Settling the Score
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Settling the Score

Many opera-lovers think they know exactly which role is suited to which voice. WILLIAM R. BRAUN looks at some of the received opinions in casting — and the performances that give the lie to them.

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Cecilia Bartoli as Norma in Salzburg, 2013
© Hans Jörg Michel/Salzburger Pfingstfestspiele 2015
On CD and DVD:

Sutherland, with Caballé, Pavarotti, Ghiaurov; Mehta (Decca, 2 CDs)

Bartoli, with Jo, Osborn, Pertusi; Antonini (Decca, 2 CDs)

Tristan und Isolde:
Domingo, with Stemme, Fujimura, Pape, Bär; Pappano (EMI Classics, 3 CDs)


Keenlyside, with Monastyrska, Pittas, Aceto; Covent Garden, Pappano. Production: Lloyd (Opus Arte, 1 DVD)

La Traviata:
Dessay, with Castronovo, Tézier; London Symphony, Aix-en-Provence, Langrée. Production: Sivadier (Virgin Classics, 1 DVD)
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Natalie Dessay as Violetta at Santa Fe Opera, 2009
© Ken Howard 2015
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Simon Keenlyside as Macbeth at Covent Garden, 2011
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL 2015

“Well, she should never be singing that!”

It’s the cry of that most strident of creatures, the offended opera fan, and it is often based on a stereotypical idea of the way a singer in a given role is “supposed” to sound. Soprano Nicole Cabell recently told OPERA NEWS that she runs up against this type of calcified expectation when she sings Violetta in La Traviata. “I’ve had success in some places and mixed success in others, because everyone has a very specific opinion,” she said. Crucially, there is an unfortunate element in many of these specific opinions: they are often formed without much knowledge of what the composer actually wrote. An examination of some of the greatest roles in the standard repertory, and the performances of singers who supposedly shouldn’t be singing them, can sometimes even prompt thoughts about what opera is really supposed to be.

Many listeners’ conceptions about certain roles, and opinions about singers who have gone against the grain of standard accepted versions, involve Joan Sutherland. These can be roles that Sutherland was supposedly all wrong for, or roles that she defined in her own terms to the extent that other ideas were marginalized. In the former category, we have Sutherland’s Turandot, the very thought of which caused opera fans to clutch at their pearls at a rate second only to their response to her LP album Joan Sutherland Sings Wagner. Sutherland never sang Turandot in the theater, but it is clear from her 1972 recording, now rereleased in a deluxe CD package, that she certainly could have. The standard expectation today is that Puccini’s “ice princess” should be able to peel the paint off the walls with her voice. But then there is the idea of what Puccini actually wrote. Some of the many indications in Turandot’s vocal line are “yielding,” “like something in the distance,” “sweetly” and, in her final aria, “Del primo pianto,” the indication “with a veiled voice.” Some Turandots, their voices worn from overuse in heavier repertoire, simply can’t produce any of these necessary things.

Moreover, Puccini’s orchestration is surprisingly kind to the soprano (though not to the tenor). When Turandot starts to sing, she is up against only two low flutes and a muted horn. Soon there’s a clarinet and a few more winds, but before long they are taken away. As she starts to tell her story, the strings play with mutes for thirty-five bars. To follow Turandot’s part with a full conductor’s score is to get a lesson in the ways in which a large orchestra can maintain deference to the voice, rising to climactic waves of sound only when the soprano is in her most powerful register. There are voice-shredding roles in the repertoire, but Turandot doesn’t need to be one of them.

On the flip side of the Sutherland coin, we have her Norma. For the post-Callas generation, Sutherland’s imperious, unassailable, imposing priestess was one of the glories of opera. Her performance, and the musicologically astute choices made by her husband, conductor and scholar Richard Bonynge, became such a benchmark that Cecilia Bartoli’s assumption of the role seemed foolhardy. Bartoli, the idea went, is a lightweight mezzo-soprano. In fact, the term mezzo-soprano is essentially meaningless. Mozart did not think that Cherubino was a “mezzo” role, nor did Richard Strauss call the Composer a mezzo, but opera fans love categories. At any rate, Bartoli’s Norma, which she has sung in the theater and recorded in the studio for Decca, is one of the most important role debuts of the past decade. It defines not only the question of what Norma is but the question of what opera truly is as well. In fact, it is very difficult to discuss Bartoli’s Norma by itself, because the effect of this performance is tied to several larger considerations. Her performance is the first to be based on the new critical edition of the score, in which, among many other insights, the version of the trio at the end of Act I unites the two women against the man immediately, making a much more believable finale. Bartoli also sings with an orchestra of period instruments, and she responds to the more varied, yielding textures and the lower pitch throughout the opera. Her Adalgisa, Sumi Jo, is a lighter, higher soprano, making a more dangerous rival for the shallow Pollione’s affections. 

But if we somehow wrest Bartoli’s Norma from these other elements, we still find revelations about the role. “Casta Diva” is uncanny, with Bartoli somehow managing to portray in purely vocal terms the practiced face of Norma’s public prayer, while the ensuing “Ah! bello a me ritorna,” at perhaps the fastest tempo ever attempted, immediately shows the private woman, ecstatically in love. It’s a pairing that suddenly evokes the final scene of Bellini’s Sonnambula. Bartoli characterizes the duets with Adalgisa in moment-to-moment fashion. In the first, Adalgisa’s story is disorienting, even disturbing to her, but soon the women are allies. In the second duet, Bartoli shows the new situation, now needing to ask Adalgisa a favor. Throughout, Bartoli demonstrates that there is no such thing as “beautiful” singing in the abstract in an opera; everything is character. She portrays Norma’s idea that “In mia man” is open-ended and could go in any number of directions. She can be grave or decisive or full of contempt. (“Now you pray?” she sneers to Pollione at the end.) She mines every word of text. (The pyre “unites us in life and death,” she tells him.) The work of Bartoli and her colleagues reminds us what the concept of opera should be. The setting of text, the harmonies, the choices and timbres of instruments don’t exist without each other. Before Bartoli, Norma had always seemed like a mere vessel for wonderful singing. In her performance it suddenly seems like one of the great operas.

Plácido Domingo sang a fair amount of Wagner onstage. Lohengrin was in his repertoire for a while, and Siegmund and Parsifal turned out to be two of his most congenial roles. But just about everyone considered Tristan a bridge too far. Wag­ner’s tenor roles are not all alike. The specific challenge of taking up Tristan is not in any particular passage but in the cumulative burden of doing everything in one night. The length of the role would likely have defeated Domingo in live performance, as it would defeat just about any tenor. Yet it would be a shame if Domingo had not made a studio recording. However many things we expect from a Tristan, we still want to be bowled over by the sheer sound of the voice, and Domingo delivers. Vocally, he is the most masculine of tenors on record. In Act II, the tone at his entrance as he sings about “boundless, unbridled” attraction reflects the words, and later he portrays an attentive lover. Then he gives himself over completely to the passage leading up to King Marke’s arrival in a way that no one could manage in the theater. Yes, Domingo (or anyone else) could never sing this way in the theater, but here we must blame Wagner. The orchestration for Tristan’s part is never deferential to the singer’s voice in the way that Puccini’s orchestration is for Turandot. And Domingo’s tenor always lay a little low, so another benefit of the recording is that some of the more ineffective writing for other tenors brings here some of the best singing.

Just as the term “Wagner tenor” really ought to mean ten different things, the term “Verdi baritone” is so nebulous as to be meaningless. Yet when Simon Keenlyside — a master singer of German lieder who made his operatic mark in Mozart — took up Macbeth, people didn’t want to accept it. (The silly notion that there is a “Verdi baritone” is especially silly in this case, as there are even two different versions of Macbeth with substantially different vocal demands.) But to look at the role as Verdi wrote it in the 1865 version that Keenlyside sings in a Covent Garden DVD is to discover that the lieder singer’s capacity for variety and detail is exactly what the music requires. For example, the indications “aside,” “sotto voce,” “as if fearful,” “as an outburst,” “dark” and “with an open voice” are all there. In fact, they are all there in the first nine bars of the duet “Due vaticini,” and Keenlyside encompasses them all. 

He certainly provides touches of his own — one of them comes in his first line, with an accent that immediately offers vocal glamour as well — but most everything comes from Verdi. The brief, early, youthful side of Macbeth, and the unearned sense of certainty that will cause his downfall, are combined with a curious and questing voice that still leaves room for initial playfulness with his wife. The first big vocal outburst is all the more effective for being held in reserve until the idea of killing Banquo comes to him. The hair-trigger responses in the apparition scene are terrifying, all the more so for the memory of the character we saw earlier in the evening. Then, finally in Act IV, we hear the beautifully supported endless line in “Pietà, rispetto, amore.” The grace notes are not shirked but extended, and the performance is carried through the very last note. This is probably what people mean by the “Verdi baritone,” but Keenlyside hasn’t done it in a mindless, generic way. He has used this lyrical outpouring to portray the unavoidable end of the line for the character.

Verdi brings us full circle to Violetta, and to the problems Cabell (and Kiri Te Kanawa, and Mirella Freni) have encountered when audiences have certain expectations. Among the people who thought Natalie Dessay should never sing Violetta was, for a time, Dessay herself. She was known as a high, piping Queen of the Night and Zerbinetta, someone whose prodigious gifts did not include the incisive thrust and weight that are expected for Verdi’s courtesan. But Dessay eventually sang the role in three different productions. The one from Aix, preserved on DVD, is the single opera performance I return to most often for sheer pleasure. Some people couldn’t accept her in the role, because she is such an idiosyncratic performer. Yet much of what she did at Aix brings us as close to Verdi as any soprano has managed. Dessay makes particularly expressive use of the many rests written by Verdi in often surprising places, showing us the breathless excitement of the overheated party girl in Act I, languishing sighs in “Ah, fors’è lui” and pitiful lack of will in Act II. Her retort to Alfredo’s “Un dì felice,” marked to be sung “lightly” and “brilliantly,” provides these things where other Violettas who can deliver a powerhouse “Amami, Alfredo” often sound like swooping birds of prey. But she can also use the figuration in “Sempre libera” to show the first signs of desperation. Dessay in fact provides the gamut of vocal colors that Verdi requires — unexpected resilience in “Non sapete che colpita,” true legato in “Dite alla giovine” (except, admirably, where Verdi doesn’t ask for it) and a seamless continuity, now on a devastating thread of tone, in a performance of “Addio del passato” that astutely expands on the change from minor to major mode. But the highlight is Dessay’s gambling scene, with her three arching phrases getting a rare outing just as Verdi wrote them — aside, but still in tempo, indicating her stunned reaction to her change in circumstances. She then delivers “Alfredo, Alfredo” with the debilitated voice that Verdi requests. It’s the sound of the carousel breaking down.

So, “She should never be singing that’”? Well, yes — she should. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut. 

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