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Archive for May, 2021

Music Lounge (44)

This week we’ll talk about a controversial performance in a recording considered by many unconvincing: Jessye Norman’s Elsa in Georg Solti’s studio Lohengrin with the Vienna Philharmonic. When Solti first recorded it, he had already committed to the discography every other main Wagner opera with the Vienna Philharmonic a while before – and if you’re wondering if he was waiting for an ideal cast or something like that, I am afraid that this was not the reason. He basically didn’t like Lohengrin very much and probably only agreed to do it to round off his achievement as a Wagner conductor. The cast must have something to do with Decca wanting to produce it – here we have two superstar singers the conductor had often worked with, Norman and, above all, Plácido Domingo. The rest of the cast, however, was hardly in the same PR level, and yet Solti had also collaborated with them in this repertoire: Eva Randová and Hans Sotin had sung the roles of Ortrud and the King for him in Stuttgart not long before, Siegmund Nimsgern was his Wotan in Bayreuth. That said, the less glamorous names in the cast were not the reason why this recording never achieved consensus as a recommended item. As with many Decca recordings those days, reviewers tended to see in it a bureaucratic affair with a conductor seen today not higher as the top name in the B-list and a miscast tenor in a vanity project and, yes, some unspectacular singing in the low-voice department. Although Solti is not my favorite conductor, I find that the lukewarm reputation is unfair. Although there are few examples of reference performances under his baton, he was consistently efficient in a very wide repertoire and that’s something that deserves respect. He could be an exciting Wagner conductor – his Decca Rheingold, for instance, is impressively clear and dynamic – but I can see why Lohengrin was not his favorite work. Solti was always his best with forward-moving, rhythmically vital music and his straightforwardness could be refreshing in works too often fussed about by “metaphysical” conductors. But when the page tended to be elusive in terms of structure and demanded a chess-player-like control of long-winded episodes, especially in declamatory passages in which the orchestra pops up motivic reference here and there, one can’t help noticing a certain slackness. And Lohengrin is infamously challenging in its rhythmic squareness and thematic lack of variety.

Before you throw tomatoes at me, let me finish here: Lohengrin is one of my desert-island operas. And what some people call “lack of variety” is for me structural cohesion, but the score does require from the conductor the ability to fool you into not noticing that. If you start to think “haven’t I heard that before?”, then it’s not a good performance of Lohengrin. And, yes, we have a bit of that in some moments of the Decca recording. And when your leading tenor feels uncomfortable with the natural flow of the German language, then this can be especially problematic. Most people, however, don’t care about the good guys in Lohengrin and want to know about the baddies. Here again the recording inspires less than awe: Nimsgern is a bit past his prime and the comparison with his earlier recording with Karajan leaves no doubt about that. Furthermore, while Randová is acceptable as Ortrud and well-contrasted to Norman, the result is a bit underwhelming. She has alright a distinctive tone and an Italianate use of chest register as few other mezzos in this role, but the role demands her 100%. We can hear how she cannot sustain the intensity in the wildest passages, clinging to her breath pauses as if her life depended on it and dealing with the exposed dramatic high notes in business-like manner. Also, it is a role that requires the kind of verbal acuity she does not really provide. So, no, she is not the yang to Norman’s yin. And that is precisely why we hear that Norman is the one miscast: she is allegedly too regal, too sophisticated, too intense and that is confusing considering that she is supposed to be the silly-goose Elsa. Well, I beg to differ.

First, yes, Norman’s Elsa required a force-of-nature Ortrud to make complete sense. Randová sounds basically plebeian while she was supposed to be the one in full control of the situation. Now you’ll ask me – if Ortrud is the one in control, does it make sense to have a regal, sophisticated Elsa? Well, yes… Most sopranos behave as if Elsa thought herself to be a bit of a dummy behind a smoke screen of soaring pianissimo. And if we think about it, real life shows us that the great majority of silly people have a high opinion of themselves. That is why Norman’s take on the role is so special and also the recording’s raison d’être. Elsa is, of course, the heiress in Brabant. She feels confident enough to reject Telramund’s marriage proposal – and that required some guts. He is the de facto ruler in her land and can manipulate the establishment at will – and so he was doing since he was rejected. And yet she still behaves as if she doesn’t need to respond to anyone beneath her. When summoned to defend herself to her judges – the king included – against the accusation of fratricide, she basically refuses. She just looks up to heaven and says Mein armer Bruder… (“my poor brother…”) Then she looks down to everybody else and says that God told her in a dream that a special envoy would come to her defense. This is normally shown to the audience as a sign of Elsa’s weak mind and fragility – but read again. She does not behave like a damsel in distress at all – this is no mad scene. We’re talking of those courtroom movies when a rich heiress goes to court and says “seriously, you’re not going to arrest me, I have connections…”. And Elsa really does – the heavenly envoy comes in full silver, looking like a million bucks in a boat propelled by a miraculous swan. And Jessye Norman’s Elsa sounds all the the time as if she were saying “Told ya so…”.

In spite of an Ortrud that does not keep up with the competition, act 2 is actually Jessye Norman’s best singing in the recording. She is entirely convincing in her egocentric socialite routine there. In Euch Lüften, we can hear how self-satisfied she is about the whole thing. Finally, events are going just the way she wanted and she keeps repeating the favorite parts of her own phrases until Ortrud shows up. It is not difficult to manipulate a vain person – and Ortrud knows exactly how to do it. She makes the whole story turn about herself – is Elsa doing all those mean things just to hurt her? Elsa’s first reaction is Um Gott, was klagest du mich an? War ich es, die dir Leid gebracht? (“In God’s name, what are you accusing me of? Is it me the one who brought you misfortune?”). When Ortrud insists that this is the case, Elsa is dismayed by the scene – Allgüt’ger Gott! Was soll mir das? (“Good Lord, what am I supposed to do with this?”). So, here we have it – Elsa can’t have anyone thinking that he or she is in any position to judge her. So, she looks again up to heaven and confers with God – what kind of person would she be if, blessed with joys as she is, she were to cast away a miserable person? No, Ortrud, I’ll dazzle you with my generosity. When she is finally face to face with her, the first thing Elsa says is: Gold help me, I’m shocked to see you in lowly clothes, you who used to go about so well dressed… And when Ortrud tries to say anything, Elsa is not inclined to hear. She cuts it short – Spare me the entreaties, you’re forgiven, you forgive me, let’s get you some good clothes for you to attend the wedding tomorrow. Norman’s Schwarzkopf-ian fuss there makes you see Elsa as everything but angelic. Yet Ortrud knows again how to reach up to the girl’s vanity: everything that magically appears can also magically disappear. I.e., shouldn’t Elsa be a little bit suspicious about her new, shiny, perfect husband-to-be? This is the track we’re listening this week (although I recommend you to listen to the whole scene).

It begins with the moment when Ortrud skilfully lets in that there is something that she can do to repay all the kindness Elsa is showing her. Wagner has already introduced us in the first scene of act 2 to the motivic material associated to Ortrud – a gradually descending melody originally in F# minor (as opposed to the A major of the grail’s motive in the opera’s prelude) – and we hear the way the composer subtly uses it here. At this point, Ortrud is not sure if she’s finding a leeway to instil doubt in Elsa. So she beats a bit around the bush. First she says she owes Elsa something and we hear a lot of repeated notes in what some musicologists like to call “warning motive” (I wouldn’t call it a motive but rather as an expressive tool we’ve always found in opera right from the days of Monteverdi’s stile concitato). This is a classic Wagnerian recitative-style scene – the orchestra is just commenting and it is up to the singer to move it forward. Randová does it quite well – it’s not Christa Ludwig’s mean-and-loving-it or Waltraud Meier’s superchic. It’s rather evil-stepmother-like in the way the voice occasionally betrays its real nature by the way chest resonance takes over among splashes of portamento. One can hear that Randová is trying to make us see that it’s all hypocrisy. It’s a bit too obvious, but let’s be honest – it’s better than what we are used to hear in the role these days. First Elsa says Wie meinst du? (“what do you mean?”) and Norman sings this in an almost matter-of-fact way. Then we start to recognize the harmony from the act’s first scene, when Ortrud convinces her husband that he should listen to her (and that’s exactly what she’s doing here too). Only around the moment when she says Unheil (“misfortune”) that the motive finally appears in the bass clarinet and the bassoon – Elsa has bitten the bait. We hear it in Norman’s tremulous mezza voce in Welch’ Unheil? (“What misfortune?”). And here Wagner shows us another important motive in the English horns and the bass clarinets – the one either called “interdiction” or “question” motive, which is thematically close to Ortrud’s. This is the one sung by Lohengrin when he says “I’ll defend you and marry you, but there is one condition – you can never ask about my name, where I came from and which is my lineage”. Of course, Ortrud does not speak about the forbidden question right now, but when she says that he could disappear as magically as he appeared, the whole point is “darling, you’ll never find him again, for you don’t know nothing about him”. Elsa’s reaction is depicted by the orchestra alone in tremolo and suspended harmony. The libretto says “Taken by horror, turns away reluctantly”, but it is almost as if we could hear the hard disc spinning in Elsa’s mind. Vain people often are unable to deal with circumstances when they don’t have the upper hand. So when they don’t, they just act as if they had. By saying “I didn’t really want that to begin with…”, for instance. And that’s just what Elsa does here. We know, the libretto says “Full of sorrow and compassion, turns again to Ortrud” and I am sure that Elsa believes that she is being the best person in the universe when she says what she is going to say, but let’s read it again: Du Ärmste kannst wohl nie ermessen,/ wie zweifellos ein Herze liebt?/ Du hast wohl nie das Glück besessen,/ das sich uns nur durch Glauben gibt? Kehr bei mir ein! Laß mich dich lehren, wie süß die Wonne reinster Treu’! Laß zu dem Glauben dich bekehren: Es gibt ein Glück, das ohne Reu’! (“You poor woman, is it possible that you’ll never understand how the heart loves without any doubt? Have you never experienced the joy that only reveals itself to us when we believe? Come inside! Let me teach you how sweet is the wonder of the purest trust! Let me convert you to believing: there is a joy without regrets!”).

Let’s for one moment pretend Ortrud was indeed an unlucky woman in a serious predicament who tried to give a sound (well, it is…!) piece of advice. How would you feel if you heard a text like that from: a) someone who has met her fiancé one day before and is trying to teach you, a married woman, about relationships?; b) someone who is not really good at trusting anyone, as the following scenes will show us. Yes, Ortrud is a scheming b***, but that does not make Elsa less a spoiled brat than she is. That is why Ortrud thinks to herself that Elsa’s pride (that’s the word in the libretto – Stolz) is gong to be her downfall. And it is – Jessye Norman’s take on Elsa let us very clear that, in spite of all his glamour, Lohengrin might not be an aristocrat, and what she really, really fears here is a mésalliance. Once there is doubt about her husband’s pedigree, Elsa won’t rest until she knows if she has made a good match. Only when she confirms that, she’ll regret losing him. It is said that Wagner was asked why he was so hard on Elsa in the end of the opera, and he seemed to believe she got what she deserved. And in a performance like Jessye Norman’s we can see why. Lohengrin becomes a far more interesting experience when we are not confronted with a Manichean approach in which Elsa is 100% good and Ortrud 100% evil, because that is not what the libretto is really telling us. If we think of an Isabel Archer/Madame Merle dynamic, the libretto gains a lot in nuance. But back to our scene.

When you read about Lohengrin, there is always a reference to Bellini and how Wagner found inspiration in the soprano/mezzo duets in I Capuleti e i Montecchi to write the end of the Elsa/Ortrud scene. We can hear that in the long melodic lines, the ornaments and the way they sing together. We find here thematic material associated to Lohengrin’s and Elsa’s wedding – they have first appeared when the issue is first mentioned in act 1 and is further developed throughout act 2. These pages are some of Wagner’s most exquisite music and are more than well served by the Vienna Philharmonic’s refulgent strings in this recording. And Jessye Norman sings it surpassingly. Here her voice sounds its most velvety and soaring, each word and each note caressed with the right tint of melancholy. She sounds at once lovely and also a bit mannered. The way she sings the word Ärmste, for instance, is so delicate, as if she did not really wants to put off Ortrud. We hear also how she puts a bit of emphasis in the word zweifellos, which she lets vibrate a little bit more and in which she uses some portamento to show us she really means it. There is real Innigkeit in her invitation to Ortrud to go home with her and again lass mich dich lehren sounds a bit overcareful in its overpronunciation. The way she sings Es gibt ein Glück is so sweet you almost hate her (well, Ortrud does hate her at that point as never before). The contrast between Randová’s and Norman’s voices is effective when they sing together. Solti could have made it move forward a little bit more – but these singers use the extra time. Norman, especially, spins some lovely full golden toned high notes.

Norman is always a controversial singer – she has used every little overtone and resonance in her voice and there was a point where everybody seemed to think she was capable of singing everything from contralto to soprano repertoire, but my humble opinion is that the lyric/jugendlich dramatisch Fach was the one that flattered her voice best, as we can hear in her Euryanthe, Elisabeth and Sieglinde. I am sad she never recorded a Marschallin or more than just Senta’s Ballad but rather the complete role. In her early days, an Agathe might have been an interesting idea too. Who knows?

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Music lounge (43)

I have often read singers in interview saying that it is not easy to make their way into inhabiting Adalberto von Chamisso’s poems in Frauenliebe und -leben from a 21st-century woman’s perspective. Chamisso was a botanist, and these poems at face value seem indeed to restrict the life of a woman to her naturalistic roles as a wife and a mother. Not one of these poems seem to share any of her thoughts about any other subject – and I am pretty sure that statistics would have shown that most women were not radiantly happy about their lot those days… even as wives and mothers. In any case, the woman in these poems has found happiness in love and she believes that meeting the man who would become her husband was the most important thing that has ever happened to her. I guess that many people can relate to that – and one doesn’t need to be a housewife or a married woman or even a woman for that. If we think of Robert Schumann, who composed the most famous setting of these poems, this is especially true. His wife, Clara Wieck, was no housewife, but someone with a successful career who had the upper hand in most decisions in their household. I would bet that meeting Clara was the most important experience in Schumann’s life – and one can feel that he very much puts himself in the place of the woman in the poem rather than that of the poet who writes about her. That is why these songs resonate so deeply in one’s own life experience in a way that go beyond male or female perspectives, even if their text requires some adjustment to our present sensibilities. It is no coincidence that Schumann’s song cycle is so popular with singers. They ultimately are about being transformed by finding a person and sharing one’s life with him or her.

Although I find all songs in Frauenliebe und -leben consistent in quality and expressive power, the first song, Seit ich ihn gesehen (“Since I have seen him”), is the one that fascinates me the most, maybe because it speaks of things yet to happen, expectation and fantasies. It involve some of the key themes of Romantic literature – being subject to mysterious (natural or supernatural) forces beyond reason, taking refuge in one own’s private inner world… A great deal of what was written those days involved life-changing situations and writers would dwell in the expectation of fateful moments. They could describe nothing in particular for pages, but rather take their time to share an emotional state – and that’s precisely Schumann’s specialty as a composer. The way I hear it, Seit ich ihn gesehen describes a religious experience. This young woman has seen this man – and this encounter had an immediate effect on her. It has altered her perception of the world. The very fact that she is not in her presence makes the memory of him something sacred, something she reveres in secret. It makes me think a passage of Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow: “For everything sacred has the substance of dreams and memories, and so we experience the miracle of what is separated from us by time and distance suddenly being made tangible. Dreams, memories, the sacred – they are all alike in that they are beyond our grasp. Once we are even marginally separated from what we can touch, the object is sanctified; it acquires the beauty of the unattainable, the quality of the miraculous. Everything, really, has this quality of sacredness, but we can desecrate it at a touch.” You just have to compare Seit ich ihn gesehen with the next song, Er, der herrlischste von allen, in which she speaks about everything she sees in him. It is an entirely different experience – there she has her eyes open and even the tempo of the song shows us it is rather a physical than a spiritual experience. But let’s get back to Seit ich ihn gesehen.

Before we talk about how Schumann creates this mystical experience in this song, let’s take a look at the text: Seit ich ihn gesehen,/ Glaub ich blind zu sein;/ Wo ich hin nur blicke,/Seh ich ihn allein;/ Wie im wachen Traume/ Schwebt sein Bild mir vor,/ Taucht aus tiefstem Dunkel,/ Heller nur empor. // Sonst ist licht- und farblos/ Alles um mich her,/ Nach der Schwestern Spiele/ Nicht begehr ich mehr,/ Möchte lieber weinen,/ Still im Kämmerlein;/ Seit ich ihn gesehen, /Glaub ich blind zu sein. (“Since I have seen him [for the first time],/ I believe I’ve become blind/ Wherever I look/ It is him the only thing I see./ As in daydream/ His image floats before my eyes/ It emerges from the deepest darkness/ and floats brightly to highest levels// Everything else lacks light and color/ Around me/ Playing with my sisters/is something to which I don’t look forward anymore/ I’d rather weep/ Silently in my room/ Since I have seen him/ I believe I’ve become blind.)

The first thing we hear in the song is the piano and how the chorale-like accompaniment immediately transports us to the world of church hymns. A century before Mies van der Rohe said that less is more, Schumann had already shown us that in songs like this. Differently from the organ, the piano does not fill the sound picture in this sequence of chords – and the sparseness does not suggest emptiness in any point. You feel inside this dark, virginal room with the young woman in the poem. You sense that it is only physically empty – there is some sort of repressed energy behind these chords. I’ve always had the sensation that the way we first hear the singer’s voice sounds as if she had started one beat too early. The first phrase just escapes from her, it does not even sound like the beginning of a thought. Schumann keeps then the singer in her middle register, the more conversational in sound. There are no long lines here, it all feels short, almost as if this woman did not know what to say. How do you tell someone about a miracle? Is it something believable? Is it possible to share with someone a sensation like that? She cannot indeed describe it, but we can feel it when she explains her day dream. We hear it in the very sound of her voice. Of course, Schumann takes her now to her high register. The voice acquires brightness, the lines are now all long and legato-ish. We’re in an entirely different level. And that is why it is so effective when we hear the major seventh interval leap and the dissonance when she says that the vision emerges from the darkness. We can experience this vision disappearing and the sense of the dark reality of the present moment without it. It is a genius touch of Schumann to make the singer repeat the word heller (“brighter”), there is some exaltation in this moment and the way the voice keeps for a while the word empor (“upwards”) over an unresolved harmony. Again, these are unresolved business – once she has seen this blinding light, everything will be meaningless for her. She has learned a higher truth, she cannot go back to what she was before that. Hagiography tells us of how ordinary people had a vision or heard a voice and then they abandon everything they knew before to embrace something that has often been described as a spiritual marriage.

And that is more or less what Chamisso’s young woman says in the second stanza of Seit ich ihn gesehen, which is set almost by Schumann almost identically to the first one. She does not want to play with her sisters anymore, everything is dull and colorless. She would rather vow herself to the vision – alone in the dark in her room, there he can see him. It is the only place when she can see this scorching light, and the unresolved harmony shows us this won’t be enough. The fact that Schumann did not wrote new material or developed it for the second stanza is the perfect choice for this poem – the more “hesitant” music goes for the lines in which the young woman says she does not want to play anymore and everything is now dull for her, the “exalted” music goes for the lines in which she describes she would rather be alone in her room (where she has her visions) and the trimming in the last line comes exactly where we had the repeated heller in the first stanza. And that also makes sense – the first stanza ends with the sensation of seeing that vision soaring in its brightness, while the second stanza is about the longing provoked by that vision. In the first stanza, it is a presence; in the second, it is absence.

For the Music Lounge, I’ve listened to almost every recording sung by a mezzo or a contralto and it took me a while to decide which I’d pick among three singers. It was hard for me to let go Lorraine Hunt’s performance live at the Wigmore Hall. Although her German could be a tiny little bit more spontaneous, she was a uniquely communicative singer imbued with rare emotional generosity. There is no affectation in what she does – and one can hear that the young woman in the poem is speaking to you in some sort of altered state, as if she had reached a higher, purer level. I though I would choose Magdalena Kozená live in Tokyo (on YouTube only) because, as a Bach singer, she instinctively goes for the “chorale” approach. Vocally, it is at once warm and bright and there is a sustained yet calm intensity in her singing that is everything I expect to hear in this song. However, to my surprise, I’ve finally chosen Anne Sofie von Otter’s studio recording with Bengt Forsberg. I have an up-and-down relationship with Von Otter. From a certain point, her voice developed a grainy quality, a veiled puffiness in the middle register that robbed it of spontaneity, making her – at least to my ears – no longer the kind of singer I like to hear in 19th century German Lieder. To be honest, her recording of Frauenliebe und -leben is far from my favorite. And yet she scores all points in the first song – and that is why I finally chose it.

First, although one catches a glimpse of the graininess, it was still a voice with the right weight for the song. By then, it was ideally placed between complex and pure-toned. Establishing the right tone for he opening “hesitant” phrases is less simple than it seems. Some singers deliver them in a matter of fact manner that almost kills the mood, but when you sing them too knowingly, then it’s entirely out of character. I particularly dislike when the singer tries to deliver them with some sort of sensuality. Even if, ultimately, that “vision” has something to do with sex, the young woman in the poem does not really know that – and that is why it feels so otherworldly for her. Von Otter – who is no Hunt Lieberson in emotional directness – gets it right in her own micromanaged way. She deserves praises for her handling of the ritardando in “seh ich __ihn allein”. It is the sort of phrase when you feel compelled to DO something. Clearly Schumann is asking you to change the mood there and sometimes you just overdo it. Von Otter shades the tone very discreetly on ihn and really goes for the pianissimo on allein, what makes the phrase end suspended in the air, as if there were a hidden line in the poem she is not singing. It is so effective, because it is so subtle. Von Otter launches the “exalted” phrase in an entirely different voice – we can hear how the vision affects her. It is at the same time pure- and warm-toned, legato and yet the right emphases are made. I can’t imagine it sung better. The way she highlights the dissonance in in Taucht aus tiefstem Dunkel is also an example of superior musicianship. And again the light emphasis on dunkel and in the first syllable of heller – those are almost aural illustrations of what this song is about. Everybody is usually enthusiastic about high notes, but I just love the last note in empor, which has to be sung in a floated tone exactly as done here.

It is really praiseworthy the effort Von Otter has made to sing the second stanza differently. As we have seen, the mood is not truly different and I personally don’t mind if the singer just carries it on from the first stanza. That said, what Von Otter does it here shows a deep understanding of the text. Here the opening phrases develop over a crescendo, there is a portamento on Alles um mich her, there is a certain restlessness and impatience in this young woman’s toward everything and everyone around her. She only regains Innigkeit when she describes her attempt to experience the vision again, and yet the voice is not as floating and pure as in the first stanza. The next emphasis is on the world weinen (weep), and the rushed last phase with a vulnerable, almost pop-like sound in zu sein is the perfect ending to a thought-through, exquisitely delivered performance. And Bengt Forsberg is an ideal accompanist – at first it seems his tempo is no larghetto, but once you check the total timing, this performance is not particularly fast compared to others. It is just that Forsberg is so rhythmically accurate, his pedalling is minimal and yet horizontal clarity is exceptional, you feel it flowing forwards, he and Von Otter in the same wavelength as they should.

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The name of Giuseppe de Begnis is recorded in the history of opera as the model for basses and baritones in Rossini buffo roles, having created the role of Dandini in La Cenerentola. Although De Begnis has sung since his childhood, it is remarkable that he was only 24 when he first sang it. As we know, it is a fiendishly difficult part that requires impeccable vocal technique and considerable acting skills. De Begnis surfed the wave of Rossini’s popularity and, among other buffo parts in his opera, including the title role in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Yet he was fond of Dandini and kept it in his repertoire for a long while (although he would also sing the part of Don Magnifico in the same opera). It seems De Begnis was keen on avoiding excessive clowniness and was capable of making the audience laugh with his subtle comic timing.

Indeed, buffo parts are extremely challenging for singers – they are are often very hard to sing, and directors tend to demand a lot in terms of physical acting, what makes them even more difficult in purely vocal terms too. When one listens to the discography of La Cenerentola, first we find singers with important voices like Afro Poli or Renato Capecchi who benefited from more considerate tempi from conductors and simplified a bit what Rossini wrote (Poli, for instance, sings an edition shorn of the most extremely difficult parts) or just smear the coloratura while disguising it in “acting with the voice” – and there was Sesto Bruscantini, whose smoother, lighter bass involved a crispier delivery of the text, richness of tone color and a fair rendition of the coloratura. Arguably the first recorded Dandini to deliver the fioriture truly a tempo – with a great help of aspiration, truth be said – was Claudio Desderi in the video from La Scala. Since then, conductors have been increasingly stricter about tempo, and we have increasingly heard Dandinis nimble in their divisions.

There is more to the part of the Dandini than the impossibly difficult coloratura. De Begnis was right about the risk of excess of slapstick and cheap tricks for fun. The great trait of Italian comedy is that it is rarely just for laughs – there is always something touching or endearing about the people portrayed there, especially in La Cenerentola, whose subtitle is not to be trifled with: “The Triumph of Goodness”. In Charles Perrault’s fairytale, Cinderella is a poor innocent girl who finally breaks through injustice because of the advocacy of her fairy godmother (and because she is beautiful, of course). In La Cenerentola, there are no magical elements and Angelina is far more than a beautiful girl. She is a good person by principle. When she goes to the ball, she does not actually care for wealth, glamour and money. On arriving, she says she despises all those things – a kind heart is all she cares about, and she has found one in someone she believes to be the king’s valet. That is why I always prefer a staging of La Cenerentola in which Dandini (i.e., the valet disguised as the prince) looks grander and more handsome than Ramiro (the prince disguised as the valet). In Jacopo Ferri’s libretto, the prince is not irresistibly charming. He is actually nerdy and lacking social skills – and that is why he needs help to find a bride. He has only two friends: Alidoro, his former tutor, and Dandini, his valet. Alidoro is a philosopher and takes everything seriously, while Dandini is a bon vivant and takes nothing seriously. He spent his whole life looking at the prince wondering how fortune was unfair in bestowing so many privileges in a guy who doesn’t take true advantage of them, while he himself was born to the part. And that is why it is so dramatically effective when Dandini, finally given the opportunity to act like the prince, is portrayed as truly princely (whereas in most productions he behaves like a buffoon). The disguise seems to work, and even the prince is a little bit jealous of Dandini’s grand entrée in Don Magnifico’s house. And that is why the coloratura is so important. It is overdone in purpose, but it sounds really funnier when Dandini proves to be on top of the game and sings it to the manner born. I have to say that Dandini is one of my favorite characters in comic opera. He knows he just have a couple of days to live his dream – and he goes all for it. Although he values their friendship, which is also a great privilege for a servant like him, he is sometimes overwhelmed by the experience, flirts with Angelina, tries to prove that Alidoro talks nothing but nonsense and never misses an opportunity to pull Don Ramiro’s leg.

Dandini’s entrance aria, Come un’ape ne’ giorni d’aprile (“Just like a bee in an April day”) is one of the highlights in a score full of irresistible arias and ensembles. It is rather complex in structure – so we first hear an introduction and then a chorus of courtiers (who know all of them that Dandini is just posing as the prince – they’re probably just making their best not to laugh) reminding the “prince” of his obligation of finding a wife for the sake of carrying on his family’s sublime lineage. Don Magnifico, a decadent, greedy aristocrat waits for him with his two spoiled brats of daughters (in the libretto, Cinderella is his stepdaughter), hoping that the young man will choose one of them to be his bride. Dandini enters in all his finery, trying to look down on Magnifico’s old palais and employing what he believes to be high flown language. The text per se is a delicious mockery of Metastasio’s style in its metaphor of dubious taste: Come un’ape ne’ giorni d’aprile/ Va volando leggiera e scherzosa; Corre al giglio, poi salta alla rosa,/ Dolce un fiore a cercare per sé; Fra le belle m’aggiro e rimiro; Ne ho vedute già tante e poi tante/ Ma non trovo un giudizio, un sembiante,/ Un boccone squisito per me. (‘Just like a bee in an April day/ flies here and there in a light and playful mood/rushes to the lily and then springs to the rose/as it procures itself a sweet flower/I myself go around watching beautiful girls/ I’ve seen so many of them/ Yet haven’t made a decision or found the ideal face, an exquisite morsel to my taste”). The vocal line is exaggeratedly ornate in the grand manner, but we can see a bit of Dandini’s own nature in the downward scales (always sung staccato, although the score doesn’t require so) in the word boccone (morsel) which are clearly more buffo in style.

This is the end of the first part of the aria. Before we get to the second part, we have a little scene. We hear again the march-like figure with the French horn that suggests that the girls are formally introducing themselves to the prince. As they’re competing for their attention, they try to upstage each other. Clorinda says “Prince”, Tisbe goes for “Sire”. He answers “so pretty”, “so lovely”. They are all delighted, but Dandini decides to check with his master if he is doing well (he is…), but hears “you’re such an ass, move away, be careful!”. This is when he adds “they look just like their daddy”, which is not exactly the compliment the girls would really like to hear. In many stagings, the girls are shown as ugly (which is not necessarily what the libretto says – they’re just unbearable) and that is why the line can sound particularly funny.

Now we reach the second part of the aria, which is at first similar in atmosphere from the first part. Again, we have a very awkward version of a Metastasian simile – Per pietà, quelle ciglia abbassate./ Galoppando sen va la ragione,/ E fra i colpi d’un doppio cannone/ Spalancata è la breccia di già. (“Pray lower those eyes,/ my reason gallops away/ And, through the blows of a double canon/ a breech lays wide open [in my heart]”). Here we are in a different tonality (the first part was in F, here we are in A flat) and the orchestra now features a woodwind ensemble with a pulsating rhythm. Actually, here Dandini first tries to keep it a bit cooler, offering a better behaved “feminine theme”: while the first part opened with a wider tessitura (he hits two high f’s) and larger intervals, we have something more “singable” and less ornate to start with. The prince had just told him to be careful, but again Don Magnifico and his two daughters are too overwhelmed with the “prince’s” presence for him to resist. Rossini makes Dandini sing an aural representation of cannon shots in the coloratura. In the broken arpeggi over e flat major we hear the cannons recoiling and the shooting their bomb up to a high eb and then we hear those bombs falling on Dandini’s heart in the descending triplets (not written staccato but always sung like that) until they breach through in a graphic descending melisma on the word spalancata (open wide) as if we were watching the walls shake and fall. As we can see, he soon forgets what his master had told him and gets carried away. Everybody is so impressed that he has to repeat the whole thing and now in an even more florid variation. There is very little to add after that – and he just says again that one of them is pretty, the other one is lovely and that they look just like their father.

And that is when we go to our stretta. Dandini repeats to himself, over and over agin in patter-style the text Ma al finir della nostra commedia / Che tragedia qui nascer dovrà. (“When our comedy is over, we can be sure to see a tragedy coming”). The rapid succession of syllables is followed by two very awkward mellisme – that’s the moment when we see all singers work hard for their money – it is high, it is fast, it is difficult to sing. And Rossini does not make his buffo’s life easy – we’re right in the middle of one of his famous crescendo moments, when the orchestra gets larger, all singers join the ensemble, then the chorus is next there and it gets louder and louder and often faster too. And Dandini’s lines remain florid and unsingable as they were before the added challenge. It is an irresistible scene, a perfect example of musical comedy in Rossini’s absolute masterpiece. In my opinion, La Cenerentola is the greatest of all opere buffe. It is funny, it is exhilarating, it is a bit crazy and also very touching.

For our Music Lounge, I’ve decided that we should hear a young singer, just like Giuseppe de Begnis in the première – and it took me a while to decide between two Italian baritones, Nicola Alaimo and Giorgio Caoduro. I have seen Alaimo once at the Met in an Italiana in Algeri and I remember that he was stylish and accomplished, but I finally chose Caoduro, because the voice is more complex and he is able to retain the dark colour through the most intricate fioriture, what is rare. Both are really accomplished with the coloratura and they really deliver it a tempo, as they should. Caoduro’s voice can acquire a nasal patina in higher reaches and in florid passages, but that is usually a price we pay to hear they sing it a tempo and reasonably legato. It is rare to find a truly accomplished male singer in this repertoire who does not sound nasal here and there, and Caoduro’s basic dark tonal quality offsets this a bit. He is also right on the money in terms of interpretation. While Alaimo offers a stereotypically “buffo” approach, Caoduro shows all sides of Dandini – he sounds over-the-top and grand, occasionally gaudy but most importantly he does sound alpha-male-ish. We can hear why the prince finds the whole thing ridiculous and also why Don Magnifico and his daughters buy it. And most importantly – although this is excruciatingly difficult to sing, Caoduro sounds as if he were having fun. And that is what Dandini is doing. He’s having the time of his life there!

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Music lounge (41)

Although I had decided we would listen to a Verdi tenor aria in this week’s music lounge, after a while I finally chose the tenor/baritone duet from La Forza del Destino Solenne in quest’ora. A surprise even to myself, for it is not an opera that I really like. Yet I am not immune to the charms of some numbers in the score.

To start with, the libretto is infamously convoluted and unrealistic. Yet it wouldn’t be fair to blame librettist Francesco Maria Piave for his fidelity to Angel de Saavedra’s play, La Fuerza del Sino, which abuses the concept of coincidence to almost unparalleled levels – unless one believes that this was intended as a dramatic effect. Heinrich von Kleist once explained a very improbable plot twist by writing “probability is not always on the side of truth”. This is a play about war, religion, honor, love and revenge – and both playwright and composer show all these lofty concepts in an almost nonsensical manner. Preziosilla repeats that war is just an opportunity to make money, the monk Melitone dismisses starving people as scoundrels and tell them to go to hell. Even the serious characters, well-meaning as they are, seem ill at ease with those ideas and, in the end, just plainly clueless. Here fate is not random at all – if you want the benefits of providence, first you have to prove the eligibility. Leonora pays dearly for being a disobedient daughter, but Alvaro’s sin… what is it again?… not knowing his place. In the play’s first scene, we hear Preziosilla and other characters basically describe him as a virtually perfect person, but that means nothing because he is only half European (as he is constantly reminded throughout the play and the opera). That is why this story makes more sense if understood as a dark, over-the-top, cruel comedy. It is a story where the characters are laughed at and the one who laughs last has a dagger planted in his chest.

Solenne in quest’ora sounds indeed almost unintentionally comic if we have in mind what happens next. But let’s get there first. As we know, Don Alvaro is a gentleman probably born in Peru of Incan ancestry from his mother’s side. Although he has money, an aristocratic Spanish father and is well regarded in Sevilla as a handsome, brave and elegant man, the fact that he is of mixed race is too much for the Marquis of Calatrava, who vehemently rejects him as a suitor for his daughter Leonora. The couple decides to elope, but the father surprises them. Alvaro had a gun in his hand but he won’t use it against the old man. Instead of calmly putting it on the ground (as we hear the police order in the movies), he throws it to the floor in a grand gesture. However, the panache did not pay – the pistol goes off and the Marquis is mortally wounded by accident. It is not clear what happens next, but it seems that Don Alvaro has to flee to avoid confrontation with Calatrava’s men. In the play, the marquis has two sons, but in the opera there is just Carlos, who goes undercover as a student in order to find both his sister and the alleged killer of his father and exact revenge. Leonora too runs incognito in men’s clothes fearing for her life. She believes that Alvaro abandoned her and seeks refuge in a convent. In the meanwhile, Spain gets involved in the War of the Austrian Succession. Both Carlos and Alvaro (under aliases) enlist. As Alvaro believes Leonora is dead by now by his fault, he develops a death wish and shows himself as a fearless soldier, gaining unanimous respect. After saving Carlos’s life, they become close friends. However, Alvaro is seriously wounded in the battlefield and here we comes to our duet (Verdi actually calls it “duettino”). Sensing he is going to die, he calls Carlos and makes his dying wish: he hides a secret, a bunch of letters that should be burned before anyone can read them. Carlos promises him he will comply, but as soon he is alone with the letters, he is overcome by suspicion and reads them, discovering thus that Alvaro is actually the man he wants to kill.

If we hear Solenne in quest’ora bearing in mind what comes next, the music is more effective than when taken at face value. It is a two-part concoction: first we have a recitative-like exchange between tenor and baritone over woodwind and low strings mostly in pizzicato. We’re in C minor and everything sound a bit ominous. As Alvaro is wounded, Verdi gives him a central tessitura, while Carlo, who’s agitated about everything happening around him, is taken a bit higher in the baritone range. First we have flutes, oboes and clarinets producing chords, but when the key for the box with the letters first appears, bassoons with the marking “molto espressivo” appear. Verdi liked this kind of Alfred Hitchock-like hint “pay attention to this key”. The bassoons come back again when Alvaro says the word mistero (mystery). Harmony is not very complex here, but Verdi makes it a bit tenser right before the dying man says that the letters too should die with him. When the baritone says Lo giuro, sarà (“I promise, I’ll do it”), we reach the second part of the duettino. Now we are in C major, the violas join the low strings (no violins at all) and produce long chords as a background to the staccato arppeggi in the cellos, later taken over by flutes and clarinets. Where have we heard a similar effect? In Rigoletto, when the dying Gilda says she will be in heaven praying for her father. Also, Elisabetta, in the quartet Ah, si maledetto sospetto fatale, when Elisabetta wakes up from a fainting spell and says “Where am I? What has happened? I am alone here, a foreigner…” As we see, the flute arpeggio has the effect of showing one character as if flooded in a purer light. It is also meant to evoke innocence and sympathy. And here we have Alvaro, in the arm of his best friend (his only friend at this point) saying Or moio tranquillo, vi stringo al cor mio (“Now I die in piece, I hold you close to my heart”). Because Alvaro is a victim of prejudice, it is very important for him to show that that he is equal to those who claim to be above him – and those letters bear witness to the single dishonorable thing he has ever done (i.e., seducing a woman to marry him without her father’s consent). The way Verdi composed this duettino, you can feel that Alvaro’s death as a hero in the battlefield with an immaculate reputation is what comes closer for him to a moment of glory. It feels like Alvaro’s soul is almost soaring among the angels in paradise… but not so fast! Both men are there under assumed identities, Alvaro would have probably married Leonora without the father consent if he had actually found her after the accident, Carlo would have killed him before the battle if he only knew who Alvaro really was. Most of all, even not knowing anything, Carlo has no scruples over breaking a solemn promise to a dying friend who had furthermore saved his life not long ago. In the meanwhile, Leonora herself had had her harp-plus-celestial-chorus moment in La vergine degli angeli. There she feels that the Virgin Mary is taking her under her protection, but the next time we see her, she is living hell in earth cursing the very bread she eats and asking God to leave her alone. And that is why the saccharine impression is so important in both these scenes – we’re hearing their fantasy of what should be happening rather than what is actually happening.

When I first thought of Solenne in quest’ora for our Music Lounge, I thought of Carlo Bergonzi – and indeed his London recording with Piero Cappuccilli under Lamberto Gardelli seemed to be a very good choice. Even Gardelli proved to have understood the scene better than many a famous conductor. Bergonzi sings with feeling there, his voice is pure velvet. But then, just to make sure I have listened to everything I should, I’ve checked Riccardo Muti’s La Scala recording. Of course, Muti goes miles ahead Gardelli in a faultless, exquisite rendition of the duettino, but my surprise was the fact that I found that Plácido Domingo sings it arguably better than anyone else. You’ll ask “why the surprise?” Domingo is a tenor one usually takes for granted for many and many reasons – and I am no exception there. A friend of mine used to say “You really get Domingo when you see him live”. He would say that, in recordings, the voice is beautiful, but lacking variety and the high notes are underwhelming. Yes, especially in this recording, where his high register is mostly constricted and yet Domingo’s beauty of tone in middle and low registers is undeniable. It puts him in an entirely different category compared to other tenors – the voice is honeyed, spontaneous, warm. Above the passaggio the story is a bit different, but even then, after listening to all other tenors in this duettino, I realize why he held his own against fierce competition – his was above all a truly firm voice. It doesn’t shake, it doesn’t flutter, it doesn’t acquire an unpleasant squillo. It gets tight, yes, but it’s firm in an almost instrumental way, in a way you could convince a person who dislikes classically trained voices to give them a chance. And also – maybe because of the lack of exuberance of his high register – he sang (not always, but mostly) in a style refreshingly free of tacky tenorisms, such as singhiozzi, emphatic attacks, glottal attacks and releases and all other disfiguring effects that makes it difficult for me to choose items for the tenor weeks of our Music Lounge. Here, for instance, the C major section of the duettino, if we think of the effect achieved when you listen to the dying Gilda or the fainting Elisabetta, the tenor should sing like a lyric soprano, with absolute, Mozartian purity. And here Domingo sings it as if he were Ferrando in Così fan tutte. He produces an almost childlike impression there and he doesn’t even overdo the tenuto on the high a in vi stringo al cor mio. We feel that subtle caesura in the orchestra without disfiguring the important “celestial” arpeggi. And the cleanliness of his phrasing and the focused warmth of his tone makes the scene more vivid, there is an almost sensuous glint to the sound – and this is not because it is a bromance moment, but because Alvaro is alone in the whole world and there he is defenceless, vulnerable, desperate to know if the only person he trusts will soothe his anxiety about leaving behind a sullied reputation. You can only imagine how he feels when he is assured that he will be granted his small, final wish. Alvaro is a believer – his real nature is a bit wild and, although he knows that this has nothing to do with his ancestry, he wants to prove he can be better, that he can fit in. So he’ll take any sign of acceptance he receives. When you hear La Forza del Destino from this point of view, the opera’s kitsch and cheesiness acquire a new level of meaning. But let’s talk a bit more about Muti’s recording.

There isn’t much in terms of challenge for the conductor in the first part of the duettino, since it is up for the singers to take establish a “conversation mood” for the recitative-like section. And yet, Muti, is keen on showing us the rhythmic pattern in the staccato in the lower strings. The second, part, however, may feel empty with so much staccato from almost all instruments involved. And that is why the violas are so important. They are the sauce that keep all ingredients connected – and both Gardelli and Muti are well aware of that. Also, the flute arpeggi are, all right, written staccato, but if you have them play it exactly as written, it feels almost bouncy in a way that jars with the mood of the scene. That is why Muti must be praised for having the flautists perform the staccato very smoothly, creating an almost “floating” sensation, which is the effect Verdi ultimately wants here (even if he didn’t really write that). Giorgio Zancanaro is ideally cast as Carlo. From some point on in his career, his voice developed a slightly grainy, rough-edged quality that made him suited to bad-guy roles. Here not only is he ideally idiomatic, but also colors the text expertly. This is not an easy part – Carlo is often a loathsome fellow, but he has his congenial moments as in the scene with Preziosilla and especially here, when he is supposed to sound as a concerned friend of Alvaro’s. With Zancanaro, the voice is not entirely suave and we can feel that he is not 100% involved with his friend’s predicament, as we will confirm next when he finally voices the ideas formed in his mind while he was making promises he was not going to fulfil.

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