November 30, 2012
Romantique: Beauty Above All
Deutsche Grammophon seems determined to let us know what the Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča is all about. In the liner notes to her latest recital, Romantique, Manuel Brug introduces her nine romantic arias from 19th-century French, Italian, and Russian operas with a paragraph that would make many a PR professional blush.
“She sees herself for the most part as a lyric mezzo-soprano and would like to retain the svelte elegance and subtle flexibility that set her rich-toned voice apart,” he writes, in translation. “Her light and attractive top register is well blended with a distinctive lower register that eschews the use of harsh chest notes. This cannot be allowed to change … and so she [prefers] to concentrate on romantic character studies from 19th century opera that are rarely encountered in the theatre. Common to all are the shining virtues of [her] strongly-supported, well-proportioned voice. …”
Brug’s shameless gush points to the fundamental problem with the recording: Everywhere, Garanča sings beautifully, but too many of her renditions sound far more like “character studies” than living, breathing portrayals. By negotiating smoothly between the registers of her immaculately polished, evenly produced voice, and by avoiding profound chest tones and searing highs, she too often reduces vital statements by women in various states of love and anguish to lovely vocalises.
A case in point is Romeo’s “Oh, vista é dessa! … Ah! se tu dormi, svegliati!” (Oh, what sight is this! … Ah! If you are sleeping, wake!) from the ending of early-19th-century Italian composer Nicola Vaccai’s Giulietta e Romeo. A too-brief excerpt from the death scene in which Romeo discovers the seemingly lifeless Juliet in her family tomb, it comes across as little more than a sweet love song.
As an introduction to infrequently encountered repertoire, Romantique demonstrates how much beauty awaits the adventurous.
Given, however, that the great Maria Malibran — a prima donna if ever there was one — so preferred the final scene of Vaccai’s opera to that of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi that she performed a hybrid version of Bellini’s opera that ended with Vaccai’s music, one would expect to hear, at a minimum, the “tears in the voice” appropriate to such a moving tragedy. But only in Vesselina Kasarova’s recording of Malibran’s Vaccai-appropriated ending to Bellini’s opera can we feel Romeo’s deep despair.
Garanča sings Siébel’s “Faites-lui mes aveux” (Make her my avowal) from Gounod’s Faust beautifully, but only Joyce DiDonato, on her recital Diva-Divo, provides the expectancy and emotional depth that the too-relaxed Garanča skims over. Ditto for Garanča’s “O ma lyre immortelle” (O my undying lyre) from Gounod’s Sapho, where a truly beautiful high ending cannot compensate for a dearth of tragic feeling.
Those who are already convinced that Berlioz goes on far too long will find little in Garanča’s performance of Marguerite’s extended “D’amour l’ardente flamme” (The burning flame of love), from Berlioz’ Damnation de Faust, to change their opinion. Turn again to DiDonato (for starters) if you want to be moved. On the other hand, if you prefer to hear Dalila sound like a lovely nun rather than a duplicitous pagan seductress, by all means stick to Garanča’s family-friendly “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (At your voice my heart unfolds) and avoid Borodina, Verrett, Horne, and … insert your favorite sinful Dalila here.
Bottom line: As an introduction to infrequently encountered repertoire, Romantique demonstrates how much beauty awaits the adventurous. But for an adventure worth remembering, start with Garanča, and then venture farther.
Jason Victor Serinus is a professional whistler and lecturer on opera and vocal recordings. He is editor of Psychoimmunity and the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS, and he has written about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, AudioStream, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, and other publications.
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