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YEASS I. La morte verdiana

Updated: May 28, 2022

An undeniable divide stands between the great idiomatic tradition of operatic performance and the current training models meant to prepare that tradition's executants. In an effort to understand that divide, introducing the Young and Early-Career Artist Survey Series («YEASS»). Debuting YEASS with Verdi as executed by three US-based emerging professionals and complemented by reference recordings of seasoned artists.

Simon Boccanegra: A te l'estremo addio – Il lacerato spirito (Fiesco)

Benjamin Sieverding, 2020

Mixed signals here: Sieverding gives the impression of more voice in reserve along with the contrary impression of withholding that extra bit of voice. An inhibiting factor is the American English filter through which he pronounces Italian, the vowels insufficiently open and insufficiently defined. Throughout the aria proper, phrases that start with a vowel («Il lacerato spirito», «era serbato», «il serto») find him clenched-jawed, unwilling to physically open up to emit his full tone on a full vowel. When the music insists he be more vocally generous, Sieverding can only oblige to a limited degree: because his vowels are neither spacious nor focused enough to easily unlock more tone, the top tones develop a tight oscillation (the high C-sharps at «d'infamia e di dolore», later on in the piece «prega, Maria», and the final arpeggio «prega, Maria, per me») and the lowest reaches (that arpeggio's concluding A-sharp and F-sharp) give the impression of a sustained vocal fry.

Sieverding's dramatic presentation incorporates such jejune signals of stage grief as grimaces of disgust («Oh maledetto! oh vile seduttore!»), raising his eyes heavenward towards the Madonna («e tu, Vergin, soffristi»), sudden blinking and eye shifting in horror («Ah! che dissi? deliro!»), a return glance towards the Madonna («Ah, mi perdona!»), and as if on cue, placing right hand on heart in self-reference («del mesto genitore») only to drop that arm in the following phrase («a strazio»).

Greater Verdian poise can be achieved peacefully, as witness Nicola Zaccaria's concert performance from the 1964 Scala tour to Moscow. How composed he is! Zaccaria concentrates all his expression in his singing: full, unhurried enunciation of each consonant and vowel, unstressed breath reflexes, the top tones ringing (particularly the frequently requested C-sharp) and complemented by mournfully deep low notes.

The sounds of a father's heartbreak imbue the 1951 Roman radio performance of Mario Petri. Two months shy of his 30th birthday (!) and already artistically mature, Petri turns hauntingly vulnerable at «Ah! che dissi? deliro! Ah, mi perdona!» and lovingly finesses a dimuendo as he leaves the C-sharp of the second «prega, Maria, per me».

Don Carlos: Carlos, écoute – Ah! je meurs, l'âme joyeuse (la mort de Rodrigue)

Kenneth Stavert, 2021 March 26,

Vero Beach Opera / Rising Stars Opera Festival

Coups de théâtre are tricky to pull off in an unstaged context. Rodrigue utters his final words in the wake of an unexpected fatal attack, and even in concert a theatrically-minded singer might be tempted to manifest that. However, if he starts the piece establishing a gestural protocol—the freshly wounded Rodrigue's life forces ebbing—only to jettison it in the face of the piece's accumulating vocal demands—defaulting to those habitual physical reflexes reassuring to singers in full cry—he risks self-defeat. Such presentational red herrings forfeit credibility.

Stavert's presentation is an Operatic Kinesics Catalog: left hand clutching his gut, casting his glance to the floor, right hand attempting to engage the invisible Carlos (hand extended at «Carlos, écoute», hand extended further and elevated at «Carlos, ta main»), both hands clasped at the first phrase of the cantabile («Ah! je meurs») only to separate at the second phrase («Ah! je vois»), on the first G-flat slightly bounding up and opening his arms, and haphazardly shifting his weight from one foot to the other throughout.

The beginning and intermediary frasi tronche sections proceed without hindrance, excepting Stavert's mispronunciation of «Saint-Just» (the monastery which is a pivotal location in the opera's plot) as «sans jus» («juiceless»). But the music's expansion into sostenuto is ill-served by Stavert's problematic vowels—undersinging the concluding e caduc which is mute in conversational French but is a crucial syllable pronounced in poetry («écoute», «manque», «joyeuse», «heureuse»); releasing final [e] vowels with a hint of American diphthong («sauvé», «régner»); dampening the voyelles orales composées («je meurs l'âme joyeuse car tu vis», «je vois l'Espagne heureuse»). His linguistic difficulties not only blur the text but they block the voice's resonance on the corresponding notes.

For vocal and dramatic gravitas one can turn to Ludovic Tézier, unfazed by the obligatory stage athletics of the 2017 Parisian production—«Theme and Variations Upon the Bastille Stage Floor». A master of breath reflexes, Tézier unfurls astonishingly long lines through both statements of «Ah! je meurs, l'âme joyeuse» with no sacrifice of tonal steadiness.

And then there's René Bianco: an old-school French opera timbre enunciating old-fashioned stage diction in a 60-year-old interpretation that remains poignantly modern. Bianco never forgets, nor does he let us forget, that Rodrigue is imparting his dying words to Carlos. Only sparingly unleashing greater vocal power, Bianco phrases in shades of mezzavoce tenderness, always to Carlos—and the impact is heartbreaking.

Il trovatore: Ah sì, ben mio (Manrico)

Dane Suarez, 2021

Singers' physical presentation of their material affects the audiences' absorption of the information they are communicating through voice and gesture. Suarez relies heavily upon explanatory body language to communicate textual meaning and character intent—the theatrical gaucherie known as «telegraphing». Each phrase is rendered an autonomous statement unrelated to what precedes or succeeds it, and the cumulative train of thought inherent in a Verdi aria is undermined.

Regarding vocal communication, the importance of singers' diction lies less in the often specious claim of greater audience comprehension and more in the practical advantages singers gain when they don't have to struggle against a given language's phonemes. Suarez pronounces Italian using American English speech reflexes—occasionally stopping the sound in the middle of double consonants («vit|time», «trafit|to»); refusing to roll Rs, including the explicit erre geminata of «ferro», «verrà», «parrà»; singing all vowels in American—which actively inhibit the voice from achieving a clear focus.

Over the course of the aria as he must repeatedly move through the passaggio, Suarez's vibrato intensifies and queers the pitch («intrepido, il braccio», «dal ferro ostil trafitto, ch'io resti fra le vittime dal ferro ostil trafitto», and the famous high climaxes including the traditional high B-flat puntatura at «e solo in ciel precederti»).

Up to this point, reference recordings have been of artists singing in their primary languages (Zaccaria, the lone non-native speaker, led a staunchly Italian-based career). Presenting now two exceptions in each sense of the word: artists who channel heartfelt enunciation, musical imagination, and sheer voice into thrilling Verdian performances.

Jon Vickers never sang Manrico in the theatre, and judging from this single role excerpt, more's the pity. Under the battuta of Italian opera doyen Tullio Serafin the music flows ahead with a great surge, carrying Vickers through a succinct statement of the aria and not letting it disintegrate into a collage of phrases.Vickers is a wonder, at every dynamic level fleshing out every pitch with solid resonance and capable of fining down his tone by degrees (note the subito mezzavoce «Ma pur se nella pagina de' miei destini è scritto» and the diminuendo upon finishing «dal ferro ostil trafitto»).

Who was Todor Mazaroff? Based in Vienna, this high-octane Bulgarian tenor starred in the herculean role of Arnold in Rossini's Guillaume Tell at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, La Scala, and il Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, and studied Don Carlos with the great Aureliano Pertile. Although he has his musical idiosyncracies—spreading out the ornament on the second statement of «fra quegli estremi aneliti» over longer rhythmic values in the same beat (what the Italians call «spianando», levelling out); a tendency to inch ahead of the beat; habitually arriving early to the upper note in ascending portamenti—none of these details is a stratagem to camouflage vocal shortcomings. Mazaroff's tone is unwaveringly secured on the breath, meaning that not only is he never caught shortwinded but that his every note achieves immediate ring—there is no hesitation in his phonation!

Additionally, as Mazaroff extends through the passaggio he gains further squillo, his B-flat puntatura a refulgent sound bound to provoke hot flashes in lovers of great tenorism.

May something in the stylistic and vocal attitudes of these artists be gleaned by the singers seeking to establish themselves professionally in this tradition. In bocca al lupo a tutti quanti!

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