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Mozart. Las Bodas de Fígaro. 1961. Londres. Fernando Corena. Ernst Blanc. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Elizabeth Soderstrom. Teresa Berganza. Hugues Cuenod. Giorgio Tadeo. Edda Vincenzi. Piero Cappuccilli. Heather Harper Dir.: Carlo Maria Giulini

Música para ¨La nuvo Sirena" Faustina Bordoni. 2010.Sarro, Pollarolo, Orlandini, Vivaldi, Capelli, Leo, Vinci, Haendel y Hasse.Vivica Genaux, mezzosopranoAnton Steck, violín.Concerto Köln.

In the recent explosion of interest in baroque opera, much has been made – understandably – of the great castrati of the 18th-century. Those sensational voices, lost forever, combined with the equally sensational mutilation that made them possible, not to mention the thrilling music written for them, have made the castrati a marketer’s dream, in our own time as well as Handel’s.

The fuss over Farinelli and his colleagues might well lead one to assume that there were no female opera stars in the 18th century. But there were, of course – and here Arion pays tribute to one such woman: Faustina Bordoni. “Universally ranked among the greatest singers of her age,” as musicologist Winton Dean has written, mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni was born in Venice on March 30, 1697; she died there Nov. 4, 1781. Between those symmetrical poles, Faustina enjoyed enormous success throughout Europe.

Faustina was already a celebrity when she arrived in London in 1726. Chroniclers raved about the flexibility and brilliance of her voice; Charles Burney emphasized her perfect intonation, outstanding breath control, and her musical intelligence. But it is perhaps to the German flutist and composer Johann Quantz (1697-1773) that we owe the most revealing description of Faustina’s artistry:

[…] She had a very happy memory, in arbitrary changes and embellishments, and a clear and quick judgement in giving to words their full power and expression. In her action she was very happy; and as she perfectly possessed that flexibility of muscles and features, which constitutes face-playing, she succeeded equally well in furious, amorous, and tender parts; in short, she was born for singing and for acting.

In London, Faustina joined two other stars -- soprano Francesca Cuzzoni and the castrato Senesino – as a “dream team” that Handel assembled for his opera company, the Royal Academy of Music. Between 1726 and 1728, Handel wrote five roles for Faustina, tailoring them, as was the custom, to her vocal and artistic qualities: Roxana in Alessandro; Alcestis in Admeto, Pulcheria in Riccardo Primo, Emira in Siroe, and Elisa in Tolomeo.

But London was not big enough for two prime donne, and rivalry between Faustina and Cuzzoni – or rather, between their fans -- reached surreal proportions. The singers’ respective partisans became the 18th-century equivalent of today’s soccer hoodlums, shouting down the rival of their favourite with catcalls and boos. Satirists penned acid portraits of both singers; race horses named Cuzzoni and Faustina ran against one another; society members who championed one prima donna refused to visit those who favoured the other. The affair culminated with an infamous performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte in 1727, where Faustina and Cuzzoni, unable to sing over the tumult in the audience, actually came to blows on stage.

The controversy, and the singers’ high salaries, did nothing to help the Royal Academy’s shaky finances; the following year the company folded. Faustina returned to Italy, and in 1730 she married the German composer Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783) in Venice. The following year the couple moved to Dresden, where Hasse would serve as maestro di cappella for the electoral court for over 30 years. Faustina too was engaged by the Saxon court -- at twice the salary of her husband -- but continued to tour until retiring from the stage in 1751.

Today Hasse’s music is rarely performed. But during much of his career, he was the pre-eminent composer of opera seria in Italy and in German-speaking Europe. The modern authority Sven Hansell writes of a “gentle sensuality, proud resolve and many other nuances of feeling to be teased out of Hasse’s music” by singers of character, for which we have Faustina as a model. Burney, meanwhile, described Hasse as “the most natural, elegant, and judicious composer of vocal music, as well as the most voluminous now alive; equally a friend to poetry and the voice, he discovers as much judgment as genius, in expressing words, as well as in accompanying those sweet and tender melodies, which he gives to the singer. Always regarding the voice, as the first object of attention in a theatre, he never suffocates it, by the learned jargon of a multiplicity of instruments and subjects; but is as careful of preserving its importance as a painter, of throwing the strongest light upon the capital figure of his piece.” A worthy husband indeed for our Faustina!

In 1772 Burney visited Hasse and Faustina in Vienna, and was utterly charmed by the celebrity couple. Faustina, now in her mid-70’s, he found “very conversable,” with a lively curiosity, and “good remains… of that beauty for which she was so much celebrated in her youth.” In 1744, Metastasio described Hasse and Faustina as “truly an exquisite couple.” They had two daughters, both of whom were trained singers, and a son.

When I read Quantz’s description of Faustina as someone “born for singing and for acting,” I immediately thought of Kimberly Barber. The Canadian mezzo-soprano is already known for her brilliant and touching performances of Handel’s major castrato roles: Torontonians still talk about her luminous 1999 performances of Xerxes at the Canadian Opera Company, and her noble yet vulnerable Ariodante – a role she later sang at the Paris Opera.
But like Faustina, Ms. Barber is a true singer-actor – one for whom coloratura is never mere display, but comes from the purest emotional source. Here, in short, were the ingredients for a program that would introduce two outstanding singers to Arion’s audience: one from the 18th-century; the other from the distant land of Ontario.

Faustina Bordoni

Wagner. El Anillo de los Nibelungos.1959. Londres.  El Oro del Rhin: Hans Hotter. David Kelley. Richar Holm. Otakar Kraus. peter Klein. Kurt Böhme. Michael Langdon. Ursula Boese. Walküre:  Ramon. Vinay. Hans Hotter.Astride Varnay. Amy Götterdammerung:  Wolfgang Windgassen. Astrid Varnay. Otakar Kraus. Gottlob Frick. Amy Shuard. Hermann Uhde.Dir.: Franz Konwitschny.

Verdi. La Forza del Destino.Gabriella Tucci. Franco Corelli. Ettore Bastianini. Giorgio Tozzi. Joann Grillo. E. Esparza. Louis Sgarro. Dir.: Nello Santi.

Verdi. Attila. Giovanni Battista Parodi (Attila). Sebastian Catana (Ezio). Susanna Branchini (Odabella). Roberto De Biasio (Foresto). Cristiano Cremonini (Uldino). Zyian Atfeh (Leone) Dir.: Andrea Battistoni

Mozart. Don Giovanni. 1970. Roma.Sesto Bruscantini. Paolo Montarsolo. Rita Talarico (Anna). Ilva Ligabue (Elvira).  Edith Martelli (Zerlina). Plinio Clabassi (Commendatore). Renzo Casellato (Ottavio). Alberto Rinaldi (Masetto)Dir.: Baettcher.

Respighi. La Fiamma. 1985. Budapest.Ilona Tokody. Peter Kelen. Klara Takacs.  Sandor Solyom Nagy.  Tamara Takacs. Katalin Pitti. Kolos Kovacs Dir.: Laberto Gardelli
Parte 1- - Parte 2 - Parte 3

Ilona Tokody

La Fiamma was first performed on January 23rd 1934 in the Royal Opera House in Rome with Respighi, himself, conducting and Giuseppina Cobelli in the leading role of Silvana. The opera was very well received and its success surpassed that of the composer's other stage works. Performances followed in Buenos Aires and Chicago in the same year, and at La Scala and in Budapest in 1935. Further productions were staged in Berlin (1936) and Vienna (1937). In Budapest, the opera was performed 32 times and the Budapest company took its production to Florence in 1938 and to La Scala in 1940 with great success. Appropriately, then, Hungaroton produced the very first recording of the work in 1995 and a discussion/review of it is the backbone of this article.

La Fiamma is a post Romantic grand opera. The libretto is based on the play "Anne Pedersdotter, The Witch" by Han Wiers-Jenssen (1866-1925), but transposed to Bisance It is structurally impressive with cohesive broad spans and large-scale symmetrical conformities - for example the grand finales of the first and third acts correspond to each other. Both have mass scenes involving hysterical trials for witchcraft, using freely interpreted "ceremonial music in the Byzantine style". Respighi's love of ancient modes is often evident, Gregorian chant and the old tonalities and the orchestrations of old arias and dances being transferred to the world of grand opera. Respighi the impressionist is also subtly apparent in some of his orchestrations and tonal writing. La Fiamma employs a large but not a mammoth orchestra; however, all the instruments are rarely played together for this is a score of "many grave, compact sounds and dark shades." This sparing use of colour does not mean that the opera lacks the expressiveness that Respighi learnt from Richard Strauss, but that this expressiveness is reserved more for the richly chromatic vocal parts that vividly express the opera's basic ideas and fundamental moods: sultriness, stifled or erupting eroticism, morbidity, eccentricity, perversion, hysteria, fear and fatalism. Respighi had earlier explored supernatural forces in his comic opera Belfagor (1922) about a minor, buffoonish devil who is sent up from hell to find out why so many incoming men are blaming marriage for their fall.

Interestingly, Carl Theodor Dreyer did a sound film of La Fiamma in 1945, entitled "Vredens Dag" (Day of Wrath) and Norwegian composer Edvard Fliflet Braein (1924-1976) wrote an opera on the same play, called "Anne Pedersdotter", which is available on Simax CD PSC 3121

La Fiamma, set in 7th century Ravenna, opens in the Exarch Basilio's summer residence set between the coast and a dense pine forest. Basilio's severe and aged mother, Eudossia, is supervising the servant's weaving. The music is dark, fatalistic, threatening - almost stifling - with swirling strings suggesting superstition and menace. Out of these figures grows the chanting of the servant girls - to a rather oriental melody - as they work; the orchestra evoking their interminable spinning. Eudossia (sung suitably domineeringly by Klára Takács) admonishes Monica and the girls to concentrate on their work and pray. This oppressive atmosphere is keenly felt by Silvana, Basilio's young second wife who is also present. When Eudossia exits, a sweeter, more serene melody follows, pastoral in character, with a prominent part for the oboe; again, with humming chorus. The music lightens further as the girls, now unsupervised, laugh and chatter. But the mood is shadowed by talk of witches and witchcraft. In her first main aria, Silvana (Ilona Tokody) confides in Monica that she is unhappy in Basilio's palace; she misses "... the sun, the sea and the wind..." The aria with its beautiful lines and impressionistic music contrasts the warmth of dreams and freedom with the chill of entrapment. Then the crowds outside are heard chasing Agnese di Cervia, whom the people of Ravenna have accused of witchcraft and infanticide. Horror and hysteria is conveyed by chorus and orchestra. Agnese (Tamara Takáks), panicking and wheedling, appears before Silvana, now alone, and appeals for concealment. Agnese eventually persuades Silvana to hide her. Silvana bids her swear she has made no pact with the devil but Agnese avoids taking the oath by making veiled allusions.

The handsome Donello, Basilio's son, arrives after a long absence. Donello (a dashingly romantic Péter Kelen) greets his father's new wife, Silvana. In the lovely aria/duet "The Meadow where I used to play" he reminisces about his youth in the beauty of the countryside and he seems to remember Silvana who confirms that they had met once before. Silvana, then a little girl, had seen Donello with an injured companion. Donello then remembers that she took them to the hut of Agnese. The orchestra tells us that Silvana remembers the event with much more affection than she speaks of. Eudossia enters and greets her son and in an exchange of religious intensity, they speak of their homage to the Church, their loyalty to Empress Irene, and of their beloved Byzantium from which they have been exiled. Now Agnese is discovered in the house and dragged out to her execution. Agnese is hysterical, beseeching that she is innocent but the chorus is adamant she is guilty. The people demand her blood - "To the stake!", they cry - the whole scene is full-blooded and builds up to a huge climax, the calmer church singing of the clergy contrasting dramatically with the heated clamour of the crowd.

Act II, set in various rooms of Basilio's palace, opens with Donello slyly but lightly teasing the servant girls. He tells them that a clothed statue remains demure when virgins pass but sheds her clothes when easier ladies go by. This is Respighi giving us some delightful light relief before the music darkens for the drama that quickly follows. Silvana enters and confronts Monica who admits to have fallen in love with Donello. In an often beautiful but emotionally complex aria, Silvana warns Monica that her love cannot be, that Donello is merely playing with her affections. Monica is banished to a convent. The orchestral accompaniment quite clearly tells us that Silvana is jealous. Basilio (a commanding Sándor Sólyom-Nagy) enters with his court. As the champion of orthodoxy, he is obliged to prepare for war on the Pope who has been proclaimed a heretic. When Basilio, Donello and Silvano are left alone, Silvana demands that Donello tell her what was said at Agnese's execution. Donello confirms her fear that Agnese had cried out from the stake that Silvana, whose mother had once employed witchcraft to force the Exarch to marry her daughter, had concealed Agnese. An outraged Basilio orders that anyone who spreads the witch's lie will have their tongue cut out. But when left alone with Silvana, Basilio, in another emotionally wide-ranging aria, confesses that Agnese had told the truth and that he had at first succumbed to the spell and fallen for Silvana, but that now he loves his wife truly and has been in penance ever since. To ever-darkening, brooding and threatening music, Silvana is at first shocked and filled with horror by Basilio's revelation but then she is consumed with curiosity wondering whether she, herself, possesses such awesome powers. Basilio urges her to cast aside such thoughts and to pray but left alone, Silvana puts herself to the test; she whispers Donello's name, he appears and they fall into each other's arms! Respighi's music in these last moments of Act II fairly whiffs of fire and brimstone.

Act III opens in Donello's room in the palace. He and Silvana are alone. The dramatic orchestral prelude suggests frenzied, illicit passion and tragic foreboding. As the textures thin the two lovers sing ardently of their passion: Silvana of her sexual awakening after "an eternal winter dream" and Donello, torn between rapture and a desire to escape his bewitchment: "What delicious potion did you pour for me..", but eventually his passion wins. This lengthy ecstatic and dramatic duet has elements of Richard Strauss and Puccini. The lovers are separated in their embrace by the arrival of Eudossia who utters dark hints as the situation becomes clear to her. Enmity between the two women is immediately apparent. Eudossia detains Silvana pending the arrival of Basilio. He arrives and it is apparent that he is now an old and broken man. In a tense exchange between father and son, Basilio informs Donello that the Empress has commanded his return to Byzantium. Emphatically, Donello at first resists then in his dramatic aria "Is that what you want… ", he feels that fate has offered him the chance to free himself of his passion and he exits quickly leaving Silvana alone with Basilio. Left alone together Basilio and Silvana regret Donello's departure; Silvana accusing Basilio's mother of an intrigue to rob her of Donello's love. When Basilio tries to defend Eudossia, Silvana rounds on him venting all her frustration and rage on him accusing him of robbing her of her youth and telling him that she has been wishing he was dead for a long time. In this vicious aria, "Don't touch me...", Ilona Tokody seizes all her melodramatic opportunities. The vehemence of this withering attack causes Basilio to have a fatal heart attack. Eudossia rushes in and accuses Silvana - "You! You killed him witch!" Silvana is brought to the tribunal of the Church where she pleads her innocence. She claims that although she has erred in yielding to her passion, she is neither a witch nor the murderer of her husband but a victim of circumstance. Donello, too, asks that she be absolved. But then Eudossia reminds the tribunal about Agnese's accusations and demands judgement on Silvana who is then ordered to prove her innocence by swearing on a reliquary. A doubting Donello urges her to do so. His hesitancy causes Silvana to break down and she is unable to repeat the oath after the bishop and so in the eyes of the people she is damned. The bishop raises his hand to curse her and the crowd cringes back in horror crying out - "Witch! " Like the end of Act I, this final set piece is truly awesome. There is the might and dignity of the Church with on and off-stage Gregorian-style choruses, supported by Respighi's resplendent modern orchestral colours. Then there is Silvana's anguished and poignant appeal against the bishop's pointed accusations, "Not for wickedness but for the desire of love..." followed by a sympathetic women's chorus and Donello's humble but ardent offer of self-sacrifice, "Bishop, absolve her...let me suffer the most severe punishment", the effect of which is quashed by Eudossia (Klara Takaks at her most venomous with the orchestra spitting malice). The chorus "Defend yourself..." superimposed by the passionate declamations of the principals is another theatrical triumph so, too, is the impact of closing scene with Silvana's collapse and condemnation.

In conclusion, it is interesting to note that Respighi choses to call his opera La Fiamma (The Flame) rather than, for instance, "The Witch". In doing so Respighi is subtly pointing up the main theme of his opera which is the flame of love; love - in all its ramifications, happy and fulfilling yet also destructive; but always eternal and unquenchable.

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