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Chest Voice Anthem: «Suicidio!»

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

Released in time for the unofficial opening of summer nationwide, a new album entitled «Assoluta» captures French mezzo-soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon in a program of such Italian dramatic soprano anthems as «Casta diva», «Vissi d'arte», & «Io son l'umile ancella». Launched internationally in the 1990s as a then-rare native Francophone Carmen, Uria-Monzon's identification with that iconic character has proven her entrée to theatres Continental and Stateside (1998 Met debut, 2000 Houston Grand Opera debut and 2006 return appearance). Over the past decade, her forays into soprano repertoire have included most of the roles represented here: Tosca (a rare French-born interpreter of that role at La Scala), Santuzza (fair game both for sopranos and high mezzos), la Lady, Adriana Lecouvreur, Maddalena di Coigny, and La Gioconda, whose final act soliloquy «Suicidio!» is strong grounds for examination.

2019/02/12 Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Bruxelles)

Orchestre Symphonique de la Monnaie

c. Paolo Carignani

2019/06 Teatro Verdi (Trieste) & 2019/10 Église Luthérienne Saint-Pierre (Paris)

Orchestra della Fondazione del Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi di Trieste

c. Fabrizio Maria Carminati

It's worth considering Uria-Monzon's live and album «Suicidio» performances together as they are consistent in both pregi and difetti. The major difference is the studio recording's engineering: the impression of an uber-digital soundscape in which all individual elements are expertly mixed is created, to the detriment of any sense of instruments and voice occupying the same physical space.

Uria-Monzon and her conductors attempt to perform the aria with a minimum of its traditional rubato underlinings. One misses them not just because they are part of the work's aural history, even when exaggerated, but also because they allow for greater tempo flexibility, that necessary «give» in the rhythms which offers beneficial manœuvring room for the singer.

The singing itself does not amply encompass Gioconda's wide-span declamatory writing. The topmost tones of phrases which surge through and beyond the passaggio («e il cor mi tenti» on top-of-treble-staff G-natural, «ultima croce» on treble top-line F-sharp, «vinsi l'infausta gelosa febbre!» on top-of-treble-staff G-sharp, the climactic «al cielo» extending to top B and A-sharp), although unquestionably attained, are afflicted by an aggressive beat. Meanwhile, important lower-through-middle notes are unsteady of both vibrato and pitch: the music constantly insists that Gioconda return from her range extremes to a stable central register, a demand that Uria-Monzon systematically cannot fulfill. Her attempts to hike chest resonance up to the all-important middle-voice F-sharp fall short of tonal impact and accuracy of pitch, marring the resolution of so many of the aria's phrases. Thanks to the album's close miking, Uria-Monzon's vocalism is placed under an unflattering aural microscope.

1983/04/11-16 & 11/05-06 Funkstudio des Süddeutschen Rundfunks, Stuttgart

Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart

c. Stefan Soltesz

Grace Bumbry

America's own Grace Bumbry, that prototypical long-ranged singer of temperament, tackled the role of Gioconda not infrequently between her 1974 role debut with New Jersey State Opera and her 1988 role farewell in Barcelona. The current recording captures Bumbry in unfalteringly bronzen tone throughout her scale. She satisfies the ear at both extremes—the honeyed piano high A on «volavan l'ore», the ringing B-natural and A-sharp in the climactic «al cielo», yet also tromboning her final «fra le tenebre» and especially the chromatic stretch between bottom D-sharp and F-sharp in the penultimate «dentro l'avel». The vocal line's frequent travels between middle and bottom registers challenge most singers' comfort with chest resonance but not Bumbry, who demonstrates utter mastery of this technical imperative. She can sink in and out of it at will, she can variety the amount of chest resonance she applies to a phrase, and most excitingly, she is fearless in extending those sounds into the middle voice, most memorably in the F-sharp to A-natural stretch of «ultima croce del mio cammin!» A cherishable souvenir of Bumbry's exciting best in the soprano repertoire.

1975 Augsburg

Münchner Philharmoniker

c. Gerd Albrecht

Brigitte Fassbaender

Brigitte Fassbaender takes no prisoners in this unbridled performance! Was she hell-bent upon disproving the idea of Teutonic singers ill-at-ease in such «southern» music? As far-stretch distant as Gioconda is from Fassbaender's linguistic, cultural, and vocal-range home base, how much artistic seriousness, temperament, and sheer voice she thrillingly brings to bear on it!

Minor imperfections – «esausta» pronounced as unvoiced [s] instead of voiced [z], the open [ɛ] of «quèta» pronounced in Nordic fashion so closed that it shades towards [i] – do not tarnish Fassbaender's conquest of this protoverismo challenge. She intrepidly follows the vocal line up to the phrase-crowning top tones (A-natural, A-sharp, and B-natural); further below, she stuns the ear with generous deploymen of her famous chest resonance, up to middle G-sharp on «del mio cammin!» and «vinsi l'infausta gelosa febbre!» Yet she also phrases with eloquence, resolving the ornament of «volavan l'ore» gracefully and coloring the vocal line with an affecting variety of portamenti. An electrifying surprise and a welcome addition to this aria's recorded history!

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