Sunday, May 31, 2009

Vesselina Kasarova: Mozart Arias (Mozart-Arien)

Among many opera singers and classical musicians, the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is regarded as the ultimate test. One just can't claim to have mastered one's musical ability until one has successfully mastered his music. But the rub is... most of it is so understatedly graceful and dramatically perfect that when you are successful at performing a Mozart aria well, well, you'll end up blending right into the story so that the audience may be excused for not being appropriately aware of all the vocalizing skills and control that you had put into the performance in order to achieve this easy-sounding music. To love Mozart is to never say 'look at me!', I guess... at least not when you are on the stage.

With old Wolfie demanding the highest level of technique and control in the performance of his cruelly exposed music (it is so lightly orchestrated that the audience can notice even the slightest bit of any wavering in the voice... among the many other things that keep singers awake at night), most singers have all they can handle just to sing his music - hitting all the right notes in the right sequence at the right tempo. And that is often good enough for many (after all, Mozart's music is nothing if not easy on the ears).
RCA Red Seal CD: Vesselina Kasarova - Mozart Arias
Once in a long while, though, we are lucky enough to encounter a singer who can not only recreate what Mozart had written on the score, but who can actually bring vividly to life the characters that Mozart's musical notations are meant to try to describe. The dark-voiced Bulgarian-Swiss mezzo soprano Vesselina Kasarova is one such artist... The voice is very alluringly plumb (with that ever present Slavic sad/mellow tinge to its basic clarinet-like timbre) and intriguingly androgenic... being equally compelling in male roles as in female ones. It is a very distinctly recognizable voice - if not conventional in its beauty. And one that is astoundingly adept at expressing emotion, able to shift into many different colors with endless shades of chromatic and dynamic nuances. Kasarova can bewitch you with a smooth-as-silk legato line, cause you to purr contentedly with her caressingly breath-taking soft singing, chill you from inside out when she takes away that warm vibrato in the voice, and then blow you right off the continent with her tornadic rage of her blasted fortissimo.

This CD of 12 Mozart opera arias and 2 orchestral interludes captures musical story-telling of the sort that leaves one with the impression of having been with Dorabella, Cherubino, Idamante, Farnace, Zerlina, Donna Elvira,
Cecilio, Sesto, and Vitellia as they live through the events of the opera where the arias occur - so vividly that one nearly compulsively duck as the frenzy Dorabella flies about the room flinging her arms and tossing things she knows she wouldn't break about in a show of temper that is as exasperatingly fake as it is adorable (#1, Ah, scostasi/ Smanie implacabili). We all know she hasn't a prayer at not cheating on poor Ferrando at the first chance she gets, but we are compelled to admire her effort to convince herself that she wouldn't anyhow.

Perhaps her assumption of young Cherubino (#2, Non so piu cosa son) is a little
. assertively hormone-driven (ahem!) than many opera lovers would be familiar with, but this is just the Cherubino that could grow into the tragic hero of Beaumarchaise's third part of the Figaro trilogy (The Guilty Mother) rather than the much assumed 'Don Juan in the making' mold. The profuse passion produced in this rendition is too sincere for me, at least, to foresee a cynical womanizing cad as the young lad's future incarnation.

Of another sort of character altogether is Kasarova's portrayal of the adamantly chivalric and noble (if youthfully sensitive) hearted Idamante (#3. Non ho colpa & #5. il padre adorato). The tessitura (average pitch) of this part is quite high for Kasarova and there is a biting edge to her high notes that somehow works to enhance Idamante’s indignation even more. It isn’t a malicious indignation, but there’s quite a bit of royal anger in it, too. The voice retains its richness very well even in higher passage (quite unusual for this role since he is usually sung by more light-voiced high mezzo or a soprano... unless the tenor version is use).

Especially revealing to me is her incarnation of Farnace from Mitridate (#6. Venga pur, minacci e frema and #8. Gia dagli occhi il velo e tolto), an opera seria that Mozart wrote when he was only 14 yrs old. Somehow this epitome of murderous prodigal son is nearly always sung by a male countertenor now, even though the alto castrato who originated the part obviously lived on his lower register (Mozart, unlike the modern composers, wrote his music to fit specific singers rather than voice types). As politically incorrect as this may sound... Kasarova sounds like she has enough testosterone in her voice to turn any countertenor into a basso profundo. But that isn't even the best part about these two tracks!

Her laughing passages in 'Venga pur' are disturbingly deliciously deranged... and my blood freezes when her
second pass on ‘l’ira sua mi rendera’ in the slow middle section of the piece just dissolves into blood-chilling coldness that convinces me that I wouldn’t want to be within a mile of this lass when she’s having a fit. This makes Farnace's turn around in the brilliant long aria of repentance, 'Gia dagli occhi', even more touching as a contrast. It is taken at a rather slow tempo, and it is a credit to Kasarova’s exemplary breath-control that no strain shows in her long drawn out really low passages... or even in those jumpy coloratura passages.

Zerlina the peasant girl may be a minor role in Don Giovanni, but Kasarova's Zerlina (#7. Vedrai, carino) carries a big stick when it comes to showering her man with some loving tender (disguise as bruise remedy). Many a Zerlina have made me smile with her rendition of this slick little sexually suggestive aria, but none had managed to make me blush beet red and steam up my glasses the way this Zerlina does... with just her voice! There is something seriously sensual about her use of vibrato and the rubato she employs that gets the message across even if you don't understand the Italian lyrics being sung. If one can ever successfully intone a quaking bout of sensual desires while delivering a melody... I'll just say that it is always a good idea to have some smelling salt handy when you listen to this CD... and leave it at that.

As far as I know Kasarova has never sung the batty Donna Elvira (#9. Mi tradi, quell' alma ingrata) on the stage. Listening to the hurricane force of this vocal tempest of a track, I wonder why not... She obviously wants to (has said so in interviews), and, by Jove, what Don Giovanni would have a prayer at dodging this insistent a stalker? I've heard many fittingly loony Donna Elvira, but Kasarova's Elvira comes with a twist... She is willfully loony. The Commendatore Statue really ought to leave Giovanni to this gal. She'd be a sorer punishment for him than any flame of hell would, I reckon (totally meaning this as a compliment, by the way).

Cecilio in Lucio Silla isn't one of my favorite opera characters by a long shot. He is usually not much more than a dream boat character who spends the opera being overshadowed by just about everyone else (the high tessitura of the role and its coloratura demand often reduce its singer to just singing the music). It is so refreshing to finally hear a Cecilio who doesn't sound like he is singing a set of written notes during the coloratura part of this aria, but that the coloratura is just his way of expressing his near delirium - of voicing his exuberant happiness. And, boy, do we all need to hear it before we get to the final two opera characters to appear on this CD.

Vitellia (#11, Non piu di fiori), the impetuous princess who longs for the imperial throne, is perhaps the juiciest role Mozart ever had the pleasure to musically characterize in his operas. Her final rondo carries the weight of the entire opera about love, lust, betrayal, and clemency, and it is one that requires a great singing actress to really carry out its dramatic potency. With an absurdly simple melodic line, Mozart endows his soprano with a chance to convince the audience that the vicious character who had spent the entire opera up to these final minutes of it scheming to murder and riot all for her own gain actually has a real conscience... and that she actually listens to it. Kasarova's deep and dark sound and her willingness to explore the ugly places in Vitellia's self-inspection along with her interplay with the bassett-horn obbligato create such a compellingly humane scene of how deciding to do the right thing can be such a trial to one who isn't accustom to self-sacrifice that suddenly you find yourself requiring Tito to be just as merciful as he would need to be to forgive such a wreck of a woman... rather than the usual contempt for the emperor's absurd obsession with clemency.

And to go from that Vitellia to this Sesto (#13. Deh, per questo istante solo), the model of a walking sorrow whose life would be willingly sacrificed in the name of love... One has to amaze at how such drastically different psyches can be so convincingly portrayed by the same soul. Here, more so than in the other arias on this CD, is where one really gets a good glimpse of the famously soul-shattering Kasarova pianissimo... the sort of softly sung phrases that float on the breath so that one can almost reach out and wave one's hand through Sesto's broken spirit. His self-loathing (totally justified, by the way) is so sincerely rendered that one feels barbarous to have to agree with his guilty verdict. The death penalty might just be more merciful for him than a pardon would be indeed.

And so, we come to the final track (#14), the concert aria Io ti lascio, oh cara, addio, originally written for a bass, and are asked by this serenely melancholic voice singing in perfectly silk-like legato to "Pensa che a te non lice, il ricordarsi di me, (Remember that you are not allowed to remember me)" ... Yeah, uh-huh, good luck with that... Listening to a CD like this you can either love or hate this singer, but to not remember her forever afterward is simply a non-starter! Utterly impossible!

Vesselina Kasarova is truly one of the most exciting opera singers around. She takes risks and her daring keeps you interested. Most of the times she pulls it off, and sometimes she doesn't but if there is one thing she isn't, it's being boring. And the most wonderful thing is she never sounds like Vesselina Kasarova is showing off her technical brilliance, but always like the character she is portraying expressing some thoughts or emotions. It also helps that she is wonderfully accompanied by the magnificent Staatskapelle Dresden under Sir Colin Davis. They are so in sync with each other that they make you forget that you are listening to choreographed music rather than being caught in a real conversation between composer and characters for the last hour or so it takes to play the entire disc.

There are lots of Mozart arias CDs out there, but there are only a handful that are sung with such distinct personality as to worth remembering above the rest. This is one of those few. Kasarova is not stuff of background music, so if you're looking for relaxing singing, you've better look elsewhere. This singer commands attention.

*1. Cosi fan tutte
: Ah, scostasi/ Smanie implacabili (Dorabella)
2. Le nozze di Figaro: Non so piu cosa son (Cherubino)
3. Idomeneo: Non ho colpa (Idamante)
4. Idomeneo: March of the Priests ( instrumental)
*5. Idomeneo: Ah, qual gelido orror/ Il padre adorato (Idamante)
6. Mitridate: Venga pur, minacci e frema (Farnace)
7. Don Giovanni: Vedrai, carino (Zerlina)
8. Mitridate: Gia dagli occhi il velo e tolto (Farnace)
*9. Don Giovanni: In qual eccessi, o Numi/ Mi tradi, quell' alma ingrata (Donna Elvira)
10. Lucio Silla: Il tenero momento (Cecilio)
*11. La Clemenza di Tito: Ecco il punto/ non piu di fiori (Vitellia)
12. La clemenza di Tito: March: Maestoso (instrumental)
13. La clemenza di Tito: Deh, per questo istante solo (Sesto)
14. Concert Aria for bass: Io ti lascio, oh cara, addio
Tracks 4 and 12 are orchestral pieces. I'd rather there being 2 more arias instead, but they fit well with the rest of the program.

1 CD. Sung in Italian. Booklet contains track list and printed libretto in Italian and English.


Steven said...

Just have to say that I absolutely love her version of Il Tenero Momento in this CD!

Smorg said...

Hiya Steven! Me, too. :o) I can't get enough of how she incorporates the coloratura into the character of the piece. Her Cecilio has an attitude. ;o)

Thanks for stopping by!