Sunday, June 28, 2009

Touched by a Bulgarian Soul

I was first attracted to classical music by the waltzes of Johann Strauss the Younger, whose music put such vivid scenes from the Austrian countryside in my head that I could close my eyes and see the deep blue of the Danube River, the lush forest around Imperial Vienna and its resident critters, and even the grandeur of its capital city and ruler. I listened to it so much that I could name any of Strauss’ waltzes after hearing any string of 3 notes. So, it was no wonder why I developed such an affinity to the folk-music-inspired orchestral suites from the Romantic period... Composers like Dvorak, Grieg, and Smetana haunted my stereo long before I discovered Wolfgang Mozart and the bel canto opera composers... or even George Handel.

Vocal music, on the other hand, didn’t have an easy entrance into my listening repertoire... I hated
opera. Hated it! The first one of those I was exposed to was Richard Strauss’ Salome... a shamelessly morbid work about the young Hebrew sociopath whose erotic dancing so pleases her step-dad Herod that he grants her the wish to be presented with the severed head of John the Baptist on a platter... to which bloody thing she proceeds to (at least musically) make love to. All that before ending the spellbindingly repulsive night at the opera with a bloody finale. It is a work of genius... Unappetizing, to be sure, and decidedly impossible to love for me (it is nearly atonal and musically very uncomfortable by design... And when it is done really well, I’m simply both too afraid and repulsed to love it. How do you praise with straight face something that is so gorgeously grotesque?).

After that, I had only heard snippets of operas... usually coloratura arias done by screechy leggierro soprani whose sole ambition in life seemed to lie in squeezing out as many high notes as inhumanly possible in the limited time frame. So, whenever a clip of opera or classical singing recital would show up while I was parked at the Classic Arts Showcase cable program at night, I’d switch the channel to watch something else (hopefully) a little less acoustically offensive.... That was, until one night in 2005 when I got preoccupied with something when I heard this unmistakably operatic music coming out of the television and looked up in horror to see this ‘drag queen’ sitting in front of a mirror on a revolving stage that just screamed ‘OPERA!’ from its every pixel. I dove for the remote controller - you know, that flighty little electronic gadget with the talent for disappearing just when you need it the most, and couldn’t find it before she -SHE! It WAS a girl!- started singing.

Well, if ever I was well-served by my lack of speed... The lady may have looked like a drag queen on first (or second, or, god forbid, even third!) sight, but the moment she opened her mouth and started singing, she was the earth goddess reincarnated. I was arrested by the deep and dark sound of her voice, and transfixed by what that burnish coppery tone was communicating. The music was Rosina’s entrance aria, Una voce poco fa, to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville... and it was charming. I had heard it many times before without really thinking much more of it than as a showy tune for coloratura soprani to show off their vocal pyrotechnic with. But this rendition was different. All of the sudden every single note coming out of this quirky creature in ill-fitted dress actually meant something. Even when she ran through the tricky coloratura passages while deftly handling the liquid-filled test tubes or scaling up to her high B’s, it wasn’t necessary to understand the Italian lyrics, I knew exactly what her opera character was airing just from the voice itself.

It was an endlessly fascinating experience to be sitting there actually wishing that an opera clip had lasted longer while feeling both silly and amazed at how much I actually bought the spontaneity of the scene that I just saw and heard - knowing full well t
hat every note was rehearsed and every move was choreographed beforehand.

That... was my first encounter with Vesselina Kasarova, the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano who has, since that day, enjoyed a near monopoly of my stereo system. I’ve listened to many other singers
and many other operas since, of course, and have also realized just how mistaken I was about her appearance (definitely NOT a drag queen... Just inexplicably made to look like one every time she had to sing a female role at Zurich Opera in the 90's!). All the same, it was a real delight for a folksy-classical music loving critter like me to look up Kasarova’s recordings at Amazon not long after seeing that video clip to find that she had released a full CD of 14 Bulgarian folk songs arranged by the composer Krassimir Kyurkchiyski for a solo mezzo soprano voice and chorus back in 2003.

Bulgarian Soul is its title, and every track on it carries its own scent and sense of Bulgaria on its notes. Granted, the songs are not performed traditionally here, but their long lasting if ever melancholic spirits remain authentically intact, thanks to Kasarova’s ability to remove the middleman-ness from the communication of the stories. You don’t hear someone singing about someone else’s experiences. She simply becomes the originator of the story herself and lets you in on her many secret yearnings and fears... and on what keeps her going, standing firm in the rushing river of life with the same determination that carried Orpheus through the torments of Hades’ most restless furies in his quest to bring Eurydice back to the land of the living. Her incendiary dark mezzo-soprano is also superbly supported by the Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria female chorus under Vania Moneva, the Sofia Soloists Chamber Orchestra under Tzanko Dimitrov Delibozov, and the spotless piano accompaniment by Ermila Schweizer-Sekulinova. It is really a case of acoustic synergy where great musicians successfully work together to create something that transcends themselves. (Click here for my proper review of the CD)

Recorded in July 2002 at Bulgaria Concert Hall in Sofia, Bulgaria, and released in 2003, Bulgarian Soul won the well deserved 2004 ECHO Award for World Music. I almost wish I was born a Bulgarian listening to this thing... but then I wouldn’t really have wanted to grow up behind the Iron Curtain. Everyone you hear in this recording did; however, and survived... and their spiritual endurance emanates in the sound of their folk music. If there is such a thing as a medicinal melancholy, this musical intonation of the smell the local Bulgarian flowers, the girls in soukman dress, the Bulgarian countryside and the history of its people, is it.

Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo soprano soloist), Ermila Schweizer-Sekulinova (piano)
Vania Moneva & The Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria, Tzanko Dimitrov Delibozov & The Sofia Soloists Chamber Orchestra
1. Dilmano, Dilbero
2. Kalimanku, Denku
3. Day mi, Bozhe, krila lebedovi (Give Me, God, Wings of the Swan)
4. Zablyalo mi e agantse (A Little Lamb Was Bleating)
5. Polegnala e Tudora (Fair Tudora is Sleeping)
6. Rofinka bolna lezhi (Rufinka Lies Ill)
7. Melodiya (Melody)
8. Slantse ogreyalo (The Sun is Shining)
9. Se ma yad, mamo (I’m So Angry, Mother)
10. Malkata tsvetarka (The Flower Maiden)
11. Vokaliza (Vocalize)
12. Mama Rada dumashe (Mama Was Telling Roda)
13. Proshetna se Momchilitsa (Momchil’s Young Wife)
14. Ya kazhi mi, oblache le byalo (Tell Me, Little White Cloud)

1 CD. Booklet contains a fascinating note on the history and tradition of Bulgarian folk music in English, German, and French by Vesselina Kasarova, a note on Bulgarian folk music by Krassimir Kyurkchiyski, short motif on each songs and lyrics in Bulgarian (written in phonetic English alphabet) and English translation.


Arashi said...

OMG! Poor Smorg! Even though I kinda like Strauss' Salome (I may be a pervert but the story is somehow fascinating in a morbid way, and the music is damn effective in terms of putting you through the wringer), I would never wish it to be my first opera. Geez.

I've discovered Vesselina when I was going through different renditions of my favorite aria from Handel's Rinaldo, Or la tromba in suon festante. "Wow! - I thought. - That's a Rinaldo I've been looking for for so long!" Her ornamentations may have been not so elaborate as, say, Marilyn Horne's, but hers was a Rinaldo alive and feisty, a warrior I believed in, a commander I wanted to join and kick some Saracen ass together. I'm so, SO upset she has never recorded this part or any more of Rinaldo arias since then. But then again, she's been doing a lot of Handel now...

Anonymous said...

Hiya Smorg!

Salome and a conceptualised version of Figaro were what resulted in me losing in opera for some years. I'm glad I had memories of Drottningholm ones to get me back!


Wild Flower said...

Hola Smorg,

I was thinking about...

Do you like Monteverdi? And the italian baroque arias?


Purity McCall said...

You know it is beyond me how those opera folks can take a perfectly lovely looking woman like VK and turn her into a drag queen channeling Joan Crawford (even channeling Mercedes McCambridge would better...). Though must say it worked as a look in Agrippina (but then Agrippina is a psycho mommy from hell).

Still, thank god for trouser roles eh! At least in those we call get to see how beautiful she is.

Smorg said...

@Arashi: That was surely NOT a recommended way of being introduced to the world of opera indeed. :oP It was like listening to such high def and very bloody acoustic train wreck with a lot of gory spatters landing all over you. I've come to appreciate both Salome and Elektra, but I'm afraid it really takes a spectacular soprano in the title role of both works to get me to going back for more of the thing. ;o)

Hey, don't give up on VK not recording Rinaldo yet! She's still on the right side of 50, after all (Marilyn Horne didn't record that role until then and she was still spectacular at it).

@Anna: G'day, matie! I'm glad those two didn't successfully drive you away for good. :o) One of these days you must make a pilgrimage to Drottningholm Court. I heard it is beautiful!

@WF: Salut ma fleur enchantée! I think I like Monteverdi (though more of his baroque-end stuff than his renaissance-end ones), and I definitely love the Italian baroque arias (and even the French ones by Rameau)! :o) My absolute favorite period, though, is the Italian bel canto.... though it has to be sung dramatically rather than as a vocal exercise.

@Purity: Hear! Hear! :oP I still can't believe how I actually thought her ugly at first (since seeing that clip of her Rosina... The La belle Helene DVD didn't hurt but didn't really help either.

Then I came across off-stage photos while reading interviews of the gal and, darn! She's actually a very beautiful woman indeed! I guess the square jaws and square shoulders require better fitting when it comes to costume... and lighting.

All the same, that voice will launch a thousand ship toward her even if she's made to look like a sleep-deprived Hulk Hogan (tho, perhaps I shouldn't give 'em dressers ideas...). I wish I got to see her as Agrippina! Argghhhhhhhhh!

Thanks everyone for stopping by! Hope summer has started well your way.

Smorg :o)

Purity said...

Hey Smorgy... re Wild Flower's comments on Monteverdi, I am currently just in LOVE with Christina Pluhar's mad jazz arrangements of Monteverdi's madrigals (which I adore anyway). For example:

Smorg said...

Whoa! Thanks a bunch for the link, PM. That arrangement sure rocks! :o) Another addition to my arsenal of clips to lure rock/pop music fans to opera with. ;o)

Anonymous said...

My intro to operatic voice that I actually loved was Victoria De Los Angeles singing Ravel's Sheherazade. Regardless of the plentiful criticism for her bad French pronunciation, her voice and the music got to me, deeply. I would get chills up my spine during certain passages, every time I heard them. I was very young and would try to get my friends to experience the same thrills by practically forcing them to listen, until I finally realized that these specific moments could only be felt by me. It made me sad to realize I couldn't share that sort of trancendent joy with anyone. That being said, I still recommend pieces that have affected me and hope others can at least get through them without stopping the track.
Recently, I came across a YouTube video of Tatiana Troyanos in recital, singing one of the three sections of Scheherazade, L'Indifferent. While opera purists would probably have a field day with her version, I loved it! She gives it a kind of lurid, 'I've got an itch and it needs scatchin' interpretation, and again, the French isn't so great. But I also love pop music, so I can accept her presentation however she chooses to give it. Take a listen.

M Smorg said...
What a wonderful find indeed! Thanks very much for the tip, Anon. :o) I do think that many of us classical music/opera fans are too dogmatic over our own fixed idea of how such and such work should be performed, but that obsession serves no one when the artists can't introduce new idea/twist without getting the pan and we can't allow ourselves to like any performance that doesn't meet our impossible personal standard. But the beautiful forest is made up of imperfect trees... some trees, like Troyanos, sure are more deliciously imperfect than others! ;o) I can't get enough!