A Careful “Trittico” raises questions and invokes us to look at the past for answers

Stefanie Blythe as the Zia Principessa and Patricia Racette as Suor Angelica

New York Times Review of Il Trittico

I’ve included the Times’ review of the Met’s current production of Puccini’s Il Trittico to offer an opposing opinion to my own, which in this case is based on the historical area of Puccinian Aesthetics and 19th Century Italian Opera.  Although I did not have a chance to see the production live while I was last in New York, I listened to it on XM radio and so I am going to be generous in terms of comments on voices; mind you, the stylistic manner of singing is evident whether one hears opera in the theatre or live on the radio.

Having spent the majority of my education studying Puccini’s operas historically and musically, I often miss the feeling of hearing something for the first time, that virgin listening that excites us because our ear is being introduced to something new.  So, when I listen to opera I try to listen without putting my historical understanding in the forefront.  I wait to be moved first and then later reflect on historical understanding.  While I think the Met is trying to do the right thing, (I, for one, will never complain when any company wants to mount my precious Puccini’s operas) there were several things that affected the overall production being a great one.

In terms of the singing, Stefanie Blythe was my favourite singer in the production and was well-suited to her roles.  She sang with good diction and inflection, even if she tended to over sing (which is not necessary because her voice doesn’t need to be bigger in order to sing these roles).  Today, for some reason, we think that to sing Puccini one needs to have a huge voice.  This is absolutely not the case, and Puccini himself never as much once indicated this.  Instead, he looked for singers who would sing “aesthetically” well, which meant that he wanted singers who had the right understanding about how to sing his music; that is, the voice has to move from note to note by passing through all of the pitches in between.  So, how do you do that?  Essentially, it means that this music is sung with a Bel Canto technique (not with straight tone), and that the voice spins through the intervals (the spaces between notes) through portamenti, which no one seems to want to do anymore.  I’ll come back to this point momentarily

Patricia Racette, while she is courageous to approach all three roles, is suited more to Lauretta than she is to Suor Angelica and Giorgetta.  Unfortunately, she did not approach the Puccinian palate according to his requirements.  This was most obvious in the role of Angelica, which she over dramatized due to a lack of aesthetic inflection.  One thinks of Tebaldi, or Scotto in this role, singers who still remained true to the Puccinian language even up to 20 years ago.  Racette’s singing of “Senza Mamma” was lacking in the freedom that Puccini’s dramatic monologues require.  For this, I blame the conductor, who was making his Met premiere in this production.  As much as he was able to get some very beautiful colours and textures from the Met’s wonderful orchestra, Maestro Stefano Ranzani was much too careful in his phrasing and in leading the orchestra through the variety of tinte that Puccini effects in Il Trittico.

Trittico is special because it is the first opera after a break in composition after 1908 that returned to his original notion of love and death (Minnie in Fanciulla del West is one of the only heroines who does not die for love).  Puccini wrote the Trittico to correlate with that exquisite dramatic work that remains the official model for things in three:  Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia. In that, each opera is to represent one of the metaphysical worlds:  Hell (Il Tabarro), Purgatory (Suor Angelica), Heaven (Gianni Schicchi).  It is also one of the reasons why Puccini was adamant that the operas not be performed separately, just as Dante did not want the parts of his allegory separated.  They do not make sense until they are combined as one.    As such, the orchestral palate in Il Trittico must change with each, a change I did not hear in this production.  The tinte that Puccini infuses into the music are inherent to the dramatic concept of the scena; in Suor Angelica, for example, the expansion of phrases and the rubato that is necessary in order to effect the text that is often declaimed.  It is the orchestra in Trittico that speaks the truth and creates the atmosphere, but in this production the strict timing and measured phrases actually stunted the overall projection of each scene.  The palate itself, unfortunately, did not sound Puccinian.

It is, however, wonderful that the Met has staged this production which originally premiered at the Met in 1918.  I ask why, when we listen to recordings of this opera in the past, or even available videos, that the singing and orchestral style are completely different from what we are hearing, as of late?  While some might call that “old-fashioned” style, I ask who labeled it as such?  Puccini died in 1924, not that long ago, and it is interesting that his aesthetic style is getting further and further away from what it was originally as we get further and further away from when he died.  Perhaps we need to take time to reflect on this and ask whether this is acceptable, especially when we do so much to retain historical performance practice in so many other genres, Bach, Baroque Music/Opera, performing on period instruments, etc… Why should performing Puccini’s works be any different?  The solution is simple, perhaps we need to look at the past for answers and remain true to what the composer wanted, otherwise, can we accurately call these productions accurate representations?

Food for thought….

Precious Giacomo….what would you have to say?

Some thoughts on today’s mish-mash and Anja Silja’s commentary about Karita Mattila

The press photo for Mattila's Tosca.  Glamour abounds.

The press photo for Mattila's Tosca. Glamour abounds.

While I have my own doubts about Mattila singing perhaps the most veristic of Puccini’s heroines, it is not because I don’t think she can sing it but rather because I recall artists of the past who didn’t belong to the current mish-mash of having to sing everything  Just because one’s voice is capable of singing Tosca, doesn’t mean that any voice is well-suited to singing Italianante repertoire.  Last season, Mattila’s performance in Manon Lescaut was successful albeit fragmented.  I felt that the first two acts were not performed at all well, and I don’t blame Mattila as much as those who cast her in this role. Part of the issue was that the meat of Mattila’s voice lies higher than what is available to her in those first two acts.  Therefore, there were pronounced difficulties. But then, who would recognize them other than those of us who have spent most of our lives learning about aesthetics.  In the last two acts, however, Mattila’s voice shone more brilliantly even if her voice is not one that I think is well suited to Italian repertoire.

In the past, singers like Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Renata Tebaldi, Enrico Caruso, Claudio Muzio, and even more recent singers like the late Hildegard Behrens, and Luciano Pavarotti tended to specialize in a specific area of the repertory because it was more conducive to singing and to the art from altogether.  Perhaps it was with Callas, whom I have always adored, with her penchant for glamour and public image, that the current state of opera was induced.  It is not a secret that she delved into repertoire that was beyond her realm.  And for what?  For fame and glamour or to simply be indispensable.  To me she was indispensable anyway.  Why am I bringing this up?  Young singers today are being forced into constraints because they are expected to sing every type of repertoire.  “If one is a good singer, they should be able to sing anything.”  While this is true about technical ability, it’s not really a great way to forge a career.  I think this is one of the major problems with opera today.  One example on which we might reflect is when Madame Hildegard Behrens sang Tosca years ago, but well understood that her voice wasn’t really suited to the role.  She sang it well, but aesthetically her voice wasn’t appropriate for this aesthetic platform.  An art form is only an art-form by way of its aesthetic components.

The late Hildegard Behrens

The late Hildegard Behrens

In a recent publication of Opera News, the great Anja Silja, who is one of the remaining singers to stick to her voice’s actual innate qualities, comments on Mattila and offers a few interesting points about opera in North America. “Anja Silja, who last performed at the Met as Kostelnička to Mattila’s Jenůfa in 2007, has some insight into Mattila’s essence. “She is not a showgirl, which I hate in opera,” Silja says. “She is still kind of a diva-like thing, but this is a little touch of America. I think this is maybe necessary for those houses. It’s a little glamorous, and one has to have a beautiful picture, and these kinds of things, and interviews and things like that. That’s more of what the Americans like. It has nothing to do with her personality onstage.” It’s hard to argue with the idea that stateside audiences have been trained to consume their celebrities and performing artists on sheer glam factor. But in truth, Mattila adores her subscription to Martha Stewart Living and wasn’t interested in wearing designer labels for her photo shoot.” (Oussama Zahr, “Opera News”, September 2009, 74/3).

Even if Mattila doesn’t really fit into the glamour world of North American opera, Silja’s comments should make us take note.  What ever happened to art for art’s sake?

Anja Silja

Anja Silja

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 4:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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La Commedia è Finita

Ridi Pagliaccio!

Happy Face

As Canio hurls out the last notes of his “Vesti la giubba” he effects one of the most poignant and vividly human moments in all of opera. Similarly, Tosca’s “Muore! Muore,” meant to invoke Scarpia’s imminent death, stretches the dramatic platform to unparalleled heights.  These are seminal moments of realism, of veritas, of existential fate, realized in aesthetic perfection .  But what happens when these moments fail to affect us as they once did?  This couldn’t be possible now…could it?

And then, there is the singing.  What of the singing?  What of the real meaning behind Bel Canto (yes, it is actually a technique) and the use of legato….do we even know what legato is?  Is it simply singing nicely from note to note, or is there something more to it.  And, by the way, who developed this technique?  Why the heck should we follow it?  It’s so “old-school,” right?  Well, since the 1970s the art-philosophical movement that called itself “modernism” and later evolved into “post-modernism” seems to have thrust itself against Old-Man Opera and toppled him over.  He’s still there, but a little roughed up.  And what’s more, the representation of language, the foremost part of the operatic vehicle, got knocked over with him. Well, ok, let’s be rash here.  Essentially, opera is an anachronistic art form, right?  That means it’s something from the past that is being brought into the present, so should we bring it into the 21st century as it was or should we shake things up?   Should we give in to the so-called, “new school” and abandon traditional values and everything that defines the art-form simply because we can?

In the mid-1860s a group of artists in Italy joined forces to evoke a change in their artistic climate.  Perhaps we should do the same because opera today has become “una vera commedia,” a real comedy.  Monteverdi wrote “Prima le parole e dopo la musica” (First come the words, then comes music) but what happens when both the words and the music lose face because singers have begun to sing in whatever way they want, because conductors are not getting paid enough to inspire the musicians in the orchestra to create a palate of unending colour, because it seems more important to have a waif like figure and a beautiful face at the behest of a voice that rips our souls out, makes us lustful and passionate, invokes our tears, and yet remains true to the aesthetic that opera demands.

Today the overall understanding of the operatic art has shifted from its original intention into a FARCE!!!!!  And, I will not apologize for my candor. LA COMMEDIA DEVE FINIRE!!!  Who said it was alright to abandon the need for aesthetic singing, that style that singers of old worked so diligently to effect, and simply focus on how pretty we are or how great we look on stage.  It doesn’t matter if we appear like a gaggle of movie stars with half-cocked voices. A singing teacher once said to me, “Well, at least if you sound like a cow you won’t look like one.”   NO MORE; at least, not here.  I scream in defense of the art we hold dear.  I raise my hand defiantly in the face of the so-called “new school.”  And who died and created this new school anyway!?

Opera is a combinatory art, an art that is absolutely anachronistic, but bringing something of the past into the present does not mean that it’s an open invitation to outwardly ignore aesthetic practices.  This blog is a place for those who believe as such to gather and defend the art as it was intended to be, and by that I don’t mean we don’t like “modern” productions or interpretations.  I’m talking about the nitty-gritty, down and dirty components that make opera, opera.

This is not to say that everything today sucks.  Obviously it doesn’t, and the fact that we are still presenting opera after five centuries is a coup in and of itself.  There are many artists who retain their devotion to the art, who make it their business to learn, who wish to bring the art as it was intended to be presented, and who remain devoted to artistic truths.  Since opera is now being brought to a larger audience via HD broadcast, perhaps we need to look at what we’re doing and ask ourselves if this art belongs on the big screen, the same big screen that shows us films like “Brüno”, or if it should remain as it was intended: a live art without amplification, larger than life and presented by individuals like you and me, but with bestowed gifts from the stratosphere?  I’m not at all against reaching out to larger audiences but the content in the performances is up for discussion in my opinion.

In this blog, I’ll present historical materials, articles, and videos/music clips that might remind us, singers, students, historians, fans, and afficionados, what opera was and what it fails to be.  I encourage you to comment as you wish, toopen your minds, hearts, and ears to what those composers to whom we pay the greatest debt wrote:  Monteverdi, Gluck, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Meyerbeer, Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, and let’s not forget the usually forgotten Boito, to whom I have a special connection.

Raise our voices in unison, in harmony, or in thunderous raucous defiance and stand up for the art that has fallen into the hands of those who have no right to call poignant operas like “La Sonnambula” a “silly little tale,” or others who profess that “Verismo means truth.”  It does not.

Reality does not require truth in order to be reality, but opera….OPERA REQUIRES TRUTH.

Callas as Tosca

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 3:06 am  Leave a Comment  
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