Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for September, 2020

Music lounge (9)

We often praise performers when they are able to provide us with what we suppose to be something close to the composer’s intentions. However, it is difficult to say what the composer had in mind other than by reading the score. And the score rarely says everything. Well, thank God! For instance, I am not sure that Handel had the full notion of what he was doing when he wrote Orlando. Although it is supposed to be a “drama per musica”, i.e, an opera seria, the libretto, adapted by an unknown poet from Carlo Capeci’s L’Orlando (after Ariosto, of course), is hardly bona fide serious. The plot involves many farsical episodes and, most important, there is a splash of mezzo carettere in these roles. For instance, the prima donna role, Angelica. Her relationship with Medoro does not entirely follow protocol – and she has no problem in using the gullible Dorinda to her own purposes. Angelica is of royal blood, and one would expect a serious role to be beyond reproach. On the other hand, the shepherdess Dorinda is shown as a very noble character, selfless, innocent and of good nature. The title role, Orlando, has very little heroic quality – here one sees an oafish figure whose sole purpose in life seems to be harassing Angelica. With its high quota of misunderstandings and plot twists and people lying to each other, this could almost seem a baroque Feydeau, but the truth is that almost every character in the plot is miserable at some point and the atmosphere is extremely melancholic. All scenes happen outdoors and characters often muse about nightingales, laurel trees, green meadows, gentle brooks etc etc.

Maybe because the libretto is all over the place and hard to frame, Handel’s music is often puzzling too. It was not an unmitigated success with the audience – even the leading man, the castrato Senesino wasn’t happy with what he had to sing, and Handel and him parted ways after this. Actually, Orlando was the last drop in Handel’s operatic enterprise at the Haymarket theatre. His Orlando was too eccentric and it was the excuse his rivals needed to get rid of him. I wonder if Handel did not make it on purpose. After that, at the Covent Garden, he found almost ideal creative in a more congenial entourage, even if financially the whole thing was even shakier. But back to Orlando. Let’s imagine that we were the original audience, going to the Haymarket to see Orlando. If you want to imagine how they felt, we have to use the première of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as an element of comparison. You are going to see this mystery movie – and you know how it works, Janet Leigh is a star and she will get in some trouble, but, of course, nothing really bad is going to happen to her. You don’t really feel scared, because you know the drill. The film has hardly begun – and there goes Janet Leigh, murdered in the shower. Everything can happen, you’re not so sure you’re not afraid of what comes next. Well, Orlando was almost like that. First, it is very difficult to tell who has the prima donna role – you could almost imagine that Dorinda is a finta pastorella, a princess in disguise. Her arias are almost as expressive as Angelica’s, they even sing together lines that are almost identical in the trio with Medoro. Only in the end of the opera, she gets an aria that shows that she is not an aristocrat. But again – to compensate for her prima donna-ish lines, the irregularities and awkward turns of phrase in that aria are so technically difficult that the seconda donna could just steal the show with it. Angelica could be a character in Law & Order – she is victim of stalking, kidnapping etc, all from her abusive self-appointed fiancé, Orlando. Musically she lives in her own long-lined, absolutely legato-ish world. She clings to it even when reality is screaming at her, never more evidently than in her duet with Orlando, when she keeps changing Orlando’s hellbent tempo to her own “Lascia ch’io pianga”-like routine. And there is Orlando, whose Protean mad scene is one of the jewels of baroque opera.

Most conductors, faced with so many possibilities, like to highlight the brilliant, glittery nonsense with fast tempi, swift accents, while encouraging singers to very pointed, theatrical performances – but not William Christie. In his recording with Les Arts Florissants he seems to believe that Handel had a glimpse of the 19th century here and shows this as a proto-Berliozian opera. His orchestra is warm in sound, the atmosphere is sensual, you feel you are in this magic forest where everything happens and the cast is entirely made of fruity, Mozartian voices, crowned by the dark contralto of Patricia Bardon in the title role rather than the countertenor one often finds in this part. I would say that his boldest move in the whole recording is his lyrical, elegiac approach for the Angelica/Dorinda/Medoro trio, and this is the recording we’re hearing today. With its upward swooping accompaniment and its relatively simple texture, one can hear that this is supposed to be faster, brighter, sprightlier than what we hear here. Actually, this is what you hear in every other recording, most notably Christopher Hogwood with Arleen Augér and Emma Kirkby. Not here – Christie makes it the baroque answer to the final trio of R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, with its increase in harmonic tension and the soprano voices soaring in exquisite long phrases. Here he takes Dorinda’s point of view, she is genuinely heartbroken. Her misery is so evident that both Angelica and Medoro, who never really cared about her feelings before this moment, feel that they should offer her some solace.

Christie faces here many challenges – in his slower tempo, one can sense that the music does not have substance enough. He relies in a very warm continuo to fill in the blanks and a strong sense of legato of all involved. The up-and-down phrase in the strings that usually gives this number a sense of forward movement here sounds entirely transformed into a gentle rocking, the orchestra itself is embracing the heartbroken Dorinda. One may wonder if cutting against the grain of the music makes sense in the big picture of the score. This is where I have to agree with William Christie. It is said that the first Dorinda, Celeste Gismondi felt more at home in soft affetti and that Handel couldn’t help writing music that agreed to her natural instincts. Dorinda’s first solo after the trio is one of Handel’s most exquisite birdsong arias – Quando spieghi i tuoi tormenti – the text of which says “When you detail your torments, lovesick nightingale, it seems that you are singing and weeping at once – this is the accompaniment to my suffering”. Dorinda’s sadness is real – and the trio is the moment when she finally realises that her hope of having Medoro is lost forever. As I have written before, the text here is an example of Italian theatre’s hallmark blend of tragedy and comedy. It has to bring a smile and a tear to our faces – and that is why William Christie’s recording is so special.

It also features an ideal cast, with accordingly special singers. For instance, Rosemary Joshua’s shimmering, glowing soprano is exactly what the role of Angelica requires. Here she often has the upper line, often a long note. In Joshua’s voice these notes flicker like candlelight, you can almost feel the warmth. When both sopranos sing together, the combinations of their vibratos create a frisson in the listener, it is almost a physical sensation. And that is because the role of Dorinda was given to Rosa Mannion, a singer incapable of banality. Mannion always seemed like a full lyric soprano in the making, but it seems her career was shortened by health issues. It is a pity – her Pamina (for William Christie too) and Dorabella (for John Eliot Gardiner) shows that Mozart was becoming her core repertoire. She sings the role of Dorinda with amazing poise and great feeling and almost convinces the audiences that her “awkward” aria is not really awkward. They are joined by contralto Hilary Summers, here probably in her best recording. Medoro is the opposite of a hero – he is 100% lover – and Summers achieves that “in love with love” impression without making it too feminine, what is an admirable achievement.

Read Full Post »

Music lounge (8)

We’re crossing the alps this week for an Italian item in the music lounge, which is the aria In quelle trine morbide from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. This is the Italian’s composer first truly big hit, in its curious 18th century setting*. The title role is challenging in many ways. The character itself – as devised by the Abbé Prévost – is very elusive. Manon is not a mean person. She only finds it unfair that some people have so much and she has very little, while she sees no obvious reasons for that. Actually, in one scene, she even says that, unlike her sugar daddy, she looks like someone who should have money. Her attachment to Des Grieux is sincere from the beginning, although she is so self-centered that she rarely cares about his feelings. That is also why she is not ashamed of telling him things as they are – from her point of view, of course. This means that you can’t really build an interpretation from a virago point-of-view, for Manon is not making a stand for anything. If she had been born in a rich family, she might have been a “classically” good girl. Vocally, it is basically very tough singing – the tessitura is often low, the high notes are exposed, the orchestra is big – and to add an 18th century flavor to the proceedings – Puccini asks for trills and other other baroque-ish turns of phrase. The last act is plainly dramatic soprano repertoire.

I have always found that no other soprano competes with Renata Tebaldi in the role. Tebaldi is a singer who has gone a bit off the radar these days. Some consider her singing old-fashioned, some point out technical glitches (especially her high notes), some choose to put things into a Callas vs. Tebaldi perspective, in which the latter is supposed to be “dull” one. There is some point in today’s audience lack of enthusiasm about Tebaldi. First, we who never heard her live miss a very important element of her singing – it was a truly big voice, albeit a lyric one, with heavenly pianissimi and smooth legato. Second, her official recordings show her in a very restricted repertoire – basically Puccini and Verdi – while she was a rather adventurous performer within the realms of opera in Italian language (or in translation). She sang Mozart, she sang Wagner and some very obscure composers. Even if Tebaldi could be variable – mostly in her late recordings – she was one of the first Italian sopranos I’ve really listened to and I took immediate liking to her. I can’t say she has set a standard for me – because I find her unique. I am curious about how she was trained – it is evidently a natural voice (and that is why she got away with some technical problems a less naturally gifted singer would have to master if she wished to have a professional career) whose natural qualities were left… natural. There are no tricks in her voice – it sounds almost as a spoken voice on steroids in its firmness, sheen, tonal congeniality and clarity of diction. It is a voice that sounds real. Even as Manon Lescaut, a role in which she opts for a “girlish” sound, as sopranos used to do in the first part of the 20th century. Actually, it is notable that in a part with a difficult tessitura such as Manon, Tebaldi could manage the girlish voice as successfully as she does. In the book, Manon is very young – and although the music requires almost Wagnerian passion – Tebaldi copes with both demands comfortably.

Tebaldi was not a marathon-runner as an interpreter – such as Callas was, for instance. She worked with micro-objectives, responding directly to the text, small paintbrushes. One could rightly point out that in the end, she would not build a fully coherent character (the way Callas did), but she rarely let down in what each line required. I don’t really believe – although everybody likes to describe Tebaldi as not particularly bright (I must say that this description usually comes from people who conversed with her in a language other than Italian) – that her interpretative touches were fully spontaneous. Sometimes, she would indulge in formulae – like singhiozzi – but she really knew how to use them and, most importantly, WHERE to use them.

In Manon’s In quelle trine morbide, I believe she has no rivals. It is an exquisite concoction in every detail, almost vocally immaculate, in which she concentrates only in bringing that woman to life, young, beautiful, ambitious, egoistic and passionate. YouTube seems to have a problem with Tebaldi – almost all video have terrible sound quality. I first thought of choosing Poveri fiori from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (in which Tebaldi reigns unrivalled), but I couldn’t find a decent clip. But after a long process of selection, I did find a good clip of the Puccini item. I warn you that the cover image with Giulini as the conductor is probably wrong. It seems to me that this is only the Erede recording after a good remastering.

One special feature of Tebaldi’s singing is the fact that she was able to produce bell-toned singing in such large scale. I can’t think of anyone else able to do this – maybe Fiorenza Cossotto in her good days. And this is how she starts, singing the words In quelle trine morbide (among these soft curtains) in absolutely pearly tones, you can almost see those wonderful, smooth velvet curtains all around, but she really got me in the lovely portamento in MORbide (soft). It adds a touch of disdain, as if she said “right, they’re expensive, but booooring”. The purity of tone with which she descends to nell’alcova dorata (in this golden sleeping room) is short of miraculous. She is not scaling down to achieve the effect, she is just able to keep this creamy lyric quality in an area most lyric sopranos need to shift to the second gear to move on. It is amazing how she creates a dramatic effect here – you have this lovely voice describing a golden room with velvet curtains and when she says v’è un silenzio (there is such a silence), you get it is not a “good” silence. The voice gains body when she says it – she hates that room. And when when she repeats it, it’s in her softest of voices with luxuriant portamenti, “yes, but being poor is worse than glamorous boredom”. But that’s the problem with Manon – she is not as scheming and self-controlled as she wished – she wants the money and the comfort, but in her soul she wants more than that. And that is why the whole legato and lyric tone goes away in un freddo che m’aghiaccia (it just freezes me). Then we have this beautiful transition to the part when she describes what she lost from the days when she chose love over money (i.e., when she lived with Des Grieux in his student quarters). Her whole voice sounds laden with a new energy in Ed io che m’ero avezza a una carezza voluttuosa (And I who got used to voluptuous caresses), but still Tebaldi does not let herself entirely go there. She is able to suggest the passion but she avoids all the easy tricks here – she doesn’t overstress syllables like caREZza or volutTUosa (in a later recording, that is exactly what she does). She softens the tone in both these syllables. She is not desperate here – and this is not obvious – because as much as she liked being loved, she likes money and luxury even more. She is just melancholic, she wished she could have both. Even in the climax of the first part of the aria she keeps it within the realms of longing rather than anguish. Di labbra ardenti ed infuocate braccie/Or ho tutt’altra cosa (of ardent lips and fiery arms/And now… what a difference!). The transition of the fulness of tone of “or ho” to the flicker in TUTt’altra cosa tells you everything you have to know about Manon. This is not heartache, dejection, depression – that shimmer in the tutta is like a gentle laugh. She is there, all comfy, thinking, glamour is great, but sex is better.

Then we have another transition, this time she goes a little bit deeper in her recollections. Although she is in this golden, velvety room, the simple, unadorned room in which she lives with Des Grieux appears in front of her. It looks brighter, whiter, happier because it was full of love. Ah, mia dimora umile, tu mi ritorni innanzi (Oh, my humble dwelling, I can see you again) is sung with her bell-toned voice, the slow portamento in innanzi as if she didn’t want that image go. Gaia, isolata, bianca (cheerful, isolated, white) is the single moment when we can sense Tebaldi’s Achilles heel – the note in bianca (white) feels a bit tense, but she uses it to her favor as a contrast to the lovely spun piano in the end of the phrase, rounded off with a lovely gasp: the image is gone. The last phrase Come un sogno gentile (as a sweet dream of peace and love), is sung in a new tone, entirely shimmering, floated, a dream-like sound. She sings di pace (of peace) in her most silvery voice and again uses her breathing before the creamy pianissimo in d’amor for the dramatic purpose of the sudden realisation of the luxury good really in shortage there: love.

It is a memento of Tebaldi’s artistry how she managed to show you that this is no tragic scene – it is not Vissi, d’arte – it is just fancying, it is heartfelt and superficial at the same time. This is Manon – she wants it all – but she knows that nothing is worse than poverty. Only when she faces real misery she finally understands what is important to her. But that’s later in the opera and the whole approach to singing is different. And Tebaldi does it in the grand manner too.

As Jerold has kindly pointed out in his comment, the YouTube video embedded above is not available in all countries. I will keep it, though, because it is in exceptionally good sound. But the Erede recording with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande can be easily found on YouTube anywhere.

*Actually, this is not the only verismo opera set in the settecento – there is always Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur to start with.

Read Full Post »

Music lounge (7)

In one of the most famous standards of bossa nova repertoire, Tom Jobim’s Wave (the original title in English), one line says “it is impossible to be happy when you’re alone”. Well, German poet Richard Dehmel begs to differ. I used to joke that his Waldseligkeit is the most German of love poems. You only discover that there is a beloved one in the last verse, and what the poet actually tells her is that he is truly hers when he is at his 100% himself, i.e. alone in the woods. That means – she is not even there! But Richard Strauss – who had a strange way with choosing the texts for his songs – makes this happen. And – curious as it may sound – you would believe your beloved one if he/she told that strange amorous feeling about you when away from you if he/she told you just the way Strauss composed it. Especially if you heard it from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in her studio recording with Georg Szell and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. If I had to pick one recording to prove why she was so famous, this would be the one. Here, everything plays to her strengths and her husband Walter Legge should be praised for producing such a special recording – ideal singer, ideal conductor, ideal orchestra, ideal Tonmeister. It is the crème de la crème of recorded music.

It is said that Strauss composed the song having his wife’s Pauline de Ahna’s soprano in his mind. It seems she did not sing anymore when he composed it, but she was the model for the vocalism required here, for one of her special talents was the ability to float sustained notes. I never thought the piano version was what the composer had in mind as a final idea. It feels empty and the accompanying figures in the orchestra – even with the very best pianists – are hard to make out. Norman del Mar in his Critical Commentary of Richard Strauss’s Life and Works even says the piano version had always been a draft for the orchestral version, although he cannot prove that. He is right – you just need to hear the orchestral version and the whole spell is there. The orchestral sound picture for the first stanza is a miracle of musical description. The low tessitura, the warm sounds of strings give an impression at once intimate and wide – a forest. And there is this up-and-down figure that works like a “walking bass” in Klangfarbenmelodie technique shared among wind instruments – the trees stirring, gently touching each other in the night breeze. And the soprano sings very long lines that has an almost hypnotic effect – one feels spirited away to this magic landscape. Actually, this magic moment that makes the forest so special. As much as in the closing scene of Daphne, the tessitura gradually rises – there to depict Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree (Karl Böhm used to say that we could hear the tree rising in the very orchestral sound), here to depict the poet’s bosom swelling with the magical moment, he is one with the forest and as wide as the forest, he is at his fullest – and that is how he can defines how he feels towards his beloved. He has to be alone in this forest because otherwise he wouldn’t be able to grasp the immensity of his feeling. And that is why the last word in the poem is so important – and what is usually called Schwarzkopf’s mannerisms is here something of a hyperconsciousness – she doesn’t let go any expressive device to show this unusual declaration of love – it has to be one long, seamless gesture that ends in “Dein!” (yours). And she does it.

In many interviews, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf explained how she cultivated her trademark felt-like tonal quality. When you see her sing, you can actually understand the whole method employed by her to cover her tone in a way that you would not hear any metallic overtone in it, something she would consider vulgar. But she was also able to shift to a more “open” sound, especially when she thought that the material required something more “natural”, folklike – then her voice had an appealing, almost pop sound. And, not surprisingly, she builds her Waldseligkeit from the “natural” sound towards her “cultivated” sound. You can hear the natural sound in “Der WALD”, it is almost white, childish-like in tone. You can almost hear her wide-eyed facial expression in it – as if she was eager to tell us something. Now she got your attention and keeps it by means of absolutely perfect legato. You hear her breath, but it’s part of the same arch, she starts over with the exact same sound and she “inhabits” every long note. It’s not the fixed, computer-beep sound many singers believe that they have to produce there, they are shimmering as the dusk through the canopies of leaves moving to the breeze. The way she attacks the mezza voce in Nacht (night) is one of the loveliest sounds every produced by a singer. You can feel what she is talking about only by listening to that sound. The way she sings als ob sie selig lauschen” (as if they were blissfully listening) is another example of the tonal contrast – she starts the phrase with the roundest of sounds, relishing the chromatic descent that effectively describes the sensation, the bliss until she goes back to the “natural” sound in lauschen (listening). It sounds almost childlike – but it adds a touch of excitement, she is describing something out of this world (actually – it is just the forest, but under the right light it sounds something out of this world). Then we have the very long high d in the vowel ü in which Schwarzkopf’s again shimmering sound soars over the woodwind buzz of crickets and other night insects that gradually merges with her voice (Szell… and the Tonmeister…. do it exactly as it should be). Again, this long floated note cannot sound like an instrument – it has to be alive, spun by the singer and not just kept there. This is a song of details and a tiny mistake kills the atmosphere. It is the same with the orchestra, which is reminiscent of the scene in Tristan und Isolde when we hear the sounds of the night and Isolde says Nicht Hörnerschall tönt so hold.

The first stanza is about the setting. The second one is about its effect on the poet – and Strauss marks that change by having the soprano sing in a very uncomfortable area pretty close to the end of a soprano’s “natural” register. This is the moment in which, for instance, Felicity Lott (whose recording is otherwise very good) almost speaks and the effect is the opposite of sensuous. Here the text says Und unter ihren Zweigen, da bin ich ganz allein (And beneath their branches, I am completely alone). This line – in the bottom register of the soprano voice – for me has an almost “studied artlessness”, an “innocent sexiness” that makes me think of the suspended, harmonically ambiguous lines sung by Mélisande in the scene in the tower in Debussyé Pelléas et Mélisande, when the soprano says apparently meaningless lines such as Il fait beau cette nuit. Schwarzkopf manages it through her “natural” sound – it is hard to keep a flowing line that way and one can almost hear the technique working there. It is at the same time sincere and insincere – I don’t think that this what Dehmel had in mind but it adds an extra layer here. And the way she handles the pause before allein (alone) as if she was stressing “alone, in the evening, in the forest”. It is at once fairy-tale-like and provocative, as if she were confessing something. The next line is a difficult transition back into the second octave. Sometimes one hears a bump in the line – not here. Schwarzkopf does it very smoothly, slightly covering the tone, everything fleece-like in sound, especially the first long “ganz”. It colors the harmonic shift just happening there in its absolute floating quality. She increases the dynamic very smoothly and breathes very expressively after the word nur (only) as some sort of frisson. It comes just before the word Dein (yours) which Strauss saves for later. She is not ready yet to say it. The last phrase is so multifaceted, I could hear it again and again. We’re in the “cultivated” sound when she sings again ganz (entirely), she moves from note to note with increasing concentration, some very elegant and extremely discrete use of portamento until again she says nur and breathes, but the breathing is entirely different here. Here she gathered the impulse to say dein (which she finally says) in her “natural”, artless, but no longer childlike tone. The way she manages this note is something to be studied – it is again an almost white sound but it keeps changing color, it verges on breathiness at one point and intonation is almost suspect at another moment.

Szell and the Berlin Radio orchestra are always ideal in it – the way the orchestra blends with the soprano voice, especially in long notes is short of miraculous. Some may say Schwarzkopf risked all that because it is a studio recording. Yes, this is true, but it doesn’t mean that she couldn’t make something of that song in concert. If you look on Youtube for her video in Paris with Berislav Klobucar, you’ll find an entirely different interpretation, less multifaceted than in the studio one year before but still vocally effective. Someone comments “she’s struggling there, but it is still interesting”. My answer is “everybody struggles there – and they are rarely interesting”.

Read Full Post »

Dame vs. Kavalier

Der Rosenkavalier is arguably R. Strauss’s most popular work and often appears among the most performed operas in German language. The opera’s final trio was performed in his funeral (with Marianne Schech, Maud Cunitz, Gerda Sommerschuh, Solti conducting). It has been a staple in the repertoires of opera houses under the world greatest conductors, Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber – and yet I have rarely found anyone who doesn’t find it too long – especially act 3. I personally enjoy a performance of Der Rosenkavalier, but everything from 15 minutes after the delivery of the silver rose until the arrival of the Marschallin in act 3 only really hits home if the orchestra is phenomenal, the conductor is a master and the Ochs is… Kurt Moll. That means, this never happens. On the other hand, I really have a great time whenever I watch Arabella. Maybe the Fiakerball could be a bit shorter, but it is not that long either. I mean, Hofmannsthal died before he could prepare a final edition of the libretto and I bet he would have adjusted one or two things, but I find it the way it is superior to the one he wrote for Der Rosenkavalier.

Yes, Der Rosenkavalier has a great character – the Feldmarschallin – who isn’t even the opera’s main character, although Strauss’s music makes us believe otherwise. Other than this, all scenes she is not involved (i.e., most of the opera) are dramatically underdeveloped and rather broad in their slapstick comedy. I am convinced that this is due to the concern with propriety and audiences’ sensibilities. There are some very serious issues dealt with too superficially: the first one is Herr von Faninal’s disregard of his own daughter’s welfare as long as he gets her married into blood aristocracy. There is nothing new there – many 18th century comedies have a plot like that, a girl engaged against her will who only gets to marry the nice young man she loves after she and her servants put in place a plot to show the unwanted fiancé’s bad character. Yet Faninal is particularly odious in the way he pretends not to see Baron von Lerchenau’s true colors. The intended husband behaves disgracefully from moment one, even the servants are shocked – but he does not care. It is different from Orgon in Molière’s Tartuffe, for instance. Orgon has a strong admiration for Tartuffe and believes that he is a man of superior moral standing. The moment he realizes his future son-in-law is a ruffian and a hypocrite, he immediately expels him from the house. Not Faninal, who is ready to accept Ochs’s lack of respect as long as he gets what he wants: aristocratic connections. Faninal’s venality is rather glossed over by the libretto. The character is shown rather under a positive perspective, a likeable fool.

The other and most complex issue is the gender issue. Everybody says Octavian is a soprano roles because Strauss liked the soprano voice and wanted to write a role like Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. However, one has to understand that act 3 would have been a bit challenging for the audience if we had back then a male singer being made love to by another male singer. I wonder how many important tenors or baritones would have accepted a role that involved being dressed as a girl for so long. It would have also been musically difficult to compose the scenes with Mariandl. The usual solution – falsetto – would have been testing for the singer and also the audience in such long stretches of music. More than that, it would have exposed something obvious: that Ochs is sexually attracted to a guy. Many productions have touched indirectly at the issue by relating Ochs’s misogynistic behaviour (the only female character he treats courteously is the Marschallin, because she is superior in social standing rather than for the fact that she is a woman) to some sort of sexual dysfunction (i.e., his lack of interest for women). One production from Salzburg made things even more complex by having Ochs using his own natural son, Leopold, as a sexual proxy. Anyway, the fact that this central question is left unspoken makes Der Rosenkavalier rather vacuous as a drama – and it is no wonder that Strauss himself felt tempted and pressured Hofmannsthal in making the Marschallin the main point of interest in the story. There we do have the whole story told – I can’t help making a connection between her and the Marquise de Merteuil in Laclos’s Les liaison dangereuses. Both are women married straight from the convent only to discover how disappointed and cheated they felt by everyone and tried to get the best of what they could do – having some fun. While the Marquise inflicts an unjust revenge on the younger woman very like herself some decades ago (she claims the revenge is against the husband to be), the Marschallin finds empathy for the young woman and rediscovers her personal worth in something beyond beauty, youth, fortune and social standing: her own goodness.

On the other hand, I find Arabella’s libretto – unrevised as it is – a masterpiece in terms of structure. It is the intelligent’s person version of a romantic comedy. And Hofmannsthal did it on purpose. We can tell that from the first scene with the fortune-teller: she tells us straightaway everything that is going to happen in the story. So, yes, it is a clichéed story, now let’s pay attention. As much as in Der Rosenkavalier, we have a secondary character promoted to the the pole position. But here that was the idea from the start. Hofmannsthal’s inspiration for Arabella was a story about a girl dressed as a boy (i.e., Zdenka), but soon the pretty and shallow sister took pride of place. But not so fast – in the end of the story, Arabella acknowledges that Zdenka is the best sister. She is the one who has done the great generous action that redeemed all other characters, although all other characters had taken her for granted and practically abused her good nature without thinking twice. She received nothing and gave everything – when Arabella realizes how indebted she is to her sister, then she finally rises to title-role status. It is no coincidence, that Arabella is written with an A and Zdenka with a Z – they are the alpha and omega. When she learns from Zdenka’s example, Arabella helps her marry her beloved Matteo and forgives her fiancé, because she has learned that not everything has to be about her. Then she is worthy of the happy end the fortune-teller promised her mother in the first scene. And differently from Der Rosenkavalier, everybody’s dark sides are there for everyone to see. Even Zdenka’s. And that is why one feel more comfortable to like all of them, even the father who wants to marry her daughter for money. When Mandryka freaks out and is disrespectful to Arabella, Waldner immediately looks for his gun to defends his daughter’s honor (only he had pawned them to have money to gamble…).

Musically, Arabella has an immediate advantage over Der Rosenkavalier: it is more concise. Many critics say that Strauss lacked inspiration, that he borrowed traditional Slavic songs for the most emotional moments. I don’t care – beautiful as the duet with both sopranos is, it is not my favorite moment in the opera. The way he integrated cantabile in fast dialogue scenes – as in Arabella’s farewell to her three suitors – is an exemplary balance between music and theatre. Also, Arabella’s monologues are not what one could call an “aria” in a Musikdrama (such as Du bist der Lenz in Wagner’s Die Walküre); these are real scenes that only produce their final effect in the context of a performance. They are different too from the kind of monologue as we find in Der Rosenkavalier, in which the soprano has a chamber-like orchestra and a comfortable tessitura that allow her to color her tone as in a Lied. Arabella is lost in thoughts with the full orchestra and it is always a tough piece of singing. This takes me to the real reason why it is not staged as often as Der Rosenkavalier: it is hell to cast. The role requires a glamorous stage presence and a big lyric voice with easy high notes. And it must be a beautiful voice too. I have seen competent Arabellas short on tonal glamour – it is just half the story. As everybody sings on a rather full orchestra, the roles of Zdenka and Matteo are challenging for the ligher-voiced singers cast in these roles. And Mandryka is like Wotan in Summer vacations. The role requires a singer able to scale down. We must feel that he is formatting herself for salon proportions. That’s what Mandryka is – we have to feel that there is more to what we’re hearing. If we hear it all in full resonance, then it would be too much. Arabella knows that he is from an entirely different world – but she cannot be too afraid of it. This unseen dimension must be fascinating, not frightening.

Unfortunately, I have missed Kiri Te Kanawa’s Arabella on stage. On video – and in her studio recording – I find she achieves the coolness, the chic, the warm-hearted. She was never a very specific interpreter, but in this role she doesn’t need to. The character comes very naturally to her – both in terms of singing and acting. I don’t think that the singer in the role has to make Arabella too clever – she is a woman entirely at a loss there. She doesn’t like who she is, she feels trapped being that woman, but she cannot see a way out. That is why Mandryka rings a bell – he is an outsider. In Kiri Te Kanawa’s biography, she speaks about being different from everyone else and of having to be what is expected from her – and I guess this is why she connects to the role (as she did with Amelia Grimaldi in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra). I find it extremely sad that Felicity Lott’s Arabella was never properly recorded. I have a broadcast from La Scala in very poor sound, and she sounds mesmerising in it. I have hopes one day we’ll be able to have a memento of a successful interpreter of a role rarely performed with success. It would be a beautiful and well-deserved tribute to Lott’s artistry.

Read Full Post »

Music Lounge (6)

I have noticed that the music lounge had featured no tenor so far. Singing as a tenor is tough, and when one wants to refer to paramount recordings made by tenors we end up in a very limited group of singers. And even then, the level of enthusiasm can be restricted to “he doesn’t mess up”. Especially in Lieder, where tenors are considered tonally unvaried and lacking Innigkeit. Yes, Lieder are specially challenging for tenors – the tessitura generally gravitates around the passaggio, there is an unending amount of high g’s (the least favorite note of 9 out of 10 tenors) and no real “high” note to wow the audience.

The problem of tonal coloring for tenors – especially from a high f up – is no fantasy, notably for tenors who sing Romantic opera. Bach tenors usually are those who are well regarded for their Lieder singing – the tessitura, the style, the expressive tools and the approach to the high notes in these songs (i.e., high f#, high g, g# and a) is interchangeably effective. That is why I have always been intrigued by Ian Bostridge’s performance of Lieder, which are central to his repertoire.

Bostridge was for me an acquired taste, for I find his vocal method essentially very complicate. One can sometimes hear the strenuous mechanism in his singing, even see it in his stage attitude. There is some manipulation around the passaggio that makes the voice darker than it naturally is, balanced by very intense focus in the emission. It is very difficult to sing like that, and he is generally successful nonetheless. There is some instability sometimes, but considering the tightrope he is walking on, the final results are remarkable. Some call this technique “floating larynx” or similar names. I generally don’t like to discuss vocal technique, but it is usually defined as actively shifting the larynx position (rather than letting it naturally sit) to achieve either a darker… or a lighter sound. And Bostridge’s mezza voce in that difficult “area” of the tenor voice is almost as fluffy as a soprano’s. Generally, tenors scale down to piano or pianissimo there with “wiry” and fixed sound. Bostridge’s pianissimo is no studio gimmick – you can hear it very well in the theatre. In the end, the balance is very positive – you don’t find here the instrumental clarity and firmness you’d hear with Peter Schreier, for example, but there are surprising perks in terms of variety.

Ganymed is one of my favorite Lieder by Hugo Wolf. His characteristic ambiguous, elusive style fits Goethe’s poem to perfection – the harmony has a peculiar progression that seems to never reach a conclusion, the piano’s kaleidoscopic accompaniment involves the listener like golden droplets shimmering in every direction, one feels what Goethe is talking about. It is impossible to resist the comparison with Schubert’s setting – and I won’t – since it is also a masterpiece in its descriptive writing. Bostridge has actually recorded both. Therefore, it is peculiar that I plainly dislike his account on the Schubert – I find it coy, almost as if he were telling the story to a child. Even the pianist is too forward-moving and square in a poem which is essentially sensuous. Almost everyone resists singing the Schubert from that point of view – and that is why I like Cheryl Studer’s recording. But the Wolf setting leaves the singer no other option. Ian Bostridge has his Schwarzkopf-like mannerisms (and some may point out that she is a reference in Hugo Wolf), but he holds nothing back in this song and chooses a very special point of view – there is something androgynous in his singing here. His technical approach is used a powerful expressive tool – it is like the struggle between the darkened, muscled sound and the soft-textured, floated, heady voice.

Let’s remember the text. The shepherd Ganymede is abducted by a Zeus in the shape of an eagle, infatuated by his peerless beauty and, most curiously, the young man’s status of a hero is then finally revealed. One would expect his heroic quality would emerge of some exploit, but here it comes across as yielding to a superior entity – Zeus, of course. He is then in charge of being the cupbearer of the gods, a task formerly carried on by a goddess, Hebe, finally relieved of her duties because of her marriage to… Hercules. Now let’s talk of a hero. When Hercules was 8 months old, he strangled two giant snakes and played with them as toys. So, no cupbearing for Hercules. Back to Ganymede.

Among his many special effects, Zeus seems to be fond to transform himself into an eagle. He used that when he abducted Semele. Yet differently from Semele, Ganymede had no idea of what was going on at the moment. And that is what Goethe describes – the shepherd is bathed in sunlight and feels overwhelmed by spring. Then he wishes he could embrace it. We’re still using the verb in the active voice at this point. Then – yes, Romanticism – he feels one with nature. In nature’s bosom, all his desires are quenched, but he hears a call from above – a nightingale? – and he feels he must answer. He is ready to follow it – but where to? Then he is lifted and suddenly he is flying – there are no more flowers and meadows, only clouds. Now he is embracing and being embraced. Now he is on the bosom of the all-loving father. Notice – he doesn’t know what happens, but he surrenders nonetheless. He is ready to… cupbearing, It is curious that Semele wanted to be “upgraded” by Zeus, but she was too active and got fulminated. Ganymede did nothing; he surrendered and was raised to the status of a hero. Now back to Hugo Wolf.

When the song begins, we hear Bostridge in his “floating” voice. The mood is immediately sensuous in the way he sustains the line with absolute legato, the kind of Mozartian legato that gives the impression that time stops. This feeling of suspension is challenged by the development on the word Liebeswonne (love bliss) – in the sound “ie”, we feel the tension caused by the subtle gradual darkening of the tone that unbalances the “o” in Wonne. The effect is of a something that goes out of control – longing, desire. Once here, we are no longer in the first “tonal atmosphere” – the voice darkens intermittently from now on in words like “WÄRme” und UnENDlich”. We can feel that there is something missing in this perfect union between Ganymede and nature. He wants more and he says it next: he wants to embrace it with his own arm. It is interesting that Bostridge does not darken the tone for the word “Arm”. That is a spot where he could be tempted to do it – but he attacks it with a straight, Bach-tenor voice. It is still a desire without a body. It is indeed marvelous how Wolf is able to depict this sensuous, but not erotic feeling – and I like the way Bostridge voices this desire with absolute purity of tone. It is different from the moment when he says Liebeswonne – there he was not expressing any thoughts, just experiencing the sensation.

The next stanza – when Ganymede languishes on the bosom of nature until he hears the call – shows Bostridge at his most soprano-ish. The upper note in every phrase floated almost void of chest colouring, while his middle register is often dark in sound, almost baritonal. This creates an interesting contrast – we’re not still in the stanza when he is being flown, but we’re getting there. There is this call from the sky, a nightingale maybe; is it the increasingly hypnotically syncopated line in the piano? When we finally reach the third stanza, there is a sense of climax and it is natural that the singer uses a little bit more voice. But let’s remember – this is not really high and you don’t need to shift to the next gear to keep up with the tessitura. But Bostridge wants to keep some warmth and increasingly uses his “covered” tone, the voice vibrates a bit nervously and there is almost an operatic feeling in his realization that the clouds are bowing to him – to him. He only shifts to his floated tone – and rightly so – when he sees that this is about him serving the all-loving father, that this is why nature is bowing to him.

This is a song tenors rarely sing. One look at the discography shows us that John McCormack is the other notable tenor who recorded it (in 1932). There, he uses mostly a bright, forward sound, which is what one could expect from a tenor in a piece like that. Most recordings feature a soprano – Schwarzkopf, Augér, Upshaw – and the atmosphere couldn’t be more different with a female singer. The tension of having a tenor balancing his registers through the passaggio adds an entirely new dimension to the song – and Bostridge embraces that very difficulty and makes it a musical idea that tells the story beyond the text.

Read Full Post »