Monthly Archives: September 2017

Lotte Lehmann and the Bonding of the “Registers”⏤Part 1

One of the advantages of writing a blog is that, while one remains alert to events in the here and now that seem to demand attention, one is not obligated to them, and can instead choose as subject something of more fundamental and lasting interest. Today’s post, the first of two on this subject, does in fact respond to a recent event, but not one that would gain much traction as a “hook” in the journalistic world at large. That would be the release of a four-CD set of the acoustic recordings of Lotte Lehmann from the Marston label, done with the exemplary technical restoration and documentation we’ve come to expect from that source.

There are a hundred compelling reasons to listen to Lehmann, foremost among them the sheer enjoyment and emotional reward of hearing interpretations that, besides being for the most part wonderfully sung, are among the most personal and dramatically urgent ever recorded. So upon reconsidering her, it’s very tempting to write about her as an interpreter, especially with respect to the roles for which she became internationally famous (the Marschallin, Sieglinde, Fidelio) and the Lieder she sang so inimitably. That’s how she’s usually written about. Here, though, I’d like to focus on a question of functional technique, the actual structuring of her voice, without which Lehmann’s most precious qualities—her directness of expression, her sense of a spontaneous release of emotion and intent like that of a great actress standing on the cusp between the old elocutionary style and the modern acting sensibility—would have been compromised. (Or, as the megastar teacher Mathilde Marchesi said—and more on her below—”Every art consists of a technical/mechanical part and an aesthetical part. The singer who cannot overcome the difficulties of the first part can never attain perfection in the second, not even a genius.”) Marston’s superb compilation, which starts with her earliest and rarest recordings (two Lohengrin excerpts from 1914) and ends with a few electrical Odeons that extend to 1932) afford us the chance to hear those qualities and examine that structuring, that “technical/mechanical part,” in the early stages of her long career.

In my own thought and work, I’ve been trying to rid myself of the word “register”—hence the quotation marks. That isn’t because I’m a denier. It’s for two reasons. First, a “register” doesn’t sound like an activity of the elastic, fluid human body. It sounds like either something fixed and mechanical (the term was apparently drawn from keyboard parlance, where⏤thinking of the organ and pre-pianoforte keyboard instruments, it makes some sense, and does refer to “mechanisms,” a word Garcia used), or something visual, as in pre-digital printing processes (“Those plates are out of register”). The human body doesn’t have mechanisms. It has processes, co-ordinations. Second, “register” has too many associations with old debates about sources of timbral groupings, particularly “chest” and “head,” and sometimes (see below) “middle.” The early Italian pedagogues spoke of “voices,” as in “voce di petto,” “voce di testa,” and in some later elocutionary tracts (what would come between your chest and your head?) “voce di gola.” But “having”  two or three voices sounds like growing two or three heads that now have to be somehow combined, and anyway a voice is more something we do than something we “have.”


I concluded my last post with thoughts about a way forward for the New York City Opera. They were cautiously hopeful but hedged with a question: how, with a Board of Directors that numbers eight and–so far as I can determine–no endowment, is this company to survive, even if it were to go from triumph to triumph artistically?

It’s the sort of question never welcomed by artists or devotees or, perhaps, most of my readers. Or by critics, e.g., Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of The New York Times. A couple of years back, he had the rare privilege of being alternately cited as authority and attacked as willful ignoramus (depending on the author’s convenience) by Reynold Levy in They Told Me Not to Take That Job (Public Affairs, N.Y., 2015), the memoir of Levy’s twelve years at the helm of Lincoln Center. Levy’s complaint had to do with what he termed Tommasini’s “magical thinking”–in part his support for the (then) NYCO’s notion of splitting off from Lincoln Center (and going where?), and in part his persistent campaigning for more new operas and more revisionist productions of old ones, “whatever the costs, whatever the risks,” in a time of desperation.

Tommasini rose to the bait, arguing (see NYT, June 21, 2015) that a critic’s concern is exclusively artistic, with matters of finance and governance best left to “arts reporters.” He also defended his standing recommendations on artistic policy, which to me have usually sounded like the expressions of a rather rarefied modern/postmodern connoisseur taste that was somehow going to become universal if only given the chance. There’s the rub, I think. De gustibus, etc., but Levy was upbraiding Tommasini not so much for his tastes as for advancing them as artistic policy–as if they were the solution to the problem of survival, or, in other words, of solvency.

So, despite Tommasini’s protestations, here he was in the realm of money, where many a magical thought gets thunk. “I’m convinced that there’s a new audience out there for new music,” he said, and while this is something of a faith-based declaration, it’s general enough to be true: sure enough, there are many new musics with followings of some size and devotion, and when new music is performed, new operas produced, some people usually do show up. For major repertory institutions, however, that is not the issue. They need sustainable, repeatable works of broader appeal. And in the case of opera, it’s not just a matter of the music. It’s also a matter of drama, the subject matter, the story being told. Thus, though I have an inbred sympathy for Tommasini’s vision of critical purity, it’s of an “if only” kind. Art and money are inextricable, and no one concerned with the former can afford to ignore the latter.This post, therefore, is about the economics of the high-culture performing arts, of which opera is of its nature the most profligate. So man up, fellow cantophones, if you care at all about the fate of our art. Next time, I promise, we’re back to Die heilige Kunst.

BUT THE NIGHT. . .IS LONG: “The Sunken Bell” of Ottorino Respighi.

La campana sommersa has for me always been an opera known by name only, one of several by a composer whose orchestral extravaganzas and arrangements of ancient songs and dances I enjoy, and taken from an exotic-sounding play by Gerhart Hauptmann, a writer generally considered as a Father of Theatrical Naturalism.  (Hauptmann’s “The Weavers” and Maxim Gorki’s “The Lower Depths,” I was taught, were founding documents of that style, and I guess that’s more or less true, though far from the complete story of either of these writers. Hauptmann was almost from the beginning drawn toward poetic, symbolic elements, witness “The Sunken Bell,” from1896.) So in early April I was happy for an opportunity to see Campana in a co-production between an Italian company (the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari) and the New York City Opera redux. It was a heartening evening for me, both for discovery of the piece and for implied possibilities for the viability of our long-besieged Second Company.

I went to Campana the way I went to many performances when very young, prepped only by a reading of the plot synopsis, and with little idea of what to expect from the performance. I entertained a mixture of hopeful curiosity and trepidation about the current condition of the announced leading tenor, Fabio Armiliato, whom I’d last heard live in a Don Carlo some fifteen years ago,(I)I did catch Fabio in Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love.” He was most amusing, and sounded pretty good. and of the company itself, most recently encountered in 2014 under its previous management, tackling Rossini’s Mosé in Egitto at the City Center.  After my sour experience with Met program notes (see the post of Aug. 4), it was little short of exhilarating to read the informative essay by Lucy Tucker Yates, who seems to know the literary and mythical background of the work and to understand its theatrical and musical idiom, and whose writing is literate and witty. As the Rose Hall houselights lowered, we were informed that Armiliato was sick, and the demanding role of Enrico would be taken by his alternate—a disappointment, but a provisional one, since one didn’t really know what one was losing or gaining.

Respighi’s score is of a kind I find congenial. His mastery of orchestral description—a melding of thematic invention, instrumention of great brilliance and sombre depths, and often magnetic harmonic progressions—was anticipated, and indeed there are stunning extended passages that envelop the listener in the melancholy mystery and fateful seductiveness of the subject and setting. But the music seldom wanders into the purely evocative; it is alert to dramatic event and character. By combining the NYCO’s own players with the Cagliari ensemble (which had already played the run over there), a full, skilled orchestral complement was assembled, and they sounded superb. Without more knowledge of the score, I can’t responsibly evaluate the conducting of Ira Levin as interpretation, but he was clearly in command, and managed pit/stage balances without cheating the glories of the scoring. Respighi’s vocal writing, predominantly in through-composed arioso form, is challenging, but rewardingly set for the appropriate voices. More on that, and on the production, below. What particularly fascinated me about Campana  was the composer’s response to the play’s thematic materials (the librettistic adaptation is by Claudio Guastalla).

Footnotes   [ + ]

I. I did catch Fabio in Woody Allen’s “To Rome with Love.” He was most amusing, and sounded pretty good.