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Archive for June, 2021

Music Lounge (48)

Richard Strauss’s 6 Lieder, Op. 56 is an odd assortment of songs. The first three items, settings of poems by Goethe, Henckell and Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (a Swiss poet), were composed in 1903, while the last three items date from 1906 and feature all of them texts by Heinrich Heine. All but the first song are dedicated to Strauss’s mother, and this makes the presence of the fifth song in this collection. Frühlingsfeier (Rite of Spring) even more curious in comparison with the other items in the group. The description of the Adonia, an annual fertility rite celebrated by Greek women before the Christian era, hardly sounds like the theme for a voice/piano song (or something you would dedicate to your mother). As it was, these festivals involved mock funerals for Adonis, Aphrodites’s handsome mortal lover killed by a wild boar when he was hunting. Women would sow seeds of lettuce and fennel in potsherds on their rooftops and then wail in processions calling his name “Adonis, Adonis!” through the streets of Athens and other cities. This description sounds a bit outlandish – I guess almost everyone would imagine something a little bit wilder on hearing “fertility ritual” – and so is Strauss’s song.

To be honest, Frühlingsfeier could be described as kitsch. It goes against everything we imagine in a German Lied. The vocal line is not central in tessitura and intimate in atmosphere, but frankly heroic in an operatic manner, and the piano part is extremely busy and grandiloquent. It simply doesn’t work in the context of a Liederabend. If the soprano has the voice for it, she will sound too loud in a way that overpowers the piano, which here reminds us that it is a percussion instrument; if the singer doesn’t have the voice for it, it’ll be sheer screaming. It is no coincidence that between 1903 and 1906, Strauss composed his first successful opera, Salome, and what we hear here has some similarity with the soprano solos in the scene in which she tries to seduce Jochanaan. Actually, the similarity has to do with the multicoloured accompaniment and the kind of vocal writing. Both in terms of harmony and invention, Salome is more daring than Frühlingsfeier, which comes across rather as conventional and, therefore, somewhat kitsch. And yet, the impression of exaggeration, of lack of true substance fits somehow Heine’s poem, which describes the mock funeral rather than Adonis’s death itself. In any case, although Strauss only wrote a version for voice and orchestra 27 years later, anyone who hears it will agree that it is far preferable. The big orchestra wraps the exposed writing for the soprano and fills the texture in a way the piano cannot do. Some may claim that it sounds rather as an operatic aria in the orchestral version, but who cares? Regardless of what Strauss might have thought when he composed it, it never was a Lied, neither in the essence of the text nor in the nature of the music. Some critics consider it a weak link in Strauss’s opus, and I would only agree if you regard it as a Lied. Then, yes, it’s a failed one. But when you embrace its peculiarity, then it is indeed original in its flashiness.

Let’s read Heinrich Heine’s poem first: Das ist des Frühlings traurige Lust!/ Die blühenden Mädchen, die wilde Schar,/ Sie stürmen dahin mit flatterndem Haar/ Und Jammergeheul und entblößter Brust: /‘Adonis! Adonis!’// Es sinkt die Nacht bei Fackelschein/Sie suchen hin und her im Wald,/ Der angstverwirret widerhallt/Vom Weinen und Lachen und Schluchzen und Schreien:/‘Adonis! Adonis!’// Das wunderschöne Jünglingsbild,/ Es liegt am Boden blaß und tot,/Das Blut färbt alle Blumen rot,/Und Klagelaut die Luft erfüllt,/‘Adonis! Adonis!’ (“This is the mournful delight of spring/ The young women in bloom, the wild throng/ They rush ahead with streaming hair/rueful cries and bared breasts:/ Adonis, Adonis!//The night falls, by the light of their torches/They seek here and there in the wood/which, confused in fear, echoes/Weeping and laughter and sobbing and screaming:/ Adonis! Adonis!//The gorgeous young man/lies on the ground, pale and dead/The blood dyes all flowers red/And wailing fills the air: Adonis! Adonis!”). As we see, the poem offers a very impressionistic description of the ritual. We can’t call it a scene because time and place are not part of the equation here. First we witness the procession taking place – hundreds of women wailing, unruly hair, half-naked, uttering wild sounds, the name of Adonis being repeated over and over again. Then we see the procession disperse in the wood. It’s dark, we only see shadows and frightening sounds everywhere – we still hear “Adonis, Adonis” repeated in a hypnotic way, we’re reaching the point of ritual hallucination. And then, carried away by all those strong stimuli, we see what is not actually there: the death of Adonis, the blood. It’s just a fleeting impression, the rite is about to end.

Strauss did not choose any classic Lieder form to compose this song, but rather goes with the dramatic flow and descriptive needs of the text in almost “symphonic poem” style. The key word is “almost” – this is a very short piece and we have no time for true motivic development. So the composer works from two basic elements: in the vocal part we have a recurrent figure, which is the cry “Adonis, Adonis!”; in the orchestra we have a study in arpeggio. Not only they illustrate the whirlwind of impressions, but they also work as a quasi-motivic figure. There is also a short, sensuous twirling theme. It first appears on Die blühenden Mädchen in flutes, oboes, clarinets and violas. In a way, it is what comes closer to a Leitmotiv, since it does appear in fragmented form and in different harmonic contexts throughout the song. Chromaticism is used here generously, but not really boldly, almost as Mozart would use dissonance as colouring. The orchestra also echoes the vocal part to add flavor in the most declamatory passages.

The first stanza has the singer in full heroic mood – the soprano wrestles the orchestra on and around the passaggio before she is taken to a high b on die wi-i-lde Schar. For the nightly atmosphere of the second stanza, the entire sound picture is changed, first the tessitura is lower for both singer and orchestra, the arpeggi are now simpler too. The texture gradually becomes a little bit more complex and the singer is tested with a series of high a and finally a high b flat (a long one, in Schreien, “screaming”) Of course, Strauss creates an entirely new atmosphere for the vision of Adonis’s death.The arpeggi disappear and we have plain chords, there is an uncanny stillness now, the singer no long produces heroic notes, but rather a lyric flowing line. There is a famously difficult octave leap that requires a floated a sharp (on Wunderschöne, “gorgeous”). It takes a while before we’re suck back to reality, which manifests itself with the cries of Adonis. First we hear them still in the “insight” atmosphere before they’re repeated just like in the previous stanzas, if now taken to a long high b (followed by a b flat and an a)in an atmosphere close to the Immolation scene before it dies out in an orchestral upward sweep.

For the obvious reasons, there aren’t many recordings of Frühlingsfeier. It is curious, however, that dramatic sopranos aren’t usually tempted to sing it at all. It would have been interesting if we could have listened to Birgit Nilsson or Gwyneth Jones in it, for example. Strauss himself would have disagreed, it seems – he prepared the orchestral version for Viorica Ursuleac, who could rather fit into the big lyric drawer*. Luckily, she did record it with her husband, Clemens Krauss, and produces round, rich, high notes. It is indeed a very good recording that shows us what Strauss himself would expect to hear in it. Ursuleac premièred, among other Straussian roles, the part of Arabella – and I had to choose between two Arabellas before I finally picked the recording we’re hearing in the Music Lounge this week. Although I have her complete recording of Strauss orchestral songs, I had never noticed before this week that Felicity Lott actually recorded it. It is a light voice for this music and she has her fluttery moments. That said, she sounds younger than all her rivals and really makes more of the music and the text than everyone else. Neeme Järvi too offers an analytic account of the score and there is a lot to discover there. In the last minute, however, I chose Karita Mattila’s recording with the Berliner Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado.

Mattila’s CD with Richard Strauss’s orchestral songs was a bit of a disappointment when it was released, I’m afraid. Everybody had really high expectations about her Vier letzte Lieder, but the result is hardly groundbreaking. Abbado’s live recording with Melanie Diener in Salzburg proved to be surprisingly more effective in comparison. Yet the program has unusual items, and Mattila is at her best in them. The first thing we notice in Abbado’s recording is that he definitely listened to the Ursuleac/Krauss recording. It is dramatic, intense and orchestrally dense. He doesn’t make his soloist’s life easier in any moment. Mattila’s velvety, round voice lacked cutting edge in both ends and she always had to force her high notes a bit, which could acquire a matte finish. And yet she never lacked stamina. Here we feel that she goes dangerously close to her limits, but in a good way. This makes the whole experience particularly exciting. Also, there is a sexiness in her singing that adds an element of primal femininity that is in the very core of what is being described in Frühlingsfeier. To her credit, she offers the best rendition in the discography of the “vision” episode – it is at once sensuous, warm and classy. She floats the high a sharp better than anyone else (even Lott). And the closing bars are truly climactic – Mattila goes for the white-heat treatment in the difficult phrase with the high b, we can almost feel how much energy she used to keep that note in focus. And Abbado, well, he makes the Berliners go totally for broke there. The last orchestral swoosh is ecstatic, out of this world. Everybody knows that the most famous operatic urban myth is that there is a hidden studio recording of Elektra in Deutsche Gramophon’s vaults (with Jessye Norman and Helga Dernesch). Until we find if this is true or not, this account of Frühlingsfeier shows us what we’re missing. As a last note, Abbado did conduct Elektra live in Salzburg with Karita Mattila as Chrysothemis. At least one performance was recorded – and I sincerely hope it is going to be released some day.

* I am aware that some critics have described Viorica Ursuleac’s voice as a “dramatic soprano”. Indeed, she sang mezzo parts (Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther, for instance) and even the title role in Turandot. It is said that her recordings invariably found her not in her best voice and do not show the impact of her gleaming and forceful high notes. Yet reading some contemporary reviews and listening to these recordings I still hear a big lyric voice – which is also the kind of singer we usually hear in the roles Strauss wrote for her voice. Everything about Ursuleac is controversial – even the fact that she was a good singer (and Strauss’s favourable opinion certainly is an evidence of that). I have the impression that those who are negative about her tend to form their opinions – as I myself have at first – on her recording of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer with Hans Hotter, in which, yes, she is not in top form at all.

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Music Lounge (47)

At first sight, Bellini’s La Sonnambula is a quaint, sentimental piece of nonsense. Maybe at second sight too. Yet there’s something there to be discovered if you’re willing to give it some time. As I wasn’t at first interested in buying a recording, I first saw it in a live performance in which everything felt like reverie wrapped in exquisite melodies. I have to say that I even liked the silly plot, in which we can get a glimpse of these characters’ secret desires behind the alpine pageantry.

While the opera turns around the characters of the sweet sleepwalking Amina and her jealous fiancé Elvino, Eugène Scribe’s scenario for the ballet-pantomime La Sonnambule (on which Felice Romani found inspiration for his libretto) had the subtitle L’Arrivée du Nouvel Seigneur (The Arrival of the New Lord of the Land). In Scribe’s text, M. de Saint-Rambert is young, handsome and a womanizer. He has some decency and, when Thérèse (Amina) walks in her sleep into his bedroom, he realizes it would be plainly wrong to take advantage of the situation and leaves. Later on, he tries to fix things by explaining the situation to Edmond (Elvino). When the young man refuses to believe him, Saint-Rambert contents himself with laughing about the whole absurd situation. I am not sure how Romani decided to make things more complex by inserting in the plot a story we’ve read more than once in literature – the Count Rodolfo (Saint-Rambert) comes to his estate in the countryside where he fell in love with a local girl many years ago only to find a young woman who looks just like her. In different versions of this story, the moment when he discovers that she is his own daughter varies, sometimes too late. Curiously, Bellini did not like Romani’s idea and made him delete the scene where the truth about the girl’s paternity is found out. There is only one remain of the ghost subplot in the libretto – right in the cabaletta of Rodolfo’s aria, Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni (“I see you again, pleasant places [of my youth]”), when we hear him say “That adorable beauty is revived in my thoughts/she was then as you are now: in the morning of her life”.

Although we’re not listening to the cabaletta, the item in our Music Lounge this week is precisely Rodolfo’s Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni. As usual with Bellini, this is an aria that requires absolutely perfect legato, noble tonal quality and, above all, poise. Rodolfo is not the womanizer in Scribe’s pantomime. Maybe in his youth – here he just revives those days in his mind on seeing a girl who looks just like his teenage sweetheart. Although Romani probably imagined that his resisting his own impulses in the bedroom scene was due to an instinctive realization that there was a family bond between them, the final version of the libretto just shows him as a decent man who knows how to draw a line between what is proper and what is not. It is a cruel role in a sense – the audience’s impression about Rodolfo depends entirely of how the bass is singing this first aria. If he does not deliver it in impeccable bel canto style, then he’ll just look like an old cad who was for some reason not in the mood that evening. As almost everything composed by Bellini, it is difficult to describe its charm. The strings basically produce an arpeggio pattern throughout the entire piece, while woodwind and horns season the vocal line. The text is very simple – we are in a cavatina pattern – Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni/, in cui lieti, in cui sereni,/si tranquillo i di passai/Della prima gioventù./Cari luoghi, io vi trovai/ma quei di no trovo più. (“I see you again, pleasant places/ where I calmly spent/the happy, serene days/Of my early youth./Dear places, I may find you now/but I’ll never find those days again.”). The other characters and the chorus comment that he seems to know the village well and they wonder why.

When the aria starts, the singer first has the clarinet with him, soon to be joined by the French horn basically adding some harmonic zest to the string arpeggi. In the first phrase, Rodolfo experiments again the contentment of his youth, but the second one is about the present emotion of feeling young again. In order to mark the change of mood, Bellini adds more woodwind to the mix: flutes and oboes double the singer’s voice. And yet the composer insists that the dynamic should be kept piano. He even adds some morendo to prevent everyone from getting too perky here. The increase in emotion is made exclusively by tone colouring. As the text of the aria reflects Rodolfo’s thoughts (he is not speaking to anyone here), Romani and Bellini have the audience listening to the villagers talk about the stranger who has just arrived there. In the recitative, he voices the fact that he finds everything in the same place where they used to be the last time he was there. Now an extra clarinet and bassoon join the other woodwind and we hear Rodolfo’s almost repetitive melody, as a sweet memory we’re not ready to let go, intertwined with the chorus. that sound pictures remains the same until the end of the aria but for the interruption for the singer’s cadenza, where the bass usually sings a low g before he ends in a low a flat.

The only reason why we’re not listening to the cabaletta is because the clip featured this week only shows the cavatina. This is a favorite aria, especially in vocal competitions and you’ll find recordings with almost every bass in the Italian repertoire. Cesare Siepi, for instance, recorded it more than once, and I bet his deluxe, ultrarich singing is considered the reference for all Italian basses. There is absolutely nothing to fault there, and yet I was looking for a performance with Mozartian grace and a real sense of Innigkeit. In Mario Lafranchi’s film with Anna Moffo, Plinio Clabassi sings with the right balance of nostalgia and nonchalance. Siepi’s fans won’t be wrong to find his voice slimmer in comparison, though. However, in the last minute I found László Polgár’s performance on YouTube and he comes really close to the way I would like to hear this aria. First, his voice is so gentle, smooth and velvety there – this is truly classy. Although the conductor rushes him forward, he still sounds absolutely chic. The legato is seamless, every note is round and fruity. Also, his use of portamento is very subtle, there is no unnecessary emphasis in any syllable (as usual in the first della prima gioventù). This is a lesson in bel canto singing – and the cadenza is delivered with flexibility and rotund low notes. I wonder why the audience applauds so bureaucratically in the end.

Although I really like Polgár’s voice – he is a musicianly and elegant singer – I am not an unconditional admirer. He could sometimes sound detached in an almost abstract way, especially in his recording with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. His Leporello, for instance, is so unresponsive that you could almost call him Il Sonnambulo. That said, there is plenty to cherish in his video- and discography, such as his Sarastro for Arnold Östman in Drottningholm. His recordings turn around Classical repertoire and early Romantics , but it seems that in his native Hungary he would sing all kinds of roles – you can hear his Filippo in a Don Carlo with Ilona Tokody, for instance. His performance in the title role in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle has been recorded more than once, the last time with Jessye Norman as Judit, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Pierre Boulez.

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Music Lounge (46)

I knew Jan DeGaetani’s name as someone connected to the contemporary music scene in the US and that she was considered an artists’ artist or something like that, but I had actually never any of her recordings until two years ago when I found the track featured this week in our Music Lounge. I was then looking for a recording of Schubert’s Lied der Mignon (Nur wer die Sehnsucht…) and, after having checked all usual suspects, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to give her CD a try. It took me entirely by surprise – the way she and the pianist establish the emotional atmosphere of the song from the first bar was a revelation for me. It has remained my favorite recording of that song, although the recorded sound is far from ideal. To start with, it places a hard edge in her voice and lacks some space. But still – once you listen to it, all other performances sound a bit artificial in comparison.

In 1826, Schubert composed a group of four songs – Gesänge aus “Wilhelm Meister” – inspired by Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (“Wilhelm Meister’s Aprenticeship”). I won’t even try to summarize the plot, for in truly Romantic style, it is impossible to summarize. Among its many characters, there is Mignon, a teenage girl rescued by the title character, who takes her under his protection, since she is lost to her family (not entirely – but it’s too complicated to explain). She is a highly emotional young person who happens to be infatuated with her protector and finally dies of a broken heart when she discovers he is love with someone else. In more than one occasion, the characters in the book sing – and their songs are part of the novel itself. Schubert’s 1826 set turns around Mignon – first there is a duet referred to as Mignon und der Harfner with the text Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, while the three remaining songs share the title Lied der Mignon and generally are named by their first verse. The last song, which we are hearing today, has the same text of the duet – Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt/weiss was ich leide./Allein und abgetrennt von aller Freude/Seh’ ich ans Firmament/Nach jener Seite./Ach, der mich liebt und kennt/Ist in der Weite./Es schwindelt mir, es brennt/ mein Eingeweide./Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt/weiss was ich leide. (“Only those who know longing/Understand what I am suffering/Alone and cut off from all joy/I look at the firmament/In that direction [i.e., where she comes from, Italy]/Ah, he who loves and knows me/Is far away/I feel dizzy/My entrails are aflame/Only those who know longing/Understand what I am suffering”). The text appears in the eleventh chapter of the novel’s fourth book. Wilhelm Meister is ill and melancholic and hears Mignon and the Harper (who is actually Mignon’s unknown father)sing a song that mirror his state of mind.

It is indeed a very sad song, a bit Italianate in its melodic flow and very simple in accompaniment, meant to evoke the harp playing just like when Mignon sings it in the book. Its structure is very similar to many Schubert’s settings of short poems. We have an introduction with the main theme plain in octaves, there is a significant dissonance to emphasize a key word (here Sehnsucht – “longing”). The above mentioned upward three-note arpeggio is used for the first two verses. When Mignon says she is alone and cut off from all joy, the accompaniment acquires a different pattern – a bass note followed by a chord, which settles with a repeated bass note for the last lines in the first part (Ach, der mich lieb und kennt… ). The change in the accompaniment is not accidental. The arpeggio is used for the verses in which Mignon is appealing to the listener who has gone through her predicament too. It is supposed to be enticing. The bass + chord is the part in which she explains how she feels – and the new accompaniment is sparser and therefore a bit gloomier. It also provides a more convincing transition for the short B section (the one in which she has a manic episode) with its repeated chords, the traditional musical representation of agitation. The B section is more recitative-like and also little bit more “German” than the sensuous melody that represents her longing for Italy.

In Jan DeGaetani’s interpretation, the song sounds downright depressing. First, she and her pianist Gilbert Kalisch adopt a very slow tempo. As many performers of contemporary music, DeGaetani had a particularly good ear for tonal coloring and uses it as an element of discourse rather than just emotional expression. Although Schubert died one century before most of her repertoire was composed, DeGaetani’s artistry was an ideal match for his music. First, her voice was an ideal instrument for his “descriptive” style of Lieder. If she billed herself a mezzo, the bright sound is rather soprano-ish in tone though. It may be my imagination, but I hear a faint splash of Régine Crespin (albeit in miniature) in the warmth behind the tight focus that acquires an edge in the upper register. It is also a voice that sounds believably young, but not childish. And that makes her well-suited to the Mignon Lieder (which she sings one whole tone lower than the original, in a “medium voice” edition). When we first hear her, the sound itself suggests some weariness, at some points glassy, as if it was about to break. Most singers try to make the repetition of the first two lines a little bit more emphatic – and I find this unconvincing. Although the reinstatement goes a bit higher than in the first time, I don’t think that, at this point, Mignon is being emphatic at all. Actually, the text of the song is not about convincing anyone – she says “you’ll only know what is going on with me if you have been there too”. That is why it is so effective the way she fines down the voice in the end of the repeat to almost whisper after a weiss that sounds like a sigh, a slight hesitation before she ends the phrase. The way she colors her voice when she says “Alone and cut off from all joy” is pure vulnerability. We feel at each phrase there is a small surge of energy that quickly dies away, as in the descending notes in nach jener Seite (as Schubert expressly requires), and this is a good way of suggesting the kind of languor Mignon experiences when she thinks about how alone and far away from home she is. DeGaetani ends the first section with a hushed, slightly breathy tone that has a taste of tears. It is a very touching and expressive piece of singing.

Although this is supposed to be only a text Mignon is singing (i.e., not her own words), this is a small sample of her character, since she is prone to nervous outbreaks, fainting spells etc. Accordingly, Schubert was very clever to make the next two verses a disruption of the overall mood of the song (just like he did in the duet with the same text). DeGaetani sings them with a brighter tone and a little bit more energy, which is the right way to prepare the repeat of the first two verses, first sung a tad louder, as if still under the effect of the agitation of the middle section, only to end in an almost lifeless tone.

DeGaetani insisted that a Liederabend is chamber-music, pianist and singer sharing the same importance. It seems that she always worked with Gilbert Kalish, whom she met in the beginning of her career. It is indeed remarkable how he shared with her the ability of tonal colouring. On listening to their Schubert/Wolf CD, we hear how they both favored slower tempi precisely because they were capable of rendering the slightest mood in change and hue in a phrase. Again, it is sad that the sound engineering in this recital is below optimal. Yet it is not a drawback at all. I’ve listened to it again and again with great pleasure.

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Music Lounge (45)

Some candles burn at both ends in the operatic scene, and Rolando Villazón’s flame shone intensely for a while. There are some YouTube channels in which all new tenors are vilified for not being Franco Corelli – and Villazón is their pet peeve. They are not wrong when they say that his technique was problematic: he thrusted himself through the passaggio in an glaringly open tone that would have made Giuseppe di Stefano envious, lunged at notes, had a habit of regularly tensing up in a fixed emission for emphasis, darkened his middle register, resorted to glottal effects, you name it. And yet the tonal quality was so alluring that you would only seldom mind until he got himself nodes in the vocal cords and went through surgery. I have seen him for the first time soon after that – as Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin. Although he sang beautifully, one could notice that the bad habits were all still there – he was still pushing his high notes, which – pleasant as they sounded – were evidently taut. I saw him twice again in 19th century repertoire – as a white-heat Werther that kept us at the edge of our seat for all the good reasons and then as a barely functional Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. Later I would only see him in music composed one century earlier – as Alessandro in Mozart’s Il Re Pastore, in which he dispatched his fioriture adeptly, the tenor solo in Mozart’s Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic and finally as Lucanio in Handel’s Ariodante.

I could say he should have been more careful or waited a bit more, but the truth is that Villazón evidently liked to go for broke. That’s his natural attitude and that is why he thrilled his audiences – he never spared himself. Of course, it was sad to hear him gradually losing his voice and slowly reinventing himself towards backstage. But a man gotta do what a man gotta do – and he did it his way. As matter of fact, his incursions in baroque music were something I followed with utmost interest. I always have very low expectations about tenors in a Handel opera, and I more ofter than not feel frustrated by hearing such beautiful music sung in a nasal and/or pinched tone, rarely dulcet and often strenuous. And then then Villazón left behind Verdi and Puccini to tour in a full Handel recital with an orchestra with period instruments. I even had a ticket for that one, but he canceled the concert in Berlin.

Villazón is not the single “mainstream” opera star to try his luck with baroque opera since the days of historically informed practices: for instance. Renée Fleming recorded Alcina with Les Arts Florissants and William Christie together with Susan Graham and Natalie Dessay, both of them collaborators of Le Concert d’Astrée and Emmanuelle Haïm. However, the “crossover” is a little bit more problematic for a tenor. As we know, the tenor voice is precisely the one that experienced a radical change in technique during the 19th century, making it almost unrecognisable for someone used to a tenor trained “the old way”. Rossini himself was unwilling to hear “new style” chest-infused high notes (which he found vulgar) singing his music. So, when Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Jordi Savall, Charles Mackerras et al tried to recreate the sound universe of 18th century, this involved having tenors singing their high notes “the old way” in mixed voice and pure vowels. Stylistic matters apart, Bach tenors have always had the same “specialized” approach to vocal production. But that is not the case with Handel – we must not forget that Jon Vickers is the tenor in Thomas Beecham’s recording of The Messiah. If we take a look in the Handelian discography in the 50’s and 60’s, we would more often than not find a light Rossini tenor in a recording of Rodelinda or Serse. So, yes, having a Verdi/Puccini tenor in this repertoire – even one who was no longer able to sing a complete Verdi or Puccini opera – is something unusual. So the 1,000,000-dollar question here is not “is this authentic?”, but rather “does it work?”.

One of the reasons why Villazón was so popular is that he sang everything more or less like a pop singer – not in terms of technique, of course. What I mean is that he sang opera as if that music had been composed just for him. He sings from a very personal vocal perspective. For instance, if a pop singer has breathy high notes, he or she doesn’t try to make them sound focused – the breathiness is his or her “hallmark”. Pop singers make do with what nature gave them and they use what some would call shortcomings as expressive tools – that is why they are so unique. You hear someone singing on the radio and you never wonder “Is it Lady Gaga… or Adele? Maybe Rihanna?” Therefore, I understand the reason why the Corelli-worshippers in those YouTube channels hate a singer like Villazón – they probably grew up listening to popular singers with well-schooled voices, while younger generations had entirely different experiences, such as hearing Jeff Buckley sing When I am laid in earth from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. In other words, a guy like Villazón presses all the right buttons in someone coming from that background. And I can share a story – a friend with no previous interest in classical music asked me to record a CD. I included Villazón’s singing Monteverdi’s Si dolce è’l tormento and next she was asking me for more. My second CD for her included the item we’re listening today – Grimoaldo’s aria Pastorello d’un povero armento from Handel’s Rodelinda.

Grimoaldo is a very curious bad guy. He usurped the throne of Lombardy and is determined to marry the deposed King Bertarido’s wife, Rodelinda. However, he is engaged to Bertarido’s sister, Eduige. It is, of course, an engagement of convenience, but he had been in love with her long ago, when he was not as powerful as he is now. Therefore, he resents the fact that she rejected him back then only to welcome the perspective of marry him now that he is the head honcho in Milan. The problem is: he finds rejection again, this time from Rodelinda, who would never consent to marry the man who supposedly killed her husband (he is actually alive, but she doesn’t know that). Grimoaldo, however, does not care – he is in love with her and seems to find pleasure in being snobbed by her (something she does in the grand manner). He basically behaves like a teenager during the whole opera – bullying all other characters while in love with love. In one of his arias he says “My soul is a prisoner of sorrow, but these chains are so lovely that it does not seek to free itself”. It takes a while before he comes to his senses – Bertarido is back and plans a coup to be reinstated. Before he does, Grimoaldo has this a-ha moment when he realizes that all he wants is to find true love – and that politics won’t give him that. The text of the aria is Pastorello d’un povero armento/Pur dorme contento/Sotto l’ombra d’un faggio o d’alloro.//Io, d’un regno monarca fastoso/non trovo riposo/Sotto l’ombra di porpora ed oro (“Even if he has a small herd, the contented shepherd has a good night’s sleep under the shadow of a beech or a laurel tree, whereas I, the ruler of a rich kingdom, can’t find peace under the shadow of the royal purple and gold”).

Before we even listen to the aria, we’ll know that it is composed in siciliano tempo – here 12/8 – which was associated to pastoral life. Its characteristic lilt here has a sense of a gentle rocking and, alone as he is, Bertarido is practically singing a lullaby to himself, the tonality of e minor makes the scene even more pathetic. The first thing we notice when we hear it with Villazón is that the voice is at once darker and denser than what we would hear from the tenor usually cast as Grimoaldo in a performance of Rodelinda. Actually, the first thing we hear is the tiny scoop he uses to attack the first note in a phrase, which is one of Villazón’s favorite mannerisms. Many pop singers do that and I have to say that, the way he does it, it doesn’t bother of me at all, for it feels spontaneous as in a indie/alternative voice-plus-guitar song. What would Handel think of that? In Handel’s days, a composer would gauge if his opera was successful of not if its arias were sung by people in their homes, in bars etc. There were no radios back then – so if you felt like listening to Pastorello d’un povero armento, you would have to sing it yourself. Although the voice sounds a bit “on steroids”, Romantic-style, Villazón sings the text with Innigkeit, favoring a conversational dynamic and almost crooning his low notes. If his high f# and g are a bit “driven”, he emits them with an almost bell-like tone, which seems at once gentle and pure. Because this is baroque music, he avoids portamento and is rhythmically precise, but you never feel it like a-note-after-the-other. It has a pop-like flow that really fits the situation. This aria is sung for no-one else to hear. Bertarido has done many terrible things to fill the void in his soul – and now in the middle of so many signs of his glory, he feels poorer than ever – and the sound of a voice that could do far more than this simple siciliano is something like the aural representation of what this aria is about.

Now we reach section B, predictably in G major. Here Villazón adopts a more incisive line, there is little dynamic variety and one might even say that there could be a tad more legato. While I would agree, his choice makes sense. In section A, Grimoaldo is speaking of what he considers an ideal situation – peace of mind – and now he is talking about the torment he is presently facing. That is why the singing is more angular, the tone less caressing. He ends it with a trill and now we listen to the repeat. While one would expect he would go for a softer tonal quality, Villazón prefers subtle variations more often than not downwards than upwards (what is more suitable to his voice, especially in this repertoire, in which a specialist would offer high notes of a smooth and light quality). As the libretto explains us that Grimoaldo is finally overcome by exhaustion and falls asleep by the end of the aria, Villazón fines down the tone in the end to suggest something like that.

Pastorello d’un povero armento is not a showstopper, but rather an expressive melody, unchallenging in terms of technique, and yet Rolando Villazón brings some drama to it. To be honest, when I first listened to this recording, I found other tenors a bit lifeless in comparison. It is an unusual and revelatory recording at the same time. Most of all, a memento of a singer who – in spite of all shortcomings – did bring a breath of fresh air into the operatic scene.

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