What is a mezzo-soprano ?
What is a mezzo-soprano (11)?
Or rather, "When is a mezzo-soprano not a mezzo-soprano?"
And firstly some bad marks to Warner Fonit for having prepared the booklet
with precious little reference to the actual contents of the disc. Let
us pass over as "normal" the fact that the (untranslated)
texts don’t always begin exactly where the sung extracts begin; let
us pass over as "regrettable" the fact that the essay by one
of Italy’s leading voice experts, Rodolfo Celletti, has been poorly
translated. If Cossotto herself should happen upon it and read that
such a renowned critic has defined her voice as "slightly hollow"
she at least will be able to check back to the original Italian and
find that he said no such thing; "rather dark" was his unexceptionable
description. And what will she or we make of the description of Verdi’s
phrasing, with its "continuous transitions from broad and temple
fragments to agitated interjections"? Unfortunately the idea still
reigns in Italy that translations are not worth wasting good money on,
you can always find a second cousin or a brother-in-law who once spent
a summer shoplifting in Hastings or getting mugged in Brighton and who
will do it free. You can imagine the domestic scene:
He: Eh, Filumena, how do you say "ampio"
She (banging the pots and pans): "Ample",
He (sipping his grappa): Eh, "temple",
that’s what I thought, "temple".
Let us pass over less readily the fact that Celletti’s
essay is a general appreciation of Cossotto. Was it written specifically
or is it an all-purpose essay intended to "do" for any Cossotto
disc? The pity of this is that the record itself raises a number of
important and interesting questions which Celletti himself would doubtless
have welcomed the opportunity to discuss.
First of all, by adding extracts from the complete
Tancredi to turn an under-filled LP into an under-filled CD,
we are given a direct juxtaposition between "original instruments"
(under Ferro) and thoroughly traditional 20th Century-style
Verdi conducting (under Santi). Now I have said before, and I will say
it again, that the "original instruments" issue is something
of a red herring since if you play them well enough people will hardly
notice the difference. Or, put the opposite way, a "normal"
symphony orchestra with reduced strings and a detached non-legato style
of string playing will sound practically the same as a period band.
It’s the style that makes the difference. In the present case the wind
make a particularly cool, mellow sound which is wholly pleasurable;
the strings show occasional signs (but not too many) of that rough,
ill-tuned effect which some people found so ear-catching when the original
instrument movement was in its infancy. Though come to think of it,
the orchestras of Italian provincial theatres have never needed to call
upon original instruments to make sound like that.
That Cossotto, at a time in her career when she could
have contented herself with carting her Eboli, her Azucena, her Amneris
and her Santuzza around the world, should have taken part in such a
project demonstrates a sense of cultural curiosity and a musical open-mindedness
which can only be applauded. But does she then apply a traditional prima
donna style regardless of the context? I think not. She was in any case
wont to use remarkably little vibrato – as the Verdi extracts show,
her voice was rich enough and dark enough without – but I get the impression
that she is here "straighter" still. She also despatches her
moments of agility with absolute precision, helped out, in the Italian
manner (but not excessively) by aspirates. In other words, she has identified
with the aims of the project. Among these aims, it would seem (and I
consider this far more important than mere musicological correctness),
are those of alerting us to the fact that Rossini is a composer of high
seriousness. If you compare the most famous aria, "Di tanti palpiti",
with the Marilyn Horne/Henry Lewis version which recently turned up
on Decca’s "The World of Rossini" (473 143-2) your initial
reaction might be to smile at the jaunty introduction under Lewis and
think this is lovely. The trouble is it sounds such a rubbishy piece
of music; with Cossotto and Ferro it has a meaning. Horne, by the way,
does her agility without aspirates which some will prefer, but for me
it is Cossotto who reveals Rossini’s true stature.
In another way Cossotto was taking a courageous risk
in singing with original instruments, for they are lower in pitch than
modern ones. It is not so easy to change a lifetime’s habits when it
comes to pitching notes and in any case if there is a chink in Cossotto’s
technical armoury it is her tendency to be fractionally under the note;
always a risk with very rich, dark mezzo voices. In the Verdi this obtrudes
just occasionally; in this Rossini it happens rather more regularly,
enough to be a little disconcerting, and I suspect that the problems
of pitching lower than usual are the cause.
When it comes to the Verdi pieces any experienced listener
is going to raise his eyebrows. There’s a sample of Cossotto’s classic
Eboli, to be sure, but Abigaille, Elvira and Ernani are all soprano
parts, and so, I believe, is Medore (it’s not as if Il Corsaro
is sung often enough to speak of "standard practice"). So
yes, one fine day she decided to kick the traces and sing soprano. Can
she do it? Well yes, she can. Does she sound under strain? Not really.
In the middle of the selection we are reminded of the familiar Cossotto
and there is no denying that she sounds totally at home as Eboli, the
smoulderingly dark tones of her lower-middle register allied to years
of familiarity with the words and the music. The other are audibly "instant
interpretations" but vivid and well thought out even so. And she
shows that she can carry a full, bright, "lirico-spinto" or
"dramatic soprano" tone right to the top of her range. But
surely her high notes must sound strained? No more so than those of
Callas (the obvious comparison for Amelia in Ballo), frankly.
Maybe even less so. Her high C in the Ernani aria does not sound exactly
free of effort, but Gabriela Tucci, a distinguished lyric soprano from
those same years, does not make it sound any easier. A recording of
this piece by Mara Colleva suggests that there could be advantages in
using a lighter voice-type altogether, but that is another story. This
recital provides completely convincing evidence that Cossotto could
perfectly well have trained as a lyric-dramatic soprano and sustained
all the parts included here. Indeed, I wonder that she did not go a
stage further and give us, on a companion disc, such choice morsels
as Isolde’s Liebestod, the closing scene of Salome and maybe
a glimpse of Beethoven’s Leonora.
Am I being ironic? Not really. There is the right gleaming
tone on the upper notes for these roles and I daresay she would have
made them sound less of a continuous scream than certain of their regular
practitioners. So the question is, why did she train as a mezzo?
Well, this recital goes to prove that there is more
personal choice in the matter than you might imagine. However, I think
we would have lost more had we been deprived of her in mezzo roles than
we have by not hearing her in soprano ones. The Don Carlo piece
shows that it is in her middle-to-lower register that her timbre is
most distinctive. The soprano voice we hear is maybe a more all-purpose
affair. So on balance it seems that she (and her teachers) made the
It was also a well-calculated decision from a career
point of view. Cossotto trained in an operatic environment so dominated
by Callas that only Tebaldi managed to hold her own. Think of all the
Stellas, the Pobbes, the Cerquettis that fell by the wayside. And Callas’s
domination might have been expected to last longer than it did. The
young Cossotto could well have imagined that her future career, as a
soprano, would have been spent wearing her voice out while waiting in
the wings. By training as a mezzo she appeared alongside Callas (in
Medea at Covent Garden) as early as 1959.
If we are to believe the booklet, by the way, she also
sings here as Ernani, but no such luck ("Ernani, involami"
is sung by Elvira). If she had any ambition to take on tenor roles she
kept them to herself. And maybe her husband, the bass Ivo Vinco, briefly
heard here in the Nabucco excerpt, would have drawn the line. As it
is we have an extraordinarily interesting record and I only wish the
presentation had spelt out why it is extraordinarily interesting.
The RPO, incidentally, patently enjoyed playing traditionally big-boned
Verdi under an old-school Italian maestro who knew his stuff.