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Mozartian Agonies: «Mi tradì»

Updated: Aug 19, 2022

Mozart forms an inescapable part of the «well-balanced vocal diet» foisted upon contemporary US-trained emerging professional singers. Yet the uniquely Mozartian tandem of invention and rigor, particularly when matched to the ingenious verbiage of Lorenzo da Ponte, creates challenges best surmounted by a mature artistry. A formidable example is Donn'Elvira's great accompagnato-cum-rondò «In quali eccessi, o numi — Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata», Mozart's final creation for the «fluent gullet» of Caterina Cavalieri (Viennese despite the Italianized stage name). Elvira's vocal line heedlessly roams in and out of registers across an almost two-octave range (D below the treble staff to the high B-flat above it) with scarcely any time for the singer to calm her breath. Lest one misconstrue the piece as mere vocalise, there is the verbal challenge of a high-register vocabulary through which is expressed abject humiliation and fear: a dapontiano tactic of laying bare Elvira's inner conflict of Donna vs. donna.

All performances herein are of the more familiar first (higher) version in which the recitativo leads to the rondò in E-flat major instead of Mozart's own equally-valid revision with the rondò moved a half-step lower (D major).

Festival International d'Art Lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence

2017/07/07 Théâtre de l'Archevêché

Le Cercle de l'Harmonie

c. Jérémie Rohrer

Isabel Leonard

Amigos de la Ópera de A Coruña

2019/09 Teatro Colón, A Coruña

Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia

c. Miguel Ángel Gómez Martínez

Ginger Costa-Jackson

Considering together Isabel Leonard and Ginger Costa-Jackson—two American high mezzosoprani whose repertoires venture into escursioni sopranili including Musetta, both internationally active alumnæ of New York City's most prestigious operatic training programs (for Leonard the Juilliard, for Costa-Jackson the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program), both making Donn'Elvira role debuts in prestigious European productions—one finds artistic promise incompletely realized.

Aiming for a dark, round timbre reminiscent of 1990s Renée Fleming, Leonard systematically sacrifices firmness of rhythm (slightly behind the beat) and firmness of melodic line (little sloppinesses, strisciandi in between pitches). She declaims text with a generalized energy that is never specific to the actual words and their meanings. Her inflections are effects unrelated to how the text would actually be pronounced by a theatical performer comfortable in the language, her scanning of the recit in particular marred by odd, unidiomatic rhythmic emphases. In the rondò Elvira repeatedly sings «infelice, oddio! mi fa»—oh God, he [Giovanni] makes me unhappy!—a sentiment that is muted in Leonard's vocal address except during the second statement of the main theme, in which she cries out the final «oddio! mi fa» with arbitrarily harsh accent. All throughout, Leonard's attempts at verbal and vocal expression seem unmoored from any motivation within libretto or score.

Costa-Jackson's timbre similarly recalls Fleming, complete with odd fall-offs of pitch and tone between notes

in the recit itself: «inquai misfatti»

«il sciagurato»


«la giustizia tardar»

«già parmi»

«sul capo»

«in sen ti nasce»

plus a momentum-halting rhetorical affectation of breaking phrases contrary to Mozart's setting

«in quai misfatti | orribili, tremendi»

«tardar | l'ira del cielo»

«e queste [glottal stop] ambascie?».

The rondò proper captures Costa-Jackson in savvy survival mode, inexpressive of verbal and musical inflection, executing long breaths over a maddeningly moderate tempo (perhaps a more flowing pace would have carried her through the music more easily) but of limited ring and free play up top. That shortcoming is exacerbated by her habit of adding micro-diminuendi in the passaggio-adjacent zone (E-flat to A-flat around the top of treble staff) where Mozart constantly sets the words «infelice, oddio! mi fa». During the fearsome coda, one hears Costa-Jackson losing juice, her pitch, vibrato, and tonal substance suffering as the aria draws to a finish.

2015/03/22 Opéra de Monte-Carlo

Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo

c. Paolo Arrivabeni

Sonya Yoncheva

2011/09/23 Teatro La Fenice

Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice

c. Antonello Manacorda

Maria Pia Piscitelli

Onto two high-octane sopranos, well-versed in the Romantic Italian primadonna repertoire, under the bacchette of Italian maestri, all forces operating at a higher emotional temperature.

With Sonya Yoncheva's performance we reach a different understanding of the importance of recitativo. Simply and effectively Yoncheva just sings the text's syntax, giving the impression of each idea leading to the next even when separated by orchestral gestures. She continues thus into the rondò, singing by turns passionately and tenderly, electing to caress phrases here and there. Yoncheva clearly has the measure of the music, though one can't help but notice the abrupt widening of pitch and intensifying of vibration in her sustained top-of-staff G-flat, G-natural, and A-flat.

E finalmente l'unica cantante madrelingua—and finally the only native speaker: Maria Pia Piscitelli, in a hot-blooded partnership with Antonello Manacorda (conductor of Lisette Oropesa's Mozart aria recording, discussed in a Prior Hotspot Installment). Their performance must have proven a beneficial shot of adrenaline at this late point of an often wearying evening (as all the da Ponte operas can be).

Manacorda and the Fenice orchestra create a bracing musical ambience for Piscitelli, punctuating her recit phrases with their outbursts and setting an thrillingly impatient tempo for the rondò, fully exploiting the music's frequent syncopated accents. A particularly arresting choice is launching into the final statement of «Mi tradì» with nary a moment's pausa!

Yet Piscitelli thrives upon these challenges. An artist in command of her breath, she delivers a performance athletic in both voice and physique—spending the entire rondò walking through a moving set! Unstintingly full-throated throughout, her tonal projection in the theatre is flatteringly caught by the recording. Mozartian rigors do not catch her short: Piscitelli is a champion with ample capacity not just to honor all the murderous many notes (and the paltry breathing room in between them) but to imbue them with generous Mediterranean zeal.

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