Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for May, 2020

Half measures

When we say that 18th century Italian theatre was divided into two big categories – serious and comic – one could argue that theatre has always been like that. Even today. Yes, this is true, except for the fact that the limits between the two genres were clearly established in a set of rules and formulae every playwright should follow back in 18th century. Serious matters involved people of superior social standing – ruling aristocrats (or their mythological counterparts) – who would be tested by extreme events until a) everybody died in the end or b) a god would appear in the last second to forgive everyone and remind them to behave. Comedy was more complex – theatre was the entertainment of the powerful and they would not laugh at ladies and gentlemen being made fun of.  The solution was simple. As in real life, there always were servants to perform undesired duties. The backbone of 18th century comedy was the relationship between master and servant. In comedies, one would find parte serie (serious roles) and parte buffe (comic roles). The serious roles generally involved two young people from noble families trying to get married against their parents’ will – and their servants helping them. These young people would always be lovely, innocent, honest and incapable of doing something devious, while their servants would be charming, naughty, cunning and deceitful. In the end, they would be pardoned for all their plotting and scheming because they did it all for their young masters’ sake. Before someone asks me if the young couple would be forgiven for disobeying their parents, of course, they would. The fiancés intended by their parents generally were villains, most of them common people pretending to be aristocrats.

In terms of structure, the DNA of comedy had a glitch – in order to get what they wanted, masters would have to follow the instructions of their servants. Carlo Goldoni was probably the first person to notice that. In his comedies, masters exposed to situations almost as extreme as those in tragedies were even more dependent on increasingly bossy servants. In order to establish this pattern, Goldoni had to blur the borders of genres – and of social boundaries. For instance, in his libretto for Galuppi’s Il Filosofo di Campagna, the housemaid Lesbina calls the cards on her lady, by saying: “If you don’t do as I say, I’ll leave you alone”. Eugenia, the damsel in distress can only answer ,“Please don’t leave – command and I’ll blindly obey”. Goldoni would call these comedies “dramma giocoso”, i.e., “jestful dramas”. Once you start to tear apart categories, it is difficult to stop, and Goldoni soon realized it was difficult to write a libretto (or a play) like a dramma giocoso with characters being either entirely serious or comic. That is when he started to develop characters that were a mix of both worlds – the mezzo carattere parts. Goldoni, however, was clever to realize that the concept was problematic in political terms – a mezzo carattere role would involve, on paper, an aristocrat with flaws found in commoners, and commoners with virtues of the gentry. That is why he solved this puzzle by means of disguise. Mezzo carattere parts originally involved people assuming identities: a servant posing as a mater or a master undercover as a servant. Goldoni was also particularly bright in the way he used language to show the audience that something was wrong with a master using coarse language or a servant with too fine a vocabulary.

Mozart – a man who would never undervalue the importance of theatre – first dealt with the complexities of dramma giocoso in La Finta Giardiniera. Although Goldoni didn’t write the libretto and the unknown librettist did not call it a “dramma giocoso”, the prima donna role, Sandrina, is a Countess disguised as a gardener after having being assaulted by her abusive husband (to make things worse, she is harassed by her new boss). If it is so, why am I saying that it was Mozart’s first experience with the new genre? The rules and formulae for playwrights applied to actors too – those specialized in serious roles spoke in lovely round voices and gestured and moved about in a dignified way, while the buffi (the comedy actors) would speak in an open tone, direct way, grimace and move in a vulgar way in comparison. In opera, this would mean that serious and comedy singers would also SING in a different manner. Serious parts involved long sustained lines in complex arias with a final mood shift when they would dazzle the audience with their bravura (valor – in 18th century represented by coloratura). Buffi would sing short lines, lower in tessitura with lots of staccato, patter in simple, direct arias, more descriptive of the action than of their feelings. This means, opera had an extra advantage on theatre – when the audience first heard Sandrina sing Geme la tortorella with its high tessitura, melancholy affetto and trills, they might have thought that the gardener girl was too ladylike.

When Mozart met Da Ponte, he found a man who had very little regard for conventions and social red tape (no wonder he ended up in the New World). In their three collaborations, both took dramma giacoso to its limits, first by adapting Beaumarchais’s revolutionary play Les Noces de Figaro and then by choosing to work in their only clearly labeled dramma giocoso – Don Giovanni*. In Don Giovanni, we have two serious roles (Donna Anna and Don Ottavio), three buffo roles (Leporello, Zerlina and Masetto) and two mezzo carattere (Donna Elvira and Don Giovanni). The curious thing is that neither Donna Elvira and Don Giovanni are assuming anyone’s identities (well, in the only scene in the opera they’re not fighting, he pretends to be Leporello and she is hidden under a cloak). They are just two aristocrats who indulge in vulgar behavior. That means – although the audience was informed that these people are of high standing, what they see AND HEAR shows that, in their own nature, there is nothing noble about them. And that was a hard agenda to sell those days… And Mozart did his part in it – Don Giovanni sings two buffo arias (if you compare them with Susanna’s Venite, inginochiatevi and Deh vieni in Le Nozze di Figaro, you’ll see the similarities) and Donna Elvira receives the musical treatment for “mentally instable” women – huge intervals, contrasted registers, almost masculine music. There is a particularly brilliant moment in the score – the quartet in act 1, when Elvira understands that she has to prove Donna Anna and Don Ottavio that she is their equal. She tries to sing “like” Donna Anna when she starts Non ti fidar, o misera, Donna Anna buys it and says “Look how dignified she is”. But Don Giovanni knows how to play her and unbalances Donna Elvira, who goes back to her usual singing style from Mentitore, mentitore on. Accordingly, the noble couple comments that there is something fishy going on there. It is fascinating to hear Donna Elvira trying to behave in a patrician way whenever Donna Anna is around – especially in their trio, when Mozart clearly shows who that the really serious lady is – the one with the highest notes and the coloratura.

It used to puzzle me the fact that modern audiences insist to look in Don Giovanni for something different from what Mozart and Da Ponte wrote. Yes, Donna Anna is a bit ambiguous toward Don Ottavio, but she is still “serious”. She is even remarkably honest with him throughout the opera about the ambiguity of her feelings, but directors like to show her as a deceitful two-timing bitch. On the other hand, Donna Elvira, carefully conceived as an unreliable and improper woman (in 18th century terms, of course) is always shown today as a sincere, wronged person. However, It is easy to see why – in real life people behave mezzo carattere rather than 100% serious or 100% funny. But that means that we never hear the role as it should be sung. I plead guilty here too – when I first listened to Della Jones in Arnold Östman’s recording of Don Giovanni, I thought “what is wrong with her?” and then I realized she was singing it as Mozart and Da Ponte intended.

 

* It is possible to find the elements of the dramma giocoso in Così fan tutte, but they are used in such an abstract way there that explaining it here would make this text too long.

Read Full Post »

Intelligent singers

In his 1957 book “Mythologies”, the French semiologist Roland Barthes published a curious essay called “The bourgeois vocal art”, in which he discussed a recently released recording with baritone Gérard Souzay of mélodies by Fauré. He accuses Souzay of “inoculating a parasitic intellectual dimension in the flow of musical structure” and affirms that “there is a sensuous truth in music, sufficient in itself”. Barthes particularly disliked how Souzay would fuss with consonants in a way that he considered exhibitionistic. “When singers underline words giving too much prominence to its phonetic, intending that the guttural consonant of the word creuse sound like the hoe furrowing the soil or the dental consonant in sein like a penetrating sweetness, they are exercising a literality of intention rather than a literality of description”. He would call this “phonetic pointillism” and its effect “intimidation by detail”.

Barthes doesn’t develop much in what regards “vocal art” itself, his point being the bourgeoisie appreciates art in which the paying audience could easily confirm that the artist was worth the money spent on him or her by an evident display of hard work. When I first read the text, I couldn’t help thinking of old-school reviewers like André Tubeuf or Alan Blyth dividing the world of Lieder and opera between “singers who think” and “singers who sing”. I remember conversations with friends who had seen all the great artists of the century in concert. One of them would say that only people who don’t speak German would listen to Gundula Janowitz or Hermann Prey in Schubert rather than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. As I could never listen to Schwarzkopf’s Schubert without grimacing at its absolute lack of sincerity and caricatural underlining of every syllable, I  timidly reminded him that both Janowitz and Prey were themselves German.

The controversy does not limit to German Lieder. You can find it in many guises: Callas vs. Tebaldi, Callas vs. Sutherland, Scotto vs. Freni, I myself have written something about this here, when I said that reviewers rarely praise what is obviously excellent. If one is to believe that excellence is so obvious, why reading reviews? At the time, a friend asked me what I meant by a vocal intelligence that eschewed any patina of literary insight. I told him that it was closer to the intelligence found in a soccer player who can in two seconds find his way to the ball and choose the right leg, the right amount of energy for his kick and score a goal rather than that of a professor of Philosophy dazzling his students with his ability to refer to an encyclopedic amount of reading.

Singing does require thought, but it is a different kind of thought – it involves physical ability and how you would use it to achieve a pre-established goal. So, yes, in a first moment, singers have to know WHAT they want to do with every phrase in a particular piece. And then they have to know HOW they will accomplish that. An experienced singer would be able to do this almost automatically if he or she is used to the repertoire. So, someone who has sung the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro would know how Fiordiligi should sound, but even then the part of Fiordiligi has its own particular challenges that our hypothetical soprano would have to meet when learning it. All that requires lots of micro-decisions – when to breath, how deep breathing should be, how much weight one should use on every note inside that phrase, how strongly should one support the tone, if it is worth to let go a bit and resupport afterwards, if one should sing that note open, covered or slightly covered. There is no right answer – it all depends of the voice, the phrase, the technical ability. Hiring a coach could help, but the coach does not sing for the singer. In the end, it is he or she who will make it happen and it is up for him or her to decide. What I mean is: a phrase sung with absolute naturalness is not a product of nature – it involves the singer’s agency to make it sound that way. Therefore, when a singer feels that his hard work should be more evident by showing his audience how clever they are by what Barthes calls “pointillism”, this has nothing to do with him being intelligent or stupid, but rather by his intent of drawing attention to him or herself (“rather than to the music”, some would say). Does that mean that “natural” phrasing is superior to “pointed phrasing”? I don’t think so – both can be effective, depending on the circumstances, but I would personally say that it is healthy to have naturalness as a starting point.

For instance, Kiri Te Kanawa is nobody’s example of profoundness or power of insight. Yet her extremely high level of “right decisions” in terms of phrasing made her Mozart almost exemplary in its spontaneous musicianship. I remember I once used her recording with Colin Davis of Mozart’s Laudate dominum from Vesperae solennes de confessore of an example of vocal intelligence. For instance, around 1’12’’ the appoggiatura in LauDAa sounds almost pop-like in its tiny portamento and leanness of sound. It makes her singing sound “honest” and related to her own inner musicality rather than to the obligation to classical style. Or in 2’05’’, the way she lands on misericordiA. After the long notes on SUper and NOS, which she lets both spin and gain overtones, she fines it down to this very light and slim “cordiA”. It only makes sense because she has built it up just to lighten afterwards. If she had kept it always lean (like a period-style singer), it would have had no sense of development and that particular note would be just one more note.

It is curious that the name of Te Kanawa has been often used to explain what is wrong with Renée Fleming in Mozart and Richard Strauss. In the eyes of Barthes, Fleming would be the über-bourgeois singer in her intent of showing her audience that she really “got it” by highlighting every decision in terms of interpretation. While I would rather go for Te Kanawa, I have been acquiring a secondary taste for Fleming’s in-charge approach now and then. When I listened to the broadcast of her Imogene in Bellini’s Il Pirata from a concert in Paris, at first, I grimaced (as I do with Schwarzkopf’s Schubert) at every heavy-handed point she was making – “see, I noticed she is not being sincere here, that is why I am singing it off-pitch, do you get it?” – but after a while, I couldn’t help noticing she really bothered to understand who is Imogene, what she was feeling and what she wanted. And, yes, even a deaf person would notice what she meant. Would I have liked it more if she had found all that within notes and words rather than adding her own “reading” upon them? Maybe, but again – we have seen Fleming in interviews and as a public persona. Would naturalness translate her personal truth?

Read Full Post »

We often hear people saying that it is a pity Bach never composed an opera. I have to say that, although it would be thrilling to hear anything composed by Bach, that item has never been on my wish list. And this is not because I dislike Bach. On the contrary, there have been years of my life when I would only listen to  Bach. It has just never felt like there was something missing there. As much as I wouldn’t wish to hear a piano sonata composed by Verdi.

Many like to say that BWV 211, Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (The Coffee Cantata) is the closest to an opera ever written by Bach, because, yes, there are characters, although I wouldn’t say that they are really involved in a dramatic situation: the girl has to have coffee and, as fun as a husband might be, he would never replace… coffee. We must be honest, even Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes has more of a plot (and, well, it has next to none). Anyway, the Coffee Cantata, charming as it is, never made me feel that Bach was sharing any insight about human nature as he does in many religious cantatas. For that matter, I have always found a bit puzzling how sensuous Bach’s duets for Christ and the Christian soul are. Actually, they are undeniably sexier than any duet ever written by Handel in his operas – and I write this as someone who really enjoys Handel’s operas.

For instance, BWV 140, Wachet auf, so ruft uns die Stimme has two such duets – the soprano (as usual) is the Christian soul (here materialized in the wise virgins who saved oil to light up their lamps and respond to the call of the bridegroom) and the bass is Christ (i.e., the bridegroom). This is a cantata with lots of mathematical parallels – and both duets, nos. 3 and 6 are separated by the two central numbers, a choral and a recitative. The first duet Wann kömmst du, mein Heil? is unanimously considered “romantic” (not in the sense of Romanticism, but in its sensuous atmosphere) with its Nachtmusik violino piccolo obligato in flickering arabesques around singers’ voices (John Eliot Gardiner sees in it the oil sparkling in the lamp). The text alone, in modern German or English, would cause some eyes to roll – Are you coming? –Yes, I’m coming/with my oil burning. While we will keep this strictly within the limits of XVIIIth century dictionary definitions, I wonder if the congregation in Leipzig heard anything other than a girl and a guy meeting in a nightly atmosphere. A friend used to say that we have to understand that Bach’s target audience was the opposite of an erudite group of people. So it was important to produce powerful, simple images so that they got the meaning right. The spiritual bond is something difficult to picture, but understanding the carnal bond requires absolutely no education. So here it is: everybody would have understood that the union of the faithful soul with Christian is really something you would want for yourself. The second duet, Mein Freund ist mein, whose text goes around My friend is mine/And I am yours/Nothing will separate us, with the oboe obligato, is dance-like with intertwining coloratura. We would joke about them, calling no. 3 the part when you’re invited up to “listen to music” and no.6 the moment when you light the cigarette afterwards. But I guess Bach meant no. 6 as the moment when the bond is made official, i.e., wedding, if you compare it with fourth aria in BWV 202, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (the Wedding Cantata), Sich üben im Lieben, which also has dance rhythm and oboe obligato and warns you: a lifetime of love is better than the unlasting pleasures of spring.

Actually, my favorite “romantic” Bach duet comes from my very favorite cantata, BWV 172, Erschallet, ihr Lieder: Komm, lass mich nicht länger warten. It could give Tristan und Isolde’s O sink hernieder a run for its money in its increasing harmonic tension. The faithful soul (soprano) here cannot wait to be united with the holy spirit (alto) – her line is always ascending, broken by trills, while the ever reassuring holy spirit has very regular lines and promises to appease her and promises a kiss of grace. The musical climax involves the soprano saying “komm herein” (I won’t translate that one) and the alto responding, “I am yours and you are mine”. Reading the booklet of my preferred recording (Gardiner’s with a marvellous Martina Janková), I find the words “physical comfort of the beloved”. Again, with this kind of imagery, the congregation could have no doubt about the joys of faith. If it definitely sounds more intimate and profound than Cleopatra and Julius Cesar’s Caro/Bella in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, one may argue that these two don’t need to sing about what they were doing since act 1.

In any case, if you ask me which is Bach’s most powerful romantic duet, well, it would be one without voices, the famous Largo from the Double Violin Concerto BWV 1043. I don’t think that any opera duet comes close. Last time I said that, someone asked me “how do you know it is about love?” I said, “Look at the comments on any YouTube video – everybody speaks about love when they listen to that one!” Nikolaus Harnoncourt said, “Romantic music paints, baroque music speaks”. And Bach, whose readings of Rhetoric were extensive, could put across his point more effectively than any other composer. So here goes my “libretto” for these violins:

The largo in BWV 1043 has the same structure of what is called “perfect love”. Violin 1 never refuses anything violin 2 offers, but rather develops it, makes it something higher (in tessitura too, at least at the beginning). The first motive in violin 2 actually is a question in its descending intervals. As violin 1 validates the question from violin 2, it often plays a second undulating theme – it embraces violin 2 when violin 1 says “yes” to it. These interchanges always end in a phrase that both play unison. Once they have acknowledged and confirmed each other they become one. The next episodes repeat the same structure, but one violin proposes things increasingly complex in terms of harmony. There is no problem – the other violin can always respond. The fact that more complex questions makes answers even more complex never prevents both violins to end each episode in perfect unison. The movement ends almost abruptly (again both violins together), as Bach incessantly kept on exposing these violins to more challenging environments, as in a spiral that could go on forever.

That structure, of course, could exemplify many different things, but the tempo di siciliano (with its short steop-long step dynamic), the slow pace, the harmony, the choice of instruments associated to romance and night, no wonder everybody thinks of the same thing when they listen to it!

 

Read Full Post »

Voices of the mind

Adolphe Nourrit sang at the Paris Opera between 1821 and 1836 and became a favorite of Rossini, who invited him to première the roles of Néocle in Le Siège de Corinthe, Aménophis in the revision of Moïse et Pharaon, the title role in Le Comte Ory and Arnold in Guillaume Tell. He was also chosen for the leading tenor roles at the premières of Auber’s La Muette de Portici, Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, Halévy’s La Juive, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and operas by Stradella, Mercadante and Carafa. He was considered a very good actor and dancer and his musical taste was refined – he is said to be the first important singer to perform Schubert Lieder in France. He was also a professor of lyric declamation in the Paris Conservatoire. His fame ran throughout the whole Europe. But that’s not the interesting part of his biography – this is only act 1. His problems began when he first heard Gilbert Duprez.

Differently from Nourrit, who was successful since the day he was born, Duprez did not really make it in Paris and went to Italy, where, confronted with the difficulties involved in singing the role of Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, he realized it was easier for him to hit his high notes not in voix mixte (as Nourrit used to do) but in chest voice. The famous do di petto changed the history of opera and, when he showed them to Parisian audiences, everybody (but Rossini) would not want to hear anything else. But the problem remained that Nourrit was still the leading tenor in the Opéra. It must have been a bitter feeling for him when he understood that he was not on the very top of things for the first time in his life. But he wouldn’t leave it like that and he decided that, if someone else could sing high notes in chest voice, so could he.

I had a teacher who always said “once the technique is settled in a voice, it is almost impossible to change it”. As Nourrit made very little progress in his attempt to reform his technique , he was almost convinced that this was true, but then Donizetti – who gave Duprez the leading roles in the première of Lucia di Lammermoor among other operas – affirmed that he could help him in this vocal transition. The Frenchman never looked back – he left his wife in Paris and moved to Naples to study under Donizetti. I don’t know how obvious it was at the time that the Italian composer suffered from mental problems, but his influence on Nourrit was everything but positive. He never learned the technique of covering his high notes and increasingly lost the ability of singing the way he used to do, what caused his voice to deteriorate really fast. It seems his wife could hear him then and was shocked to see what have been done of her her husband’s tenor. When Nourrit finally realized that there would be no way back, he jumped to his death from his hotel room in Naples.

This is the most tragic story of a singer wanting to do something outside his possibilities, but it is curious that – in less calamitous versions, it has repeated itself with many successful versions. In her biography, Christa Ludwig recalls how her mother – a mezzo soprano – lost her voice singing the soprano role of Fidelio for Herbert von Karajan. A role she herself would insist on singing, even if it proved to rob her peace of mind. When Karajan offered her an Isolde, she finally refused – but the soprano roles finally took their toll in a vocal crisis in the early 70’s. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending – Ludwig would delight international audiences for two decades after that in roles in keeping with her natural range. But it is curious how the ambition to sing roles unsuited to one’s voice – with a very high price to pay, i.e., one’s own vocal health – is often enshrouded in a psychological process. I remember reading an interview for Diapason with French tenor Yann Beuron, in which the reporter asked him why he did not try the big roles in the repertoire that would bring him international fame. It’s been a while and I might be misquoting his very interesting answer, which was something like – I was well loved in my childhood and don’t feel the need to sacrifice my voice to get attention from the audience.

However, the psychological process involved in the marvellous French word contre-emplois (i.e., the fact of casting a singer in a part not meant for his or her voice – or an actor in a role not meant for his physique) is a two-way street. The most ardent fans will rarely think twice with the possibility of hearing their favorite singers in all kinds of roles, especially those that could harm their voices and shorten their careers. It is particularly curious how they would defend them in their contre-emplois with even more passion. It is almost as if there finally came the moment when the admirer could actually do something for the one he or she admires: defend him. When I write this, it seems that I am immune to this disease that plague all those who like opera. Well, not entirely. One of my guilty pleasures is hearing singers in roles they maybe should not sing. For instance, I want to hear Gundula Janowitz sing anything. If someone told me – you know, there is a recording of Verdi’s Aida with Janowitz as Aida, my mind would cringe, but my heart would be set on finding it. I can picture myself saying “well, I know, it’s not for her, but the closing scene is the most heavenly ever recorded”. The other day, I was talking to a friend about that priceless disc in which Christa Ludwig sings scenes from Elektra and Götterdämmerung and, in the end, we agreed “I know it would have been tough for her, but I would have loved to hear that Isolde Karajan asked her to sing!” One of the best opera performances in my life was one Walküre in which René Pape sang Wotan. On my way to the theatre, I was wondering of how challenging it should be to deal with a difficult role in the limit of his possibilities. Although one could feel that he was giving his 100%, he sang beautifully. In the end of the opera, those who were not crying should have looked for a cardiologist to see what they had instead of a heart in their chests. The next year, when he repeated the role, things did not go so smoothly, but I and the rest of the audience could not resist the idea that he was putting himself in such a difficult position for our sakes rather than out of love of Wagner (or Daniel Barenboim’s bullying, who knows). When he appeared for his curtain call, he was showered in admiration by everybody in the hall, but his facial expression was something like “no, guys, thanks, but that’s not up to my standards”. I felt relieved for him when I saw that. There are so many stories of singers who suddenly realize that the whole thing is not fun anymore – and the joy in their singing is gone forever.

Read Full Post »

A couple of years ago, in a conversation about history of opera, a woman in the auditorium was so shocked when I referred to the Liebestod in Tristan und Isolde and the Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung as “mad scenes” that she immediately protested. She explained that neither Isolde nor Brünnhilde are lunatics and I could not refer to their solos with the terminology reserved to damsels in distress in bel canto operas. I observed that “mad scenes” are as old as the genre opera itself and that Wagner’s music is not isolated from the context of Romantic opera. But at this point, she decided I was talking nonsense and that was it.

At the time, I didn’t mention the influence of Bellini in the young Wagner. As much as that Wagnerian lady, one tends to dismiss the connection because, honestly speaking, how a composer whose writing for the orchestra is so shallow could be an influence on the most “symphonic” of opera composers? Yes, Bellini is first and foremost remembered as a melodic composer whose long melancholic lines were an inspiration for Chopin. But, also, Bellini was a master in accompanied recitatives. Actually, this was the first thing that called my attention when I first listened to Norma – the long scenes with melodic cells and an almost strict adherence to the text. It is said that Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot was composed with Bellini’s Il Pirata in mind. The German composer indeed tried to produce an orchestration for an aria of Bellini’s Il Pirata as a request from his brother Albert, a tenor, who only had a vocal score and wanted to insert it in Bellini’s La Straniera, which he was about to perform. Bellini himself was influenced by Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and its famous mad scene when he wrote Il Pirata, whose own mad scene is no less famous.

The depiction of madness in opera is a favorite subject, and the reason is very simple. While insane behavior is considered unpredictable, mad scenes are bound by rules far stricter than those of Psychology. Again, no surprise here – in their mad scenes, composers want to show that the character in the story is mad, and not that they themselves had lost their minds. Therefore, there is no inbuilt insanity in the music itself, but rather formulae that help the audience to understand what is going on with the character (there were stock gestures, disheveled wigs, blurred make-up and unfit costumes too). The keyword for the depiction of madness in baroque opera was irregularity – the A-B-A structure would be abandoned in favor or a rhapsodic structure of unrelated and contrasted musical ideas to show the wondering of the crazy character’s minds. That is what one hears in the most famous of baroque opera mad scenes – the one in Handel’s Orlando. Bel canto composers would take things a step ahead – Donizetti (a composer who curiously ended his life in a mental institution) developed the formula to its perfection in Lucia’s Il dolce suono. There we have all the elements masterly used: a) in terms of drama, we have a character oppressed by the severity and adversity of circumstances “staging” the outcome of his predicaments she (rarely he) hoped for; b) there are voices only the character can understand, the audience only hears them as an obligato instrument (in the case of Lucia, the glass harmonic later replaced by the flute); c) there is some sort of vocal difficulty involved, generally exposing contrasting registers in the voice; and, most important of all, d) there are references to other numbers in the opera, generally those in which the character was happy or at least hoped that things would end up well.

I would say that “d” must have been particularly interesting to Wagner. Up to this point, operas were rather a large case containing a group of isolated structures generally bound by harmonic evolution at most. Mozart sometimes would use a musical figure to illustrate something – such as the chromatic upward and downward lines depicting Don Giovanni’s “criminal intent”. In Donizetti’s mad scenes – be it the one in Lucia or that in Anna Bolena – we have a little bit more than that: we have a number that relates to other numbers in the score. Of course, some overtures of bel canto operas already summarized the thematic material of the work (as in Bellini’s Norma), but the way Bellini did in works such as Il Pirata and most especially La Sonnambula is particularly interesting – in the end of the opera, it organizes somehow what we heard before and show it under a DRAMATICALLY different light. The moment Wagner thought – what if I showed it under a MUSICALLY different light – he invented the Leitmotiv. That is why the closing scenes both in Tristan and Isolde and Götterdämmerung are so powerful – they are like that scene in Agatha Christie’s books when Hercule Poirot tells you “When Mme. X did this, she was actually doing that” – those scenes wrap the whole work up for the audience, not as a summary but as a conclusion, due to the development of music material. It is curious that, in both cases, he was faithful to some of the canons of bel canto mad scene structure – both Brünnhilde and Isolde had lost their beloved ones and they fantasize that they are alive somehow. Yes, my Wagnerian member of the audience is right – they are not mad here. They have achieved a superior level of understanding. So, as much as a mad person, they can’t make sense anymore to the rest of us. They have seen the “greater all”.

But I would like to speak a little bit more of Mozart before I finish. Yes, it is a cliché the idea that we haven’t seen Mozart’s full potential because he died too early – and I agree with that and my exhibit one is La Clemenza di Tito. It is no coincidence that Mozart’s last works were so wide-ranging in its revaluation of musical tradition, but Tito is very particular, for here he really dug dip into old forms to find really original ideas. In my opinion, La Clemenza di Tito has one of the most fascinating mad scenes in opera, which is Vitellia’s Non più di fiori. This is pre-bel canto mad scene, of course – so we don’t have references to other numbers in the score. What we have here instead is a particularly psychologically complex situation. Vitellia is a femme fatale and an aristocrat without scruples who pictures herself as the empress of Rome and will do everything she has to do to climb the steps to the throne. At least, that is what she is supposed to be. During the opera, however, she increasingly discovers, to her own dismay, she is not that person. She has acted out her fantasy of power and, in the last second, she wasn’t defeated by fate – as Lucia or Anna Bolena – she was just defeated by herself. And that is the moment when her mind wonders – all her values shattered, lost in a multitude of unknown feelings – that woman who has almost caused a revolution fantasizes only of being passive. In that lullaby-like melody, she is the absolute victim, all future generations pointing at her. She even gets her obligato instrument – the basset horn. I like to think that the “voice” in this basset horn is the voice of an idealized Vitellia, as much as the basset clarinet in Parto, ma tu ben mio would be Sesto’s idealized “vision” of Vitellia. Somehow, he sees who she really is behind the wall of tantrums and revenge plans.

 

 

Read Full Post »