Archive for September, 2007

Magdalena Kozená has earned a good reputation in Handel with her Cleopatra in Marc Minkowski’s recording of Giulio Cesare in Egitto. There she almost made us think of Lucia Popp in her warm, charming and touching performance. Inteligent and stylish as her performance is, the reedy purity of her light and high mezzo soprano played an important part in all that.

All that makes it more puzzling why a singer would record a whole CD in which, to use Leontyne Price’s expression, she is singing against the grain of such a lovely voice! I know reviewers tend to be hard on Kozená’s attempts to sing “grown-up” repertoire and how badly she wants to prove that there is a brain under her golden locks – but I am afraid the attempt here ended on being self-defeating.

I understand that a singer would like to infuse her recital with personality in order to imprint her mark on the items recorded and thus ensure that she will be taken in reference for her work (and the competition certainly is hard!), but sheer will has never won over Fach. To translate into general terms, if you had to cast the part of Lady Macbeth or Agrippina in Racine’s Britannicus, would you invite an Audrey Hepburn? Or for that matter, would you invite an Anna Magnani for a Juliet?

Kozená’s new CD opens with an Alcina’s Ah, mio cor. The role of Alcina is written for a prima donna (it is after all, the title role). In our times, the role has been a vehicle for Joan Sutherland, Renée Fleming, Arleen Augér, Anja Harteros, Christine Schäfer. Suffice it to say all these ladies have sung the role of Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Last time Kozená appeared in that opera, she played the part of Zerlina. And that might explain why her basic sound is so polite and small-scale in this aria. There is little space left to tone colouring or variety of dynamics. Abrupt ending of phrases and rolling the r’s will have to make for an attitude. I won’t compare her to Fleming or Harteros, but listen to Augér and you won’t see tiny inserted interpretative points, but the despair, frustration and sadness there from note one (and everybody knows that the first Ah shows if this is going to work or not). Augér’s progressive increase in intensity steady during these 10 minutes only exposes Kozená’s calculated monotony.

Next comes Dejanira’s Where shall I fly?, one of Handel’s most powerful scenes for alto. The scene is extremely dramatic and it is tempting to overdo it. The always immaculate Joyce DiDonato does not survive the test in William Christie’s DVD: the low tessitura does not help her and acting with the voice had to do what the voice could not produce alone. This is not a problem for Sarah Walker in Gardiner’s recording, who lets the text speak for itself and relies on the natural darkness of her voice to produce the necessary impact. Even unaided by Jesús Lopez-Cobos’s pasteurized conducting, Jennifer Larmore reaches tragical grandeur in this scene without sacrificing musical values. Kozená’s svelte mezzo does not evoke in itself the depth of feeling wanted by Handel – her off-pitch and parlando effects only bring about a choir boy’s fit of bad temper. The fact that her English words are rather lifeless makes the proceedings even less spontaneous.

If Where shall I fly? seems to be a bad choice, what to say of Orlando’s Mad Scene, written for none other than Senesino?! To say that one should listen to Nathalie Stutzmann to see how this scene should be sung only explain why Kozená should never touch it – the results are short of embarassing.

The two arias of Ariodante could fit Kozená’s natural range but they both require a heroic quality that eludes entirely her gentle instrumental mezzo soprano. To make things worse, her conductor did not help her. Scherza, infida takes 11′ 39” here. Minkowski goes even further in his recording with Anne Sofie von Otter (11′ 52”), but his soloist “fills out” the slow tempo with her neverending tonal variety and rescues the repeat from boredom with a hushed intimate delivery of the text. Kozená does not command that variety and resorts to expressionistic playing with pitch on trying to produce an intensity not available for her. Here Nicholas McGegan is miles ahead of competition: at 8′ 46” he finds the “heartbeat” pulse that animates this aria, what becomes the shattering performance of Lorraine Hunt. She does not need to “portray” anything – there is unforced despair and revolt in the sound of her voice.

Dopo notte‘s fireworks suit Kozená far better and her amazing skill with coloratura does not let down. Von Otter and Minkowski go deeper into the chiaroscuro suggested by the text, when the singer achieves some expression of joy in her runs. Although the aria is a bit high for Lorraine Hunt, McGegan allows her to relax more and singing her divisions in perfect legato does suggest more lightness. After all, the main idea of this aria is relief after all the predicaments experimented by these characters. Again Jennifer Larmore has rather stolid conducting to deal with, but the flowing ease with which she sings this aria is simply amazing; this is a heroic role and Larmore’s energy and strength are always welcome.

The remaining items are far more pleasant and congenial to Kozená. Sesto’s Cara speme from Giulio Cesare is not an aria d’affetto as its sweet melody might suggest, but Marcon lets himself be fooled by that, offering too dolce an approach to an aria that actually has to do with the satisfaction of justified revenge. But Kozena sings it exquisitely – for once her boyish sound is entirely appropriate to her character. She could have produced a lovely Oh, had I Jubal’s lyre from Joshua, but Marcon mistakes the affetto here and instead of offering any sense of jubilation, produces a rather tense approach that only spurs a certain nervousness in the fioriture of his singer, who is not even allowed to give life to the text, as Kathleen Battle does in her EMI recital. The American soprano even finds an opportunity to show a certain sense of humble gentleness when expressing her frustration for being unable to praise the Lord better. Considering her conductor is the ponderous Neville Marriner, this is no small feat.

It remains the case of Agrippina’s Pensieri, voi mi tormentate and Melissa’s Desterò dell’empia Dite (from Amadigi). Although the voice is again too light and well-behaved for this music, the very calculating approach that makes her Alcina or her Dejanira unconvincing help her to portray the insincerity, the scheming nature of her Agrippina and the hysterical and over-the-top “call to the arms” of her Melissa.

Re-reading this post, I feel that I might give the impression I have some sort of issue with Kozená’s artistry – that is not true. I am an admirer of hers – hence the disappointment not with her artistry, but with her poor decision of choosing arias that only highlight her limitations and almost never show her many natural assets. If she wanted to record soprano arias, why not Dalla sua gabbia d’oro or Un lusinghiero dolce pensiero from Alessandro? Or any other from the arias written for Bordoni? If she wanted some primo uomo arias, why not choosing some of Ruggiero’s arias from Alcina, such as Mi lusinga il dolce affetto or Di te mi rido? Or from Bertarido in Rodelinda? She would have sung an unforgettable Dove sei? ! How come has a major release such as this been prey to such poor judgment?


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I would write something more complicate, but laziness prevents it. While listening to Varviso’s recording of Barbiere di Siviglia, I felt like posting something about the absolute Rossini mezzo soprano, which is Teresa Berganza. Call me obnoxious, but my opinion is that between Berganza and Joyce DiDonato there is nothing really worth the detour.

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Shirley Verrett is obviously a very great singer. I remember the first time I heard her back in the 80’s in a tape of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater which haunts me still today. But I never thought I would hear of something like a recital in which a singer sings both Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate*and Wagner’s Liebestod! And beautifully both of them. I feel tempted to say purists will raise an eyebrow – but that is just a cliché. She produces stylish Mozart and Wagner and still finds room too add her own Verrett-isms which just spice the proceedings. Bravissima!

My browsing through youtube found so many contrasted examples of her artistry – such as audio excerpts of her Amelia (Ballo in Maschera) and video excerpts of her Tosca at the Met (both with Pavarotti).

* Unfortunately, the youtube video of the live Exsultate, jubilate has been deleted. So, as a compensation, I post here a link to a studio performance.

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John Neschling, artistic director of the OSESP, explains he chose to present Elektra in concert version because the combination of Hofmannsthal’s text and Richard Strauss’s music is powerful enough to produce a theatrical experience even out of the context of a staging. On reading these words, one could expect the sort of bombastic performance that follows statements like that, although there is nothing false about saying that. The point is that many a conductor who believes Elektra to be powerful music actually feels it important to help a bit the composer by an extra amount of brutality not exactly prescribed by the score. That was not Neschling’s case. He could find the right balance between rich orchestral sounds and the necessity of accomodating the needs of soloists, what is a key for the sucess of any performance of this work. Those nurtured in Solti’s recording with Birgit Nilsson might want a more incisive approach but Neschling could find optimal vertical clarity and reserved the full powers of his orchestra for the climactic moments. The OSESP was in top form, abounding in crystalline string sounds and offering accurate playing from the brass section.

The OSESP’s Elektra, Susan Bullock, is not exactly a dramatic soprano – she produces big top notes all right and has a large voice, but one sees she has to shift for another gear for the most exposed passages, when her soprano could sound rather colourless and gusty. In these circumstances, her stamina is truly admirable: I could say she ended the opera without any sign of fatigue – already something of a feat. What is beyond doubt is her musical intelligence – she has very clear diction (a rarity in this repertoire), expert word pointing and tone colouring and – when not hard pressed – her voice has a rather feminine and young (although not immediately pleasant) sound. Because of that, the long scene with Orest showed her particularly vulnerable and touching. Although the concert featured only a hint of stage movements, Bullock proved that she needs no costumes and sceneries to produce the complete experience – her dramatic commitment and sheer charisma worked the magic alone.

Silvana Dussman’s bright focused almost instrumental soprano produced the right kind of contrast in the role of Chrysothemis. Although her voice is some five inches below the the required jugendlich dramatisch soprano fach, her gleaming top notes did provide the necessary thrill. A beautiful performance. Jadwiga Rappé’s mezzo soprano similarly was a couple of sizes too small for Klytämnestra – she understands the role and deals with the difficult declamatory passages to the manner born, but both her extreme top and low notes were too modest for the occasion. As usual, Stephen Bronk was an exemplary Orest in his rock-solid Heldenbariton. Ian Storey´s tenor is heartier than we are used to hear in this part, but the angular writing of the part of Ägysth showed him a bit unfocused and uninteresting. Among the minor roles, mezzo soprano Adriana Clis caused a great impression with her sizeable dark mezzo soprano as the First Maid.

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It is a pity that most obituaries focus the fact that Pavarotti should be remembered by his earlier career and that we should kindly overlook what he has done since. What made Pavarotti so likeable what his spontaneity – the radiant naturalness of his tenor, the freshness of his delivery of Italian words in his singing, his emotional sincerity. His artlessness made him so immediately congenial – and his congeniality led him to be pop and maybe carefree, but that has always been in the core of what his charm was. Let’s remember Pavarotti 100% how he was.

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