Archive for July, 2020

Unwritten notes

People who don’t listen to “classical” music like to say that “classical” musicians are just following instructions, while in popular music the performer is adding his own layer of creation when he plays or sings what they call a “cover” of a preexisting song. When I hear this, I often try to explain that a score does not say everything and there are a lot of blanks to be filled by musicians. But they are rarely convinced. That is the moment I speak of baroque music and ornamentation. To be honest, I don’t find that singers of baroque music are more creative than those specialized in Verdi or Wagner. In my opinion, the experience of leaving singers devise their own ornaments works better on paper. What usually happens is that every singer tends to be fond of what they do best. Those with outstanding trills will trill at every five seconds; those who have beautiful mezza voce will rewrite everything to add floated pianissimi even in arie di bravura etc. That is why prudent conductors would write their own ornaments for the whole cast and make sure that everybody is in the same page in terms of style and expression. Some singers are so fond of ornamentation that one cannot help recalling the famous anecdote with Rossini listening to a soprano sing a highly decorated Una voce poco fa and commenting, “beautiful aria, who’s the composer?”.

The name of Rossini was not mentioned by accident. Bel canto is probably the style in which the audience more eagerly expects singers to be adventurous with what they bring to the score. I have to confess that – nonsensical as it sounds – I just want everybody to sing Donizetti’s Com’è bello from Lucrezia Borgia exactly like Montserrat Caballé. I know some of these notes are hers and not Donizetti’s, but they just feel right. Let’s not forget the cadenza with flute probably written by Mathilde Marchesi in the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor for her student Nelly Melba. Anyone who hears the opera for the first time will mention the cadenza in their recollection of the performance. The remarkable feat of the cadenza is that it more than fits the scene; it makes it an experience as extraordinary as the events onstage. At this point, Lucia is lost in her own world. And the flute (originally the glass harmonica) materializes for the audience the “dolce suono” of Edgardo’s voice. When she engages in wordless conversation with the flute, it seems we no longer understand her. She and the imaginary Edgardo are alone there. And the fact that her voice gradually sounds more and more like an instrument than a human voice makes the point extremely clear to the audience. This is a compelling musical description of mental delusion. It is also an example of the thesis that the creation of a work of art has little to do with what it is in itself. Conceived as a technical exhibition, these pages are musically and dramatically more effective than, for instance, Lucia’s beautiful entrance aria, in which the sighting of a ghost is depicted by a sequence of trills and clichéd harmony. So, yes, I feel cheated when the cadenza is not performed.

Romantic composers open a new chapter in this discussion. The amount of freedom for singers is restricted in comparison, but Verdi operas require some consideration. There is an interview with Eva Marton in which she says she might shock some people, but the truth is that Verdi did not really understand voices. Marton is hardly a model of Verdian singing, but I do get what she meant. I wouldn’t say he did not understand voices, but his writing can be extremely awkward at moments. For instance, the cadenza in Arrigo, ah, parli a un core from I Vespri Siciliani. It is so absurd, not to say downright weird that he even wrote an ossia. Sometimes, when one plays the vocal part in the piano and then listen to a singer perform the same passage in, say, La Traviata, one would have the impression that the singer – even the best ones – are rather approximate about the notes on the score. Verdi once said that he wrote a pppp marking for the tenor to make him sing at least a piano. That makes me think that some of the extreme passages were meant rather as a hint than as a blueprint. So, yes, if you had a computer program transcribing the notes sung  by the soprano in the role of Violetta Valery, it would be something not quite like the Ricordi edition. But that’s ok – I guess that’s exactly what Verdi expected, as much as Chopin when he wrote 17 or more notes for one beat – you just have to make it happen. Somehow.

But that takes us to interpolated notes. Riccardo Muti was often abused in message boards and online chats (and even by reviewers) because he would “straitjacket” his singers and prevent them from singing those exciting big high notes not written on the score. For instance, the high c in the end of Di quella Pira. As much as anyone else, I find it exciting when Franco Corelli or Franco Bonisolli would blast a megapowerful and neverending high c there. I am sure Verdi would agree with me. But the fact is – they were able to do that. What one usually hears live in the theater, however, is quite different: the aria is transposed down one whole tone (making the sound picture less bright to start with) in order to help the tenor sing one note that – again – was never written by the composer. More than that: the tenor usually doesn’t sing the bars before that to save steam for the gran finale, and the audience is left alone with a very dull chorus. One very exciting Verdian trick is having a big voice soar above the chorus in moments like that. You know, there is the full orchestra, the whole chorus but you still get the soprano or the tenor above all that. But instead, what you get is is this emptiness. Everybody waiting for the tenor to hold to dear life in a high b flat that, for some reason, never really is the best high b flat in the world.

It is curious how some unwritten notes become part of the work. For instance, the glissando in Brünnhilde’s ho-jo-to-ho’s in Wagner’s Die Walküre. As written, there is only a slur above the lower and the upper notes in the interval. That means that Wagner intended that you heard the second note as an echo of the first one: ho-jo-to-HOo. Easier said than done: those are octave leaps to high b and high c. I would bet that the first soprano who did the glissando was just looking for a way to sing the higher note without hitting it to hard (because of the echo effect) and a discrete portamento (as a Verdi soprano would do in a moment like that) is a good method. The portamento soon became a glissando (it offers the extra advantage of shortening the time you actually stay on the high note). A friend would say that only Birgit Nilsson does it right. Well, she blasts ear-splitting high b’s and high c’s there. So, exciting as it is, not exactly what the slur seems to suggest. Many little unwritten notes or altered phrasing are actually like cards in sleeve passed down from generation to generation. A young singer is racking his brain (and vocal cords) while trying to get around an impossible passage – when his voice teacher or coach gives him or her that look before the explanation that “nobody sings that as written”.  One example: the final page of Ferrando’s Ah, lo vegg’io from Mozart’s Così fan tutte. The composer expected tenors to have an unending supply of breath to deal with those serpentine phrases with all those high b’s in the end. As written, there is no Luftpause in “la crudel mi condanna a morir“, because you have one note for the last “a” in “condanna” and for the preposition “a”. So it is written a bit longer to accommodate both vowels ( -nnaA). You’ll never hear it like that. Every tenor sings: “la crudel mi condanna: morir!”, because that way you can find AIR to sing the high note. Phenomena like that explain lots of missing words like “e” or the inclusions of “ah” or “sì”. When asked on tweeter why she made an unwritten pause in a phrase of Turandot, Anna Netrebko answered “I just need to f**** breathe there”.

(it might be continued next week)

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Questa o quella?

“So Dorabella (or Cherubino) is the mezzo role?” That’s a question often repeated when one sees Così fan tutte or Le Nozze di Figaro for the first time. As a matter of fact, Mozart never wrote any part for a mezzo-soprano, for he never knew this terminology. In Mozart’s days, there were four voice “types”: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Therefore, all female roles in Così Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro are actually soprano roles. The first Dorabella, Louise Villeneuve, is the singer to whom Mozart wrote the concert arias Alma grande e nobil core k. 578, Chi sa, chi sa qual sia k. 582 and Vado, ma dove k. 583. It seems that she was also the Cherubino in the famous 1789 revival of Le Nozze di Figaro in Vienna with Caterina Cavalieri (the first Konstanze) as the Countess and Adriana Ferrarese del Bene (the first Fiordiligi) as Susanna. The first Cherubino – Dorotea Bussani – happened to be the first Despina too. As you see, although all these ladies were called sopranos, one can see that their roles were quite different. For instance, Cavalieri handled high tessitura in a way neither Bussani or Villeneuve would never even try. In fact, as I have written here, sopranos in mezzo carattere and buffo roles were expected to sing parts lower in tessitura than the prime donne in fully serious roles. I have been touching on the subject of mezzo carattere in Così fan tutte (a thorny matter, since Fiordiligi and Dorabella are sisters and Ferrando and Guglielmo have the same standing as officers in the army) without really explaining it – but let’s assume that Dorabella is a mezzo carattere role, as much as Cherubino (or Donna Elvira).

Of course, the human species have not suffered an evolution in anatomy and physiology between the 18th and the 19th centuries. Singers with the natural range of what is called today a “mezzo soprano” already existed – as it seems to be the case of Louise Villeneuve, for instance (the three Mozart concert arias rarely reach a high a). Those days, a singer like her would have to either force a bit their high notes to sing soprano roles or force their low range into contralto roles (we can’t forget that there was a long series of roles en travesti during the baroque that required singers in that category). Historians consider that Rossini is the responsible for open the way to mezzo-soprano roles; he even wrote operas in which the mezzo soprano would be considered the “prima donna role”. Rossini’s Parisian connections established a craze for the mezzo soprano voice in the French metropolis. As a result, by 1850 music conservatories in Italy and in France had already developed specific training and even written methods for the development of the mezzo soprano voice. Romantic mezzo roles are seen today as central to the repertoire, and Verdi is responsible for the establishment of what we call today “a dramatic mezzo soprano” – roles that verge on the unsingable, considering their needs of very powerful high and low notes. At this point, one would feel that the issue had been dealt with – and yet we have the problem of German roles. The word “mezzo” took a little longer to be adopted in German-speaking countries. The term “alto” would be used to mezzos until the 20th century – and when we look on the scores of works by Richard Wagner we discover that roles like Brangäne, Ortrud and Venus are described as “soprano” roles. Richard Strauss too would use the word “soprano” for roles like Octavian and the Composer (in Ariadne auf Naxos).

It is rare to find sopranos in mezzo roles in Italian opera (I can remember Ghena Dimitrova as Amneris in Lorin Maazel’s recording and Margaret Price as a last-minute replacement for the alto part in a broadcast of Verdi’s Requiem conduced by Claudio Abbado ( if we don’t speak of sopranos as Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Sevilia with the many adaptations involved in the process). On the other hand, mezzos in soprano roles is a classic subject of discussion. The expression “ambitious mezzo” could be used for almost every leading Verdian mezzo – haven’t we heard it used for Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry and Violeta Urmana? One could rightly point out that these three singers finally tried a second career as sopranos: all three sang, for instance, the title role in Bellini’s Norma. Actually, the three ladies claimed in interviews that they were never sure if they really were mezzo sopranos in the first place. This is no diva talk – many young voice students face that dilemma. I remember a woman who showed up in voice lessons saying that she had technical problems because she was a soprano and couldn’t sing above a high g. The teacher made her vocalize and said “maybe you’re a mezzo”. She was horrified. After six months she could sing a high b, but the teacher repeated “yes, but this is mezzo soprano high b – don’t even think of going back to soprano stuff”. In her case, the tonal color screamed “mezzo”. I called her “the new Christa Ludwig” (the voice had a very similar sound), but this teacher repeated, “color means nothing – there are dark-toned sopranos and clear-toned mezzos”. According to him, the voice’s “behaviour throughout the range” would tell you the right voice category. This teacher himself had an ambiguous career as a baritone and a tenor. He once sang for me a whole scene of Verdi’s Otello, “using baritone voice” for Iago and “tenor voice” for the title role. “You just have to know where the tenor passaggio and the baritone passaggio are”, he would say with a triumphant smile. It is not that simple, of course. If that were true, all mezzo incursions in Soprano-land would be successful. Frederica Von Stade, in an interview, gave the most sensible explanation for the problem. Asked why she wouldn’t sing the role of Donna Elvira, she answered that she had tried and, although she could, it was basically exhausting. And that’s it. Voices have a natural “core range”. When you sing too often outside it, this requires effort and the whole process can be more athletic than artistic. Why is it then that so many mezzos are willing to sweat that much in soprano roles? “No pain, no gain”, I mean “financial gain”. There are more leading soprano roles in the repertoire – and one has bills to pay.

It is curious that most women would find mezzo roles more interesting dramatically speaking – they generally involve sexy, dangerous women or motherly types in impossible predicaments. I once heard a singer saying, “I have a college education, husband, kids – I’m tired of playing virginal dimwits.” It seems you can’t have everything… Back to German roles, it is curious that Wagner’s and Strauss’s “lower” soprano roles are now off-limits to sopranos. In the case of Wagner, this seems quite right. These parts gain a lot with the mezzo voice – Ortrud sounds more authoritative and edgier in the right way, Venus sounds sexier and more imperious and Brangäne acquires a motherly, warmer sound. And Wagner always has long declamatory stretches in the middle register, what is always a good place for a mezzo. I am not so sure about Strauss. Yes, it is good to have some contrast with the Marschallin or the Ariadne, but what one usually hears is a singer battling with the tessitura – especially in Ariadne auf Naxos. When the composer tells the music is a holy art, the last thing one hears in a mezzo voice is a feeling of “benediction”. On the contrary, one witnesses a singer holding to dear life in lines that require the soaring quality one hears in the soprano voice in passages like that. With the role of Octavian, there are really not moments so extreme, but one misses some nuance there. A lighter mezzo – like Anne Sofie von Otter – delivers high mezza voce as easily as a soprano, but there is a big orchestra there and less piercing quality in a basically more velvety voice too.



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I often read in interviews how singers work hard to produce idiomatic French or German when those are not their first language. Even when they don’t actually learn to speak them, they explain how they got the difference between “in”, “en”, “an” and “on” etc. I don’t remember an interview with any singer in which he or she explains his or her hard work to master the Italian language to native-speaker perfection. First I used to think that this is so obvious that you don’t even need to say that. But then I realized how often the language of Dante receives the cavalier treatment in operatic stages. We hear Susanna being called as if the “s” had the same sound in the first and the second syllable, Don Ottavio pronounced with the same “d” and “t” you hear in David and Thomas… Singing “Classical” music involves mastery of foreign languages and, of course, nobody expects a foreign person to be as idiomatic as a native speaker – but there is more in it than just than diligence or sense of duty. If you don’t really speak Italian, you won’t get the MUSIC right. And, yes, we’re speaking here of the carnal relationship between recitatives and Italian music.

Singing is part of every culture in the world – but opera has a birthplace, which is Italy. Its original concept involved trying to reproduce classical theatre and the first composers of opera did not really understood the genre as “beautiful songs with linking boring sung dialogues”, but rather that different types of recitative and song (and variations in between) would take turns according to the needs of the drama. Probably because the accompaniment in “song” is a bit more complex, composers tend to be a little bit stricter with note values there, but elsewhere they expected singers to use their own judgment to get a “recited” part rightly, since this was the core element of their interpretation. The fine-tuning required from singers in early baroque opera soon became something less complex when the structure increasingly turned around the tandem recitative/aria. But it never disappeared entirely in Italian opera. I remember a teacher one saying “in a recitative, the composer is always telling you when you’re supposed to be following speech pattern and when you’re supposed to really dwell in the notes”. And he used as example the recitative to Susanna’s Deh vieni, non tardar . Let’s use italics for the “spoken” moments and bold for the “sung” ones: “Giunse alfin il momento che godrò senza affano in braccio all’idol mio! Timide cure, uscite dal mio petto, A turbar non venite il mio diletto! Oh, come par che all’amoroso foco l’amenità del loco la terra e il ciel risponda! Come la notte i furti miei seconda!” I often hear sopranos sing this in arioso style, relishing every note, because it is Mozart and it is lovely and you wouldn’t want to rush it. But this teacher’s scenario is particularly effective in dramatic terms. In this scene, Susanna is speaking for the benefit of Figaro. She and the Countess are putting on a scene, in which the Countess disguised as Susanna will “betray” Figaro, and Susanna is upset that he actually believed she would do something like that. So she is using a “theatre voice”  in lines like “Oh, I’m so going to cheat my husband today!”, but it is such a beautiful evening that, when she thinks of Figaro she cannot resist the tender feelings she has for him. She uses the “spoken” style for him to get every word she says, but when she is expressing her real affection, she uses the “song” style. And that aria is so special because she is lying and telling the truth at the same time. I have just checked how Mirella Freni does it – it is almost exactly as described above. Being Italian herself, she knew how it should be done! And she didn’t need to think a lot about that; “acting” in Italian is “recitare” and, if you go to the theatre in Italy, you’ll be amazed how much attention is given to the way actors SPEAK their lines. It is an art almost unknown in other Western countries – with your eyes closed, you know who is the damsel in the distress, who is her prince charming, who is the jealous villain.

As I have been working on the revision on the commented discography of Così fan tutte on operadiscographies.com, it is impossible not to notice the advantage of an Italian Despina, for instance. When you hear Monica Bacelli or Adelina Scarabelli delivering their recitatives, there is a whole universe of inflections, emphases, tone coloring, subtle rhythmic adjustments that make you understand the plot in its full complexity  – and that goes muted when the singer just follows the score. And again Italian is a very particular language – it is full of little inflections and emphases in its daily use. If you just speak correctly, it sounds weird. It involves playing a part. And if you need that to SPEAK, I don’t even have to explain how important this is when you SING. I remember listening to Mimì’s dying scene in Karajan’s recording of Puccini’s La Bohème, when (again) Freni sings the word “grande” in “ho tante cose che ti voglio dire o una sola ma grande come il mar”. The first syllable is slightly off pitch and very open in tone. And that’s EXACTLY how an Italian person would say this in that context.

Of course, every language has its peculiarities that influence how one sings. But Italian opera loves its recitatives like no other national style does – they were never replaced by dialogues and there is a reason for that: what you can do when you know how to sing a recitative is like the turbo version of a spoken dialogue. They open a third dimension to the two dimensions of spoken lines. And this extra dimension is not only a dramatic one – it is above all musical. It has an influence on rhythm, pitch, dynamics and tone coloring. Without it, you’re just hearing part of what the composer intended you to hear.

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Time for Schubert

There was a time when singers released albums called “Schubert Lieder” instead of a mix of mélodies, Lieder, canciones españolas and Beatles called “Colors of the Universe”. I am not generally nostalgic, but I miss those days. I have a friend who would go out every night to night clubs only to return home in the wee hours and arrive late at work. He was very upset when he lost a promotion to a guy who was the first to arrive in the office and the last to leave and would always volunteer to show up during weekends. “You can’t be cool and nerd at the same time”, I told him then. Now I’m saying it to these singers with conceptual releases; this is the 21st Century, if one wants a super cool musical release, there is always Björk.

I haven’t just mentioned Schubert by chance. I find Schubert Lieder an important piece of the world’s cultural treasure. The way they encompass every shade of human experience and, more than that: how he was able to paint images of unfathomable profoundness with just a few notes, this is very rare. In Schubert, one note makes all the difference in the world. With one chord, the atmosphere is entirely altered. These songs require a level of concentration one usually expects from a surgeon – only there is nothing scientific about them, they require from both singer and pianist an emotional honesty one always find from one’s true friends. They envelop the listener and talk directly to their hearts. Technically, they are extremely challenging – especially for high voices, who have the impossible task of singing around the passaggio with absolute purity of tone. In Schubert, sudden hardness, unexpected loosening of vibrato, unwanted whiteness or excessive darkness – all that is noise to the communication. There is nothing there immediately challenging as in bel canto, but most singers fail in just singing with instrumental poise and sincerity of expression in a Schubert Lied that does not go beyond a high f.

Since these Lieder are so direct and immediate, they are curiously revealing of the singers’ personality and also of the Zeitgeist. When one hears a performance from the 1940’s and another from the 1980’s, one generally finds two entirely different songs – almost as much as one listen to American standards such as “Misty” or “Darn that dream” sung by Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughan. Listening to Lieder is an exercise of comparison – and it requires new performances to remain alive.

And alas we get at most three Lieder in one “Colors of the Universe” recital – generally the most obscure ones, as if the singer were saying to the audience “if you want Nacht und Träume, buy Elly Ameling”. My answer is: I already have Elly Ameling, I want to hear YOU sing that song! The other day, a friend asked me “I dislike sopranos in Schubert, they sound invariably operatic in it and it ruins the whole thing for me”. I suggested Anna Prohaska. He wrote me “she is great  – the songs sound so fresh as if composed yesterday”. But then he added “but she recorded just a few of them”. Yes, I used to bump into Prohaska when I lived in Berlin and I had to refrain from going to her and saying, “please record Schubert”. We will be a generation that won’t leave a mark in this repertoire, and this is so sad. For instance, we are under constraints of the pandemic, having to rethink how to organize concerts – and what do we get? Socially distanced Traviata with reduced orchestration… Seriously, who wants to see a tragic love story in which the lovers are always two meters apart? Who wants to hear a score infamous for its lack of variety in a pared down orchestration? In the meanwhile, we have a whole body of artistic gems let to gather dust in the attic. This is the time for a Schubert marathon! Just two artists on stage – they don’t need to be close, these performances are meant for smaller rooms (no multitudes) and they don’t require any adaptation. And I am sure that they would bring so much  in a moment as the one we are living right now when a bit of reflection would be most welcome. So let’s give “coolness” a rest and think a bit of the good, old things that are on the foundation of what all music and poetry are about. A Schubert singer is at once a singer who sows the seeds of Bach and later harvests either Mozart of unusual depth or Wagner as Wagner himself expected to hear – invested with intelligence, mastery of tone color and sensitivity.

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