly dislike when the singer tries to deliver them with some sort of sensuality. Even if, ultimately, that “vision” has something to do with sex, the young woman in the poem does not really know that – and that is why it feels so otherworldly for her. Von Otter – who is no Hunt Lieberson in emotional directness – gets it right in her own micromanaged way. She deserves praises for her handling of the ritardando in “seh ich __ihn allein”. It is the sort of phrase when you feel compelled to DO something. Clearly Schumann is asking you to change the mood there and sometimes you just overdo it. Von Otter shades the tone very discreetly on ihn and really goes for the pianissimo on allein, what makes the phrase end suspended in the air, as if there were a hidden line in the poem she is not singing. It is so effective, because it is so subtle. Von Otter launches the “exalted” phrase in an entirely different voice – we can hear how the vision affects her. It is at the same time pure- and warm-toned, legato and yet the right emphases are made. I can’t imagine it sung better. The way she highlights the dissonance in in Taucht aus tiefstem Dunkel is also an example of superior musicianship. And again the light emphasis on dunkel and in the first syllable of heller – those are almost aural illustrations of what this song is about. Everybody is usually enthusiastic about high notes, but I just love the last note in empor, which has to be sung in a floated tone exactly as done here.

It is really praiseworthy the effort Von Otter has made to sing the second stanza differently. As we have seen, the mood is not truly different and I personally don’t mind if the singer just carries it on from the first stanza. That said, what Von Otter does it here shows a deep understanding of the text. Here the opening phrases develop over a crescendo, there is a portamento on Alles um mich her, there is a certain restlessness and impatience in this young woman’s toward everything and everyone around her. She only regains Innigkeit when she describes her attempt to experience the vision again, and yet the voice is not as floating and pure as in the first stanza. The next emphasis is on the world weinen (weep), and the rushed last phase with a vulnerable, almost pop-like sound in zu sein is the perfect ending to a thought-through, exquisitely delivered performance. And Bengt Forsberg is an ideal accompanist – at first it seems his tempo is no larghetto, but once you check the total timing, this performance is not particularly fast compared to others. It is just that Forsberg is so rhythmically accurate, his pedalling is minimal and yet horizontal clarity is exceptional, you feel it flowing forwards, he and Von Otter in the same wavelength as they should.