14 June 2009

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Sleeper, Awake; or, Why are there top E’s coming from the grist mill? [An Examination of LA SONNAMBULA on Records]

Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, as Amina Two occurrences in opera during the past year have perceptibly revived interest in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, at least to the extent to which it had waned in the decades following Callas’ and Sutherland’s last efforts at concerted sleepwalking: the Mary Zimmerman production of the piece unveiled at the Metropolitan Opera on 2 March and the release of the much-anticipated L’Oiseau Lyre recording of the opera with Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Flórez (who also fronted the MET production, alongside Natalie Dessay).  Perhaps what this reveals most tellingly is that, even in this age of Baroque revival (to which both Bartoli and Dessay have contributed both on stage and on disc), bel canto remains commercially viable and indicative of a company’s artistic health.

Unlike many bel canto scores that are now occasionally revived, Sonnambula never completely disappeared from the world’s collective repertory.  In the decades following its premiere at Milan’s Teatro Carcano on 6 March 1831, when the roles of Amina and Elvino were created by Giuditta Pasta and Giovanni Battista Rubini, the opera was championed by many of the greatest coloratura sopranos, not least Sweden’s Nightingale Jenny Lind (pictured above, as Amina) and the celebrated Adelina Patti.  As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, Sonnambula maintained its presence in the repertory, enjoying performances by Lina Pagliughi and Lily Pons.  At the middle of the twentieth century, Amina encountered her most notable interpreter since the rarefied days of Pasta and Malibran: Maria Callas.  Bringing to the role musical precision and intense dramatic insight, Callas transformed Amina (as she did Lucia) from a docile canary into a woman of genuine, heartfelt passions.  Dame Joan Sutherland answered this interpretive brilliance with vocal virtuosity of an order that, frankly, was probably unknown even to Pasta.  The decades since the glory days of Callas and Sutherland have been entertained by a string of Aminas who, inspired by (or simply seeking to duplicate) their celebrated forbears, sought to pursue a course that unified dramatic credibility with vocal exuberance, singers such as Anna Moffo, Renata Scotto, Edita Gruberová, June Anderson, Mariella Devia, and most recently Natalie Dessay.

The very term bel canto explains to a large extent its appeal to audiences of all eras.  The essence of opera since its founding, however much scholars and critics want to dissuade the ‘enlightened’ listener from realizing it (because, it seems, modern audiences are meant to respond to music on a level much deeper than that inhabited by shallow melodies), has been beautiful singing.  As both orchestras and opera houses grew larger throughout the nineteenth century, voices also expanded to fill the vast spaces of the music composed for them and the cavernous halls into which they were meant to project it.  Wagner surely understood and valued bel canto as well as any Italian composer (and filled even his most Teutonic scores with exquisite passages of genuine bel canto: listen to the performance of the great Quintet from the 1962 RAI Torino broadcast of Meistersinger, sung in Italian by Giuseppe Taddei, Luigi Infantino, Bruna Rizzoli, Carlo Franzini, and Fernanda Cadoni; this ideal Don Pasquale cast proves that Wagner was at least as adept at bel canto ensemble-writing as Donizetti or Bellini), but the dimensions of his orchestrations led to an emphasis on volume (rather than projection) that, by the middle of the twentieth century, left most singers shouting, even in less muscular music.  To audiences accustomed to the bellowing of misguided Wagnerians and the extroverted manner of singing popularized by the Italian verismo, bel canto remains the essence of ‘old-school’ vocalism, the sort of honeyed singing to which everyone’s Grandparents listened on their Edison phonographs on Sunday afternoons.

In a detailed examination of the relationship between Wagner and bel canto the legacy of Callas looms large.  Her mastery of bel canto repertory is perhaps better remembered than her performances as Brünnhilde (in Die Walküre), Isolde, and Kundry.  She sang all of these roles (as well as her bel canto, Verdi, and verismo parts) with a plethora of vocal colorations and inflections, but with her one voice.  It would be absurd to suggest that Amina’s sleepwalking scene is as dramatically significant and emotionally effective as Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, Brünnhilde’s Todesverkündigung, or Isolde’s Liebestod, but Callas understood Bellini’s musical characterization of Amina and made it riveting on its own terms.  Whether one responds positively, negatively, or not at all to Callas’ vocalism, it cannot be denied that Callas rendered a great service to music by revealing, more than any other artist of her generation, that bel canto is meaningful, moving music when approached with careful attention to its natural boundaries.  Callas rescued Sonnambula from a half-century of elephantine chirping and demanded that the musical world evaluate Amina on her own merits; no Sieglinde or Marschallin, but much more than a smart rustic costume and a recital of vocal acrobatics.

More than three decades after Callas’ death, her Amina is still the standard to which others are compared.  Even in the context of the recent Zimmerman production at the MET, Natalie Dessay’s performance was critiqued by many parties on the basis of its likenesses to and departures from the Callas Standard.  Debilitating as it may seem to Aminas of younger generations, it is also an encouragingly healthy indication of the extent to which Callas built public affection for (and knowledge of) Bellini’s score.  Contemporary audiences, informed by the Callas Standard, naturally expect the trills and interpolations above top C, but they also know that Sonnambula can and should touch them.  Amina should and must inspire affection: the ingredients are sorted in Bellini’s music, and the successful Amina needs only to mix them and present the finished confection to her audience.

On records, Sonnambula is as dominated by Callas as it was in twentieth-century theatrical productions.  With several ‘live’ recordings (including a La Scala performance conducted by Leonard Bernstein and a legendary performance from the Edinburgh Festival, recently released by Testament using tapes from the personal collection of Walter Legge) in circulation, central interest nonetheless remains on the studio recording for EMI, conducted – rather prosaically, on the whole – by Antonino Votto, with whom Callas frequently collaborated.  It is easy to express regret that the studio recording could not have been conducted by Tullio Serafin, with whom Callas achieved perhaps her greatest bel canto triumphs (and who coached Callas early on, not only in bel canto but also in  her Wagner roles), but recollections of Serafin’s recorded work in scores of themes and proportions similar to Sonnambula (his Philips Linda di Chamounix with Antonietta Stella, for instance, or the EMI L’Elisir d’Amore with Rosanna Carteri and Luigi Alva) suggest thatMaria Callas as Amina at the Edinburgh Festival, 1957 Serafin’s genius was not consistently engaged in pastoral scores.  What matters most in the EMI studio recording is Callas, however, and she is wonderful.  Recorded in 1957, the performance finds Callas on stirringly steady form, the upper register generally firm and free from the wobbling that dismays many listeners.  Vocally, Callas has the role in the palms of her hands: every technical challenge is not only met with almost casual ease but mined for gems of emotional significance.  Here as elsewhere in her bel canto performances, Callas’ chromatic scales are things of wonder, articulated with precision that is astonishing.  Callas also ventures slightly more interpolated ornamentation than she typically employed in her bel canto performances, particularly decorating cabalette with subtle but beautifully effective deviations from the printed vocal lines.  Perhaps most significantly, Callas portrays an Amina for whom pathos is inherent rather than implicit.  One does not pity Callas’ Amina because her situations are pathetic but because one senses that the woman herself is aware of her own plight.  Unlike the wilting responses of other sopranos, Callas’ Amina reacts to Elvino’s denunciation with disbelief and even carefully-judged flashes of suppressed anger, legitimate (and dramatically engaging) feelings derived organically from the score.  Callas feels as much as she sings Amina, and after more than a half-century this remains revelatory.

Five years before EMI recorded Callas in Sonnambula, the opera had (as with many of its brethren in the Italian mainstream repertory) as its introduction to records a performance by Radio Audizioni Italiane (RAI), recorded for posterity by CETRA.  Though occasionally compromised by muffled acoustics, the CETRA recording preserves three wonderful performances.  Amina is sung by Brooklyn-born soprano Lina Pagliughi, who impresses and moves with the charming girlishness of her performance despite being already in her mid-forties at the time of the recording (Callas, by contrast, was in her thirty-fourth year at the time of her EMI studio recording but sounds considerably more mature than Pagliughi).  Pagliughi lacks the pinpoint precision in coloratura brought to Amina by Callas but scores innumerable points with the poised beauty of her singing and the fullness of her tone in the lower register.  Her Elvino is Ferruccio Tagliavini, the honeyed sound of whose tenor suggests the rustic but poetic young landowner to the life.  Despite instances of the overemphatic delivery that sometimes detract from Tagliavini’s work, his singing is delightful throughout, the high tessitura (softened slightly by downward transpositions, as are employed to various degrees in every recording discussed here) posing few difficulties.  Perhaps the most rewarding performance on the CETRA recording is the Rodolfo of Cesare Siepi, only a few years into his international career.  Even when he is a bit distant dramatically, the exquisite beauty, security, and shapeliness of Siepi’s singing win the day.  CETRA gave Sonnambula a fine welcome to records with a performance that continues to give great pleasure.

Dame Joan Sutherland, an astounding vocal artist whose subdued performing temperament was perhaps better-suited to Amina than to many other of her bel canto heroines (which were unfailingly brilliantly-sung), recorded Sonnambula twice, on both occasions for DECCA.  The earlier recording, in which Sutherland was partnered by Nicola Monti’s Elvino and Fernando Corena’s slightly-too-buffo Rodolfo, captured Sutherland in her early prime, the complex coloratura rendered even more astonishing by adventurous embellishment and the top notes bursting like brightly-hued fireworks, challenging DECCA’s engineers.  Much has been written about Sutherland’s poor diction, but it neither seems as bothersome on recordings as perhaps it was in opera houses nor in any way Dame Joan Sutherland as Amina at the Metropolitan Opera, March 1963 lessens the impact of the voice.  In both of her recordings of the opera, Sutherland’s Amina is more resigned than exuberant, but Sonnambula withstands this approach.  The later recording found Sutherland on typical late-career form, the diction more pointed and the tone loosened but the technique gloriously unimpaired by the passage of time.  The later performance unites Sutherland with Nicolai Ghiaurov’s Rodolfo, a disappointing creation that threatens to undermine the opera as a whole, and the Elvino of Luciano Pavarotti.  Pavarotti brings suavity, commitment, and bright tone to Elvino, but even he must employ transpositions in order to manage the role.  Pavarotti sings well and was only marginally off his best form, but the implicit promise of a considerable gain in distinction over the earlier performance with Monti is only partially realized: Pavarotti’s is surely the more golden voice, but Monti shows greater acquaintance with the style required for singing Bellini’s music.  Neither recording is as vivid as various pirated recordings of Sutherland singing Amina in staged performances, but either recording – particularly the earlier – serves nicely as a souvenir of a phenomenal singer in a congenial role that figured prominently in her career.

After the release of Sutherland’s second DECCA recording there followed a few recordings of La Sonnambula that mixed adequate and inadequate elements.  The ARTS label recorded a performance with Austrian would-be coloratura prima donna Eva Lind, William Matteuzzi, and Petteri Salomaa: what can be said of the performance when Salomaa’s Rodolfo is the only vocal contribution of note?  OPUS recorded a performance using the forces of Radio Bratislava that preserves credible singing from the Elvino, tenor Jozef Kundlák, and Rodolfo, bass Peter Mikuláš.  Soprano Jana Valášková’s Amina is problematic: the voice, generally attractive, is placed under too much pressure to be enjoyable, and bel canto style is mostly missing.  The recording is damaged most significantly by the insensitive conducting of Ondrej Lenárd, who rigidly keeps time as though he were leading a military band.  Nightingale, dedicated to preserving the work of Edita Gruberová in her roles ignored by the large record labels, recorded her Amina with the Elvino of Catalan tenor José Bros and the Rodolfo of Italian bass Roberto Scandiuzzi.  Gruberová’s singing, though she is a consummate mistress of the requisite bel canto technique, is pallid and lovely in virtually equal measures, and she does not bring any great originality to her role.  Bros is capable but sorely tested by the high tessitura, many of his highest notes taking on a pinched quality.  Scandiuzzi is likewise competent, singing better than on many of his recordings, but dramatically blank.

A far more persuasive effort was offered by NAXOS, a recording of a concert performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw with bel canto specialist Alberto Zedda conducting Luba Orgonasova, Raúl Giménez, and Francesco Ellero d’Artegna.  An understated (and, it might be argued, underrated) diva, Orgonasova offers an uncommonly graceful Amina.  Though she lacks the dramatic fire of Callas and the supreme vocal endowment of Sutherland, Orgonasova sings with refreshing purity and ease, bringing genuine pathos to Amina’s music without seeming coy or artificial.  Giménez, admired for his performances of Rossini roles, matches Orgonasova’s eloquence, singing Elvino’s [transposed, as noted before] music with great involvement and tone that remains attractive even when under stress.  Rodolfo as sung by d’Artegna seems slightly more aloof (which is not necessarily to say dull) than in other performances, but d’Artegna possesses a genuine basso voice and sings with dignity.  Despite its budget-label auspices, this is a very fine Sonnambula that comfortably withstands comparisons with rival versions featuring starrier names.

A quartet of fine Aminas not commercially recorded also merit mention.  Recorded by RAI as the soundtrack for an Italian television broadcast, Anna Moffo proves a slightly pedestrian Amina who nonetheless sings the music very well, rightly being the central interest in a performance that also features the Rodolfo of the fantastic but woefully underappreciated Italian bass Plinio Clabassi.  Italian bel canto powerhouse Mariella Devia is also a remarkably fluent Amina in a Como production recorded by Nuova Era.  Neither her Elvino nor Rodolfo – Luca Canonici and Alessandro Verducci, respectively – commands the vocal or dramatic fluidity displayed by Devia, but the performance hangs together quite well.  Available on compact disc from private collectors, a Brussels concert performance offered the soprano of recent years perhaps most naturally gifted for Amina, Sumi Jo.  The performance does not find Jo at her absolute best, with shrillness occasionally affecting the topmost notes, but she sings with barnstorming virtuosity and a bracing sense of the joy inherent in the role.  Partnered by a generally pleasing Elvino from Antonino Siragusa and a bumbling Rodolfo from Michele Pertusi, Jo offers a sweet but spirited Amina who dominates a thoroughly enjoyable Sonnambula.  Singing the role with Eve Queler and her Opera Orchestra of New York (as Renée Fleming did just before her ascent to stardom), Cuban-born soprano Eglise Gutiérrez brought an Amina of tremendous vocal acumen to Carnegie Hall, where she was supported by Dmitry Korchak’s ringing Elvino and Ferruccio Furlanetto’s humorous but genteel Rodolfo.  Given time to hone her skills and develop what her Carnegie Hall performance reveals to be an already attentive approach to the role, Gutiérrez may prove to be another of the memorable Aminas.

Both of the stars of the MET’s Mary Zimmerman production have recorded La Sonnambula, Natalie Dessay having been first to the task with a Virgin recording compiled from rehearsals, concert performances, and patch-up sessions.  Much-discussed in the wake of her performances in the Zimmerman production (which received vociferous disapproval from the first-night MET audience), Dessay brings to the Virgin recording a voice on good form, generally fresh-sounding, and supported by a technique accustomed to dealing with music even harder and higher.  Her MET performances revealed that Dessay’s concept of Amina has deepened somewhat since the Lyon sessions recorded by Virgin, but the earlier performance is commendable for the dash and freedom of the singing.  Dessay has often spoken of being ‘inspired’ by Callas, and there are elements of light and shade evident in Callas’ performances of Amina that Dessay brings to her own work.  It has often been suggested that nationalistic styles of singing are largely extinct, but Dessay is in many ways a classically French soprano, exhibiting great attention to textual nuances and a slight edge to the top voice.  Especially this latter quality can be troublesome in Italian bel canto, in which purity of line demands evenness throughout all vocal registers, but Dessay largely avoids the pitfalls of bringing a voice with a drop of vinegar to music that exudes wine.  Dessay has a capable Rodolfo in Carlo Colombara, but her Elvino is hugely disappointing.  Though the liner notes accompanying the recording claim that Elvino’s music is restored to Bellini’s original keys, eliminating adaptations and transpositions, Francesco Meli in fact sings virtually the same lowered lines that other recorded Elvinos have sung.  Unfortunately for listeners and even more so for Dessay, he only just manages the role, sounding strained and dry of voice throughout.  In duets and ensembles, particularly those in which Elvino and Amina sing answering phrases (as in the duet that follows ‘Prendi, l’anel ti dono’), Dessay’s command of the music makes Meli’s efforts sound all the more amateurish.  This is a great pity, for combining Dessay with an Elvino worthy of partnering her could have produced one of the best Sonnambula recordings.

The MET achieved a triumph by doing just that, pairing Dessay’s Amina with the Elvino of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, a bel canto specialist who goes from strength to strength.  Flórez, too, has recorded his Sonnambula role, but in an unusual and argument-provoking context.  Following concert performances in Switzerland, Flórez was recorded by DECCA’s ‘early music’ branch L’Oiseau Lyre in a performance played on period instruments and conducted by Alessandro de Marchi, whose principal experience in opera has been with Baroque scores.  The performance also makes use of an edition of the score prepared for the celebrated Spanish mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran, whose tessitura was of course lower than that of Pasta, the first Amina.  What astonishes most on first hearing the recording is the extent to which transpositions were not required in order to tailor Sonnambula for Malibran’s lower center of vocal gravity, with many passages remaining as written in the standard, Pasta version of the score.  For the most part, however, Elvino’s music is subject to the same transpositions imposed elsewhere.  As in his MET performances, Flórez sings superbly, the size and color of his voice ideal for Elvino’s music.  He possesses, moreover, the finest florid technique of any tenor who has recorded Elvino.  Passages that were tonally beautiful but messy for Tagliavini have both beauty and accuracy in Flórez’ performance, and his voice is both more even throughout Elvino’s tessitura and more pliable than Pavarotti’s.  Vocalism takes priority over drama, but Flórez is one of those rare singers whose timbre inherently suggests passion and poetry.  Ildebrando d’Arcangelo brings a fine, handsome voice to Rodolfo, more baritone than bass: everything is in place, even if the lowest notes of the role are faked.  There is much to enjoy in de Marchi’s conducting, and the period instruments are often amusing in a positive sense (with the exception of some annoyingly overused wind chimes: this particular Swiss village seems somehow touched by the mistral).  The point upon which discussion centers in this performance is the assumption of Amina by mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.  Though recently dedicated to her project of exploring music composed for and made famous by Maria Malibran, Bartoli has also increasingly explored traditional soprano roles (including Händel’s Almirena, recorded for DECCA, and Semele).  Bartoli of course has an impressive bravura technique, but her rapid-fire articulation of divisions in Rossini arias does not employ the same method of singing required for Amina’s coloratura.  Bartoli is not entirely successful in making the requisite transition, aspirating passages that demand perfect legato, but she nonetheless contributes an effective, touching performance that is never less than idiomatic.  Dramatically, there is a measure of applying vocal effects (whispers, little explosions of color and volume, and the like) when simple good singing would suffice.  In her duets with Flórez, however, Bartoli lets both her voice and the music do their work without impediments, and the results are ravishing, the voices combining more effectively than in any other recorded performance.  It is difficult to compare Bartoli’s Amina with Callas’ or Sutherland’s, but it would also be difficult to deny that this is an extremely fine Sonnambula.

More than any particular singer’s whims, it is the disarming beauty of Bellini’s melodies that keeps Sonnambula in the hearts of audiences and record-buyers.  Sonnambula is not an opera like Le Nozze di Figaro or La Bohème that can survive bad singing, but it is also more fortunate than most Italian scores in that it has received no commercial recording that is a complete failure.  Callas’ Amina remains a moving experience and a fitting memorial to Bellini’s art.  No single recording fulfills all of the score’s demands, but how fortunate Sonnambula is to have enjoyed so many honorable efforts.

 Natalie Dessay as Amina and Juan Diego Flórez as Elvino in the Metropolitan Opera production by Mary Zimmerman, March 2009