What is a mezzo-soprano ?
What is a mezzo-soprano (10)?
"What is a mezzo-soprano?" is a question
you may well ask if you look up the discography of Shéhérazade
and find that it has been recorded by singers such as Teyte, Crespin,
Norman, Ewing, Margaret Price and Hendricks, whom no one has ever suggested
may not be true sopranos, but also by Berganza, Baker and Horne. One
of the most successful interpreters has been Suzanne Danco, who is classified
as a soprano but who was particularly associated with roles such as
Cherubino which belong equally to sopranos and mezzos; this points towards
the existence of both borderline cases and borderline repertoire. Les
Nuits d’été, too, has been recorded by both sopranos
– Steber, de los Angeles, Crespin – and mezzos, including Baker and
Graham. Frederica von Stade herself has been particularly appreciated
on disc as Cherubino (with Karajan, 1979), as well as Dorabella (Lombard
1978) and Octavian (De Waart 1977), other roles which are allotted to
either voice type according to the conductor’s overall vision of the
work. But she has also been notably successful in certain roles, such
as Cendrillon (Rudel 1979), Hänsel (Pritchard 1979) and Mélisande
(Karajan 1980), which are normally taken by straight sopranos. Indeed,
in a recital disc issued in 1980 she included two Rossini arias – "Di
tanti palpiti" (Tancredi) and "Bel raggio lusinghier"
(Semiramide) of which the first is standard mezzo territory and
the second a famous war-horse of Sutherland and the like. For this disc
she was labelled as "soprano", but the "mezzo" soon
came back and is there today in large, elegant letters on her own website.
So which is she?
What strikes the listener from this disc – and having
looked up a number of old reviews the same thing seems to have struck
critics all through her career – is the sheer evenness of her tone through
a wide range. She has a basically light (but not bodiless) timbre which
remains effortlessly the same up to a high B (the highest note on this
particular disc) where a mezzo often becomes heavy. But the really remarkable
thing is that this same sound which, heard in the middle register might
suggest a light soprano, extends equally effortlessly down towards middle
C, where a soprano would start mixing in chest tones to help out, and
then lower still. Though she is not a "dark" mezzo or a "quasi-contralto"
mezzo, I can hardly think of another mezzo who has such little recourse
to the chest voice below middle C. The same light, gentle timbre just
goes on down.
As stated above, Sony provide no dates, but I can help
a little. The two Berlioz arias under Pritchard come from her first
recital disc, which was dedicated to French composers. Reviewing this
in Gramophone (July 1976) John Steane began by remarking that "Frederica
von Stade is one of those rare artists of whom one never seems to read
a bad or even a mildly critical review". Obviously he was not to
know that over the way at the EMG Monthly Letter an anonymous colleague
was busy writing just such a review! He then followed with an encomium
of her technique which expresses so exactly what I have just said above
that you will think I cribbed the lot. He pointed out that "the
voice is a genuine mezzo-soprano, neither a pushed-up contralto nor
a short-range soprano", that "she can call upon depth and
richness of tone, yet there is nothing plummy or chesty about the sound",
and that "the high notes are sung with ease and resonance".
And a whole lot more in equally positive vein. The reservations made
by the EMG Monthly Letter did not regard her ability to sing (for this
relief much thanks!) or even her French pronunciation (a happy hunting
ground for critics who have failed to find holes to pick elsewhere);
but it was suggested that she had shortcomings as an interpreter (in
which role Steane continued to admire her). Phrases such as "soporifically
dismal pace", "the interpretation is rather dead", "she
is without, at present, the art of characterization" and even "vulgar,
arch pronouncement" leap to the eye. To be fair, the Berlioz was
more liked, but I quote this nonetheless since the two opposing views
which, reconciled, might suggest that she produces an unfailingly beautiful
sound but doesn’t do very much with it interpretatively, have tended
to follow her ever since.
Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été is a
work which, notoriously, requires such a range of voices that no single
singer is likely to be equally successful in all six songs. A two-voice
version has been tried and the Berlioz conductor of the late
20th Century, Sir Colin Davis, divided it between four voices
for his epoch-making Philips cycle. But suppose all four voices were
not all equally good … In the present performance, made (or issued)
in 1984, it is as if the problem has not even occurred to the interpreters.
Ozawa knows well that Berlioz’s reputation as a white-hot revolutionary
enshrined a profound admiration for the classicism of Gluck, of Cherubini
and of Spontini. The conductor proceeds with a calm unflappability,
a serene monumentality which allows von Stade to float her exquisitely
even tone around every hurdle as if it did not exist. And there you
have it. Evenness. It all sounds the same. While theoretically applauding
the interpretative stance and recognising that this may be the best
sung version ever, I was plain bored stiff. The conductor sounds dead
on his feet and the performance is stillborn. Not that von Stade seems
other than content to leave things the way they are.
England has had a notable Berlioz tradition (but goodness,
with Monteux and Münch so has Boston!). Pritchard was not its greatest
exponent but he knew very well that while Berlioz adulated Gluck, Cherubini
and Spontini, he was also a fanatical proponent of Beethoven, and there
is a certain Beethovenian drive and mobility to the proceedings. Pritchard
also tolerates a degree of imprecision that might have caused Ozawa
to wake up and protest, but at least there is life here.
Back to Ozawa for a Shéhérazade from
1981. I put this on one side and came back to it a couple of days later,
hoping to find something I’d missed the first time. Alas, I still found
that the conductor’s static approach was one I just couldn’t engage
with. I haven’t got Crespin’s recording but I do have an off-the-air
tape of a 1970 Rome performance in which she is accompanied by the unjustly
forgotten (but not in Italy) Thomas Schippers. Here immediately I found
the nervous little hairpin crescendos and diminuendos, the sudden volatility
of a wind phrase, the homing in on a textural detail, which brings the
music to life. I can’t see that Crespin’s singing as such is superior
to von Stade’s, if anything it is a little more effortful, but the whole
context changes everything. So go to von Stade for beautiful singing,
and just that. Sad, isn’t it; both von Stade and Ozawa have the reputation
for being charming and engaging personalities in a profession where
bitchiness reigns, and yet twice over they seem to have gone to sleep
on the job. It makes you lose you faith in human nature.
But wait a minute, why should this be the last word?
There is nothing more frustrating than spending a Saturday afternoon
searching for a review you are sure you have read not all that long
ago, but there it is. I wish I could quote chapter and verse but on
the occasion of a reissue of one of von Stade’s recordings the critic
began by referring to those singers who had briefly passed through our
lives, lightening them as they went. The idea being that von Stade has
come and gone. I must say that I, too, had rather supposed her to have
gently faded out. As you will have seen from the recordings mentioned
above, her recording career was intense from the late 1970s to the early
1980s. Such few records as have appeared in the last decade or so have
mostly been of musicals and the like, the sure refuge of a classical
singer with a failing voice. And yet it seems not to be. Her career
continues, on the stage and on the concert platform, and her much-delayed
Wigmore Hall debut took place on October 22nd of this year.
She is now 57, but a well-trained and properly husbanded voice, which
hers certainly seems to be, should still have several years’ life left
in it at that age. So instead of reissuing twenty-year-old recordings
which were unsuccessful through no fault of hers, why not record her
again in the two song cycles here, taking care to engage some bitchy,
foul-tempered martinet of a conductor guaranteed to bring proper conviction
to the proceedings?