Archive for August, 2020

Music lounge (5)

Bach’s music is often described as “cerebral” – and it is indeed. In terms of harmony, counterpoint and structure, each piece is a microcosm with new richness in complexity found at every level of analysis. At the same time, 75% of what Bach wrote is based in dance rhythm. Almost all numbers in Bach sacred pieces are guided by dance rhythms. This means that this cerebral music is also a “corporal” music, if you come to think that its rhythm was based on movements of the human body. We tend to see everything filtered by Romanticism – it is everybody’s “default” aesthetic approach – and many subtleties of baroque music are lost when we see it through Romantic lenses. For instance, 19th centuries audiences tended to find Bach’s dance-like sacred music improper to the seriousness of religious matters and until recently conductors tended to efface this seemingly “disrespectful” cadence and increase the weight of sound to suggest the gravitas a liturgical text had to exude.

I often like what composers do with the credo – it is a very wordy part of the mass and if you don’t keep things moving forward, it could take forever. And my favorite version is the one in Bach’s Mass in B minor, especially the duet between soprano I and alto. It has a contagious rhythm; it is difficult not to move to this rhythm. And that is exactly what Bach wanted you to feel – an impulse stronger than yourself that draws you to what is being “said”, in other words, the joys of Christian faith. The whole structure of Et in unum is about “becoming one with”, with both voices intertwining as if they were whirling in mystical dance steps around you, crossing their melisme and their consonants in fantastic long words such as unigenitum and consubstantialem.

That is why I have always enjoyed this number in Andrew Parrot’s recording with the Taverner Players. Parrot just does not buy the idea that the Mass in B minor is supposed to be imposed on the audience with the weight of religion. He approaches it from the “Bach cantata” point of view, i.e., as some kind of musical advertisement of the advantages of believing. Members of the congregation in 18th century led difficult and boring lives (even when they were rich) and you wouldn’t engage them by showing that spiritual life was a duller version of what they already had – Bach was showing them how happier and brighter is life for someone who believes. Andrew Parrot shows the duet in its brighter colors in the pointed playing of his instrumental group, balanced in equal standing with his two ideal soloists. Emma Kirkby is of course an acknowledged Bach singer with her boy-like soprano whose high register shows instrumental poise and purity. Here, however, pride of place goes to the extraordinary singing of the boy alto Christian Immler* (who has now a career as a bass). As Bach was used to write to boys’ voices, which descend into their low notes without any break (unlike countertenors and female altos), the tessitura is rather uncomfortable for adult singers. Immler handles it famously – the treacherous “passaggio” (inexistent for him) delivered with unusual clarity. His freshness of tone blends beautifully with Kirkby’s soprano – and his purity of intonation is remarkable. Once you listen to these two outstanding soloists, it is difficult to hear this duo with anyone else!

* There are two boy altos in Parrot’s recording: Immler and Panito Iconomou (who also sings today as a bass with the first name Panajotis). The singing in the duet is sometimes credited to Iconomou. Judging from Harnoncourt’s video of Bach’s Johannis-Passion, in which both Immler and Panito can be seen, Immler’s voice sounds a bit smokier than the alto in the duet with Kirkby. Boys’ voices are variable and, even if I first tended to believe that it was Iconomou there, the latter said in an interview on the Bach Cantata Website: “The only things I noticed was that I was being put much further away from the microphones than anybody else whilst recording with Harnoncourt or Parrott and that I wasn’t allowed to sing the duet in Bach’s B-Minor (BWV 232) with Emma Kirkby after our first microphone check.”


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The voice of experience

A couple of years ago Gramophone magazine published an article about sopranos who resisted against leaving soubrette roles behind and embracing lyric repertoire. Their case example was Kathleen Battle – years after her debut still in -ina roles. She was not interviewed by the author, but Barbara Bonney did add her two cents. I won’t be able to quote her verbatim, but her whole point was that Lucia Popp’s career helped to create the myth that it is natural to start as Sophie and end up as the Feldmarschallin. That was not her story; her voice did not develop outside her original Fach the way Popp’s voice did. Maybe because actors simply are not cast in roles decades younger than themselves – and we live in a world where movies are omnipresent and opera is not – reviewers and members of the audience expect that singers evolve in the same way. I would guess that singers themselves would prefer it that way. I remember an interview with Christa Ludwig in which she said that at some point of her career she did not feel anymore in the mood to sing about maidens and their sweethearts, flowers in blossom etc. The question remains – is there a choice there? Are all voices supposed to grow heavier and stronger?

It is a fact that singers – as much as everyone else – grow older and their bodies and also their mental disposition change in the process. So, yes, their voices are supposed to change in the process – women’s especially (there is childbirth and menopause, to start with). Saying that voices “decay” in the process is an oversimplification. The curve is not necessarily a descending straight line. Some singers actually “blossom” later in their careers – especially those with dramatic voices. As we have discussed here before, these singers often take a while to mature their muscles and their “energy management” before they tackle such demanding roles to full satisfaction. And there is also experience – when one becomes aware of his or her limits, he or she increasingly understands where “safety zone is” and can be a little bit more adventurous about taking risks. But the fact is – lighter voiced singers experience a similar development too. And yet Lucia Popp’s story is indeed “outside the curve”.

I unfortunately know Popp only from recordings, but when I ask those who saw her live, I generally hear the same description – “more vertical than horizontal”. I.e., it projected well but was not voluminous. Some mentioned that in heavier repertoire her high notes could acquire a metallic edge that jarred a bit with the usual smoothness of her vocal production. In any case, even in her earlier recordings, in which the voice is brighter and lighter, we can hear that its gravitational center is lower in comparison to someone like Edita Gruberová or Arleen Augér. She has always had a middle register richer than those of other singers in these roles – and her low notes were always actually pretty solid. She herself said that she couldn’t wait to stop singing the role of the Queen of the Night and felt that Zerbinetta was simply too high for her. And there is the above-mentioned metallic edge she could occasionally resort to when she needed to shift to the fifth gear. In other words, her potential for lyric roles was there since the beginning.

Helen Donath’s is usually the second case example in this case. Unlike Popp, her voice always sounded pretty ina-ish when she was indeed singing lighter repertoire. When Herbert von Karajan convinced her to sing Eva in his recording of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, what he probably sensed is that the natural radiance of her soprano could pierce through a Wagnerian orchestra, especially in his hallmark “smoother” garb. If she was first hesitant about this career move, she finally embraced it by singing the role live, as much as other lyric parts such as the Feldmarschallin. I would say that Donath is a lesson in how to sing heavier roles with a light voice. As one can hear in broadcasts and recordings, she never tampered with her basic sound. Her “superpower” was the extraordinary brightness of her soprano – and she never let that go. The sound remained light – one could say that her Eva was ina-ish in sound – and yet she had an extraordinarily long career in which she was also able to keep her first roles to the very end. Let’s not forget that her last “big” official recording was in the role of Despina on the 2006 video from Salzburg. This may sound self-evident, but experience shows us that most singers who try heavier roles actually believe that they should “adapt” their voices to the new repertoire, generally by darkening the sound and overcompensating the lack of volume by forcing the tone.

Vocal technique is full of contradictions and non-evident truths, but a darkened sound rarely pierces through in the auditorium, especially in the context of a voice naturally less voluminous. These singers end up sounding tremulous, effortful and rather pale in tone. We have spoken of sopranos so far, but tenors are generally those who end up beefing up their tones, especially if they were trained with “Italian technique”. If there is one vocal category in which singers always need a little help from their voice teachers, these are tenors. The demands made by composers on the tenor voice are always a bit unreasonable – what they do could only be explained as “let’s imagine that all soprano roles were like the Queen of the Night” – and they are particularly dependant of tonal manipulation to survive the “high altitude”. It is not unusual to leave the theatre saying “the tenor had good high notes, but the rest of the voice was a bit hard to hear”. This is in most cases healthy – the problem is when the tenor starts to play with their middle register. That is when everything sounds puffed up, hollow and laborious. It is curious that many an opera-goer is ready to take this vocal production as appropriate in Verdi and Puccini roles. You know what I’m talking about – the glottal attacks and releases, the lachrymosity, the uncontrolled vibrato, the edge. When a tenor takes that direction, it is a path of no return. If you ask him “sing Don Ottavio’s Dalla sua pace“, he would realize he is unable to do something minimally acceptable.

That takes us back to the situation of singers whose voices may have gone stronger but still remain in their original Fach. Is there any fun for them in being avuncular Taminos or Zerlinas too long in the tooth? It depends. I knew Edita Gruberová’s Zerbinetta from the video from the Vienna State Opera (with Janowitz and Kollo under Karl Böhm) and finally saw her live in the role in her farewell run of performances, some decades after that… in the same production with the same costumes. When she first appeared on stage, I had to adjust my memory of her younger self to her then present age, but then I realized that she had done that herself. Gruberová was not pretending she was young then – she was showing us a Zerbinetta who had been at it for a while, almost a bit tired of the whole thing. It was actually a fascinating and fully convincing performance. It is easiest said than done, of course – but it can be done. Actually, one of the great things about opera is that anyone can climb on stage and be anyone else. To keep with R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, let’s remember (again) Jessye Norman’s Ariadne. She would have never been cast in that role in a movie – but on stage (and on video) you just need two minutes to see that she is Ariadne. The fact that there is an art form when one’s limits are entirely one’s talents is a reason why opera – in spite of many predictions – never goes away…

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Music Lounge (4)

Many years ago, I was invited to introduce a video of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in a culture centre and, when we we have finished listening to Sarastro’s O Isis und Osiris, a gentleman in the audience asked me “I’ve read that this aria is supposed to be an aural image of the sublime – and that wasn’t my impression”. I was at a loss there, for a) I had never promised him the “aural image of the sublime”; b) I couldn’t say that to him. He paid a ticket to be there! We were listening to Lászlo Polgár on the video from the Drottningholm Court Theatre, whom I have always found an elegant Mozartian. As I saw the laserdisc from the Met on a shelf, I said “we can always listen to Kurt Moll”. So I changed the disc, everybody was impressed with Moll’s voice and asked me if we could go further with the Levine performance instead. This is a non-story, nothing exciting happens here, but I always thought of this “aural image of the sublime”.

Sometimes I would listen to Kurt Moll to see if he gave me that impression. It is a exemplary Mozartian piece of singing, firm-toned, clear in diction, something we could say a “force of nature”. But I have to be honest – it never suggested me the aural image of the sublime. There is something too objective, the low notes are maybe too much “on your face” and maybe too dark – and I feel uncomfortable writing all those “too”, because Kurt Moll is the reference of how a bass should sing Mozart. For instance, no Osmin comes even close to him. Since that day in the culture centre, in the theatre or listening to a recording, I ask myself “have I heard the aural image of the sublime?”. At best, the answer is “almost”. There are tiny turn-offs that bring me back to earth when I listen to it – singers who slide down to their low notes, for instance. Lack of clean attack make is also a problem, but I feel for the bass singing this aria, because we can read his mind “every note must be perfectly pure” and most often than not there is very little legato there out of the sheer intent of producing an instrumental line. Also, because of the long lines, if there is some instability in the vocal production, it is going to be cruelly, mercilessly exposed. This is to basses what the Countess’s Porgi, amor is to sopranos. But nobody cares if the soprano is not really expressing the Countess’s depressive mood. Now in O Isis there must be some sort of fatherly, spiritual authority. And velvetiness and fulness of tone is essential. Even if everything else is going smoothly, if the voice is not rich, warm, dense and involving, then it just doesn’t work. Then there is something else, a game-changing feature very rare in this aria. Sarastro exerts a gentle authority (as we hear in his other aria) and a bass who can delve into his low notes gently, smoothly embodies this quality in musical terms. These low notes’ gentleness opposed to the violence in the high notes sung by the Queen of the Night are what this story is about.

That is why I was so impressed by Karl Ridderbusch’s account of that aria accidentally found on YouTube. As far as I know, there is no official recording of his Sarastro. This seems to be a TV show in Hungarian TV. There, Ridderbusch finally offered me the “aural image of the sublime”. It is a noble voice – my favorite König Heinrich in Lohengrin – whose purity of line does not involve any constriction of tone. The notes spin freely and firmly. In its highest reaches, their very vibration seems to exude spiritual force. He descends to his low register with naturalness, every note acquiring a natural and gentle darkness in the context of perfect legato. It is an immense performance – not ideally accompanied or recorded, unfortunately – and a great memento of a singer not always remembered as he should.

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La voix du rôle

We often hear about singers who should not sing a role because it is not advisable for his or her voice: lyric voices in dramatic roles, mezzos in sopranos roles, singers unprepared for the technical demands of a certain role (e.g., coloratura). That is not what I want to write about today. As much as when we read a book and imagine how a character looks like, audiences expect a certain color in the voice of a singer in a particular role, a voix du rôle. This might not be true for all parts in the repertoire – the title role in Carmen, for instance, is often mentioned as a part that could be sung by all kinds of female voices. So one may wonder if there is something like a specific sound for a role at all. I mean, do composers expect to hear a specific sound as much as when they write “oboe” on a score and intend to hear an oboe, neither a clarinet nor a flute?

As everything in opera, there is no simple answer. We know that some composers did write for specific voices, most of them not really because they made a point on hearing that singer – they just knew that this particular singer was going to sing what he was writing. That would be the case of someone like Handel or Mozart. They could not risk writing something that would not fit the voice of the singer cast in that run of performances – this would have had financial consequences, to start with. They depended on the success not only of their writing, but most often than not on the success of the performance of what they wrote. That is why they would often adapt the part for a new run with a different cast. Of course, sometimes they had just the singer they imagined the part for. Sometimes, this singer’s abilities would even influence what they were writing. For instance, the aria Ach, ich liebte in Der Entführung aus dem Serail. Mozart admits he had to write something so impossibly florid for Caterina Cavalieri, because everybody (he included) wanted to hear the sounds produced by her “flexible throat”.

In any case, without being scientific about it, I would say that what establishes the “sound” of a role is rather the audience than the composer. Certain singers are so successful in a role that everybody just wants it sung like that. This is particularly true after the creation of phonography. Before that, theatres would generally have their ensembles with favorite singers tackling all kinds of parts with the occasional visit of a famous diva. For instance – and this was way after the invention of LPs – when Renata Tebaldi gave a guest performance as Desdemona at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, all reviews were astounded that a lyric voice could be so big. They were used to hear more “Mozartian” voices in the role before that, probably because this is the kind of lyric soprano a German theatre would have in their roster those days. Anyway, recordings and reviewers probably share the responsibility of convincing the audience that this is the sound they should hear. With standards set “on stone”, criterion for casting became increasingly more “objective”. For instance, anyone with a voice similar to Tebaldi’s or Callas’s could claim one of their parts under the epithet “the new Tebaldi” or “the new Callas” – and audiences would be curious to hear.

For instance, the first singer to appear in the role of the Feldmarschallin in Der Rosenkavalier was Margarethe Siems, whose voice and interpretation style couldn’t be more different from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s, the singer referred to as “standard” for the part for a couple of decades. Siems was something of a soprano assoluta, who sang roles like Isolde, Lucia, Carmen and even Zerbinetta in the première of the original version of Ariadne auf Naxos. As we can sample in her recordings, she was extremely direct in her interpretation, what makes her curiously “modern” to our contemporary ears. Schwarzkopf was a purely lyric soprano with a fleece-like tone whose performances are the specimen shown to anyone interested in understanding what “mannered” means. But maybe because of Paul Czinner’s film, maybe because she looked the part and sang it everywhere, maybe because of Karajan’s LPs with Christa Ludwig, she – and not Lisa della Casa nor Marianne Schech – was the model for everyone who thought of singing the role in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s. You just need to hear Evelyn Lear or Claire Watson as the Feldmarschallin to realize that.

That is why I – and I am not alone here – am always curious for a voice that challenges established opinion of how the role should sound. For instance, Jessye Norman. Her voice was so “outside the box” that one could not resist the possibility of hearing it in a particular role. My first complete opera recording with Norman was – believe it or not – Haydn’s La Vera Costanza. There she takes the role of Rosina, a poor girl with whom a hothead count falls in love with and secretly marries. During most of the opera, Rosina is the odd woman out among aristocrats – and Norman’s smoky soprano made that “hearable” to me. She sounds different from everyone else in that cast, there is some fascination in that big voice kept at its lightest, a fascination those stuffy ladies and gentlemen cannot really comprehend. In spite of her uniqueness, Norman would even later establish a “golden” standard in the title role in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, but her Elsa will always be controversial. I am particularly fond of Norman in Wagner lighter roles – I cherish her Elisabeth recorded live in London and the video from the Avery Fisher Hall of her Senta’s Ballad remains my favorite rendition of that aria. And, yes, I really like her Elsa – and how she shows the character under an entirely different light.

I have friends who cannot bear to watch Lohengrin because the role of Elsa exasperates them with her dreamy silliness. I myself have never seen Elsa like that – and Norman is the singer who showed me what I already suspected. When she first appears, there is no “little woman” there. It is a regal, full-grown woman voice. She is above everyone else there – and indeed she is, she is the heiress of the country’s ruler. She refuses to reply to those below her, she speaks to God only. Her champion has to be someone sent by heaven, and by heaven only. And, well, she’s right – special effects, high pianissimo in the violins, swan carrying a fellow with a sword – a miracle proves that she is indeed unlike everyone else. And we’ll soon discover what is the character’s undoing: her proudness. This Elsa can risk anything but mésalliance. Ortrud doesn’t need any particular witchcraft to destroy her peace of mind. She just asks – do you really know if the nameless guy is an aristocrat? As we have read in the Bible, most of God’s chosen ones are not. Jessye Norman makes it a grand tragedy – how could she put a commoner, special as he might be, in her father’s place as the ruler of her own land? This would be subversive! True – it is not all in the sound of her voice, although it carries the chicness of her Elsa. Her whole approach has a splash of grand-dame-ness, and that just makes sense and also the story more interesting than what we are supposed to hear. I wonder what Wagner would find of Norman’s Elsa. I bet he would have liked what she does there. It seems some of Wagner friends thought that he was too hard on Elsa in the end of the story, but he insisted that those were the consequences of her acts and this is how the story should end. In other words, no innocent victim.

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Music Lounge (3)

When talking about Handel’s greatest operas, it is rare to find Ariodante classed up with Giulio Cesare, Alcina or Orlando. Yes, the libretto has its weaknesses – but the score has numbers of great depth and one of the best villains in Handel operas, Polinesso. Anyway, the title role, written for the famous castrato Giovanni Carestini is almost Romantic in its passive-agressiveness.  He has one arioso and five “important” arias – Scherza, infida being the most famous. It is crucial to understand the character of Ariodante too.

Ariodante is in love with Ginevra, who is in love with him. She is the daughter of the king of Scotland, who finds in Ariodante, a “vassal prince” the perfect husband for her. Every other character in this story is unhappy – Polinesso, the Duke of Albany (what is he doing in Scotland?) is in love with Ginevra. Dalinda, a lady-in-waiting for the princess, is in love with Polinesso. Lurcanio, Ariodante’s brother, is in love with Dalinda. Polinesso believes that he could do something about it – and stages an “infidelity scene”. He has Dalinda wear Ginevra’s clothes in a moment when Ariodante can see them kissing in a hidden corner of palace garden. This is when we can hear Scherza, infida. Ariodante is shocked by what he sees – the audience wonders – is he killing Polinesso? is he killing Ginevra? Is he killing them both? Is he killing HIMSELF? After considering all possibilities, he kills nobody. He makes his brother spread the news that he killed himself (he did not) because of his fiancée’s infidelity. The king is horrified to hear of his daughter’s immodesty and decides to disown her. The girl has no idea of what is going on – her fiancé is supposedly dead, she is accused of being guilty and the only person on her side is, of course, Polinesso, who offers to be her champion in a duel with Lurcanio (that was the plan). Only when Dalinda exposes the whole scheme, Ariodante reappears to reaffirm his love for the poor Ginevra, who is at this point half insane. Back to Scherza, infida.

It is easy to understand why singers and conductors are usually mistaken about Scherza, infida. It is a show made for no audience. Ariodante is alone, but he is not lost in melancholy and misery. He is not depressive at all at this moment – he is manic. And he puts up a great display of despair. His imaginary audience is Ginevra and her presumed lover (Polinesso). This what he says “Go on, have fun with your lover, unfaithful one, while I leave in the arms of death because of your infidelity!” It is pure emotional blackmailing – “don’t mind me dying here…”, even if there is no-one to hear. Ariodante could have gone directly to Ginevra (actually, Dalinda disguised as Ginevra) and Polinesso and said all that (he would have discovered that Ginevra wasn’t even there), but he preferred to have this imaginary dialogue, just like people who suffer from mania do. You probably know what I am talking about here – not being able to sleep thinking “If my boss/husband/wife/parent/child says this, I’ll say that and if he or she answers this, I’ll reply that…”. This is not the kind of emotional circumstances when you feel your heartbeat go slower, actually one generally feels the pulse running wild. And that is the key for Nicholas McGegan’s success over all other conductors: one must feel the heartbeat in the bass. Minkowski, Christie, Curtis make it sound like glamourised suffering, almost Schubertian in style. No, this is not what Handel and the librettist wanted. This is baroque music – this is a SCENE, not a Lied. In his mind, Ariodante will wrench bitter tears from his unfaithful lover. She’d feel so bad out of guilt, she might even kill herself to atone. Ariodante himself is doing nothing – he is the dictionary definition of passive-aggressive.

Handel has the heartbeat “framing” the rhythmic structure of this aria – the pulse in the bass, the octave-leaping figure in the strings and the marvellous, expressive long bassoon line that makes us feel for Ariodante. He is being terribly silly there, but he is really unhappy. If the tempo is too slow (as elsewhere), the first theme in the vocal line, the two triples -Sche-e-erza-a-in-FI-DA, will miss the right impulse that seem as if Ariodante were pointing fingers, spitting the inFIda on her face. The A section alternates passive and aggressive moments – Lorraine Hunt makes clear which is which with the very sound of her voice . She marks the rhythm in the triplets as if she were pronouncing each letter in b-i-t-c-h and she explodes in the “fi” or inFIda (as she should!). In the second “io tradito a morte in braccio” Hunt’s tone softens, Ariodante is the total victim there. The octave-leaping figure appears in the vocal line and we finally understand what it is – this is an old rhetorical figure for drops, especially tears (we hear it used and abused by Vivaldi in the cantata Cessate, omai cessate). This singhiozzo will be made very clear again in another figure – a repeated broken descending chord on “men vo”, first in B flat major than in F7 Major. If the singer is not rhythmically crispy there, then you’ll miss it. Again, Lorraine Hunt does it without exaggeration, but there are tears in her voice. The repeat of the “passive” theme is brilliantly done, she pulls all the stops, including a very chesty sound for the low d in “per tua colpa” and again in “infida!” before a fantastically melodramatic “a morte!” with a slight portamento on MOR. And she can only build up the drama like that because McGegan gave her the right tempo – Handel is repeating the text “I’m dying/because of you/because of YOU, I’m dying!”. Nobody would say these words on a slow tempo. You are trying to suffocate your unfaithful fiancé(e) with guilt – you don’t want to do it gently.

B sections sometime let a bit off steam piled up in A section. Not here – the B section intensifies everything that goes in the first part “I’ll break up this unworthy relationship – I’ll be a sad ghost that will return from the dead to torment you!”. This is a usual baroque image – I’m a helpless person defeated by fate, but I’ll be a deadly ghost! Cleopatra uses it in Piangerò la sorte mia in Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Here it rings particularly true – he’ll be a sad memory, dead because of her. The octave-leaping rhythm here become a very small interval repeating itself as the aural image of nagging. Hunt is perfect here – using the consonants and her registers to depict Ariodante’s mental state. The ornament in the second “mesta” shows us how resentful he is.

Lorraine Hunt is the perfect voice for this part – she sounds perfectly androgynous here. We will never know how a first-class castrato sounded, but what Lorraine Hunt does here comes close: the brightness, the plangency, the forcefulness. It’s all there. The repeat is a lesson – instead of overornamenting to fill in the blanks, she only chooses figures that boost the expressive content of the aria. All the special effects are built on the power of interpretation. A great recording, unmatched so far.





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Beautiful voices

I knew a guy, a friend from a friend, whose opinion about singers everybody duly ignored. “He only cares if the voice is beautiful”, was the general comment. He was the first person I knew who had seen Jane Eaglen live, and I was curious about his impressions but I was advised: if he found her voice “beautiful”, she could get away with anything else and he would still find her marvellous. Better wait for someone else to hear her and give us an account. I have to say that I see his point. As much as with good-looking people, we tend to overlook flaws in singers with beautiful voices.

The problem with vocal beauty is the usual issue with beauty – it is a matter of taste. That said, when we come to voices, for some reason the subject is more complicated than with physical appearance. The concept varies depending on category, Fach and repertoire. For instance, sopranos are generally the main victim of the demand for beauty. And vocal beauty for sopranos invariably means “an angelic voice”. When we hear someone say that a role such as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro must feature a singer “with a beautiful voice”, one immediately think of someone like Gundula Janowitz. I remember an interview with Margaret Price when she grimaced every time she spoke the words “angelic voice”. She refused the role of Elsa because she was tired of being typecast and increasingly looked for roles distant from the lyric Fach because she wanted people to hear her and think of something else. That is probably why she increasingly sang Verdi and less Mozart. Verdi famously wanted “an ugly voice” for the role of Lady Macbeth, but the fact is that the kind of soprano we hear in roles like Aida, La Forza del Destino, Il Trovatore and Un Ballo in Maschera generally offer something more “complex” than “angelic”. I would guess that Leontyne Price has a great share of responsibility in that perception – she alone created a demand for dark, multilayered, almost visceral sounds that suggest rather the earthy, the sensuous. The very sound of Leontyne Price’s voice made these damsels in distress immediately more interesting as characters. Her Forza Leonora, especially, is a woman in the middle of a war between hell and heaven – her attachment for Alvaro clearly being of sexual nature of which she has very little control. That is why she transfers that tension to her martyrdom with a passion as intense as the one she had for him. In her Pace, pace mio Dio, it is not only world-weariness what we hear; the flame is still burning beneath the hopelessness. It could set fire on the world.

Nobody expect tenors to sound “angelic”, but everybody wants them to seem dulcet and honeyed, especially if they are singing Mozart or bel canto. One wishes to hear a voice at once sweet and vigorous in an aria such as Nemorino’s Una furtiva lagrima. There has never been a tenor who has done for the lyric tenor repertoire something similar to what Leontyne Price did for lyric sopranos. And, curiously, it is tough to sound honeyed around the passaggio. Stop reading for a while and think of how many tenors really beguile the audience in Un’aura amorosa. Feel free to think of tenors of the past. You’ll still get less than 10, maybe less than five.

The demands for tonal beauty in low voices are significantly less extreme. Mezzos and baritone are supposed to sound “warm” and “velvety”, even if the tone is not truly dreamy. When one think of someone like Hermann Prey, the appealing quality of his baritone is considered a “plus”. In Italian repertoire, it is even more secondary to forcefulness and richness. I remember hearing the name of someone like Matteo Manuguerra as “the baritone with the beautiful voice”, again a bonus feature. The fact is that dramatic roles – such as those for Verdi baritones – are usually the repertoire when one actually does not expect a voice to sound beautiful at all. Nobody goes to the theatre expecting to hear a sweet-sounding Abigaille, an angelic Elektra or a dulcet Tristan. And yet one is always ready to speak of Helge Brilioth’s Siegfried or Ursula Schröder-Feinen’s Ortrud with the comment of “he/she made it sound like music”.

Actually, as much as disarming tonal beauty is important in roles like Arabella or Amelia Grimaldi/Maria Boccanegra – these are radiant characters and must have the audience on their spell from the moment one – there are other roles that gain from “complexity”. For instance, Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito. I remember when I first heard Anna Caterina Antonacci in it, my first impression was “well, I’ve heard more pleasant voices in it”, but again Vitellia is not seeking to please anyone. Antonacci’s peculiar tonal quality made Vitellia sexier, more provocative and more imperious. You hear that voice and understand why Sesto is so intrigued by her. She sounds different from all the classically “Mozartian” voices in the cast. The same goes for Waltraud Meier in Myung Whun Chung’s recording of Saint-Saens’s Samson et Dalila from Paris. When you compare her to, say, Olga Borodina, the disadvantage in vocal allure is enormous. Borodina’s Dalila is one of the highlights of my opera-going experience, but when I listen to Meier’s recording I can’t help finding the lack of vocal allure the aural image of the “haughty beauty” in the story. You feel that this is a voice that you have to hear a bit more to discover what it has to tell. That is at least what Samson did.

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Music Lounge (2)

Most people think of Grace Bumbry as a Verdi mezzo overwhelmed by her vocal possibilities who ended up posing as a dramatic soprano. In any case, it would be difficult not to be overwhelmed by a voice like hers. It is unique in its blend of reediness and roundness – every register has its special feature and no note in the whole range is without color. But Bumbry was also a pupil of Lotte Lehmann and could be a terrific recitalist. Nobody would call her a Kunstdiva – and she often got away with generalised glamor. I had a teacher who said that there are two kinds of people – those with the soul of a Schubert singer and those with the soul of a Schumann singer. Bumbry was no miniaturist and fell naturally in the second group.

Among her recording of Brahms and Schumann, some are particularly effective, none more than this item from the Dichterliebe – Wenn ich in deine Auge seh’. The first time I listened to it, I could not stop repeating it. Then I checked Fischer-Dieskau, Wunderlich, you name it, but, no, after that, I can only listen to it sung by Grace Bumbry. First, she sees in this song something no other singer does. Heine’s verses are almost coy – When I look into your eyes, all my suffering and pains disappear/ but when I kiss your lips/ I am entirely healed./ When I lean against your breast/I am overcome with heavenly bliss/And when you say “I love you”/I must weep bitter tears. The key to Bumbry’s interpretation is the fact that the word “bliss” is a translation to “Lust”, which in German can also mean “lust”. The song indeed becomes, at each verse, more “physical” – we start with “eyes”, then we go to “lips”, then we have “breast”. At first, it seems that the closer the poet gets to his beloved, the better he feels: he is free of worries, then he is healed, then he is overcome with heavenly “bliss” but suddenly he weeps bitter tears. One wonders why hearing that he is loved makes him miserable – maybe because he now knows that, at his point, he can only find heavenly “bliss” with that one person. She is an exclusive supplier of that very good she may only advertise, but cannot sell… Hence the tears of frustration. A bitter feeling indeed.

Bumbry instinctively grasps the continuous change in atmosphere and depicts it in her voice. We hear the first two verses in almost conversational tone – a very seductive one, she sings only for you. The next two verses have a more vivid color – the words “Mund” (mouth) and “ganz” (entirely) spin in a rounder tone new to this song. In the verse “When I lean against your breast”, the tone has a firmer core a bit rich in lower resonance. “The voice has more body” is an image of what is going on in the poet’s mind. The next verse – the one about the heavenly “bliss” – was the single observation I had about Bumbry’s singing. First I disliked the portamento in “über mir” (Fischer-Dieskau does it just like that too), but now I would say that it feels “artificial” because this is the artificial verse in the poem. There is nothing “heavenly” going in the poet’s mind at this point. It is an overwhelming desire, but he cannot say it like that.  When she sings “But when you say”, she does what all singers do – softer dynamics preparing for the “I love you”. It’s in the “Ich liebe dich”, however, when she got me. Fischer-Dieskau, for instance, almost whispers it, which is how almost everybody does. Bumbry doesn’t whisper – she sings it in a pop voice, a voice you would hear in a jazz diva, with that soft vibration and this marvellous “attack” on the d in “dich”. It’s sexy – you feel exactly what the poet felt when he heard his beloved’s chest vibrate with the sound of these words. She finally colors two syllables in the last verse – WEInen (weep) and bitTERlich (bitterly) with a chesty, darker sound. It’s intimate, it’s intense – you feel what he feels.

As often in Schumann, there are many syncopated rhythms and pianists often tend to make it a bit bouncier than they should (unless you really want to make it sound coy), but Leonard Hokanson is together with Bumbry in the slower tempo, the intimate sonorities, the syncopation suggesting hesitation rather than animation.


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Because of the revision of the commented discography in operadiscographies.com, I have been listening (and also watching) to basically nothing but Così fan tutte for the two last months. Salzburg is obviously a reference in the discography – we have the Böhm DG with Gundula Janowitz and Peter Schreier, the Muti EMI with Margaret Marshall and Francisco Araiza, the Honeck with Ana María Martínez and Sophie Koch, the Eschenbach with Malin Hartelius and Gerald Finley. I found it surprising to see it in pandemic circumstances, but then I realized it had been edited to fit safety standards. I have never dreamed of hearing numbers taken as models of perfection shortened to fit the egg-timer, but, well, let’s blame “new normal”. I have to say every time director Christof Loy spent one or two minutes with unfunny gags, I couldn’t help “this time could have been used to keep È la fede delle femine”. I cannot see how a conductor could agree to this. For me, it would have been like answering to the question “which finger would you like to have amputated?”. Why not staging something that would fit the time limit? Entführung aus dem Serail?

Back to Così. I understand that, probably to limit the number of stagehands, the performance is reduced to a single set without costume changes, chorus on stage or props. I wonder if the elevated stage was also a safety requirement; it amplified steps in a disturbing way – and the director had singers kicking the floor with a passion during the finale to act 1. I found it distressing. But that is not what I truly disliked about this performance. Così fan tutte is the single “major” Mozart opera set in Italy (Tito’s Rome is not Italy). More than that: it is staged in Naples. This is not psychological drama à la Ingmar Bergman – this story take place in sunny verandas with view to the Mediterranean. To this day, the special ingredient of Italian stories on stage or in the movies is: comedies always have a touch of drama and drama always have a touch of comedy. Let’s not forget a movie like Umberto D, a story that should be unbearably depressing in any other country is told by Vittorio de Sica with a sympathetic smile. That is why I could not warm to this joyless staging, lazy in its circumvention of all the notorious difficulties in it for the director, especially if updated to modern times. Here Fiordiligi and Dorabella are basically too chic to behave coy, even Despina is too chic. All dialogues (what remained of them at least) are, however, delivered with an intensity that goes against these people’s prevailing depression. It is all blunt, emphatic and unenlightening. I was going to write that I learned nothing new about Così watching this telecast, but that is not true. The psycho Don Alfonso is an interesting twist that could have been explored in the context of a three-dimensional production. Of course, Don Alfonso is manipulating the young people around him, nothing new there, but the nuance in having him jealous of their youth, of a barely hidden interest in the girls – that was well observed and is the single feature I’ll keep from the theatrical side of this performance.

By the bold accents in the overture, I thought that Joana Mallwitz would offer a vital, energetic account of the score. As a matter of fact, she generally kept things moving forward, but it seldom felt that way. First – and it seems that I am repeating myself – articulation was beyond the optimal level for Mozart. This is not an option in this repertoire – and the Vienna Philharmonic has proved capable of delivering the goods since Karl Böhm’s 1955 LPs to  Christoph Eschenbach’s 2013 DVDs. So I’ll defend their honor and say that they are not to blame here. Second, although the performance generally avoids slow tempi, there is a lack of ebullience, of propulsion, of purpose in phrasing that makes it all seems stodgy. Although it is a shortened score, I confess I couldn’t wait for it to finish. In Rosbaud’s performance from Aix-en-Provence, everything goes wrong – the orchestra is subpar, the chorus goes AWOL, singers are a bit free with everything, but, God, it’s fun! Third, there is an enthusiastic fortepiano playing continuo and otras cositas más.

The cast, however, is good, mostly in comparison with what we’ve been hearing in Mozart these days. All three sopranos come from France, and this must be a first in Salzburg. I am surprised by Elsa Dreisig’s Fiordiligi. I’ve heard her only in small roles and had mentally saved her in the “pretty voice” file. Here she proves she is more than that. She keeps Mozartian lines adeptly and handles the low tessitura with aplomb. There are intonation problems when things go high and fast – and when she has to hold a high note mezza voce for too long. But under the right circumstances she could be ideal. I have never been disappointed by Marianne Crebassa – and I haven’t – but I am afraid Dorabella is not her best role. Her voice sounds a bit grainy here and she looks and sounds bored most of the time. It is difficult to be playful and sexy in a dreary production such as this one (and under a conducting that has nothing sensuous or vivacious about it), but I’ll remember an È amore un ladroncello in which her voice blended perfectly with the woodwind. I was not really fond of the awkward ornamentation, though. Actually, I think Léa Desandre would have more fun as Dorabella (and her voice is brighter and lighter than Crebassa’s too). She does not have a Despina in her and looked embarrassed trying to look naughty. Vocally, her singing was stylish, but – for someone who speaks Italian fluently – the text lacked crispness and her mezzo (which increasingly sounds soprano-ish in sound) could do with a brighter edge to pierce better through ensembles. The part of Ferrando usually is the one conductors most gladly cut, so no surprises here, but – even with what remained of it – I could say that Bogdan Volkov came close to being ideally cast. His tenor lacks a softer sound around the passaggio (unlike the most famous exponents of this role), but he knows it and never fails to compensate that. He has very easy and firm high notes, is attentive to the score as few tenors these days and has very long breath. I would be curious to hear him as Tamino and maybe Belmonte. Andrè Schuen too is a rich-voiced Guglielmo whose response to conducting and direction prevented him from offering something more sensuous and seductive. (I have to say that the stage direction in the finale to act 1 made me ask myself if these people’s idea of “seduction” involved abusing the girls almost to the limits of assault.) As in the DVDs from London, Johannes Martin Kränzle is the real deal as Don Alfonso – both in terms of singing and acting.

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The idea that a character in an opera should have a “vocal identity” is relatively recent, mid-18th century, I would say. During the baroque, formulae would determine if the part would go to a soprano or an alto (male or female), a tenor or a bass. Other than this, baroque opera focused rather on situations than on characters, which tended to be nonsensical throughout the plot. If you think that Rodelinda (in Handel’s eponymous opera) would agree to marry her enemy Grimoaldo, for the dismay of all her friends, just to tell him in a public ceremony that she would rather die than marry him, it’s easy to see my point. This does not mean that there was not vocal characterization in 17th and 18th centuries. On the contrary, vocal expression was ruled by a rigid code of affetti that informed composers of how every emotion should be musically described. After a while, arias would be referred by the name of the affetto (emotion) in question. That means that baroque composers would describe rather the mood in a scene rather than the character’s impression of it. An aria di furia would show an idealized version of what fury is regardless of the character who is singing it. No wonder singers would borrow an aria from an opera and use it in another work without any noticeable consequence. That is probably why Handel’s “sorceress” roles are so successful with audiences today. Although they share the same profile (some of them were actually written for the same singer), it is a very striking one, with their extravagant arie di furie in military style and long, expressive arie d’affetto. Of course, if we involve Rameau in this discussion, we will find a fully developed character like Phèdre in Hyppolite et Aricie, but her uniqueness stems rather from the fact that the remaining characters (including those in the title) are rather formulaic.

In any case, French baroque opera was ahead of its Italian counterpart in terms of theatricality. No wonder the development to Classicism had its origins in Paris via Christoph Willibald Gluck. It is too early to speak of “vocal identities”, but at least we can easily recognize a musical-dramatic coherence. We have read here that Mozart’s employment of mezzo carattere aesthetics enabled him to show some sort of dramatic development in his characters – for instance, we see Donna Elvira’s career out of dissipation to the intent of atoning for her sins in a convent, by the way she starts to avoid irregular and large intervals and increasingly absorb Donna Anna’s “serious style”. Or Don Ottavio develop from feminine affetti (Dalla sua pace) and to a more heroic writing (Il mio tesoro), while Donna Anna leaves behind the imperious affetti of Or sai che l’onore until she softens in the noble Non mi dir. In Così fan tutte, Mozart goes a bit further in terms of characterization – the code of affetti is not used to depict social standings or stock situations. All characters wear and cast off affetti according to their own concepts and misconceptions about themselves. Come scoglio is who Fiordiligi is supposed to be, Per pietà rather who she is in spite of all constraints. Dorabella’s evolution is more evident – just compare the Gluckian Smanie implacabili with the divertimento-like È amore un ladroncello (the titles themselves say it all).

I am not able to affirm that Beethoven – who always wished Così fan tutte were more serious than it is – can be counted as a step further in our story. In Fidelio, it is clear that Leonore and Florestan sing differently from everyone else. They are idealized people and sing idealized music – their vocalità is just impossible, they writing is unfit for real-world people. But that is a very effective music-dramatic point nonetheless. I wonder if this was intentional. I mean, it is clear that this is an effect he wanted – the characters in the first version of the opera (the one we call “Leonore”) don’t have these superhuman vocal lines. In any case, in Italy things had taken a more conventional turn until Verdi dominated the local operatic scene (and the whole world of opera soon after that). In Verdi, each character has its way of singing – when we have Amneris and Aida singing together, it is never like Norma and Adalgisa doing each their take on the same musical ideas. In Aida, these scenes are a clash not only of personalities, but vocal styles. Even in the duet with Radamès, one can hear that Aida’s music has a different flavor from the straightforward lines sung by the tenor. However, it is La Traviata the work everybody refers to when speaking of Verdi’s ability to depict the psychological development of a character. Violetta is said to be a part “that requires a different singer for each act”. Yes, intoxicated Violetta sings coloratura, Violetta in love sings lyric lines and Violetta the victim sings almost dramatic music before Violetta the angel sings… angelic music. I wonder if this is why sopranos love the role in spite of all the schmaltz and the conventionality.

A friend once asked me if Tannhäuser is Wagner’s Violetta. The role has an ambiguous vocalità – when he does what he is supposed to (even in Venusberg), he sings Weberian lines. When he unleashes his full personality, it is bona fide Musikdrama. Well, yes, but we could say the same about Senta – good-girl Senta sings à la Weber, “demented” Senta sings Wagner. This does make sense, but Wagner’s vocal writing is so intimately related to the text and the dramatic situations that it would be impossible to think that Brünnhilde or Siegfried could sing in any other way. Would Wagner be then the nec plus ultra of vocal characterization? I wouldn’t say that, for there is Richard Strauss, who learned from both Wagner and Verdi in this department. In Die Frau ohne Schatten, not only does each character sing in a different vocal style – the orchestra itself changes color for each of them. It is more than a consequence of the text and the dramatic situations (although it is also there) – it is the  vocal approach itself. It is rare to find a singer who sings both the Kaiserin and the Färberin in the same phase of her career. She would need an astounding technique to be able to shift from Aida one day to Amneris the next day.

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I had mixed feelings about this Elektra before I saw it. When the Festival sent me their brochure, I did not make a point of seeing it at all. Then everything change, the operas and concerts on my schedule have been cancelled all of them and travelling to Austria became basically impractical at this point. But the fact that it remained in the program seemed  a beacon in the darkness and at the same time an event bizarrely similar to that short-story by Edgar Allan Poe in which a group of rich people lock themselves in a castle to throw lavish masked balls while a deadly disease kills everybody outside. But I watched the telecast with pleasure, even if I cannot tell if I really endorse all the musical and directorial choices there. In any case, it is a relevant performance.

Stage directors have been increasingly trying to demonumentalize Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra, most notably Patrice Chéreau, who seemed to prove Tolstoy wrong and show that all unhappy families can be alike too.  Krzysztof Warlikowski tries to make these mythic characters relatable, but his staging seems rather like Warlikowski wrapping Hofmannsthal in his own agenda. I mean no reproach on saying this – this what the Polish director has been doing for a while with various degrees of success. My intuition suggested that his focus would be Klytämnestra. After all, she fits this “Blue Velvet”-style “woman with a past” that seems to be one of the themes of his theatrical investigation, as we see in his productions of Cherubini’s Medée or Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. Indeed, a spoken prologue has been added to the play, in which Klytämnestra has the floor and justifies herself for having killed Agamemnon (we all basically know why from many theatrical and operatic versions of the Iphigenia story).  That is why I found so funny to see the character shown during the opera as another variation of Cruella de Vil rather than as a real person (as Chéreau did, for instance). I took a while to adjust to the sexualized Elektra, fidgety rather than wild. Hofmannsthal raises the issue in one line in the play “Mein Scham habe ich geopfert”. I myself had not given it much attention, until I read an essay by Ludwig Scheidl that affirms “Elektra is shown as a victim of rape by Aegysth” and later “The ill treatment, the loss of her youth and beauty, the repressed and violated sexuality make Elektra a fury of revenge”. In Warlikowski’s production, one can see all that in Elektra – her portrayal of a sexually abused woman is almost similar to what one sees in TV series like Law&Order SVU. I am not fond of Ausrine Stundyte’s voice – I have always found it opaque and rather throaty – but she has always been a terrific actress. Here, both her acting and her singing embody the “broken” Elektra of the director’s vision. I don’t know how well her soprano projected in the Felsenreitschule, but she sounds surprisingly in charge and I had never had the impression she would not make it (unfortunately an experience everyone of us has had with the singer in the title role at some point of our lives). And yet she is never a “fury of revenge”, but rather someone who wishes that she could be the person really capable of accomplishing everything she talks about. Here she is rather background noise. Has Warlikoski taken liberties with the libretto? I cannot say he did. In fact, Elektra herself realizes she has failed to perform the single part at hand for her in the revenge plan: she forgets to give Orest the axe of which she had been speaking since the beginning of the opera.

I also agree that Chrysothemis is somehow the only character in the play that outgrows the family disease. She wants to have her own family, she wants to get out of that place, but she cannot because she won’t leave her sister behind. Warlikoski goes a step futher – here it is Chrysothemis who keeps the household functional. She is no victim. When Elektra accuses her, she chuckles and makes a “here she goes again”-expression. She gets rid of Aegysth herself and has this “managerial” attitude while walking around in glittery pink when not in her bra. I personally believe that the character would have gained more with less. But Asmik Grigorian embraced the directorial choices with a passion and sang famously – her bright soprano lashing bright, firm high notes as if they were nothing. Brava. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner has an immediate advantage over the competition – she is not a veteran singer in the end of her career. Her voice is healthy, her high notes particularly rich and she is giving her all here. The middle register, so important in this role, is a bit foggy, but she has attitude to spare – and delivers her lines in the prologue immerse in sacro fuoco. Warlikowski’s take on Orest is right on the spot – the character devised by Hofmannsthal is no hero and pales in comparison to his sisters, even the “broken” one. Derek Welton is vocally and physically well cast – his baritone has an almost gentle glow that matched Stundyte’s felt-like tone in the recognition scene.

I find Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting rather puzzling. I don’t know how it sounded live. First, it seemed that he was keeping the Vienna Philharmonic on a leash to help his lighter-voiced prima donna, what is a good idea. Strauss himself would advise conductors not to “help” him – the score is dramatic enough as it is. What really puzzled me is the fuzzy articulation – it made me think of some of Herbert von Karajan’s later recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic, when you felt that the outlines of notes were erased and phrases felt like impressions. As we see in his rehearsal of the prelude to Tannhäuser in the film “Karajan in Salzburg”, the late Austrian conductor actually asked his musicians to play like that.  If this approach makes the work more “approachable”, it also makes it less incisive. In comparison, Solti in his studio recording sounds like a barbarian presiding over a carnage. I wouldn’t take Solti as a model here, but I miss the specificity of a Karl Böhm, whose conducting involved absolute structural clarity and an awareness of effect that made Richard Strauss’s score SPEAK. Curiously, there is only one moment in which Welser-Möst really made me think of Karajan’s own Salzburg Elektra (with Astrid Varnay): the scene with Aegysth, in which Karajan’s depicted Elektra’s cynicism in luxuriant waltz rhythms worthy of Der Rosenkavalier.

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