mezzo-soprano hits the headlines. Deutsche Grammophon have done
Latvian Elīna Garanča proud in her first solo album
of their new contract with a full complement of supporting singers.
This means we hear several pieces complete which are usually
abridged for recital purposes, and conclude with a luxurious
version of the closing scene of “Der Rosenkavalier”.
an interview included as part of the promotional material for
the disc, Garanča raises the question of why she is a mezzo-soprano
rather than a soprano, adding that “perhaps one day I’d like
to sing Tosca, Fiordiligi or Vitellia”. Readers may be surprised
that there is an element of choice. They may, indeed, have supposed
that nature itself makes a female singer a soprano, mezzo-soprano
or contralto, and she just has to put up with it. In many cases
this is so, of course, and there is a deeper sort of mezzo-soprano
whose alternative choice would have to be contralto. But labels
are man-made things, not natural ones, and range is not the
only issue. Both Cecilia Bartoli and Malena Ernman (just to
name two) have proved on disc that they can go higher than many
sopranos, yet there is a darkness and richness to their middle
and lower ranges which satisfies the ear that they are in fact
mezzo-sopranos. Whereas Magdalena Kozena continues to sound
like a soprano to my ears (and a very good one, I’m criticizing
the label not the singer). In the case of Garanča there
is more than enough richness in her tone to justify her position.
Garanča raises another question: “Temperamentally, I’m
happier as a mezzo-soprano. It is also very much to do with
personal ego. You have to realize that as a mezzo, unless the
opera is called Carmen or La Cenerentola, you’re
only ever going to be number three on the evening, because there
will always be the soprano and tenor before you. If a singer
is very concerned with her ego, she might then work on developing
into a soprano, if she has that choice [my italics].
But it does not appeal to me; those roles like Gilda or Lucia
just don’t suit my temperament. They’re victims and I have no
desire to die a tragic death at the end of an opera, night after
night. I would rather be the killer!”
enough, a couple of months ago I was listening to a mezzo-soprano
fulminating about a colleague who had recently switched from
soprano to mezzo-soprano. “She’s temperamentally a soprano!”.
“But she can’t get above an A”, I ventured to observe. “Well,
she should be a short soprano, then”, snapped the temperamental
mezzo. By the way, a soprano corto, that is to say a
soprano without the top notes, I have always held to be a nonsense.
Anna Caterina Antonacci used this label briefly since, having
made her début as a soprano, she started to have trouble with
her top notes. But she quickly changed the label to mezzo-soprano.
Now she’s rediscovered her top notes and is a soprano again.
not many singers have such an extended theoretical range that
they can choose their voice-type according to their temperament.
One famous case was Gina Cigna who began as a mezzo-soprano
and became a soprano by sheer will-power. Joan Sutherland and,
it seems, Anna Caterina Antonacci, simply hadn’t been taught
how to get their top notes. Conversely, Marilyn Horne began
as a soprano. But, listening to her singing Strauss’s “Four
Last Songs” in 1959, something seems to be wrong. The top notes
are there, but the voice sounds unnatural up there. These are
cases where an early wrong start was happily corrected. I really
don’t think these singers had much “choice”, in the sense that
Horne’s career would have been much shorter if she’d insisted
on being a soprano and Sutherland would not have made such a
mark as a mezzo. Antonacci is a strange case – she seems to
make a mark whatever label she sings under, but as I haven’t
heard her latest soprano work I cannot comment further. An interesting
disc came my way some time ago (see review) in which Fiorenza
Cossotto sang a couple of her familiar Verdi mezzo arias, but
also several soprano ones. She genuinely does seem to have had
a choice since she shifts up to the soprano range with no sense
of strain. But her voice is much more individual when she sings
as a mezzo. As a soprano she might not have stood out from the
crowd in the same way. Apart from the fact that she was working
in a world dominated by Callas and Tebaldi …
Garanča includes a soprano piece in her recital – the Villa-Lobos.
Her singing of this is beautifully controlled and sustained,
most notably in the pianissimo reprise of the famous melody.
No one who heard just this would question that she was a soprano.
On the other hand, Niklausse’s Romance from “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”
has the grave, velvety timbre we expect of a mezzo. Not the
whopping great Verdian Eboli-Amneris-Ulrica type of mezzo typified
by Fedora Barbieri, but nothing in her curriculum or her planned
roles suggests she intends to launch into such parts for the
“Hoffmann” aria was the first that produced a real “frisson”,
a feeling that there was something special on offer. I nonetheless
appreciated her handling of the “Werther” extract very much.
Both she and her conductor know how to make Massenet passionate
without turning him into Puccini and I would prefer this to
a good many of the versions to be found in complete recordings
of the work.
“Cenerentola” is quite exceptional. Her decorations in the first
part are so natural and musical that one hardly even stops to
notice that every note is beautifully in place. More remarkably
still, in the faster music that follows, the formidable accuracy
is somehow absorbed into the overall line and characterization.
Again, praise is due to the conductor, and between them Garanča
and Luisi make Berganza and Abbado sound a little pedantic.
in the “Gérolstein” rondo I miss that machine-gun way with words
the best operetta exponents find. In Offenbach, as in Gilbert
and Sullivan, the words have to come right to the front of the
mouth. The music is in a certain sense spoken, though if the
singer is a good one it will remain well sung – coincidentally,
as it were. Here it is too soft-edged, and is if to compensate
Garanča goes in for a lot of “characterization”, which
amounts to a sort of stop-start performance that saps the composer’s
I leave the first piece in the programme, the zarzuela except,
till now, it is because I felt its quicker sections suffered
in the same way, but I hesitated to pronounce immediately since
this is a style I know less and I had no comparisons. The contrasting
slower music is done well, but doesn’t Spanish music call for
a more cutting edge to the tone?
the other Rossini piece, from “L’italiana in Algeri”, rather
than repeat the success of “La Cenerentola”, raises the same
doubts as “Gérolstein”. Perhaps this is a measure of how different
these Rossini pieces are. In the long introduction Luisi is
very laid back, but since Garanča makes no attempt to move
him on I take it they were in agreement over the tempo. The
following music is fast enough but the soft-edged approach to
agilità which was so magical in “La Cenerentola” seems
not quite right here. We don’t get the impression that Isabella
is a very independent-minded young lady and is having no end
of fun leading Mustafà up the garden path. I note that, while
Garanča has sung “La Cenerentola” (Paris 2004), she does
not appear to have sung Isabella on stage as yet. Maybe we’ll
get a more fully characterized version from her at some future
Montsalvatge folksong madrigal is beautifully sung, though its
great arching phrases seem to demand even more. More, perhaps,
than frail human lungs can provide, so let us be thankful for
conclusion, Garanča melts into a team for a sumptuous performance
of the final trio and duet of “Der Rosenkavalier”. This may
be the first time in recording history that a young singer has
opted to conclude the first disc of an important contract in
such a self-effacing way. I made the mistake of comparing it
with the legendary Erich Kleiber version but this is up to most
modern standards and, Oktavian for Oktavian, stands up well.
haven’t so far commented on the programme itself. As you can
see, it works chronologically backwards from Chapí to Rossini,
then jumps forwards to Villa-Lobos, then back to Offenbach,
then back to Rossini, then another leap forward to Montsalvatge
before concluding an otherwise Latin-language-based programme
with Richard Strauss. The promotional material describes it
as “a snapshot of this moment in the life of a versatile young
singer already making her name in the opera houses of the world”.
Before reading this, my impression was of the sort of demo-CD
which aspiring young singers send out right, left and centre
in the fond belief that someone will actually listen to it,
throwing together a bit of everything they can do without trying
to make it into a programme. Garanča herself virtually
says the same thing in another way: “I’ve chosen a programme
that demonstrates the development in my voice and highlights
some of the operatic roles I’m doing now or in the near future.
… I’m also thinking of the international public by including
repertoire in Italian, French, German and Spanish, because I
want everyone who picks up the CD to feel that they are being
gains a point with the last remark, but loses it immediately
by not including the international language par excellence,
English. More than anything, I find this disc a pointer towards
the future rather than a wholly satisfying entity in itself.
It makes us eager for future complete recordings of “Werther”,
“Les Contes d’Hoffmann”, “Der Rosenkavalier” and above all “La
Cenerentola”. It makes us hope, too, that the points raised
regarding “Gérolstein” and “Algeri” will be looked into. But
it also makes us eager for the sort of thoughtfully, originally
planned recital discs that many of her mezzo colleagues have
been giving us over the last decade or so. Still, as a “demo”
it’s light-years above the norm. A “snapshot” rather than a
complete work of art, maybe, but an exciting one.
booklet shows that DG intend to give
Garanca full star treatment. There is
an article on her and her career so
far - partly based on an interview with
her, notes on each aria, a note on the
conductor and full texts and translations,
all in English, French and German.