Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for November, 2020

Music Lounge (18)

Rinaldo was the first opera Handel composed to be performed in London. He felt that it was a big opportunity for him and realized he should pull all stops if he were to build a name for him in England. This meant to produce a music-dramatic stravaganza that would not give the audience one second out of awe. The production involved all kinds of stage tricks, extravagant costumes, grandiose sets, you name it. Yet in order to guarantee that the music would be up to the level of the staging, Handel decided to play safe and borrow numbers from earlier works such as Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno or Aci, Galatea and Polifemo. Everybody quotes Dean and Knapp’s book Handel’s Operas (and I won’t be an exception): the score was an anthology of the composer’s best works of his Italian period.

Of course, the libretto was based in Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered. Dramatist Aaron Hill prepared a scenario from which librettist Giacomo Rossi wrote in just a couple of weeks his verses about the adventures of the knight Rinaldo and his beloved Almirena, the daughter of the Commander of the First Crusade, here dealing with the Saracen King of Jerusalem, Argante, and the Sorceress Queen of Damascus, Armida (who else?). The audience is supposed to take the two lovebirds’ side, but this is one of those plots like Lohengrin in which it’s difficult to resist the charms of the bad guys. While with Rinaldo and Almirena are either cooing or woeful, Argante and Armida are having the time of their lives being evil and loving it. And they’re also a bit oversexed too, and they have no problem in finding some time for fun (with each other or with other people) while they devise their wicked plans.

The duet Al trionfo del nostro furore takes place in the third act. Both Argante and Armida have their armies in front of them, ready for battle against the crusaders. They promise they are going to curb their enemies, but as soon this nuisance is over, they can always have some quality time together. Handel spares no detail in musically describing the scene, which cannot help having a touch of comedy in this serious setting. First of all, although there are warriors and weapons everywhere, there is no trumpet to be heard in the orchestra, as the military affetto requires. Oboes, the nickname of which in the baroque era was “corno di camera” (in a very free translation, “indoors trumpets”), are used instead. These commanders in chief are thinking rather of what they intend to do inside rather than in what is going to happen outside in the next minute… So here we are with those telenovela bad guys, eye patches matching the color of their suits trying to inspire motivation in their troops.

Handel was an expert in writing duets in which the vocal parts cross back and forth and Al trionfo del nostro furore is no exception. Actually, this almost guides the stage action. Although they have a common enemy (the crusaders), they don’t sing in parallels for long, as if they were fighting for the microphone only to repeat what has just been said. As we’ve seen, they are totally unfocused and have very little interest in the proceedings. They want to win – but they don’t really want to fight. And they gloat and cackle fabulously. Handel uses the rather nasal sound “on” in the word trionfo (triumph) to produce the musical version of an evil laugh. The more they relish their muahahaha, the more asinine they sound. In the end, they don’t come across as truly evil, but rather beastly. No wonder the B section shows them succumbing to each other’s charms; the military affetto is over and they’re just can’t keep their hands off each other, their melisme sensuously intertwining. That’s the moment they remember that the troops are there just waiting for to march for the battlefield. Then it’s time for the repeat of the A section. They have nothing new to say. Actually, they never had anything to say in the first place. As we see, this is masterly use of the ABA form – it perfectly depicts the dramatic situation, as much as Handel’s vocal writing shows the dynamic between these two characters. In the recording we’re hearing today, both singers deliver their lines unadorned, and I find this more effective in this context.  

One may wonder if Handel did not show these two bad guys as too harmless. Well, in the end they accept their defeat more elegantly than some contemporary world leaders. She breaks her magic wand and both convert to Christianity. The crusaders respond by setting them free and the opera ends in a big celebration.*

Christopher Hogwood’s recording of Handel’s Rinaldo with the Academy of Ancient Music was something of an all-star release with Cecilia Bartoli as the ingénue Almirena and David Daniels (then the reigning countertenor in the operatic scene) in the title role. Bernarda Fink appears as Goffredo and we see the names of Bejun Mehta, Catherine Bott and Mark Padmore in tiny roles. However, reviewers were quite puzzled with the casting of Luba Orgonasová and Gerald Finley as the bad guys. It just felt like an old movie in which Joan Fontaine and James Stewart were playing sexy psychos. That said, both Orgonasová and Finley sing superbly and never exaggerate – and that’s the opposite of what most singers in these roles do. As we’ve seen, Handel does not need any help here – it’s all in the notes. The way Aaron Hill and Handel created this opera, Armida and Argante were supposed to leave a flashing impression in the audience. One would utter the 18th century version of “wow!” every time they were on stage, and having congenial voices here fits the concept.

Luba Orgonasová is a singer I know from recordings only. A Mozart soprano with the right touch of Slavic vibrancy, she was a stylish, musicianly Donna Anna and Konstanze for John Eliot Gardiner and a poised Pamina for Armin Jordan on CDs. One could see in the programs of her recorded recitals that she liked Italian roles, but to my ears her voice lacked the last ounce of Italian brightness and her personality was too discreet for them. Fortunately, she was mostly recorded in suitable parts, such as Agathe in Der Freischütz and many sacred works ranging from Haydn to Dvorak. It is sad, though, that there has not been an official release of her singing R. Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder.

This recording of Handel’s Rinaldo was one of the first in a series of high profile releases with Gerald Finley, whom I was lucky to see both in concert and in opera, a technically impeccable singer incapable of bad taste. He himself has acknowledged in interviews that it is hard to see him as someone who plays “bad guy” roles, but he has tried nonetheless. He has even recorded the part of Iago in Verdi’s Otello. Yet it is hard to see any evil in his voice, unless we’re speaking of Handel’s edulcorated approach to evil as seen and heard in his Rinaldo.

*To be honest, in the 1731 revision, Armida and Argante refuse to acknowledge the crusaders’ victory and fly away in a dragon-drawn chariot.

Read Full Post »

Music Lounge (17)

There are voices that seems to be a rule unto themselves – they challenge classification, they impress at the most unexpected turns of phrase, they do not seem to fit any particular role. These are unique voices, which will probably fail to please the first time you hear them, but you will recognise them immediately the minute you hear them again. For instance, Lucia Valentini-Terrani’s smoky mezzo-soprano had a very particular grain. Hers was a voice with many shades, but all of them a little bit hazy, as in a painting by Tiepolo. And yet Valentini-Terrani used her subtle tonal palette with classical discipline. Her first claim to fame was the ease with coloratura that promoted her as a Rossini mezzo, even if she sounded a bit too serious in roles such as Rosina or Angelina. I don’t believe she has ever had an -ina personality, and maybe that is why she ended up singing trouser roles, most especially Arsace in Semiramide. And yet there has always been a very thin layer of varnish in her voice – it was not a diamantine brightness, but rather a pearly sheen, more evident when she was not hard-pressed in heavier roles.

The unusual sound of her voice might have had something to do with the peculiarity of her repertoire. She sang many rare works – and if Mozart did not seem to agree with her voice – she did sing baroque music (most famously in Abbado’s recording of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater) and appeared in Antal Dorati’s recording of Haydn’s La Fedeltà Premiata, one his Esterházy operas.

La Fedeltà Premiata is a very strange work, with tons of recitatives, a large cast and a nonsensical plot. The key figure in this classic Greek setting is Celia (ak.a. Fillide), an ill-fated shepherdess separated by mysterious circumstances from her beloved Fileno. We’re hearing her entrance aria, Placidi Ruscelletti (Peaceful rivulets). She laments her bad luck and, emotionally exhausted, falls asleep, only to be found by…. Fileno! But, of course, things are not going to be easy for them. Every year, a pair of truly faithful lovers are offered in sacrifice to a sea monster (so that it spares the rest of the city inhabitants until the next year). As it seems to be a shortage of a couples that could be described like that, Celia pretends to jilt poor Fileno so that they don’t become the monster’s next snack. Anyway, here Celia doesn’t know all that yet. She is just very unhappy and, as everyone in Arcadian settings, converses with brooks, laurel trees and turtle doves.

The aria opens in full Gluckian glory. This could be a scene in Orphée et Eurydice, and, with one sound, Lucia Valentini Terrani establishes that Celia is the alpha female character in the plot. Almost everybody is in love with her – and the smoky tone is there to spark the attention. You’ll notice that, if the color is exotic, the phrasing is impeccably classic, with every appoggiatura precisely rendered and the line conducted with purity and cleanliness. One extra perk is that, being Italian, she never accents the wrong syllable. You’ll hear her sing “sventuRAto”, “veDESte”. This is not a small detail – not only does this make the text easier to understand, but also gives dynamic profile to phrasing. I am fascinated by the very quality of the sound Valentini-Terrani produces here – it is a tad veiled, but it sparkles somehow in an almost “pianistic” way and it also floats at the same time. This is Haydn and a fussy interpretation would not make sense, but even then there are tiny details. For instance, how she says the word cor (heart) always in a hushed tone. Although she is speaking to the meadows etc, when she thinks of how her heart feels tormented, the voice acquires a subdued quality, exactly as someone would do if he or she would tell you how miserable he is. The voice fails a bit at moments like that, doesn’t it?

The short recitative-like section right in the middle of the aria standing for a b section starts with a slightly darker tone. For an Italian mezzo soprano active in the 1970’s, Valentini-Terrani was very conscious of how to use her chest resonance. The richness is there but she tries to keep it as homogeneous as possible for a matter of style, and the darker color appears right in the only line in the text where nature reflects her misery. Although the brook and the meadows are placid and friendly, the valleys are cloudy and sad like Celia/Fillide. We’re back to the first section, and Valentini-Terrani’s variation in tone colour is very subtle. She sounds a little bit more dejected here, the tone even more appealing in its intriguing colors. Haydn ends the aria with a little bit more energy with an upwards scale and Valentini-Terrani balances it in a way that does not make Celia sound animated. As we’ve seen she is rather depressed here. When she wakes up, however, Fileno will be right in front of her – but then they’ll be in danger too. The libretto, as we know, is awful, but that is undeniably an interesting dramatic situation.

Read Full Post »

Music lounge (16)

I have the feeling that contraltos must be tired of hearing “I love the contralto voice”, but what can I do but agree? I really adore the contralto voice, the cliché “force of nature” is apt and I won’t resist it. No wonder Wagner chose it for Erda. Who can resist the contralto voice when it rings, amidst magical sonorities and stage smoke, in Weiche, Wotan, weiche! It is indeed a sound that would make a god stop whatever he was about to do. Many mezzos with a spacious low register enjoy the incursion in the contralto repertoire, but it just sounds different when one hears the real thing.

Although I could write a long list of favorite singers in the Fach, if I have to keep one example to show someone from another planet what it was all about, I wouldn’t think twice: Helen Watts. I was listening to the Solti Elektra for the first time and, when I heard her sing Dass die Königin solch einen Dämon frei in Haus und Hof sein Wesen treiben lässt, I just thought “wow!”. Her pitch dark, on-your-face low notes are expected in a singer in that voice category, but the voice had a round, free sound throughout her range that made her successful even when the line required a sustained legato in upper reaches. I sometimes hear “her low notes are a bit too masculine” and – yes, they are written in “bold” – but she was successful too in evoking a motherly gentleness that made her particularly appreciated in Bach. She could phrase with instrumental poise too, with precise divisions and super clear diction.

I hesitated before choosing her recording of one of my favourite songs by Brahms, Sapphische Ode. It is a song of Mozartian simplicity, in which there is not one note too much – and everything is made to sound intimate, warm, it feels like being loved. Maybe because of that, some say that Watts is too imposing in it. Yes, if you compare her to Janet Baker in her recording with André Previn, it is more feminine, dreamier, more “in awe” – and I had to listen to these both recordings for a while to confirm that Watts’s is my favorite. Even if I concede that Watts sounds a bit stately in it. I don’t care – what a sound! In any case, I believe that Dalton Baldwin accompaniment is an important part of this performance – he chooses a flowing tempo that helps Watts sound a bit lighter than she would in Previn’s tempo for Baker. Also, the syncopation makes it difficult for us to hear this song as it should – as a boat gently rocked by waves rather than a horse trot. And the sound of his piano is warm and intimate too. The wear in the LP on the YouTube clip make it even more special.

The first impression of this song is its curious title – actually it has none, for it is rather an explanation of its poetic technique. It is a poem written according to classical standards, in Sapphic style. The reference to Sappho, however, means that it is a text to be sung, as it is believed to be the case the odes written by Sappho. The poet of the text in Sapphische Ode, Hans Schmidt, was a friend of Brahms’s and a composer himself. Here he follows the basic cell of a Sapphic ode: four-line stanzas following a pattern of three Sapphic lines (11 syllables, trochaic with the central foot a dactyl) and an Adonic line (5 syllables, a dactyl and a trochee). As much as the piano accompaniment and its syncopated rhythm, the poetic structure gives an irregular sensation due to the mixed nature of metric feet. For instance: ROsen BRACH ich NACHTS mir am DUNklen HAge. The way Brahms composed it involves not only an irregularity of rhythm – harmony is sometimes ambiguous too – but most importantly it constantly explores the shift between registers. It is not vocally impossibly challenging, but the singer must be an expert in navigating the register break. Otherwise she’ll sink.

The text in Hans Schmidt’s poem itself is rather intriguing too and also has a certain “irregularity”, a strangeness in itself. The poet has gone at night to collect roses from a hedge, they smell sweeter than by day. When he moved the branches, he was showered with dew. When he kisses at night his beloved one, he has been entranced as never before, because moved by her own feelings like the branch of roses, her eyes shed tears on him like the dew before that. In the first stanza, we have a natural, macrocosmic perspective much like the first part of a haiku, the peculiarity being its synesthetic simile: we’re speaking of roses and their perfume and then we end on dew and moisture on one’s skin. The movement dislocates the sensation. Next stanza we’re in an entirely different environment – it is a bedroom and we hear of fragrant kisses and then we’re speaking of tears and the moisture on one’s skin. The feeling (love, passion…) dislocates the sensation.

Brahms tries to recreate this dislocation by the “shape” of melodic lines for each half of both stanzas. The song starts with very regular up-and-down lines, even the harmony is “squarer” in the beginning. When he describes the feeling of the dew, harmony becomes a little bit foggy and the lines sinuous. The Adonic line has an entirely different profile – it is the one with a long note and a grupetto. With small variations that intensify some effects, the second stanza works in the same way.

At first, yes, Helen Watts sounds a bit grand-dame-ish for a song about sensuality. But then the non-title – Sapphic ode – makes me think of something academic, like a group of intellectuals trying to recreate the art of Ancient Greece. And I like the way her voice adds depth and authority to the proceedings. In terms of pure singing, she handles the intervals famously – it is solid, uncomplicated singing. One never stops to think if it is difficult or not, it is just a song. What calls attention is the fact that the lower part of her range is so strong. There is a feeling of two perspectives there, a voice that suddenly has “super powers” – and, maybe I’m being too imaginative here, it increases the text and the music idea of something revealing new dimensions when you come closer to it. Actually, Watts does not seem keen here on showing all the darkness of her low notes at every opportunity. She handles her low register very gently in this song. She starts the song very objectively. She softens her tone at one point, exactly the moment when the poet speaks of the dew, in the word Doch (however) and in the end of the same line in the second syllable of Äste (branches). She has a different tone color for the Adonic line – the way she develops her tone in Tau (dew) is admirable. It gains in color very subtly, the effect is similar to experiencing a sensation, letting it sink in your experience and then she sings the grupetto as a Bach singer, very precisely as it should be: it is the description of the dewdrops. She starts the second stanza in a hushed tone – we’re in an indoors setting now – and she increases dynamic and color when she sings about the kisses in the line Die ich nachts vom Strauch deiner Lippen pflückte (plucked at night from the shrubs that are your lips), this sensation indeed makes the poet’s blood run faster in comparison to picking roses in the garden. She starts the line with Doch softly as in the first stanza, but here Brahms changes it a bit and it ends in a lower note (which Watts sing with gusto, of course). She sings the Adonic line quite the same way in the first stanza – as it should be – that’s the whole point of the song – “Du bist wie eine Blume”

There are many good recordings of Sapphische Ode and I’m not trying to say that this one is the best. It is just very special for the outstanding quality of Helen Watts voice and the way she and the pianist recreate the nightly atmosphere. It may lack the last ounce of sensuousness, but I find that other singers who go that way are either uncomfortable with the register break or even miss the “high culture” connection impression that the poem must evoke.

Read Full Post »

Music lounge (15)

Among the songs in Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, Trockne Blumen is one of the most challenging. The piano accompaniment, in the first part of the song, is limited to dry chords. The second part takes the singer to the most uncomfortable part of the tenor’s range. And there is the text. Die schöne Müllerin is Romanticism at its most passive-aggressive, and Trockne Blumen is something of a self-piety stravaganza. Wilhelm Müller definitely did not see it like that – the feelings experimented by the character in these poems are so vast and so intense that they can only be corresponded by nature etc etc. But Trockne Blumen is as challenging for the tenor in terms of interpretation as Frauenliebe und Leben. If you try to emulate a 19th century mentality there, you are going to sound coy. And again – you are alone in this song. For most of it, the pianist presses a chord then there is a pause and then another chord and another pause and so forth.

Why am I saying “tenor”? Schubert was not specific about the tenor voice. The original tessitura falls in the slot usually called in Lieder repertoire “for high voice” – and the nature of the text “requires” a male singer. Therefore, a tenor. However, Schubert probably imagined that there would soon be an edition “for low voice” and might have even seen baritones sing it. Regardless of how well individual baritones sing it, I find that the music and the poems usually make more sense in the tenor voice. I picture the character in these poems as a very young man, and a high voice helps to create the impression of youth. And the accompaniment benefits from the higher keys too. With Winterreise, it is a whole different story, but anyway – the real reason why I am speaking of tenors is that I wanted to hear a tenor in this week’s Music Lounge. And this was a good opportunity to feature one of my favorite singers.

I first heard Francisco Araiza as a Mozart tenor of unusual tonal warmth and then as the least nasal-toned among Rossini tenors. As much as Margaret Price, there was a moment in his career when he decided to embrace a new repertoire – and I am afraid this has influenced the opinion of younger generations about his work. His Mozart and Haydn were simply immaculate – some may say that there was too much aspiration in his coloratura in Rossini, but I would rather listen to him than most singers who took over the bel canto repertoire from him since then. His is not a voice with the metallic edge for Verdi or Wagner – and the kind of adaptations he made to his vocal production to tackle full Romantic works were not beyond criticism. I personally saw him only once – in the title role of Wagner’s Lohengrin in the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. He sang with utmost musicianship, produced beautiful sounds but struggled with the heroic writing. I cherish this memory nonetheless – and I was lucky enough to bump into him in the airport the next day and say how I was happy for having finally seen him sing in a live performance.

Araiza was born in Mexico but his career gained momentum in Munich. Unlike most bel canto tenors, he always sang German roles, not only the usual suspects such as Tamino or Belmonte but also roles like Henry Morosus in R. Strauss’s Die Schweigsame Frau. He even recorded Puccini’s La Bohème auf Deutsch with Lucia Popp. I remember an interview in which he said that he always had an interest in German repertoire and that Lieder were an important part of his career – unfortunately poorly documented. I am aware of three Schubert Lieder recordings with Francisco Araiza – a recital in Hohenems (my favorite one), a Winterreise on video and a Schöne Müllerin on Deutsche Grammophon. And that’s where I’ve found the Trockne Blumen for this week’s Music Lounge.

There are many famous recordings of Die Schöne Müllerin – and I am not claiming that Araiza’s is the best. I have listened to a few last week – Schreier, Wunderlich, Bostridge, Prégardien, Heilmann, Kaufmann – and still I find that Araiza holds his own against the formidable competition. Maybe because he grew up in a sunny country, he seems to see this song from a different perspective, both in terms of music and literature. Some singers tend to – and let’s use Roland Barthes’s concept here – a pointillistic approach in a song where the accompaniment is so scarce. Bostridge, for instance, comes across as rather fussy. Not Araiza – he keeps a sensuous legato line that holds the whole structure together. This song requires some difficult use of mezza voce right in the passaggio and many tenors shift to falsetto or to an entirely different tonal quality in these notes. Not him, even in mixed voice, the color remains consistent throughout the whole song. Actually, Araiza is quite discreet in terms of interpretation – there are no small paintbrushes of insight here. His take on this song is built on a large structure that makes sense once you’ve heard it to the end.

When asked if his novels could be considered Latin American beatnik, Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez answered that there is not in Latin America the concept of spiritual deadlock: “If you’re locked in a room without a door, you just look for a window”. And that is what makes Araiza’s Schöne Müllerin so different – the character in the poem at first does not have a death wish at all. He is sexually frustrated, his pride is a bit hurt, in the bottom of his heart he believes in the possibility that the miller’s daughter will see his splendid suffering and realize that she really loves him because of the depth of his feelings. There is nothing pale in this young suitor – that is why his death in the end seems a little bit more shocking. He kills himself rather out of despair than of depression – and because there was such life in him, one feels sadder for him.

But back to Trockne Blumen. Tenors seem to have a special relation with withered flowers – as Don José could tell or even the character in Beethoven’s Adelaide. Here the young man looks at the withered flowers the miller’s daughter once gave him. Actually, he says that the flowers are looking at him. Unlike his beloved one, they will stay with him to the very end, for they will adorn his grave. Suddenly he realizes that they are moist, but those are his own teardrops. However, they won’t bring the flowers back to life. Winter will pass, flowers will bloom again everywhere, but on his grave there will only be the withered flowers he is holding now. Nevertheless, if some day the miller’s daughter walks by the grave and think that there lies a man who really loved her, these flowers will be able to bloom again. This song is the last glimpse of hope in the heart of the young man. In the next song, he does not mention the miller’s daughter at all and the last one is sung by the brook in his imagination as he drowns. That is why the way both Araiza and his pianist Irwin Gage conceive their interpretation is so effective.

In the first part of the song, Gage’s playing is so dry and lifeless that a friend once said “this pianist is killing the whole thing for me”. Well, that is exactly the point. Araiza too sings the opening lines entirely in mezza voce. Most tenors sing them only piano and try to save their mezza voce for the moments when one should scale down a step further – but that is not a problem for him. His tone is intimate but not wane, withered as the flowers. He is still alive and he has this tiny little hope that the miller’s daughter might remember him, he has in his hands an object touched by her hand. In comparison with almost every other tenor in the discography, Araiza sounds a bit objective here, he is not trying to extract the last drop of meaning from every word. He is rather relishing the sensuous, sinuous line of the melody, and it’s all for the better that he is not describing the feeling but letting it happen naturally, in a way that the audience can feel it themselves rather than admire how the singer is dissecting it. The tempo is a bit stodgy, I agree, I would be tempted to sing it a little bit faster, but I would bet Schubert had something like that in mind. This is a Swedish film tempo – you hear the silence between the chords. It seems nothing will ever happen, the young man is sucking every drop of misery – but this is going to swell up and you just have to wait how Araiza and Gage are doing that.

You can hear a warmer color in Araiza’s voice when he speaks directly to the flowers in Ihr Blumen alle (All you flowers) and later when he tells them they are going to lie on his grave. In the remaining lines, he keeps to mezza voce, even more so in the second stanza, when he dwells a little bit more in some words such as Liebe (love) or Grab (grave) and makes his sound even a bit headier. In 2’19”, however, we enter the second part of the song. There is a Mozartian piano figure that most pianists keep cantabile in a correspondingly Mozartian way to the end of the song. But here, when the young man’s fantasy starts to describe what we could call the “flowers’ resurrection”, this figure will gain momentum in a steady crescendo, the very sound of the piano and Araiza’s voice are coming back to life – we feel the blood rushing again through this song’s veins. Especially in the last text’s repetition – there we are almost in operatic land, both singer and pianist over the top, using the energy up. It’s the young man’s last spark of life. After this song – but only after that – it’s death. But not yet. And Araiza does not resent the crescendo; his voice acquires a heroic sound without breaking the cantabile line. The way these musicians make it happen without resorting to added-on effect – and without drawing too much attention to their own artistry but rather to Schubert’s inspiration – is what makes this recording special.

Read Full Post »

Music lounge (14)

I know people who snob Mozart and feel cleverer than everyone else because of that. If you ask them why they love to hate poor old Wolfgang, they’ll always answer that the harmony is conventional, dissonance added upon only as effect, that the texture lacks complexity and it is too dependant on the soloist to produce the right effect. Well, the last part is not entirely untrue, but Mozart is like a spiritual experience: some people will have it at some point; some are just blind to this other “dimension”. What we’re talking about here is not the hereafter, but phrasing. Mozart was capable of writing complex polyphony, he just thought that its constant use was old-fashioned in terms of expression and chose to operate in a space of increased attention to detail. It is a world measured in millimetres; it requires an immense ability from his soloists to bring to life a recipe with tons of ingredients and very precise procedures. And you can’t load it with seasoning, otherwise the audience won’t be able to capture the perfection of each element. So, in order to see this cornucopia of expressive traits, you have to look in the right place – not vertically (as our snob friends who speak of harmonic and polyphonic complexity) but horizontally. As with everything conceived with microscopic precision, it only works in ideal conditions. A tiny mistake ruins the whole structure.

In terms of singing, Mozart can be seen, on one hand, as a good composer for singers, because he really knew voices, he was surrounded with singers, married to a singer, friend of singers. On the other hand, this meant that he knew everything a singer could do – and he required it all. There is not one single piece of vocal music by Mozart easy to sing. You may look at the score and say – it doesn’t go beyond a high g – and it is going to be the toughest piece of singing that doesn’t go beyond a high g ever composed – tenors who sing the part of Don Ottavio are well aware of that*.

The first thing you notice about a score of a work by Mozart is that there are tons of performance indications, the very way he wrote his solo parts were meant to evoke a wide range of feelings reproduced by mathematical precision of phrasing. He was particularly fond of slurs (probably in all senses of the world), but here we’re speaking of

I had a teacher who said this is the basic “cell” of Mozartian singing, two notes connected by a slur, performed like a trochee, TA-da, even if the second note is higher than the first. True Mozartian singers are able to create this outline of stressing and relaxing inside a legato line. In order to put across this musical ebb and flow, this singer must have a limpid vocal production. If it’s too vibrant or too fixed, too colourful or too grey, then it will be hard to hear the chiaroscuro of tiny emphases and relaxations that are the heartbeat of Mozartian singing. Even the text won’t sound right, for Mozart could really speak the languages he composed in and took profit of the natural rhythm of Italian, German (and even Latin) to create the right effect.

The way Mozart understood “coloration” of the musical phrase goes beyond just stressing the right notes – it involves understanding all kind of technical resources as an expressive element, especially rhythm. No effect – ornamentation and coloratura most of all – can disturb the rhythmic flow. You have to be able to understand the main line and see what is added upon it to realize that a) that this addition is an effect; b) and what it means.

Margaret Price’s international reputation was built on her Mozartian credentials. She was considered the Mozartian soprano not only because she was capable of producing exemplary Mozartian phrasing, but because she performed on stage some of the most demanding Mozart roles – such as Donna Anna, Fiordiligi, the Countess Almaviva and Konstanze – offering a voice of unusual volume for a singer in that repertoire. After a while, Price decided that enough was enough and gradually embraced other composers. She never enjoyed being labelled an “angelic” voice and looked for roles that matched her personality – she had a broad sense of humor, was not known for watching her language and was a very practical person, someone who probably liked her golden retrievers more dearly than the fellow human being. After her retirement, she was invited to sing in a church in her native Wales. She accepted the invitation and her comment about the experience was “I had forgotten how DIFFICULT the whole thing is!”. Actually, the contrast between her outgoing self and her rigorous discipline made her Mozart particularly interesting. It is not a soulless exercise of technical accuracy, you can hear her natural energy leaking through some of the cracks. And that is why I like her recording of Elettra’s Idol mio from Idomeneo.

Elettra is the operatic usual suspect in the List of “hysterical women”. She spends most of the plot of Idomeneo complaining, cursing, threatening, being mean to everybody else, except in one scene. Miraculously, after all her plans seemed to go south, a shift of events made all her dreams come true. She is going on a trip alone with her beloved Idamante by a decision of King Idomeneo, his father. We know that Idamante is in love with Ilia, but Elettra is not wrong when she says that it is easier to seduce someone when you’re physically near him or her. And Ilia is going to be left miles and miles behind them. But Elettra wasn’t born for contentment and happiness – she is not used to it. That is why Idol mio must feel like more than wishful thinking, she herself does not believe in it. It’s too good to be true. So she acts out – it must feel like someone saying “I’m going to be so happy, you’ll see, happier than everybody else – beloved of the man I adore, away from that stupid, poor, boring Ilia”. One must get the picture.

In her collection of Mozart arias with the English Chamber Orchestra, Margaret Price sings all the famous items, including those of characters she did not sing on stage. For example, I am not sure if she ever sang the role of Elettra (I don’t think so). Lockhart was also Price’s vocal coach and, if his conducting is a tad unimaginative here, he knew how to flatter his soloists’s voice and blend orchestra and singer in an aria where the orchestral and vocal lines often mirror themselves. Margaret Price begins the aria with her hallmark cleanliness of tone – one can hear her following Mozart’s instructions and stressing the right notes while keeping an ideally flowing line. In 1’06” onwards Più m’alle-e-etta auste-e-ero amor (“an austere love has more appeal to me”), the rhythmic precision with the tiny melisme is outstanding, you hear them pass through the line without disturbing it, even if Price always aspirated a bit her coloratura in her intent to keep everything a tempo. As the tessitura gradually becomes higher, the purity of tone in her high register never ceases to impress. Here and there, one feels the extra energy, kept in check. In 1’15”, the high note in allEtta, for instance, shows that the voice is not all cream. The balance between purity and punch is better observed from 2’22”: Sè ViCin, each consonant clearly marked, but the legato is always there. The melisma that follows (on l’amante) is an example of accuracy, one feels the impulse in the upward notes with shorter note value and how the serpentine figures up there soar. It feels like playing with air balloons. The repetition of the first material gives the listener the opportunity to realize how unique is the way Price was able to phrased with absolute purity and still it’s not the lifeless kind of purity one finds in some specialists in baroque music – there is a driving force keeping all those notes exactly where Mozart wanted them to be. Even her piano floats on motor power rather than carried by the breeze. The variation of the melisma in 4’40” is a lesson: it is at once delicacy, dreaminess and also mathematical precision. I like the way she does not let it be too sensuous or lost in reverie. She has just said she prefers an “austere love”. Elettra does not really want Idamante at all, she does not want to be loved or love anyone, it is just a matter of pride. Elettra’s real passion appear in her two other arias – when she speaks of revenge, humiliation and how she will join the heroes of her race in Hades and they’ll look down on mankind while suffering eternal torment (there one could add a touch of sensuousness, Mozart certainly implied something like that in the end of D’Oreste, D’Ajace).

Read Full Post »