Archive for December, 2020

Music lounge (22)

Robert Schumann is probably the most romantic of all German composers – his biography alone could stand as a perfect Romantic German novel. So when he says that his Liederkreis on poems by Joseph von Eichendorff, op. 39, is the most Romantic music he ever composed, we already know that we are going to hear about moonlight, castles, ghostly apparitions and, of course, the Rhine. Today we’re listening to one of these songs, Auf einer Burg (In a castle), which opens the second part of the cycle.

Auf einer Burg is a strange poem, the meaning of which no one could really explain. It presents two apparently disconnected images: first, an old knight turned into stone in his watch, forgotten in a corner of a castle for hundreds of years where the outside world only exists in the form of the rustle of the forest. If this were a movie, the camera would face the lattice and slowly travel to the forest outside. Birds sing undisturbed, the place is empty, for everyone has gone to the valley, where a wedding is taking place by the Rhine. There is music and animation – and (not “but”) the beautiful bride, she weeps.

We could joke that, if you fed a computer program to generate a German Romantic poem, the result would be something very close to Auf einer burg. But Eichendorff was no robot, and there is an almost non-verbal truth behind the verses in this poem. In a superior level, we have the remnant of an old world, a knight, whose memory is all but forgotten. But he still exists. In the real world below, everything is transitory – songbird, a party, a beautiful bride. And she weeps because she knows it. All colorful, happy things are meant to disappear. Eternity is grey and made of stone. It is a world entirely apart and there is nothing there for the young bride whose childhood is about to disappear forever.

I can think of few other composers who would have chosen this text for a Lied*. It is a song about non-communication, about concepts we will never grasp because they are older, larger, deeper than what we are in our daily lives with our daily problems. Schumann chooses a very particular point of view for this song – the bride who understands for the first time that nothing she knows is permanent. Schumann’s music depicts the insight. It is not a concept – it is a glimpse of something not fully understood. The only thing the young bride can understand is that there are two separated levels. And that is the musical cell of the song – all phrases in it involve up and down. The first two phrases have the same profile – we have a descending interval, then roughly the notes in between the lower and the upper note of the interval and finally we go down halfway. The next phrases ping-pong between registers: 5-1-1-1-1-1-6-6-6-2-2-2-2-2-7-7-7-3-3-3-3-3 (in a d major scale, where 1 is d), until we have a downward half-scale with repeated notes and a harmonically unresolved conclusion. The second stanza has the same structure, only the final bar has a slight alteration that makes it end in a half-cadence, what makes the listener believe that the song is not over yet (right where the bride weeps). Also, the song has the atmosphere of a church hymn with organ-like pedal, chorale-style in old-fashioned harmony, almost modal. The motive in the second and in the 23rd bars (what I called “roughly the notes in between”) reappears now and then in the piano part, as an echo. I feel tempted to call that the very image of the insight that made the bride perceive this other dimension, but that’s pushing it too hard. Anyway, it’s there and it propels the piece forward in a faintly Bachian way.

So here we are – Schumann concocted this fascinating structure that makes the listeners feel like they are hearing an echo of a forgotten world, but they cannot come to any conclusion: the first part of the song seems to go nowhere and the second basically stops midair. And the big question is – how would you build an interpretation as a singer for a Lied as mysterious and philosophical as this one? The answer is : you don’t. All singers who tried to sing it as something very profound fail. Most of them in this group are not native speakers. They start with a knowing attitude, as if they were going to let you know something important. But we can’t forget – the song does not tell you anything, there is no important message here. It just SHOWS you (it doesn’t EXPLAIN anything) that there is something out there you won’t fully understand. That is why the singers who just surrender to Schumann’s creation without trying to superimpose anything are those who come closer to the mark. This involves a very strong discipline – some singers feel that Schumann’s phrases here are too square and try to soften them by connecting the dots (with portamento) and that’s a no-no. Most sing it as precisely as possible and end up sounding as if they were reading the telephone book with a very intimate voice. If I had to be honest, in terms of technique, style, expression and vocal efficiency, Matthias Goerne (provided you can put up with the slightly nasal tone) doesn’t do anything wrong here, you could use his performance as a tutorial. He doesn’t even do the funny breathing pause after “oben” – which sounds awkward to my ears – or emphasizes too much low notes on the ping-pong leaps, what sounds abrupt. And yet it is not my favorite recording.

I am not a great enthusiast of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s DGG Lieder recordings, most of them made in the phase of his career where the voice had lost its baritonal warmth and his legato was largely gone. But his early EMI recordings are treasurable. Those days he joined the best of two worlds: textual intelligence with perfect cantabile, dark resonance with angelic clarity. It was indeed the stuff of legends. And, even with the bizarre pause after “oben”, the emphasis on low notes in the ping-pong intervals and almost too much crooning, DFD’s recording with Hertha Klust is the one that brings this song to its full potential. The idea of singing it from a trance-like perspective is the best interpretation strategy for a song that speaks of things we see but not fully understand. It is almost as if he were hypnotized and just sharing the images in his mind with the listener. And the voice is to die for, glowing in sensuous velvetiness. The absolute clarity of diction and the occasional highlighting of one word or another never interrupt the flow of melody. He sings it expressively, but without trying to express anything in particular – and that is why this is so special. The very sound of his voice in the last word of the song weinet (weeps) is hushed, almost airy, but it is so well supported on a steady vibrato that seems that could go on forever.

Hertha Kluster’s piano seems to be a part of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s voice – one hardly feels that the piano is a percussion instrument here. She plays it as an organ, the attack almost imperceptible. As much as the singer, she does not try to add anything to the song – she operates in a sound palette of demi-tintes, entirely open in interpretation. But I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that the recorded sound itself is part of the appeal. This track does not sound as something made by a recording engineer in a professional studio, but rather as an open reel tape made at home in an empty apartment. In my imagination, it feels like a memento of a special day of music making when these two people felt that they had to record their own insight about things that not words and maybe also not even music can explain.

*Schoek, for instance, did set Auf einer Burg to music. It has many similarities with the Schumann setting, although the atmosphere is very different.


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Music lounge (21)

Mozart knew everything about voices. He grew up writing for voices and married into a family of singers. Composers like Mozart learned the craft of writing vocal music by listening to the demands of the singers who would perform his music for the first time and adjusting his creations to fit their voices. That is why singers with extraordinary abilities would invariably turn on all creative powers in composers like Mozart – his sister-in-law Aloisia Weber, for instance, had a truly exceptional voice and it is irrelevant that no one knows how it really sounded. You just have to hear the music he wrote for her to realize that – the roles of the Queen of the Night and Mme Herz (in Der Schauspieldirektor) and concert arias like Popoli di Tessaglia… Io non chiedo , k, 316, (yes, the one with the high g in alt), Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio, k. 418, and Ah, se in ciel, benigne stelle, k. 538. 

Ah, se in ciel is a true concert aria, in the sense that it was not written to replace any number or be inserted in an operatic performance. Mozart simply borrowed the text of an aria from Metastasio’s libretto L’Eroe Cinese so that Ms. Weber (later Mrs. Lange) could sing it in concert. In Metastasio’s plot, the aria is sung by Siveno, the presumed son of Leango, the regent of the Chinese Empire, in love with Lusinga, a Tartarian princess who has been made a prisoner by the Chinese. The aria appears right in the beginning of the opera. Lusinga receives news from her father, informing that the end of the war against the Chinese is near because both countries have made an agreement that involves her engagement to the heir to the throne of China. Both Siveno and Lusinga are puzzled because nobody knew about the existence of an heir of the deceased Emperor Livanio, whose family was supposedly massacred in a popular rebellion. Lusinga entreats Siveno to discover what is behind this mystery or else they might be separated forever. That is the moment Siveno faces the audience to sing “If there still are benevolent stars in heaven, then I can still hope for mercy. Either let me die or give me my beloved Lusinga”.*

I won’t be creative when I refer to Salieri for a comparison to prove how a coloratura aria can be boring – after 30 seconds, one has the impression to be overhearing a voice lesson rather than listening to music. If I had to explain why Mozart had the edge in his contemporaries in writing showpiece arias is, I would first say: he would invariably get the listener hooked by a catchy tune right in the beginning, often with a subtle harmonic twist in it. Second, he never forgot that the coloratura is a means to intensify rather than dispel expression. Third, he knew – probably by studying Handel and Bach – that one has to always keep an extra card on one’s sleeves.  Singers are trained with vocalizes that make them develop an instinctive grasp of how to perform things like scales, arpeggi or certain figures that display a certain regularity. When the passagework requires irregular intervals, for instance, the singer might take longer to master the whole phrase and even then the listener will feel its awkwardness. Voices are more capricious than instruments because they require far more adaptations along its extension to give the impression of homogeneity. As a result, singers often find easier to perform an upward scale than a downward scale, will be able to produce a perfect trill or true mezza voce in certain notes but not in other ones. That is why a truly exceptional singer can be a source of inspiration. If he or she is able to deal with long intervals, phrases built out of irregular figures, unexpected harmonic twists inside a melisma, not to mention the ease with all kinds of ornaments, then the composer will be able to surprise his listener with new variations for each instance of coloratura. And Aloisia Weber was the woman for the job – not only was she gifted with a remarkable voice and outstanding technique, but also she was a complete musician, whose abilities were more than once compared to those of a “kapellmeister”.

In Ah, se in ciel, Mozart establishes a clear contrast between defiance and despair. In the A section (which is the longest part of the aria), Mozart marks this dichotomy in two words of the text: lasciate (to let) and togliete (to suppress), which are opposed in meaning. All fioriture are written in the word lasciate, which has the convenience of having the vowel “ah”. The word togliete on the other hand is used for very long and high notes, generally in moments when the harmony is tenser. Siveno laughs at the fact of adversity with his trill on the “ah” in lasciate and sobs with the possibility of loosing his Lusinga with the descending broken phrases on the “ay” in togliete. Ideally, the soprano should try to highlight this difference; this opposition lies on the foundation of any interpretation of this aria. We are here at the starting point of any classic tragedy – the moment a character decides to refuse his fate and tries to make things happen his or her way. Only Siveno is in love and is loved in return. He already has what he wants – he is afraid of losing it. And that makes him vulnerable – before he wages a hopeless war against the gods, he will try to negotiate. He occasionally roars, but here more often meows.

There are many singers who face the formidable technical challenges of Ah, se in ciel – most notably Natalie Dessay, who is a lesson in smoothness, homogeneity and style – but, to my ears, only Edita Gruberová clearly understands the dramatic situation and expresses the contrast essential to the expression of the text in this aria. She has two official recordings – the first one from the early 80’s in studio with the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra and Leopold Hager and the second one caught roughly ten years later live in concert with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. We are listening to the Harnoncourt recording, although I had to listen both tracks many times before I made that decision. In Hager’s recording, Gruberová’s soprano is fresher and at as its brightest, which can mean “metallic” for some ears. Compared to her full-toned radiance there, even Dessay sounds soubrettish in comparison, and the sheer energy of her singing there fits the concept. We’re speaking of Siveno, the prince in love with Princess Lusinga just after she said he’ll lose her if he doesn’t do something bold. Whatever a singer does here, it has to be grand. Singing runs can be difficult in terms of rhythm and a safer way to do this is to focus on the note on the beat to keep it a tempo. After a while listening to every soprano who recorded this song, the method starts to sound a bit obvious: Ah-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-Ah-uh-uh-uh… You can still hear it with Gruberová herself in her first recording, but not in the second. It is admirable the way she glides there through the coloratura almost in the same way a violinist does and with a consistent vowel sound. In the end, she gives you the impression that she is really singing the same “ah” connected to the  consonant “sci” (sh) in the word “lasciate”. So that is why I finally chose the Harnoncourt, even if the orchestra sounds a bit recessed there.

Gruberová proves to have the right instincts about this aria, for she highlights the difference between the lasciate and the togliete attitude right in the first appearance of each word. Mozart helps her a bit by the way he writes the first togliete in a hiccup rhythm. Some would be tempted to say that this represents a sword stroke or something like that – but coloratura rarely is a biunique correspondence (as in Handel’s Ev’ry valley in The Messiah), the idea usually being of causing an impression, creating an atmosphere. And what Mozart wants you to understand is that Siveno is ready to die for Lusinga, but that is not what he desires: he wants the gods to stop this nonsense and return her right away to his arms. That is why the coloratura goes for lasciate, that is where his heart really is. The togliete part he speaks almost sotto voce, the words come out of his mouth with unease. But his voice flies when he tries to convince the gods that he and her together is the best thing for everybody. And we can hear that in Gruberová’s voice when she says o lasciate il mio ben for the first time. The tone softens, she sounds vulnerable there. You can’t beat the gods, but you can move them. No other soprano in the discography colors the voice so expertly as Gruberová does in this song. Mozart uses a very similar resource in Martern aller Arten (an aria in Aloisia Weber’s repertoire, although it was written for her rival Caterina Cavalieri) – first Konstanze threatens and then she mellows and implores. But as she knows she has the Pasha’s heart, she menaces more than she begs. That is not Siveno’s case.

Some will prefer the Hager recording for the conductor’s less flexible beat – Harnoncourt gives Gruberová some leeway, as in 1’34’’, with the upward scales with the staccato notes on top of them. 2’53’’ is a crucial moment in the A section – here Mozart lets Siveno depicts in a new harmonic ambience the gloominess of the scenario in which the poor man dies without his Lusinga. It is here that we can hear the sobs in his voice. Gruberová-haters will say she scoops in the first interval (the Hager recording is “cleaner” in that sense). Yes, she does, but it works for this passage, it brings the affetto to life. Around 3’21’’ there is a tiny upward portamento, which is the single thing I would change here. It does not fit the character, but sounds rather coquettish. It brings us back to the concert hall in which this aria is being performed rather than transports us to imaginary China of Metastasio’s libretto.

The short B section is rather a “resting place” for the soprano. The tessitura is lower, the vocal lines sometimes sound recitative-like and the expression lies rather with the harmonic effects on woodwind. We almost don’t notice the return to section A, the “bridge” carrying the text of the first stanza. And what is really admirable here is how Mozart will use an entirely new set of coloratura for the repeat, with extravagant effects, even more difficult for the singer. I particularly like the 4’45’’ exploration of all soprano’s registers, what could be testing for Gruberová since lower notes were never her forte. But she is a shrewd singer and uses that for expressive purposes. And here she does it entirely on one breath (in the Hager, as almost everybody else does, she takes a short breath before the leap to the high note). We don’t see the same amount of variation in the togliete part. Now it is higher – and a bit riskier to sing – but that’s not what Siveno wants to say anyway. Mozart is preparing a spectacular ending to the aria, with many trills and writing that sounds a tad more heroic, a bit Donna Anna-ish (another role sung by Aloisia Weber) right in the end. And here Gruberová’s superbright edge sustains the challenge. That was a voice who had to be heard live – the effect of its amazing radiance (once described by Gerald Finley as similar to watching a scorching light through a keyhole) in moments like that was something hard to forget.

Edita Gruberová is a singer who seems to be the pet peeve of some important reviewers, such as Alan Blyth. She did have some mannerisms – as every singer has – but for some reason critics decided she had to be perfect. Maybe because she came so close… For younger generations, there is an extra problem: she overstayed her prime for too many years and, under the adoration of her fans, tackled roles unsuited to her voice in a phase of her career when she would have benefited from parts that could have still highlighted her best qualities without exposing the effect of ageing. But way before that she was a Mozart soprano of unusual technical finesse and the reference performer for the role of Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. I often read nay-sayers saying she was overrated in the role. No, she wasn’t. I’ve seen her in a couple of operas just after her absolute prime – Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, the title roles in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and Anna Bolena and in Bellini’s Norma and La Straniera plus a concert in which she sang things ranging from the Mad Scene in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor to Adèle’s couplets in J. Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. And, yes, her last Zerbinetta in Vienna. I’ll be honest – the Donizettis and the Norma had its moments, but they did not rock my world. La Straniera was beautiful, a lovely performance, and the Zerbinetta – even with some small accidents – was an example of musicianship, intelligence and technical mastery.

As there is not too much of a good thing, I’ll embed here both recordings, for those who feel like comparing them. I urge you to listen to Natalie Dessay’s ultrapolished, double-velvet, absolute homogeneous singing in her studio recital with Mozart’s most devilishly difficult arias.   

*Of course, Siveno discovers in the end that the heir to the Chinese throne is no-one other than himself, adopted by his natural father’s ally as a last resource to escape the massacre over his entire family.

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New Lohengrin from Berlin

One of the most awaited items in the Berlin Staatsoper’s 2020/2021 season was the new production of Lohengrin by Calixto Bieito in which both Sonya Yoncheva and Roberto Alagna would sing the roles of Elsa and Lohengrin for the first time. But 2020 being the annus horribilis we all know too well, these plans required some adaptation, and it is praiseworthy that the opera house at Unter den Linden was able to go ahead and, even without an audience, show its new staging to the world in the Internet. The first challenge in this performance was the need to reduce the orchestra to keep it within COVID regulations. Conductor Matthias Pintscher, who leads the Ensemble Intercontemporain, believes that this exercise enable him to make a study in tone coloring of Richard Wagner’s score. Indeed, with slimmer strings, one could find many hidden gems here, especially in what regards woodwind. This was an absolutely transparent performance, and this extended to articulation and structural coherence too. However, the challenges in Lohengrin go far beyond tone colouring. It is notoriously difficult to conduct because of its lack of rhythmic variety. In the hands of the right conductor, the audience hardly notices that. Unfortunately, this evening’s performance made me realize too well of what happens when the conductor does not display a flexible beat. Beautifully and transparently as the orchestra played, it did feel monotone after a while, especially considering a cast almost entirely miscast. And I am not speaking specifically of Roberto Alagna.

Lohengrin is a role entirely within the possibilities of the French tenor, who has tackled far more demanding parts in his career, such as Verdi’s Otello and Manrico. I am not sure, but I think that Lohengrin is his first German role, though. Now and then, France has supplied Bayreuth with important singers, such as Régine Crespin, Ernest Blanc and Jean-Philippe Lafont. Alagna sang the role of Lohengrin with awareness of style, employing portamento in a tasteful manner and with an attentive ear to melodic flow, his French accent unobtrusive, rather charming I would say. I just wished he had not waited so long to try this part – his voice has lost its purity of emission and that was truly missed in his farewell to the swan in act 1. When the writing tended to the heroic, he had his rough moments too, especially after the act 3 narration. I confess I was more curious to hear Yoncheva as Elsa. I don’t think she has the voice for the role, but she is the kind of singer you want to hear in whatever she does. Unfortunately, she was not able to appear in the première and was replaced by Lithuanian soprano Vida Minekviciute, who shows at first an appealing fleece-like quality. She also phrases with poise and sensitivity, even in a role heavy for her voice. However, one soon realizes that her vocal production is fluttery and her attempts to soften the tone make it even more fluttery. After a while, her singing becomes sadly quite predictable. The competent mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova finds no problem in the high tessitura in the part of Ortrud, but hers is a voice the creaminess of which prevents her from producing the bite the writing requires. She lacks resonance in the lower end of her voice too, and as a result her Ortrud sounded unusually well-behaved and unthreatening. The pairing with Martin Gantner’s clear-toned and light-voiced Telramund made the first part of act 2 almost matter-of-fact. In order to pierce through the orchestra, he needed to open his tone in a glaring manner, what made he sound like a Charaktertenor rather than a Heldenbariton. René Pape has been a reference in the role of the King Henry and still holds his own commendably after so many years. Now it sounds a bit high for him, and he tired a bit in the end. The young Adam Kutny’s dark-toned Herald was plagued by some sort of vocal discomfort, maybe he was in a bad-voice day, and I would need to hear him a second time to say something.

I don’t feel really motivated to write about Calixto Bieito’s lazy staging, conceptually pretentious and scenically unpretentious. At first, it seemed like what Barrie Kosky would have done in an uncreative day. The scene opens in a courtroom, all singers and choir members in suits. One notices that the herald is acting a bit funny, but I doubt someone would guess what would come next. He paints a clown face and goes all slapstick. There are lots of model cars, with which Ortrud likes to play while making evil faces, and Lohengrin’s and Telramund’s combat is some sort of telepathic confrontation. In the end, everybody have posters “love”, “hope”, “a girlfriend”, “peace”. The second act shows Ortrud playing with dolls, Elsa stealing bits of her wedding cake, everybody else on stage painting clown faces and acting like zombies. The Telramunds end up locked in the same cage from which Elsa stood trial in the first act. Act 3 has Lohengrin and Elsa having her frustrated honeymoon on a white couch on a carpet with artificial grass. Telramund doesn’t try to kill anyone – he just brings a pot with a living plant. We’re back to the courtroom, Lohengrin shows his bare chest, conjures Gottfried and gives him the origami swan from act 1. The end. According to Bieito, all this represents a society that infantilizes people, because they live ready-made relationships and follow scripts. In his view, Lohengrin is an escapist, Elsa opposes reality while trying to discover answers in her inner world and, while Telramund and Ortrud have their feet on the ground, he is lost to himself in his search for power and she is frustrated for not being a mother. OK, whatever. After reading the program, the only thing I could trace back onstage were the toys.

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Music lounge (20)

The item in the music lounge this week does not feature an ideal recording, because I still have to know a performance that comes close to ideal of the big Senta/Holländer duet, Wie aus der ferne – and I have listened to many and many recordings during the week. A great part of the fun in these big composite duets is the cavatina-cabaletta-ish structure that we can hear in works ranging from Mozart’s Così fan tutte via Rossini’s Tancredi to Puccini’s Tosca, but the “cabaletta” part in the Holländer duet is so impossibly difficult to sing that I’ve decided to go baby-steps here. Moreover, the duet is the centerpiece in the whole opera – and the dynamic between the cavatina-ish part and the cabaletta-ish part tells the whole story. First, Senta and the Holländer look at each other and they have the strong belief that their dreams have come true. What they see is exactly what they have imagined for a long time. And – as we’ve read so often in Romantic literature – relationships that need to be perfect to exist never last long and end horribly. And we can hear that in this duet – it is the first part that unleashes a powerful emotional discharge. When they get to actually speak to each other, we’re back to Carl Maria von Weber. Beautiful as it is, the second part feels conventional, flourished with ornaments and slightly athletic – it has more form than content. The audience soon realizes that the chemistry between Senta and the Holländer only exists in their minds. Or better: there is a strong connection between Senta and her imaginary Holländer and between the Holländer and his imaginary Senta. Maybe that is why the first part is the most important one – it is that moment, which by definition is brief, when one has the impression that objective reality finally looks exactly like one’s fantasy.

The very structure of the first part (from now on let’s call it just “the duet”) is like reading an electrocardiogram of Senta’s and the Holländer’s hearts at that moment. Wagner begins with the Holländer – we know that he has been banished from the world of the living and is practically a zombie himself. His only hope is to find a “faithful” woman ready to sacrifice herself in order to save him. In other words, if she really wants to save him, she has to die. No wonder he has never met anyone matching the job description to this point. But the Holländer has not reached that part yet. Here he is glamorizing his victim and, yes, we’re talking about a vampiric rapport. In the duet’s first bars, the Holländer is bloodless, a walking-dead. He doesn’t even has an orchestra to envelope his voice, and Wagner cleverly uses the less congenial part of the bass-baritone range to show that. It also feels really awkward – the harmony is ambiguous and most singers wouldn’t survive an intonation test there. But that’s ok – I really believe Wagner did it on purpose. We have to feel that the Holländer is struggling a bit there. But then he looks at Senta and realizes – she is the one. And we suddenly hear him coming back to live, the blood slowly starts to run through his veins. We hear that in the music – how the tessitura gets gradually higher and the orchestral sound swells and overflows.

Then we go to Senta. As we know, her starting point is a bit different. She is very much alive, she even has a boyfriend, whom she likes to torment just for the fun of it. Her problem is that she has no connection to her surroundings – she doesn’t care for the people around her or what they do and she feels a prisoner of her circumstances. That is why she chooses to live in her fantasy – and the Holländer represents everything she wishes for. He doesn’t belong anywhere and he NEEDS someone. Everything he needs in the world is one person. I don’t know if Senta has the clear notion that being this special person means sacrificing everything she has and is. In any case, that’s a fast track to being special. Somehow, for Senta, being special depends on something she doesn’t have, for, again, she hates everything around her. In her fantasy, it depends on him. That is why her first lines in the duet are so different in atmosphere: the music is serene and sweet. She doesn’t have to think a lot about it – it is just like her dream and it is happening now. She knows it, for she has lived this moment in her mind many and many times.

When these two finally sing together – and we cannot forget that – they are singing simultaneously but not to each other. And Wagner shows us that by the way he kept them “musically” apart. While the soprano continuously soars in her high register, the bass is kept in the lower end of his range. Also, their lines never really match – the listener hears that they are in very different “musical” places. Naturally, the duet grows in intensity and by the end they are both singing high, but even then their lines rarely match – we hear her and then him and then her etc. In the climax of this duet, in order to keep the distance, Wagner makes the soprano sing high lines almost in bel canto style, while the baritone is in a more “German opera” recitative-like world. They only really sing “together” in the very end of this passage. There is, of course, an acoustic problem in this duet – it flatters the soprano voice in a way that makes it difficult for the audience to hear the bass-baritone at all. And I again see the point in Wagner’s invention here – it is Senta who is really going stratospheric in her imagination here. The Holländer has one line of self-delusion and then he remembers what he is doing there: Die düstre Glut, die hier ich fühle brennen, sollt ich Unseliger sie Liebe nennen? Ach nein! Die Sehnsucht ist es nach dem Heil: – würd es durch solchen Engel mir zuteil! (The somberly glow that I feel burning inside, shall a miserable man like I am call it love? Oh, not, this yearning is for salvation! Let it be given to me through an angel like her!). As you see, the Holländer sees in Senta only a means to achieve an end. An end that does not involve her at all…

If the duet is so well written, why is then that no recording does it justice? Well, Der fliegende Holländer is not yet mature Wagner. As a young composer, Wagner had not yet mastered the art of writing for voices and made unreasonable demands on his singers (check Die Feen or Das Liebesverbot). The parts of Senta and the Holländer are not unsingable as Isabella or Arindal, but they can be really tough to sing, especially here, when the writing demands so much in terms of tone colouring in lines that make, however, soprano and bass-baritone just concentrate on surviving. Singers are not the only casualties here. The opera is not over yet – the second part of the duet is arguably even more difficult to start with. So what conductors – rightfully – do? They help their singers: by keeping the orchestra under leash (what undermines the dynamic progression) and by giving them lots of time to breathe (what obstruct building intensity). As a result, listening to this duet live in the theatre feels rather like watching a very difficult surgery rather than a cathartic experience. In terms of recording, there is also bad luck. For some reason, we rarely see the right soprano for Senta paired with the right bass baritone for the Holländer. When they do, the conductor seems to be not in the mood. For instance, what comes closer to an ideal match is George London and Leonie Rysanek. London was one of the rare singers who sound as if the part of the Holländer is fully singable. In the opening bars, when every other singer seems to croon, he keeps a firm, rich, dark sound that he is even able to retain up to his high notes. He makes the role of the Holländer testosterone-high in his vocal exuberance. I don’t even know if this helps us to understand the dramatic development of the role – but it is irresistible. And that is what the Holländer is to Senta, and it works somehow. It is surprising to find a singer with such irregular technique as Rysanek praised as a model, but we have to remember high tessitura is what her voice craved for. And she gets it here. She sings with lyric fluffiness throughout. While everybody else sounds fixed or strained or wiry or desperate, Rysanek soars. She even ventures into some chilling mezza voce effects and keeps something very close to a bel canto legato line. She still has moments of dubious intonation, but she makes them expressive devices too. Does that mean that we’re listening to London and Rysanek then? No. Antal Dorati’s studio was my first recording of Der Fliegende Holländer, but I never really warmed to his conducting there. It is poised in a Mozartian way that, at least to my ears, does not provide what this utterly Romantic music requires – and it ultimately does not fit London’s and Rysanek’s personalities. But, hey, they sang it in Bayreuth! And, yes, I prefer the Bayreuth recording, but Sawallisch and his singers do not seem to be in the same wavelength there either, as if they were trying each to impose their tempo on each other. In the end, it sounds rushed. And this duet needs some repose – it is an ecstatic moment, yes, but it begins very intimately and its climax is also subdued, high notes nonetheless.

That is why I’ve chosen Klemperer’s live recording with Anja Silja and Theo Adam. I’ve never liked the recorded sound of the studio recording with the same forces and almost the same cast (James King appears in the live, while Ernst Kozub was recorded in studio). In terms of conducting, Klemperer offers a similar approach in both recordings, but the duet in the live performance benefits not only from the spacious broadcast sound, but also both Silja and Adam seemed plugged in. Actually, neither Silja nor Adam would be my dream casting for these roles and they are arguably ill-matched. We have an ex-choir boy (from the Dresden Kreuzchor) with a half-notorious Kunstdiva together, both coming from very different musical and theatrical backgrounds. But isn’t that the case with the Holländer and Senta? They have nothing in common (except for the fact that they really want to put an end to the way they have been living so far). And here one feels in the way their voices develop in the auditorium that they really don’t match. And I kind of like that.

Adam has a very peculiar voice. I had a good friend who horribly exaggeratedly called him “tenore profondo”, because his voice was – in his opinion – too clear for a bass and yet he had big low notes “that came from nowhere”. I disagree that Adam’s voice was too clear, but, yes, for someone who sang Sarastro he had a surprisingly operational high register. No wonder Wotan was his battle-horse. Anyway, Adam’s ease with low notes makes him one of the non-crooning Holländers in the beginning of this duet. The voice has it full color there, even if he is singing piano. Also, he really sings his lines there. Adam was never famous for seamless legato, but he does produce clean lines there and sustain the gradual increase in volume and in tessitura famously. Unlike George London, he does not sound very sexy in this music, one must acknowledge. Adam used to sing well some bad-guy roles, such as Pizarro and Kaspar, but he does not sound vampiric here either. He sounds serious. This Holländer clearly think only of his salvation.

Silja’s is probably the most peculiar voice in the history of opera. The fact that she sang the role of the Queen of the Night for Karl Böhm (with Leontyne Price as Pamina) in Vienna and later the roles of Brünnhilde and Elektra is just part of the story. She sang all her roles in a very unique way. Her soprano was unusually young-sounding in its metallic edge and its absence of fullness. And yet it lacked any lyric creaminess in it – and the fact that it usually sounded slightly sharp did not help it either. On the other hand, her singing of dramatic roles had an almost ghostly effect – her voice pierced through the orchestra without much ado, particularly her high notes, but in a bodiless way that made it almost eerie. It was a forceful yet weightless sound. I have seen her live twice – as Ortrud and as Herodias. And in the flesh it was just like in recordings. Especially as Ortrud, it sounded lighter than Melanie Diener’s as Elsa, but it was far more penetrating. What was beyond doubt is her magnetic presence. In any case, she kept the role of Senta for a long while in her repertoire and sang it practically everywhere. In a very strange way, it worked for her. It felt like Stephen King’s Carrie as Senta, and that is a valid approach too. Here she starts in a trancelike state, the voice almost reduced to whisper, but carrying in the auditorium. When it blooms, one hears it in all its acidity, her high notes effortlessly pressing one’s eardrums. While she keeps it as gently as she can, the very brightness of the sound prevents her from sounding wane. It gives the impression of girly nervousness, which is what basically is going on in the libretto anyway. And Klemperer frames these voices in warm orchestral sound. He does not press his singers but doesn’t kept energy sag either. The duet very gradually comes to life, Silja’s overbright soprano wrapped in rich string sounds. It is an example of how dynamic is not a matter of loudness, but of intensity. The orchestra never overshadows these singers or deafens the audience – the sound gains body and color in almost mathematical progression. It is a performance that achieves the paradoxical qualities of giving time for singers to relish the effect of Wagner’s melodic writing while slowly and firmly producing the effect of crescendo. Even the climax happens naturally. This is not the theatrical climax of the opera – it is just its Schwerpunkt. It is the moment when time stops and dreams seem to have come true. And Maestro Klemperer captured that. Is it perfect? No, if anyone knows perfection here, please let me know. And yet it works.

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Music lounge (19)

In an interview, violinist Isabelle Faust explained that she was lucky to have had a teacher who let her figure out things before he presented her a ready made solution. According to her, this is the only way one can find an individual voice rather than just doings things right. Those were not exactly her words, but the point is even apter when one speaks of the human voice. We often hear that many singers are technically competent, but rather anonymous in terms of personality. Yet this discussion is not so simple as it seems. There is a price for “having one’s own way” and that usually means being like a wonderful dress in a window shop that doesn’t fit anyone’s body, like an Italian designer suit (unless you’re a thin 14-year-old young man, of course). And this is a good way of describing Tatiana Troyanos’s unique mezzo soprano. It is difficult to be objective about her, for hers was an irresistible voice that quickly wins you over. A sexy voice, above all. That said, after a while one notices it was a bit short in low notes, a bit constricted in its higher reaches, a bit heavy for light roles, a bit light for heavier roles. It was definitely not a voice for Italian roles, although she increasingly sang parts like Amneris in Verdi’s Aida or Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma. In any case, even with all those observations, it was a fascinating voice. I remember once, in a course about Mozart operas, after I had shown Levine’s video of La Clemenza di Tito, a lady in the audience was truly impressed about Troyanos’s singing of Parto, ma tu ben mio. She kept saying “her voice sounds just like the basset horn, I’ve never heard anything like that in my life”. Yes, it’s slightly nasal placement brought a reedy sound that made it sound uncannily like a clarinet. Even the slight constriction in her high register made it instrumental in tone. But that was not what made me a fan.

My “history” with Troyanos has to do with my admiration for Karl Böhm. My first recording with this American mezzo soprano was his recording of Le Nozze di Figaro. While she is not my favourite Cherubino, I wasn’t immune to her charms. It was, however, in his recording of R. Strauss’s Capriccio that Troyanos first appeared to me as a very special singer. Her first entrance made me stop the recording and hear it again and again. It was as if Ella Fitzgerald had a second career as an opera singer. I have written here about musicality and how one’s musical background – whether in classical music or not – makes a singer’s approach unique if he or she doesn’t try to conceal it. Troyanos grew up in New York and one can hear that in her voice. Her singing had the kind of spontaneous cantabile of a jazz diva. She offered a sound culture that had a sexiness and “beauty for beauty’s sake” approach to phrasing that made her singularly appealing, especially the way she was able to drain her voice from vibrato and made it sound almost pop-like. Also her keen ear for rhythms: her phrasing had a pulsation that was not necessarily connected to the text, but to the inner beat of music itself. It felt modern somehow. And Böhm saw Troyanos’s potential and made her develop it to its fullest. I would say her best recordings were made under his baton. Later heavier roles took a toll on her vocal production, high notes became too vibrant and too unvaried in dynamic. She would even then sound appealing enough, but the purity of sound of her early days shows her at her best.

Mezzos in soprano roles are an old discussion and I have written here a whole text about that. Especially in Richard Strauss. The parts of the Komponist in Ariadne auf Naxos and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier were written for sopranos, but we rarely see sopranos sing it. As Camille, a poster in Parterre Box very cleverly said, “when mezzos sing the last bars in the prologue of Ariadne auf Naxos, they rarely make that passage sound either heilig or like Musik, as the text demands”. But that was not the case with Troyanos. Yes, we can hear that those high notes do not blossom as when a soprano sings these parts, but they are still firm, connected and irresistibly clarinet-like in tone. Troyanos was the poster girl for German roles for high mezzo soprano – and Karl Böhm cast her in almost all of them. It was most curious, however, to find her together with mezzo Christa Ludwig taking both leading roles in Der Rosenkavalier in Böhm’s recording made live in Salzburg in 1969. It took a while before this recording was available on CD in Europe and in USA, and I was so curious about it that I made my father buy them in Yamano Music in Ginza during a visit to Tokyo.

Böhm had recorded Der Rosenkavalier in studio before – with Marianne Schech and Irmgard Seefried, an orchestral tour de force and still a reference in terms of clarity. You can’t do wrong with Böhm when the subject is Richard Strauss. He knew the composer, who dedicated his opera Daphne to him, and had a still unrivalled ability to see the “blueprint” in Strauss’s invention. When Böhm conducted Strauss, not only all motives were clearly shown to the listener, but most importantly the theatrical effect was unmistakable. In his recording of Elektra, we can hear dogs barking, horses whinnying, blood dripping from staircases. His 1969 Rosenkavalier does not match the studio recording in terms of structural clarity, but offers undeniable compensation in the luxuriant sounds of the Vienna Philharmonic. And there was Tatiana Troyanos’s Octavian. I am not the first person to write that she had a unique ability of being convincing both in female and male roles. When she sang Carmen, she was the steamiest seductress – and when she sang Octavian she exuded aristocratic boyishness. The pairing with Christa Ludwig is daring, but it ultimately works. Although Ludwig had the darker (and fuller) voice, her verbal specificity in her native German created the aural impression of patrician femininity, while Troyanos’s “instrumental” sound and rhythmic buoyancy brought to life Octavian’s 17-year-old testosterone-high personality.

In 1969, Troyanos was at her vocal prime. While she sounds stylish in German late Romantic music, you can still hear her Ella Fitzgerald-like “coolness”, and that’s what makes her so special in that role. She puts in you under her spell in her very first notes – the inimitable clarinet-like tone, which you could hear even in her speaking voice is sensuousness itself. She often sang Mozart and, even in heavier roles, was able to “stop time” by the way she attacked a note with instrumental poise and let it develop. You can hear that right in the beginning when she sings Wie du warst, wie du BIST, DAS weisst niemand, das ahnt keiner”. Those days, she could sustain high lines against a full orchestra without tampering with legato, the vibration well integrated in her singing. Troyanos used to described herself as a nervous person and incapable of being on stage without being possessed by a certain electricity – and you can hear that in her voice. Selig bin ich, dass ich der einzige bin shows that beautiful vibration in her tone, the rhythmic accuracy in einzige bin suggesting boyish energy. The way she handles this conversational passage is exemplary: we can understand every word, although she chisels her syllables in broad strokes, the contour of phrases is never lost and she always surprises the listener by the way she colours her tone. For instance, when she sings aber dennoch. The tone is so rich, we can almost guess how aroused and passionate Octavian is by the way the tone acquires warmth. We know what he is going to describe next even before he begins to do it. And Böhm is not making Troyanos’s life easy there – the orchestra is together with the singer at its fullest, they respond to each other, complement each other. And yet, when the tessitura is more congenial and the orchestra relaxes a bit, Troyanos has an Ella Fitzgerald moment just for you, as in Wo ist dann dein Bub?

The end of the track shows Troyanos in an entirely different light, as she describes all the boring and annoying things that the day reserve Octavian and the Marschallin as soon as she opens the doors to her servants. Although she was not German herself (her mother was German, though), she delivers the text with complete crispiness and, by way of tiny portamentos, under the note attack, abrupt endings, shows the audience that Octavian is not happy about everything he is talking about. The contrast with the equally characterful Christa Ludwig there is priceless. The Marschallin is all small Viennese-style mannerisms in her brief interventions.

The YouTube clip below does not offer the scene in its best sound (as in the Japanese CDs my father brought me many years ago), so please turn the volume up until the sound picture acquire the right balance. Also, I have programmed it to start right before Tatiana Troyanos start to sing, but I encourage you all to listen the track from the beginning to enjoy the Vienna Philharmonic in the orchestral introduction.

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