Archive for March, 2021

Music Lounge (35)

Nobody sings like Brigitte Fassbaender. She is one of those singers you just need two or three notes and you’ll know it is her. I was going to write that no German mezzo sings like Fassbaender – and, yes, most German mezzos are quite soprano-like in sound and we often hear “it’s difficult to tell the Isolde from the Brangäne'”. That never happens with Fassbaender, especially when she shifts to her low notes, definitely chestier than what you hear across the Alps. And I would not say she sounds “Italianate” either – the voice is more middle-centric than what you’ll find with Italian mezzos, who tend to shine in both ends of the range. And that takes us to another conundrum around Fassbaender’s voice: if you look at her repertoire, you’ll be tempted to say she was a dramatic mezzo, but you soon realize that this was never the grain of her voice. Yet she didn’t either sound like a light mezzo soprano – the voice sounds dark-ish, a bit heavy and there isn’t really a float there. Sui generis is the word you must be thinking about.

The word I’m thinking about, however, is “naughty”, but that was not the beginning of the story. Fassbaender could be a “good girl”, as her recordings ranging from Bach to Rosina’s Una voce poco fa tell. It is noteworthy that Mozart always seemed a bit claustrophobic for her personality, but the fact is that she gradually walked away from niceness. She was a singer that needed to go for broke – she could force her low notes, drive her high register dangerously tense. She did have a solid technique (and the fact that she managed the passaggio so adeptly is an evidence of it) but she needed to test her limits – and that made her singing particularly exciting. You felt that one inch more would mean rolling downhill into the abyss. And this is why she was able to convince us that she could sing dramatic roles. In any case, apparently she convinced Riccardo Muti she could sing Amneris and Carlo Maria Giulini that she could sing Azucena. Fassbaender was not only a matter of guts – she is a highly intelligent woman and she makes a point of doing things her way. Even if one acknowledges that Verdi requires a different voice for parts like these, you feel compelled to hear what she is doing in them because you’ll never hear them sung like that anywhere else. Curiously, Fassbaender was less adventurous in Wagner. As far as I know, she sang Fricka, Brangäne, Magdalene and Waltraute (beside the inevitable Flosshilde), but (wisely, I would say) no Venus, Ortrud or Kundry. Her most famous operatic role, in any case, is Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, on paper a soprano part. Even compared to other mezzos, Fassbaender sounded darker and clearly less “Mozartian” in it. It was indeed an intense account of the role, matched by her alert stage presence (although everyone mentions her father, baritone Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender, as an influence on her, we can’t forget that her mother, Sabine Peters, was a theatre and movie actress).

The heavy duty eventually had a cost, of course. After a while, the texture in Fassbaender’s tone sounded increasingly loose. The vibrato became prominent and the dynamic range shorter. This is the beginning of what one could call Fassbaender’s second career in Straussian “character roles”: the Amme in Frau ohne Schatten and Klytämnestra in Elektra, performances usually described as “demented”. She was also an active concert singer and recorded many alto parts in symphonic works, as in Giuseppe Sinopoli’s Mahler series. However, one cannot play down her importance as a Lieder singer. Although Fassbaender’s vocal personality was a bit too exuberant for chamber music, her unique take on text and music made her revelatory, even when the voice lacked some finish. For instance, if you want to hear a woman singing Schubert’s Die Winterreise, then her recording with composer Aribert Reimann is unavoidable.

You might be curious to know what we are going to hear with a singer whose repertoire was so wide and whose discography was so extensive. I’ve always regretted the fact that she didn’t leave any complete recording in the role of Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo. No doubt it sat on the limit of her possibilities, but her studio recording of highlights in German with Edda Moser, Nicolai Gedda, Kurt Moll, the Berlin Radio Symphonic Orchestra and Giuseppe Patanè treasures one of my favorite accounts of O Don Fatale (here Verhängnisvoll war das Geschenk). First of all, I must explain that, even if I’d rather listen to opera in the original language, I make an exception for Verdi auf Deutsch, not only because of the effect of the wordiness in the German text but also because this allows us to hear singers not usually recorded in that repertoire in roles actually apt for their voices. In this case, Fassbaender has the flashing personality for Eboli and her élan makes the character a little bit more believable than it usually is. Moreover, she sounds young in it and has the right touch of vulnerability behind the excesses of passion. I won’t write about the role or the aria itself, for I have done it already here in 2008 (I thought of rewriting the text, but part of me like the fact that it sounds like my 2008 self).

The first thing one notices about Fassbaender’s O don fatale is that she doesn’t start at 100%. Here she avoids, as most mezzos do, tossing her desperation right at our faces, but rather walking us through many layers of feelings. As the text tells us, she realizes for the first time that being attractive is the reason why she finds herself in such a dire situation; she is still processing this insight, even weighing pros and cons – yes, beauty is something that makes women like her stand out, but it is also a curse in disguise and she regrets it now. This is no self-piteous whining – Eboli is a princess and one must feel that she is settling a personal matter with God at this point. She is that important. And Fassbaender enunciates the text in the grand manner – hear the way she spits her consonants in Wie Du so stolz, so eitel mich machest (=Tu che ci fai si vane, altere). After she has cursed her own beauty, the extent of her predicament finally dawns on her: she is an outcast now, a traitor, a despicable person. On top of her own proudness, she despises herself. The next phrases (in Italian, Versar, versar sol posso il pianto, speme non ho, soffrir dovrò, il mio delitto è orribil tanto, che cancellar mai nol potrò – I can only let my tears flow, I have no hope, I must suffer, my crime is so horrible that I will never be able to revert it) fall right in the middle register in an aria that tends to require a lot of both low and high notes. I.e., the singer may sound a bit off here. Yet Fassbaender delivers them with absolute clarity. The text, especially in German, is wordy – all those ideas are running through her head. It is important for the singer to keep these treacherous phrases focused for they are building up to a powerful climax – a c flat (high b natural), a very high note for a mezzo soprano. Fassbaender hits it with absolute precision. It is a radiant note which she holds as long as she can and then, with the help of a downward portamento seamlessly transitions for another c flat, this one two octaves lower. Here, not only Fassbaender’s control of chest resonance pays off but also she finds the right touch of snarl in the corresponding text, Ah, sei verflucht! (I curse you!) It must be said that this makes more sense in German than in Italian, because of the inversion in the translation (in Italian, the lower part of the phrase has the text O mia beltà – “My beauty”).

After this tempestuous introduction, the aria itself, which is more lyric in nature, begins. Here is the part when she regrets everything she has done. In the introduction, it was all God’s fault (who has cursed her with beauty). Now Eboli is taking responsabilty for her own actions in an imaginary dialogue with the queen (whom she has betrayed by falsely accusing her of doing something she herself was guilty of). The way Verdi wrote it is very testing for the singer – it involves again and again navigating the passaggio (so-olo in-UNCHIOS-TRO). With Fassbaender, one hardly notices any change in the quality of the sound. But this is not the only challenge here. There is a very subtle building climax – phrases are very repetitive and Verdi requires each instalment to be sung a little bit louder only to allow for some relaxation in dynamic before it all starts over again and again. The middle register is a tough place to put some weight on the voice – if you go ballistic there, then shifting into high register is going to be really tough – and that’s exactly what is happening next. Fassbaender creates this cumulative effect by letting these notes spin rather than force them – you can feel that they’re becoming more and more vibrant rather than pressed hard upon. When she finally has to attack directly a high b flat, you see how much of a risk-taker she was. She handles the tricky passage with poise, but you can see she ends the phrase in the last molecule of air available to her at this point. Verdi has another peril in reserve in the a flat – g – a flat “shake” in al mondo omai dovrò cellar il mio dolor (I’ll must hide my pain from the world). Here’s generally the moment you feel the singer is desperate for some repose (unfortunately, this is not going to happen). The text in German is more congenial (she has only vowels) and there’s room for an extra pause for breathing.

Now we have a recitative before the stretta (some would call it a cabaletta, but it’s really so brief that I feel unsure if this would be the right way to call it). This is the moment when she thinks of Don Carlos. The fact that he did not correspond her feelings is the reason why Eboli wrongly accused the queen (who happens to be the one the prince really loves). Yet she realizes now that he is the one who’ll receive the blow of the king’s revenge. Again in German, this passage sounds even wordier and that’s how it is supposed to sound – Eboli is quickly considering everything that can go wrong with Carlo. Cleverly, Fassbaender sings it as lightly as possible as if a bit in shock and saves the energy to let out a dark Ein Tag bleibt noch mir (=Un dì mi resta, I still have one day left). Once more Verdi is asking from the singer everything she still has left to offer. Eboli sees that her single hope of atonement is saving Carlos and she’s going all for it. The passage starts in a high a flat marked ff. Verdi makes the mezzo plunge down to her low register just once more before gradually lifting the tessitura in phrases that require almost Rossinian precision until he makes her sing two b flats, while she repeats she’ll save Carlos, she’ll save him, God helps her. Fassbaender makes it very exciting, for she doesn’t spare herself, while keeping the voice focused and bright (which is the wise way of doing it if you’re not a dramatic mezzo – I’d say “even if you’re a dramatic mezzo”). The first b flat (which comes in the end of a half-scale) is the one singers usually like to cut short as fast as possible – Fassbaender still finds some leeway to round it off with aplomb. The second one is actually tougher: the way Verdi really wrote it, there is no place to breathe in the whole phrase and you still have to end it in a long high a. What mezzos do with it in real life is unpredictable – the text is reorganised, the phrase is chopped, there’s always an “ah!” to save the day. I don’t really know how the German text is supposed to be – it could be anything, for Verdi himself never wrote a German version (as we know, until a scholar comes with a new theory, the opera was originally composed in French instead). As most singers do in the Italian text, she finds a pause before the high b flat, but she proves to be bit naughtier by making a second pause after that: Ich rette ihn (pause) ach (pause) ja! She makes it work like that. Frankly, at this point she had already sold me her account of O don fatale anyway…


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Otto Schenk’s production was in use in Munich since 1972. We have seen it on video with Gwyneth Jones, Brigitte Fassbaender and Lucia Popp and, when I finally caught it live a couple of yours ago, I couldn’t help thinking that it was high time the Bavarian State Opera listened to the Feldmarschallin when she says Versteht Er nicht, wenn eine Sach’ ein End’ hat? The day for its retirement has finally arrived: a new staging by Barrie Kosky has been unveiled in a telecast. I wonder what would have been the audience’s responde if there had been an audience in the theatre. I have to be honest that my first impression was very negative – I’ve found Rufus Didviszus’s sets and Victoria Behr’s costumes hideous. The Marschallin must have the best curtains in Vienna – for it all looks dark even when characters say that it is daytime. Even with the scarce lighting, the stylisation of the “original” (or for that matter, Jürgen Rose’s) set designs looks gaudy. This is not the first Rosenkavalier I’ve seen where there is a hard-to-explain fantasy with jungle. Although the Marschallin and Octavian are supposed to be alone in her room, there comes an army of stagehands to bring samples of the tropical flora for them to play Adam and Even in a messy, busy and regrettable blocking. There is also an old gentleman doubling as Cupid and Time who stands in for many characters in the plot. The good thing is that he barely has a costume – so it’s one less ugly piece of garment on stage.

Barrie Kosky seems to have become one of these directors who have to advertise his “signature” in every staging so that the audience remembers he directed it at all times. And subtlety is not part of it – the man can’t do subtlety to save his life. Rosenkavalier has two contrasting atmosphere’s – and Kosky’s all-out approach could work for Ochs’s farcical, physical-comedy world, but it’s definitely too much for the Marschallin’s boudoir. Although he has a fine actress for the role, she is so busy cavorting and crawling and running around that she could get an olympic gold medal rather than an Olivier for her acting there. I was disappointed, however, to see that even the comedy scenes are done in the same underlined, bold plus italics manner he has staged operetta in the Komische Oper, for instance. The Faninal Palais is a mix of the National Gallery and Disneyland, where young unmarried ladies are allowed to receive male guests in her bed and silver carriages with horses are welcome. Since Salzburg is only a one-hour train ride away, horned extras from the Orpheée aux Enfers were invited for the whole engagement signing ceremony. Maybe it was low expectation at that point, but I’ve found the concept for act 3 (where the tavern is a shown as a theatre stage) insightful and efficient. After all, everybody is putting an act there. All that said, there is a great deal to praise here. While everybody moved bureaucratically in the Schenk staging after more than 40 years since its première, this one had truly compelling Personenregie. Kosky got the relationship between the Marschallin and Ochs right – they really behave as cousins. He looks charming in a slightly obnoxious way, while she doesn’t bother to act grand-dame-ish in her own bedroom. They react to everything each other say in a telling and believable way. I am not so sure about the oversexed Mariandl – I can’t see the point of Octavian wanting to tease another man, especially one who boasts to be some sort of beastly Don Juan. In act 2, the whole thing is so broadly played “for gags” that it is hard to speak of “insight”, but some members of the cast are really comfortable with what is required for them.

It is very difficult for me to speak about Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting in this performance, for most inexplicably the Bavarian State Opera has decided to use the orchestration of an Eberhard Kloke, unless I am made to believe that this gentleman understands orchestration better than Richard Strauss himself. If this has something to do with sanitary measures due to the pandemics, it would have been wiser to stage something the original orchestration of which is safe enough, maybe La Finta Giardiniera. They certainly could have used Kosky’s staging exactly as it is. The obsessive use of the piano and other keyboard instruments alone made it hard for me to keep listening to this performance. I know it is a matter of taste, but for my taste this has brought a “polite” atmosphere to scenes that should be frankly emotional. I have the impression that other tampering with Strauss’s original orchestra was responsible for the peculiar orchestral sound picture. The amount of “tingle” factor in this performance was reduced to almost zero, due to the absence of Schwung in key moments. Also, although there was vertical clarity enough, it seems that a decision has been made in favor of indistinct articulation that made some famously kaleidoscopic moments (such as the orchestral introductions to act 1 and 3) a bit blurred. Mr. Jurowski seems to have a fondness for brisk tempi in this score – and, considering that Kloke’s orchestration is the non-lactose, skimmed version of the Straussian cream, it is a reasonable option, although entirely free of expression. The Marschallin mused about the passage of times objectively, Octavian gave Sophie her silver rose perfunctorily and the three of them duly move on from their present troubles in the end of act 3.

Malis Petersen has sung the role of Sophie both in Munich and Vienna (and elsewhere) and, as much as Elisabeth Söderström, Lisa della Casa, Lucia Popp, Helen Donath or Edith Mathis, is graduating to the role of the Feldmarschallin. She has many advantages in the part: a pure, trouble-free soprano that climbs to high notes without hesitation while being audible enough in the lower reaches, crystalline diction, expert word-pointing, instrumental phrasing and the necessary poise. This Marschallin means everything she says – and her fully-engaged acting is helped by a very expressive face that looks young and radiant at one moment just to seem worldweary and melancholic in the next second. Yet we are used to richer tones and a bit more volume in the role. As a result, Ms. Petersen may sound monochromatic now and then and tends to disappear in ensembles. In any case, I am eager to listen to her Marschallin audio only to form an opinion. Samantha Hankey’s fruity, slightly grainy mezzo is the kind of voice one expects to hear in the role of Octavian. She finds no problem in the high tessitura, sings the German text with clarity, looks convincingly boyish and acts well. As many singers in the role, she goes a bit over the top as Mariandl, but here I would say she must have been encouraged by the director. The lovely Katharina Konradi could be an ideal Sophie – the voice shines in its high reaches, she sings with great affection and sense of style – but lacks the floating mezza voce for the delivery of the silver rose. Christof Fischesser has been the second-best option in German bass roles all around Europe for a while but it seems that this Rosenkavalier might be an opportunity for him to go to the top of the list. As recorded, it was a very solid performance – sung uncut – the voice firm and rich throughout the whole range. He is not the kind of Ochs who floats a high f in his big act 1 scene and tends to make his point through crispy delivery of the text, sometimes almost parlando in style, but within the limits of musicality. He also acts the part with restrain (considering what is required from him by the director) and in the end seems more believable than most singers who go for open buffoonery in this role. Minor roles were cast from strength, especially bête-de-scène Johannes Martin Kränzle, a forceful Faninal.

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Music Lounge (34)

Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg used to be a great mystery to me – it is supposed to be a comedy and I have never seen myself even smile in any second of the more than four hours of any performance I have ever attended so far. I would later discover that this actually makes sense, as Wagner’s first idea was to write it in the same spirit of a satyr play in Classical Greece, i.e., a comic work to be performed after a series of tragedies in a Dionysian Festival. In other words, a comedy written by people whose day job was writing tragedies. Actually, the structure of satyr plays was very similar to that of a tragedy and followed many of its formulae. Until I read Heinrich von Kleist’s Der zerbrochene Krug, I had not realized how comedies are resistant to scholarly allegory – as much as in Meistersinger, we have a character name Eva, an older man paying unsolicited attention to her and a plot to trick the girl away from her sweetheart. But it’s hard to laugh – any possibility of humor succumbs to the weight of erudite quotations, nerdy wordplays, lofty parables. And, yes, I was talking about Kleist – but we could be talking about Wagner too. Kleist has an advantage – as far as I know, his play has not been widely paraded as regime propaganda in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When we come to good old Meistersinger, it is almost impossible to have the play without the patina of analysis, especially Theodor Adorno’s take on the character of Beckmesser. I’d rather stick with the libretto alone, even if all inferences (including Adorno’s) are far from unfounded. If you look at it from a 21st century perspective, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’s central issue can be seen as the shock of global and local perspectives. On one side, we have the mastersingers desperately clinging to their old provincial idiosyncrasies as a mean to preserve their identity against something that they understand as “foreign” and “destructive”, while these forces are rather innovative and inter-relational (as in “non-local”). On the other side, we have young people who do not see a place for them in the existing structure and could either break it or break away from it. As it is, we’re speaking of a conflict between a “where” and a “when”, a fancy way of referring to intergenerational conflict. In the middle of all that, there is Hans Sachs. Although he belongs to the old guard, he is a man who can think out of the box and has perceived that times they are a-changin’.

As many characters who inhabit in-between spaces, Sachs is all ambiguity. As much as he understands a) that he should mind the generation gap and let Eva have her own way in what regards her private life; b) that Stolzing’s lifestyle (and style) may be radically different form the Nuremberg way of doing things and exactly for that reason he might be the Parsifal-like type who redeems the redeemer (i.e., brings “art” back the to art-song), he still wants the establishment to exist. He disagrees about how rules are, but he still wants rules, even if he had to bend them just a bit to adapt them for a new generation who couldn’t care less about them (Eva and Walther just want to be together). And that’s why, in the final act, he warns the young people around him – don’t let shiny new things mislead you, for the good and true things are local, for they make us what we are (that’s the political correct version of what he says). So, yes, in the end, he comes across as rather conservative, but we have to remember – he is reacting to Stolzing’s last utterance “I’ll be happy without being a master!” As we see, Sachs encourages a bit of change to let some fresh air into his beloved old institution, but ultimately his agents of change just pat him in the back and say “thanks, old man, but we’re outta here!” So, as much as we’re tempted to portray Sachs as 100% benign, he is closer to the chummy grand-uncle who taught us to play chess when we were kids but makes inappropriate jokes in family celebrations.

So the big question is – how a singer is supposed to vocally portray the role of Hans Sachs? This is not a philosophical question, but instead a very practical one. Casting the roles in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a herculean task, because “Wagnerian” and “comedy” involve two very different things. When we think of Wagnerian singers, the idea is someone with a big, medium-center voice capable of producing powerful high notes for climactic moments. When we think of comic opera, we’d rather picture lighter voices, with crystal-clear diction and some agility, because there is a lot of conversational passages and we must absolutely understand the text. Faced with these contradictory needs, opera houses are always looking for a cast of platypuses: youthful tone, capable of lyric phrasing and still able to pierce through the orchestra. We often see Evas and Walthers that come close to that description, but more often than not we find Wotans in the part of Sachs. I have to say that this has rarely worked for me. We have this behemoth of a bass baritone struggling a bit when the text is wordy and unleashing the powers of nature when he has to sing high. A singer like that makes Sachs a towering presence over the rest of the cast – and particularly the other mastersingers. In his cobbler’s Walh… workshop, he rules that little world as if he commanded an army of dead warriors. So, yes, when this fearsome figure appears in act 3, scene 5, speaking of the threat of the influence of Southern countries, you really feel like he is waging war rather than just being old-fashioned, inadequate and a bit jealous.Although this might fit the purposes of historical and sociological analysis, it’s too much for what’s going on in the libretto. That is why it is always refreshing to find a Sachs that fits the scale of this story, a genial, slightly mature fellow, old-fashioned in a charming way, likeable above all, even when he is a bit biased. This character requires a smooth voice, velvety, legato-prone, pleasant in tone, a big lyric voice. It cannot be too slim or bright a voice – it should have no edge, but rather unwrap in the hall with a round quality. I don’t think I have ever heard a Sachs like that in the theatre. I imagine Wolfgang Brendel could have been this guy. There used to be a DVD from Berlin with his Sachs, but I’ve listened to it only once ages ago and, when I speak about Brendel here, it is rather how I imagine him in the part than actually based in my experience of watching the video. In his recital from Munich, Michael Volle comes really close in his take of the famous Wahnmonolog. He sings it with nuance and an amiable quality. Unfortunately, my experience of hearing him live in Bayreuth was less satisfying – his voice became increasingly hoarse during the performance and I wouldn’t be able to say much. On looking for a track for our Music Lounge, I was surprised to find Franz Crass sing the the same scene also in recital, with Kurt Eichhorn and the Munich Radio Orchestra.

Crass was a regular in casts of Die Meistersinger rather in the role of Veit Pogner, Eva’s father. He was a bass who sang roles like Sarastro (as in Karl Böhm’s studio recording from Berlin) who increasingly took Heldenbariton parts, especially the Holländer. Unfortunately, his hearing gradually decreased and he had to stop his activities as a singer. To be honest, I have no idea if he actually sang a complete performance of Meistersinger in the role of Hans Sachs. The first time I heard his voice – Karl Böhm’s studio Fidelio from Dresden? – I was wowed by the beauty and firmness of his tone and by his poised phrasing, suitably classical in style. Franz Crass had a unique and very peculiar quality – although he used to appear in deep bass roles, his voice had a tightly focused quality, a bit reedy that made he sound quite baritonal in most of his range, his low notes came almost as a surprise item. And they were also surprisingly high set and consistent with the rest of his voice. They just had an extra serving of chocolate down there. One could nonetheless say that it wasn’t a voice of many colors. When I first bought Boulez’s DGG Parsifal from Bayreuth. I thought “Franz Crass as Gurnemanz, wow!” Yet a good friend said “amazing voice, but Gurnemanz requires a little bit more story-telling ability from the singer”. True. In any case, the Munich recital CD seemed a good opportunity for satisfying my curiosity about his Sachs – and that is what we’re hearing this week.

The Wahnmonolog comes right in the beginning of act 3. Sachs belongs to a guild of master craftsmen devoted to art song who call themselves “mastersingers”. One of them, Veit Pogner, a goldsmith, decides that he is giving his daughter Eva’s hand to the winner of the Midsummer Day song contest. Sachs has a special affection for the girl and acts as her mentor. When he learns that there is only one qualified contestant, the pedantic Sixtus Beckmesser, a clerk, he feels specially unhappy about these events. That is why that he consents in helping her get her father’s consent in her intention to marry Walther von Stolzing, a knight from Franconia. The only way to do that, however, is making him a master singer (although he is something of an aristocrat and only sings spontaneously). This plan doesn’t work at first, so the young couple decide to elope. Being a neighbour of Pogner’s, he is able to discover this plan and decided to act fast to prevent a scandal. That is precisely the moment Beckmesser arrives to serenade the girl. Sachs seizes the opportunity to create a confusion by interrupting the serenader with his own “cobbling song”. The discussion between the two men attracts everybody’s attention, including Sachs’s apprentice David’s, who is in love with Eva’s maid, Magdalene. That very instant, she is posing as Eva as a smoke screen for the couple to flee. David, however, recognizes her and attacks Beckmesser out of jealousy. As all those events have kept the neighbourhood awake, everybody comes out to see the fight between David and Beckmesser, which soon becomes a riot. In these circumstances, Eva and Walther find it difficult to escape. Sachs manages to make the girl return home and drags the young man to his workshop. In the next day, when he is alone he starts to think about life. It’s all madness, everywhere he looks everybody hates each other for no reason and all this hatred only makes people miserable even if they find it otherwise. And that is why he used to be so happy about his own Nuremberg, a harbour of peace in the middle of chaos, and the reason for that is that it has been faithful to its own old habits. And yet, the day before, when Sachs just tried to prevent a rash thoughtless action of two decent young people, he unintentionally caused an explosion of violence. In the end, madness ended up happening right on his doorstep. That is why he has to be extra smart to steer all these characters to what he considers a happy ending: Walther acknowledged as a master singer, properly getting the girl’s hand and making all other mastersingers see that it is high time they reviewed all these rules.

The Wahnmonolog is a classical Wagnerian scene in recitative+arioso style that allows all Leitmotive being evoked to help the audience to remember what they were and what they represent through the association with the text. It starts right away with two significant motives – a melancholic one called “renunciation motive” from the act 3 prelude (as we know, Sachs’s affection for the girl is not purely fatherly and she has flirted with him a bit too – she would later even say that, if she had a choice of whom she is bound to love, Sachs would be it) and the other reminiscent of Beckmesser’s “lyre motive”. So, we have here themes related to things not meant to be – Sachs’s attachment to Eva approaching its end (she’ll be soon married to someone else) and Beckmesser’s ridiculous infatuation with her. As the singer begins his text Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn (Madness, madness everywhere…), we feel that here Wagner wants the audience to really understand the text. The tessitura is central, the orchestra is used sparingly, the occasional reappearance of the melancholic motive reinforces the concept that Walther has in Sachs’s psyche a deeper meaning (yes, in a certain way he is “replacing” Sachs – for many reasons, he can do things Sachs cannot). It is curious that this melancholic motive always suggests something of Tristan und Isolde (there is one point when you almost hear the first motive of Tristan’s prelude). This is no coincidence – Sachs would later say that he doesn’t want to play the part of King Marke in Eva and Walther’s lives. The monologue’s first part ends with one question: Wer gibt den Namen an? (“Who can name that?”). The answer ‘s ist halt der alte Wahn, ohn’ den nichts mag geschehen, ‘s mag gehen oder stehen! (“It is nothing but the old madness! Without it, nothing can happen, one can neither go nor stay!”) brings the full orchestra and new motives – I can hear a bit of Sachs’s own “cobbling” song and there iso also, in the horn, one variation of a motive associated to Eva and Walther (after some adaptation, it finally makes into the Preislied too). In a purely intellectual level, Sachs sees that change involve some “destruction” of old things, it is a necessary process, but at this point he feels old too and ready to be discarded. After a reinstatement of the Renunciation motive, no wonder that the next subject is his dear, old-fashioned, faithful Nuremberg. We know it before he speaks, because the Nuremberg motive tips us off. As we hear Sachs describing how his peaceful Nuremberg ended up a bit messy the night before, Wagner masterly morphs the Nuremberg motive – by making it rhythmically and harmonically increasingly tenser – into what is called the Prügelmotiv (i.e., the “spanking” motive), which by its turn is also related to Beckmesser’s lyre motive (after all, he was the one who got spanked). This episode ends in a long pause after Gott weiss, wie das geschah? (“God knows how it all began!”). Then we’re in a Lohengrin-sound picture, with violins dolcissimo and harps with the Eva/Walther motive exactly as it appears in their tryst in the beginning of act 2, right when they were planing to elope. And, now under a smooth, charming aspect, the Prügelmotiv appears in the oboe and develops into the one we associate with the mastersingers guild. In a way, he is speaking of Beckmesser, comparing him with a glowworm who tried to woo his mate and failed and ended up causing lots of trouble. The way these motives are portrayed here, we can almost see the insect’s glow in the air with the help of trills and staccato. And now we reach the last part of the monologue, when Sachs says “but this was yesterday – today is Midsummer Day” (i.e, the song contest and the denouement of the whole affair of who is getting the girl in the end). Of course, the Midsummer Day has its own motive and it appears now, together with the mastersingers’ motive. The Preislied theme makes a brief appearance too and then the Nuremberg motive. Sachs is wondering if he’ll be able to make things happen as he want – and the plan is musically explained to the audience with the succession of the respective motives.

You might be wondering – and what about Franz Crass? Well, he does have an ideal tone quality for the role. He is a bass, and has a certain weight to the tone that befits the character. For instance, although I tend to like Bernd Weikl, this was something missing from his take on the role. And yet, the reediness, the clarity, the firmness make Crass at the same time approachable, congenial, not at all Wotan-like. In terms of tone quality, he is the “chummy uncle”. There is something refreshing too in the way he enunciates the text. It’s not fussy at all. Tone colouring is not his stronger suit, but we don’t feel he needs it here. He is, of course, idiomatic in his mother language, but it’s more than that – he delivers the text almost in the way an actor would do, with the right accent, the right crispness. It feels like a theatre monologue in its “studied naturalness”. He also rises to the occasion in terms of dynamic, although there are one or two rusty spots, which ultimately add character to his singing. Most of all, he does not sound aristocratic or god-like – we’re hearing a savvy guy who’s been around and learn a bit about life and the world. If we read the text of the Wahnmonolog, we don’t think of the influence of Schopenhauer, it sounds like something the chummy uncle would say after he has read the Sunday newspaper. And that’s how Crass delivers it. So, yes, I’m sad he did not at least in studio recorded the part. I am less enthusiastic about the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Maybe the poor quality of the clip is to blame. EIchhorn is always an efficient conductor – not amazingly imaginative and the voice/orchestra balance could have been a little but more natural. That said, I am glad I’ve found this recording. I hope you enjoy it too!

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Music lounge (33)

The Cantata BWV 36 – Schwingt freudig euch empor (Soar joyfully upwards) has a fascinating creation process – Bach first used it in 1725 for the celebration of a teacher’s birthday. Some months later he would use it again to commemorate the birthday of Princess Friederike-Wilhelmine von Anhalt-Köthen under the title Steig freudig in die Luft (Rise joyfully into the air). It would be revived again in 1735 in honor of a scholar from Leipzig as Die Freude reget sich (Joy is stirring), but before that he adapted it as a church cantata for the first Sunday in Advent on December 2nd 1731. New recitatives and numbers were included, yet the tenor aria Die Liebe zieht mit sanften Schritten (Love attracts with soft steps) was part of the original packet.

It had different texts in its many incarnations. If I had a child who sang his or her teacher the text of the 1725 version, I would probably refer him or her to counselling : “Love guides with soft steps a heart that loves its teacher. Where other [hearts] indulge in excess, this one moves cautiously, because respect gives it limits”. The sensuous oboe d’amore obligato does not help into making the whole affair less suspect. Anyway, for the princess’s birthday, love was taken out of the equation: “The sun attracts the heliotrope with soft ardor. Thus, great princess, your glance, which is the source of our well-being and contentment, receives our always faithful attention”. With or without “love” in the text, the oboe d’amore remains and the aria’s atmosphere does not suggest respectful vassalage but, with an effort of imagination, we can think that it has to do with the pleasure of submitting to a gentle sovereign (I know…). For the first Sunday in Advent, Bach decided that love should be reinstated in the text and the sensuous atmosphere is not unwelcome, for we’re back to one of my favorite themes in Bach’s sacred works: the representation of the union of Jesus and the Christian soul as a romance. “Love gradually attracts, with soft steps, its beloved. Just like a bride is delighted when she sees her groom, this is how the heart pursues Jesus”. I can’t help thinking that this is the perfect text for the aria. The student/teacher and the subject/sovereign relationships impose a cerimonial respect, while the melancholic tonality of B minor (at least that’s how Johann Mattheson describes it), the flowing oboe d’amore obligato intertwining with the singer’s voice and the passepied rhythm (to keep within Mattheson’s definitions, a courtly dance of some “frivolity”) suggest excess rather than restraint. This is how the heart pursues Jesus – irresistibly, filled with a soft, serene delight.

You could accept the dryish sound tenors specialised in baroque repertoire tend to defend for the teacher or even for the princess aria, but not for the bride aria – it requires a juicy voice, pliant and dulcet, gliding through the long lines and sailing through the tricky passaggio serenely, smoothly. And that is what Johannes Kaleschke offers us in his 2017 live recording with the St. Gallen Bach Stiftung under Rudolf Lutz. Bach tenors are a rare specimen – no other composer is more demanding on the tenor voice than Bach. You might say – the orchestra is not big, there are no notes above a high a etc etc – but 9 out 10 very famous tenors are unable to deliver a truly satisfying rendition of a Bach aria. The 10th tenor in this imaginary list is, of course, Fritz Wunderlich. But Kaleschke proves himself able to hold his own commendably – he is is one the best Bach tenors in activity these days. He does not have many recordings, though, and we must thank Maestro Lutz for giving us the opportunity of hearing him at all. As it is, Die Liebe zieht exposes the tenor cruelly – the orchestra is reduced to continuo and there basically is the tenor in constant dialogue with the oboe d’amore. This is not the first and not the last aria where the instrument stands for the voice of someone invisible to the singer. We can think of Sesto and a basset horn doubling as Vitellia in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito or the Glasharmonika (or the flute) standing for Edgard in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Here it is Jesus. The text informs us he is not yet here, he does not rush towards the faithful one – he comes in soft and small steps. As much as the bride can only see the groom from a distance, at this point we can only hear his voice. In other words, it is a seduction aria. The thematic relationship between the oboe’s lines and the tenor’s lines is very complex. The oboe introduces the first theme exactly as the singer is going to repeat it a few bars later and then develops it in an arabesque-like figure that always descends in broken steps. Only the tenor never sings exactly what the oboe proposes. It takes him a while to be able to respond to the arabesque figure. He insists in very “strict” variations of the original motive while the oboe is inviting him to go a step further and join him in the more complex second theme (i.e., the arabesque). Once he is able to follow the oboe’s steps, he stops in a very long central b before he can conclude the first section. This is the perfect musical depiction of the text – the tenor is not insensitive to the oboe, at first he believes he maybe cannot follow it, but the oboe insists, shows him that he can do it too, the tenor finally reaches out and, hey!, he can sing like the oboe. Now he and the oboe are in the same wavelength, although the oboe is in a superior level. We can see that, after the long high b, the tenor sings one more phrase while the oboe keeps on.

In the B section, the tenor goes first. He sings a material adorned with trills only faintly related to the oboe’s basic theme, but the continuo now takes an active role in the story: it echoes the oboe’s up-and-step-by-step-down second theme. When the oboe finally appears (after the first mention to Jesus in the aria), it is an adaptation of the first material, followed by – again – the second theme. Then it is going to sound a little bit obsessive: the first theme has a downwards of four notes, which the oboe is going to pile up in repetition until it concentrates on the arabesque (that the continuo has taken for itself too). In his final phrase, the tenor will finally sing a variation of the oboe’s first motive (it has a distinctive twist that makes it immediately recognizable). The way I read it, the second part exposes the tenor to other callings – we have a lower voice (the continuo) that may sound like the oboe, but once the oboe is there – the tenor might hesitate at first – he can’t help but following it. The oboe is the tenor’s vocation – he is programmed to follow it. Another possibility- once the tenor really responds to the oboe, he hears its voice everywhere. Feel free to propose your own scenario!

In terms of interpretation, there is not much room for the tenor to be overcreative. He, most curiously, stands for the bride in this aria – he just have to be there and sound lovely and vulnerable. And that is where the perfect legato and the absolutely smooth passaggio are essential for the singer’s success here. Kaleschke sings it with Mozartian poise, attacking his high g’s with instrumental clarity, using nasal resonance judiciously, mostly to navigate through the passaggio without darkening his tone. Other than this, the voice has an ideal balance of focus, roundness and velvet. He handles the “arabesque” theme with an almost instrumental finish (and that’s precisely the idea), following Bach’s instructions with absolute faithfulness and producing a lovely long b in allgemach, not fixed and lifeless – the note spins lovingly, “lieblich zitternd” as Michael Pretorius describes how a good voice should sound. It suggests the frisson of the moment when the bride notices the groom approaching. The B section is tricky with trills in uncomfortable spots in the tenor range and phrases with no suitable breathing points. When one listens to Kaleschke, the impression is this is as singable as a lullaby, but you only have this impression because he is really working for his money there in order to make you believe that! As a matter of fact, the Bach Stiftung recording is worth while listening as a whole: Nuria Rial produces superlative singing in the soprano arias and both Claudia Eichenberg and Klaus Häger complete a strong group of soloists. Mr. Lutz offers, as always, an ideal balance between historically informed practices and the kind of expression modern audiences expect. You’ll find here attached the YouTube clip starting right in the tenor aria, but I strongly recommend listening to the whole cantata.

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Music lounge (32)

Whoever has been in Japan during the the summer months knows that cicadas are an important part of the atmosphere. And it is no wonder that the most famous operatic solo in a French opera with a Japanese setting is sometimes referred to as “l’air des cigales”. Although André Messager is often remembered as the conductor in the premières of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Charpentier’s Louise, he was a prolific composer of opera and operetta, among which Fortunio is probably the single item still in repertoire in French speaking countries. Madame Chrysanthème, a comédie lyrique, has libretto adapted from Pierre Loti’s book with the same title. The plot has many similarities with the short-story by John Luther Long that served as inspiration for David Belasco’s Madama Butterfly, but Loti has a bittersweet operetta-ish approach in which everybody knows that the “Japanese” marriage is not “for real”: Pierre soon gets jealous and cranky and Chrysanthème misses the fun of being a geisha. Technically, Messager has a libretto with more local color than the one in Butterfly, but the only recognisable attempt at Orientalism in Messager’s score is having the Japanese characters sing melodies with lots of repeated notes, while Puccini’s exploration of Japanese songs paid off in something that, if not authentic, sounds distinctive and ultimately more effective. As it is, Madame Chrysanthème is a charming melodic work in a very French way that sorely needs a modern recording. The part of Chrysanthème herself is written for a lyric soprano, making it easier for the singer to sound young and pure-toned in doll-like way as the cliché behind these operas suggests.

Le jour sous le soleil béni comes in the middle of act 3, during a matsuri (festival) in what is supposed to be the Suwa-jinja in Nagasaki, where a famous festival (kunchi) takes place in October (i.e., not in the summer as the text of the song implies). Chrysanthème, who used to be a geisha before being booked for the season as a “companion” to the Frenchman Pierre, is nostalgic of her days of freedom and wishes she could entertain the audience again. As an opportunity for her to sing appears, she seizes it. Pierre will recognise her voice and aggressively chide her. But that’s later – as she sings the song, one can feel her coming back to life and enjoying a moment just like the old days. The text is an awkward attempt at reproducing some central themes of Japanese art. Many Japanese poems start by offering an image of nature and end up proposing an observation that implies a theme of philosophic nature. There never is a simile, it is for the reader to fill in the blanks. That’s not exactly what happens here. The song explains that the geisha and the cicada have a short while to fulfil their task, which is to create an atmosphere of magic. If Japanese art has a theme, this is the course of seasons and the fleeting nature of life: cherry blossoms that soon will fade, red maple leaves soon to fall, snow soon to melt, singing cicadas that soon will be silent. No wonder their song, according to Chrysanthème is about flowers, youth and love, none of which is supposed to last. Le jour sous le soleil béni/ La nuit sous l’étoile qui rêve/Dans le champs, dans le bois s’élève un murmure infini/Du voyageur il allège la route/Il charme le ruisseau limpide et frissonant/Près des bambous la mousmé qui l’écoute/Sourit en se baignant/Écoutez c’est le chant de cigales/Écoutez dans les bois d’alentour/Sous les étoiles pâles, c’est la voix de cigales/Elles chantent les fleurs, la jeunesse et l’amour/Cigales, je vous aime car vous êtes mes soeurs/Notre sort est le même: chanter, bercer les coeurs/Dans les bois, sur la route, nous charmons le passant/La mousmé nous écoute et rit en se baignant… (“During the day, under the blessing of sunlight/At night, under the dreaming star/on the field, in the forest, a never-ending murmur arises/It makes the voyager’s journey lighter/It charms the limpid, shivering brook/Near the bamboos the young girl who listens to it/Smiles while she bathes /Listen, it’s the song of the cicadas/Listen in the woods all around/Under the pale stars, it’s the voice of the cicadas/They sing about flowers, youth and love/Cicadas, I love you, for you are my sisters/We share the same fate: to sing, to lull everyone’s hearts/In the woods, at the streets we charm those who pass by/The young girl listens and smiles while she bathes…”).

Le jour sous le soleil béni is a typical French aria for a lyric soprano, such as Offenbach’s Elle a fuit la tourterelle from Les Contes d’Hoffmann ou Bizet’s Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante from Carmen, with a catchy tune, subtle harmonic twists to add flavor and some sort of dramatic expansion at some point that will require a little bit more steam from the singer. What Messager accomplishes here, however, shows unusual variety – this is an aria with various moods, it is an emotional journey. There is a mise-en-abîme – it is a song within a song, in the sense that the character is really singing in the plot, but it is also goes deeper than the surface of events. When Chrysanthème sings about the cicadas, she realizes that the song is about herself, trapped in a failed relationship and wondering if it’s too late for her to enjoy life again. It starts with a very sparse accompaniment – a sequence of major chords implying a motive faintly similar to the singer’s opening phrase. Chrysanthème sings of the blessing of sunlight there and Messager must have felt that these choral-like accompaniment with a hint of sacred music should produce a benign effect. I must confess that its serenity makes me think of many a Japanese publicity about travelling to Kyoto to see either the sakura or the koyo. There is always a close-up of a sweet-looking girl with an impossibly long smile until the camera shows what she is seeing around her and it is always a dreamlike landscape. When Messager, who has asked the soprano to sing piano until dans les champs, dans les bois, asks for forte, the orchestra acquires its own melodic line. It’s sensuous in an almost Sains-Saëns-ian way and this is not a coincidence – Chrysanthème is describing the charm of the cicadas’ song. We’re back to piano and there’s a lot of what Messager supposed to be local color – with mordente-like triplets in the voice soon echoed by the orchestra. It’s an almost intimate moment, as if we were intruding on the young girl bathing in the brook. And then we come to the special effects part of the aria – with the octave intervals in the orchestra right when the soprano ask us “are you hearing the cicadas?”. This leads us to the songs climax, with a catchy melody from Sous les étoiles on that gradually take us higher in the soprano top register, first in a long high a flat and finally a a rising scale to the top high b flat on a crescendo. It is curious that the way these notes are written, they challenge even sopranos who have sung roles such as the Queen of the Night, maybe for the choice of vowels, the cumulative and gradual effect of rising to these notes and the orchestration, of course. The contrasting episode marked “dolce” has pulsating repeated chords on the text Cigales, je vous aime. Messager makes it very central in tessitura to allow the singer to adopt a confessional tone – here is the moment when we (and probably she) realize that this song is not about cicadas at all. The strings double the singing line until the passage marked piano (Dans les bois, sur la route), when a delicate accompaniment of wind instruments increase the atmosphere of Innigkeit. It gradually takes us to the octave intervals when she asks us again if we’re listening to the cicadas after a long pianissimo high a flat. Now we’re ready for the repeat of the aria’s climax and its serpentine melody only to conclude in the repetition of the very first motive and its choral-like chords. As written, the soprano goes for still another high a flat, now pianissimo just to sink back to high d flat.

Madame Chrysanthème has only one abridged recording, with Janine Micheau (not in her best voice, but still very expressive and elegant) in the title role, the ORTF orchestra and Jules Gressier conducting. Le jour sous le soleil béni, on the other hand, is something of a favorite item and usually appears in recorded French opera recitals with lyric and/or coloratura sopranos. Mady Mesplé recorded it for EMI and offers some beautiful floated high notes once you can put up with the nasal tonal quality. Barbara Hendricks won’t please all tastes in her account – the tone is excessively covered and fluttery, the vowels on the dark side, but one still finds there some sensuousness and full high notes for a change. Curiously, Miah Persson recorded it in a recital in Stockholm with Daniel Harding. The tempo is a bit on the fast side and, while she is clearly trying to make something of the text, it seems a bit high for her. If a lyric soprano is what one wants to hear, Sonya Yoncheva is a little bit brighter and stronger in legato, but her high notes risk to flap more than one would wish.

I left the two serious finalists for the end. I first heard Le jour sous le soleil béni with Sumi Jo in her French recital with Richard Bonynge. One will find her in better voice in concert on YouTube; the studio shows her a bit acidic in tone in her high notes and, for someone who sang so often in France, almost incomprehensible in terms of diction. Bonynge goes for a clearly “serious” point-of-view, offering Straussian sonorities in a more considerate tempo. Jo uses it – although the text is indistinct, the feelings are very palpable. In terms of phrasing, it is rich in tone colouring and very expressive. There is furthermore a bird-like quality to her singing that makes sense for the scene. It is a festival where Chrysanthème used to sing and the crowd gathers to hear someone with “a clear voice, an incomparable style”, a bird free from its cage in its natural habitat. Jo famously ends it with a superlong floated high d flat in alt the scintillation of which has something cicada-like. As you can see, I still cling to this recording, but I have to acknowledge that one can’t go more authentic than Sabine Devieilhe and the Les Siècles orchestra under François-Xavier Roth. First the more flexible tempo makes it also more French in atmosphere. Being French herself, Devieilhe offers a lesson of clarity of text for any high soprano, opts for French r’s and, if she doesn’t carry her high d flat as long as Sumi Jo, she doesn’t make a breathing pause before it and keeps the vowel of the text (“e”). Compared to Jo, she sings it with far less mystery too and seems more concerned with keeping melodic flow. This is an aria that explores all possibilities in the soprano voice, high notes, low notes, long phrases, flexibility – and Jo makes the best of everything, if not the pronunciation of the text itself. I also like the fact that Bonynge shows this as a full Romantic aria rather than a charming operetta number, even if the splash of kitsch is an important part of it. As you can see, my heart goes for Sumi Jo, but I have the impression that Messager would have recognized Sabine Devieilhe’s recording as the one closer to what he imagined when he composed it. Thanks to YouTube, I’ll give you the opportunity to choose for yourselves.

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