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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 5

High-voltage Singing in Operatic Ensembles

by Steven Huebner / January 31, 2003

Version française...

Melody of the Month
ut any group of excitable people around a dinner table and chances are they will begin talking all at once--to their neighbours, to the group as a whole. Although in films and plays this is difficult to represent coherently, in opera some of the greatest moments occur when three or more characters hold forth at the same time. Such scenes remain legible not only musically but also as part of an advancing plot. Now, the spectator isn't expected to pick out every word each character sings. Elegant turns of phrase are much less important than a general impression of what is going on. The composer and librettist set up the situation to project the gist of each character's attitude. And then music goes on to work its magic. The action doesn't necessarily freeze: as each character lives through and "experiences" the ensemble truths emerge more clearly, situations are clarified.

Big ensembles--trios, quartets, quintets and more--were not always fixtures in opera. For the first 150 years or so of opera, during the baroque era, characters rarely combined their voices. Things began to change by Mozart's time, in the late eighteenth century. Adhering to the spirit of the age, composers attempted to be more true-to-life, more responsive to the ebb and flow of dramatic events, by making several characters sing together.

In a certain sense they were right: witness our dinner party example. Although such simultaneity is perhaps too naturalistic for representation on the spoken stage, musicians developed the means to produce order out of chaos. They successfully balanced the confusion of simultaneous discourse with melodic repetition and with skilful projection of key words to help focus the attention of the listener on appropriate emotions.

Vocal quartets offered a particularly complex interplay of music and drama and, as so often in the repertory, Mozart wrote some of the early masterpieces. The quartet in his Idomeneo readily springs to mind. There, King Idomeneo banishes his son Idamante in order to placate the gods, while both Idamante's current beloved and former lover commiserate--though certainly not with each other! All the characters sing from a different perspective, yet they also come together twice on the verb "to suffer" accompanied by poignant chromatic harmonies: diversity within unity. In the great Act I quartet of Don Giovanni involving the archetypal seducer and his various antagonists, Mozart cleverly sustains two conversations at the same time. By the end of the piece the orchestra repeatedly whispers a motif associated with Donna Elvira's earlier words "don't trust him!" and the heroine, Donna Anna, concludes that Don Giovanni is the murderer of her father. Beethoven saves the climax of the plot for the quartet in Fidelio: in a dungeon, Leonore forestalls the murder of her husband by the evil Pizarro. A trumpet call to signal the arrival of Pizarro's more benevolent boss saves the day. The action moves along at breakneck speed, with a turbulent orchestra seconding the fortissimo of the four singers, until the trumpet produces a moment of astonished reflection--from different perspectives--for the characters.

Giuseppe Verdi penned one of the greatest vocal quartets ever in the third act of Rigoletto. The heroine Gilda, daughter of the court jester Rigoletto, has fallen in love with the duke of Mantua, much to her father's chagrin. To disabuse her of any illusions about the duke's good intentions, Rigoletto takes Gilda along to watch the duke's actions with Maddalena, a woman of easy virtue. The duke and Maddalena appear inside a dilapidated shack, Gilda and Rigoletto outside. How can a quartet where the characters react to one another possibly occur in this set? As it happens, the duke is not overly fussy about the venues for his trysts: the walls of the house are so full of holes that Gilda and Rigoletto can see in.

The duke and Maddelena might as well be on the street themselves. So much for naturalism. In the quartet Maddalena playfully rebuffs the duke's advances. Gilda asks herself how she could have fallen for such a man, and Rigoletto promises revenge. In the play that served as the opera's model, Victor Hugo's Le Roi s'amuse, the building is dilapidated enough but the crevasses are manifestly smaller. The seduction sequence and Blanche's and Triboulet's (the analogues to Gilda and Rigoletto) reaction to it occur in successive episodes, not simultaneously. Blanche silently peers into a crack in the wall and turns away to address her father once she has witnessed enough of her lover's escapades. Triboulet asks whether he may avenge her honour. Numbed by disappointment she meekly acquiesces, not realizing that her father intends to hire an assassin.

Melody of the Month - February 2003
Bella figlia dell'amore/Schiavo son de' vezzi tuoi
Verdi: Rigoletto, Act III

Audio Downloads- Thanks to Mike Richter

- 20 February 1907 96000 HMV 054117 Transferred at score pitch
Enrico Caruso, Bessie Abott, Louise Homer, Antonio Scotti

- 2 July 1908 Victor 96001 HMV 054199
Enrico Caruso, Marcella Sembrich, Gina Severina, Antonio Scotti

- 13th February 1912 first issued on HMV 2-054038
Enrico Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini, Josephine Jacoby, Pasquale Amato

What is gained by Verdi's conflation of two dialogue sequences that follow each other in Hugo's original? This is notoriously hard to describe, but surely the answer lies somewhere in the intensity and richness of the operatic moment. That intensity results from the close-knit combination of the comedy between the duke and Maddalena with the tragic disintegration of a heroine singularly ill-equipped to come to terms with betrayal. Verdi casts the quartet in two parts. In the first, the orchestra sets the tone for light-hearted banter between the duke and Maddalena: a nonchalant melody with lots of chattering and ornamental frills in the violins. Gilda can barely manage short, shocked interjections of "Iniquo traditor!" (Wicked deceiver!). Maddalena, however, is no pushover and the duke must press his case more convincingly in the second part of the quartet by coming up with a suitably seductive melody. This is the famous tune "Bella figlia dell'amore/Schiavo son de' vezzi tuoi" (Lovely daughter of love/I am enslaved by your charms). Maddalena laughs off the putative sincerity of his declaration with rapid patter singing. Gilda, for her part, emits broad descending phrases broken by sob figures that soon take over and consume her entire line. Rigoletto controls his promise of vengeance quietly and angrily within a narrow vocal range and relatively unmelodious expression. Verdi also shapes the whole ensemble to culminate in two stunning melodic climaxes. Therein lies the craft: the characters are strongly individualized yet they work together as a unit to create lyrical crests that respond to the tragic irony and poignancy of the dramatic situation taken as a whole. After the quartet, Verdi's father does not seek his daughter's approval for revenge, as did his forbear in Hugo. Gilda is shattered and vulnerable. As so often in opera, the music says it all.

L'Opéra de Montréal presents Rigoletto Feb. 8, 13, 15, 17, 19 and 22. Daniel Lipton conducts and Michael Capasso directs a cast of Richard Paul Fink (Rigoletto), Lyne Fortin (Gilda), Marc Hervieux (Duc de Mantoue) and Gail Dubinbaum (Maddalena) and Mikhail Svetlov (Sparafucile). Info: (514) 985-2258.

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