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 Mezzo-Soprano - Great Arias for the Mezzo Soprano Voice … and to be Experienced as a Protagonist
CD No 1
Georges BIZET (1838-1870)

Carmen, ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’. (Habanera)
Carmen, ‘Près des ramparts de Séville’
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Le nozze di Figaro, ‘Non so più cosa son’
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)

Il barbiere di Siviglia, ‘Una voce poco fa’
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Samson et Dalila, ‘Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix’
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Don Carlo, ‘O don fatale’
Un ballo in Maschera, ‘Re dell’abisso’
Jeanette Nicolai, (mezzo); Sonia Zaramella, (mezzo); Sarah M’Punga, (mezzo)
Orchestra and Chorus ‘Compagnia D’Opera Italiana’/Antonella Gotto
Recorded June-August 1997. No venue indicated
CANTOLOPERA 95037 [71.07]
CD No 2
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Il Trovatore, ‘stride la vampa’
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)

Cavalleria rusticana, ‘Voi lo sapete, o mamma’
Francesco CILEA (1866-1950)

Adriana Lecouvreur, ‘Acerba voluttà’
Ambroise THOMAS (1811-1896)

Mignon, ‘Connais-tu le pays’
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Le nozze di Figaro, Voi che sapete’
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)

Tancredi, ‘Di tanti palpiti’
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1868)

La Favorita, ‘O mio Fernando….Scritto in cielo’
Sonia Zaramella, (mezzo); Sarah M’Punga, (mezzo)
Orchestra and Chorus ‘Compagnia D’Opera Italiana’/Antonella Gotto
Recorded June-October 1997. No venue indicated
CANTOLOPERA 95046 [58.28]

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In summer 2003 I reviewed on this site a CD ROM entitled ‘Between Earth and Sky: The Hour of Meditation and Prayer’. This was an issue from Cantolopera being Volume VII of their ‘The Great Interactive Opera Encyclopaedia’. On that disc there were hours of involving content including a spoken and visual analysis of the characteristics of the baritone voice; other volumes in the series covered the other vocal registers. Each disc in the series allowed analysis of one’s own vocality with the opportunity to sing arias with the music coming from speakers or headphones as the words and score passed in front of ones eyes on the VDU.

This new series from Cantolopera are ‘straight’ CDs, but their sub-title ‘to be Experienced as a Protagonist’ gives the clue to their second purpose. Each disc of arias is sung by professional singers, backed by orchestra, and chorus when appropriate, in the usual way. These ‘model’ tracks are then followed by the music and chorus alone, allowing the listener to try his/her talents and skills, with the backing of an orchestra, rather than just a piano. The words, in the language of the aria, are given with an English translation. However, as there is no music script, a vocal score is a must for the serious protagonist, particularly as the words provided do not indicate reprised phrases. There is also the complication that some arias are given in abbreviated performance versions that may differ from standard vocal scores. However, serious users of these discs, which are in no way ‘jokey karaoke’, should have no difficulty in using them for didactic purposes as well as listening to the performances of professional singers. Given also that each disc has ‘fach’ variations, such as lyric and dramatic etc. arias, this will help the user define individual vocal strengths for themselves. Not all potential singers have the benefits of a music college coach or even a personal teacher. Each disc is a separate entity and can be purchased in that form.

The term ‘mezzo-soprano’ comes from the Italian: meaning half-soprano. It is the middle category of the female voice, some referring to it as the coloratura contralto, but that implies a flexibility and lightness that is certainly not found in the majority of heavier and darker dramatic mezzo-soprano voices. Certainly, in the Italian repertoire some mezzos only differ from the lyrico-spinto soprano in that a few notes are lacking at the top of the tessitura, with the voice merely having a recognisably darker timbre. In recent years Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry have fitted that description, both having essayed soprano roles such as Tosca in addition to their natural fach of the Verdi lyric-dramatic roles such as Eboli (Don Carlos), Amneris (Aida), Azucena (Il Trovatore) but not without exposing imperfections at the top of the voice. Some lighter and more flexible voices have been able to move between their ‘own’ fach into the lighter soprano roles. Cecilia Bartoli and Frederica von Stade are typical examples. However one cannot imagine Marilyn Horne with a heavier, darker, albeit very flexible mezzo voice, taking on Mozart soprano roles as Bartoli has done. In basic range terms, whilst the ordinary, as distinct from the coloratura, soprano, will have a two octave range rising from middle C, the mezzo range is two octaves from A with an occasional high B flat, with some darker and heavier voices going a little lower towards the contralto’s F below middle C. This latter type of voice is needed for Ulrica in ‘Ballo in Maschera’ (CD 1 tr. 8). Along the continuum are the roles such as Carmen (CD 1 trs.1-2), Dalila (CD 1 tr.5) and Mignon (CD 2 tr. 4) through Rossini’s coloratura Rosina and Tancredi (CD 1 tr. 4 and CD 2 tr.7) to Mozart’s Cherubino (CD 1 tr. 3 and CD 2 tr. 5) which can also be sung by a soprano with colour to convey the character’s maleness where appropriate.

On these two discs the diversity of the various mezzo types discussed above, within the Italian and French repertoire, are represented. Three singers with distinctly different vocal characteristics take on the roles as exemplars. Jeannette Nicolai sings the French repertoire roles of Carmen and Dalila (CD 1 trs. 1, 2, and 5) as well as Cherubino’s Act I aria from Figaro (tr. 3) and Euridice’s famous lament (tr. 6). Born in Sofia, she studied in her home town before going to Italy to work with Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Scotto. She has won several notable prizes and appeared in major Italian provincial houses before debuting at La Scala in Prokofiev’s ‘Fiery Angel’ under Chailly’s baton. She has a smooth, even, well-produced voice with good legato and makes a lovely Cherubino whilst lacking some of the sonority required for Dalila. Her voice is a delight to listen to and a good example to follow. The heavier more dramatic mezzo voice demanded by Verdi (CD 1 trs. 7-8 and CD 2 tr. 1), Mascagni and Cilea (CD 2 trs. 2 and 3) is represented by Sarah M’Punga, an Italian whose parents came from Zaire. Her low-voiced mezzo is somewhat throaty in production (CD 1 tr.8) and not ideally steady, the tone spreading under pressure (CD 1 tr.7). The remaining roles are taken by Sonia Zaramello. Another Italian, she has a slightly richer tone than Jeanette Nicolai. Her singing of Cherubino’s Act II aria ‘Voi che sapete’ is equally appealing as that of her compatriot, and putative protagonists can compare their own voices to locate their possible strengths. Zaramello makes an appealing Mignon (CD2 tr. 4) and is a good exemplar in the two Rossini coloratura arias (CD 1 tr. 4 and CD 2 tr. 6).

The recording of the voices varies, being set too far back when the vibrant choir is singing. There is also a distinct acoustic round the voices, possibly due to dubbing. The orchestra is well recorded and the conductor comfortable in this repertoire. Listen to all the soloists, in the order discussed above, via CD 1 trs. 3, 7 and 4.

Robert J Farr

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