Music lounge (31)

Giulio Cesare in Egitto is Handel’s most famous opera and maybe the most famous baroque opera in the repertoire, definitely the most often staged around the world. It is no surprise that it was in instant success when it was premiered in London in 1724, for it featured a truly glamorous cast – Senesino as Julius Caesar, Francesca Cuzzoni as Cleopatra, Anastasia Robinson as Cornelia, Margherita Durastanti as Sextus, Giuseppe Maria Boschi as Achilla… and Gaetano Berenstadt as Ptolemy. Berenstadt was hardly a singer whose voice could stand the comparison with some of the greatest castrati those days, such as Senesino. First, his range was notoriously short, while his physique was notoriously large. He was gigantic, tall and bulky – and therefore rarely cast as a primo uomo. Handel wrote him two more parts – the title role in Flavio and Adelberto in Ottone – and he did appear in other operas by the Caro Sassone, such as Rinaldo (in the part of Argante transposed up) and Floridante (as Timante). As it was, Berenstadt was considered well suited for bad-guy roles, although in real life he was basically a nerdy kind of guy, mostly obsessed with his book collection.

Maybe because of Berenstadt’s short range and lower range, we usually see countertenors in the parts written for his voice, especially Ptolemy. As a matter of fact, the role of Ptolemy has become chasse gardée for countertenors – the discography shows us Dominique Visse for Malgoire, Derek Lee Ragin for Jacobs, Cristopher Robson for Bolton and Mortensen, Bejun Mehta for Minkowski, Filippo Mineccia for Curtis, Christophe Dumaux for Christie, Antonini and Haïm. I’ve personally have always seen a countertenor sing the part of Ptolemy and, considering that we often have female singers in the castrato part of Julius Cesar (such as Jennifer Larmore, Anke Vondung or Marie-Nicole Lemieux), one could wonder if Handel himself would have approved of a female singer as Ptolemy. Actually, in the 1730 and 1732 revivals of the opera, Handel gave the part to contralto Francesca Bertolli. From what I understand, Bertolli didn’t possess an exceptional voice and was more famous for having the right physique for trouser roles. The issue of having a man or a woman in the role of Ptolemy actually has little to do with gender. During the baroque, audiences were used to hear a man in a woman’s role or a woman in a man role – and the existence of castrati made that possible. I would guess composers would rather use a castrato as a primo uomo, because the sound was supposed to be bright and piercing as much as a trumpet (and that is why the pairing was not usual, such as in the legendary competition in Naples between Farinelli and a trumpeter) and that was considered an advantage for heroic affetti. However, I guess I’d say “fortunately”, there were not many castrati and theatres would fight for them, making them an expensive item in a production. A contralto like Bertolli – who looked convincing in a man’s costume – was a commodity for any impresario willing to save some money. As you can hear, the issue “countertenor or contralto” is by definition a non-issue; 18th century theatres would practically never cast countertenors. And one must never forget – castrati (alto or soprano) used their natural voices, while countertenors use a combination of falsetto and mixed voice to sing in the alto (or, when that happens, soprano) range.

The defunct International Opera Collector magazine published ages ago a text “In the absence of Senesino”, in which Michael Church wonders if the part of Julius Caesar should be given to a male or a female singer. He asks conductors such as Richard Bonynge, Charles Mackerras and singers such as James Bowman and Andreas Scholl about the aria Va tacito e nascosto. Differently from castrati, both women and countertenors have a problem of register break into their low extension. Although both can disguise the register break by manipulating resonance, the effect is noticeably different in these two voices. With female singers, we hear the shift between a “fluffy” middle register and dense, upfront “chest” notes, whereas with countertenors, one hears a very bright falsetto connected, depending on the singer’s technique or stylistic choice, to a noticeably weaker mixed voice or the the sound of his natural “male voice”. Scholl, in the above mentioned article, famously answered “break? what break?”, claiming that his falsetto covered the role range of the aria. Anyway, the main problem here are not the low notes (even if a male singer will have plenty of room to go low in his natural range, grotesque as this might sound). The main difference lies in what comes above the break – we’ll hear a bright, focused sound with countertenors, with very little room for upper extensions, whereas a contralto (or mezzo soprano) will at first sound “fluffy” and only acquire a brighter edge when she goes a bit higher (and they normally go considerably higher than a countertenor and definitely with less effort and more dynamic variety). But here we’re speaking of a part written for Gaetano Berenstadt, whose tessitura is basically central, i.e., it’s all about the sound you’re going to hear over and above the passaggio. In other words, a role like Ptolemy lies right on a countertenor’s money notes. I tend to prefer a female voice in baroque trouser roles, because of the tonal richness and the usual gain in volume, but a part like Ptolemy requires an exceptional control of the passaggio from a contralto. I guess that this is why they would rather stay away. The official discography has very few female Ptolemies – I’ll skip Marcello Panni’s recording and speak of two excellent singers who do a terrific job in the aria we’re hearing this week, Sì, spietata, il tuo rigore. First, there is Monica Sinclair, in Bonynge’s excerpts with… guess who?… Joan Sutherland. Although she has a hint of the English oratorio contralto, she navigates through the passaggio with mastery and admirable focus – one hardly hears the “fluffiness” – and the low notes are solid and consistent in color with the rest of her voice. However, she goes a bit wild with her ornamentation in the repeat (and not surprisingly almost all variations take her upwards rather than downwards). For contemporary ears, it sounds odd in terms of style and it’s just a curiosity, but Ms. Sinclair’s technique deserves praise. And now we go to the singer I would call the best Ptolemy in the discography.

Although Romina Basso is usually labelled a “mezzo soprano”, I’ve heard her more often in contralto than in mezzo roles. She is a specialist in baroque music and my impression is that she prefers concert than staged performances. She has a curious stage attitude, some grimacing and one hand permanently raised to face level, an idiosyncrasy I’ve heard described as “the legato hand” (you just need to see any video of Natalie Dessay recording on studio to see a flourished version of it). Sometimes uninformed people criticise her pronunciation of the Italian language because of what is called “la erre moscia” (i.e., the letter r pronounced in a way similar to the way the French do). Actually, Ms. Basso is from Gorizia, in the region of Friuli-Venezia, right on the frontier with Slovenia. Id est, she is Italian. Some Italian regional accents involve the funny r, but I guess that the problem with “la erre moscia” is that it is traditionally used in theatre in character roles. I have no problem with Romina Basso’s “erre moscia” – I find that they add zest to many of her roles, and especially to Ptolemy, even if I must say that the way Ptolemy usually is portrayed as a blend of Liberace and Dr. Evil bothers me a little. As a matter of fact, there is only one line in the play to justify that. When Ptolemy says that Cleopatra should hold the needle and the spindle rather than the sceptre, she answers Anzi tu pur, effeminato amante, va’ dell’età sui primi albori, di regno invece a coltivar gli amori! (“I’d rather say that you, effeminate lover, still in the dawn of your life, should look for love instead of reigning”). Back to Romina Basso. I only saw Ms. Basso once, in a different role in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, the virtuous Cornelia (a contralto role) and she sounded just as in her recordings, firm and dark-toned, a tad too flashing for that part. In George Petrou’s recording with the Greek period-instrument ensemble Orchestra of Patras, both main castrato roles are cast with mezzo-sopranos, Kristina Hammarström as Caesar, softer in texture than Basso.

Sì, spietata appears in the fourth scene in act 2. We’re at Ptolemy’s seraglio, where Cornelia is held captive. She has been harassed by both Achilla, a general of Ptolemy’s army (who has also killed Cornelia’s husband, Pompey), and Ptolemy himself. She refuses the king’s advance by saying that, as a Roman matron, she would never put herself in the humiliating position of concubine of a foreign ruler. At first, Ptolemy says nothing, but when he is alone, he faces the audience and sings: Sì, spietata, il tuo rigore/ sveglia l’odio in questo sen / Giacche sprezzi questo core/prova, infida, il mio velen! (“Yes, cruel woman, your severity arouses hatred in my heart/If you despise my affection, you’ll have a taste of my venom”). The text is very short and rightly so – Ptolemy doesn’t need many words to say what he has to say – he has been rejected and wants revenge. That’s a story we read in the newspaper more often than we would like. Handel didn’t feel he had to musically describe Ptolemy from many different angles (as he did in the case of Cleopatra and Caesar) – he basically throws tantrums in almost every scene. Ptolemy’s arias, with one exception, are all of them agitated in terms of rhythm and fast in tempo, although the vocal part tends to be musically rather square with many repetitions of key words such as sveglia, indegno! or ti vedrò, the coloratura restricted in range. These arias are clearly meant to give the singer room to act. My favourite of them obviously is Sì, spietata. First, this is the probably one of the most sparkling pieces of music written in the tonality of C major. It is rhythmically angular in its contrasted themes: the first one in crotchets broken by a dotted rhythm that feels like grinding one’s teeth, the text providing lots of “t” consonants to add a percussive touch to the vocal line; the second flowing in triplets when Ptolemy gives vent to his anger (the text actually is the word odio/”hatred”). There is a short figure of two notes in a descending interval on the word sveglia (arouses) that marks as a divider between the parts in the first section. The way Handel develops this material is fascinating – he actually merges them in a way that crotches and triplets alternate, as if Ptolemy were piling up all kinds of bad feelings at this point. One hears the hatred swelling up. The B section is, of course, in A minor, and has no contrast in mood with section A. We must remember that the idea here is not soften, contrast or shade anything, but only boost the affetto. Handel just develops further, in the new tonality, the crotchet-theme and the triplets-theme. The coloratura on the Italian vowel e (as in “hair”) tends to be awkward for singers and I would say Handel did it on purpose – Ptolemy is not supposed to seem dangerous – we see that neither Cleopatra nor Cornelia are at first afraid of him – although he definitely is. Cornelia will have to defend herself against rape with a dagger and be saved at the last minute by her son, Sextus.

Sì, spietata is an aria that needs the right tempo to come to life, and I’m afraid this means “fast”. The texture is simple and, at a slower pace, the rhythms are not crispy enough and the effect is lost. George Petrou doesn’t wait to shift into fifth gear. This is probably the fastest version of this aria in recordings and the bold choice pays off. The atmosphere is frantic, the orchestra is stingy in sound and the articulation is immaculate. In the A section, the violins practically double the vocal part and it is important that they sound as waspish as the singer. This is an aria is about a serious burst of ill temper, it has to be over the top. Romina Bass has the edge on the competition from moment one – the tone is firm, intonation is clear, divisions are precise, the diction is crystalline. She negotiates the passaggio as if it didn’t even exist and one does not hear any “fluffiness” throughout her range. Most importantly, she completely avoids inconsistency of registers, and her method is foolproof: she never puts too much weight on low notes (as many a contralto like to do to show off the power of their bottom register) – Basso just goes up and down through the passaggio in perfectly balanced tonal quality, producing the right level of excitement rather by accent. You can hear that as she delivers the “divider” figure sveglia – while these fall right in the sweet spot of a countertenor’s voice, that is not the case with a female singer. Basso marks it rather by adopting an almost “spoken” tonal quality, you can hear the irritation in her voice. Since Petrou is going for broke in section A, he cleverly founds the right fake cadenza at 1’12” to find a breath repose just before the coloratura. Basso handles the coloratura with the unfriendly vowel superbly and alters the last bar before the repeat to end on a high e on the word velen (venom), which she first attacks with no vibrato and gradually distorts (including in terms of pitch). It is the aural image of a psychopath grin. And now we’re ready for the repetition of A section – and we know that this is going to be overornamented, that’s what this text and this music requires.

Romina Basso has impressively precise coloratura and, in this comfortable tessitura, she can go really fast. So, what we’re hearing here is some sort of fioritura freak-out. As all female singers in this music, she’ll favor upwards variations to sparkle a little bit. As Ptolemy is not the kind of guy who would sing one cadenza when he can sing two, that’s what Romina Basso does in the end. First we have the “regular” cadenza right when Handel put a fermata sign just in case some missed it. It is very predictable in its going-up-and down scheme. And when you think she is going to deliver the concluding phrase, there comes another cadenza, a very odd one ending in a note too low for comfort on the word odio (hatred). Of course, this was done in purpose to portray Ptolemy’s exaggerated anger, as if he had burned up al his energy in this fit of temper and utter this final, hoarse “God, I hate her!” before he can exit to simmer down on a massage table.

New Salome from La Scala

Salome is arguably the least “teutonic” among Richard Strauss’s operas, and there are many reasons for that: Oscar Wilde’s play even translated to German still has the poetic wordiness of the original French text, one hears the Orientalism that guided the composer’s inspiration and the leading soprano part does not really fall within any of the traditional German Fächer. It is not a part written neither for a Brünnhilde voice nor for an Elsa/Elisabeth voice, not even to an Agathe kind of singer. It requires a supple, bright voice, capable of long lines one would find rather in an opera like Verdi’s Il Trovatore yet with a powerful squillo to pierce through a dense orchestra. It is no coincidence that it is probably the most “international” of Straussian roles. Since the beginning of its performance history, we have seen singers rarely associated to German repertoire try it, including names as improbable as Mara Zampieri and Fiorenza Cedolins. Russian soprano Elena Stikhina is not new to German opera – she has at least already sung Senta, Sieglinde, Gutrune and even a Siegfried Brünnhilde, mostly in Russia. Yet she sounds markedly “foreign” as Salome – and this does not means a disadvantage. There is, however, a clear drawback – her German is extremely accented and she makes many mistakes of pronunciation. Now let’s speak of the advantages – she seems to have studied the role with no preconceived notion. Something like “Norma yesterday, Salome today”. She does not try to perform it as a dramatic soprano part at all – she keeps a refreshing legato, spins her high notes without pushing and holds on to cantabile as if her life depended on it. As a result, the role sounds unusually melodic and flattering to the ears. With Stikhina, one hardly believes it’s almost unsingable. Her voice has a nearly saccharine color and a natural float to it that make it young-sounding in a convincingly artless way. There is not one drop of vamp in this Salome – and Strauss would have definitely approved that. The fact that she sounds accented does not mean she is unaware of the text. On the contrary, I found enough nuance in her singing. It is not, however, one of those performance full of verbal insights, she operates rather from the effect of her almost carefree singing and sweet sound. Visually, she is the less desperate-looking Salome I have ever seen on video (I am unaware of the existence of a complete staged Salome on video with Birgit Nilsson). All that said, I have no idea of how she sounded live at La Scala this evening. I have seen Stikhina only once in the title role in Cherubini’s Médée in Salzburg. There, I can vouch for the radiance of her high notes. They flashed without any effort in the Grosses Festspielhaus. I can’t say something similar of the rest of her voice – the text was often hard to understand. Anyway, judging from this video, this is a role that she should keep and mature, for there is serious potential here.

Her Jochanaan is Wolfgang Koch, who lived up to his Heldenbariton credentials, offering big, rich tones, his high notes only occasionally unstable, especially in the end of his scene. Gerhard Siegel seems to have lots of fun with the role of Herod and his almost-Heldentenor-ish high notes are put to good service in this music. I had not heard of Linda Watson in a while, but here she is as Herodias, refreshingly unexaggerated and rich in tone. Attilio Glaser (Narraboth) took a while to warm, but once in optimal conditions sang with firmness and a nice ring to his tenor. He acted very well too. I was glad to see Lioba Braun as the page, here kept on stage to the very end of the opera. Replacing Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Chailly shows why he is considered the most “German” of Italian conductors. He did not impose anything on Richard Strauss’s score, but rather let it flow naturally in near miraculous clarity and absolute understanding of its structure. After the sixth or seventh moment when I said to myself “I had never heard that phrase before so clearly as today”, I began to wonder if the Tonmeister did not deserve some of the credit, but watching the musicians seated with COVID-imposed distance, I can think that this could have some part in it too. In any case, the house band offered an admirable performance today – the violins glittered in absolute purity of tone and perfect articulation, crowning an orchestra ideally balanced, all solos delivered with sense of drama and total commitment. Bravi!

Damiano Michieletto is a director I usually like, for the freshness of his ideas and a strong aesthetic sense in terms of scenic elements. I have to say that this time I can’t say I found the staging consistently visually gripping. I found the basic black-and-white set rather uninspired and the costumes of both Salome and Herodias quite unbecoming. Nobody can call it boring – there was always something new going on and at some point I couldn’t see much connection between all these elements. The backbone of his staging is clever and quite perceptive – here Salome is shown as a predator as the result of a childhood of sexual abuse (from her uncle and now stepfather). This idea alone makes Salome more relatable and relieves the singer from the clichéed seductiveness. Here she is actually not seductive at all, but rather awkward and vulnerable. The concept pays off in the dance scene – no veil is dropped, but rather the layers of repression in Salome’s traumatic memories, sexual abuse, her mother’s neglect (and connivence) and the tragic death of her father. I felt that maybe Michieletto wanted the audience to see her infatuation with Jochanaan as some sort of fixation in father figure (at some point he sings on top of the dead king’s grave), but if that is really so, the staging should have conveyed it more in the Personenregie. In the periphery of the concept there were the angels in speedos and black wings. Yes, Herod says he feels the flapping of gigantic wings (and we are to believe it’s the angel of death) – but as Herodias answers “it’s only the wind”. So, yes, nobody is supposed to see him. But, ok, the director wanted us to show not one, but four or five of them. At some point, they outnumber the characters on stage and it seems that these extras were chosen for fitness rather than carisma (they had none). The second big surprise stage element was the Chiharu Shiota-ish white dress with long red threads. It is not a bad idea per se, but it was a bit awkward in terms of staging and we could see that the logistics kept everybody on stage busy rather than acting. In the end, I was just trying to understand the mechanics rather than being struck by the effect. I feel compelled to say that I like the reference to Gustave Moreau in the scene with Jochanaan’s head – it was beautiful, if a bit lost in the X-ray lab atmosphere of the scenery. I still fail to see the connection of all the gimmickry with the “child abuse” core of the concept. Ms. Stikhina is no powerful actress, but acted effectively, handled the choreography well and seemed to understand what the director wanted from her. In terms of acting, I would say that all singers were effective and well-integrated in the concept. La Scala scored a hit with this broadcast – I’ve listened to the audio only first and then again on video (where the balance is a little bit more natural).

Music longe (30)

I was introduced to Italian opera by people who were deeply appreciative of Renato Bruson. They had seen all important baritones of the second half of 20th century (and even before that) – they would tell me about how rich-toned Warren was, how powerful Bastianini’s voice was, how big Guelfi’s voice was, how impeccable Cappuccilli was (and how he sang a high b flat to die for in a performance of La Traviata), how beautiful Manuguerra’s tonal color etc etc. But they liked Bruson, even if his voice was not as powerful, big or impeccable as those legendary singers’. One of these friends had a particular issue with baritones whose high notes were “tenor-like” – and he never ceased to praised that Bruson never “cheated” and sang with true baritone resonance throughout his range. He also found Bruson “classy”. This friend also was a big fan of Riccardo Muti. Whenever he wanted to show how good Bruson was, he would always choose the aria in Don Carlos’s scene at Charlemagne’s tomb in the video from La Scala. I had not listened to that recording in a while and decided to check if it would stand the test of comparison. Well, it has, in an unpredictable way. Ernani is no Rigoletto and there are not many complete recordings, but almost every important Italian baritone has recorded Oh! De’ verd’anni miei and it’s easy to understand why: although it is relatively short, it shows everything a Verdi baritone can do. In terms of voice only, however, Bruson would not go to the top of the list. With Thomas Schippers, live at the Met in 1962, Cornell MacNeil offers a truly astounding performance – the voice is at once full, radiant, firm, flexible, powerful. No wonder the audience goes completely wild even before he finishes the aria with an amazing high a flat. In the same theatre with Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leonard Warren too ends it in the (unwritten) high note in a less force-of-nature but rather nobler and graver performance of the aria. Both could stand as example of Verdian singing. In comparison, Bruson sounds a bit underwhelming – he lacks MacNeil’s slancio and Warren’s solidness – and yet he seems to grasp the meaning of this aria in a way both MacNeil and warren did not (and, for that matter, not even Taddei, Bastianini or Sereni in their complete recordings).

The scene in Aachen as written in Victor Hugo’s play is slightly different from what Francesco Piave made of it in his libretto. Although the context is the same – King Charles V of Spain is waiting for the German Princes to choose the next German-Roman Emperor and has high hopes that he will be elected. This shows the character under an entirely new light. To this point in the play, he appears primarily concerned about his private affairs. First, we see him hidden in a closet in Doña Sol’s apartments (in the opera, the character is named Elvira), with whom he is in love, although she is unaware of that. Until the scene in Aachen, he does nothing but harass the poor lady, who loves someone else while engaged to an elderly uncle she detests. At some point, she even says “You’re the king, I’m flattered by the attention, but I’m well born enough to be respected and not noble enough to be a queen – so please look for someone else within the job description”, but it’s all in vain. And here he is, waiting for the news of becoming an emperor. First, he considers all the difficulties of that position and realizes he may be wanting. He already finds it difficult to be a king. Who could help him in such a formidable task? Then he understands that late Charlemagne himself will be his guide, he asks him be inspired with something great, sublime and beautiful. When Charles receives the news that he is indeed the new Emperor, he decides to act accordingly and let Sol marry her beloved Hernani. That’s more or less what happens in the opera, but the aria that comes right where the big monologue is shows something a little bit more relatable. More than that: something that clearly explains his change of heart in relation to Elvira . There he says: Oh, de’ verd’anni miei/ sogni e bugiarde larve, / se troppo vi credei, / I’incanto ora disparve./ S’ora chiamato sono,/ al più sublime trono, /della virtù com’aquila / sui vanni m’alzerò, ah, / e vincitor de’ secoli/ il nome mio farò. (“Ah, the ghosts of my early days and their lies/ If I have believed too much in you/ Now your charm is all gone/ If I am summoned to the most sublime throne in the world/I’ll soar like an eagle/on the wings of virtue/and make my name as a victor of the centuries”). It is true that, in the play, the King is also unsure of his chances of success, but in Piave’s text, he is shown in more congenial a manner: he was young and foolish and, when he sees the extent of his responsibilities, all the vanity is gone. Moreover, it is not his illustrious blood that will guide him – it is virtue. Yeah, I’m still need to know anyone in any leading position that behaves like that, but, well, that’s the beauty of art: showing us imaginary things to inspire us to develop as human beings, I guess. In terms of Musikdrama, what is the structure we find here? A man facing a superhuman mission, but still a man. When I hear MacNeil or Warren, they sound already formidable and invincible – and the scene is about wanting to be invincible, it’s about the strife to go beyond one’s own natural limits. This is not about privilege, it’s about excellence (I know…). The way Bruson sings it and – most importantly – Muti conducts it, we don’t need to fully understand the words (the Italian text, anyway, has so many inversions that I guess even an Italian person would need a minute), you can hear it.

First there is the recitative – Gran Dio! costor sui sepolcrali marmi affilano il pugnal per trucidarmi. Scettri!… dovizie!… onori!… bellezza!… gioventù!… che siete voi? Cimbe natanti sovra il mar degl’anni, cui l’onda batte d’incessanti affanni, finché giunto allo scoglio della tomba con voi nel nulla il nome vostro piomba! (“Great god! They are sharpening their daggers on sepulchral marble to kill me. Sceptres, wealth, honors, beauty, youth, what are you? Nothing but boats floating on the surface of the sea of the years, the waves of which pound with never-ending troubles until they reach the rocks of our tombs and buries you and your name into nothingness”). Those are not unusual lines for monarchs “with a conscience” throughout the history of opera. In Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Cesar looks at the urn with the ashes of Pompey and says: “Your trophies, your greatness were only shadow and now you yourself is nothing but a shade.” Before the tomb of Charlemagne, King Charles V first feels humbled by the example of the great emperor and looks at the things he has prized until that moment and realizes that they are of little importante. But then he looks again at the tomb – and although the text does not have those lines – and sees that the glory of a great man never dies and his memory lives forever. Bruson first sings in an exalted tone – he is indignant that conspires are there in that sacred place plotting to kill him. Although Verdi requires the singer to scale down to piano from the word Scettri (sceptre), Bruson decides to go a step further in onori (honors) and that’s an interesting choice. We’ve seen that the king has not been acting in a truly honorable way towards Elvira. She herself reminds him that her father died fighting for the kingdom and would expect their king to honor his service in a very different way. This is not a song and one would not expect a pointillistic delivery of the text, but Bruson comes close. His diction is crispy, he colors the words with discernment and precisely follows some fussy slurring written by Verdi (as in trucidarmi and nome). One can also hear here and around the end of the aria that Bruson’s voice grates a bit on high notes (one will rightly point out that this does not happen in either MacNeil’s or Warren’s similarly live recordings), but I’ll ask you to indulge him a little bit here.

When the aria starts, we have minimal orchestral accompaniment – only the lower strings pizzicato and an ostinato-like figure in the celli. It is suppose to be an intimate moment, the king knows his carefree days are over and now he can see them for what they were, the illusion of their “charm” is now visible to him, just like we can hear it in this tentative upward figure that repeats itself in the celli. The first Don Carlos, Italian baritone Antonio Superchi was said to be capable of immaculate legato, and that is what Verdi requires here. He also shows us that we’re speaking of things past – we’re entering Bellini-land here. So, Verdi has a full-fledged dramatic baritone sing at his lightest and most flexible. It is fundamental that the embellishment are clearly handled. If we hear something awkward here, then the whole point of the scene is gone. We have to hear the transformation – first the king was concerned with pretty, unimportant things ( embellishments…). So we have to hear that he valued them as much as his sings the filigree with affection and care. Only when the king finally embraces his destiny, we’re going to hear the full scale of Romantic Italian opera, but that’s later. I can understand why my friend was so fond of Bruson in a moment like this – even in piano, this is a baritone’s voice. It never loses its dark velvet. Here not only does he sing these lines with an aristocratic, commanding poise, but he also knows how to balance the needs of conveying the meaning of the text, especially in the line I’incanto ora disparve (their charm is gone). The precise transition moment – “Ah, e vincitor dei secoli” is where most singers and conductors usually find some trouble. We have two seconds to shift from I Puritani to Il Trovatore and it must sound something consequent. And that’s exactly what Bruson and Muti accomplish here. We feel the surge and how it steadily and quickly develops into a grand Romantic orchestral sound. Other conductors go full powers too fast here and the orchestra acquires a band-like sound that goes against everything this scene is about. Here the king is facing the formidable examples of the past, he is struggling to see himself as worthy of their memory. Muti doesn’t rush the beat and makes the string section from the La Scala orchestra sound at its most “German” in rich, full, sonorities. We can hear how he challenges Bruson with the fullness of sound and the effect is a coup de théâtre in itself – we feel the “weight” of the holy mission the king is about to accept. Of course, it would be thrilling to hear a MacNeil peeling the paints off the walls here, but I can’t resist the effect of having the baritone really facing the competition of the orchestra at this point. There are some moments when Bruson’s voice goes dangerously close to roughness, but that is what the character is experiencing in Piave’s libretto – he is a man climbing his way up a divine throne, not a man merely exerting his God-given rights to his inheritance (furthermore, he still doesn’t know if he has been elected or not). Before Bruson ends the aria come scritto in a low a flat, he adds a flourished cadenza. I have no preference here – the higher “option” makes it truly heroic and consistent with what one would expect from a Verdi baritone. In Bruson’s voice, the king sounds more vulnerable and the note as written makes more sense. The cadenza, however, makes things a little bit ambiguous. I find it funny that Muti, not a conductor who usually allows liberties, decided for it at all. Maybe he felt that it fits the style of singing of an early opera by Verdi. I would prefer an impossibly long crescendo, but I’m not complaining. Bruson does it well and it is a valid ending to the aria too.

EMI has the whole scene in two tracks, but they should play continuously. In any case, I have embedded both of them here. You can also easily find the scene on video on YouTube.

New Freischütz from Munich

I don’t think I need to see another staging by Dmitri Tcherniakov. You may ask me which particular staging I am speaking about. Precisely, it doesn’t make any difference: they’re basically one single production adapted to every work in the repertoire. We have the decors of a Yorgos Lanthimos movie, text projections explaining why everybody is acting as if they were in the wrong opera, singers acting as if they were overdosing, lots of pantomime from extras and other members of the cast while someone is singing and, of course, an unusual rate of people wearing overcoats indoors. I was about to delete the previous phrases, for his Freischütz actually has some insight [SPOILER ALERT]: I like the idea of Samiel being an instance of Kaspar’s multiple personality disorder, of Ännchen sending Agathe the death wreath instead of a bouquet on purpose and also that Max actually shoots Agathe in their wedding day and the happy ending only taking place in his imagination (not a new idea, but, ok, it’s interesting). The problem is that all of it is drowned in toxic levels of silliness and nonsense. So after a while you just stop paying attention.

I’ll try to make a summary in order to save you the trouble of watching: Kuno is a CEO of a big company where Max and Kaspar work. We are informed that Agathe is sick of the corporate bullsh** and moves out of her father’s house to have an independent life, although she depends on her friend Ännchen for basically everything. And Ännchen has Marlene Dietrich-like costumes and a non purely innocent interest in her. Max is not really in love with Agathe, but finds that marrying the boss’s daughter might be good for his career. On the other hand, Kaspar is indeed in love with her, but he has PTSD (it’s not clear which war we’re talking about here, but that’s the case). So we are in this office party where Max is supposed to shoot a passer-by on the street. Why? Nobody knows. He says he can’t shoot a living creature – and Killian does the honors. When everybody goes away, Kaspar offers to help him – but we don’t see any effect of a magic bullet there. Later we would discover that this wouldn’t even be necessary – the shooting is just make-believe, an actor outside pretends to be shot. What’s the purpose of all that? Your guess is as good as mine. As usual, it is a single set, so everybody exit and there come Agathe and Ännchen. Both were at the party, there is no portrait falling from the wall and she is saying she can’t sleep before she sees Max – but they had just seen each other. They don’t seem very happy to see each other _again_ anyway. Then Max is supposed to go to the Wolfschlucht where we watch Kaspar speaking with himself in a different voice when Samiel is answering. He has a body wrapped in plastic – but then after a long while, we see it actually is Max. Kaspar waves a pen knife at him and the whole forging is nothing but Kaspar shooting at the furniture and Max freaking the hell out. And here we are again at an office party (I wonder when these people actually make some money…), technically Agathe and Max’s wedding. Max looks intoxicated, but nobody seems to care. Agathe seems depressed, but nobody seems to care. He is supposed to shoot someone at the street, but he shoots directly at Agathe (no magic bullets). We have blue, milky lighting. Max goes to a waiter and gets rid of his COVID mask (only the staff has to use masks) – and, hey, it’s the hermit! Before you wonder what the…, it’s only a dream and, when the lighting is normal again, we see Agathe dead on the floor.

So, yes, Max, as much as Kaspar, seems to be under some sort of PTSD (after all, we’re coming straight from war and that’s probably why everything is about guns anyway) and this would be an explanation (as in many recent productions) why he can’t shoot ANYMORE, living creatures or not. But there’s the whole affair of the staged murder prank, which makes very little sense in the context of the plot too – if Kuno wants to make fun of his future son-in-low, why is nobody laughing? If he just wants to get rid of him, why a prank? I mean – it would only make sense if he was a mobster and that was an “gangster initiation”, but then that would mean no cocktail party with guests and definitely not Agathe as a witness, because, as Tcherniakov tells us, she doesn’t agree with her father’s lifestyle – be it hunting people or just pretending to do so to make other people uncomfortable. I could go further, but I’m bored just to write about it. Der Freischütz is an opera where there must be two sides – first this idyllic façade of small-town people living their pious innocent lives and there is the forest and its dark mysteries. The connection is the hunting, of course. In Tcherniakov’s staging, I don’t see any opposition, there’s only Agathe who refuses to live in her father corporate world. In the libretto, Agathe doesn’t refuse anything, she is well-established in her milieu and, when she perceives dark forces around her, an agent of good, the hermit, spontaneously comes to her defense and offers her the roses that save her from the demonic bullet. As much as the dramaturg is free to deny the existence of good or even the establishment as something good, there must be an opposition of any kind for the plot to make sense. I know, I’m being ultrabourgeois by insisting that things must make sense, but that’s on Friedrich Kind, not on me – his libretto has a structure and it makes sense. I am sure that in the performance booklet there must be many texts with philosophical concepts, but frankly I don’t care. We’re speaking of performing arts – if something is not on stage, it doesn’t exist. Finally there’s the problem of poor direction. The cast is uncomfortable with what they are supposed to do and one feels very little conviction in instructions that probably don’t make sense for them either. The amount of loud panting, belly laughing, screaming (even during the musical numbers) is simply unacceptable. Singers are kept busy in a way incompatible with what people do in normal life and pointless as theatre. They just pace up and down, right and left all the time for no specific purpose, and they behave in a way that could only be explained by some sort of disease. The singer in the role of Kaspar, for instance, is a very good actor and one could feel that he was in the limit of his possibilities during the Wolfschlucht scene – he had to deliver Samiel’s lines in the bottom of his range and then shifting immediately to musical phrases higher in tessitura (and that’s close to sabotaging the singer) without any help from the director. No change of lighting, no change of posture – he was there, alone upstage having to make something of nothing. I wonder what a member in the audience would have _seen_ if he or she were actually in the theatre without the help of cameras.

Fortunately, the musical performance per se had more to offer. Antonello Manacorda seems to see Der Freischütz from a classical rather than romantic perspective. The orchestral sound is lean, tempi are strict, clarity is there. The string section in the Bavarian State Orchestra has confirmed its reputation in offering precise, clean articulation throughout. I have to say that I missed a little bit of “proto-Wagnerian” bloom, especially in the overture. Sometimes, the lack of a richer sound made some difficult passages involving the brass quite band-like. And the Wolfschlucht scene craved for a little bit more mystery. One thing one must concede Mr. Manacorda – he is extremely kind to his singers. And we can be thankful for that in a cast made almost entirely of light-voiced ones. I have seen Golda Schultz sing lyric roles in the Bavarian State Opera and I wouldn’t describe her sound, beautiful as it is, as something even close to an Elisabeth Grümmer or a Gundula Janowitz in the way it stays on stage rather than flow into the auditorium. When I saw her name in the cast, I first thought she would be singing Ännchen (and she would have been terrific in it). As Agathe – with the help of the very singer-friendly mikes in Munich – she had many strong points. Creamy tonal quality, beautiful legato, exquisite pianissimo. She sang her lines with great affection too. As recorded, even if the voice lacks some space, it is a touching, musicianly and sensitive performance. Anna Prohaska’s silvery soprano too is on the light side for Ännchen, one could hear the gear change into her low register and exposed high notes could sound metallic. Other than this, she sang with sense of style, animation and clear diction. And she embraced the bizarre directorial concept as if her life depended on it. When it comes to Pavel Cernoch, I must say that he has the right voice for the role of Max. It is probably the best I ever heard from him, even if, differently from his Agathe, he sang with very little affection. Weber’s beautiful, melodic lines sounded graceless and lifeless and I could hear no contrast between the two sections of his aria. It all sounded heavy and emphatic – and his German is strangely more accented when he sings than when he speaks. In the trio with the sopranos, he would show a little bit more inclination to soften the tone, but that didn’t last long. In his defense, one must acknowledge that the director made him behave in such manic a manner that it would have been really difficult for him to bounce and laugh and scream and contort himself that way and still keep a poised, classical legato. Kyle Ketelsen really sang the part of Kaspar without resorting to snarling and any kind of distortion. One could hear that the voice lacks weight and there was little dynamic variety. Nonetheless, he deserves praise for his fully engaged performance, both in terms of singing and acting.

Music lounge (29)

Many years ago, I had a conversation with someone who said his favourite singer was Maria Callas – and that the second position in his last was… Josef Protschka. I have to be honest, I had no idea of who he was. I would later find him as Florestan in two recordings of Fidelio – a video from the Royal Opera House with Gabriela Benackova and a studio recording with the Vienna Philharmonic and Gabriele Schnaut, with whom Protschka recorded a couple of operas by Franz Schreker too. My second encounter with Protschka happened by means of his recordings of works by Mozart and Haydn (including a Creation with Edita Gruberová) under the baton of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Only later I would discover that Protschka increasingly devoted himself to Lieder and recorded four or five recitals with Helmut Deutsch – mainly Schubert and Schumann.

Protschka was born in Prague but spent his childhood in Düsseldorf and, as far as I understand, has lived in Germany ever since. In the early days of his career, he sang a bit of everything – his discography begins as a boy soprano in Kurt Weill’s Der Jasager and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge im Feuerofen. He appears in many recordings of German operas rarely staged outside German speaking countries – Marschner’s Der Vampyr, Hindemith’s Cardillac and Mathis der Maler, Lortzing’s Undine and even Schubert’s Fierrabras (with Claudio Abbado), but he did sing mainstream repertoire in roles ranging from Belmonte to Lohengrin, many of them when he was a member of the opera house in Cologne. I understand he has been focusing in his teaching and still offers now and then Lieder recitals, but I can’t tell for sure at this point. In any case, Protschka has been a singer with many possibilities and at the same time one midway between Fächer. In spite of his ease with mezza voce, even on difficult passaggio notes, we can see that he is no tenorino and that the voice is kept under leash. He can offer exemplary legato, but most often than not focus on clarity of diction in an almost demonstrative way and seems to be keen on delivering his ö and ü in such a precise way that the tone sometimes developS a splash of matte. But then when we hear him in heavier repertoire, there is something emphatic and unflowing as if the voice lacked a bit substance, while his low register can sound unsupported too. And at the same time, it is refreshing to hear a voice with reserves of power in a Lieder singer and also a voice with a truly pleasant tonal quality and a youthful glow in heroic repertoire. And that’s Protschka’s appeal as a singer: his tenor is an unresolved equation, with incompatible and simultaneous elements. There are two important qualities in his artistry: he is a singer of unusual literary curiosity, who delves into the text and delivers it with a wide tonal palette, particularly so for a tenor; he is also a singer with an almost old-fashioned ardour, who really “carries his tune” and shares his love for singing. In the end, this is what makes his recordings special in a field where the competition is fierce.

I’ve chosen for this week’s music lounge another item of the Liederkreis, Op. 39, one of the most popular in the set, Mondnacht. Protschka and his pianist, Helmut Deutsch, seem to have a fondness for slow tempi. I’m often surprised by how they take their time in songs most artists sing and play at roughly half the length. I particularly believe that Mondnacht, with its accompaniment of repeated chords, gains from something more andante. Schumann himself does not recommend any particular tempo. His opening instructions are simply “with affection and introspection”. One could use the text by Joseph von Eichendorff as the perfect example of German Romanticism: Es war als hätt’ der Himmel/Die Erde still geküsst/dass sie im Blütenschimmer/Von ihm nur träumen müsst/Die Luft ging durch die Felder/Die Ähren wogten sacht/Es rauschte leis die Wälder/So sternklar war die Nacht/Und meine Seele spannte/Weit ihre Flügel aus/Flog durch die stillen Lande/Als flöge sie nach Haus (It was as if the sky/had kissed the earth/in a way that she (the Earth) could not help dreaming of him (the sky)/The wind blew through the fields/the wheat-ears undulated gently/The forests rustled softly/How bright the starry night/And my soul opened/Wide its wings/And flew above the silent land/as if it flew home). As we see, it is not a poem about anything in particular; it speaks of a sensation. The way I read it, the poet is locked in house, as much as we are right now, stifling with his own life, and he needs to go away but he cannot. But he has a window. We can almost see him, hand on a glass panel, looking at this Caspar David Friedrich landscape. The wheat field’s frisson while the wind gently touches it while the moonlight covers the earth in silvery sheen. It all looks so peaceful and blissful, and the poet’s chest swells with longing – he wants what the wheat-field’s rapture, the landscape’s radiance. Everything he dreams of is outside. It’s so close, but beyond his reach.

This poem craved for Schumann’s music. It’s not a text that demands description or explanation. It is just a thought, a moment, a sensation. And that’s Schumann’s specialty. The song has an introduction, a descending zig-zagging line that more or less repeats itself until a single note repeats itself just like a ticking clock. Life is following its sinuous course and then there’s this silence, this sensation of confinement. And then there’s the nightly landscape. Schumann recreates a sense of tension and relief by means of harmony: there is an almost permanent pattern of harmonic tension in the bars corresponding to one line in the poem, followed by harmonic resolution (in the tonic, E major) for the next line. Both stanzas describing the landscape outside share the exact same structure. When we reach the stanza regarding the inner landscape, then everything changes. First the repeated note pattern gains a serpentine contrasting figure and then the “course of line”-figure joins in until we get Schumann’s hallmark emotional climax – repeated chords, crescendo. We finally hear one repetition of the first phrase of the song still on the “orchestral chords” in both hands, but the “resolution” on E major sounds almost like in the previous stanzas. Only the phrase on “as if my soul flew home” ends now in a dissonant chord while the vocal line ends in the lower note in the song (e). “As if”. Life follows it usual course with the repetition of its Leitmotiv before it ends serenely in e major. It is, yes, a melancholic song, but not a gloomy one. It’s about golden cages. Nobody really wants to escape – it’s cold aside and there are dangers. But one can always dream!

Have I said that Protschka and Deutsch go for a very slow tempo? This is a bold choice, first for the pianist, who, for the most part of the song, has a rather minimalistic accompaniment to play – and it sounds more evidently sparse when performed like that. And it puts an even greater need for the singer to produce an even legato to keep all elements connected. As many songs by Schumann, the tessitura is not really high, but it lies right on the tenor’s passaggio. Protschka does not seem at all worried and begins the song in mezza voce. He sings the first phrase at his most pure toned, barely keeping the connection with his chest voice in the HIMmel (sky) – a little bit less and we could rightly call it falsetto. His almost old-fashioned way of conducting the line adds a touch of sensuality to the line, even if it’s a tenor at his less testosterone-high. It suggests some sort of surrender, of vulnerability – and this poem, at second look, has to do with sex. We have kisses, shivering, soft undulating movements, whispering – that’s all the poet sees when he looks at the landscape. The second line, back to the tonic, shows Protschka caressing his line and descending to his low e while keeping his voice at its lightest. This is a song about atmosphere – and a pointillistic colouring of words is indeed less important than this sensation of intimacy (produced by soft dynamics) and seamless flow (produced by legato). Protschka does very discreet word pointing here – as when he very gently highlights the k and the ss in geküsst (kissed). Mezzos and baritones like to boost a bit the warmth of the lower end of this song’s tessitura, but even if a soprano or a tenor does have a rich low register, the head-toned float helps to the create a dreamy, hushed impression, as if the singer did not even had an audience and we were really prying into his (or her) thoughts. Protschka starts the third verse – about the earth’s frisson – in an entirely floated tone and again produces an admirably pure-toned high f# on SCHImmer. As before, the fourth verse (on the tonic E major) has a tiny little bit more voice, what adds contrast and makes the song less uniform. The reinstatement of the first material follows a similar logic – the line about the wind and the wheat-ears piano rather than the pianissimo in the first appearance of the theme, but the second part of the stanza (the forest rustling and the bright stars) have a specific dynamic pattern to match the text: the forest rustles softly (Protschka goes for a thread of voice there) and the starry sky shines (he open the tone to make it bright). It is also, in terms of dynamics, a transition, to the contrasting middle section, where the accompaniment is more orchestral. Here, as the poet speaks of how he unfurls the wings of his soul, Protscha also expands his voice and we have for the first time a hint of how it sounds at its full tone. When we’re back to the final appearance of the original material, the word stille (silent) brings Protschka back to mezza voce and here he has his Cecilia Bartoli moment, singing it and the next word in a breathy, pop voice. One sees that Protschka on purpose avoids a sense of fulfilment in the song’s last and lowest note (on Haus – house) by keeping it at its headiest and reediest. This is only a fantasy and a fleet one.

Music lounge (28)

When I am asked what I look for in a movie, my answer usually is “I want to care about the people whose stories are being told”. When it comes to opera, though, this is not a sine qua non for me. If that happens, then I see it as an extra. For instance, my favourite opera by Verdi is Simon Boccanegra. The plot may be convoluted and hard to follow, but I do care about Amelia Grimaldi, I wish her well and I want her to have a happy ending. Although she is young and radiant, we know she has had a difficult life. In the exquisite duet with Simon in the first act, she says that, still in her childhood, she has known hardship and neglect. It is hard to be insensitive to the story of a child who says that future seemed bleak for her. And yet here she is, living in comfort amid the wealthy and powerful in Genova. However, Amelia has learned that fortune is capricious – and there is only one reason why she feels blessed in spite of everything. She has found true love in Gabriele Adorno. We know that she is not wrong about him, for he will not be in the least bothered when he is told by her guardian that she is a penniless orphan with no aristocratic background.

Anyway, we don’t know any of that in the beginning of the first act, but we feel nonetheless that Amelia is a good, decent, lovely person by the way Verdi first shows her in the aria Come in quest’ora bruna (“How the sea and the stars smile at us before daybreak”, in a very free translation). This is probably the closest Verdi every ever got to Schubert in the way he made a point in primarily describing the setting rather than the inner landscape. The orchestral introduction blends seamlessly into the aria in its description of birdsong, chirping insects, foliage caressed by the wind, the sea breeze. You close your eyes and you’re in this garden by the sea. But when the aria begins, we’re faced by one big challenge – the way Verdi composed the orchestral parts, one generally has rather a mechanical impression, the sound of a washing-machine in action rather than the waves gently rolling on the shore (as it should). As a matter of fact, few conductors are able to make something out of what Verdi could have imagined as being similar to the piano part of Schubert’s Die Forelle, for instance. I am always the one who praises precise articulation, but here I must say: a little bit of blur could do the trick. When dry and too precise, the woodwind figures can’t help feeling sounding lifeless, especially in the second part, where Verdi replaces the rather graceful flute arpeggi by an upward sequence of four notes (followed by a similarly upward interval) in the clarinets sustained by staccato playing by basically every other instrument, including brass. So, as you see, there is nothing to create a sense of fluidity here but for the singer’s voice. I make a point in trying to hear something in these almost awkward sounds, and I guess we can add some toads croaking and some seabirds squawking to the setting. Anyway, there is a strong contrast between this symphony of abrupt sounds of nature and the soprano’s smooth long, gently swaying phrases. It is almost like looking at Edvard Munch’s Young Woman on the Shore, how she stands out from the scene and glows in a golden light in that nightly atmosphere. And yet there is a moment, the middle section of the aria, when Amelia’s inner thoughts just superimpose on the landscape: she can’t help remembering the night many years before that when she found herself all alone in the world and everything looked hopeless to her. Then we hear a more typically “Verdian” orchestral accompaniment, even if the vocal line at one point gradually dissolves into almost recitative: la notte atra, crudel (that atrocious, gruesome night). But then she looks around again, the sun is about to rise and, as much as she had her sad moments, happiness awaits her in the prospect of seeing her beloved Adorno. She even lets his name slip in the text of the song when she speaks of the unadorned (disADORNO) humble house where she last felt she belonged when under the care of her nurse.

Amelia is one of lyric sopranos’ favorite Verdi roles, and many consider it easy next to formidable parts such as the other Amelia (in Ballo in Maschera) or Aida. But easy it is not, especially Come in quest’ora bruna, which is the first thing she sings in the opera. The lines are long, the intervals are awkward, some leaps to high notes are cruelly exposed – and the singer has to sound lovely there, but not in a pretty, shallow way. This is not a silly goose type finding the world delightful around her. This is someone who suffered in the past and learned to enjoy peace and prosperity while it’s there. All famous Italian lyric sopranos have sung the part – and it tends to be the role of choice for sopranos usually associated with German roles. Curiously, the first Amelia, Luigia Bendazzi – a poor girl who could only study music with the help of an uncle… who later sued her to have his money back once she found success – was known to be a “dramatic soprano”. When Verdi premiered the final version of his opera 24 years later, it was the Austrian Anna d’Angeri the one chosen for the role of Amelia. Judging from her roles – such as Ortrud in Lohengrin and Venus in Tannhäuser – one can see that she was hardly the Kiri Te Kanawa kind of singer. However, when one listens to Astrid Varnay, Eileen Farrell or Ghena Dimitrova in Come in quest’ora, one feels that a dramatic soprano is not exactly what this music requires either.

My favorite recording of Come in quest’ora bruna is sung by someone about whom much has been written: she had irregular technique, she was raised to fame too soon, she took too many roles too heavy for her voice, she lacked intelligence, she didn’t know the right time to stop, she developed a kitsch persona as a TV hostess, nobody seems ever satisfied with what Katia Ricciarelli has ever done. And, well, she was indeed unpredictable and her repertoire choices were increasingly questionable – but when she was good, she was marvelous. First, that voice, the lushest, velvetiest, roundest lyric soprano ever recorded. One often reads that her high notes were never her glory, but I have to say that – even with the irregular technique, the ambition – I would say that Ricciarelli’s problem of origin was not being born 362 km across the border. Had she been born Austrian, even if she had been trained exactly as she was in Venice, she would have had the opportunity to mature from Mozart roles via Agathe, Eva and Elisabeth in a repertoire more in keeping to her middle-heavier voice in roles where she would have been incomparable. As things stand, Ricciarelli stood out among other Italian sopranos by the exceptional warmth of her voice and the large-scale, round quality of her lyric soprano. The fulness led many a conductor to believe that she should grow into lirico spinto and even dramatic roles, where her shortcomings in producing firm, easy acuti was evident in recordings such as Abbado’s Aida, Colin Davis’s Ballo in Maschera and most notoriously Karajan’s Turandot. From some point on, one could hear the damage in the basic tonal quality. That was the time when she decided to focus on bel canto, where high coloratura always challenged her a bit to start with. In all honesty, there are only few recordings where you can love Ricciarelli without having to forgive her anything, the most famous being Bartoletti’s Suor Angelica and Maazel’s Luisa Miller. The adventurous listener may also include live recordings of her Alice in Verdi’s Falstaff or Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. The first time I listened to Gavazzeni’s Simon Boccanegra – even if I could notice that it was perfectible here and there – I couldn’t help thinking that I had found “my” Amelia. That would not prove to be true, though. I would soon be surprised by how uneven her singing is in the live from Vienna conducted by Claudio Abbado. But let’s talk about today’s item for the Music Lounge – Amelia’s opening aria in Gavazzeni’s studio recording.

One rarely finds Gavazzeni’s 1973 studio recording listed as a recommendation, in spite of a cast including Piero Cappuccilli in the title role and Plácido Domingo as Gabriele Adorno. I would guess that the main reason is that chorus and orchestra have been formed for the purpose of this recording under the name “RCA Orchestra e Coro” – and one can hear that it is not the nec plus ultra in orchestral sound in our Come in quest’ora, where a little bit more finish and flexibility would have done all the difference in the world. So, yes, in terms of conducting, this is hardly a must hear – especially in a discography presided by Claudio Abbado’s CDs with the La Scala orchestra, Mirella Freni, José Carreras, Cappuccilli, Nicolai Ghiaurov and even José van Dam. You may ask me – so why aren’t we listening to the Abbado with Freni? Well, I myself find it strange that, in spite of Freni’s technical mastery and vocal health, I find her rather business-like as recorded there, whereas Ricciarelli, flawed as her singing might be, brings Amelia to life in two notes. De gustibus, I guess. First, there is this irresistible velvet in her singing. The first phrase – Come in quest’ora bruna (“How, in this hour before sunrise…”) – is sung in double cream, Ricciarelli’s middle register rich and comfortable rather than muffled as with many a lyric soprano in this role. The way she leans on the que in questa producing a bell-toned sound and how her voice keeps floating in the last syllable of bruna, one can almost feel how carefree Amelia is, looking at the moon glowing on the sea, relishing the comforts of her present life. She also marks the intervals in these swaying phrases with a similarly silvery attack that almost makes us see the moonshine in Sorridon gli astri e il mare! (“the stars and the sea smile at us”) and Come s’unisce, o luna (“o moon, how [your light] merges”). For the third phrase – all’onda il tuo chiaror (“your light [merges] with the waves”) – the plan seemed to be the same, but Ricciarelli may have worried about the high a (on tuo), touching it carefully and shortening it with a downward portamento. I see her point – many a soprano choose to make sure that they produce a bright, firm high a that sometimes stands out from the rest of the phrase. However, one hardly notices that Ricciarelli pushes a bit because of the downward portamento that softens its percussiveness (and, yes, shortens it too). Now we reach the climax of section A, when Verdi uses the strings in more conventional a way on Amante amplesso pare di due virginei cor (“it seems like the loving embrace of two virginal hearts”). Here too Ricciarelli sings her notes with almost Mozartian cleanliness rather than conducting the line in a more traditionally Verdian way – and, at least for me, this helps to create an impression of purity and innocence. Ricciarelli again doesn’t do exactly what Verdi asks: the score asks for the soprano to sing the high g (the longest high note in the phrase) crescendo, attack the following high a forte only to scale down to piano while climbing down to low e. I’ll be honest – before I read the score, I thought that all singers who do it just as Verdi wanted it were unable to sing the high notes piano, because – data maxima venia – it really sounds better the way Ricciarelli does it. The phrase sounds lovely and gentle – and not overly passionate in a sentence that speaks of virginal hearts. It also allows the singer to reach her low notes in the optimal section of her breath support instead of letting it sink into chest voice. As we hear here, Ricciarelli sings it with almost immaculate consistency of registers, the voice feminine and round to the very end of the phrase.

Now we’re on the B section – Ma gli astri e la marina che pingono alla mente dell’orfana meschina? (“But what do the stars and the sea draw in the canvas of the poor orphan girl’s mind?”) – Ricciarelli is again in her comfort zone, offering richness and warmth of sound in her middle register and still singing with the almost Mozartian purity of line of the end of the A section. Only in the end of the phrase she produces a tremor in her voice on the word meschina (poor), as I guess every Italian singer would. The next phrase is the one closest to a recitative in the whole aria – when the bad memories of the night her nurse died almost fragment her line La notte attra, crudel, quando la pia morente sclamò: ti guardi il ciel (“the attrocious, cruel night, when the good woman cried out on her deathbed: may heaven protect you!”) Here we hear how naturally Ricciarelli sinks to her low register – the sound is almost mezzo-like, but connected to the rest of her voice. More than that, she resists the temptation of making a grand statement here. Those are the memories of a frightened child and, therefore, sound more convincing when sung with some restraint. And now we’re at the repeat of section a, when the orchestration is a little bit more awkward – and Gavazzeni and his pick up orchestra don’t really help the composer in avoiding the washing-machine impression. Although the vocal lines are subtly varied versions of those sung in the first part, Ricciarelli uses a different approach to fit the text – O altero ostel, soggiorno di stirpe ancor piu altera, il teto disadorno non obliai per te! (“O proud manor, the abode of an even prouder family, you haven’t made me forget my old unadorned house”). The bell-toned propelling notes are not more here – the voice sounds fuller, the use of portamento is more generous and she attacks her high a almost bluntly. Amelia is no longer in her dreamy mood and addresses the noble palace as if she were addressing her benefactors themselves. The climactic phrase here is done entirely differently – this time she follows Verdi’s crescendo on the high g and on to the high a. Only now the phrase ends up in the second octave. Although the composer does not require any diminuendo, Ricciarelli sings in the high g on sorride a me in mezza voce and conducts her line in full Verdian style with expressive use of portamento.

The aria has something similar to a coda with the text S’innalba il ciel, ma l’amoroso canto non s’ode ancor! Ei mi terge ogni dì, come l’aurora la rugiada dei fior, del ciglio il pianto (“day is breaking, but I still don’t hear the love song that dries the tears from my eyes, just like dawn dries the dewdrops on every flower”). The way those lines are written, with many repeated notes, almost makes it sound like birdsong, as if Amelia and the nature around her have become one as she is so close to meeting her beloved one – the very sound of his voice as he approaches is enough to make her forget all her bad memories. As you see, Amelia does not care for the beautiful clothes, jewels and the palace – only love can heal the wounds of the past. Verdi only requires dolcissimo at the very end, but Ricciarelli knows her high mezza voce was lovely and starts to gradually shift to piano right from the beginning. When she reaches the repeated notes (Ei mi terge…), the sounds are already so exquisite that one is surprised how lovely and effortlessly she sings her floating high b, a note most sopranos seem just desperate to get away from. Ricciarelli ends the song in a hushed voice, as if still overcome by her feelings. Is this the ultimate performance of Come in quest’ora bruna? Probably not – Freni and Abbado stand as a reference, for her freshness of tone, solid technique and stricter attention to Verdi’s instructions and also his exemplary conducting and the superior orchestral playing. But our featured item here still is a memento of Katia Ricciarelli’s beauty of tone and instinctive grasp of the text and the flow of the music.

I have embedded here first the track corresponding to the orchestral introduction and then the one with the aria itself, but I understand that the first clip should automatically run to the end of the opera.

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When I’ve finally made my mind about the item for this week’s Music Lounge, I was faced with a problem: I had never heard a recording of the famous bass aria from the Matthäus-Passion Mache dich, mein Herze rein that fulfilled all my expectations about how it should be performed. It is a piece of music usually mentioned as an example of Bach’s ability to create surpassing spiritual beauty, but my usual experience is of frustration. Mache dich is a piece of music that relies in so many interdependent elements to take off – and the sad truth is that there usually is a weak link somewhere. I know, there are uncountable examples of complex music everywhere, but the problem with this particular one is that, for some reason, the spiritual dimension only appears when every little piece of the puzzle is well aligned. When that doesn’t happen, the music still sounds beautiful if earthbound. And here one wants to be transported to other dimension.

The first challenge in Mache dich is the text. From the content, we infer that the singer is voicing the thoughts of Joseph of Arimathea, mentioned by the Evangelist in his recitative previous to the aria, the text of which is: Make yourself pure, my heart/I myself am burying Jesus/For He will from now on/forever and ever/ Have in me His sweet repose/World, go out/ let Jesus in. So, as we see, there are two dimensions here: first, Joseph informs that he will take care of the funeral rites (and expenses, for he was a rich man); but then he says to himself that he will also let all worldly matters behind for he is carrying Jesus inside himself, now that He is not physically present in this world. The text does not deal with the subject of resurrection (it is a bit early in the story for that), but it makes it seem also irrelevant: Jesus is forever alive in the hearts of those who believe in him. And I bet that this is Bach’s point-of-view just by the tempo he chose to set these words: a 12/8 siciliano, i.e., a dance rhythm with a noticeable lilt. It was associated to pastorale life during the baroque, and evokes an atmosphere of a mild, simple, pleasant life. So very distant from any solemnity or gloominess. On the other hand, the siciliano is no gigue – it isn’t supposed to show any exhilaration or animation. This seems obvious, but what we usually hear is conductors that are either trying to make Mache dich more “serious” than it should be or really carried away by the dance rhythm and the “trochaic” phrases with repeated notes. As always, virtue is in the middle – Joseph of Arimathea is not bouncing and twirling in his intent of keeping Jesus alive in his heart, but the aria must suggest a genuine sense of joy derived from PURITY. On leaving all worldly matters behind, one finds again the lightness of childhood and innocence in one’s heart. And that is why the word rein (pure) is so important in this piece. A singer who does not understand that is not going to succeed in this aria. Unfortunately, most basses try to make it a momentous statement and adopt an “important” adult tone, often too heavy, too dark, too vibrant, too serious, certainly jarring with everything the siciliano rhythm is supposed to suggest.

Then you’ll ask me – why the bass voice then? “Because Joseph of Arimathea is a man” is not the right answer here. Since the Matthäus-Passion has only a few pre-established characters (such as “Jesus” or “Pontius Pilate”), many texts that could be attributed to a biblical figure are simply sung by any soloist or even the congregation (in the “chorale” passages). Bach could have used the soprano voice to suggest the purity the text speaks about, but that would not illustrate the true content of this aria – this is not about being innocent and pure, but rather about MAKING ONESELF innocent and pure. It is a decision, a choice, it is about changing one’s life. And that is why it has be sung by the bass voice (also, an aria for the soprano would have been performed by a child in St. Thomas Church). However, that poses an extra challenge for the soloist – one has to hear that purity, that innocence in the singer’s voice. It is not an ordinary bass voice – it is a voice transformed, made something new. One must hear a child-like, clear-eyed quality in the singing. And that rules out almost every singer in the discography. One may point out that there are very clear-toned baritones – especially in historically informed performances – that sing it in a pop-like, almost tenor-ish tone. I would call it marginally preferable to the gravitas of a Wotan lost in Bach-land, but it does not translate the idea behind the music, which is hearing a full, dark voice made light and angelic by the effect of a spiritual transformation.

The writing for the voice in Mache dich is ambiguous on purpose – the aria can be too low for singers in the baritone range and too high for singers in the bass range. We often hear baritones almost whispering the lower end of the tessitura and basses that tense up in higher reaches. Bach does not make their lives easy there – we must hear someone in a state of grace. If he sounds strained in his high notes, woolly or short in resonance in his low notes, nasal in his melisme, caprine in his trills, the thrill is all gone. That is why it was so frustrating for me the experience of hearing twenty, twenty five recordings and – in spite of all talents involved – finding at best vocally solid performances church-like in their austerity but entirely devoid of any true sense of spirituality. It is never enough to remember: this is the LAST aria in the Matthäus-passion, the last time a solo voice (apart from the Evangelist’s narration) expresses an inner thought about the passion of the Christ in a long work. You have to hear the EFFECT of the experience in it, the transformation has to be immediately hearable. Again: I had never heard a performance to my satisfaction until recently. I won’t say it is perfect (nobody is in this particular aria) – one must point out that there are more breathing pauses than with many singers, to start with – but this singer goes straight to the heart of the matter in terms of interpretation and tone colouring. He also masters the ambiguous tessitura as few others – his voice rings with bass-like resonance in the low notes and yet his high notes float with extreme purity of tone.

German bass Michael Schopper is a specialist in baroque music and Lieder. I have never heard him live, but one can hear him in recordings with conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Matthäus-Passion), René Jacobs (L’Incoronazione di Poppea) and Gustav Leonhard (Cantata BWV 56). He started his career as a choir boy with the Regensburger Domchor, and his first concert appearance (in 1968) was Bach’s Christmas Oratorio under the baton of Karl Richter. It seems that he first sang all kinds of role such as Osmin, Ochs and maybe even Wotan, but he would later concentrate in baroque opera and sacred music. Here we hear him in mysterious circumstances – the clip on YouTube seems to be taken by filming a TV screen. I’ve looked everywhere for this video in better quality but in vain. There is no information about venue and performers, but the orchestra is the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and, therefore, we would guess Ton Koopman is the conductor. After a bit detective work, I can tell you that, yes, it was been recorded in Aardenberg’s St. Bavo’s Church on March 18th, 1989 and the soloists were Barbara Schlick, Ulla Groenewold, Ian Honeyman, Guy de Mey, Peter Kooy and, of course, Michael Schopper. As far as I understand, this performance was never officially released, but rather one recorded six years later in Amersfoort’s St. George’s Church with Jörg Dürmüller and Klaus Mertens. I feel sad for not being able to keep a memento of Schopper’s performance in decent recorded sound.

As it is, the video shows us not only the aria, but the beautiful recitative too – In the evening, as it was cool/ Adam’s fall was made known/ In the evening, the saviour overwhelmed him./In the evening, the dove returned/and brought an olive leaf in its mouth/A beautiful time it was the evening hour!/The pact of peace has been made with God/for Jesus fulfilled his cross. His body comes to rest/Ah, dear soul, pray go, let them give you the dead Jesus/O salutary, precious memento! Schopper sings it with disarming simplicity. He does not try to make any point there and trust the meaning of the words, while singing with instrumental poise and crystalline diction. One line shows all his vocal credentials – O schöne Zeit! O Abendstunde! (A beautiful time it was the evening hour!). In the first part he soars in absolute cleanliness of tone to his high register just to sink with absolute ease and chocolate-y resonance to his low notes in the second part.

For the aria itself, Koopman chooses the ideal tempo, the siciliano is not overdriven, the lilt is gentle and reassuring, the trochaic repeated notes subtly and smoothly articulated, the pastoral atmosphere is immediately established, we’re in the Christian version of Arcadia. From the first phrase, one can see if the singer is up to the task. We have to hear the rich resonance in the dich from Mache dich (make yourself) so that the contrast to the purity of tone of rein (pure) make any sense. This is the expressive cell of the whole aria – we hear that voice rise from its depth and then float in absolute purity. Schopper finds the choir boy in himself to sing it with such disarming, instrumental clarity there. This may sound exaggerated, but believe me – this note can go awry in many different ways. Many singers cover it excessively and we almost hear the muscular effort (and they do not sound “pure” at all); a few just cannot control the vibrato; others go for vibrato-less only to loose control of it in the end; many just loose focus in the process. It usually is the beginning of a bumpy ride! The next line – Ich will Jesum selbst begraben (I myself am burying Jesus) – has a bit of a ping-pong outline between registers – almost as the aural description of the movement of shovelling. It has to be sung with absolute accuracy, including in what regards the syllables that need to be stressed: JE-esum beGRA-aben. As before, Schopper is at ease both in his low and high notes, stresses the right syllables smoothly (some singers sound strained with the high notes, others hard to hear in the low notes and there are those who stress the rhythm too strongly, making the phrase graceless). The next phrase – with the ornament that takes the singer to a high e flat on dich – may be problematic for some singers, some do away with the ornament, others resort to voix mixte to deliver it smoothly. Schopper does not make much of it and focus on the next rein, which he sings more strongly and firmly, almost as a proud statement of his intent of being pure. We’ll hear that he sings all the reinstatements of the thematic material already presented in extremely unproblematic voice – it all sounds velvety, rich and gentle. There is not one moment when the listener hears anything grandiloquent, overstated or vocally narcissistic there. We hear a dark, resonant voice at its lightest – made pure – warm, reassuring at all times, für und für, to quote the text. A few singers do the long melisma on begraben on the breath, what is quite a feat. Schopper is not one of them, he makes himself even an extra breath pause at some point. Old-timers may find that frustrating, but what we see is that baroque specialists tend to prefer it this way, often making the pause right in the beginning, as in begra-aaaaaaben. In Bach, that doesn’t bother me personally (especially because I doubt any of his malnourished singers in St. Thomas would actually be able of singing such kilometric phrases in one breath). If the singer has the control to go to the end of a long phrase with consistent tonal quality, then bravo/a. But I’d rather hear a breath pause than constriction, discolouring and poor intonation in the end of the breath.

In the B section, Schopper goes a step further in terms of lightness, dangerously close to a “white” tone. It is admirable that the voice still retains some velvet and one can see in the video how he negotiates nasal resonance to focus his high notes. The result is conversational, light but instrumental in sound, especially in the upper register. Only from Welt, hinaus (World, go out), his voice gains roundness again. This is a passage where many singers – to produce some contrast with the previous moments, when the key word is “repose” – adopt a more imposing tone, as if the text implied that the text were directed to the world, as if he were saying “keep away” to a crowd or something like that. I like better the way Schopper does, he is not speaking to the WORLD here, but rather to himself. The idea is to make his soul focus entirely in spiritual matters from that point on. In the repeat, there is not much difference from the beginning in terms of tone, except in the very end, when, instead of making his last statement of “I myself want to bury Jesus” more emphatic, Schopper sings with the sweetest and lightest of tones. I find it particularly convincing in the way it shows some sort of hushed enthusiasm. It is a performance that has a dignified, serene, unpretentious quality that goes straight to the heart of the imaginary “congregation” in its lack of affectation or portentousness. It is a testimony rather than a sermon.

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Goethe’s encyclopedic amount of writing alone would have made him a famous writer. I can only wonder what he would have accomplished if he could have used a laptop computer! For instance, the West-östlicher Divan, a collection of poems inspired by the work of Persian poet Hafiz, has twelve books plus an extra volume of “notes and queries”! Hafiz wasn’t, however, Goethe’s single source of inspiration when he wrote it. He had met in 1814 the young Marianne von Willemer, the wife of an acquaintance of his. Although he was 45 years older than her, he could not help falling in love, especially after reading her poem Hochbeglückt in deiner Liebe (later set to music by Hugo Wolf). As a romance was impossible, he left for Heidelberg. Nonetheless, Willemer and her husband followed Goethe there. On her way, she wrote one poem, called Ostwind (East Wind). Back home, she would send him another poem, Westwind (West Wind). Those were love poems, and the titles make reference to the fact that they lived in opposite parts of the German speaking world: he, in Thuringia; she, in Frankfurt. At the time, Goethe showed great interest in Asian culture and had the idea of writing a collection of poems (a “diwan”, as they were called in Hafez’s days) relating values from both Western and Eastern civilizations. The eighth book, which comprise love poems, is called “Zuleika” and documents the exchange of feelings between Zuleika and her beloved Hatem. One can find there both Ostwind and Westwind. As it is, only after Marianne von Willemer’s death, the true authorship of these poems was made known.

Schubert set both Ostwind and Westwind to music, and one usually calls them Suleika I and Suleika II (Goethe did not use Willemer’s titles). Both are well-loved items, usually appearing in recitals of “Goethe-Lieder”, but it is Suleika I the one considered by Brahms as the “loveliest song ever written”. It seems that Marianne von Willemer herself liked the song; in a letter written in 1825 she mentions a setting of Ostwind she thought to be “really lovely”. Willemer’s poem is indeed the kind of text that inspired Schubert’s best writing in its colorful imagery and symbology. Zuleika is separated from Hatem and she sees in a sudden gush of wind some sort of sign, but what could it be? It must be a good omen, for her heart first feels relieved. The wind caresses the vines and whispers greetings from her beloved in her ear. All she thinks now is meeting him, there in the high citadel/castle/burg where she is going to meet him. But the prospect of seeing him is not as enchanting as his actual physical presence – only the words formed from his breath can carry the love he feels for her. There is a jeu de mot here – his name is Hatem and, in the old German spelling, breath is written Athem, an anagram. So, Hatem is dear to Zuleika as the very air she breathes.

Ostwind is not the single “Goethe-Lied” by Schubert that describes the sensation of seeing and feeling the beloved one in nature. For instance, in Nähe des Geliebten (Nearness of the beloved one), a woman sees her beloved whenever the dust rises in the road, hears him in the roll of waves, until she finally realizes he is by her side, no matter how far he is. In Willemer’s poem, Zuleika feels the opposite: thinking of Hatem first makes her feel well, but it is only a shadow of what really being with him is. This is an oriental setting and Europeans cannot really resist the idea of intense passion – and that is why we have the wind, not a gentle zephyr. Zuleika’s first line is “What does this agitation mean?”. Then Willemer speaks of swarms of insects, vine-covered hillsides and, of course, the burning heat of the sun. We’re speaking of hot-blooded people. And yet Schubert is no Schumann – he is not going to describe the intensity of this feeling, first he will describe the intensity of the setting. The piano depicts all kinds of aeolian activity here: the song starts with a sudden gush. Zuleika feels that the weather has changed – and then the wind blasts at full force. Accordingly, the rhythm in the piano first shows a subtle agitation. When the dusts is swirled up, leaves and insects blown around, the single-note rhythm develops into a more playful up-and-down figure.

The song is written is written in bar-form. The second Stollen is a subtly altered version of the first one. Here the more regular rhythmic pattern of the first stanza relates to how the wind freshens Zuleika’s cheeks and seems to play with the vines in the hills. The playful figure now goes to the stanza when she seems to hear the wind whispering in her ear and how she will soon kiss Hatem when she sees him. The melody shows more alteration in the fourth stanza and harmony is subtly tenser too – we are getting an extra stanza, the climax of the song, a transition to the Abgesang. Here she sees herself on top of the burg/citadel/castle with her beloved. Harmony is more complex, chromaticism abounds, the tessitura is higher, the dynamic is louder, we hear the “regular” wind rhythm at its most percussive. Gradually the wind subsides and we’re finally in the last section. The emotional atmosphere sounds entirely different now – the Aufgesang was based on a rhythmic pattern, we gravitated around B minor*, whereas now we are in B major and we have a gentle repeated pulsation on F sharp in the left hand and a simple rhythmic pattern in the right hand – one long note, two higher short notes. The world outside is now in repose, but in Zuleika’s chest her heart beats with agitation. She realizes that no proxy is going to quench the longing, the desire. So, yes, here Schubert is – atypically – less interested in the description of nature and illustrative effects, but rather in recreating the emotional landscape. This is still descriptive of the poem, but, hey!, doesn’t it sound like Schumann? I would bet that this is why Brahms liked the song so much – it is an almost unique summary of early and intermediate style of Romantic Lieder writing in one single song. Schubert is again extremely accurate in recreating the sensation; the music does not gradually sink to repose – there are peaks and valleys in this descending curve – just like when we feel when we try to calm ourselves down. It is an internal “dialogue”. In the end, Zuleika is quieter, but probably even more frustrated by the separation, because she had a sample of reunion in her imagination.

Although Suleika I and II are often sung by sopranos, the oriental setting, with its whirlwinds, scorching sunlight and unmitigated passions make them an ideal item for a mezzo soprano. And the right woman for the job is the Slovenian mezzo Marjana Lipovsek. First, Lipovsek is one of the rare recitalists who felt equally at home both in Schubert and in Schumann. We can hear how she instinctively shifts from the most instrumental, rhythmically precise mood of the Aufgesang into the most flexible – both in terms of rhythm and dynamic – atmosphere of the Abgesang. We can hear in this fifth stanza that Lipovsek was also a successful opera singer, for she holds nothing at the climax, she makes it a mini Widmung. If you hear this song attentively you’ll even suspect that Wagner had it in mind when he composed the opening of the second act of Tristan and Isolde.

Lipovsek’s Janus-like abilities are also reflected in the very sound of her voice. I had a friend who said “there are mezzos who are indeed ‘half-sopranos’, but some of them should be called ‘mezzo contraltos'”. I would file Lipovsek in the second category – her voice sank with exceptional naturalness in her low notes and always had a bright, focused sound, never matronly or too somber – one doesn’t even feel that these notes are low as they really are. She had her high notes too, but – especially in some dramatic roles (such as Amneris or Azucena) she experimented with mostly in smaller opera houses, they could sound pinched or a tad strained. Never in baroque music or Lieder, in which she displayed almost instrumental poise and a fruity, appealing sound. In Suleika I, not only her crystal-clear diction but also the precision of her phrasing are entirely in keeping with flowing legato. I particularly appreciate how she handles the triplets in the first and third stanzas. Some singers articulate them too heavily, some smudge them – Lipovsek make them clear yet smoothly connected. The Aufgesang is a bit wordy and the tempi rather fast, so it is difficult to be fussy in interpretation here. She works here rather through word-pointing – one senses the anxiety in the first line by a slight tremor in the voice and we understand how she feels refreshed by the good news she perceives in the air by the sunny quality her voice soon acquires. The second stanza has an almost conversational tone – she is looking around, seeing good signs in anything, clouds of dusts, flying insects – the singer shouldn’t try to make too much of any of these lines, Zuleika is just taking in everything around her, not really processing anything. Lipovsek opens the third stanza in a slightly more hushed tone, she feels the caressing warmth of sunlight on her face, but it’s all very subtle. What she offers in the first part is something almost “classical” in its cleanliness, clarity and precision. It is in the Abgesang that she explores a wider palette – here we’re really speaking of tone colouring. Here Lipovsek paints – rather than depicts – the ambiguous moods in Zuleika’s heart as she realizes that, yes, anticipation may be wonderful in the way it fills the void of absence, but it also makes absence clear as we fill it with fantasy. In the end, it is all as thin as air.

* Being a mezzo soprano, Lipovsek sings the song transposed “for a lower voice” in F minor.

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I had decided that the music lounge would feature a tenor this week and after some consideration, I thought that Nicolai Gedda should be the one. Gedda has an extensive discography and was very much the tenor or choice in the 60’s and 70’s, including in repertoire really above his limits of facility, such as the role of Arrigo in I Vespri Siciliani and Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera. He even toyed with the title role in Wagner’s Lohengrin but at some point he realized he was risking his vocal health and chose to behave more “wisely”. Unfortunately, the heavy duty had an effect in many recordings of roles entirely within his vast possibilities. For instance, I wouldn’t consider any of his complete Mozart opera recordings as representative of his legendary legato, ductibility and flexibility. In any case, even if the microphone exposed the fatigue in a voice that nonetheless withstood as few the test of time and wear, there are plenty of examples of Gedda’s artistry undeniably above the competition, such as the romance in Les Pêcheurs de Perles. My original plan here was to post his recording of Rachmaninov’s op. 21 n. 7 (Zdes choroso) where he can rival any soprano with his high mezza voce, but then I remembered that I always think of Gedda when I see Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and I decided that this would be it.

I have to be honest: it took me a while to get used to Russian music. I remember that I even disliked Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin the first time I heard it, an opera that later would never fail to please me live in the theatre or in home listening. So you can only imagine my first reaction to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. And again – this is an opera that has always proved effective the theatre in my experience. It is a difficult work to pull off if all involved lack a sense of humor, in spite of the opera’s bleak ending. This is particularly so in the case of the leading tenor part, Sergey. I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge is a tough cookie of a role. First, he is a total jerk and yet there must be some charm in him. Second, the writing almost stands for a parody of heroic singing and can be a bit demanding on the voice – and the acting requirements are not negligible. Third, the writing is a bit wordy and it is difficult to keep a shadow of cantabile in these circumstances. My experience in the theatre is finding a Siegmund tenor in the role fighting with high notes and a bit rough in terms of legato. And that is why I always remember Mstislav Rostropovich’s studio recording, in which Gedda – a surprising piece of casting – is so effective in a part entirely distant to his gentlemanly personality. Although he was Swedish, Gedda’s grandfather was Russian and so was his adoptive father, what made him comfortable with the Russian language. I’ve first heard Lady Macbeth in Petr Weigl’s film in which actors lip-synch to Rostropovich’s recording – and I was almost shocked to discover that the tenor who sang with such alpha-male quality and wryness was the 53-year old debonair, Mozartian Gedda. I don’t think he would have sung the role in a stage performance – we have to remember that the libretto was considered distasteful and that the opera was vetoed in the USSR for a long while. The original version wouldn’t be performed again in Russia until twenty years later after Rostropovich’s studio recording. Also, if Gedda had an advantage on almost every other tenor in terms of ease with high notes, it was indeed a voice a couple of sizes smaller than what we tend to hear in the theatre in that part. I have the impression that a lyric tenor with bright high notes and some heft (à la Pavarotti) could be the ideal choice for Sergey, but that is a hypothesis I still have to test. The lightest Sergey I have seen was Pavel Cernoch, who lacks Gedda’s fluency in his upper register and struggled a bit.

In any case, Gedda is, in Rostropovich’s recording, the aural image of Sergey – there are the high testosterone levels, the shamelessness, the sexiness and the boorishness. He is gross and charming at the same time. Although I cannot speak Russian, Gedda’s tonal palette is so wide and the word pointing so effective that I can understand exactly what he means in every utterance just by the sound of his voice. He is ideally partnered by Galina Vishnevskaya, whose acidic soprano is the aural image of Katerina in her explosive femininity. She denies this music nothing and lives her part with surprisingly unladylike sincerity. And Rostropovich sees all the musical jokes and innuendos in the score and shows it in all its garish colors (as it should be).

We’re obviously hearing one of the most “distasteful” scenes in the opera, in which both Vishnevskaya and Gedda score subtle points in the absolutely unsubtlety of their characters one after the other with unfailing mastery. It is late at night, Katerina Izmailova is alone at her apartments, her husband is out in a business trip, when someone knocks at her door. It is Sergey, an employee of the Izmailovs. Katarina had seen him sexually assault a female colleague, Aksinya, and, when she tried to intervene, by saying that women are as brave and strong as men, he simply challenged her to wrestle him. Katerina did not feel intimidated and consented. When her father-in-law saw the situation, she said she had tripped and Sergey ended up falling too when trying to help her up. So, at this point, when he knocks at her door at night, one can easily guess his intentions. The scene starts very conversationally, almost parlando. She speaks in a hushed tone, her father-in-law is always keeping an eye on her. It is Gedda’s tone that begins the scene with a genius touch – he adopts a boyish, exaggeratedly innocent voice: he just wants “to borrow a book”. These two, however, are no Paolo and Francesca – she can’t read, they don’t have books. When the door is finally open, we hear Gedda’s full tenor voice: he is dying of boredom. It is an entirely different voice, a bit rough-edged. She responds in her full soprano, the sound is stingy: why doesn’t he get a wife? To answer it, Gedda employs a firm, bright sound, stressing every word, some notes a tiny little bit off-pitch, his phrasing rhythmically crispy, almost buoyant: he is a man of noble feelings, but no well-born girl would care for him. That is why he is bored. The way Gedda sings it, it is clear that he is being absolutely cynical here. It is more than he is lying – he is making a point of showing that he doesn’t mean anything he is saying, because he knows what she’ll answer in the end. But they have to play a little bit before getting to that point.

Shostakovich makes it very clear that what we’re hearing here is no Wagnerian “philosophical” sexuality with chromaticism, ambiguous chords and suspended orchestration. The band-like, dance rhythms, woodwind staccato comments, they all show us that we’re not dealing here with the loftiest parts of human behavior, to put it that way. Ekaterina is bored too, if she only had a child to keep her busy… Here we get to an arioso-like section in which Sergey tries to explain that, in order to have a baby, there are certain things she would have to do first. The problem would rather be how to find someone to help her with that. He, for instance, has seen how hard life is for women – and he is a helpful guy. Gedda was always a tenor with a smile in his voice – and the way he uses it here is just brilliant. He sounds at the same time a tad drunk and seductive in a very cheap way, you can here him winking and performing his little macho routine in the sound of his voice, the way he opens his vowels, lingers a bit to end of phrases, overpronounces some consonants, everything has a suggestive glint to it. The strings join in in almost tango-like accompanying figures. The tessitura is lower now and one feels Sergey relaxing his efforts, he is almost getting there. He is not totally wrong, Vishnevskaya’s Katerina responds, in a warmer tonal quality, the kind of “go away” that a lawyer would consider ripe for further clarification. He says he is going, but he doesn’t move and reminds her of their wrestling – the orchestra is now more alert, there is an athletic anticipation of what is happening next. Gedda’s tone is now at its edgiest and brightest – from this point on he’s taking no prisoners. We’re having the drums, the brass – now there is no more room for tone colouring.

The following orchestral passage is one of the most famous in the score – the moaning trombones, rhythmic upward string glissandos make it clear what is being described there. Rostropovich’s orchestra makes it all even clearer than in any other recordings. Vishneskaya’s and Gedda’s languid comments after things calm down add a final touch to the moment. We will still hear Katerina’s father-in-law asking from outside if everything is all right. The scene is almost over, but the couple decide that the night is young and there is no reason yet to say good-bye over the excited background of almost circus-like music.

As said above, we’ll never know how Gedda would have fared live in a staged performance. I would bet that the voice would have been light for it – especially if he had to follow the very complex stage instructions. In any case, this recording shows a lots of musical possibilities for the tenor part that usually remain unused by the singers cast in the role of Sergey. Knowing this recording, I keep hearing his voice in my mind whenever I see Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in the theatre. It also shows another side of Nicolai Gedda’s abilities as an artist and also as a singer. It is not unusual that anyone with a vast discography ultimately has a larger sample of less than ideal recordings than someone caught only in his or her key roles. Therefore, one tends to relativize the strengths of singers in the first group. That is not really the case with Gedda – who was a favorite with reviewers appreciative of his solid technique and the fact that he found himself at home in Italian, German, French… and Russian roles, not to mention the fact that he did sing in English and Swedish.

The scene we’re hearing is split in two tracks. YouTube has each track in its own video. Although they are supposed to flow continuously to the end of the disc, I’ll post both tracks below just to make sure everyone is able to hear it properly.

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When I published here a review of the Berlin première of Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie, a reader, Meredith, asked me “Why do you think Hippolyte et Aricie has not become more popular with opera lovers? And why do the operas of Handel get so much more attention?”. That was a tricky question, and it took me a while to answer. I wrote then that “While Handel was dealing with Italian opera outside Italy (i.e., not the country’s national repertoire), Rameau was in the epicenter of French opera, having to respond to patrons who felt really authoritative about what he was doing. On the other hand, Handel’s transgressions were validated exclusively by London’s opera-goers. And most of them found Italian opera in its purest form stuffy and boring. This means that Handel had to flatter the tastes of his paying audiences. Otherwise, he would just go bankrupt. So, yes, this explains a lot why Handel travels better than Rameau: the whole enterprise was more cosmopolitan (he was German, in England, making Italian music with international casts) and he was trying to lure people into paying tickets. It is, therefore, more alluring and more open than Rameau’s ultra-French project by definition.” So, yes, Rameau was subject to a stricter code and there is a lot of fluff in his complete operas. And yet – and this is a big “yet” – when he was given the chance, he was able to go beyond the boundaries of baroque music. So, no final answer here – I find watching a complete opera by Handel is a more rewarding experience than sitting through a full opera by Rameau, but the best moments in a Rameau opera are really worth the detour. And that is what we’re doing today, by listening one number of Rameau’s most nonsensical work – the opéra-ballet (or as he called it, “ballet héroïque“) Les Indes Galantes (usually translated as “The Amorous Indies”). In its final form, it comprises a prologue and four entrées (a fully independent scene) the “plots” of which involve a very peculiar propaganda for Europeans in which the colonies are shown as a place where one can find “love”. Of course, the whole thing would be highly questionable (to say the least) in the age of Internet, but back then it was an excuse for exotic costumes, complex sets, percussion instruments and coloratura.

The quartet Tendre amour (‘Tender love”) is one of the many highlights in the score of Les Indes Galantes and comes in the end of the third entrée, Les Fleurs (The Flowers), which is considered the weakest part of a libretto not famous for its quality. The “action” takes place in Persia and, of course, involves seraglios, where both… I’ll let you guess the names… yes, Zaïre et Fatime are… how can we call them?… “guests”. The set shows a harem belonging to Ali, the best friend of Prince Tacmas. Tacmas loves Zaïre, who… is “sojourning” there and disguises himself to get inside and check if she loves him back. Predictably, Ali loves Fatime, who happens to be under the “protection” of Tacmas in his own palace. After a lot, I mean, A LOT of misunderstandings, all of them realize that they are corresponded. That is the moment when they sing “Tender love, we hope that your chains will hold us forever”. So, as you see, nobody thought of slavery when they wrote that one… In order to illustrate the whole romantic imbroglio, Rameau naturally uses imitative writing. So we can hear the irresistible serpentine theme that depicts the never-ending chain go back and forth between the soloists (two sopranos, an haute-contre and a bass). The counterpoint is no novelty in baroque style, but the building harmonic tension that makes us almost breathless, this is what makes this number special.

Until a couple of years ago, there weren’t many complete recordings of Les Indes Galantes, but suddenly production popped up everywhere in Europe and now there is a choice of DVDs from Paris, Glyndebourne, Munich etc. You can even find distinguished soloists, as in the video with Malin Hartelius and Richard Croft or the gala in which the quartet is sung by Magali Léger, Magdalena Kozena, Cyril Auvity and Jean-Sébastien Bou, but I have to be honest: all these performance pale compared to William Christie’s recording in his academy for young singers “Le Jardin des Voix” in 2013. There, both sopranos (Daniela Skorka and Émilie Renard) have warmer tone than the competition and tenor Zachary Wilder holds his haute-contre functions more firmly and with superior legato and a more dulcet tone than everyone else. Bass Cyril Costanzo completes the quartet commendably. More than that, Christie fills the texture with orchestral sound and makes it even more compelling by enveloping these singers’ voices in sensuous strings, very much like the tender chains they sing about.