Archive for July, 2021

Music Lounge (52)

As much as Alfred Hitchcock, Georg Friedrich Händel had a special relation with his prime donne. At some point, he famously threatened to thrown one of them out of the window, but mostly what he did was serve their talents with arias that highlighted all their special qualities when they were willing to serve his music. He was particularly fond of Italian soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò, for whom he composed some of his best roles. One could say she was something like Händel’s Grace Kelly. So when she left England, Händel was in desperate need of a new muse – and he found one in Élisabeth Duparc, often called La Francesina. We know little about La Francesina – we can’t even say if she was really French. It is established that she studied in Italy, sang in Florence until she was engaged by the Opera of the Nobility in London, where she often shared the stage with Farinelli until she met Handel and, as we say today, it was a match (in purely musical terms, of course). He composed 12 parts for her in opera and oratorio – Clotilda (Faramondo), Romilda (Serse), Rosmene (Imeneo), Deidamia (title role), Michal (Saul), soprano solo (Israel in Egypt), Penseroso (L’Allegro, il Penseroso e il Moderato), Semele (title role), Asenath (Joseph and his Brethren), Iole (Hercules), Nitocris (Belshazzar) and the soprano solo in The Occasional Oratorio.

Ms. Duparc’s voice was described as “bird-like” due to her ability with trills and fioriture. Her technical facility was not the single quality praised in her voice – her singing was considered expressive and apt to suggest melancholy. Although we can only imagine how this voice was, I notice that singers who succeed in any of these roles often have a shimmering, floating quality that works wonders in this kind of writing. Curiously, they tend to avoid the part of Romilda, which seems to be plagued by miscasting both live and in recordings.

Serse is a curious work written in semiserio style filled with short song-like arias. Some numbers were entirely puzzling for contemporary audiences in their unusual structure and adherence to the dramatic action. It is probably Handel’s most visionary work in the sense that audiences today will find it more “modern” than some of his most famous works, such as Giulio Cesare in Egitto or Alcina. No wonder Stefan Herheim’s staging for the Komische Oper was enthusiastically reviewed in Berlin with phrases like “unmissable even for those who dislike opera”. The plot is predictably convoluted with misunderstanding galore. The eccentric King Xerxes of Persia is first in love with a plane tree (as we hear in the überfamous aria Ombra mai fu), but when he is made fun of by the beautiful Romilda, his brother’s girlfriend, he is immediately enamoured. To the young woman’s dismay, he stalks her, spurring her boyfriend Arsamene’s jealousy (and her sister Atalanta hopes, for she too is in love with the king’s brother). Arsamene refuses to act as a go-between and is banished from the court. Serse finally decides to court Romilda himself, but she doesn’t respond at all. When the irate king leaves her alone, she sings one of the loveliest arias ever composed by Handel, which we are listening today in our music lounge.

Nè men con l’ombre is a perfect example of the simple, direct arias that made this score infamous at the time of its première. This is the perfect opportunity for a grand aria (as we hear, for instance, in Ariodante when Ginevra sings Orrida agli occhi miei), but instead Handel goes straight to the heart of the matter by showing – in a simple, touching melody – the straightforwardness of Romilda’s feelings. It establishes her congeniality and puts us immediately on her side. I am incapable of listening to it just once and it always stays in my mind for a while. The text is unusually direct too for a baroque libretto: Nè men con l’ombre d’infedeltà/Voglio tradir l’idol mio/E se mio bene suo mal si fa/Incolpi amore, non gelosia. (“I won’t betray my beloved one/Even with a shadow of infidelity/If he makes his own harm/Let him blame love, not jealousy”). Actually, it shows Romilda as a very practical person too. Both Xerxes and Arsamene will test her patience throughout the opera and, at some point, she looses it entirely, but she holds no hard feelings. In her last aria, she explains the audience why: when you really love someone, you don’t get to hate him or her just because things are going wrong.

In Nè men con l’ombre, the mood is essentially very tender. This is the kind of simple aria that comes across as a masterpiece because every little note achieves its intended effect. As an aria d’affetto, it has very sparse accompaniment. The orchestra has one figure – a gently rocking repeated descending interval. It is extremely gentle and, although it is not descriptive of anything in particular, it suggests some sort of pondering. On the one side, she has reason (Xerxes is the king and it is not very wise to oppose his wishes). On the other side, she has her feelings – she loves Arsamene and she is very sure about it. But, you see, she hasn’t made a scene, she just refused to answer. For now, her resistance is pacific. This aria is also a good example of why many coloratura sopranos fail in this repertoire. A Handel soprano’s secret weapon is her middle register. It must be warm and colorful. High notes appear to add some zest, but the real work is to be done in the middle. Basically, Handel wrote this aria to flatter the soprano’s power of expression. It is almost like a Schubert Lied. Only in the end we have a very, VERY long melisma on the word anima (“soul”, here used in the expression “anima mia”, a term of endearment). It is no accident that Handel chose it – here we hear Romilda clinging to her beloved one, saying it to the end of her breath. It is the aural image of her faithfulness. We don’t need to hear much after that.

In her recital of arias written for La Francesina, Belgian soprano Sophie Junker leaves Nè men con l’ombre for last. She has the ideal voice for it – its warm, shimmering quality evokes Romilda’s loveliness and the tenderness of her feelings. It has also a very important sexiness. As we know, sweethearts in opera are always very anxious about getting married and we know why. Every delay is taken as the end of the world, because, yes, considering the options of entertainment, that’s exactly what it is. So, when Romilda thinks of Arsamene and how she chooses to wait for him (he has just been banished from the court), for a while the closest she’ll get from him is in her thoughts. And she is thinking about him right when she is singing this aria. This is also a one-part aria – it barely has a repeat (Handel reprises the first phrase midway but develops it differently from its first appearance) – and Junker decorates throughout. Maybe because Duparc was supposed to be French, the decorations used in this performance are rather French-like in style, what is a creative touch anyway. It called my attention that she inserts two breath pauses in the long melisma – Isabel Bayrakdarian, in the video from Dresden, sings the whole phrase on the breath and, to makes things more difficult, Christophe Rousset’s tempo is rather slow. This could have been a turn-off, but I don’t know, it has a tight-corseted appeal… And she compensates by offering an exquisite high a pianissimo the next phrase. Even with that proviso, I can’t praise enough Sophie Junker in this aria. It was love at first sight. I wish she recorded the whole part – and I am glad she realized that her voice is so effective in the music written for Handel’s last diva.


Read Full Post »

Music lounge (51)

There is very little left to write about Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, I guess. Even those who dislike it have seen it many and many times. Yes, it is a very popular opera – and, as much as I am a die-hard Mozartian – I wonder why. To be honest, it is my least favorite among Mozart’s mature operas. It feels long, especially if the cast isn’t uniformly excellent (and it rarely is). But my puzzlement has more to do with the libretto, which requires a certain level of awareness of how ordinary life was in Europe in the 18th century for someone to make complete sense of it. Directors have been busy updating it in all possible ways – but there is always something important left behind when you don’t understand the original context. There is also a structural problem – it is the middle item in Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais’s trilogy about how things were changing in pre-revolutionary France. The audience usually forgets that these are the same characters from the Barber of Seville – and nobody ever stages The Guilty Mother to understands what is finally going to happen with these characters.

For instance, although directors do not seem very keen on doing that, the audience can still find remains of Rosine in the Countess Almaviva. Even if she is depressed in her entrance scene, we soon realize she is still playful, scheming and not to be trifled with. It is the Count Almaviva, however, who is shown as an entirely changed person in most productions of Le Nozze di Figaro. We have seen him in the Barber of Sevilla as charming, congenial guy – he can sing, he plays the guitar, he has a terrific sense of humor, he runs under assumed names, disguised as a soldier or a music teacher. However, when we find him again, he is a philanderer, a neglecting husband and a spoilsport always in bad mood.

In The Barber from Seville, the Count was in love with Rosina, a rich beautiful orphaned girl practically kept as a prisoner in her own house by an unscrupulous guardian. He places all his energy in getting her – and he does get the girl in the end. At the same time, Rosina is a spirited, bright girl who wants freedom and to enjoy life and her only hope is the Count. She didn’t even know he was an aristocrat – only that he was in love with her and wanted to help her escape. In other words, these two people had very high expectations about each other, while what they really want was… adventure. But that was the 18th century, they were both well-born and marriage was the only possibility on the table. If you keep that in mind, there is far more depth Le Nozze di Figaro than at first sight. The Countess is not melancholic about the beautiful moments in the past – they were never there. They were just a promise “from those lying lips” (as we hear in her aria). The moment the Count got her, she lost all her appeal to him. He only wants what he doesn’t have. The libretto informs us he would be always chasing foreign beauties, until he found something really tempting – a girl truly in love with her fiancé (i.e., Susanna). The fact that both Susanna and Figaro are gladly giving up freedom to be together triggers all frustrations in the Almaviva household. The Countess and the Count don’t hate each other – and the beautiful forgiveness scene in the end shows us that. They are not bad people, they are just miserable, jail mates in their own golden cage. That is why it is important to know what happens in The Guilty Mother – all dark secrets are discovered (their only child is actually Cherubino’s son and the Count does have a daughter outside wedlock too), there is a lot of plotting, but in the end they forgive each other and bless the union of their children. So in Léon and Florestine’s wedding we’ll finally see a true union between the Count and the Countess Almaviva. They did not bring each other any kind of personal fulfilment, but they finally brought each other peace.

We have to be honest: Mozart does not help us connect the dots between the two plays. The part of the Count Almaviva is written in a way that brings out almost exclusively the bad side of the character. From his first entrance, he mostly blusters in angular lines, closer to recitative than to song, as we can hear in the terzetto with Susanna and Basilio in act 1, then in the act 2 duet with the Countess and then throughout the act 2 finale. He does mellow now and then – but even then Mozart does not want us to believe about his sincerity. For instance, in the act 3 duet with Susanna, Crudel, perchè fin’ora?, we hear these little bouts of laughter in the strings telling us not to take him seriously. When he believes to be wooing Susanna in the garden, there is some suaveness in his singing, but the sprightly rhythms in the orchestra show us that the whole thing is just staged. The single moment when we believe he is being sincere during the whole opera happens a little bit later near the end of the opera, as he asks for the Countess’s forgiveness. There Mozart clearly tells us that this is a moment unlike any other in the opera – we’re transported to the realm of sacred music, which is the trick he uses to shows that the character is being truly serious (as when he borrows the melody of the Agnus Dei in the Coronation Mass for the Countess’s big aria).

I have written all that to say that I really dislike when the baritone in the role of the Count portrays him as “evil and loving it”. I have to be honest, most baritones skate on the surface of the role and content themselves in working with what Mozart apparently gave them – all those nervous, blustery vocal lines. But aren’t they too nervous and too blustery? Doesn’t the gentleman protest too much? There must be some palpable vulnerability there. Susanna sees that when she pretends to accept his advances. That’s the beauty of their duet: she feels bad for tricking him, even if he has been a total a******, because she senses that deep down he is suffering. When we can, just like Susanna did, feel his misery, then the forgiveness scene in the end gains an entirely different meaning. But this week we’re listening to his big – and difficult – aria, Vedrò mentr’io sospiro. If we read the text, we’ll see that this no declaration of war, but a cry for help – he is literally saying: why do I have to be the only unhappy person in the end of the story? (Actually, there is the Countess too – but he only realizes that in the garden scene). Let’s read it: Hai già vinta la causa! Cosa sento!/In qual laccio cadea? Perfidi! Io voglio/ Di tal modo punirvi… A piacer mio/ la sentenza sarà… Ma s’ei pagasse/la vecchia pretendente?/ Pagarla! In qual maniera! E poi v’è Antonio,/ che a un incognito Figaro ricusa
di dare una nipote in matrimonio./ Coltivando l’orgoglio/ di questo mentecatto…/ Tutto giova a un raggiro… il colpo è fatto. ARIA: Vedrò mentre io sospiro,/ felice un servo mio!/ E un ben ch’invan desio,/ ei posseder dovrà?/ Vedrò per man d’amore/ unita a un vile oggetto/ chi in me destò un affetto/ che per me poi non ha?// Ah no, lasciarti in pace,/
non vo’ questo contento,/ tu non nascesti, audace,/ per dare a me tormento,/ e forse ancor per ridere/ di mia infelicità.// Già la speranza sola/ delle vendette mie/ quest’anima consola,/ e giubilar mi fa.
(“I’ve won our case”? What have I heard?/ I was falling into a trap! Traitors, I will/Punish you in a way… To my own satisfaction/I’ll impose the sentence… What if he [Figaro] was to pay off/The old woman’s [Marzellina] claim?/Pay her? But how? And there’s also Antonio/Who is refusing to give his nice [Susanna] to a Figaro, a man whose family is unknown./ If I work on the pride/ of a man as stupid as him/everything favours my scheme:/ the blow is dealt!/ ARIA: While I languish and I sigh,/Am I supposed to watch the joy of a servant of mine?/Is he supposed to know/The joy I long for in vain?/Am I supposed to see the one who roused unrequited passion in me /united in love with a lowly vassal?/Oh, no, I won’t leave you in peace/I don’t want you to be content/An insolent fellow like you were not born/To bring me torment/or even to laugh/of my own unhappiness.//The very hope/of getting revenge/is a solace to my soul/and makes me rejoice!).

Yes, it is difficult to feel for the Count’s predicament. We have heard again and again this kind of “what about me?” growling from privileged men when, for a change, they are not the lucky ones. Especially here, when he is being particularly vicious and trying to ruin everyone’s lives. Yet Beaumarchais (and Da Ponte) are showing us that the Count is a walking cliché – he is miserable, he is in pain and it makes him hurt even more when he sees someone happy around him. In the aria, he is not referring to merely having sex with Susanna, but being in love, being contented by what one has, feeling well about him or herself. That’s what he envies. Those are not beautiful feelings to witness, but the singer has to be able to let us see the suffering in the bottom of all that ugliness. This makes the experience of listening to Verdrò mentr’io sospiro far more interesting. Again: Mozart waits until to the end of the opera to show us that the Count deep down is not a monster and here the music is all about cursing, complaining, threatening. And yet this is clearly an Ersatz for true satisfaction. By the end of the scene, he is enthusiastic about his plan, he acts as if he is happy about it: fake it until you make it.

The boundaries between recitative and aria are quite blurred here and I feel we could almost call it a scene. Although there is just one person on stage, it almost feels like a dialogue. To start with, it is almost entirely made of questions, mostly answered by the orchestra in the recitative. We hear the count pacing up and down in “Hai gia vinta la causa? Cosa sento! and then in the following plain loud chords, that swift gesture with the arm – In qual laccio cadea? Then the finger pointing, the punching in the air in Perfidi! Io voglio, io voglio… Then the musing, hand on chin in the dotted figures Ma s’ei pagasse la vecchia pretendente? Then we hear the laughing in Pagarla? In qual maniera? Then he feels more comfortable – there’s a plan being formed here. We hear that in the long chord that follows. He sits down. Then the orchestra is marked piano, there is a catchy, pleasant figure in the violins – he’ll convince Antonio do do whatever he wants, there is nothing to fear. The laughing figure is everywhere in the orchestra now – he’s got this under control.

The aria begins with a series of swift downward scales – the count punches the table – and there is a solemn figure, a trill, quite old-style, and an ascending sequence of plain chords marked forte. He gets up, in all his aristocratic proudness – Who does that fellow take himself for by trying his luck against (powerful, marvelous, formidable, handsome) me? As always, the Count’s vocal line are not truly Mozartian in a melodic, catchy way (as Figaro’s, for instance) – it is always recitative-like in style. The Count’s bravado does not last long – he soon has doubts. He starts to think about what could happen – Figaro and Susanna lovey-dovey right in front his eyes – the woodwind brings a certain harmonic tension, we have a series of nagging little figures, first many trills and then a provoking figure in the strings turning around second minor intervals. But the Count wants to believe he’ll succeed and, after an upward sweep we have the closest to a melodic line in the aria an up-and-down phrase on the words Vedrò mentr’io sospiro, infelice un servo mio and then E un ben ch’invan desio ei posseder dovrà. This is the very image of the Count’s state of mind – he is a bit down, but he’s acting out and trying to lift his mood (by making everybody around him as down as he is right now). Again it doesn’t last long – the nagging figures are all back when he figures Susanna and Figaro together. This time the whole thing is too much for him – he asks again and again Vedrò? (“Am I to see that?”) We hear short upward sweeps, almost as an engine whirring before it finally takes off. And it does – the count explodes from Ah, no, lasciarti in pace. We’re in a different tempo (allegro assai), the strings have a restless rhythm, the vocal line follows the text, we hear him shouting: audace! (“insolent!”), there is a chromatic line in “to bring me torment”, the nagging trills are all over the place, there is a laughing quality in the vocal line when he says che giubilar mi fa (“that makes me rejoice”). In the first time, it is a descending figure with slurs connecting notes two by two. In the end of the aria, it develops into a small piece of coloratura, quite challenging to baritones – mordente-like triplets up and down, a trill. The next phrase takes the baritone to a difficult high f sharp and that’s the end of the aria, the orchestra seems to be hysterically laughing with the singer.

How is the baritone supposed to make this tridimensional? Almost every singer goes to an all-out approach here, spitting consonants, snarling a lot, “acting with the voice” and going through the final coloratura in an almost impatient way, generally blurring the whole thing before he finally screams a high f sharp. First, this is Mozart. Yes, you can snarl, but you still have to keep the line, follow phrasing instructions, save energy for the difficult end of the aria – and, most important, take advantage of the downbeat moments (in which the character has doubts about himself and his plan) to show a more relaxed voice, some beauty of tone. We have to understand that the Count is not getting a machine gun and killing the rest of the cast in the next scene. It is a “what about me?”-moment, it’s a cry for help. You are right to feel annoyed by his tantrum and egocentrism, but you have to feel a bit sorry for him. You’re not calling the police, but rather searching for a psychotherapist’s visit card and saying “do yourself a favor and get an appointment”.

I first took notice of Boje Skovhus (his first name had four letters back then) in a Schubert recital on Sony. Back then, I found his voice beautiful and his phrasing sensitive. Then, he was cast as the Count in Claudio Abbado’s studio recording of Le Nozze di Figaro, a release not entirely well received by reviewers. As much as I can see why, I find Abbado’s conducting and the Vienna Philharmonic admirable. And Cecilia Bartoli is a vivacious, charming Cherubino. But there is also Skovhus – a replacement, if I am not mistaken – in the role of the Count. Although he recorded this part many and many times, he became increasingly heavy-handed and unidiomatic in it. That said, I consider him very well cast in the Abbado recording – and his Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro the most smoothly sung, richest in contrast – and he offers there the best rendition of the difficult final bars in the discography. It sounds what it is – a tantrum. He doesn’t seem dangerous at all, just overwrought, and there is still some aristocratic poise in his bullying. And Abbado is all the way with him, showing us all the detailed “stage action” and psychological variety in Mozart’s orchestral writing.

Read Full Post »

Music Lounge (50)

I have no interest in voice/piano recitals with operatic reductions. I believe vocal scores exist for study and rehearsal and I find it disconcerting to hear someone singing Puccini for the last seat in the hall over piano tremolo. There is a huge repertoire for voice and piano – and singers are supposed to know it. That said, it is harder when you have a big voice. Most artsongs require a leaner and more flexible sound to express feelings of a more intimate nature and also clear vowels for the audience to understand the text. There are, of course, big-voiced singers who know how to scale down for a Liederabend, but there is always an impression of someone walking on eggshells. That is why the Russian songs are so interesting – they are generally composed with a large dynamic range in mind and the piano part is conceived in a way that it rises to the occasion. All famous Russian singers have performed and recorded the repertoire, especially the Tchaikovsky items, which are revered both by musicians and concert-goers in the country (and abroad). Among his romances, those in the 1893 set of six songs, op. 73 (his final works in the genre) are famous for their highly emotional atmosphere.

Tchaikovsky was an avid reader and received with interest the poems from a 24-year-old Law student called Daniil Maximovich Rathaus, sent with the purpose of having them set to music by the renowned composer, who immediately expressed his intent of using them in his next romances. The Op. 73 was published one year later and helped to establish Rathaus’s reputation: Rachmaninov, Glière and Cesar Cui would later use his poems in their songwriting. What calledTchaikovsky’s attention in Rathaus’s writing was the prevailing melancholy and pessimism, and therefore I chose for our Music Lounge the most depressing item in the group, the last one, Snova, kak prezhde, odin (“Again, as before, alone”): Snova, kak prezhde, odin,/Snova ob”jat ja toskoj/Smotritsja topol’ v okno,/Ves’ ozarjonnyj lunoj//Smotritsja topol’ v okno/Shepchut o chem to listy/V zvezdakh gorjat nebesa/Gde teper’, milaja, ty?//Vsjo, chto tvoritsja so mnoj,/Ja peredat’ ne berus’./Drug! pomolis’ za menja,/Ja za tebja uzh moljus’! (“Again, as before, alone/Melancholy has me again in its embrace/Through the window a poplar looks in/bathed in moonlight.//Its leaves whisper about something/The sky is ablaze with starlight/Where are you, my love?// I am not able to tell/All that is happening to me/My friend, please pray for me,/Just as I am praying for you!)

Although it sounds simple at first glance, this is a song about nuance – and there are many here. It is written in a “melancholic” A minor and follows a patter of bass note + repeated chords. But there’s more to it. For instance, a recurring descending, sigh-like figure in the upper hand – a dotted crochet followed by a quaver. It first appears with the notes f and then e and it stays, bar after bar, like that for a while, as long as the harmonic development follows its own pattern: A minor and then a German sixth chord (apparently one of Tchaikovsky’s hallmarks). It is no coincidence that the pattern is first shown with the lines “AGAIN, as before alone” and “Melancholy has me AGAIN in its embrace”. It is a very clever way of showing us the deadlock in the poet’s own feelings. The repetitive vocal line too goes along the same lines: cbacbac (we could image that the long c in the end feels rather like “and so forth”). Things start to change from the verse Trough the window a poplar looks in”, which is no longer in A minor, but chromatically slides down to a D minor in the next verse. The vocal line no longer follows the pattern but concentrates it – cccbbba… There is something claustrophobic about this song (maybe because it is rhythmically straitjacketed) and this “concentration” of the vocal line feels regressive in a certain way – I can’t speak Russian and maybe I got the translation wrong, but the way I read it, we have an inanimate object looking inside the house rather than the person inside the house looking at it, to start with. The next line (the one in D minor) is even more regressive, it is almost annihilating – it’s only a sequences of a’s on the text “bathed in moonlight”. It sound as if the world had moved over and left the poet behind. And back we’re to the pattern, although the text takes us to a strange description of the outside world. At this point, the poet’s state of mind is imprinted in the landscape – the tree whispers “something” (he can’t hear or doesn’t bother to hear), the sky is ablaze in starlight. The sigh motive adapts itself to harmonic shifts, but it’s always there – we know from the start that there is no salvation for the poet. He is confined to this state of mind.

I have the impression that Tchaikovsky would disagree with what I just wrote. The poet is not confined there, but rather has confined himself there, for the moment he gives some leeway to his feelings, things get too intense, it is too much for this worldweary soul. And we’ll hear that in the next verses. The composer informs us that the atmosphere is changing – the “flame” in the sky has nothing to do with stars and their silvery shine. In the middle section of the song the poet is speaking directly to his or her beloved – the dynamic is no longer piano, the pattern is no longer there and the vocal line gradually goes higher and higher above the c-b-a scheme up to a high g flat. The whole passage is harmonically tense and rich in dissonance. Now we know what the poet is repressing and why he keeps it locked. If he surrenders to his own despair, he might not survive. He probably won’t – the sigh motive is still there, disguised in the middle of what seems to be a more developed melodic line in the pianist’s right hand. After the outburst, Tchaikovsky chromatically brings us back to the first tempo of the song. While the poet asks his or her absent beloved to pray for him, for he is already praying for him or her, again we hear the pattern, the c-b-a-c-b-a-c… vocal lines. The A minor chords repeat themselves until they sink into silence.

This is our mezzo week and I decided we would listen to Olga Borodina, whose recording with Larissa Gergieva is a classic. But that is only a matter of taste – almost every important Russian mezzo soprano recorded this song and every recording is revelatory in its own way. Irina Arkhipova, for instance, offers a very cantabile account of it. At first, she sounds almost too objective. She does not make it a small operatic scene. It is clearly a song and she understands that each part requires a different approach. In her performance, only the repetition has a hushed tone, as if the poet crashed under the weight of his own feelings in the middle section. In purely vocal terms, Elena Obraztsova offers the wow-element, especially in the video recorded for Russian TV in what seems to be one of Tchaikovsky’s living places. It is impressive in cantabile and legato. She floats beautiful mezza voce and unleashes her formidable means in the middle section. It is heartfelt in a rather generalized but truly impressive way. Borodina, however, seems to have paid attention to the text when it says “again” and sings both first and the final section in the same “dead” tone, which she seems to have “learned” from Galina Vishnevskaya’s recording and taken things even further. She sings the first part in an almost non-voice. It is purely confessional in its small scale, lack of vibration and color. She does follow Tchaikovsky’s demand on crescendo and descrescendo with very discreet paintbrushes. It is a study in grey. She gradually lets her full voice develop in the middle section and, in its full color, we can hear the strength of the poet’s passion which, deprived of its object, weighs in his or her heart like a heavy stone. One might say that it feels a bit studio-ish in its extreme dynamics, but I find it effectively descriptive of the emotional landscape in the poem and, at least to my ears, she doesn’t come across as mannered at all. Moreover, Larissa Gergieva is really sensitive to the mood shifts and produces really rich, full sonorities in the middle section. On YouTube, one can find Borodina again – many years later – with Daniil Trifonov in concert. There, her voice is evidently less fresh – the “dead tone” feels a little bit unstable and her full voice less velvety. And yet the feeling is so genuine – her older self seems to have understood how to sing it “from within” and even the slight decay in the tone is an expressive tool. And Trifonov tries to squeeze the last ounce of color from his Fazioli there.

I was lucky to see Borodina in her prime – unfortunately, never in Russian roles – and she left nothing to be desired back then. I first heard her in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and I remember that I wrote “Rarely has the triumph of goodness sounded so triumphant”. Then I was lucky to confirm that she was my ideal Dalila not only in recordings. Her Carmen seemed as if she could fight the bulls herself, yet vocally I still was under her spell. I would hear her again – always at the Met, but for a Verdi Requiem with Riccardo Muti in Salzburg – in Italian roles (Amneris, Laura, the Princess of Bouillon), which never completely flattered the velvet of her voice. Even then, in terms of glamour, musicianship and expression, there was always something you could refer back to in your memories.

Read Full Post »

Music Lounge (49)

There is very little science in Fach. It is not like taxonomy; there has never been a Carl Linnaeus in the history of music. It is a classification simultaneously based in various criteria. Sometimes it has to do with the writing for voices, sometimes with types of role, sometimes with models established by a specific singer etc – and it definitely is specific to national repertoires. Critics generally try to establish (inexact) parallels between Italian and Germany categories, but French voices are a law unto themselves. For instance, the voice of haute-contre is a specimen exclusively observed in French baroque music. The name itself could mislead the uninitiated to believe it is a French word for countertenor, but that is not the case. The haute-contre is closer to a tenor than a countertenor will ever be (although there is “tenor” in the name): he basically is a tenor who sings in very high tessitura by means of voix mixte (not falsetto). One might point out that, in the baroque, all tenors would produce their high notes like that. Yes, but the tessitura for a tenor in a Handel opera or a Bach cantata is basically lower. For some reason – maybe the very sound of French language – contemporary haute-contres (we can only imagine how they sounded in the 18th century) have a clearly brighter sound that makes them a little bit more metallic in tone than the warmer sound of a Handel or Bach tenor, even when they sing a high g or a high a. This also means that the voice of haute-contre can be an acquired taste. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said its very unnaturalness meant it was usual a bit acidic in tone and rarely true in intonation.

When we look at the discography of French baroque opera, we observe that haute-contres are not only a domestic product of France. Belgium, the United Kingdom and even the US have their share of hautes-contres. French hautes-contres sometimes veer into light lyric repertoire, for the tradition of high notes in voix mixte did not disappear in the end of the baroque era in France. In any case, this is a very special niche of the repertoire, a little bit less unknown these days due to the recent growth of Rameau’s popularity with the audience. This week, we’re listening to one of the most popular works by Rameau and probably what is the most famous aria for the haute-contre voice (in the score, an “ariette’), which is Règne, amour from the acte de ballet Pygmalion.

An acte de ballet is actually a vocal work – a one-act work with a simple romantic intrigue, generally of mythological inspiration with as much dance numbers as you can imagine. As it is, the plot of Pygmalion does not require any explanation. Règne, amour is the last vocal number in the score. Amazed by the power of the child god, Amor, who transformed a beautiful statue in a woman, the enamoured sculptor announces the miraculous event: Règne, Amour, fais briller tes flammes,/ Lance tes traits dans nos âmes./ Sur des coeurs soumis à tes lois/Épuise ton carquois./ Tu nous fais, dieu charmant, le plus heureux destin./ Je tiens de toi l’objet dont mon âme est ravie,/ Et cet objet si cher respire, tient la vie/ Des feux de ton flambeau divin. (“Reign, o Love, light your flames/ Shoot your arrows in our souls./ On hearts subject to your laws, empty your quiver./ You procure us, o charming god, the happiest fate./ I receive from you the object that enraptures my soul,/ and the dearest object breathes, receives its life/from the fire of your divine torch.”).

When you see a text like that, you know this is going to be a superflorid aria. And it is! This is a very tough piece of singing. First, it mostly stays in the second octave – it’s like the tenor aria in Der Rosenkavalier… with coloratura. Second, the coloratura always has a weird vowel. We know, tenors love nasalizing their runs because, yes, it help keep everything in focus, especially around the passaggio. But singing bars and bars of of divisions on the French “an” without sounding a bit grotesque is a tough assignment. Third, you need crystal clear diction. And, last but not least, this is French. It is the hardest language to sing idiomatically.

Finding the right recording of Règne, amour is not difficult if you have in mind that, when hautes-contres are involved, you’ll never find anything ideal. Rousseau was right. Singing an aria like that is like walking on a tightrope – and the singer will have his tense and/or acidic moments and those when intonation is perfectible, especially in the end of long phrases. This is a celebratory aria and it must feel exhilarating in the fast tempo for the singer to form the ideal contrast with the slower tempo, when he must rather sound elegant and poised. So it needs a truly balletic tempo – you must feel like moving to the rhythm. As this requires extraordinary flexibility for the tenor, few conductors go for it. In the end, we have Hervé Niquet with Le Concert Spirituel and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt and Michi Gaigg with L’Orfeo Barockorchester and Anders J. Dahlin with Michi Gaigg. In terms of orchestra, L’Orfeo has a warmer sound and less bumpy playing – but, of course, in the end, choosing a recording turns around the singer in the role of Pygmalion.

Both Fouchécourt and Dahlin are regarded as Rameau specialists, and Fouchécourt appears in some extremely famous recording of French baroque music. I have to say that I first heard Règne, amour in concert with Luciano Botelho, a bel canto/Mozart tenor, who delivered it in a warm, round tonal quality that made me believe that you can expect some velvet there. Maybe the fact that he is not French made me think that a little bit less nasality than what the authentic French pronunciation requires might have been the reason for it. That is why I first checked Dahlin, who, yes, is marginally less nasal than Fouchécourt and therefore a little bit easier on the ear. His intonation is also a bit truer, but once you hear Fouchécourt, his naturalness, firmness of tone and truly astounding flexibility makes you understand his reputation. This is an aria with a cruel amount of attacks in high g’s and a’s. Without the da capo, the aria has 17 high a and three high b flat and an endless demand of high g’s. As an element of comparison: Handel’s Ev’ry Valley (from The Messiah) has no high a or b flat, Bach’s Frohe Hirten (from the Christmas Oratorio) has four high a’s… and Mozart’s Ah, lo veggio (from Così fan Tutte) has 20 high a’s and 13 (!) high b flat (I might have missed some). With Fouchécourt, we don’t feel that Règne, amour is high at all, although you’ll tend to agree with Rousseau here and there.

I’ve seen Jean-Paul Fouchécourt twice, never in baroque music, always in character roles. First at the Met in a Massenet’s Manon, then late in his career in Berlin both in Bizet’s Carmen and Chabrier’s L’Étoile and finally in the Saito Kinen Festival in a double bill L’Enfant et les Sortilèges/L’Heure Espagnole. Although he didn’t command then the ease with high notes we hear in the Rameau item this week, he was always characterful and impressively clear in his diction.

Read Full Post »