23 April 2010

Trills & Thrills

At this moment, friends in Chicago, New York, and Geneva are performing “serious” Rossini operas: Mosè in Egitto, Armida, and La Donna del Lago. Though none of these pieces is liable to dethrone The Barber of Seville, they’re all pretty exciting, and if you give any one of them a chance, they can take a powerful hold on your imagination. After all, it was Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth that made me an opera fan — 35 years ago — and it’s by no means a comedy.

In certain of Rossini’s works, the distinction between comedy and tragedy mattered primarily to the librettist: the composer gives you the same sort of florid vocal writing, and sometimes the same songs, no matter the subject. At least, that’s the accepted generalization, and in our post–Wagner era, Rossini’s concept of music–drama does require getting used to. Because very often, the real drama comes from the performance itself.

Beverly Sills, as she looked 35 years ago.

The sheer athleticism of Rossinian vocalism is thrilling to witness: to get through even an “easy” number demands stamina, breath, and muscular training. I sometimes think the trampoline of the human diaphragm must be moving faster than the eye could see, whenever a singer is firing off those signature triplets that Rossini never tires of. Without mechanical amplification, the voice must project from the stage, across the orchestra pit, and into the house. All at the same time, the singer is expected to stay reasonably close to pitch, and to keep the rhythm and vocal color in smooth running order. Playing basketball would be easier.

If the singer can add personality, psychological insight, and physical movement, as my friends most assuredly can, then you’ve got excitement you won’t forget any time soon.

Marilyn Horne has done more than any other singer
to bring Rossini’s serious operas to modern audiences.
(I heard her onstage only in his comedies, however.)

I’m baffled that kids, who thrill to high notes and loud volume as young people always have, and who easily appreciate the arcana and accomplishment of professional sport, don’t “get” opera more readily. Back in the good old days, when we had music education in public schools, kids may have understood better how difficult it is to sing opera. There’s an element of risk in performance that doesn’t exist in most pop music today, when everything is not only amplified but Auto-tuned and sometimes pre-recorded: an opera singer is exposed in a way that other artists seldom are. I keep trying to explain this to my godchildren.

The plots of Rossini’s serious operas might find common bonds with teenagers, who tend to be melodramatic and absurdly exaggerated, too. Certainly I had no trouble identifying with the over-the-top characters in The Siege of Corinth. (It surely helped that they were portrayed by singers who were such vibrant characters in real life: Beverly Sills and Shirley Verrett commanded my attention — and my sympathies — no matter what they did.)

These thoughts are with me right now because, as artists such as my beloved Joyce DiDonato; her pals, the tenors Lawrence Brownlee and Barry Banks; and her husband, the conductor Leonardo Vordoni present this repertory, there’s a chance that some kid will hear them, and be launched on a lifetime of opera-going, just as I was 35 years ago. All those fireworks do sometimes cast sparks that catch flame, you know.

My official anniversary is May 15, and doubtless I’ll have more to say about it as the time draws near. For now, let it suffice to say that, if you’d told me in 1975 that some day I’d get to hang out with the people who make this kind of music, I’d have thought you were crazy. Yet today we can see that it’s just one of the benefits of fandom.

Moses in Egypt at Chicago Opera Theater, conducted by Leonardo Vordoni.
April 17, 21, 23, 25

Armida at the Metropolitan Opera, starring Lawrence Brownlee, Barry Banks, and a certain Ms. Fleming.
April 12, 16, 19, 22, 27, May 1, 4, 7, 11, 15.

La Donna del Lago at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, starring Joyce DiDonato.
May 5, 7, 9, 11, 14, 17

Colbran, the Muse, Joyce DiDonato’s new album of seriously thrilling Rossini arias, is available at Amazon.

In this scene from Rossini’s visionary but seldom-heard Gianbredi,
middle sister Jan (Ewa Podles´, right) swears vengeance,
while glamorous Marcia (Georgia Jarman) looks on.
What? Tancredi? Oh. That’s very different.
Never mind.

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