Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tre Gioconde: Compare and contrast

This will be a quickie today. I took a break from work at my best and did a youtube search on Renata Scotto. I am delighted that the Suor Angelica is back up. Also her "Suicidio!" from the (in)famous 1979 San Francisco Gioconda, to which I believe I referred in my Pavarotti tribute.

There may be those who detest this. There will be just as many who find it brilliant. I must confess that I am impartial. I remember watching this on television when I was a wee thing :-) and found it riveting. Sure, she's hammy. That's what Italian opera is all about. Those who downplay that miss the point. I remember my teacher John Wustman saying to me when I was in graduate school that if you were going to perform this music you needed a little "trash in your veins."

Scotto's dramatic performance is dictated by her vocal limitations in this repertoire. She could not give a balls-to-the-wall Zinka-style performance. But oh, what she gives us instead: a contemplative Gioconda, one who is actually weighing the possibility of suicide, dreading death yet longing for it. I find her coups de théâtre stunning: the dropped crucifix on the last syllable of the word "cammin," her well-timed collapses, her winged flight on "volevan l'ore." And does she not look extraordinary: the costume, the hair, the svelte figure? On all counts this is a brilliant performance. I wish it would be reissued on DVD. At least the audio version has been released on Gala.

Without further ado, here it is:

Now, this is probably unfair, but I also came across a performance within the past year at the Liceu featuring Deborah Voigt. Now admittedly, this is clearly not her rep. But she is much too naturalistic in her acting to be a convincing Gioconda. This music demands an over-the-top approach. I don't get any nuance from her performance. The voice is bigger but she has fewer colors at her disposal. Her stab at the high B is, to my ear, less effective than Scotto's, even if our Renatina wobbles a bit here (it is, all things considered, however, a relatively wobble-free performance from her). Well, now that I've clearly stated my opinion on the matter, I present Exhibit B:
When I take a look at Eva Marton's performance (which I will not post but which is linked here for those curious) I would be hard-pressed to say which singer is less effective. Marton handles certain chesty passages a little better than Voigt, but on the whole, she barely registers. At least her performance is a touch more idiomatic, but I never found her voice in any way an ingratiating, engaging instrument.
Finally, a heartbreaking clip of La Divina in London. In the 1973-4 season she undertook an ill-advised (but even more poorly conceived) comeback tour with Giuseppe di Stefano, who was in almost equally bad vocal estate at that time. Much of the repertoire she had never performed onstage before, and they were accompanied at most performances by a pianist whose name I cannot remember (why does Robert Sutherland stick in my mind?) EMI recorded those concerts hoping to do an audio release, but alas, Maria's voice was in such perilous condition that nothing was usable. I have a friend who was in the audience when she performed in Boston, however, and he said that she was mesmerizing. That was a night when di Stefano was indisposed, so Callas sang accompanied by Vasso Devetzi, the perhaps Mephistophelian figure who took over Callas' life and fortunes at the end. As for this London performance, so what if her voice is in tatters? Of course I'd rather that it were as healthy as in her Cetra recording, which is one of her most unfettered performances, at least in the recording studio.

It must be said, however, that she manages the aria pretty damn well here, even if it is transposed down, even if the registers are completely unknit by this point, even if the pianist is of no help to her whatsoever. In the words of the immortal Vera Galupe-Borszkh, she "gave too much," here, there and everywhere. But if she hadn't, and if Scotto hadn't, we would have been so much poorer. You see what we would have had instead as a benchmark [sic].

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