Parlando: The COC Blog

5/2/2014

Sondra Radvanovsky: A bel canto journey

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager

Sondra Radvanovsky - A bel canto journey

When superstar soprano Sondra Radvanovsky finished singing Aida’s great act III aria “O patria mia” in her 2010 COC and role debut, the audience response was unprecedented. Toronto had just experienced one of the most emotionally frank, technically superb, thrilling pieces of singing. The post-performance excitement in the lobby was palpable – her just-released CD of Verdi arias was selling out at the Opera Shop and patrons were simply abuzz with excitement, demanding to know when they would hear her again. They’re currently getting that chance with Radvanovsky’s rapturously-received return to the COC stage this spring as the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I (Elisabetta) in Roberto Devereux which, like Aida in 2010, represents another role debut.

Until recently, Radvanovsky’s repertoire was built on early- and middle-period Verdi heroines such as Elena in I vespri siciliani and Leonora in Il trovatore. It is only more recently that she has begun to explore earlier Italian 19th-century roles like Norma, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and now, Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. Convention dictates that big-voiced singers like Radvanovsky “graduate” forward, taking on even greater decibel-demanding, thickly orchestrated, post-Verdi roles like Puccini’s Turandot, Madama Butterfly and Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West. While Puccini’s Tosca is one of her staple, star turns, Radvanovsky has, somewhat unexpectedly, headed in the opposite direction, towards the earlier 19th-century heroines of Donizetti. In this corner of the repertoire, size of voice is not all that matters; instead, flexibility to sing demanding coloratura (highly ornamental music where several notes are sung on each syllable of the text); sustained vocal lines sung perfectly smoothly; and, an ability to colour the meaning of the text take precedence.

The soprano’s account of the path that led her to bel canto is fascinating and revealing. “I am not one to lie about my past. As a child I was intubated; I had pneumonia and my doctor feels that the tube nicked one of my vocal chords which resulted in the polyp I had all of my singing life. In 2002 I had it removed and had to learn how to sing all over again. It opened up a new world for me, a world I never thought or imagined musically I would be singing. That really started with [the 2008 Washington National Opera production of] Lucrezia Borgia but it was also my voice coach, Tony Manoli, who pointed me in that direction.” Despite her many accomplishments as a Verdi singer, he was convinced she had the potential to be even greater in the bel canto repertoire. Together, they re-worked her technique post-surgery and in the process, she feels she became a better singer. “It was a godsend. No one else heard it; Manoli was the only one.” The ultimate affirmation of this vocal transformation was her recent fall 2013 Metropolitan Opera Norma (the summit of all bel canto roles) – “it was a huge success…HUGE!”

Roberto Devereux

With her COC Elisabetta, Radvanovsky will have sung all three of Donizetti’s “Tudor queens” (Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda complete the trilogy), an undertaking few sopranos have managed to achieve – or survive! Famously, American soprano Beverly Sills, who performed all three at New York City Opera during the early 1970s, admitted they shortened her opera career. “Well,” says Radvanovsky, “I think our voices are a lot different; she was more of a lyric coloratura,” as opposed to Radvanovsky’s own fuller, dramatic instrument. “But I guess she wanted to risk it because it’s so exciting as an artist to perform all three.”

And now, having lived with the Tudor queens herself, Radvanovsky can attest to their dangerous fascination. “There is the common thread, of course, that they were all queens and so possess a nobility that one has to keep in mind in terms of stage deportment – with how they react and deal with other characters. Vocally, however, they are completely different. Donizetti chose to highlight earlier stages of the other queens’ lives whereas Elisabetta is at the end and she’s worn down; she’s a broken woman. She was a very strong queen as we know, but here she’s angry a lot and it shows in the vocal writing Donizetti gave her.

A scene from Roberto Devereux

If you look at the length of the role, Elisabetta is the shortest, especially compared to Anna Bolena which is a marathon. In fact, Elisabetta doesn’t appear in quite a bit of the opera, but she has the key moments and, by far, the hardest music. In terms of vocal range, hers is the widest with a great amount of dramatic coloratura that is just unrelenting. It’s so easy to get caught up in the character’s temperament. As singers we can play the emotion in our body or it can get stuck in your voice… there’s good tension and there’s bad tension and one has to learn the difference between the two if you’re going to sing roles like Elisabetta and Norma – you have to know where to put the tension in your body and hopefully it doesn’t go to your throat.”

Radvanovsky will take on the Sills trifecta when she sings all three Tudor queens in 2015/2016 at the Metropolitan Opera. “I start in the fall with a new production of Roberto Devereux and then come back later in the season and do all three in a row. I’m not sure if I’m completely cuckoo or sane for doing this!” Before that, however, she is particularly keen on the COC’s Shakespearean Globe Theatre-inspired production for Devereux. Our audiences will recognize it from 2010’s Maria Stuarda but it was also the setting for Radvanovsky’s Anna Bolena at Washington National Opera in 2012. “I really like the whole concept of it being in the round, of the Globe Theatre influence, and it’s great for projecting the voice too – I don’t have to work as hard because I have all this resonant wood around me!”

Roberto Devereux runs at the Four Seasons Centre until May 21, 2014. For tickets and more information click here.

Photos: (top) Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta; (middle) (far right) Sondra Radvanovsky; (bottom) Sondra Radvanovsky, Leonardo Capalbo as Roberto Devereux and Matt Boehler as Sir Gualtiero Raleigh. All photos from the Canadian Opera Company production of Roberto Devereux, 2014. Photos: Michael Cooper

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4/29/2014

Roberto Devereux puts the “grand” back into “grand opera"!

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4/28/2014

Don Quichotte Listening Guide

By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager

Don Quichotte Listening Guide

Introduction

The two major names in French 19th-century opera were Giacomo Meyerbeer and Jules Massenet. Although Charles Gounod and Camille Saint-Saens made wider contributions to French music as a whole during this period (symphonies, chamber music, sacred choral works, etc.), their theatrical output was relatively small compared to the huge number of operatic successes Meyerbeer and Massenet had throughout their long careers. However, despite the popularity of these works during their lifetimes, they suffered a subsequent neglect which, in Massenet’s case, was especially true of his later operas including Don Quichotte (1910). However, changing tastes and reconsidered opinions have resulted in a new-found appreciation and popularity for Massenet’s treatment of Miguel de Cervantes’ epic 1605 novel Don Quixote. Its exploration of universal themes of age versus youth; fulfillment versus regret, and self-deception versus reality, lend it an eternal relevance and appeal.

Musically, Don Quichotte shows Massenet composing in his more chamber music-like mode.* Although he could write operas requiring huge orchestral and choral forces such as 1889’s Esclarmonde with its Wagnerian, Tristan und Isolde-inspired story, he was able to downsize all of this in the interest of telling Don Quichotte’s more intimate, personal story. Much of its score is lightly orchestrated, accompanied by solo instruments such as the guitar; or, by solo instrumental sections (for example, cellos dominate Don Quichotte’s final death scene). This opera was intimate on all fronts, composed as it was for the opulent little theatre in the casino at Monte Carlo. Likewise, its libretto written by Henri Caïn, is a compact five-act distillation of the sprawling Cervantes novel.

The opera’s overall dark tinta (dominant musical colour) reflects its examination of sombre themes such as the passage of time and lost illusion. It also results from the dominance of deep male voices – both Don Quichotte and his right hand man, Sancho Panza, are sung by basses. Massenet lightens the overall texture in the larger ensembles by making two of Dulcineé’s four suitors into pants roles. However, the overall chamber music scale is maintained even in episodes with the potential for some adventure such Don Quichotte’s Act III encounter with threatening brigands in the Spanish mountains. Here, Massenet never lets things get too overwhelming, keeping the orchestral colours spare and transparent.

Musical Excerpt #1: Act II, duet: “Regarde!... Quoi? Quoi?” (“See there!... What? What?”)

Connection to the Story
As the morning mist clears, Quichotte sees windmills, takes them for giants, and despite Sancho’s attempts to disabuse him, he attacks them and is borne up aloft on one of the sails.

Musical Significance
The question of textual fidelity, or lack thereof, is one of the oft-repeated complaints made against French Romantic operas like Don Quichotte or, for example, Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet (1868); but it’s an objection that demonstrates some general confusion around opera libretti (texts) based on well-known works from the literary canon. It must be kept in mind that these operas were very much adaptations of the original pieces of literature, which is even more the case for Don Quichotte, based as it is not so much on Cervantes’ novel but on an adaptation of it, the 1904 play, Le chevalier de la longue figure by Jacques Le Lorrain. However, even Massenet couldn’t resist setting the famous “tilting at windmills” scene from Cervantes’ episodic tale. Many of the atmospheric or emotional effects achieved by Massenet in Don Quichotte are the result of his highly individual, vivid orchestration rather than any flashy vocal writing. For example, listen to the pale, spare chords that introduce the windmills as they appear through the mist at the start of this excerpt (listen from 00:07 to 00:17) – very subtle, a bit spooky, and obviously a product of Don Quichotte’s over-fertile imagination! Then, at 1:23, we hear a percussive “clip-clop” sound which mimics the acceleration of the windmills as he swings wildly at them with his sword, much to the disbelief of Sancho.

Musical Excerpt #2: Act IV, aria: “Alza! Alza! Ne pensons qu’au plaisir d’aimer” (“Alza! Alza! Think only of the pleasures of love”)

Connection to Story
Dulcinée informs her suitors that she is looking for a new kind of love and, to her own guitar accompaniment, sings a passionate song in praise of fleeting pleasure.

Musical Significance
Dulcinée ranks among the most attractive of Massenet’s feminine portraits. His heroines can be roughly divided into two camps: the quintessential femme fatale/courtesan type (Manon and Thaïs) versus his more mettlesome, determined females such as Chimène of Le Cid; the German housewife Charlotte in Werther; the faithful, patient Grisélidis in the opera of that name and, the frantic Anita in La Navarraise. Dulcinée lies somewhere between these two extremes: her social position is not quite clear – she emerges as a strong woman who knows what she wants and keeps her many suitors at bay. In Cervantes’ novel, “Dulcinea” is just a figment of the Don’s imagination and remains invisible. Massenet goes the route of Jacques Le Lorrain’s play on which the libretto is based and turns her into a flesh-and-blood character.

The role requires a fruity, agile mezzo-soprano (a “middle” female singing voice that falls between a soprano and contralto), which is able to handle high-lying passages. She gets to sing music written in a “faux Spanish” style with its characteristically playful, incisive rhythms and clicking castanet sound effects, all of which suit Dulcinée’s carefree, flighty personality. This excerpt contains many elements we associate with Spanish folk music: listen for guitar strumming at 00:11; a rousing “Olé” at 00:35; intricate twirling coloratura passages at 00:49 and finally, signature clapping and castanet clicking to end at 1:51.

Musical Excerpt #3: Act IV, duet: “Oui, je souffre votre tristesse” (“Yes, I share your sorrow”)

Connection to the Story
With exaggerated courtliness, Don Quichotte proposes marriage to Dulcinée much to the amusement of her guests. She tactfully dismisses them and, in a tender duet, gently refuses his offer.

Musical Significance
This gorgeously harmonized duet seems to encapsulate Claude Debussy’s opinion that in Massenet’s “untiring curiosity in seeking in music the data for the history of the feminine soul… The harmonies are like enlacing arms, the melodies are the necks we kiss; we gaze into the women’s eyes to learn at any cost what lies behind.” Like Debussy suggests, Dulcinée’s vocal line acts as a mirror to her soul. At 0:17, we hear a gentle, falling melody as she expresses feelings of empathy for Don Quichotte, who she gently lets down after a somewhat inappropriate marriage proposal. Then at 0:42, the tempo picks up and the melody rises and intensifies as she sings of her chagrin (embarrassment) for having mocked his proposal. Finally, at 3:54 the two voices join together in harmony as if to signify their mutual understanding of one other. Although nominally a “love duet,” Massenet here maintains the same understated vocal writing he uses throughout the opera and in doing so, charts a painfully honest conversation between two mature adults.

Musical Excerpt #4: Act V, aria: “Ô mon maître, ô mon grand!” (“O my master, o my great!”)

Connection to the Story
Quichotte realizes that he has long outlived his purpose in life and that death is near: Sancho will be free to return to the village he forsook to serve so strange a master.

Musical Significance
The opera fittingly concludes with this moving death scene not only signifying the end of Don Quichotte, but also the end of the Age of Chivalry that he represents. Even further, the finale points to the conclusion of a golden age of French Romantic opera for which Massenet served as the last great proponent.

The scene begins with an orchestral introduction dominated by low strings (listen for the cello entry at 0:17) which establishes an appropriately autumnal, sombre atmosphere. We don’t hear any singing until 1:38 when Don Quichotte begins his farewell to his lifelong companion, Sancho Panza. Here, in typically French style, the vocal line is intrinsically tied to the text, rising and falling with the cadence of the sentence as it would be spoken with any additional inflection related to the meaning of the words. This remarkably subtle word-setting represents the culmination of a lifetime of experience on Massenet’s part; a sort of high point of the very text-centred French operatic tradition that would only be taken one step further by Debussy in Pelléas et Mélisande. At 3:15, Quichotte’s recitation takes on the monastic, chanted quality we normally associate with medieval church music. We hear this as his vocal line becomes centred around one pitch and any expression results directly from the handling of the text. Finally, at 8:33 in his final moments, Don Quichotte has a vision of Dulcinée whose voice is heard offstage and is hailed as “la lumière, l’amour, la jeunesse” (the light, the love, the youth) of his life.

Don Quichotte runs from May 9 to 25 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, for tickets and more information click here.

Photo: John Relyea as Don Quichotte in the Seattle Opera production of Don Quichotte, 2011. Photo: Rozarii Lynch

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001