Monday, June 24, 2013

Parsifal: Wagner's Secret Gospel

In Parsifal Richard Wagner was massaging his hemorrhoids, whilst resting one cheek on a Cosima embroidered pillow and applying Schopenhauer’s lotion to the throbbing wound within, when he cried, “Cosima, Crikey! I will use the suffering of the sex obsessed wounded king on the one hand and a pretty boy on the other, and have my devil woman laugh at Jesus then die! It’s not about racial purity and how impure races have infiltrated us, the idea is the World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung) -- it is Schopenhauer!!!!” “Master!” Cried Cosima as she slipped to her knees….

Actually, I’m joking. But how many idiots write in that style and can tell you just what Parsifal means? I see perfervid defenses of what, taken literally is indefensible, all the time, written by morons such as Stephen Jay Taylor (among the biggest idiots to hold forth) who uses his Dictaphone whilst playing ‘hide the gopher’ with the preposterously stupid Richard Garmise (also from Opera Brittania.)

So many people feel they must share their thoughts of Wagner the Man or No he really didn’t mean it as though they know anything, as though there really were such a thing as table turning and they could talk to “the Master”. Meanwhile, their thoughts on what we can actually know about his music and it’s execution in a particular piece are banal, unperceptive and so moronic they are probably deaf – presumably the reason other idiots from up the food chain hired them.

I’m no longer amused by the Wagner industry; he was writing entertainments and Parsifal has all the sex and religion one would expect in Thais, for example. If Massenet perforce must forego all of Anatole France’s wit about Christianity, the pretentious worship of the Greek masters, even the twisted psychologies of his leading characters (a pagan whore converted to The Christ by a Christian nut job named Paphnuce in the original – Massenet had enough sense to change the name to Atanael!), the result is at least not a pretentious farrago. Parsifal is not a work of philosophy – Nietzsche saw through that with priceless wit. Its libretto is a libretto, period. Did Wagner mean it, do you think? Actually the writing is less pompous and self regarding than most of “the Master’s” work, he uses free verse, easy rhymes, many exclamations, old fashioned recitative now and then, and only some of that ringy dingy nonsense known as Stabreim (pardon, ringy dingy is an old person’s reference to Laugh-In, though a good many recent productions of Parsifal, not an opera but a Bühnenweihfestspiel, are rather like Laugh-In). 

That long word means a “Sacred Stage Festival Play” and there is a pun contained in the word “weihen”, which means a “consecration”. How does the word sacred relate to Schopenhauer, an atheist, who was part of the first intellectual group to actually discover how contradictory, illogical and obviously much edited after the fact the Gospels were? How does the notion of “consecration” relate to The Buddha, supposedly another influence on the story? How could The Christ have been Aryan when even in Wagner’s time scholars such as Ludwig Feuerbach understood that if there really was a Joshua (Jesus is the Greek version of the name, a language a poor Jew would not have spoken, but since Aramaic was the language spoken most widely at the time, The Savior was probably called Yeshu) he would have been a small, dark, Palestinian who very likely never saw a blond person in His life!!! He might have thought one was the devil!!!

(Jesus as he very likely looked)

One may feel inclined as a perfect Wagnerian to screen these things out as we do in entertainments that we are legislated to enjoy and settle back and enjoy the music. But still the pretentious posturing out there, the automatic assumption that mere operas are “profound”, “searching” or even particularly revealing of what their creators really thought about complex issues irritates the Widder.

Certainly as a dramatic text, Parsifal is preposterous. It relies on endless exposition; its symbols are embarrassing, its point confused on the surface but stemming from the bigotry for which Wagner was famous. Its view of women is ludicrous; the odd sex scene that forms most of act two has -- like the entire work – to be hedged when described by the Wagner Industry, explained in contradictory ways that reflect nothing that would actually ever occur in life. But there’s no question that in Wagner’s plan Kundry the eternal whore must die – redeemed by the beautiful Aryan boy who has declined her favors but baptized her into – what? Schopenhauer? Buddhism? Is it to be taken at face value, do you think?

It’s really all nonsense, modern directors try very hard to minimize the composer’s own explicit directions. Kundry lives nowadays, sometimes she takes over in contemporary Konzept productions. They must ignore The Master’s contemporaneous hate filled writings, and even worse, the snippets of colloquial bigotry to be found in Cosima’s million word diary around the time of his composing Parsifal where The Jews are likened to a swarm of flies in the wound of a horse. Or, Cosima records a “capital” joke of Richard’s, “All the Jews should be burned….”. God help anyone who is not white and doesn’t join an all male society that believes the myth called Christianity, “a human being who is born black, urged upwards to the heights becomes white, and at the same time a different creature”. (these edifying quotes and more of the same can be found in Cosima Wagner’s Diaries, February 9, 1882 and December 18, 1881)

But most of the people hired to write or talk about music can’t. So they refer constantly back to the prolix, pretentious, bizarre texts, which can only be tolerated not because Wagner was a great thinker, psychologist, or good heavens, a dramatist. He was, more often than not, able to write music of remarkable power. Unless there is something else going on in Parsifal, as some Theologians of the seventies thought there was a secret Gospel to be pieced together from hints and oddities in the familiar canonical writings.

I was able to get a video of The Salzburg Parsifal this spring, telecast on March 28. Led by Christian Thielemann, the cast includes Johan Botha, Stephen Milling, Wolfgang Koch and Michaela Schuster. The production is by Michael Schulz.

(Thielemann as a Karajan assistant)

There was some controversy because the Berlin Philharmonic had gotten a better offer from Baden-Baden and decamped with their leader, Simon Rattle. Very late in the game, Thielemann jumped in and brought “his” orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle.

But he also made a decision to do the work with an attention to details of orchestration and harmony that is often lost in standard performances, no matter how well played and rehearsed. To achieve this lighter weight; and to support rather than war on the singers, he raised the pit and urged the orchestra to listen to the singers, and the singers to “locate” themselves within the orchestral fabric. He emphasized the vocal lines and how they were set and how musical details colored and enriched them.

The result is amazing. He achieves an astonishing range of colors effortlessly, without needing all the tricks of slowing down, sudden speeding up, inserting pauses or italicizing phrases. Rhythms have a wonderful spring and immediacy but are varied subtly to increase both the songfulness of the writing and also, when needed, to add intensity without the heavy-handed rhetoric one is used to. Above all, he has ignored the lexicon of mannerisms Parsifal has attracted at least since the fifties; there isn’t any of the faux “spiritual” stretching of phrases, there is no forcing of climaxes. Nothing is dragged for effect, there are no oddities of balance or showy sudden shifts in sonority in the orchestra, and there is no playing with phrases, extending or contracting them, deliberately creating instability of movement in search of mystical hypnotism.

Instead, the score sounds – well -- new. The colors are Wagner’s, the balances are honest. I have my own suspicions about why Thielemann made these choices; the emphasis here is on what matters most, the composer’s extraordinary musical invention, seductive, challenging and above all, in its time, original. His singers all are exact, prompt, musicianly. Though this cast in general is not a parade of vocal marvels, it is rewarding to follow with the score because the singers have been coached so carefully to operate within the musical framework.

If this was much or part of Thielemann’s strategy, it is entirely understandable here. No one in their right mind would want to see what is transpiring on stage in this production. Though Wagner’s psychological “insights” and philosophical pretension are worthless, this particular attempt to make them palatable is grotesque first to last – not amusingly grotesque just fun house nutty.

Whether I am right, Thielemann has actually followed the composer not the story teller. In Parsifal the motives flow up from the orchestra, rather than from the vocal line or (with a few exceptions) by being generated by dramatic events. There are fewer “obvious” leitmotifs; instead, there is a remarkable free flowing musical invention where the composer uses, with evident spontaneity, musical material from the first act effortlessly changed, reharmonized, differently colored to create remarkable effects, imitations of which will be heard well into the 1920’s. For my taste it is the most astounding and stimulating of Wagner’s works musically, a work of infinite musical resource and originality. By avoiding the usual inflation and pomposity, the all too familiar stasis, Thielemann and his virtuoso orchestra allow the results of the composer’s imagination to flower. Whatever one thinks of the work’s text or dramatic concerns, the odd beauty, the shock of the music is evident in every bar. Sad that there are words too, or at least, these words.

Anyone who looks at a score notices that Wagner has quietly created a new kind of modulation that carried further would weaken and undermine the importance of tonality. The beginning of act two, “the sorcerer’s lair” is a version of the serene beginning of act one – but in act two the stability of the chord underlying the start of the opera is destroyed by the introduction of a tritone (“the devil in music”). Throughout much of the opera, diatonic harmony is always on the brink of extinction. Wagner continually bases his key relationships not on the expected tonic/dominant mode of modulation in tonal music, but on thirds, constantly shifting one’s sense of a firm tonal center. Even the more obviously diatonic stretches have unexpected resolutions or shifts that call established keys into question. Everything in Parsifal evolves, shifts, twists. This is most obvious in the highly chromatic, for its time very daring and for us, fascinating, act two. But even in the first and third act “classical” progressions harmonically can never be taken for granted.

Is it possible that the harmonic instability of the work, its experimentation, its oddities (often smoothed out by the standard performances) contain a secret? Does the music suggest that Wagner himself doesn’t really believe this story either? Is it possible that the old man, writing what was certain to be his last work, decided to make Christological textual references(after all both his terrifying wife and crucially his patron, King Ludwig, had to be convinced of the probity of Wagner the man, something he was conspicuously lacking in his real life), while calling all meaning into question? It is nice to believe in redemption, but is it real? Can we be sure? Perhaps this is why in the Good Friday Spell of act three the typical emphasis on suffering quickly gives way to the beauty of nature renewed every spring, perhaps the only life after death we humans can be sure of. And maybe that is the secret underlying what seems forced, hypocritical, weird or pompous on the surface.

Just a few words about the production: The enormous Johann Botha is dressed all in green throughout the entire opera, with a big and tall style bargain store jacket that once seen will haunt one’s dreams for life. The equerries and helpers of Gurnemanz are dressed in white uniforms. When the music tells us Kundry is riding up ferociously, they form a circle around Gurnemanz and jump up and down. They look like Woody Allen’s version of anxious sperm in his version of All you Wanted to Know about Sex. Amfortas looks very hearty to be in agony from a wound that won’t heal, and during the Grail ceremony (whatever the Grail is, it is in a box picked out of a back alley) two Asian women who appear to be topless entwine themselves around him. And oh, yes, we’ve already met Jesus crucified. He appears shortly after Kundry does, “shadowed” by what appears to be a ninja. This Christ is very taken with Kundry, and walking like a crippled mime he follows her around. But then Parsifal has appeared with a troop of boys wearing green t-shirts and white jackets (I thought he was wandering alone fighting his way through the world? Guess not).

In act two, the setting is a museum with white statues that suggest cheap antiquities though I thought one giant head looked rather like Wagner retching. The real villain is a little person (let’s be un-PC and call him a dwarf). This dwarf is a virtuoso mugger, twisting his face into astonishing shapes – even at his curtain call! Klingsor is sung by Amfortas (actually the music of both is chromatic and to a degree related, maybe the director reads music). But it’s the dwarf who “conducts” the action, sitting atop a big head. Kundry has doffed her trench coat, dragging it behind her, revealing a tattoo sleeve and she has put on shoes. Her dress looks like it was gotten from a dumpster but that trench coat will come in handy.

In scene two, the girls wear cute burlesque style uniforms that come off to reveal filmy dresses, but some of their number wears white 70’s disco attire with big boots, the Jane Fonda Barbarella look. Parsifal enters with his troop, this time a bunch of – twinks – I think is the colloquial word in some circles. Twinks and girls whirl around each other and make out while Parsifal watches – a bi-curious pure fool? This goes on through the seduction scene. Parsifal and Kundry stay as far apart as possible. He sits through most of the scene. She lolls on a statue of what might be the Buddha, making out with it, since Parsifal doesn’t seem interested. The Crucified shows up here too and naturally, Kundry and he are mighty attracted to one another (the “Tristan” chord appears right after Kundry says, “sein Blick” in her narrative of laughing at The Christ, maybe she was turned on, too – that’s certainly Wagner implication. Again, maybe this director actually read the score. Although whether The Master wanted us to see The Christ and the whore of Babylon ogling one another is a question).

Act three is bare planks, dead bodies, Parsifal in green suit but holding some kind of home made mask made from a wire clothes hanger in front of his face to start. Soon enough boys and girls in green show up to demonstrate nature’s renewal. And here’s Christ again but this time he falls dead. The Ninja strips off his black shinobi shozoko and – it’s another Christ. Only he’s handsome, young, and aroused by Kundry. But he has bad luck, at the very end of the opera, though Parsifal has redeemed everybody (even Amfortas still strong enough to drag those two Asian dancers on with him, and to hurl his dead father, a plaster of Paris mummy, far behind the stage), this new Christ is crucified again just as he and Kundry appear about to conjoin. She is forced to her knees at the foot of the cross. Black out.

This is a wonderful performance to listen to. Thielemann’s balancing of chords and pointing of details and the instantaneous response of the orchestra is magical throughout. His ear is a keen as Boulez’ on his recording, but Boulez’ orchestra is not on this level and he has no feeling for the romantic gestures in the music, often rushing through. His great scene is the Klingsor scene, fantastically realized, but Thielemann with a somewhat riper sonority matches that. When the music should expand or have a highly colored quality Thielemann provides it without ever making a meal of anything. Boulez does not or will not expand. Armin Jordan who conducts the sound track for the once crazy but in comparison to this production interesting Syberberg film has a similar feeling for the flow and inevitability of the music and for its frequent changes and odd modulations. But again his orchestra is not as good or as responsive, and his male chorus, though they make an impressive general sound, doesn’t really sound prompt and idiomatic.

Koch, Amfortas and Klingsor is a virtuoso; he sings the magician’s very hard line with it shifts in key and easy to miss notes precisely, and his rhythm is superb, as is his elocution. As Amfortas he is hamstring by the production, but his phrasing and specificity musically are very rewarding. He has a fine voice, but not the glamour of tone Peter Mattei demonstrated this spring at the Met, the gorgeous ease of the younger Jose Van Dam on the Karajan performance, or the impact of George London on the first Knappertsbusch (1951). And for a real experience of agony and grandeur one can find Hans Hotter’s stunning early account of the third act monolog live from Vienna.

Milling is a good Gurnemanz, not wobbly or hoarse, always in tune, with clear words and an eloquent feeling for his phrases. It’s a good, dark, somewhat high set voice without the gorgeousness of Kurt Moll (first Karajan), or the immense abandon of Ludwig Weber (Kna, ’51) or the verbal magic of Hotter in the 1960 Kna, where his singing is variable and he wobbles but the impact of his performance is magnificent.

I adore Michaela Schuster, I loved her as the Nurse in Frau from last year’s Salzburg Festival (that is another great musical performance accompanying an odd, distracting production, available on a Decca DVD) and I’ve seen her be a thrilling Ortrud. She holds back here, concerned with staying in tune, and also keeping her tone focused as the line gets higher in act two. It’s a very intelligent reading of the role, but her singing is modest in impact. Physically she is not well cast, and thanks to the TV close ups, often looks uncomfortable (since she has to stare with lust at a hunky young Christ one can’t blame her).

Opera ‘Net scum, like the stupid fool, Stephen Jay Taylor, make fun of Botha. Of course, he’s badly cast physically. At the same time the role was being sung at the Met by the handsome Jonas Kaufmann and in Berlin by the very Aryan looking Klaus Florian Vogt. Both are good actors, Kaufmann particularly, and both were in more supportive productions. In a different time Botha would have shown up in front of the designer and cut that suit to pieces. Even in a different time though, Botha would probably have been thought better cast in concert. But especially on TV there is no winning for him. Close ups show emotion in his face but he really can’t move, and doesn’t. To hear him, though, is another experience entirely. Far more than Kaufmann or Vogt he is really a heldentenor. He has abundant, effortlessly produced tone that is both commanding and when he wishes, lovely. In act three where his singing is splendid throughout, he has a wonderful piano which is fully attached to his voice, not a croon, not separated from how he produces his tone, he can vary dynamics with skill and to fine effect and his grand “Nur eine Waffe taugt” is really thrilling.

Even though one can find a better performer of this or that role, I hope this is released as a recording. It’s a phenomenal Parsifal and a curative one and maybe a subtle demonstration of Wagner’s secret.

I should note that I don’t care about regie or off beat productions. Some work really well; I’m something of a fan of Peter Konwitschny and Hans Neuenfels. Both have profound, disturbing, powerful ideas about the operas they direct. Of course some productions in this school misfire and others are amazingly bad like the Salzburg Parsifal. But exactly the same can be said of “conventional” approaches, which often settle for the most obvious and tired images and sometimes miss the point of the opera in question just as much as a demented regie production. Loren Maazel, last week, was hostile to these “new” sorts of productions (not so new, in fact) and bragged that he got a huge positive response. He is a man of great general culture and intellect who also ran The Vienna State Opera; all the same, one has to go by the particular production and the kind of sense it makes of that senseless form, opera. Generalizations, even by someone as experienced as he, rarely have value in any large sense.   

Monday, June 10, 2013


(Ruggero Leoncavallo)

I got to thinking about fat people who create music. That may or may not be because the widder and her poor twin, whose name is around, wanted to compose and are persons of size. Alack! Neither had any talent so life went on and music was the better for it -- if you call what they do living and think life is better in these times --“auguri” as the Italians say. In fact, there aren’t many fat composers. Handel loved to eat. The sums budgeted specifically for his meals when he would be the guest of one or another cardinal in Rome are enormous. Known as Il sassone – The Saxon – his gigantic size was much remarked. It’s a pun, since “ona/o/e” is applied to the chubby in a familiar context. He was both "The Saxon" and the BIG Saxon. (We are assuming the reference is to Handel's overall size and not a particular organ, but given his suspected proclivities and the known ones of several of those cardinals, it's best to keep an open mind). Violetta might be called Violettina after a night of love by Alfredo, but were the sex act fattening for her he might pinch her pudgy cheeks and croon, Violettona, or since, many Italians leave off the final vowel if they are being familiar, she might be Violetton’ – perhaps more in the South than the North. When old Germont arrives to break the couple up, he might remark instead of “pur tanto lusso!” (what luxury),  “eppur si mangia!!!” (You eat a lot).

Handel was tall, though, and while he looks hearty in some portraits he doesn’t appear to have been fat. Schubert was teased by his friends for being chubby. Rossini was plump. Wagner had hemorrhoids and needed plush pillows upon which to sit. That suggests he liked to eat starchy foods but he wasn’t fat. Though judging from his choice for the first Tristan he didn’t mind fat people:

(Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

Brahms and Puccini, judging from portraits, look as though they gained weight in age, though not so much as to be remarked on. Toscanini hated fat people, being tiny himself. He used to make nasty fun of the gifted and on a few records, remarkable, Albert Coates:

Sadly, Maestro Coates greatly admired "Tosca" (as the 8000 or so women the erotomaniac bedded called him), But the widder and her twin aren't so naive. There are many, many millions of hideous thin people, and guess what? They die too.

But we were thinking about fleshy composers. About the only one who comes to mind is Ruggero Leoncavallo. He wrote Pagliacci. He was a genuine fatty. In fact, Toscanini called him, Mangia-cavallo, meaning horse eater. One can't pretend our Leoncavallo was a great, or even by the highest standards, a good composer. But the widder has a weakness for the quite awful verismo movement in Italy. Puccini, the only Italian genius of the time, was a member merely to a degree -- although like the others he was influenced by Massenet and Wagner and by Catalani who was from the same town and loved by Toscanini (in that rumbustious, emotional way of Italian men for one another, all tears and embraces, dances and lady chasing but no sex).

Toscanini told Puccini that he could never match up to Catalani, a composer of considerable gifts who never completely found a distinctive voice and died of TB at the age of 42 in the sobbing Toscanini's arms. But his most famous opera, La Wally, is a lot of fun as well as the inspiration for the name of Beaver's brother, Wally, the sex idol of The Widder's childhood in the American masterpiece, Leave it to Beaver -- our sad twin preferred Johnny Crawford in The Rifleman, sort of American verismo! (yes, yes, the widder is aware that Wally is short for some American name -- goodness! could it be Wallingford? No, more likely, Wallace. But the widder always thought, wouldn't it be wonderful for a suburban American couple to name their older son after the wild Valkyrie of the Alps who is crushed contemplating sin in an avalanche? Actually, the theme for The Rifleman with its opening rather Wagnerian horn call is by Herschel Burke Gilbert who died at 85 just ten years ago. He matriculated at Julliard, studied with Aaron Copland and became rich enough to form Laurel records which featured a remarkable range of works. In The Rifleman he wrote both leit motifs and longer themes for particular characters, and in fact his work in that overlooked medium is very distinguished -- he was at least as good as most of the Verismo composers. But perhaps this is all one needs to know).

But all that going on last week about authenticity got my twin and me to thinking about famous composers who have left behind some concrete indication of how their music should be performed, before the long playing record or even the "electrical" recording process (starting about 1927) where in good sound and without worry, a composer/conductor, or a performance supervised by the composer could make his/her intentions (at least of that moment) clear. There was a vinyl explosion of sorts starting in the early 1950's of new and very recent music performed or supervised by the composers but too often these were small labels with uncertain distribution and short lives.

It's true that a fair number of recent composers have had the opportunity of complete performances in good sound, often with famous performers, to make a case for their music. For the still living but lesser known, Naxos has released reasonable to excellent performances of some of their music, as have other smaller labels -- although performances can vary considerably in security, assurance and excellence of execution. One misses the Louisville label and its vast catalog of American music. It's sad that a great company such as Nonesuch could not stay in business as it was first envisioned by Teresa Sterne, and too many of their authoritative releases have not found their way on to CD.

But I'm thinking of an older generation of composers, those who died before recording technology reached any heights. In many cases one must look to piano rolls. And our mind jumped immediately to Leoncavallo playing his Intermezzo from Pagliacci. It is a very soulful performance. These rolls come from various places and were made in various ways, and there has always been controversy over how reliable tempos were, since speeds could vary; also attribution is sometimes a problem, since documentation can be lacking. But there is no question in this case; this is Ruggero Leoncavallo in 1905. It’s a piece I’m very fond of, based as you know, on the lyric section of the Prolog, sung by the baritone (usually the one who plays Tonio, but for the first night it was sung by the Silvio, Mario Ancona, scarcely less famous than the first Tonio, Victor Maurel, creator of Iago and Falstaff in the Verdi operas, whose idea the prolog had been, he also came up with the opera's title. “Un nido di memorie” – a nest of memories -- sings the soloist -- meditating on the creative process. This is developed into a lovely short piece.)

Leoncavallo plays in an old fashioned way, rolling the right hand chords, getting the left in slightly before the right and taking a free view of the tempo. No one will know how Toscanini conducted the first night since he hated the opera. Leoncavallo may have lifted the idea at least as far as putting the crime of a jealous husband killing his wife in a theatrical milieu from the French writer, Catulle Mendès, who certainly thought so. But then, in counter suit, Leoncavallo accused Mendès of lifting his play from an earlier Spanish play, and insisted his plot was based on a case his father, a prosecutor, investigated in his childhood in Calabria. The musicologist, Matteo Sansone, in investigating all this, suspects that Leoncavallo at least got the idea from Mendès and other French writers and then scrubbed the more obvious evidence of influence (the composer spent most of the 1880’s living poor in Paris.). Leoncavallo was very clever theatrically. He was one of seven librettists to work on Manon Lescaut; he had the idea to make an opera that would be called La Boheme and foolishly told Puccini who took the idea and literally ran with it, getting it on a year earlier than Leoncavallo’s interesting, more cynical version, truer to the source material but not the masterpiece the Puccini work is. And then he came up with a soap opera, that when performed with commitment in the right style is pretty effective, called Zaza (also in a theatrical setting, and to be barely heard in a pirate starring Mafalda Favero from 1950 – but there it is overwhelming.)

However, since Leoncavallo is thought a lousy composer there is no definitive version of Zaza. A recording with the queen and sadly the undertaker of verismo in its last true decade, the fifties, Clara Petrella, uses the German edition, cuts, variations in melodic lines and all, translated back into Italian. There was an MRF LP with a version from the publisher's archives and some corrections, starring the American, Lynn Strow Piccolo, now a proud member of the Tea Party. But while that is the most accurate version (and Madame Strow-Piccolo is very good) there still are questions about cuts, simplifications and some odd harmonic readings. Even the doyenne of 21st century Opera chic work ethic, Renee Fleming, uses an odd variant for her quite sincere recording of one of Zaza’s tear jerking scenes; probably most clearly heard from Claudia Muzio on one of her Edison records, transferred superbly by Ward Marston. That is young Claudia at her heart breaking bitter sad best.

Pardon me, but I must play that. Zaza, a music hall performer, has discovered that her lover is married. She goes to his home and his little daughter plays the piano for her as she waits for his wife. She says, "how could I hurt this little person?" and yet -- and listen to her say "ho sognato, ho sognato" -- I've dreamed, I'VE DREAMED...!!!" As though life's victims should even dare dream of -- something, anything, love...

Perhaps that is a case of a magnetic interpreter of great imagination ennobling an obvious piece (we write as we wipe our eyes). But back to the question: can a conductor capture the sweetness of Leoncavallo's playing with a marvelous modern symphony orchestra simply by looking at the score? The charismatic leader here is another short, thin man, Herbert Von Karajan.

I think I’m with Ruggero on this one.

But how about a real composer? Gustav Mahler made four piano rolls including the finale of his Fourth Symphony, truly demented but not on You Tube. So, with some hesitation we can skip over the Funeral March from the Fifth Symphony (not quite as demented), and settle for a song, “Ich ging mit Lust.” This is a delectable, slightly naughty tune, to which our Gustav does surprising things. The composer starts with very simple material in D major with just little notes but soon has conjured up the woods (in the bass), the tree tops (a rising triad and a bit of bird song), a quick shift to the minor lets us in on an amorous early morning tryst, and a reassuring return lets us know that’s something the couple will enjoy again. This is also from 1905.

But since this is a song, we need a singer to make his or her own decisions as well as a pianist to help out. This is Christa Ludwig with Gerald Moore from 1957.

(lyrics are at the end of this blog)

If the question here is does a composer’s actual performance suggest a style, which interpreters can learn from, I think the answer in this case is yes. Mahler’s performance is surprisingly edgy and hard. The bird song has something aggressive about it. The bass is inflected to sound almost threatening. Nature in Mahler isn’t always friendly or safe. The text suggests a mild dalliance but they can turn dangerous (see Pagliacci). In Mahler’s performance there is something unstable, a sense of surprise. In Ludwig’s attractive singing there is allure and musical sophistication, from her pianist too. Perhaps given singers and songs that’s all one can really hope for and it’s fine. Yet two conductors who were mature musicians were champions and friends of Mahler, Oscar Fried and William Mengelberg. Alma, Mrs. Mahler, rather liked Mengelberg but thought Fried, almost as eccentric as her husband, “too Jewish”, something she thought of her husband too.

(Those still inclined to doubt that Alma Mahler was the most audacious and flamboyant liar ever to publish "non-fiction" should read Jonathan Carr’s carefully documented and entirely unsentimental – about both husband and wife -- biography. If they are inclined to say Mahler’s younger associates, Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer were “calmer”, “more tasteful” or "truer" interpreters than Fried and Mengelberg they should keep in mind that both had to fight to get performances of the works, and that neither wanted to be thought “too Jewish” – translation: too emotional, eccentric, abandoned).

Fried and Mengelberg left complete recordings of two symphonies. Fried made a remarkable account of the huge Second Symphony in 1924 by the acoustical process. Mengelberg’s broadcast of the Fourth was recorded in 1939. Both offer performances very much in the spirit of Mahler’s piano rolls. Both are careful to observe all of the composer’s many expressive markings, but they are free about tempo, rhythmic articulation, phrasing and dynamic level. They take big risks, Fried more so since he is obviously working with a reduced orchestra (and when the time comes, chorus) and there are substitutions of instruments. It doesn’t matter; the performance is dangerous. It is ferocious, ironic, uproarious, mysterious, Jewish and Christian, It is a study in contradiction, in tempestuous moods that change quickly, in crazy outbursts, and intimate whispers.

No other conductor, though all get “better” sound, comes anywhere near this emotional abandon. Just as no other conductor makes a point of observing all of Mahler’s indications as broadly and forcefully as Mengelberg does. They both make full use of the rhetorical devices we know that Mahler used, portamento, rubato, sudden extreme dynamic shifts, yet in both cases what they do seems to proceed from whatever produced the music, not merely from their willfulness (or more typical in our time, timidity). I think even in the tiny song as played on the piano roll these qualities are present, they are present in the longer pieces Mahler banged out. Mahler was a contradictory personality, ruthless, unpleasant, manipulative and nasty, needy, vulnerable, lonely, angry, social, witty, worldly, a success who was a failure, a failure who succeeded beyond what would be anyone’s wildest dreams, a Jew who became an odd, sentimental Christian, and the victim of a vicious horror who won their brief battle. Walter (“drat that I was born a Brit, had I been a Jerry I’d have saved Our Adolf") Legge -- like Hitler he loved Lehar above serious music -- always said Mahler was a phony; that it was all superficial effect, and even that is true sometimes. You shouldn’t be able to predict a Mahler symphony, you shouldn’t feel comforted after one. It doesn’t matter if Mahler would have made very different choices. He probably did, in the same work in the same period as “the spirit” moved him. Fried (best heard on the Naxos pressing) and Mengelberg (Phillips) and Mahler himself suggest as much. And that is present on what he left behind. But I think it will be a long time before renewed study of his autographs and other documents (including in this instance sound documents) will lead to what might well be crazier yet truer Mahler. 

Another source of "authenticity" is teacher/disciple pupil communication. This in fact has been a mainstay of trying to figure out just how those 19th century composers who taught or had circles of followers who taught meant their music to sound. Many composers needed the income from teaching, and famous musicians, when they could no longer perform, taught (when it comes to singers, it's true they often taught what they never knew to begin with).

On the one hand the nature of music means that much can be transmitted by a good teacher, on the other hand, though, great performers have big egos and their own ideas, and if they are instrumentalists, live long enough frequently to develop styles of their own. "Romantics" (one could probably describe most performers with that word -- flexibly used -- into the nineteen twenties at least) often valued, some would say, over valued, the impulse of the moment, their own moods, a trust in psychic connections over literally following the score. So, whatever their teacher who had studied with famous composer X had said fifty years before, might go up in smoke, as they indulged themselves. Yet the score is both a crucial indicator of what should happen, and a series of hints. A computer can play the notes, but only a human can make sense of them. Composer-performers themselves often took liberties with their pieces as the spirit moved them, sometimes they forgot them altogether -- as Richard Strauss in New York, forgot the accompaniments to his songs when playing for Elizabeth Schumann and improvised as she sang what he had written! Still, if old music is going to dominate our repertory, shouldn't we want clues as to what the creator really wanted in performance? Perhaps we are talking of a precarious balance between "accuracy" and impulse. But if the impulses come from an "accurate" and complete sense of what the composer intended, then the impulses are likelier to be "true" in their own way. The corruption of the familiar by mindless repetition and habit that we've seen in so much of the "standard repertory" might be avoided, less by slavish and mechanical devotion to written notes then by a constant immersion in them, so that a talented interpreter is never merely taking the over familiar for granted but also never ascending into weird spaces just for novelty's sake.

Our minds (my twin's and mine) went to a favorite piece: Chopin's Nocturne in F sharp major, Opus 15. There is a piano roll by the great (though controversial) Raoul Pugno made in 1903 and there are two important historical records, one by Edouard Risler and a second by Alfred Cortot (from 1948). All three had close connections to Chopin himself. Pugno studied with his student, George Mathias; Risler and Cortot studied with Emile Descombes, a close disciple of Chopin. According to Pugno, Mathias quoted Chopin complaining that the piece was always played too fast. But in the Henle edition of Chopin, which publishes the urtexts (and certain alternates), the metronome marking is faster than Pugno uses and Risler plays the urtext exactly. Cortot is closer to Risler but by 1948 had stopped practicing and works his own magic (or according to the opinion of some, doesn't). 

The nocturne is composed in the key of F sharp major. According to Schumann that would be a distant, chilly or frightening key, or one of longing (it is the key of Schumann's wonderful  Romance from his opus 28, also of the second Scriabin etude from Opus 8.) It is A-B-A form, in 2/4. The first section is marked Larghetto, a little largo, slow but not so slow, it's metronome is 40. The opening melody is one of those endless breaths spun over an even bass (Bellini seems to be around, the Nocturne was written a year after Norma).  The bass is marked sostenuto, certainly steady but maintained, even sung, as the melody, somewhat unstable with its trills flies overhead. There is also an arresting counter theme in f sharp minor, which has an unforgettable series of dolcissimo falling phrases.

Among its features is a fascinating long ornamentation in measure 12, marked leggiero -- lightly and very soft -- to be followed by the marking con forza -- with force -- three bars later. This is so typical of the feverishness, the abandon of The Romantics that it should be in the performance, understood to "mean" something by the player.

The middle is marked doppio movimento (twice as quickly) and sotto voce -- whispering, perhaps. The haunting beauty of the start is interrupted by something haunting or odd and this builds with force and in agitation. But there is a return to the first theme, shortened by ten bars, gorgeously ornamented and using the extremes of the keyboard until dying away on an F sharp major arpeggio.

I think Pugno is the most spellbinding of these, also the freest, with some very distinctive readings of note values. Again, while no one would say this is the “spirit of Chopin” or that Pugno’s strong personality didn’t take a hand, his feel for the melodies and rhetoric of the piece really convince me that Chopin would have recognized the spirit behind the playing. He would have recognized the piece certainly from Risler. As for Cortot there is a surprising, haunting spirit, maybe he would have valued that most (or not).

I was going to go on to Lilli Lehmann this week but even I sometimes have had enough of me; why, my poor twin is huddled on the floor whimpering. So it is time to stop. But just remember next time you see a morbidly obese has been, as both my twin and poor Mr. Leoncavallo were described, and want to cry out in derision as fools do -- that crumpet addict may just have written once upon a time a lovely, haunting piece like Leoncavallo’s little intermezzo, and cut him some slack.

Translation of Ich ging mit Lust

(I walked with joy through a green wood;
 I heard the birds singing.
 they sang so youthfully, they sang so maturely,
 those small birds in the green wood!
 How gladly I listened to their singing!
 Now sing, now sing, Lady Nightingale!
 sing by my sweetheart's house:
 just come when it's dark,
 when no one is on the street -
 then come to me!
 I will let you in.
 The day was gone, night fell;
 he went to his sweetheart.
 He knocks so softly on the ring:
 "Eh, are you sleeping or are you awake, my dear?
 I have been standing here so long!"
 "Even if you've been standing there so long,
 I haven't been sleeping;
 I let my thoughts wander:
 where is my beloved,
 where has he been for such a long time?"
 "Where have I been for such a long time?
 That I should like to tell you:
 with beer and also red wine,
 with a brown-haired maiden,
 quickly forgetting you."
 The moon gazes through the little window,
 at this tender, sweet love;
 the nightingale sang the whole night.
 You sleeply maiden, stay alert!
 Where is your beloved staying?)

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


(Norma jigsaw puzzle, ca. 1928)


One of the most beautiful and moving moments in this remarkable performance occurs as part of Bellini’s long finale. Norma forgives her straying lover Pollione, and tells him that she still loves him. Pollione is so moved by her sweetness that all of his emotion for her returns. Cecilia Bartoli floats “qual cor tradisti” with extraordinary mastery of breath, word and rhythm; it’s heart breaking, very personal. John Osborn, Pollione, responds with an equal sweetness and tenderness. And the superb orchestra, using instruments of the period, La Scintilla, plays the rocking, lullaby-like accompaniment with amazing delicacy and beauty. It’s a suspended moment of total magic. This recording is full of these moments; it provides a unique and revelatory experience of the opera.

Alright, that is a typical first paragraph in a good to rave review for a complete performance on CD. It's true, that's a magical moment and there are more of them.

So much for reviews, then. This effect is in most cases only possible on a record, of course. The moment as described would be lost at a huge place like the Met, and in many other opera houses that seat two or more thousand people. It doesn’t sound “faked”. The engineers have achieved a believable acoustical space, nothing sounds over miked (a problem with Bartoli’s attempt to revisit La Sonnambula). But the mikes create a space small enough for this very quiet account of the music to sound.

Since a live performance with many of the same performers has gotten some raves (and some mixed) reviews from Salzburg within the last few weeks, presumably the approach can work in the reality of a bigger theater, but of course adjustments would have to be made. Philip Gossett in his great and essential book, Divas and Scholars (Chicago) makes the point that not only scholarship but practicality must work in live performances where circumstances can vary considerably, as they did when the works were new.

Still, before we leave delicacy at the Met behind, it is possible for sweetly inflected, very soft music to carry even in that barn. But I’ve only heard two conductors achieve it, Carlos Kleiber and the miraculous Christian Thielemann, in his astounding note complete Die Frau ohne Schatten. (Going back a way, Leonard Bernstein achieved an amazing responsiveness and variety of attack, including miraculous delicacy from a less good orchestra in the Falstaffs he led back in the sixties). Repertory performances are not really conducive to that kind of rethinking and rehearsal, and more ordinary conductors rarely work for those kinds of effects. Listening to the vaunted Fabio Luisi bang his way through repertory this season at the Met, with less insight than say Joseph Keilberth, shows that even a conductor reportedly popular with the orchestra and as far as the press office has it, “of genius” can do very little or perhaps cares less about nuance.

But even a less ordinary conductor can fail to achieve a persuasive delicacy and lightness. William Christie, one of the most important “authentic” conductors in the world (and a great keyboard player) failed to manage a good Cosi fan tutte at the Met. His effects misfired, tempos were poorly judged (breathless, arbitrary sounding); he was a problem for the cast. He could not achieve the unanimity of approach that the far less well known Antonini achieves on the Norma, no doubt with the encouragement of Cecilia Bartoli. (Christie’s remarkable accounts of Lully, Charpentier and Rameau operas in Brooklyn, at the far from small BAM may have come from being able to stay with his own company of instrumentalists and singers, clearly not only convinced by him but used to his way of working in a repertory where the orchestral writing is more soloistic).

(Giuditta Pasta, the first Norma)

As all the press has had it, this Norma is an attempt to do for Bellini’s most important opera what has been done for much earlier music. Norma is an opera that Tullio Serafin, the famous and unfortunately influential conductor used to say, made him “tremble”; an opera that essentially cemented the Romantic Movement in Italian Opera, and in fact, had a tremendous influence on Romanticism generally. (Gossett in surveying Serafin’s mangling of the score on the second Maria Callas commercial recording calls the result an “artistic wasteland.” He’s being kind). Wagner says somewhere that without Bellini there could have been no Wagner; he also referred to endless melody. Bellini’s influence was considerable, but Wagner is often accused of being swollen. A CD by Roger Norrington meant to take the swelling down wasn’t altogether convincing, but just a short time ago, at Salzburg, Christian Thielemann raised the pit for Parsifal and had the Dresden Staatskappelle play with the utmost delicacy to amazing effect. I have the telecast and may write about it next week.

I once wrote when wasting time on a list, that the seventy years from 1831 to 1901 contained almost the entirety of the “standard repertory”. Aside from the popular Mozart comedies, one Gluck piece and a couple of Rossini comedies that period embraces all the works opera obsessives embrace as essential. Verdi and Wagner had their careers entirely in that span, versimo began officially with Cavalleria rusticana in 1890; Puccini had his first successes, Gounod, Bizet, Massenet had written their hits, most of the Russian operas that show up in the standard rep had been written.

But there has been an accommodation of all pieces to a typical performing style; Norma is spiced with the strenuous late Verdi and the garlic of Leoncavallo. Aggressive conductors have inflated Wagner to their greater glory; the national French style for which Massenet and the others wrote has vanished.

But does a careful realization of Bellini hold some kind of key to how these works, even the later ones, should be performed? Pierre Baillot, wrote his famous treatise The Art of the Violin (1835) only four years after Norma. He wrote of the practical situation: “This change in notation [from the Baroque period] has been affected by the progress in dramatic music; it has caused the replacement in instrumental music of melodies which are for the most part full of charm but whose expression is not clearly indicated, by a more positive type of melody, adapted to the lyric stage and to the accents of passion.”

The idea was suddenly of “orchestral melody”, where the “band” is not merely functional but intensely expressive, part of the total dramatic effect. Wagner was struck by Bellini’s “endless melodies” and paid tribute to his expressive orchestration. La Scintilla does this to a hypnotic degree on this Norma, and hearing Thielemann realize the delicacy, the unexpected, sometimes peculiar, utterly haunting orchestral sounds in Parsifal makes me question just how much of the true Wagner, and the legitimate late Verdi we have missed. Composers, even when they disagreed or were captious about one another, nonetheless built on what their predecessors had done. The infinitely expressive, beautifully played orchestration on this recording, (though of course, instruments would be added by later composers) might contain a key to how these over familiar works really should sound, and perhaps that’s a doorway to new magic.

“Authentic” attempts at very popular pieces such as Bach’s Brandenburgs or Handel’s Water Music were similar to this Norma: surprises and occasional shocks were delivered as the best musicians to approach this music “freshly” did their best to go back to more authoritative scores, studied early scores for the markings of musicians more in touch with the style of performance the composers would have recognized, found or built replicas of the original instruments and looked into musical sources – the Terpsichorean qualities, the rhythmic snaps, the surprising syncopations reminded one that dance was a common quality in these pieces, and that tempos faster than anyone had attempted in hundreds of years were very likely. Performers also realized that Toscanini had been wrong with his puritanical, over driven style. With the composer present, instrumentalists and singers “graced” the music they played, often spontaneously, sometimes slightly the first time through, and then more generally in repeated material. In Erich Kleiber’s sacred fifties recording of The Marriage of Figaro nothing is graced or decorated. The “punctuations” that we know were typical in recitatives, and which, though small, could be deployed to provide abundant intention and insinuation, are scrubbed out; and the ornaments Mozart would certainly have expected when melodic material was repeated are banned. We are listening to a graceless heavy footed account of a brilliantly febrile and volatile work. This is held as some kind of monument, when in fact it is a grim distortion, and many of the singers pronounce poorly. The canonization of performances like this, the canonization of Toscanini/Verdi where his cuts in La Traviata turn a gifted composer, already very interesting for his understanding and deployment of the forms typical of the period, into a clunky amateur, creating grating holes in the musical fabric as he rushes the singers through, still lodge as important in the minds of “collectors” and people who write about performance. It’s safe for some idiot opining for a shrinking population in print, or those many morons on line to think they are safe from being thought fools for endorsing these dated and insensitive products of a bad time. Why, perhaps Theodore W. Adorno had it right, that Toscanini was nothing more than a whore for NBC, using THE CLASSICS to sell soap.

As Gossett acknowledges often, there were different conventions for decorating and even cutting works in the time of these early Romantic composers, sometimes they did the cutting themselves, or made changes to reflect the taste of a different but influential audience. And naturally the taste and preferences of the performers on a given occasion might yield very different results. Without recordings from the period, these mid 20th century pioneers and their most talented epigones had to make their own choices about ornaments, when they occurred and how extensive they were.

To return continuously to the period itself, contemporary documents, autographs (though they can be hard to decipher) early editions, the scores of singers of the period that they emended or decorated, leads to solutions that can vary from one production to another but remain true to the intentions of the creator. The Dictator conductor, romanticized throughout the 20th century was true to his pocket book and inflated reputation, hiding under the notion of “this is true”, when in fact so much of what these people did was false. (One can hear the pseudo Boris Godunov of the Soviet conductor, Golovanov from 1949, where aside from senseless cuts, he decorates and reinforces the already over decorated Rimsky version! The result is certainly amusing but it has little to do with Mussorgsky and I’m not sure Boris is really meant to be amusing).

But there has always been skepticism about this movement (I suppose Historically Informed Practice or HIP is the current name for it). The lack of recordings from the period of course is an issue; the conditions of manuscripts (or whether they exist complete at all), the difficulties of reading composers’ autographs when they do exist, understanding precisely what was meant, suggested that conductors and their soloists had to do not only puzzle solving, but a lot of guessing about what Bach, Handel or Monteverdi might really have expected to hear, and then, what in fact they settled for hearing. And even if many of the guesses came close to what these men expected, did our contemporary listeners really want to hear a small scaled St. Matthew Passion, with only males singing, when more than a century had passed with iconic works of that kind given ever more grandiose mixed sex performances? Messiah of course was heard most often swollen to an incredible degree.

With a small number of older pieces becoming hearty perennials, came arbitrariness. The Beecham/Goosens scoring of Messiah is thought wonderful by many nelly sniggerers (it can be found roaring like a chemically altered wild beast on RCA from  1959 in whiz bang stereo of that era, but its wild and gaudy treatment of music that suggests pious sincerity more often than theatrical outburst is also arguably far from what Handel had in mind (a pseudo intellectual attack parroted  by many fools and printed in the New York Times in articles by Richard Tarushkin has been that none of us can know for sure exactly what Handel or any other long dead composer would have made of any performance of any kind. Not only Gossett, kindly, but the great Charles Rosen, less charitably, have praised Tarushkin for his gifts in inventing straw men and fake argumentation).

Handel did indeed have a concern for instrumental color, and in his operas, for vocal (and obbligato) flash and dash. As Rene Jacobs (one of the best opera conductors in the Historically Informed Movement) makes clear in his thrilling recording of Rinaldo (Harmonia Mundi -- if you haven't heard Scene 6 in act one, you haven't lived!), Handel had many of the great instrumental virtuosos of the period in his pit and the writing for the singers is hugely demanding (not always spectacularly realized there but with the right energy and abandon). But this was in the context of a small theater; singers and instrumentalists were in the same world (Roger Norrington, a scholar conductor of this movement, has written interestingly about eye contact and careful listening between musicians and the singers, who themselves were often well trained musically). Without the mass and noise of the Beecham realization, the striding arrogance of the “opera singer” soloists, ensemble achieved only by signals relayed from the conductor, Handel’s own performances probably were more delicate, varied, spontaneous and unanimous. One had not a “thinner” or “poorer” work but a truer one, notable for a profundity remarkably absent from all that blaring showing off. Again, no question, Beecham is a lot of fun, but what he does is something other than Handel. And is it as good as the results Handel would have gotten with his spectacular performers in London, long ago?

Bellini worked hard on Norma; he made many sketches before working on the autograph. After the first performances he made changes and provided alternatives (for the finale of act one, for example). As an inventor of Romanticism he was trying to balance the “professional practice” of his predecessors with an increased continuity and a gradual accumulation of emotional force. The musicologists who worked on the new performing edition here were Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi. Though there are many variations to deal with, this is a serious attempt to give one kind of performance that Bellini would have recognized, and the choices made are those from the first night. Bartoli, her colleagues, and the conductor Giovanni Antonini give a performance of Norma not as a grand monument, but as a musical work of profound humanity and extraordinary emotion. Tuned to 430hz as opposed to the usual 440hz, the sound is automatically warmer and richer, without either heaviness or forced, strident brightness. Bellini’s actual tempo markings (many faster than usually heard), the intimacy of the performing style, all guarantee a variety of attack, an automatic intensity and instant expressivity.  The emotional points of the scenes are made eloquently; none of the singers duck or simplify their challenges but they all have a firm sense of this style, the words count, the “make believe” of the story is respected.

This is a beautiful account of Norma, there are also compromises. Three of the soloists have difficulties here and there. And as is always true on something that is recorded it freezes a particular set of "understandings" for good. There is room for the same processes that gave rise to these understandings to come to different ideas and there is room for the lessons learned from doing the work so differently than usual to (one hopes) find more imposing, or fresher or easier soloists.

I’m sure Bartoli is perfectly aware that she is making herself a target. Opera lovers can tick off legends and jokes who have attempted the role of Norma and disagree passionately about who belongs in which category. There are already those who have been attacking her “hubris” and insisting she is rotten. But every Norma on a complete recording is flawed to one degree or another. Bartoli’s two enormous strengths are her command of language and the nuances the role demands. It’s not only that she has the verbal assurance and clarity of a native speaker, but the declamatory force of a great actress. The declamation so crucial in the role has never been done as interestingly, imaginatively and vividly, without the “operatic” carrying on the “traditional” style demands. Bartoli captures the feeling of a sequence, as when she is tempted to kill her children, and then varies and inflects the words and the music they give rise to with tremendous subtlety, imagination and depth of feeling. What easily becomes hammy elsewhere is human here. Bartoli doesn’t need to make a meal out of Norma’s expressions of rage or anguish for them to land with force, any more than she needs to sob, gulp or shriek (as many of the Normas on record do) to signal the character’s grief, fear and resignation. She understands the difference between Bellini and Mascagni; Callas and most of the others did not.

Something else that will be held against Bartoli is that this is very much an ensemble performance. There is superb give and take between cast members; the balancing and blending of voices, the way singers contrast or match their timbres, is extraordinarily rewarding. The orchestra is a part of this, beauty of tone provided by the wooden flutes, the gut strings, the way in which the instrumentalists blend and contrast with one another as well as offset the singers, causes one to make the surprising discovery that Bellini was a master of orchestral effect. This is Norma reclaimed as great music, not merely a star turn. The conductor, Antonini, works hand in glove with the singers, providing both dramatic excitement and, as required, lyric repose.

Vocally, Bartoli is at her best in lyric music, the repeats of which she ornaments with imagination to great effect. In the bravura writing she can turn choppy and display effort. She’s rather like Milanov in that regard except she has intellect, musicianship and seriousness. She has to do some obvious feinting to get through Casta Diva and especially it’s cabaletta (fast section) “Ah, bello a me ritorna” but I loved Sediziose voci – she and the best of her colleagues, the outstanding bass, Michele Petussi, actually talk to one another with intensity and a sense of high stakes rather than belting out their lines to a big theater. That Norma finds herself in a dire position, in love with the Roman her people want to destroy but loyal to her people as well is powerfully communicated as is the bitterness and resignation of her father (Petussi) who must obey her. The intensity, the “actuality” of the emotion in their scene actually sets up her following difficult scena as drama musicalized, rather than as an opportunity for display. Norma’s prayer is not somnolent, nor is it an excuse for effects; its wandering vocal line and ornaments suggest unease under the solemnity, and the cabaletta also serves a purpose in illuminating Norma’s almost hysterical obsession with Pollione, which will justify her vindictive fury when she discovers his betrayal. Though there are much better sung versions of this scena on records, none convey the character’s humanity or vulnerability as strongly.

But while those limits are real they aren’t the whole story. No one has heard the opera like this, given with seriousness, passion, precision and an attention to details. The hero doesn’t bellow Italian tenor style but sounds very much like the seducer he is intended to be. John Osborn struggles with his difficult, martial opening aria but improves as the opera goes on, finding the humanity in a role usually yelled at the balcony. Norma’s father, Oroveso is beautifully sung by Petussi, who sounds like a human being, pronounces with eloquence and who is never lost in the ensembles (as usually happens). Finally, there is the issue of the young woman who Pollione has seduced, Adalgisa. This has usually been given to a mezzo soprano, often an aggressive one, though she is meant to be a girl who grows from naiveté to wisdom and bravery. Sumi Jo, a coloratura soprano of long experience, offers the essential contrast with Bartoli; their famous duets are sung as music not as contests. Jo conveys the vulnerability and sings much of her music with great sweetness and sensitivity, despite sounding a little flinty and pressed in the more virtuosic passages.

If this recording succeeds in turning attention to what Bellini really expected to hear and instills a respect for what he really wrote, it will have been one of the great opera recordings of the new century. On its own, it is an astonishing introduction to a great masterpiece, bruised, coarsened and misrepresented on all of its other recordings.