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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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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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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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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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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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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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Most sopranos sing Ach, ich fühl’s from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte as a concert aria – and it makes sense, if you are a lyric soprano, it shows everything you got in a competition. The problem is – they still sing it as a concert aria even in a complete performance of the work. So today we’re not speaking about _that_ Ach, ich fühl’s but about number 17 in the score of Mozart’s Singspiel. Is there a difference? Unfortunately, yes – the concert aria is taken at a funereal tempo, the accompaniment is a spineless sequence of chords, the soprano sings very, very, very long lines almost rhythmically indistinct, and all that does not make any sense in the story.

Pamina grew up as a princess, but daddy and mommy had a conflicted relationship, daddy is dead nove and mom cares more about politics than her. Then, she is kidnapped by a dogmatic sect-leader who treats her decently but distantly too. She is basically left to the care of a pervert (Monostatos), who manager to keep her tied up while planing to rape her. Then someone out of nowhere appears and tells her that there is a prince in love with her. When she hears that she is loved by someone, she is so overjoyed that she just runs after him. But she gets caught and barely has 5 minutes with the guy – and finds all five of them the best thing that ever happened to her. But then she escapes from another rape attempt and finally sees her mother after many years and believes her ordeals are over. But no, the mother doesn’t want to take her home. She puts a knife in her daughter’s hand and asks her to kill someone – and, in the first scene opera Sarastro really shows some affection for her, he tells her not to be worried, nobody is getting killed. Relieved, she runs to Tamino to tell him everything that happened in the last hours, but – unbeknownst to her, he has taken a vow of silence and refuses to have a conversation with her. Then she sings Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden! Ewig hin der Liebe Glück… Nimmer kommt, ihr Wonnestunden, meinem Herzen mehr zurück! Sieh’, Tamino, diese Tränen, flüssen, Trauter, dir allein. Fühlst du nicht der Liebe Sehnen, so wird Ruh’ im Tode sein. (“Ah, I feel it, it is all over. Forever lost the joy of love… O wonderful moments, my heart will never experience you again! See, Tamino, these tears flow because of you alone. If you don’t feel the longings of love, there is nothing [for me] but to find peace in death”). First question – Wonderful MOMENTS?!

I am no psychologist, but while the “concert aria perspective” implies a depressive mood, I’d rather say that Pamina’s behaviour should be described rather as “manic”. Let’s see what the oracle Wikipedia informs us: “During mania, an individual behaves or feels abnormally energetic, happy, or irritable, and they often make impulsive decisions with little regard for the consequences.” Check, check, check, check. So here we see this girl who has been suffering from neglect for a long while finally see a light in the end of the tunnel in the shape of a guy who basically only had to say that he loved her. But he apparently turns his back on her. This is when her overwhelming and sudden joy turn into an anxiety episode whose peak is the “staged” suicide scene (I’ll call it that way for it’s “talking about suicide for a long time” rather than actually doing anything – and she finally gets the attention she craved for). Hence my puzzlement while hearing the aria sung as if Pamina were acutely depressed.

So, yes, the first thing we have to talk about is the tempo. Mozart writes “andante” in the score. With recordings taking sometimes longer than five minutes, we have to wonder what these conductors believe to be “andante”. In the booklet to his studio recording, Charles Mackerras writes that Georg Nikolaus von Nissen (Mozart’s first biographer and Constanze Mozart’s second husband) was critical of the excessively slow tempo often adopted for Ach, ich fühl’s. If we take the situation depicted in the libretto and hear the music in true andante, then we can hear Pamina’s heartbeat in that moment of anxiety – taTA… taTA… taTA – and it is as if the whole concept finally got into focus. Arturo Toscanini, in his Salzburg live recording, had no doubt about that – there we hear this increasing tension of Pamina’s panic attack – the possibility of loosing her newly found happiness is too much for her – and yet she had not given up yet. Ach, ich fühl’s is no passive acceptance of a dark fate, but a last attempt of making things right again. This is why the text is so over the top – she is basically saying that she is not dead YET, but if Tanino carries on acting like that, she’ll soon be. This is despair, and Toscanini’s tempo shows you that. Mozart makes also a point of showing the singer that he does not want a long, absolutely seamless legato here. The first phrase is an example of his typical pressure-release dynamic style – Ach, I-ich FÜ-ühl’s, two subtle hiccups to depict the fact that Pamina is not making a rational speech here, but immediately reacting to her own emotions – almost all her lines here have something “broken” at some point. If you have the right tempo, the next phrase is a perfect illustration of the dramatic situation “ewig hin” – forever gone – is a phrase where the most important note is evidently is the low f# with the appogiatura – hin (gone). The four descending notes under the slur in “-wig” should be sung absolutely a tempo to create the impression of something unfolding and falling down. It’s gone, she’s lost it. The end. This is the kind of sentence no-one (maybe Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, but there she is fatally ill and doesn’t want to die at all) says slowly – it’s over, finito. And now let’s about the “big, odd phrase”

“The big odd phrase”

Many years ago, I met a soprano who was supposed to sing Ach, ich fühl’s in a competition and kept discussing with her accompanist that there was somethhing odd in the coloratura right in the beginning of the aria. I asked her “what’s so odd about it?” She answered “the way Mozart wrote, it doesn’t make sense”. Actually, she was wrong – the problem is rather that sopranos rarely sing it the way Mozart wrote it. As we can see, there is no “stringendo” or “ritardando” mark in the score. It should be sung a tempo – what makes it hard for the singer to breath, for it is a long phrase with many high notes. So what sopranos usually do is adjusting it to give them time to manage the two high b flats. After she has navigated the two ascending phrases followed by a minor second interval with a hiccup rhythmic pattern (yes, she is sobbing and now she is going to abandon the text in the word “heart”), we have the long melisma on HERzen. If we look attentively at it – we have one long note on a quaver that actually goes on to the first semiquaver in the next “set” and then the melisma starts to “move” from the high c not in a strong note, but in a weak note. What happens after that is that we have another strong note in the next group of semiquavers in a b flat and then always in the high f. What does that mean? Both high b flats are on a semiquaver in a weak note, the next strong note being the f down in the interval. When you do it this way, the phrase has a clear sense of “coloratura”, with very fast staccato notes near the end (and the pulsation in the bass is kept a tempo, as Mozart wanted it to be). But you’ll say, “hey, sopranos always linger in the high b flats!”. Yes, they do, and in order to do that, they generally start the melisma (the first middle c) right on the strong note, making the high g (rather than high f) their point of support, what gives them an extra while for their first high b flat. Then, when they go back to the f (staccato), they take a while to breath and end the phrase ad libitum, i.e., with disregard for the tempo. And that is why the phrase feels awkward – the conductor cannot follow the taTA-taTA rhythmic pattern and what they generally do is try to catch the singer when they hit the pitch where the orchestra is supposed to produce a chord until the end of the phrase, when everything goes “back to normal”. I find it disturbing – the audience can feel that everything is amiss, the rhythmic pattern is lost and everything feels displaced. The phrase does not sound like a phrase anymore (especially in the ascending staccato notes) but rather as some sort of textless chanting. When the tempo is slow, the phrase sounds even odder, with many pauses in strange places. One might say that a) the phrase is very hard to sing (true); b) that it feels more musical if the soprano has some liberty (_some_ liberty, yes…); and c) maybe Mozart wrote it that way precisely to illustrate some sense of disorientation (hmmm….). I only agree about the fact that the phrase is difficult and that the soprano needs some help there. Of course, it will be almost impossible to keep the phrase truly a tempo there (and it would also sound a tad mechanical that way), but this flexibility must happen in the context of the rhythmic pattern (and, no, I don’t think Mozart wanted ad libitum there – he would have written that). Although I am not a great fan of Sylvia McNair’s recording with Neville Marriner, they both manage that phrase better than probably anyone else (Sumi Jo probably is almost as efficient as McNair in her Mozart studio recital). If you ask me what Mozart wanted with the big odd phrase, I would say that it is no coincidence that the text is “my heart”. This is a “what about me?”-phrase. Nobody has cared for Pamina and now that she has tasted the joy of being wanted and cared for, she doesn’t want to stop – she is experiencing a withdrawal symptom after being supplied with love. So the phrase is a long cry for help. We don’t really need the text here, she is basically weeping and the staccato in the end should seem as if she had no air left even to cry at that point. So, yes, the singer can manage to sneak in breathing points, but they have to make sense in terms of expression AND NEVER INTERRUPT THE RHYTHMIC PATTERN.

Even before that soprano called it “the big odd phrase”, it has always called my attention. Mozart would generally use technically challenging phrases like that rather in more complex arias, with two tempos (such as Non mi dir, Per pietà or Dove sono). Ach, ich fühl’s is, in structure, closer to Porgi, amor or S’altro che lagrime (from La Clemenza di Tito), both of them built entirely in regular, lyric phrases without anything close to coloratura. In Ach, ich fühl’s, the big odd phrase calls attention for being not only big in compared to every other phrase in the while aria, but for being clearly showier than everything else. Dramatically, this makes sense. She has tried to call Tamino’s attention with well-balanced, well-behaved phrases in vain. Then she goes for the works there – and it doesn’t work either. That is why she changes the approach next – beautiful words haven’t worked, so now she is resorting to visuals “see these tears rolling down on my face?!”.

It is important to observe that the big odd phrase is not the climax of the song. So, if the singer sounds a bit exhausted or if there is an “energetic valley” after that, the sense of increasing tension that we need to feel peaking in the Fühlst du nicht der Liebe Sehnen? marked forte is entirely lost. Pamina has been using a very repetitive text and melodic pattern to convince Tamino that he is killing her with his silence, but it’s all in vain. And that is why she is so emphatic here – “so isn’t it love what you feel?”. But again, no answer. And that is why the next one (which takes her again to the high b flat) is marked piano – now she is no longer responding to reality, but to her own spiritual torment. “No, it is not love what he feels”. We hear again the ascending phrases followed by the minor second interval (first heard before the big odd phrase) in a harmonically tenser context, but there is no long melisma now – here we have a leap to a long high g on the word Ruh’ (rest). Pamina is not crying anymore, she is no longer talking to Tamino now. Now she is deep in her own neurosis – she knew happiness was too good to be true, it had to vanish as easy as it appeared. It is just like when Elsa von Brabant, in Wagner’s Lohengrin, says in act 3 “Ach, nein… Doch dort, der Schwan der Schwan!” Again, I don’t think Pamina is really suicidal here, but the end of Ach, ich fühl’s is like the eye of the hurricane – it is the point of repose in the middle of chaos. Pamina’s life has been about being abandoned. For a short while, it seemed as if things had changed. And yet she’s got used to the way things were. They made sense that way. And until the genii tell her that she’s wrong, she will almost actively pursue misery. It is only an evidence of Mozart’s genius that the first phrase she sings after her transformation – Tamino mein, o welch ein Glück! (My Tamino, ah, what joy!) in the scene with Tamino and the men in armours deeply touches the listener even if it is very short. We feel, that the weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She is still a bit hectic (she gives a wordy and unnecessary explanation about the magic flute after that), but now she is no longer doomed to be unhappy.

No you may be wondering which recording I have chosen for our music lounge this week. This was a really tough choice – the ideal performance would be a Frankenstein monster with Gundula Janowitz’s voice, Toscanini’s conducting a post-Harnoncourt version of the Vienna Philharmonic and modern engineering. But I am happy enough with Sophie Karthäuser’s intelligent and perceptive account of the aria. We have increasingly heard silvery-toned Paminas and I particularly like that Karthäuser has a golden, round tone, what makes a good contrast with the voices both of the Queen of the Night and Papagena. She is especially satisfying with René Jacobs live in a staged performance (even if she breathes à la baroque specialist right after the long note in the big odd phrase) – there you see that she is not singing the concert aria. This is the character Pamina experiencing the beginning of her manic episode, palpitation, uncontrolled weeping, attachment to her own sad experiences included – it’s all there and in perfect Mozartian style. Yet, as I am not sure if there is a geographic limitation to that video, I’ll add first her live recording with Kazushi Ono, whose tempo is a little bit more relaxed and yet the rhythmic pattern is clear and Karthäuser is even more polished (if a little bit less intense).

Music lounge (39)

I had a friend who used to say that Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, the fourth of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder was the saddest song in the world. He would listen to José Van Dam’s recording and then remain silent for a while. Then I showed him Anne Sofie von Otter’s recording with John Eliot Gardiner and he was silent for a very long while. He loved this recording from the very first time he heard it. After listening to it, he said that Von Otter entered his pantheon. Indeed, her singing there is beautiful, expressive, it is one of her very best recording and this could have been the item chosen for this week’s Music Lounge until I listened to it again. To my surprise, I didn’t like it as much as I used to do. But before we talk about that, I have to say that the last time I spoke about my friend’s opinion about this song, someone replied “you’re friend is wrong – this is not a sad song at all!” According to this person, it is a song about finding one’s true harmony within oneself. At the time, I said “Well, it is sad that one has to leave the world behind to find that, isn’t it?” So I ask you, is it sad or not? Is that relevant at all?

If one knows Gustav Mahler’s biography, one will tend to answer that this is a sad song. Throughout his lifetime, Mahler experienced an increasing sensation of alienation. Beside the famous quote “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed”, he also struggled within his own family in a conflicted relationship with his wife Alma Schindler and the loss of their daughter Maria at age 5, while a heart disease finally made him hostage of his own body – he more than once referred to the diagnosis as a premature death sentence. Therefore, if one has the composer’s life in mind, the text appears under a rather depressing light: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen/mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben/Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen/Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!/ Es ist mir auch nichts daran gelegen,/ Ob sie mich für gestorben hält./ Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,/ Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt/ Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel/und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet./ Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,/ In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied. (“I am lost to the world/with which I have wasted too much time anyway./ It has not heard anything about me for so long/ That it may really believe I am dead./ I could not also care less, if it considers me dead./Nor can I deny it ,/for I am actually dead to the world./I am dead to the tumult of the world,/ and I rest in a silent place/ I live alone in my heaven/In my love and in my song”). As we can see, this is a story in two parts: in the first part the poet was in touch with the world and “has wasted too much time with it” (i.e., he invested in it, had hopes about it, wished to make something in it); in the second part, he had turned his back to it and made a point of having nothing to do with it. Now he is in a silent place which he calls “heaven” and lives further in his love and his song. Well, this places sounds just like he had really died – and not only to the world, but away from this world in the afterlife. He still lives in what he loved – although everybody translates “in my love”, the text does not have the noun “die Liebe”, but rather the substantivated verb “das Lieben” (the act, the ability, the fact of loving) – and in his song (i.e., the legacy of his art). No, I don’t think this is the poet’s ghost speaking, don’t worry! I do think the poet’s experience with society was so frustrating, so bitter that it has killed his ability of living in it. Therefore, I wouldn’t call his a “new age” attitude – he is not looking back with a smile to the memories of his former days now that he has embraced an alternative lifestyle with the love of his life and plays the guitar in the orange grove he himself planted. In other words, he has not really chosen to cut his ties with the world. He just couldn’t do it any longer. From a safe distance, he is able to relate to it with love through his art – but only from afar. Is it a sad song after all? It is and it is not – “one eye wet and the other dry”, as Richard Strauss used to explain how the final scene of Der Rosenkavalier’s first act should be performed.

The question “how sad should Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen should sound?” is not useless. When we look at the discography of the Rückert-Lieder, we notice that, while Bruno Walter, an acknowledged Mahler specialist (Mahler himself would have put it that way), takes 5′ 33” to perform it in his recording with Kathleen Ferrier and the Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein goes for 7′ 48” when he recorded it with the same orchestra and Thomas Hampson. Why? Well, Mahler himself wrote Äußerst langsam and zurückhaltend (“extremely slow and restrained”) on the score. As a matter of fact, almost no recording of the orchestral version takes less than six minutes, but the question now is “how slow is ‘extremely slow'”? In a video with soprano Irmgard Seefried on Youtube, we notice that she has to push forward to keep the flow of the melody, while the conductor clearly thinks they should go in a slower pace. Although Mahler had composed these songs both in voice/piano and voice/orchestra versions, they feel a bit “empty” in the piano version – and that is why pianists never try to make it longer than the piano can sustain. The truth, however, is that – at least in Ich bin der Welt… the orchestration is almost chamber-like and, as Bruno Walter shows us, nothing is actually gained in the pseudo-depth of lethargically slow tempi. As we can hear, Walter’s version doesn’t sound “fast” at all. It sounds slow, restrained and heartfelt… and also structurally clear, melodically appealing and truly “song-like”.

There is no doubt that the “restrained” atmosphere is not only a matter of interpretation – there are many moments in which the singer only has woodwind and/or the French horn with him or her, and the parts for strings are almost always marked p or pp. Actually, they start on mutes. In some recordings, however, the conductor goes for the kind of pianissimo that only dogs can hear. And, to be clear, Mahler writes “senza sordino” very soon. To be honest, the tempo plus a string section very hard to hear is the reason why I gave up the Gardiner recording. If you ask me, the slow tempo, the almost silent strings seem to me an attempt to make this song more profound than it actually is. Rückert’s text is very clear and relatable, and Mahler is very successful in creating a melancholic atmosphere. It is a sad song in an almost feel-good way, almost like some pop songs from the 1970’s with smooth vocalism, long lines, poetic texts and a slow tempo. You might think that Mahler is turning on his grave when I write this, but I don’t think so – Mahler clearly liked melodies with a folklore-like appeal and that is why the excess of profoundness doesn’t help it at all. On the contrary. There must have a splash of cheesiness.

As I’ve decided I did not want the Von Otter/Gardiner recording – and this is our mezzo/alto week – I’ve listened to all recordings with mezzo sopranos. I was surprised to find Bernarda Fink with the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich and Andrés Orozco-Estrada so close to the Bruno Walter example and I almost picked it, but I found Fink lacks the last ounce of spontaneity, something that afflicts many mezzos in this song. Most of them seem to feel a bit uncomfortable with coping the low tessitura and floating pianissimo around the middle of their range. My final choice was a surprise even for myself – here we have a singer not among my favourites and a conductor I frankly don’t care for.

I have always Frederica Von Stade’s voice a bit odd. For me, it is like a light mezzo on steroids. The way all registers are pumped up certainly had an effect of terms of presence in the auditorium, but there is very little naturalness left high register somewhat bit edgy and the booming, almost cabaret-like low notes. And yet, I have more often than not found her effective in a wide repertoire. I don’t dispute the claim that she is the definitive Cherubino (but I am not so fond of her Dorabella and I frankly dislike her singing in the Bernstein recording of the Mass K 427), the Octavian in Edo de Waart’s recording is very charming, the Mélisande for Karajan is ideally appealing, she really wowed me in her recording of Liszt’s Oh, quand je dors… and her Maria in the recording of The Sound of Music with Hakan Hagegard is a guilty pleasure. The mention of that musical theater item is no coincidence – for I find the pop-like directness the secret formula for her success in the her 1979 recording of Ich bin der Welt… made in London. Singers in German repertoire are so brainwashed to illustrate the text in their voices à la Schubert that sometimes they just forget that some works only require you to “carry the tune”, exactly like in a pop song, no matter how sad, philosophical, politically motivated etc it might be. When a singer sings like this, the audience doesn’t feel that there is someone trying to explain you anything – you’re in direct contact with the music. And that is how Von Stade does it here. The song flatters her voice in every way – while she has the necessary lightness for the pianissimi, she can use her boosted low register to maintain some presence in passages when many a high mezzo sound ill at ease. In her performance, it is indifferent how sad the song is – it is up for the listener to decide.

For someone with the reputation of a kapellmeister (in the wrong sense of the word), Andrew Davis makes some bold choices here. In terms of tempo, he goes for a safe 6′ 21”, but in what regards dynamics, the first thing you notice is that he definitely goes beyond the piano marking and you definitely can hear the strings. Whenever Mahler asks for a crescendo, Davis doesn’t hold back. He really takes the opportunity to go for broke. Does that makes the song schmaltzier? Yes, please. The crescendo marks always appear in the parts of the song when the poet seems to be saying “You know what, world, I’m doing really better since I left you” and that makes it less of a post-mortem statement but rather a declaration of survival, and I’m afraid I find the song “dramatically” more interesting and musically more varied that way. The London Philharmonic’s strings are not glamorous in sound as the Vienna Philharmonic, but at least they’re there, you can hear them, there is no sense of emptiness in the sound picture. Even in pauses, there is a clear sense of continuity. This recording, which I had never heard before this week, was definitely a good surprise for me.

New Parsifal from Vienna

The Vienna State Opera has invited Russian director Kyrill Serebrennikov to direct their new production of Parsifal. The opera house’s website makes a point of informing us that Mr. Serebrennikov had been placed in house arrest due to an accusation of a fraud scheme involving public funds and considered guilty in a verdict found suspect by human-rights NGOs. As the curtains open in act 1, we see Jonas Kaufmann visiting a nondescript place that can gradually be recognized as [SPOILER ALERT] a prison. Gurnemanz is the old inmate who has earned the trust of the wardens and who makes tattoos for the other convicts, Kundry is some kind of journalist who has been around for a while and exchange favors – cigarettes, magazines, mail – with both wardens and prisoners and has gained some privileges there and Amfortas is Gurnemanz’s cellmate whose long and incurable disease involves delusional episodes. A young man, the expressive Russian actor Nikolay Sidorenko, storms onstage and we understand that he is the young Parsifal, being accused of killing another inmate, an albino fellow with wings tattooed on his back who tried to seduce him in the showers (“the swan”). Gurnemanz preaches him about the holiness of life, but the wardens seem to be ok about it. Everybody goes to their cells, but during the night Amfortas has another episode of pain and hallucination in which he hears his dead father’s voice telling him to shed his own blood. The man’s suffering seems to bring forth the convicts’ own humanity: they try to help him and the young Parsifal is particularly touched by the scene. There are graffiti on the prison’s wall “Made wise by pity, the pure fool – wait for him”, and Gurnemanz thinks that there is something about the young man. However, when asked about what happened during the night, Parsifal has nothing to say. Kundry (in the libreto, an invisible “alto voice”) has the same impression. Nevertheless, when she approaches him, he contents to undress and let her take pictures of him.

Act 2 shows us an office. My first impression – and that would have been a really interesting idea – was that Klingsor was the prison’s director, making for an unexpected juxtaposition of Montsalvat and Kingsor’s realm. There are photos of half-naked young men on the walls and he seems to be busy with computer porn. Kundry works for him and screams not for being waked into life from her own nightmares, but because Klingsor spills hot tea by accident on her. Again I thought that Kundry’s improbable journalism was a façade for some sort of illegal distribution of pornography involving the prisoners of something like that, but my mistake. They actually work for a magazine called Schloss and the sets show the publisher’s headquarters. The young Parsifal shows up there for a shooting (we assume he was set free) and the Blumenmädchen are a team of hairdressers, make-up artists, cleaning ladies, secretaries. They all want to see him, probably because the report about life in prison made him some sort of celebrity. But the older Parsifal, Kaufmann, is there too – and the girls ask him autographs. Kundry makes them leave and conjures the presence of three imaginary Herzeleiden and of Amfortas in a cool jacket and turtleneck sweater. The old Parsifal is upset by these memories and tries to separate Kundry and the young Parsifal, who at this point are clearly making out (the kiss was only the first part of it). When she realizes she has been rejected, she gets a pistol, points at the young Parsifal, then at herself and finally shoots Klingsor.

Act 3 shows us that the prison is now some sort of workshop where old ladies produce images of the Christ. Kundry is now one of these ladies and she seems irritable and hard to deal with. Gurnemanz is there too, still talking of the pure fool one. Parsifal shows up, Kundry recognizes him, the old ladies worship him, they tell him he is their “king”, give him a white shirt and they leave. But, hey!, they come back from the same door to what seemed to be the deactivated-prison-made-into-a-workshop, but the place is… surprise!… THE prison (there still are wardens there at least), with the same prisoners looking as young as they were in act 1. Anyway, Parsifal, Kundry and Gurnemanz just open the door and get in. Amfortas still has his cool jacket from the scene he has been spirited away to the fashion magazine and has an urn and says he won’t perform “the ritual”. For some reason, all other prisoners were paying attention to his delusional speech. But that is not a problem, for Parsifal – and the young Parsifal! – open all cells and the doors and everybody is free.

Why I am writing all this? Because, frankly, I am hoping that someone can make any sense of all that. As far as act one, the whole scenario seemed crafty rather than effective. It involved lots of lines sang “as if they were ironical” and many nonsensical situations, but as the Personenregie was effective, the video projections powerful and well made, I was playing along. For instance, the whole grail ceremony taking place only in Amfortas’s mind was an interesting idea, for, let’s be honest, it rarely works out if staged as Wagner describes it. I still have a problem with the idea of Gurnemanz and Amfortas as “submissive victims of the system”, for the libretto describes them as part of the system – Amfortas is the king and Gurnemanz is a Knight of the Grail. We could say that Amfortas is a victim of that very system, but he does rule there, while Gurnemanz is only unhappy because the system is not working anymore. He doesn’t want to be freed – he wants it to be what it used to be. My own predicament started in act 2 – the magazine made the scenario even more distant to the plot in terms of practical problems. I am not even speaking of symbology anymore, for act 1 made it clear that there is no symbology going on here. And the two Parsifals were too often more than “an older guy reminiscing”, as we had the other actors increasingly interacting with both of them. I gave up understanding at all in act 3. I’ve decided that “understanding” is a bourgeois concept and that I should simply surrender to the experience of watching whatever was going on there – it didn’t work. In the end, I was puzzled by the whole thing. I’ll be honest – the prison setting has its own agenda, ok, I get it, this is what the director wanted to talk about even if the opera were Mozart’s Così fan tutte. No problem. But it would be helpful if this parallel story had an ounce of coherence.

For many an opera goer, this afteroon’s broadcast had nothing to do with the staging, but by the fact that Elina Garanca was debuting in the role of Kundry. She has been often – and I’d say unjustly – accused of being too cold an actress. Here I thought she was terrific and rounded up many corners in the concept. She also sang really well. Hers was probably one of the smoothest sung Kundrys I have ever heard. She sang with unfailing sense of line, a judicious use of portamento, tone colouring of a singer whose last CD was a Schumann/Brahms recital and the focus of low register of someone who sings Italian opera. In other words, a lesson for any singer whose voice is not really the one for the role. As it is, Ms. Garanca’s mezzo is a tiny bit lightweight for the part – and one could feel that by the way her middle register could sound veiled now and then and fall behind in terms of projection. But that this is me trying to be accurate in order not to seem too enthusiastic. If you ask me if her Kundry could be a little bit more demented and tortured, yes, but that’s not what the director required from her (I’m not speaking of the conductor yet). Jonas Kaufmann’s best Wagnerian role is arguably Parsifal, even if his tenor is now a bit rusty in the heroic passages, when he pushes more than he should. Elsewhere, he is still very clear in his textual delivery, is not afraid to scale down and has an interesting color for the role, especially here as the “older Parsifal”. He too works hard in terms of acting and should be praised for trying to make something of what is essentially nonsensical. I am not sure if this is Ludovic Tézier’s first Amfortas. I know he had sung the part of Wolfram before. In terms of style, he is a commendable Wagnerian Heldenbariton: vocally, it is basically carefree and his German is more than good enough. I would still say he is too used to Verdi – the whole is expression is too extrovert, one feels that he instinctively looks for climaxes and likes to emphasize syllables in key moments. The part of the “inner torment” is largely absent. Again, this was amazing singing – and I start to wonder if he should not try other Wagner roles. I was a bit surprised to find Wolfgang Koch as Klingsor. One usually expects a higher and brighter sound for the role – and Koch rather sounds warm and a tad unstable in his high notes. That said, he looked really convincing in the part as conceived by the director. I have already seen Georg Zeppenfeld as Gurnemanz in Bayreuth and have found him less meditative than the usual take of the role, but here it is the ideal approach. This Gurnemanz was streetwiser than wise – and Zeppenfeld dark, firm, uncomplicated singing worked to perfection.

Philippe Jordan has an ideal orchestra for this score – the Vienna Philh… the Vienna State Opera Orchestra’s translucent strings are a special effect in itself and one can only marvel at their sound right from the first bars in the overture. Nevertheless, a great car won’t show all it can do with the wrong driver. Mr. Jordan – and this was something I had noticed in his COVID Ring from Paris – is unable to build a long arch in this repertoire. We feel phrases coming to life and quickly sagging back to silence without a real sense of continuity. We hear pauses, all of them. Sometimes I felt that the cast could grab a cup of coffee, sip and come back for the next phrase. If he tried to emulate the Boulez Parsifal here, more vital tempi could have hidden the problem, but beauty of sound alone doesn’t make a Wagner opera. Act 2, with considerate tempi, mushy accents and very little structural clarity, sounded interminable, and act 3 required all my ability to concentrate. I was bored to death.