An Italian Operatic Journey: Il Tabarro, Puccini, La Tebaldi, and Zeffirelli

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A story of infidelity and deception, murder, and infinite purgatory, a man whose music transcends, and a woman who was born to sing with Golden beams of sound that cause frenzied audiences: the combination of a lifetime and the reason behind one of the most rewarding trips to Italy I have ever taken and may ever take. I’ve thought for awhile about writing this blog entry and how or if I was going to publish one at all because of the deeply personal value of this trip for me, however the experiences and personas that I encountered, the understanding of the current artistic situation in Italy, and the state of opera in general have to be shared in order for it to gain true value.

Several months ago, when Aprile Millo was contracted to sing Giorgetta in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro”, I became overly excited because I have spent so much time with the great Maestro’s music.  I was tickled by the fact that her ever beautiful, but now much more lush and buoyant sound, filled with “corpo” and a cut that few singers have in this day and age, would be mingled with the harmonies in Tabarro that had haunted me the first time I heard it.  I was really interested to see how an artist of her ilk, seeking perfection and being very selective about the heroines she chooses to portray, was going to wrap her mind around a woman who is definitely one of the least honourable of Puccini’s women.  It is truly a lesson as an artist to observe someone great go through a journey of this type and boy what an honour it was for me to see this unfold.

IMG_3656 Via XX Settembre, Genoa

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View from the upstairs of the Teatro Carlo Felice

IMG_3688The beautiful Teatro Carlo Felice

Arriving in Genoa, the diva didn’t have much time to assimilate and acclimatize from the cold temperatures of New York to the more springlike temperatures of Genoa, nor the fact that we were in the north of Italy.  Nothing fazed her and off  she went to rehearsal the day after arriving.  I did not attend the first rehearsal but was busy exploring the area around the Via XX Settembre, which was of course filled with everything I adore:  bookstores, cafés, pen and stationary stores, and yes…shoe stores but we won’t talk about that…that’s another blog entry all on it’s own!

IMG_3675 Dress Rehearsal for “Il Tabarro”

The following day, I did attend the dress rehearsal in the Teatro Carlo Felice and was very interested in the construction of the theatre, especially the exposed stone walls that surround the stage.  I immediately fell in love with this orchestra.  Ma che bravissimi!!!  And, Maestro Donato Renzetti was truly a caring, diligent, and supportive conductor who allowed the singers and musicians to express while keeping the constraints of the music.  I cannot stand when Puccini is conducted like Mozart.  The music is very expansive with flex and fold and I usually become agitated when the passionate fervour of his orchestral palate is destroyed by a conductor who does not understand the important balance Puccini required  that in each of his operas is different.  Maestro Renzetti made sure to allow for expansiveness and flexibility which allowed the singers to express freely.

Donato Renzetti

Maestro Donato Renzetti

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The cast list

It was at this rehearsal that I became entranced with what Aprile was doing with Giorgetta.  I had always listened to la Tebaldi sing it and enjoyed it very much, but in this Aprile brought her own personal interpretation which was different and one that I have to say I enjoyed even more than Tebaldi’s.  Every word was expressed to the point that even the softest piani were heard in the back of the theatre.  Her sense of “parlato” was impeccable and the diction clear as a bell.  She was able to expand the character both expressively and vocally with a huge range of colour and volume.  Personally, I had never really liked Giorgetta as a character, and we’re not really supposed to the way Puccini presents her, but what I found was that I actually liked Millo’s Giorgetta.  I felt for her…I understood why she was acting the way she was.  The opera suddenly became more valuable to me within the repertoire.  I was also deeply moved by the rich chocolate baritone of Carlos Almaguer and the mezzo of Renata Lamanda who expressed their roles with elegance and personality.

The performance was gaining a lot of buzz around Italy and I was very happy to find this in the newspaper the day of the show:

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A full 3 page article discussing Puccini’s heroines in the Genovese newspaper and yes THAT is how it’s done in Italy people.  Opera gets headline news!!!  Viva L’Italia!!!  The theatre was buzzing that night and important persons were present, especially of note Signora Simonetta Puccini, the granddaughter of Giacomo Puccini himself.  She personally asked to meet Aprile before the performance and the two who are both soldiers for opera and the preservation of its authenticity became fast friends.  However, it must be noted that after the performance, Signora Puccini in my presence told Millo that her performance of “Tabarro” was the best she had ever heard.  She wished to include her photo at Torre del Lago of the great interpreters of his roles.  I already knew something historic was happening that night and Signora Puccini also realized what was being presented.  This would not be the final meeting with Signora Puccini…

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Aprile Millo and Signora Simonetta Puccini

The performance was electric.  A very lovely Suor Angelica was presented prior to, sung by the renowned Italian soprano Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi, who sang with beautiful tone and attention to every detail.  Also, of note was the singing of mezzo-soprano Annunziata Vestri who sang the role of La Badessa.  When Tabarro began, immediately the harmonies sweep you away into something you’re not sure you want to be in but you can’t help yourself.  Millo and her colleagues dove right in from the first utterances of “O Michele Michele.” which caused a hush in the theatre.  I was even more impressed by the expansiveness Millo showed that evening with the softest piano and two hairsplitting high C’s that are so full and yet penetrating that you’re not really sure what happened to you once they ring in the theatre walls.  The audience was in great appreciation with multiple curtain calls and a Signora Puccini who was applauding with great enthusiasm. Needless to say, honouring Puccini that evening was a great success for the Teatro Carlo Felice.

Review of Il Tabarro from the Bergamo Opera-click

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Lots of pictures and line ups of aficionados

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Maestro Valerio Galli, Aprile Millo, and Renato Bonajuto

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Renata Lamanda in praise of her colleague

Part II:  Villa Puccini

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Not only did Signora Puccini enjoy the performance, she invited Millo (and me in tow) to Puccini’s villa in Torre del Lago a couple of days later.  For me, this was the invitation of a lifetime.  I’ve spent 20 years studying the music of the great maestro and he is of course my “preferito” and so I could not believe that I was going to his home, where he had written so many of the operas I adore and those that I have fallen crazy in love with.  We arrived in Torre del Lago in what seemed to be a violent tempest of rain.  Blowing wind, water that seemed to be jumping up over the edge of Torre del Lago like some kind of wild animal, and very poor visibility because of the buckets of rain that fell.  As soon as we drove into the little town, the energy became electric for me.  Every street has the title of an opera and it is a long road that leads to one place only…the place Puccini loved, that he spent his most beloved hours in life.

IMG_3743Puccini’s statue in the distance looking at the wild water of the Lake.

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Exterior facade of the Villa Puccini

Upon arriving at the villa, my heart was pounding so hard I could hardly hear anything else.  After so much time adoring this man I never even met and probably spending more time studying him and his music than I have with even my own family, I realized that I was on sacred operatic ground.  Not only was his villa intact with everything he owned, his furniture, photos, hunting materials, and his beloved piano on which he composed, he was also buried in the villa.  Needless to say my legs were shaking.  We were met by Signora Puccini, adorable in a red toque at the door after traversing the blowing wind and rain to get in.  Aprile and I were immediately overwhelmed by the idea of where we were standing.  The first room was filled with old letters, manuscripts, and photo signed by all of the great interpreters of Puccini, a beautiful statue of Enrico Caruso in La Fanciulla del West, and a glass case in which lay the white vest and cummerbund that Maestro wore.  I looked at it almost as if trying to figure out exactly how big a man he was.  Note:  none of these photos were taken by me personally.  They are taken from online sources.

Manuscript room

We continued through the house and entered into a room in which both of us were in tears.  Everything as he left it, preserved beautifully by his granddaughter.

Puccini villa 2

Upon seeing that piano, the presence of the Maestro was palpable.  I think Signora Puccini was not sure what to do because we were both so overwhelmed with emotion.  She graciously had the glass over the keys removed so we could touch the keys and Maestro Galli, who we were with, played “Tu che di gel sei cinta” on the piano.  Never will I forget the sweet but prominent tone of that piano on which my favourite composer in the world composed the operas that steal my heart.

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But more overwhelming was the move into the the room just behind the piano where the Maestro is buried right behind the piano he loved so much to play and on which the first melodies of Boheme rang against that wall.  It was not a place of sadness but of joy, of music, of someone trying to say, my music is important and I left it for you, please honour it.  We had brought a huge bouquet of red long stemmed roses which now was placed at the foot of his sepulchre.  Finally, I was able to put my hand where he rests and say “thank you” for the beauty and joy he brings to my life every day.  Even without knowing him, the room was filled with smiles, especially from Signora Puccini who by this point understood that Aprile and I were completely devoted to her grandfather.

We were so blessed to have spent time with her and I will never forget the wonderful things she spoke about, which I will not write here simply because of the nature of a private conversation, but I must document one important thing.  It became clearly evident how much the preservation and “authenticity” of her grandfather’s music was to her and to him.  Hearing her discuss her feelings on modernizing his productions made me furious with those who think it’s ok to simply ignore Puccini’s markings, instructions, and indications on the score.  It is NOT OK for directors to just rethink Puccini.  He did the thinking!!!  Modernizing is not the issue, it is when the composer’s wishes are bypassed in order to “rethink” his art.  I will forever stand in solidarity with Signora Puccini who made it clear that her grandfather would not have been too pleased.

In all, this was a day none of us will ever forget.

IMG_3747Simonetta Puccini and Myself

Part III:  The Home of Renata Tebaldi

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This angel continues to influence young singers every day.  I did not go on this trip and expect to be so close to her and yet so far. Another person I have admired and adored, who I never met, and yet now I feel like I have.  Aprile, who had a very beautiful friendship with La Tebaldi had not been to her home since her death and so this experience was different for her than it was for me.  It was one of realization and some sadness, but joy in being with those who devote their life to her still.  In Milano now, we were greeted at the door by the president of the Renata Tebaldi foundation, Giovanna Colombo, who is busy preparing for the opening of the Tebaldi Museum in Busseto in June.  I stood beneath a huge plaque that indicated this place as one of honour in Milano because she had lived there.  Again, shaking is an understatement.

Up the little elevator we went and down a hallway where we were greeted by Marisa and a little dog who ended up stealing my heart.  Bonnie (III) is the little dog of Tina Viganò who had spent more than half her life in service to “la signorina” (she never calls her by first name).  I could not believe I was meeting her.  I was immediately hit in in the face with a gorgeous life-size portrait of Tebaldi on the wall that was so radiant you would think it was going to speak to you.  Out came Tina, a sweet, gentle smiled woman with open arms so happy to see Aprile who Tebaldi had adored as a friend and an artist.  I  was so moved to meet her but I became mute as I usually do when something affects me deeply.  All of la Tebaldi’s things were in the apartment, untouched, almost as if she was still living there. Especially moving was the piano that was the centrepiece of the room, covered with photos of important people and of the angel herself.  When I was asked by Tina to play it, I felt like I couldn’t possibly touch this instrument but I sat at the bench and collected myself before touching the keys as respectfully as I could.  A beautiful sweet sound, one that I could imagine her voice mingling with.  What a gift.

Afterwards we spent a lovely dinner talking about “la signorina” with little Bonnie (III) keeping an eye on everything but mostly on her Tina who was so watchful of her.  So many things, so many memories, I felt honoured to hear them and I felt like somehow La Tebaldi would’ve been tickled to know that Aprile was with Tina.

My beautiful pictureAprile with Renata Tebaldi

DSC_0091Aprile holding Bonnie III, Tina, me, and Giovanna Colombo

To visit the Official Renata Tebaldi Page and learn more about the beautiful Museum set to open soon please click here:

Sito Ufficiale del Comitato Renata Tebaldi

Part III: Franco Zeffirelli

Rome:  one of the greatest directors of all time celebrating his birthday and of course Aprile Millo, one of the greatest Liu’s in history, was invited to celebrate with him.  Another unexpected meeting for me, but one I was honoured to experience.  His house was a thing of beauty.  Art, and music everywhere, photos of great actresses he had worked with and singers.  The vibrance and elegance of this man, and a huge personality abounds.  With one of his many little dogs firmly planted on his lap the entire evening, he smiled broadly, welcoming everyone who was beautifully dressed  and so happy to be there.  I kept thinking of how I felt when the curtain opens on the Imperial Scene in Turandot and how majestic it is and Act II of La Boheme.  SHAME ON ANYONE who is trying to replace his magnificent artistic and creative productions.  Viva Zeffirelli per sempre!!! Happy Birthday Maestro…I was so happy to meet you!!

Aprile and Franco

Zeffirelli and Aprile Millo

1938039_10152223612963497_1304165351_n The sweetest man and a great artist

Part IV:  Various and Sundry

Some photos for your pleasure

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The facade of the Vatican

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Teatro Carlo Felice (Genoa)

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The interior window of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (Milano)

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Interior of the Galleria (Milano)

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Exterior of the Galleria at night (Milano)

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Duomo Milano (at night)

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Il Colosseo (Roma)

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Piazza del Duomo (Milano)

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Il Duomo (Milano)

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La Scala and someone who loves her

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Beautiful and rainy Venezia

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Santa Maria della Salute (Venice)

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A room with a view

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If one could only wake up to this every day

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The bridge of Sighs (Venice)

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St. Mark’s (Venice)

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Interior of St. Mark’s (Venice)

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Gondolas on the water

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One of the beautiful bridges (Venice)

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Beauty

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Yay for female gondoliers!  I wonder if she sings?

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Santa Maria della Salute (Venice)

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I tried very hard to take this from the train.  The Alps were magnificent

Part IV:  Verdi’s Grave

It would not have been right for one of the greatest interpreters of Verdi in the world to go and pay respects to Puccini and not to her “preferito”, Giuseppe Verdi.  Straight from a long train ride from Venice to Milano, we took a cab to the Casa di Riposo Giuseppe Verdi.  Although this was a deeply personal moment for her, I feel the need to recount it for its beauty and honesty. I knew this was going to be an emotional moment for la Millo because she had not ever been to this spot (I had several years ago during a research trip to Milano and had a totally breakdown in front of that great man’s tomb).  We both became very muted and there was no one around, just the sound of her walking on the stone path that leads to his and Giuseppina Strepponi’s grave.  In the courtyard, one of the residents known to sing constantly, was singing Act II of La Bohème with such beautiful “nella maschera” singing that you could hear her from the street and she was probably 70-something years old.  I walked behind Aprile and gave her space to approach this man to whom she is so utterly connected.  In my mind I recalled her unparalleled “Ballo in Maschera” and “Aida” and all of the operas of his that she had left an inedible mark on. She stopped before entering the chapel in which the great man is buried and I watched her catch her breath although she was visibly shaking.  She entered there and immediately fell to her knees at the stone wall that separates the graves from the public.  The head bowed in complete prostration and the tears falling upon the stone….we stood in complete silence but I broke the solemnity to take this photo which I think speaks a thousand words and ought to be public for its beauty and for the devotion of this artist to this composer.  I know he would have smiled at you Aprile, for the honourable manner in which you continue to serve him not just on stage but every day of your life. Viva Verdi!!!

DSC_0519Aprile Millo at Verdi’s Grave

And so ended this time with little Tina Viganò, and Bonnie III coming in the early morning to hug Aprile and myself and say goodbye.  How beautiful it was that she came to wave and watch the car drive away, as Aprile had done the last time she saw Tebaldi leave.  We were both moved and I personally felt such a protectiveness toward Tina that I didn’t want to leave.  I cried outright at leaving this lady who in her devotion to Tebaldi became a solider of the arts herself.  This time that was filled with opera and singing, history, tears of joy, tears of gratitude, song, new friends, old friends, and the beauty of a country that remains in my heart every day.  How proud I am to be Italian and although I was born in Canada I owe so much to my great-grandparents Erminia and Ernesto for instilling in me the ways of life in Italy, traditions I keep to this day.  I promise that I will return to her much sooner than later and with a song in my heart willing to be expressed in honesty and devotion to these beautiful memories that I was absolutely blessed to have experienced.  Viva la patria!  Grazie Aprile and congratulations on a huge success. Stay tuned everyone for much more to come from her very soon!  I’ll keep you posted!

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Exclusive Interview with legendary Verdian Soprano, Aprile Millo on the 200th Anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi

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Verdian Soprano, Aprile Millo

Part I

The Last Verista:

Aprile, it is truly an honour and a thrill to talk to you about Giuseppe Verdi on this the 200th Anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth. You have been an inspiration and role model to young singers since your debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1984.  It must have been a thrill for you to sing Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra as your debut, but even earlier when you were 20, you won the prestigious premio of the Voce Verdiana in Busseto, Italy, Verdi’s home town.  It seems that from the first, your affinity has been with Maestro Verdi.  There are so many things I’d like to ask and so many things our readers, your fans, and young singers want to know.  The first thing I’d like to ask you is for your thoughts on the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth.  How do you feel about this composer and what does this 200th anniversary mean to you?

Aprile Millo:

If you were to crack open my soul his music would come pouring out. He has been a constant steady obbligato playing in the soundtrack of my life. I adore and revere him.

The Last Verista:

There have been some pretty dire situations occurring, as of late, like the closing of New York City Opera and rumours about closing Il Teatro alla Scala, which seems impossible to me.  What are you thoughts on the current period and how is this 200th Anniversary relevant to the present time?

It is especially poignant that this celebration of his birth occurs during a period of music history that is likely one of the most dire and unexpectedly nonchalant about the loss of many great institutions of music and impending threats of closure to many opera theaters, even the great temple of music that is La Scala. How amazing it is to have this opportunity, this invitation to recall excellence, to remember greatness; to embrace again a genius who I consider a man formed by his times but triumphant as he was not held hostage by them. His music does the same for us in our own times.  He had for me a very modern soul, which at times placed him at odds with the rigid cages society imposed upon themselves. The freedom of his flight in such a caught time amazes me. That we would be afforded this luxury to reacquaint and explore once more all that is this genius- Verdi,  gives us hope perhaps that his music itself will lead Italy and the musical world out of its trouble once again as he had all those years ago; I am hopeful that perhaps with this exposure to him the situation for classical music, especially opera music would improve.  The courage of this man, I adore.  He was such and is such a modern voice for his times and his message continues to resonate even now because of how he wrote in what I call a “Veristic Bel Canto Style,”  dealing with many grand subject matters, exploring the very intimate personal stories that sometimes play out against huge events in ways we would feel it…this occurs even today! Because of who he was as a man, a very rare combination of realist and idealist, it allowed him to act like a looking glass into the time he lived and carry that time into the future. I think this recognition of 200th anniversary of his birth comes just in the nick of time. We need his message always, but especially now. Our fight for the Arts in a way has to be reborn.

The Last Verista:

How do you feel about current artistic climate that we live in?

Aprile Millo:

There are many apps today for the I-Phone that if you don’t keep steady vigilance, they die.  In Japan I first saw them, and now everywhere, the app create virtual dogs or cats and other little creatures that you have to feed or talk to or play with or update, and I’m beginning to believe that music and various things that round out a soul follow the same premise as those apps.  If we don’t constantly keep some kind of vigil on ourselves and creatively add to ourselves, add to the experience of ourselves, we too will die in a spiritual sense but also sometimes in a physical sense. We calcify, we freeze in motion.

What’s going on today is simply that music has been neglected in a steady technological race for everything that’s unimportant but quick  dopamine highs that are a quick drug.  They peak high, and then leave you with nothing, whereas music is a rush that keeps on going…a gift that will make you happy in all the times of your life. Music is known to stamp a period of your life, it can release massive, massive, massive feelings of well-being or as the Italian’s call it, “ben essere,” which means “well being,” it allows one to feel fully realized as if you experienced more fully an event if music is joined to it, in your mind.  Our journey on earth is not just supposed to be a straight path.  It never is; we try in vain to make it that way, but it’s not.  Music shows us that along that path there can be so many lights that go off like shooting stars on a dark night, or a full moon.  Various pieces of music can be like light on that path.  Sadly today Classical music really does not  have enough chance to expose the richness of its variety to the younger minds which, it is scientifically proven, are more open to anything.  When they are most open they are not being exposed to or privy to any of the masterpieces so how do we expect them to understand it later that the “B” we’re talking about is not Justin Bieber. We’re talking about Bach, we’re talking about Beethoven and that won’t be part of their relative experience, so yes, this is a very critical time to be vigilant about promoting music, insisting that some of our power houses whom we elect, who we elect and then they promptly forget about us, that the “us” we talk about is a full rounded soul, at least given the opportunity to use the devastatingly beautiful colors that music can paint on a mind leaving a lasting imprint on the soul. They deserve that option.

Millo PAvarotti

As Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera with Luciano Pavarotti

The Last Verista:

In my own thinking about you and where you stand historically in the scheme of opera and music, I would say that you are a child of the past born on the cusp of the present. How does that make you feel?  You were part of a group of singers and sang with and knew some of the greatest voices that have ever existed. How does that make you feel as a singer in our present day’s climate? How do you merge these two worlds?

Aprile Millo:

I loved getting to know some of the truly legendary singers. They are very different and special beings, each one. Zinka Milanov was unique and feisty and full of great charm, in a completely different way then Renata Tebaldi…. who enveloped my heart very early on, and who influenced me greatly with Ponselle and Muzio rounding out the quad for me and later Albanese, and Olivero… Hearing Licia Albanese sing the Boheme duet with Ferrucio Tagliavini was a revelation.  The words meant everything, the atmosphere was drenched in total beauty and concentrated personality. EVERYTHING worked together to help each other paint a vivid picture of who and what they were singing.  They listened to each other in a way that spoke volumes.  There was a dignity, people arrived in full suit and tie and dressed impeccably even for early rehearsals. People lined the walls and snuck outside to hear the  Sitz Probes of the greats. The orchestra was even excited and played like Gods. Nilsson, Rysanek, Vickers, Price, Pavarotti, Domingo, Bergonzi, Sutherland, Cossotto, Milnes, MacNeil. You trusted the maestri to know your voice capabilities and to be able to teach you the styles, and according to your voice, WITH your own voice, you did the right way, the right styles, and you knew they would protect you. I would work my first Wagner, with a Walter Taussig who had worked with Rethberg and Flagstad. I am an Italian color voice yet they got something wonderful from me.  Merging today with then? I do so very difficultly because the opera world has been passed  to a new generation of people with very different criteria, that like every young group think they know it all and they have more to deal with now then we ever did before. It is a show now in the worst sense of the word. It always was, but it was a masterpiece, a piece of MUSIC that had to be presented. But nothing was more important than the sacredness of the music. Great theatrical minds spent years becoming familiar with the text and the drama and the very different demands that opera places on its actors.Nothing was done to deflate the singer, they were divine and doing an almost sacred work. No distractions. They spoke in hushed tones about the text and it’s beauty and the message. It wasn’t a profession it was a vocation. I identified with those who felt that way, still do.  It’s undergoing a transition of a sort and you have to hope that by the end of it, like in a sieve, that the important golden nuggets will stay at the bottom of the bowl and that your day of excavating will remain authentic to go forward in time intact and authentic. 

 Aprile deconstructed

There is an ancient study that Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Gallieo all of these marvelous minds–not only Madonna considers, called the Kabbalah, in which one of the thoughts is that you chose to come into the world at a certain time, and I think I came into this time period to help retain something of the old-school in the new.  When I came in the 80’s, we were going through much the same  thing we are going through now, where there were many incorrect voices singing the repertoire, a woeful disobedience to the composers wishes but mind you, I strode in where on one side  Leonie Rysanek, Leontyne Price, Sills, MacNeil, they were still singing, Joan Sutherland was singing, Marilyn Horne–all of these fabulous examples of how music should be sung, so it had a gravitas, a weight on the side of doing it correctly. And now we have very few exponents because tradition is often considered a “bad word.”  Fame is more important…. it matters not how you sing, just if you can be seen singing it. You’re not supposed to do anything that’s traditional because tradition has been reassigned to the word  “routine.”  “Tradition” is basically a word for accepted history of a performance carried forward by people who had been alive at the time of the first performance, the very first performances.  Say, Cilea or Mascagni or Verdi or Puccini, or Stravinsky, these men were all alive during the lives of the singers that helped form the traditions of a piece.  Those that worked with the composer sang on the stage presenting, what they believed, what they were told by the composer was the closest thing to the composer’s wishes, otherwise they would heard about it later. More or less from those early performances came, what they call, the “tradition”, what was accepted by the composer and in following what was accepted by the composer, a way of singing was passed on.  Further and most exciting was if you could add your own imagination, and that be accepted by the composer, then it was basically a chance to create with them there, you were given permission, a certain room to invent or be imaginative, and you would say to yourself “this is what the composer approved of.”  As in any document, those scribbled notes on a piece of paper can be manipulated and used to form another person’s idea of what they want to do, so the “tradition” was a “checks and balances” and not a dirty word at that time. Now, they use it as a word to suggest monotony, it takes a lot of humility to do someone else’s work and not impose your own desires on it. Why is this?  Perhaps because it seems no one seems to want to take the time: we have maestri coming out of school and thinking they know everything about Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini with just conservatory training. They end up sounding the same. There are exceptions but for the most part a maestro is like a fine wine, he gets better and more fully flavored with time. LOTS of working with different voices and finding ways to keep it authentic for each person. It seems like today they don’t.  It’s a lifetime study and I think that’s why we are in a lot of the trouble. It’s words and music and a particular desire to communicate that Verdi exemplified so completely.  He LOVED his singers and understood their fragile existence, so much so he established a retirement home for all those that would serve music. Yet another reason I love him.

 The Last Verista:

You mentioned that certain music gives you a sense of “ben essere.” What is it specifically about Verdi’s music that give you this feeling of “ben essere?” You’ve always had an affinity with his music.  You’ve sung the music of many different composers but Verdi has been your number one, yes?

Aprile Millo: 

Yes.  There is just something about the way he….he’s one of the first composers to address the familial situation in so deep and so incredibly enlightened way. A very, very revealing, almost nude, so exposed and real in the feelings that a father would feel for a daughter, that the son would feel for the father, and in the time that he did this, people didn’t speak so openly about these things.  It was against the constraints of the period.  That he then allowed, without needing even the words, he expressed in the very harmonies the feelings exact that go with these incredibly close, profound relationships that you have in life- that he could so so effortlessly is superb.  The way in which he wrote, the line…I call it “exulted bel canto,” or “verismatic bel canto” because in bel canto you would have, for example, 16 pages on the text “I love you,” and it would be in variations with all sorts of technical prowess, mainly for show.  It was much more a period of bel canto that showed the technical abilities of a singer and things you could do with the music/ For me Bellini, was of course, successful in making it something different. Bellini fashioned his music to mirror a time in poetry for me, a melancholy.  

Verdi took Bellini’s truth and honesty and took it a step further and made it more a real story telling; when each word is used it brings forward the concept, it brings forward the story so that when you get to the verismo school you are exactly as people spoke naturally, word for word moving the plot forward.  There isn’t so much repetition.  For me Verdi has one foot in another world and one foot here and I think it’s because at an early age he lost his family, and I think he never forgot that.  They were always at his side so he always wrote in a very spiritual way as if he had a contact with another world.

 Aprile Millo:

 

The Last Verista:

You mentioned the passing on of tradition and educating our youth on different composers and the arts in general and I think we live in a very politically charged climate and one that is centered on technology more than artistic freedoms, but the period in which Verdi lived was also politically charged.  Do you think that it was difficult for him to express these familial situations and turn the focus from politics to “la famiglia” after a period as tumultuous as the Risorgimento? This type of switch was pretty monumental.  What do you think about this?

Aprile Millo:

One of the great things he did living in a time….you know we’re living in a time where we are facing the same from less rounded people. His problem, as he writes, was the provincial mind.  He could not stand provincial minds.  He hated minds that were closed and rigid. He would really not be happy nowadays! What he dealt with then was ignorance.  What we’re dealing with now is ignorance as well,  so we’re bonded in many many different ways by the fact that music can only go so far if there are ignorant people.  So, in his time, he got passed them, got passed the censors, got passed all of the restrictions of his age by writing music that was so overwhelming that the crowds would literally be singing it in the street the next day. There is little way you can restrict a mob. Once you catch the public mind or the public heart, you’re in, and he found a way to do that very beautifully.  For me he became a living prism of his time and it showed it to be a refracted, edgy, often claustrophobic time.  He was nationalistic without being ridiculous.  He loved his country.  He took his country through the early operas on a journey back to themselves, and once they were there, he reminded them through his music and his stories about family, and family was everything to him. We did get in the “galleria years” where he used in his music what demeaningly they liked to call an “oom-paa-paa.” I didn’t miss the military feel of it.  I thought it was a son of Italy bringing his nation back to its feet. Once it was on its feet, he focused on the important things to keep it and its sons and daughters on their feet and the way to keep it a nation of dignified, gracious, evolved human beings was to remember the center of the universe, which was for him,  family.  So, everything that he wrote was about the intricate, inter-workings and complex tapestries of “family” relations and until the day he died he wrote about nothing but that. With Otello being one of the greatest operas I’ve ever heard in my life, and Falstaff–absolute genius work, a combination in his eighties, of everything that was so modern and beautiful and advanced, that he was able to absorb all that.  Aida, Forza del Destino–all of the operas that have this marvelous sense of the events happening outside…yes, important (dignity, respect, patria), but the family became the center of the real core that was the opera. It’s quite beautiful, and really quite amazing what he could do. 

  

The Last Verista:

Can you discuss with us your thoughts on the differences between “bel canto” idioms, say between Rossini, Bellini, and Verdi, where “recitativo” or “parlato” is concerned and how this impacts the way a singer might present it?

Click on the player to hear Aprile’s response.

The Last Verista:

Can you explain your feelings about how Verdi presents his “cantilena” as opposed to Puccini’s, for example.  What is it about Verdi’s melodies for you, and what are the difficulties of singing Verdian cantilena as opposed to any other composer? How are his  melodies born for you? How does it begin as a small germ and then become Aprile Millo’s Leonora? If you had to  give advice to a young singer who is approaching Verdi’s music, what are the things that are difficult or require the most attention?

Click on the player to hear Aprile’s response.

Aprile and audience

Check in tomorrow for Part II of this fascinating interview when Aprile Millo talks about Verdi’s heroines and gives some very personal reactions to her beloved Verdi.

A portrait of Aprile Millo as Leonora in Il Trovatore in Carl Plansky’s series, “Sacred Monsters”

Millo Sacred Monsters

Purchase Aprile Millo’s Verdi Arias Album by clicking below.

Check in Tomorrow for a fascinating EXCLUSIVE Interview Celebrating Verdi, Singing, Today’s Artistic Climate, Bel Canto, and Life.

It’s so interesting, you’ll have to read it twice!

 

Tomorrow, on THE LAST VERISTA

Interview

 

Verdi 200th

EXCLUSIVE: Upcoming Interview with one of the Greatest Verdian Sopranos of our Day

mystery-woman

 

On Thursday October 10th and Friday October 11th, The Last Verista will feature a fascinating, revealing portrait of Verdi and his music, his importance in today’s musical climate, and the difficulties and thrills of singing his heroines in an exclusive two part interview with one of the greatest Verdian sopranos of our day.  You DON’T want to miss this rare opportunity to hear her fascinating take on the great maestro and his music.  Stay tuned!!

 

interview in progress

 

Dies Irae: Verdi and the Messa da Requiem. For Manzoni or a Response to Boito?

Riveting, haunting, frightening, and thrilling to the core. Such is this music and so it has been used sparingly in films and quite possibly marks the most wrathful music that Verdi ever wrote.  That this music and its bombastic presence was born of the great maestro might solely mark him as a genius, but it is even more fascinating to consider why the Dies Irae was inserted into the Sequence of the Mass and how it absolutely stands out within the Requiem, in his oeuvre, and as a seminal work in the musical canon, as a whole.  Historically, that the Messa da Requiem is a musical setting of the Roman Catholic funeral mass for four soloists, double choir and orchestra. It was composed in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, the Italian poet and novelist much admired by Verdi. The first performance in San Marco in Milan on 22 May 1874 marked the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death and at one time it was called the Manzoni Requiem.  It is typically not performed in the liturgy but in concert form and lasts around 85–90 minutes.

Typical forms of the Mass

  • Introit
  • Kyrie Eleison
  • Gradual
  • Tract
  • Sequence (where Verdi inserts the Dies Irae)
  • Offertory
  • Sanctus
  • Agnus Dei
  • Communion
  • Pie Jesu
  • Libera Me
  • In Paradisum

Well, that’s what’s documented anyway, but there is much more behind the composition of the Requiem and especially the Dies Irae.  What I’ve learned in my historical studies is to take “historical documentation” with a grain of salt.  Usually, things are well-documented, but it seems that in the Italian Opera of the 19th Century there is always some detail left out…sometimes deliberately.  Certainly, politics and Verdi’s music are not subjects that have been ignored by historians, and so it is very easy to say that politics played a part in the Requiem, but I’m here to suggest that this was perhaps not in the way one might think.  Prior to 1874, Wagner had gained a respected place in the operatic echelon, even if this was not universally accepted in Italy by Italian composers nor by the Ricordi enterprise.  As a result, the younger generations of composers began to challenge Verdi who was powerful and popular enough to combat the “German threat” to enhance his musical style in order to combat the gesamtkunstwerk that was causing quite the international stir.  

Manzoni

Alessandro Manzoni, the father of Italian Romanticism

Probably because he was loyal to Ricordi, who controlled much of the Italian operatic enterprise, and because his operas were already considered Italian trademarks, Verdi fought the idea of innovation and remained firmly planted in his Romantic idioms; that is, until his most virilant opposer, Arrigo Boito, composed Mefistofele in 1868.  On its own, Mefistofele is a magnificent opera even if its prima rappresentazione, as documented historically, was one of the greatest fiascos in operatic history, with the entirety of the audience rushing out into the Piazza della Scala after the “Ecco il Mondo” in which the devil stands like a priest in front of his parish of minions and claims control of the world.  Not a very Catholic statement, to say the least, especially in a primarily catholic society.  You can imagine the chaos this caused and it is perhaps more interesting that there were factions in the theatre who were communicating information to underground locations and cafes where “protectors of Verdi’s art” had situated themselves.  Verdi himself was not at the prima, but word got back to him immediately about what happened.  Word also got back to Antonio Ghislanzoni, who had not long before been in a cafe where young artists were making fun of Boito.  Ghislanzoni, who had a profound ability to see beyond the exterior slammed his hand on a table, causing the ruckus in the cafe to stop and proclaimed, “Boito è un genio!!” (Boito is a genius).

What is lesser known is that Boito and his buddies blamed Wagner’s new found supremacy and the supposed stagnant state of Italian opera on Alessandro Manzoni, the man for whom Verdi had the deepest respect.  There are several letters in which Verdi expresses this admiration and perhaps the most important documentation is that of his wife, Giuseppina Strepponi who herself went to meet Manzoni.  She explained how, when Manzoni’s carriage came to pick her up, Verdi turned white and began to perspire, was filled with anxiety and almost fainted, saying he could not meet the man face to face.  He personally felt that Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi was the greatest artistic contribution anyone had ever made, but yet he never tried to set the novel to music.  Why?  Because he felt that he might fail Manzoni. Although these two giants both lived in the same city, Milano, Manzoni would die and Verdi would never meet the man he revered.

I Promessi SposiThe first edition of Manzoni’s novel, I Promessi Sposi

It is generally known how deeply Manzoni affected the presentation of art and music after the Risorgimento (the Italian Unification), and not only because of the popularity of his novel I Promessi Sposi, which next to Dante’s Divina Commedia stands as the most popular piece of Italian literature.  Prior to, Manzoni had written a manifesto, if you will, that delineated the aesthetics that Italian artists, poets, and musicians, should adhere to in order to keep the arts firmly directed at all that was Italian, thus making sure the arts continued to serve as an exponent of unity in a country that had just found its feet.  Because of his gargantuan status, all artists adhered to Manzoni’s rules, and so many libretti that were set during this period were based only on Italian stories or stories of “la patria,” which is probably why the majority of Verdi’s early works are so politically charged and even if they don’t always depict Italians, they depict Italian unity.  For example, the famous “Va Pensiero” in Nabucco could easily have been performed by a chorus of Italians, rather than Hebrews.

Ecco il Mondo

Mefistofele counteracting Catholic and Romantic sentiments

So, what if when Boito wrote Mefistofele, the devil’s horrific music was meant to be grand statement against Manzoni and, for that matter, against Verdi. Boito’s opera contains many bombastic musical moments and music that is equally horrific and terrifying….until Verdi decided to answer the younger composer and basically shut him up by composing a piece of music that was one hundred times more horrifying.  The Dies Irae, in this regard, would firmly obliterate Boito’s devil who stood to combat Italian melody and Manzoni’s aesthetic suggestions.  It is also a reason why Verdi inserted this new form within the Mass parts.  Therefore, the Messa da Requiem not only commemorates the death of Manzoni and remains a historical tattoo, if you will, that forever imprints Verdi’s devotion to Manzoni on the history of Italian operatic culture, it is also the strongest statement he made against Boito.  That Verdi later worked on the revision of Simon Boccanegra, and composed perhaps the two greatest works of his late period, Otello and Falstaff with Boito is not only fascinating but shocking to say the least.

Boito_e_Verdi

Boito and Verdi

©Mary-Lou Vetere, 2013

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VERDI WEEK on The Last Verista: “Viva Verdi: Celebrating 200 magnificent years of this “Grande Maestro”

verdi-giovane

In a time fraught with financial issues and artistic controversies, the opera world welcomes this historically relevant week in anticipation of the 200th Birthday of the great and individual composer, Giuseppe Verdi.  This week on the Last Verista, posts will be dedicated to his music, his life, his thoughts, letters, and those singers and conductors who have spent years perfecting the art of Verdian cantilena.  As opera companies and orchestras the world over prepare their celebratory concerts, Verdi’s week of celebration could not have come at a better time, considering the almost idiotic suggestions about closing opera houses like La Scala Milano.  Perhaps by wafting in the joy of Verdi’s music, those persons running said companies might recall just how poignant and historical La Scala, and opera houses in general, really are.  

verdi e boito

With his, at first, rival and then most fervent companion and colleague, Arrigo Boito

On Met Opera Radio, the entire week is devoted to Verdi operas, so if you have a subscription to Sirius/XM Radio, tune in and if you don’t, this is as good a time as any to cash in on the free 7 day trial.  How great a life was Verdi’s! For all he gave to us, the fact that his operas continue to remain staples in most operatic seasons, and for the luminous melodies and soaring orchestral idioms that sometimes seem metaphysical (of this world and yet seemingly of next) CELEBRAMO! Personally, I stand in reverence and devotion to this great man who, in my line of work, gives me something beautiful every day of my life.  “Gioir!!” “Gioir!!”  “Viva Verdi!”

Rising Soprano, Latonia Moore to make Metropolitan Opera Debut as Aida

Latonia Moore makes her Met debut as Aida at 1pm, March 3rd, 2012

Every now and again, the opera world gets to marvel in the thrill of excitement when a young singer makes their debut…but not any debut.  A debut at the Metropolitan Opera is probably the most exciting of them all.  In a few hours, young soprano Latonia Moore will make her debut in a role that established many a great singer; Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, and Aprile Millo: Verdi’s magnificent Aida. In this historical and political opera, Verdi created three roles that are powerhouses of vocal prowess:  Aida, Amneris, and in my mind, Amonasro, even more than Radames.  This afternoon, Ms. Moore will sing Aida to Stephanie Blythe’s Amneris, Marcello Giordani’s Radames, and Lado Ataneli’s Amonasro.  The performance will be conducted by Marco Armiliato.  In Bocca al Lupo to Latonia!

Born in Houston and raised in Texas, Latonia Moore began her study at the University of North Texas, originally planed to study Jazz. Fortunately for opera lovers, one of her teachers convinced her to study classical music. She continued as a student of Bill Schuman at the Academy of Vocal Arts, Philadelphia where she graduated in 2005.

She has won:

  • Richard Tucker Foundation Grant (2005),
  • first price and audience award at Concours International d’Opéra in Marseille (2003)
  • special price “Kammeroper der Internationalen Hans Gabor Belvedere Gesangswettbewerbe” (2003)
  • first price and adiance award “Internationalen Gesangswettbewerbs der italienischen Oper Dresden (2002)
  • Metropolitan Opera’s National Auditions (2000)

Here is a link to a “Sneak Peak” of Latonia’s singing from La Cieca on Parterre Box

“Cieli Azzurri” from Aida

Millo talks Verdian Singing on La Cieca’s “Parterre Box”

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend your ears to what La Profonda has to say.

Millo’s Essay on Verdian Singing