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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Songs: Non t’accostare all’urna [04:31], Il poveretto [02:52], More, Elisa, lo stanco poeta [02:42], Stornello [01:42], L’esule [07:33], La seduzione [03:27], Deh, pietoso, oh Addolorata [04:26], Il tramonto [02:52], La zingara [02:10], Perduta ho la pace [04:50], Ad una stella [03:38], Lo spazzacamino [02:14], Nell’orror di notte oscura [03:29], In solitaria stanza [03:35], Il mistero [04:08], Brindisi [02:05], E’ la vita [01:18], L’abandonée [03:09]
Norah Amsellen (soprano), Lydia Jardon (piano)
Recorded in the Auditorium du Conservatoire Georges Bizet, Paris, 11th-13th July 2004
AR RÉ-SÉ AR 2004 8 [61:54]

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These songs may not be widely known, but singers are usually well-acquainted with them. In Italian conservatoires at least, the slim little Ricordi volume of 16 of them – all included here, though a few variants make me wonder if this is actually the edition being used – is good fodder for budding young students who aren’t ready yet to tackle full-scale Verdi arias. The style is unmistakeably Verdian and they sound like real operatic arias (not least because the piano part usually sounds as if it has been transcribed from an orchestral score), but their vocal range and demands are generally smaller, though the high trills in "Lo spazzacamino" seem like an entrance exam for a high-lying role like Oscar.

But then the singers grow up and, like so many of the books we read at school, they remember the songs with affection but don’t sing them any more. The growing-up process, too, if they become fully-fledged opera singers, will have brought in its train a whole series of habits that sound ill-at-ease in this context. They will have developed a heavy vibrato, they will have learnt to swoop from note to note, they will have learnt to slide into the note from below, they will have learnt to hold a long note and fine it away, or else make it grow and grow. They will have learnt to act with their voices.

But if they go back to these songs they may find themselves like fish out of water for, though the name at the top is Verdi’s, these intimate and mainly youthful compositions respond best to a Bellinian purity of line. Norah Amsellen, however, appears not to agree, and has elected to apply the whole operatic bag of tricks to them. Let us see what this actually means. In the simple yet touching melody which opens "La seduzione", she emphasizes the word "bella" by scooping into the note from below, she does something similar with "cielo", she spins a pianissimo high note at "innocente" (this is possible because the song is sung a tone higher than in the Ricordi edition), and she again slides into "fiore" from below. Indeed, we may fairly say that there is scarcely a long note from the beginning to the end of this recital that is not slid into from below. At "inesperta" she speeds up considerably, which may not have been necessary if she had begun at the marked "andantino" rather than "andante lugubre"; over the page Verdi marks "un poco più mosso", so he would have marked it here, too, if he had wanted it. Then at "Fu sedotta" she gives the low D a blast of Callas-like chest tone.

Now these are all things that are accepted in opera, though whether they should be or not is another matter; since Amsellen has sung Violetta in Madrid, Berlin and at Covent Garden and Gilda in Seattle (just to list the Verdian roles in her CV), people obviously do accept them. Furthermore, there are positive sides too. She has a very beautiful voice, unscratched by operatic wear and tear and with an always easy emission even if the vibrato on high is a bit marked (is there really any difference between the trills on the high A in "Lo spazzacimino" and the vibrato on the A that follows?). Her breath control is amazing; having worked at several of these songs with singers, I noted any number of long phrases which, for most singers, come into the "it-would-be-nice-to-do-it-in-one-breath-if-one-could" category. Though I don’t always like what she is doing, she does it with command and personality (except the "Brindisi" which is rather staid for some reason). While this is not how I would wish to hear these songs interpreted, others might feel it brings them to life, makes them sound like real full-sized Verdi. You’d better try to work out from my description which category you are likely to be in.

I had better say that I listened the first time without a score and was considerably perplexed by all these operatic tricks. At later hearings, with the score in front of me, I appreciated rather more the expressive intentions. Thinking about why this should be, I concluded that ultimately the operatic tricks disturb the line. When I had the score open, I could see the line and was perhaps more ready to accept expressive bulges and slides. But, since the average listener doesn’t have the score, does this not demonstrate that the singer’s first duty is to the line, and any added expressive devices are counter-productive if they do not enhance the line or at the very least, do not disturb it? I suggest this very gifted singer should listen carefully, as if with another person’s ears (no easy matter for a performer), and ask herself at every point, "is the line coming across to me?"

In keeping with the prima donna-ish concept, the piano is recorded at a discreet distance, though it is very well played. Full texts and translations into English and French are provided, and the very thorough booklet essay presents the songs in a sensible chronological order which is not followed on the disc.

Christopher Howell

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