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

Tabarro Poster

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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.

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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 Aprile Millo on the 200th Anniversary of Verdi’s Birth: Part II

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Aprile Millo, one of the greatest Aida’s in history

Part II

The Last Verista:

The way that you are most connected to Verdi is via his heroines, so I’d like to delve into these amazing characters with you.  First, Luisa Miller and Amelia in Simon Boccanegra. How did these characters influence what was to come for you, vocally, and what was your journey toward singing them?

Aprile Millo: 

First, let me address how they came to me. The first was Simon Boccanegra. Because of the maturity of my instrument and because I was advanced at a young age, it was very hard to hold me back. For the early part, my mom (Margherita Girosi) believed that I should stay in Bel Canto, and I remained in the Bel Canto repertoire and I loved it. She  had felt that putting a large voice in something like Mozart would have crippled it and I’m pretty sure it would have crippled me. She said, “Always put the bigger voices in Bel Canto;  it teaches them to make the voice steady supported by the air in perfect smooth vowels and grow naturally over a longer period.” It also keeps you healthy and buoyant.  So when we came to Verdi, and when I came to the Met, it was difficult. My great friend Larry Stayer and Charlie Riecker did what they could for me and were my lights in a dark time.  I was refusing small roles and developing a chip on my shoulder.  Until Jimmy (Levine) got involved I didn’t feel safe, and they had great people, but no one I felt, got who and what I was.  

Jimmy graciously saw my growing agitation and he said come sing for us,  his participation hands on came extensively after they caught my message in a Young Artists follow up “Audition”.  He knew I was arguing with everyone and not very happy and frankly after I had sung for Von Karajan who had covered his face when I told him I was in an apprentice program at the Met.  He belabored, “You are not for that.  You have imagination and are an artist.  They will not know what to do with you and will stifle you!” I was even more unhappy.  I explained that James Levine would be in control of me and only him. My Mother stepped in again, and said “See what James Levine says. He isn’t going to make a mistake. Trust him.”  That said, when I returned I was asked to do a follow up audition and I did.  It was only after I sang the “Tu Che Invoco” and the “”O nume tutelar” from La Vestale that they realized what I really was.  In the audience was a famous coach and maestro from the olden days at La Scala, a great gentleman who Jimmy had asked to coach young voices at the Met named Dick Marzollo, and with whom I had prepared my Ernani for La Scala.. Levine had the right idea always, he was just terribly busy. Well after this audition, Marzollo stood up for me and waxed lyrical about my talent saying the right things to suggest they had a  rare voice and that it was a very old-fashioned, well-produced instrument and “she’s only 22-23 years old,” not to let me get away.  When Jimmy (Levine) became involved in working with me, he was like a young Serafin.  His knowledge of the psychology of what it took to sing rivaled anyone I had ever known….HE KNEW opera, LOVED opera, He finally said “If you will stay calm and work with David Stivender, who was not only the Choral Director of the massively talented chorus of the Met, but a Mascagni scholar and a really fine conductor who Jimmy knew would know what to do to get my best work and prep me well…Jimmy would make me the leading Verdi voice at the Metropolitan.

A complete version of Luisa Miller, starring Aprile Millo (Roma, 1990)

What clinched it, especially knowing the historic nature of that house, was when he finished saying….”You will be able to put your own stamp on the history of this house!” I was no fool, I listened and thrived with the combination of Stivender and the fabulous Rita Patané who herself had been a fabulous soprano and student of Maria Carbone. I finally relaxed. Jimmy rightly asked me to prepare Simon Boccanegra because for a young Verdi Voice she has to have it all, and yet it is a great mix of lyric and spinto.  She is the perfect preparation for young Verdi voices. She deals with the elements that you’ll later deal with in the larger repertoire and the step after that is either a Luisa Miller or a Trovatore.  Trovatore is usually better before a Luisa Miller.  Luisa Miller is a much larger role than they give her credit for and she’s now being sung by a lot of lyric sopranos, which is not really correct.  It has to have a real bite. 

So for me, Aida, was the combination of the two that I really felt the most comfortable with because I felt it was a dark lyric, with a nice penetrating sound that enjoyed flight, enjoyed being high and floating, enjoyed all of the things that I had learned from the Bel Canto. In the Trovatore I felt absolutely at home.  If you were to ask what were the linchpins in my career in Verdi’s provisioned fly and his magnificent sense of voice and understanding the voice, they would be Simon Boccanegra, Il Trovatore, Otello, Luisa Miller, and Don Carlo. These were all magnificent growth spurts.  What I really would love to have done and what I may do just in disc is Traviata or little extracts of it.  I’m looking at her with different eyes than I did then. I do wish I had sung her earlier. I also wish I had sung a Vespri Sicliani,they had offered to me twice at the Met because there is some gorgeous gorgeous music to be sung.  Again, it would be a pleasure to leave that in a time capsule, and I might still do that.

 The Last Verista:

Can you talk to us a bit more about Leonora and her music?  Which part of that role for you was the most satisfying as an artist, as a singer?

Aprile Millo: 

I would have to say the entirety of the last act or at least the music beginning in the middle of the third act, from the “L’onda dei suoni istici.” The duet shortly before “Di Quella Pira.” There’s something about the way that music fit. When the tenor is trying to coo with her and she’s coo-ing back and they’re going to be married or they have been married (that’s up in the air), she’s thinking about her wedding day, and he is too but is called away to take care of his mother.  There again is another force of destiny that we don’t even see, that the mother would kill.  They say the story is ludicrous and it’s not. So, you have the “Di Quella Pira” which then sets up with all this incredible blaze, you have her more or less trying to soothe things underneath his cell, which in those days was not in some precinct somewhere but usually under a tower. They would keep the enemy of the state very high up so no one could  be stolen back  or taken and set free. You would have to climb an embankment, you would have to climb up into the heavens, so to speak, so of course it wasn’t so easy. Monty Python not withstanding….like catapulting yourself over a bridge!   

 

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For her, my favourite in the Leonora are, her arrival in the convent, “Perche Piangete.” There is something about her flight there that in that melody is the child she would never have, is the marriage she will never have, is the love that she will never experience.  All in that seven or eight bars, leading to the entrance to the convent upon which they are stopped by the armies of both men who are trying to stop her from getting in there. So the “Degg’io volgermi,” all of that magnificent writing that I used to love to spin that out so it was absolutely a lament, but a resigned lament. The words needed to take on the sense of being next to God but not totally there. If she were totally there, she would be happy so they always had to have this sense of melancholy borrowing from the Bel Canto, which to me sounds very similar to a Lucia type of vein. 

Leading into the “D’Amor Sull’Ali Rosee,” for me revolves around the middle voice.  My middle voice is always where I knew whether I was healthy or I’m not. If I have the middle voice, then I have the bottom and the top. The middle voice for “D’Amor” is so important because you’re really staying there the majority of the time, except for the beautiful flights where she’s trying to get up to him and Verdi writes this message as if it’s on these tiny wings of song that are placed musically on the staff.  You might interpret her, like a bird, not necessarily the dying swan, but in that same way trying to get out of her own body to get to him.  When she hears his voice and all of this music stops dead and and you feel again that sense of the “L’onda dei suoni mistici” that he’s singing somewhere about how he wants her and he misses her.  He’s lamenting the fact that they’re not together, catapults her toward her inevitable destiny because she arrives  on that scene with poison in her ring.  She knows she’s going to have to do something quite formidable in order to get him out. This is pretty much her swan-song and where Verdi uses some pretty gossamer moments. 

The way he wrote it, it is not written pianissimissimo, but it depends on if the singer is able to effect that then it lends a truly gorgeous aspect, but mustn’t be a trick.  You can do so much with this music that’s already doing everything for you without your having to do much.  You go today and hear people say this music is so fabulous but they’ve done nothing with it. They’re right, it is fabulous, it will be considered great whether you’ve got a great artist singing it or not, but when you have a great artist singing it, then “oh my.”  It takes on that other dimension where you can truly drive your audience to distraction. You can take them close to the sun… close to their truest emotions and bring them back safely.  He gives you the possibility to truly drive them out of their minds with the beauty of it. and their recognition of themselves in it.

The Last Verista:

Can we talk about us about Aida, a role that landed you a major place historically as one of the greatest Aida’s of all time? What about this particular character and her music, with which you are so closely linked.

To hear Aprile Millo’s commentary on Aida, click on the player below. 

 

Millo Aida

With Dolora Zajick

The Last Verista:

I’d like to show you this picture of Verdi, taken of Verdi at Sant’Agata.  What does this photograph make you feel? What is your inner most feeling about this man?

Verdi Seated at Sant'Agata

To hear Aprile Millo’s response to the photograph, click on the player below:

The Last Verista:

I’d like to read you one of Verdi’s only surviving references to the issue of “modernizing” his style.  Younger generations of composers were urging him to modernize and so Verdi was in a difficult position, but his comments here mention that he realizes what the situation is.  The letter was to Count Opprandino Arrivabene, in March 1868.  He wrote:

“I know, too, that there is a music of the future, but I think at present and will continue to think next year that to make a shoe you need some leather and some skins!…What do you think of this stupid comparison, which means that to make an opera you musc first have music in your body?!…I declare that I am and will be an enthusiastic admirer of the  avveniristi provided they make some music for me…in whatever form, with whatever system, etc., but it must be music!…Rest assured. I may very well lack the strength to arrive where I want to go, but I know what I want. (Marcello Conati and Mario Medici, eds, CarteggioVerdi-Boito (Parma: Istituto di Studi Verdiani, 1978), xxxiii). 

Aprile Millo:

Well, let me ask you. “What do you think he wanted?”  He said, I know what I want.  What do you think Verdi wanted out of music?

The Last Verista:

I’m humbled that you would ask me my thoughts.  I think Verdi was well aware of imposing factions, so to speak, and by that I mean the “German threat” that was discussed in many of the historical documents.  Wagner’s innovation was a serious issue in Italy in Verdi’s time and Wagner had completely wiped out the Italian conventions that composers had held so beloved as part of their tradition.  No more cavatina/cabalettas, no more number arias, no more solita forma, no more orchestra being subservient to the voice.  Of course, these innovations urged the younger generation to do something and to do it quick before operatic supremacy was completely taken from Italy and so of course they were going to harass, if you will, their leader, Verdi.  I think Verdi was caught between a rock and a hard place.  Essentially, he was powerful enough to do whatever he wanted and his operas were never going to go out of fashion–that is a given, but I also believe that Verdi wanted something new, as well.  I believe that he maintained middle period style as long as he could but something shifted in him later around the period before Aida in the mid 1860s and from then on, beginning with Aida and Ghislanzoni, and especially in the collaborations with Boito–the revision of Simon Boccanegra, the libretti for Otello and Falstaff, we see perhaps what Verdi was hinting at.  What might have come had he lived longer is a truly fascinating thought.

 What do you think he wanted?

Aprile Millo:

If you realize that this man in his 80s was going to mirror much of the fire of the nineteen year old composer, the twenty year old composer, the thirty-something year old composer, the fifty year old man who had to deal with censors every five minutes, he felt that he was just dealing with another type of censorship and so he was going to fight modernity.  Mind you, he did absorb it and he did find those skins and he put them on shoes that satisfied HIM. Now if someone had known how to present this to him, I would have asked, “What are the components that you feel must be present in order for it to be music?” If it’s what we see that he left printed on the page, then it’s pretty specific.  I don’t think he would have been a very big fan of Stravinsky, let’s say, but I think he would have appreciated it after he listened to it for months at at time.  He might have embraced the dissonance or the ambiguity. For him, music was very solid, straight forward, which was how it was built…from him playing the organ in the church as a young man.  He saw it in chords that were harmonic or dissonant that required resolution.  He didn’t see it as what evolved and what would go forward in the palate of Mascagni and Puccini…but I don’t see them as that different. I just think this idea of modernity was presented to a stubborn 80 year old guy and it recalled for him what these censors were trying to do to him as a younger man. 

The Last Verista:

The fact that he left Falstaff as his final statement is very telling because this is an opera  that went against a major censorial issue of the past, the separation of genres–that is, the separation of comedy and tragedy.  He had issues with this censorial faction when he was attempting to compose King Lear and also with Rigoletto and Macbeth (where the entire Porter’s scene had to be ommitted). Even if Verdi loved Shakespeare and wanted to model his operas after the plays, King Lear has a major character that is a Fool, and it would have been inordinately difficult for Verdi to skirt around that issue. Leaving a buffo character, leaving a comedic opera like Falstaff as a final statement after a deluge of serious subjects is, I think, directly related to his written comment.

Aprile Millo:

He left a thank you to Boito, I think by inserting a fugue in Falstaff when he had initially fought against those types of forms.  It’s almost as though he’s saying, “I get what you’re saying, but do you get that I could have done that, and I did do it and I’m 80 something, so now it’s your game.” It’s very interesting. And so wonderful for Boito who loved him so, and pushed him to greater heights. 

The Last Verista:

I’d like to read you the following text, which are the final lines of Falstaff, the final operatic text that Verdi left.

         Tutto nel mondo é burla.
          L’uom é nato burlone,
          La fede in cor gli ciurla,
          Gli ciurla la ragione.
          Tutti gabbati! Irride
          L’un l’altro ogni mortal.
          Ma ride ben chi ride
          La risata final. 

Aprile Millo: 

Basically this is his “risata finale.” He’s having the last laugh. Plain and simple, the very last words are “La Commedia è finita,” but it’s his comedy, it’s his finish and he gets, more or less, to have the last laugh. It shows him in such an advanced state using so many palates that he had used before, using all these idioms that had been supposedly investigated by other composers.  There he is. He’s able to do it with his own Italian imprint.  This is a victory and yet another reason why they should just put his face on the flag of Italy and be done with it because he’s just so much of what Italy represents in its best form and what should represent Italy.

The Last Verista:

I’d like to read you a statement of Giuseppe Giacosa, the librettist, who was at Verdi’s bedside when he died.  I’d like your reaction on this:

“The maestro is dead. He carried away with him a great quantity of light and vital warmth.  We had all based in the sun of his Olympian old age.  He died magnificently like a fighter redoubtable and mute.  The silence of death fell on him a week before he died.  With his head bent, his eyebrows set, he seemed to measure with half shut eyes an unknown and formidable adversary, calculating in his mind the force that he could summon up in opposition.  Thus he put up an heroic resistance.  The breathing of his great chest sustained him for four days and three nights; on the fourth night the sound of his breathing still filled the room; but what a struggle, poor maestro!  How magnificently he fought up to the last moment!  In the course of my life, I have lost persons whom I idolized, when grief was stronger than resignation.  But I have never experienced such a feeling of hate against death, such loathing for its mysterious, blind, stupid, triumphant, infamous power.  For such a feeling to be aroused in me I had to await the end of this old man of ninety.”  

Verdi died on the 27th of January at ten minutes to three in the morning, 1901.

Aprile Millo:

It’s important I guess to see how a person is in death because he so transfigured life. What I love is that Mr. Giacosa was able to detail an event in such a way that you feel like you’re there. And, if I were there I’d probably be ears ringing and hating death just as much as I do now and he did then.. He touches me greatly and I would have felt a darkness descend and then a sense of radiant peace as I am sure he arrived in Paradise. For all the beauty he gave the world…I do not care if he believed or not,  he wrote like a man with a message from God.  The interesting thing is that Verdi may have furrowed his brow and and dug his heels in but he went to the “paradise” he glimpsed and helped us see always in his music….. It must have felt like home. He said Good Bye; “o terra addio.” Finally met Manzoni, saw his first wife and his beloved children, embraced his loved ones there and his little puppy Lou-Lou of whom he wrote on his tombstone, was his very best friend.  He went from this earth to the one he painted for us. What you see in the image of the death mask is a vision of someone’s face saying, “It is exactly what I thought it was.” There is a quiet resignation and when life ceases and we realize that we’ve actually had a glimpse of paradise through Verdi’s music we’re going to be a lot more thankful to him than we were in life, and we’re going to say–for all those who miss the chance to hear him–sigh…what a loss for you, and what an awesome gift it was for me to know this genius.

The Last Verista:

Click on the player below to hear the remainder of the interview:

The Last Verista:

On behalf of singers the world over, and young singers who are looking to study Verdi, thank you for bringing such an honest, real, full of passion, and incredibly knowledgable perspective to us, but moreover, for your presentation of Verdi’s heroines.  You have a way of delivering him to us so that we feel a little bit closer to him every time we hear you sing his music, and so thank you for your incredible interpretations of his women and for your immense talent.  I’m sure if Maestro Verdi were able he’d thank you, as well.  Grazie mille, Aprile.  Sei grande.

Aprile Millo:

Thank you so much, Mary. You are so filled with music, with love for it, and at so young an age you have given so much of your life to the study of music.  Cannot wait to see you enjoy it now, as you begin to sing, and share your many gifts with the world. It has been my honor and privilege to witness your journey and your faith and love in music. God bless you with all you desire, and know that this colleague prays for your success and happiness as I pray for my own.  Brava.  Viva Verdi!!!!!

 

With Placido Domingo

To purchase any of Aprile Millo’s recordings, click on the links below.

    

    

Ma Ride Ben Chi Ride la Risata Final: Verdi and the Fusion of Genres

         Tutto nel mondo é burla. 
          L’uom é nato burlone, 
          La fede in cor gli ciurla, 
          Gli ciurla la ragione. 
          Tutti gabbati! Irride 
          L’un l’altro ogni mortal. 
          Ma ride ben chi ride 
          La risata final.

Final text from the Libretto of “Falstaff”

FalstaffFalstaff:  to end with a comedy

When I first started studying Verdi’s operas, I for some strange reason steered away from Falstaff.  When you’re a teenager, you think you know what you’re doing, so I decided it would be a good idea to read through the synopsis of the operas and see which one I wanted to listen to next, without any sort of regard for when those works were written and which period they belonged to.  For whatever reason, the idea of Falstaff did not interest me, which is ironic since it is one of the operas I most devoted my time two during my PhD studies. At the time, learning the repertoire meant immersing myself in the larger-than-life stories, the dramatic largess of the characters, and the fabulously delicious unhappy endings that many of the operas culminated in.  Again…a teenager.  The idea of listening to a comedy by Verdi…not so interesting….or so I thought.

To end with a comedy:

After the multitude of operas Verdi wrote that were based on everything from “la patria” to “figlia mia,” the very notion that he ended with a comedy is not only a significant statement, but a cause for historians to look at Falstaff more closely.  Furthermore, that he collaborated on the opera with his one-time rival, Arrigo Boito is incredibly telling.  Earlier in their massive correspondence, Verdi had written “There is no place in Italian Music for Germanic forms.” By this he meant the more symphonic idioms that Boito had been promoting in and around Milano, such as the fugue.  Boito had used a Fuga Infernale in Mefistofele but later abandoned the idea in order to make his opera more conventional and acceptable.  That Verdi ended his illustrious career with a Fugue is fascinating to say the least.

What is more, the final text, as written above, suggests that in composing Falstaff, Verdi got the last laugh.  What does this mean, exactly?  The way I see it, after assessing much of the musico-political situation in Milano, Verdi was powerful, but more powerful than him was Giulio Ricordi and the Ricordi Enterprise, who had often made specific and well-known commentary to composers like Giacomo Puccini to “write in the Italian way,” or else–so to speak.  Both primary and secondary documents describe how very involved Ricordi was with the composition of operas in Italy after the Risorgimento and especially with those composers who were the highest regarded in his company.  It is very likely that Ricordi, in addition to the censors, had placed constraints on Verdi, and it seemed as though Verdi continued to compose traditionally until the Messa da Requiem and Aida.  His late period of works, then are more interesting musicologically than this earlier works because of the shift in compositional style to a more through-composed one, but Falstaff–a comedy that ends with a fugue, is probably the most vividly different than anything Verdi had composed before and makes one wonder what he might have composed next.

giulio_ricordi

Giulio Ricordi

The Fusion of Genres

During my studies I came across a seminal article by historian Piero Weiss entitled, “Verdi and the Fusion of Genres,” published in the Journal of the American Musicological Society (vol. 35/1) Spring 1982, pp. 138-156, that not only caught my attention but illuminated several mysterious aspects of Verdi’s compositional impetus.  Weiss describes how as early as Luisa Miller, Verdi had desired to bring comedy into his operas.  Weiss quotes a statement of Verdi’s on the subject:

Prolonged experience has confirmed me in the ideas I’ve always had concerning theatrical effect, although in my first years I had not the courage to manifest them, except in part. (For instance, I shouldn’t have risked writing Rigoletto ten years ago.) I find our opera2errs on the side of excessive monotony, so much so that today I should refuse to set such subjects as Nabucco,Foscari,etc. etc. They present dramatic moments of great interest, but no variety. They harp on only one string, a lofty one, if you like, yet always the same one. To make my meaning clearer: Tasso’s poem may possibly be better, but I much, much prefer Ariosto. For the same reason I prefer Shakespeare to all other dramatists, not excepting the Greeks. It seems to me the best subject I have set to music so far, from the point of view of effect (I don’t at all mean to allude to its literary or poetic merit), is Rigoletto.It has very powerful situations, variety, verve, pathos. (Alessandro Pascolato, ed., Re Lear e Ballo in maschera: lettere di Giuseppe Verdi ad 

Antonio Somma (Citta’di Castello, 1902), pp. 45-46).

 

comedy__tragedy-1vxlf68

It is not new to historians that Verdi had a fascination for Shakespeare, who often infused moments of comic relief in his tragedies and vice-versa, but of course the fusion of genres was not allowed in post-Risorgimento Italy.  For Verdi, the notion of combing comedy and tragedy made the subject matter more “human,” more “realistic,” however it appears that he was not able to effect this as he wished to. Interestingly, his idol, Alessandro Manzoni was the one who promoted the separation of genres and so had Verdi veered from what was “acceptable” it would have meant going against the idiomatic practices of his idol.When Verdi wrote Macbeth, according to Weiss, he modelled it exactly on Shakespeare’s, except for one very important detail.  “

The one moment of comedy in the play, the Porter’s scene, was omitted as a matter of course, coming immediately after the knocking of the gate, it probably would have stopped the opera dead in its tracks.” (Weiss, 142).

And what of the character of Rigoletto, is he not a jester?  In essence he is, however, Rigoletto never once sings comic music.  His “La Ra La Ra’s” are not comedic.  They descend in a minor pattern, and indicate his strife more than his comic thrust.

Rigoletto

More fascinating is the notion that the separation of genres affected Verdi’s composing of King Lear.  There has been much discussion about the “discarded” opera and in lieu of Verdi’s struggles against the censors and especially with this issue, he could not possibly have gotten away with writing an opera whose main character is “a fool,” without crossing lines that he was not yet willing to cross.  One wonders what King Lear would have sounded like.

Fool

Taking these details into consideration, it is even more amazing that Verdi ended his operatic smorgasbord with a comedy.  It’s almost like someone is a vegetarian their entire life and then on their last day, they decide to eat meat.  Fascinating indeed, but then Verdi was not a typical man.  He was a man of great determination and in the end, he certainly got his last laugh.  VIVA VERDI!!!

Enjoy the complete opera “Falstaff”

“Figlia.” “Mio Padre:” Verdi’s Patriarchal Obsession

father-and-daughter-walking-at-sunset-494x250

When we pick up an opera score or listen to a recording, oftentimes we do so in a detached way, just to listen to something beautiful or find music for a romantic dinner, or we do so in order to digest a role and an opera, which again forces us to look at the written score and reference the best historically accurate recordings we can find.  What we don’t often do, as singers, is delve further into the reasons why these operas were composed, what motivated the composers beyond just creating music, and why they oftentimes added their own characters to pre-existing dramas or wrote specific familial and socio-familial relationships within their operas.

In each composer’s respective repertoire, these operas hold significant developmental musical and compositional attributes as well the philosophical, psychological attributes.  Unlocking secrets behind the composition of these works and sometimes secrets about the composers themselves offers performers and the aficionado a more valuable starting point on which to base their characterizations and dramatic impetus.  Before approaching the issue of Verdi’s patriarchal obsession, it is first important to note that there were certain conventions during his time that had to be met.

censors

“La Solita Forma and the Uses of Convention” is the title of a very important article by historian Harold S. Powers written in 1987.  In it, he argued about the analysis of, in my personal opinion, one of the greatest Verdian historians of all time, Julian Budden.  The argument between these two musicological giants refers to what is called “Verdian Tinta”:  a term that is not solely preoccupied with musical attributes but, rather, a musico-dramatic presupposition of Verdi himself.  There are many words that float around in history books that are specific to Verdian analysis.  For example:  Abramo Basevi’s other  terms “colorito” or “tinta generale,” referring to a general flavour that makes up the entirety of the opera; again, not necessarily musical.  Other popular terms associated with Verdi’s style during this period are: Versi scolti:  used for the scena (not unaccompanied but in a parlato type style) and Versi lirici:  used for action pieces and arias.  formal stanzas grouped symmetrically.

La Solita Forma: Abramo Basevi

Introductory music, usually instrumental

Tempo d’attacco: Recitative or dialogue to an initial or basic tempo

Adagio/Cavatina/”Pezzo concertato”

Tempo di mezzo (middle movement, interlude, often sounds “interrupting”)

Cabaletta and (in the case of the final scene of an act)

Finale Stretta

Also the scenes have a specific structure, they are not simply written out.  During this period in Italian opera, it was mandatory to follow these set structures at the behest of getting your opera censored.  Yes, things were that specific.  For example:  a Verdian duet, of which there are several in Rigoletto, begins with a “Tempo D’attacco”: a first lyric moment of a scene, usually adagio and in informal language.  Then comes the “cantabile” which usually contains a sustained flowing vocal line.  What is interesting is that Verdi began to break these traditions. For example, in Rigoletto he does not use this form in the Rigoletto/Sparafucile duet, nor the Gilda/Rigoletto duet “Pari Siamo” or the Gilda/Duca duet.  Thus, structurally, Verdi was beginning to break away from tradition, a process that he would struggle against until the end of his life and especially once a young man named Arrigo Boito came into the picture.

placido domingo

Rigoletto and Gilda

Early Background:

Verdi came from a peasant background and it was only through his future father-in-law that he was able to pursue a musical education.  Eventually, he became the greatest Italian opera composer even though, of course, I still argue for Puccini and Boito’s place in that echelon.  Just like our present time is a politically charged one, and we read of opera companies having to close their doors and threats to the livelihood of opera, Verdi too lived during a politically charged period called the Italian Risorgimento, or re-birth.  Italy had been oppressed politically, socially, and artistically, and once the country became unified in 1861, the arts were changed dramatically. It is not unforeseen why Nationalism was such a large threat in Verdi’s desire to write, at the beginning of his career.  Operas like Oberto, and I Lombardi alla prima incrociata, as well as Nabucco were all very nationalistic, however Verdi would later turn to treatments of more “human” dramas.  He became the principle authority in Italian music of Romanticism (the details of which have filled thousands of books); essentially, this meant that Verdi who had stemmed from the Scuola di Bel Canto (Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini) began incorporating specific romantic idioms into their music.  Verdi also began a fascination with Shakespearean dramas because he felt they were the most “human,” especially Macbeth (which he set), Anthony and Cleopatra (which he abandoned), Otello (which he set) and King Lear (which he apparently set but burned).   Topics of passion for a lover and duty to family became a central element, one that engulfed the majority of the musical atrributes as well.  Most often, Verdi places his characters in a horrid situation between love for someone they should not love, and duty for their family, or more specifically and relevant to us:  a father figure, a point I’ll return to momentarily.

 Italian-flag

 

Death of his wife and Children:

In May of 1836, Verdi was appointed “maestro di musica” for the town of Busseto, and two months later he married the woman he loved, Margherita Barezzi.  The couple travelled to Milan for their honeymoon, but it was not simply a honeymoon.  Verdi was there to re-establish contacts where a promise of success shimmered.  It was during this time that he composed the Sei Romanze, which are in the Verdi Liriche book that many of you own and have studied from.  The most famous of these is “In solitaria stanza” which would present the germ of the melody of Leonora’s “Tacea la notte placida” in Il Trovatore.  He also composed “Meine Ruh ist hin” from Goethe’s faust  “Perduta ho la pace” in which there is an echo of “Tutte le feste al tempio from Act II of Rigoletto.

Portrait of Margherita Barezzi Verdi, Wife of Giuseppe Verdi by Augusto Mussini

Margherita Barezzi

We do not know much about Verdi’s relationship with Margherita.  No letters survive between them.  Passive in every other aspect of his life, it is probable that he remained so even in private matters and that he consented as usual to play the role of a docile marionette whose strings were gently manipulated by his father-in-law. Margherita’s character comes to life only once in a famous letter Verdi wrote to Giulio Ricordi from Sant’Agata on October 19, 1879.  In this letter, he wrote that he had been suffering from angina and that he was having trouble paying the rent.  Seeing his distress, Margherita took up the few gold trinkets she possessed, went out of the house, and managed to gather together the necessary amount and gave it to Verdi.  He was very moved by this gesture.  There is only one portrait of them, in the Museo Teatrale alla Scala which shows Margherita at the time of her marriage.  She is described as plain, natural, and not one who gave an overall great impression.  During the same period, Verdi wrote,

“My small son fell ill at the beginning of April:  the doctors could not discover what was wrong, and the poor child died painfully, in the arms of his desperate mother.  But this was not enough: a few days later, my little girl also fell ill…and this illness also proved fatal!…and even this was not enough: in the first days of June my young wife was struck down by violent encephalitis and on June 19 1840, a third coffin left my house!  I was alone!…alone!! In the space of about two months, the three people most dear to me had vanished forever:  my family had been destroyed.”

It is from this moment that we might understand why Verdi had an obsession with the patriarchal in his operas and why the role of the “father” who was suffering or struggling with the loss of a daughter, either to some man who he knew would destroy her, or to illness.

verdi-giovane

The young Verdi with a look of sadness

The historian Helen M. Greenwald in 1994, wrote a seminal article on this patriarchal obsession.  Greenwald identifies certain aspects of Verdi’s operas, that they tend to be more masculine where, for example, Puccini’s operas are more feminine.  It is also not surprising that several of Verdi’s operas began to focus less on Nationalistic subjects but to merge them with the crucial father-daughter relationships that became the underlying current within them.

Verdian Operas that depict the Patriarchal Obsession

Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio and his daughter Leonora (1839)

Nabucco, King of Babylon and his daughters Abigaille and Fenena (1842)

Arvino the Count of Toulouse in I Lombardi and his daughter Giselda (1843)

Ataliba chief of the Peruvian tribe in Alzira and his daughter Alzira (1845)

Macbeth, and his son Malcolm (1847)

Massimiliano (the Count Moor in I masnadieri) and his niece Amalia (1847)

Luisa Miller and her father Miller (a retired soldier) in Luisa Miller (1849)

Rigoletto and his daughter Gilda (1851).

It is at this point that the father daughter relationships begin to be even more prominent in Verdi’s repertoire with:

Violetta Valery and her potential father-in-law Giorgio Germont in La Traviata (1853)

Simon Boccanegra and his daughter Amelia Grimaldi (1857)

Il Marchese di Calatrava and his daughter Leonora di Vargas in La Forza del Destino (1862)

Don Carlo and Elizabetta di Valois in Don Carlo (1867)

Amonasro King of Ethiopia and his daughter Aida (1871)

Ford and his daughter Nannetta in Falstaff (1893).

Rigoletto (1851)

Rigoletto is undoubtedly one of Verdi’s masterpieces:  even those critics who would consign the pre-Rigoletto works to oblivion are agreed on this fact.  It marks the beginning of his second or middle period.  In it, he continued the process he seemed to have begun in the last act of Luisa Miller: a move toward opening the closed forms of Romantic Italian Opera.  He continued to write his operas in separate numbers but with a more flexible approach and he continued to use the solita forma in many aspects but gradually he began to move away from convention.

In Rigoletto, Verdi’s working unit is no longer the aria, but the scena.  What is most interesting in the opera is that Gilda has three major scenes with her father, who rather than let his daughter be free to grow up in a normal environment, encloses her, smothers her, and controls her because he cannot bare losing her.  He had already, like Verdi lost his wife and all that remains of that love is Gilda.  His beautiful, “Deh non parlare al misero” in which he tenderly remembers his dead wife may be Verdi’s own thoughts about Margherita Barezi, and is expressive and consoling, as are the moving phrases in his reply to Gilda’s question about family, friends, and country.

In regards to Gilda, her coloratura is always dramatically or emotionally meaningful.  Never does Verdi give her runs for the purpose of aimlessly dazzling display.  For example, “Caro Nome, which is completely written in character is not the type of coloratura aria in which you would decorate the second stanza of the cabaletta, as is typical of Bellini or Donizetti and Rossini.  Verdi writes in what he wants, it is intended and should be sung emotionally not as a feat of vocal prowess, even if it requires one.

The duet “Piangi faniciulla” between Rigoletto and Gilda is most affecting, her disjointed tearful phrase contrasting with his legato. Verdi’s genius produces music of heart rending beauty by the simplest and most economic means.

The final act is telling because Rigoletto believes his daughter has gone to Verona and is safe.  His entire mood becomes one of revenge and so the last act is brilliantly constructed.  The storm scene is operatic writing at its finest, real music theatre as opposed to the concert-in-costume of a great many pre-Verdian Italian operas.

The final duet between Rigoletto and the dying Gilda is so difficult dramatically and well-written because the dying music is effective due to its combination of simple sincerity with the composer’s ability to draw beautiful lines out of the air.  The final release of “Lassu in cielo” is ethereal and must have been how Verdi himself wanted to hold his daughter or his wife as they died without his being able to save them.

Although all of the characters in Rigoletto are valuable to the plot.  Some might argue that the story is trite, however, dramatically speaking, even if one character were removed from the drama, the story would no longer work or make sense.  The remarkable psychological insight of the characters is integral to the overall structure of the opera but also to the structure of the music.  This attribute makes Rigoletto one of the most popular operas as well as one of the finest musically and dramatically.  The entire opera is infused with a humanity but in a very real sense, beneath the obvious surface differences, Rigoletto functions on the relationship between Gilda and her father: his protection of her, his control over her, his constant retelling of inner pain and loss over his wife, his withholding of information, his desire to be the only man in Gilda’s life…all this to protect his daughter, when in the end his own actions bring about her death.  Every time Gilda dies, Verdi’s children die again for him, and perhaps Rigoletto’s selfish actions in being so strict with his daughter are exactly what Verdi wished he had been able to do for his own children, but more poignantly to protect them from death.  Powerful as he was, he could not save his children, but they live immortal in Gilda and all of the daughters of the Verdian repertoire.

200th-Anniversary-Verdi-Gala_1

©Mary-Lou Vetere

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!”

Verdi Bicentennial Week on Met Opera Radio

Verdi 200th

Don’t miss this week on Met Opera Radio, devoted entirely to Verdi.

 

Monday, October 7, 2013

page1image1400

6:00 AM ET 9:00 AM ET

12:00 PM ET 3:00 PM ET

6:00 PM ET 9:00 PM ET

Verdi: Rigoletto
2/10/1973-Levine; Wixell, Grist, Pavarotti, Macurdy, Grillo

This Month at the Met
Netrebko, Kwiecien, Radvanovsky, Muhly, Phillips, Leonard, Beczala, Gelb

Verdi: Aida
2/25/1967-Schippers; Price, Bumbry, Bergonzi, Merrill, Hines

Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera
12/14/1940-Panizza; Milanov, Bjorling, Sved, Castagna, Andreva

Verdi: Otello
10/13/1995-Levine; Domingo, Fleming, Morris, Bunnell, Croft

Verdi: Falstaff
4/6/2002-Levine; Terfel, Mescheriakova, Tilling, Blythe, Turay, Mentzer

 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
1/28/1950-Stiedry; Warren, Varnay, Tucker, Szekely

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6:00 AM ET 9:00 AM ET 12:00 PM ET 3:00 PM ET 7:55 PM ET

Verdi: Il Trovatore
2/4/1961-Cleva; Corelli, Price, Sereni, Dalis, Wilderman

Verdi: La Traviata
1/5/1935-Panizza; Ponselle, Jagel, Tibbett

Verdi: I Lombardi
1/15/1994-Levine; Flanigan, Pavarotti, Beccaria, Plishka

Verdi: Don Carlo
12/23/2006-Levine; Botha, Racette, Hvorostovsky

Shostakovich: The Nose (LIVE FROM THE MET) Gergiev; Szot, Popov, Ognovenko

12:00 AM ET Verdi: Macbeth
2/21/1959-Leinsdorf; Warren, Rysanek, Hines, Bergonzi

 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

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6:00 AM ET

9:00 AM ET 12:00 PM ET

3:00 PM ET

6:00 PM ET 9:00 PM ET 12:00 AM ET

Verdi: Nabucco
3/24/2001-Levine; Pons, Guleghina, Casanova, Tarassova, Ramey

Verdi: I Vespri Siciliani
3/9/1974-Levine; Caballé, Gedda, Milnes, Díaz

Verdi: La Forza del Destino
3/12/1977-Levine; Price, Domingo, MacNeil, Talvela, Elias, Capecchi

This Month at the Met
Netrebko, Kwiecien, Radvanovsky, Muhly, Phillips, Leonard, Beczala, Gelb

Verdi: Rigoletto
2/10/1973-Levine; Wixell, Grist, Pavarotti, Macurdy, Grillo

Verdi: Aida
2/25/1967-Schippers; Price, Bumbry, Bergonzi, Merrill, Hines

Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera
12/14/1940-Panizza; Milanov, Bjorling, Sved, Castagna, Andreva

 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

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6:00 AM ET 9:00 AM ET

12:00 PM ET 3:00 PM ET

Verdi: Otello
10/13/1995-Levine; Domingo, Fleming, Morris, Bunnell, Croft

Verdi: Falstaff
4/6/2002-Levine; Terfel, Mescheriakova, Tilling, Blythe, Turay, Mentzer

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
1/28/1950-Stiedry; Warren, Varnay, Tucker, Szekely

Verdi: Il Trovatore

6:00 PM ET 9:00 PM ET 12:00 AM ET

2/4/1961-Cleva; Corelli, Price, Sereni, Dalis, Wilderman

Verdi: La Traviata
1/5/1935-Panizza; Ponselle, Jagel, Tibbett

Verdi: I Lombardi
1/15/1994-Levine; Flanigan, Pavarotti, Beccaria, Plishka

Verdi: Don Carlo
12/23/2006-Levine; Botha, Racette, Hvorostovsky

 

Friday, October 11, 2013

page3image4344

6:00 AM ET

9:00 AM ET 12:00 PM ET 3:00 PM ET

6:00 PM ET 7:25 PM ET

12:00 AM ET

Verdi: La Forza del Destino
3/12/1977-Levine; Price, Domingo, MacNeil, Talvela, Elias, Capecchi

Verdi: Macbeth
2/21/1959-Leinsdorf; Warren, Rysanek, Hines, Bergonzi

Verdi: Rigoletto
2/10/1973-Levine; Wixell, Grist, Pavarotti, Macurdy, Grillo

Verdi: Nabucco
3/24/2001-Levine; Pons, Guleghina, Casanova, Tarassova, Ramey

This Month at the Met
Netrebko, Kwiecien, Radvanovsky, Muhly, Phillips, Leonard, Beczala, Gelb

Britten: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (SEASON PREMIERE – LIVE FROM THE MET)
Conlon; Kim, Davies, M. Rose, Kaiser, DeShong, Simpson, Wall, Costello

Verdi: I Vespri Siciliani
3/9/1974-Levine; Caballé, Gedda, Milnes, Díaz

 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

6:00 AM ET Verdi: Aida
2/25/1967-Schippers; Price, Bumbry, Bergonzi, Merrill, Hines

page3image14056

9:00 AM ET

12:00 PM ET 3:00 PM ET

6:00 PM ET 9:00 PM ET 12:00 AM ET

Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera
12/14/1940-Panizza; Milanov, Bjorling, Sved, Castagna, Andreva

Verdi: Otello
10/13/1995-Levine; Domingo, Fleming, Morris, Bunnell, Croft

Verdi: Falstaff
4/6/2002-Levine; Terfel, Mescheriakova, Tilling, Blythe, Turay, Mentzer

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
1/28/1950-Stiedry; Warren, Varnay, Tucker, Szekely

Verdi: Il Trovatore
2/4/1961-Cleva; Corelli, Price, Sereni, Dalis, Wilderman

This Month at the Met
Netrebko, Kwiecien, Radvanovsky, Muhly, Phillips, Leonard, Beczala, Gelb

 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

page4image7480

6:00 AM ET 9:40 AM ET 12:00 PM ET 3:00 PM ET 6:00 PM ET 9:00 PM ET 12:00 AM ET

Verdi: Don Carlo
12/23/2006-Levine; Botha, Racette, Hvorostovsky

Verdi: I Lombardi
1/15/1994-Levine; Flanigan, Pavarotti, Beccaria, Plishka

Verdi: La Traviata
1/5/1935-Panizza; Ponselle, Jagel, Tibbett

Carnegie Hall Concert
Levine; DiDonato, MET Orchestra

Verdi: Macbeth
2/21/1959-Leinsdorf; Warren, Rysanek, Hines, Bergonzi

The Met on Record: Verdi: Luisa Miller (1991)
Levine; Millo, Domingo, Chernov, Quivar, Plishka, Rootering

Verdi: La Forza del Destino
3/12/1977-Levine; Price, Domingo, MacNeil, Talvela, Elias, Capecchi

A Petite History of the Critical Review and Recent Perspectives about the Met Opera Season

James Jordan

Fabulous and Renown Opera Critic and Aficionado, James Jorden

It’s always interesting to read various reviews about opera performances and even more interesting to see the contrasting opinions of different reviewers.  The Critical Review has been a subject of controversy and yet an aspect of historical record in the music world since the mid 1800s when Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann began reviewing concerts.  More related to my own area of Italian Opera in Verdi and Puccini’s time, critical reviews became part of the historically legacy of the period, and composers like Amilcare Ponchielli and Arrigo Boito were two who remained fervently devoted to the accurate retelling of a musical event.

Hector Berlioz     Robert Schumann

Where the Metropolitan Opera is concerned, of note the leading opera house in North America, the “Big Three” news sources that are looked  to for critical reviews are:  The New York Times, The New York Post, and The New York Observer.  External to this, I believe that the Washington Post is the next most highly considered.  Why these papers?  It’s not just that these are based in New York and so they are devoted to what exciting events are taking place at their hometown opera house, it’s because of the critics who write the reviews.  The most prominent being:  Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, Vivienne Schweitzer of the New York Times, Zachary Woolfe of the New York Times and New York Observer, James Jorden of the New York Post and New York Observer, Alex Ross of the New Yorker Magazine, and Anne Midgette of the Washington Post.

Amilcare Ponchielli

Amilcare Ponchielli

Arrigo Boito

 Arrigo Boito

What is controversial about the opera review is that it relies heavily on the musical and historical knowledge of the reviewer but also their own personal tastes and so when you’re seeking an understanding of what went on in a performance, it’s probably a good idea to consult more than one review just to balance out the varying opinions.  Reviewers are human beings and like us, they have personal preferences.  Each one has their own manner of reviewing, their own language of discussion, their own syntax, their own flavour–if you will, and the art of opera singing and performance has been linked to these diverse tastes both in the past and today.

My inspiration to talk about reviewing was James Jorden’s recent article in the New York Observer, and while I could have chosen any of the above mentioned critics because they are all wonderful, I chose Mr. Jorden’s review because I personally like his style and the honesty with which he relays his opinions, which I find to be based on a fervent knowledge of singing, historical performance practice, and just plain love of this art.  It is in no offence to any other critic.  Mr. Jorden reviewed the recent events that transpired in the Met’s opening week and I found his assessment refreshing and honest.  Please read his review below by clicking the link.

My own personal opinion on the occurrences of the past week (which has nothing to do with Mr. Jorden’s article or his own opinion) is this:  I think that the problem with opera singing today, and I’m not perfect by any means as a singer (but I sure try to stay close to what is authentic from a historical standpoint), is that we sometimes lose track of what the vocal fachs were when these operas were written and the kinds of voices that were meant to sing them.  It’s very obvious in today’s current climate that voices are not being produced like the voices of the past, especially where intelligibility of the text is concerned, or rather more, attention to the vowel.  When I listen to singers like Mafalda Favero or Tito Schipa, or Caruso even, EVERY word is understood without having the score in front of your face, rather than the fluttering and sustaining of lines via a quick vibrato rather than on the vowel, sul fiato that is more prominent today.  In my opinion, several performances have become unintelligible. Callas used to say, “Speak the text…go around and speak it everywhere.” Ponselle, used to hum everything in the front of her masque in perfectly placed position, and then she would explode that sound into ravishing colour on stage.  What did Callas mean when she said, “speak it?”  She did not mean trill it out and just keep fluttering away on a line that is disengaged from a vowel.  Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think opera has a message and that message is in the story, in the word, enveloped by a beautiful voice that vibrates like a perfectly tuned violin.  To me, it is the expression of that text that is the heart’s blood of opera.  I just wish that this was a greater priority today.

And huge huge respect to Maestro Levine whose return to the podium brought tears to my eyes.  From the first two chords of Cosi Fan Tutte, one heard the Met Orchestra of old.  He is a master and knows how to steer that beast of an orchestra like an expert.  We have missed him and I’m so happy for his return and continued good health.  Bravi tutti, singers, conductors, and critics alike.

Levine

“Onegin’s Opening Night: Anna, Norma, and a Giant Nose: Protesters Stole the Opening Night of Onegin…But No One Can Take the Met Away From James Levine” by James Jorden (New York Observer)

Norma Live at the Met tonight on Sirius/XM Radio (Met Opera Radio)

Norma Angela

Tonight begins the battle of the two Normas at the Metropolitan Opera.  Soprano’s Angela Meade and Sondra Radvanovsky take on the role that made so many sopranos legends in the role.  Very large shoes to fill in this regard.  Tonight, the Met Orchestra, which played exquisitely under the baton of Maestro Levine last week, will be conducted by Maestro Riccardo Frizza and Norma will be sung by Sondra Radvanovsky, Adalgisa by Kate Aldrich, Pollione by Aleksandrs Antonenko, and the illustrious James Morris will sing Oroveso.

Norma 1970

Whenever I think of Norma, I think of the magnificent Joan Sutherland and either Marilyn Horne or Tatiana Troyanos as Adalgisa, or more specifically, Rosa Raisa, Claudio Muzio, or Rosa Ponselle in the title role.  Of course, one cannot forget the magnificent technical mastery of the role from La Divina, Maria Callas.  We’ll see how Ms. Radvanovsky fairs in the role this evening.  Historically, the role of Norma was meant for a large voice with incredible agility, a buoyant middle voice and squillo. Taxing is the role because of its weight and the requirement to move the voice fluidly through each melisma, and so it will be interesting to see which of these two sopranos, Ms. Meade or Ms. Radvanovsky, most suits the role.

Norma is a tragedia lirica  in two acts by Vincenzo Bellini with a libretto by Felice Romani after Norma, ossia L’infanticidio (Norma, or The Infanticide) by Alexandre Soumet. First produced at La Scala Milano on 26 December 1831, it is generally regarded as an example of the supreme height of the Bel Canto tradition.

Click here to access Sirius XM Radio