Will's Record of the Week

Almaviva’s serenade from Il barbiere di Siviglia

Andrea Maggi in Il conte rosso by Giuseppe Giacosa

Andrea Maggi is a name unknown to opera buffs - for the perfectly good reason that he wasn’t an opera singer. He was a well-known stage actor who lived from 1850 to 1914, but with a reputation as a musicista dilettante di molto valore - a very good amateur musician. I’ll say! Among the descriptions of his singing is an account of how he performed the entrance aria and death scene of Verdi’s Otello between the acts of plays in which he appeared.

In 1904 Maggi made a few recordings for the Zonophone company by the primitive acoustical recording process. Here is one of them: Almaviva’s serenade from Il barbiere di Siviglia. It could serve as a model. The voice is sunny and bright but substantial, and youthful-sounding at age fifty-four. The skill at passing from chest voice to head voice is anything but “amateurish.” The ornamentation is bold, and the rhythm alternates lyricism with an impetuosity that is perfect for the character of the Count.

Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never used, or heard anyone using, a microphone - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples!

About Giuditta Pasta

If we could travel through time to hear just one singer, it would be very hard not to choose her.

The future muse of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini was born in 1797 to an Italian mother from a musical family and a German Jewish soldier who had translated his surname from Schwarz to Negri when he settled in Lombardy as a pharmacist. Giuditta Angiola Maria Costanza Negri sang from childhood and made her debut at just 17 (marrying the tenor Giuseppe Pasta in the same year), but her path to stardom was difficult and, at least for those days, slow. She found jobs but not attention for several seasons, withdrew briefly for further studies to tame her apparently unruly voice, and suddenly, in the winter of 1821-22, took Paris by storm with her passionate interpretation of Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello and found herself the most sought-after prima donna in Europe.

Writers vied with each other to describe the details of her voice, its range, its peculiarities, her expressive ornamentation, her skill in blending the registers and the colorings she obtained thereby. But behind all of this one grasps that there was something beyond description, a kind of genius of drama and expression that left everyone awestruck. It was the genius that made all the details matter - or not matter. The English chronicler Henry Fothergill Chorley spoke of audiences “held in thrall, without being able to analyse what made up the spell, so soon as she opened her lips.” Stendhal (Henri Beyle) wrote of notes with “a kind of resonant and magnetic vibration, which, through some still unexplained combination of physical phenomena, exercises an instantaneous and hypnotic effect upon the soul of the spectator.”  Richard Mackenzie Bacon said of a single word uttered in Medea:

It is impossible to convey the dignity with which Madame Pasta invested these two notes. She gave them with the whole power of her voice, at the same instant flung wide her arms above her head, and her whole figure seemed to dilate with a passionate majesty that can only be understood when seen.

Chopin did not even try to go into details - “I have never heard anything more sublime” - but told pupils some of his Nocturnes were based on her singing. Just about then (1831) Donizetti and Bellini were writing for her the roles that made the climax of Pasta’s career: Anna Bolena, Norma, and Amina in La sonnambula.

Pasta did not originate either Tancredi or Medea, but she made them both cornerstones of her repertory and carried them to triumph everywhere. Stendhal saw her over twenty times in the Rossini opera and said “the voice followed so closely the inspirations that breathed spontaneously from her heart, that it could never be called twice alike. With Madame Pasta, the same note in two different situations can hardly be called the same note.” And it was her thrilling dramatic performance that kept Medea in Corinto in the repertory when Mayr’s music was already a generation or more out of date. Henry Chorley saw it in London:

The air of quiet, concentrated vengeance seeming to fill every fibre of her frame, with which she stood alone, wrapped in her scarlet mantle, as the bridal procession of Jason and Creusa swept by, is never to be forgotten. Where, again, has ever been seen any exhibition of art grander than her Medea’s struggle with herself ere she consents to murder her children? --than her steps to and fro, as of one drunken with frenzy - torn with the agonies of natural pity, yet still resolved on her awful triumph?

Now, of course, we’re used to hearing opera from many periods, and we don’t need it to be “up to date” - so we are ready to appreciate Mayr’s masterwork again, and to search in it for the timeless dramatic life a genius like Pasta found there.  

But how, meanwhile, did the medium-high soprano for whom La sonnambula was written manage to sing the deep contralto role of Tancredi? By transposing it upwards, of course; it was still normal and expected, in Rossini’s day and for a good while afterwards, that roles would be fitted to the voices singing them. A good tailor can make expert alterations. Nowadays we prefer to hear the original concept, including its choice of tonalities and vocal range, and that is valid too, as long as we don’t mistake it for law. But to hear Pasta interpret the role? Whatever key she likes!

Giuditta Pasta,
by Gioacchino Giuseppe Serangeli  (1768–1852) 

Who was Tancredi?

Actually, there were several Tancredis. No, many Tancredis - it was a name passed down in the Hauteville family, a Norman clan that rose to its greatest power with the conquest of southern Italy in the eleventh century. The name was diffused everywhere in different forms; gin lovers know it today as Tanqueray.  

One of the Hautevilles, a Tancredi who lived from 1075 to 1112, participated in the First Crusade and became Prince of Galilee, and subsequently entered literature by being inserted into Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered (Gerusalemme liberata). His adventures there seem mostly to be inventions of Tasso; one of them became a sort of proto-opera when Monteverdi set it to music as Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.

The hero of Voltaire’s Tancrède and Rossini’s opera seems to be the same figure, to judge by the date given for the action of the play (1105) - but here we pass almost completely into the realm of fiction; none of the situations or (other) people in the play seem to be based on known history. But he became real to operagoers; Rossini was the seventh known composer to base an opera on Voltaire’s tragedy.

He also became a prototype: the exile, the dispossessed, the outsider, longing for belonging, seeking a rightful place, focused above all on desire for union with a woman, and finding his way to her barred. Conrad L. Osborne calls it, rightly, “the redundant narrative” of opera’s greatest century. Edgardo, Gualtiero, Gennaro; Ernani, Manrico, Don Carlo; Siegmund, Werther, Otello, and with variations and twists, dozens of others - Tancredi is a father-figure to them all.

Tancred of Hauteville,

by Merry-Joseph Blondel  (1781–1853) 

What happened to the conductor?

© computerclipart.com

Italian opera houses didn’t generally have a stand-up conductor until the 1860s or later. Even La traviata and Il trovatore were premiered without one! The leadership was shared between the first violinist, usually listed as Primo violino e capo d’orchestra or Violino principale e direttore dell’orchestra and a Maestro concertatore or Maestro al cembalo, who sat at a keyboard (whether he played it or not, and how much if so, depended on the style of the music and the needs of the ensemble). "Concertare" means putting things together; the maestro concertatore was the person who had rehearsed the singers - usually a composer, and if the opera was new, always the composer. The first violinist, meanwhile, was basically responsible for the orchestra, and the two of them shared the job of coordinating the vocal and instrumental elements in performance. 

Teatro Nuovo is reviving this style because we want an ensemble of players and singers listening and reacting to each other every exciting minute - and we want to put each singer in the driver’s seat for his or her aria. In a way, the stand-up conductor is an intrusion on this process. It became a necessary function later, when orchestration became much more complex. But if Rossini didn’t need it, why should we? The older concept emphasizes more leading and less directing. Leading is something you do from within a team, with your hands on the music like everyone else. Let’s see if our team can make it work!

The first operatic pop tune?

Opera became Italy’s pop music in the 19th century as a rising middle class democratized the audience. Singable, memorable melodies became a sine qua non for successful composers, and everybody everywhere knew the best tunes. The standard was set by Tancredi’s “Di tanti palpiti.” 

The catchy simplicity of the opening phrases hit the spot. There is also virtuosic coloratura, but that comes later; anybody could sing the tune. At least fifty different sheet-music editions appeared, and almost as many sets of variations for piano, harp, flute, clarinet, and every other instrument played by amateurs at home. Wagner made the chorus of tailors sing it as they arrive for the festival in Die Meistersinger (tailors, because Italian arias are cut-to-fit from standard patterns, right? get it? Poor Wagner! Humor was not his key gift.) 

Frontispiece of an arrangement of “Di tanti palpiti,” circa 1820

Legend has it that Rossini composed the aria in the time it took to cook a pot of rice, after the original Tancredi (Adelaide Malanotte) had objected that his first attempt to write her entrance aria was insufficient. For years it was called the aria del riso. It makes a better story than the true one: “Di tanti palpiti” was the first attempt - it was the one Malanotte didn’t like - and so a more ambitious aria, “Dolci d’amor parole,” with a spectacular violin obbligato and an offstage echoing voice, was cooked up to replace it. Both are delicious; Teatro Nuovo’s audiences can compare them when the second aria is featured in Tancredi rifatto.

Another legend is impossible to verify. One of the catchiest lines is “Mi rivedrai; ti rivedrò” - “You will see me again, I will see you again.” According to endlessly repeated accounts, humming this bit of melody became a coded way to threaten a witness who was about to testify against a powerful criminal. It seems judges eventually had to ban even the wordless tune in court.