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Elīna Garanča (mezzo)
Ruperto CHAPI
Las hijas del Zebedeo: Carceleras: “Al pensar en el dueño de mis amores” [04:56]
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Werther: Werther… Werther (Letter Scene) [07:15]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann: Vois sous l’archet frémissant – C’est l’amour, l’amour vainqueur [03:49]
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
La Cenerentola: Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto [07:35]
with Katharina Flade (Clorinda), Heike Liebmann (Tisbe), Dominik Licht (Dandini), Mirko Tuma (Don Magnifico)
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887-1959)
Bachianas brasileiras no.5: 1. Aria (Cantilena): “Tarde, uma nuvem rósea lenta e trasparente”
anonymous arr. for string orchestra [06:22]
La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein: Portez armes” – Vous aimez le danger – Ah, que j’aime les militaires [05:13]
with Rafael Harnisch (Fritz), Dominik Licht (Puck), Thomas Müller (Boum)
L’italiana in Algeri: Per lui che adoro [05:40]
with Matthias Beutlich (mustafà), Dominik Licht (Taddeo), Rafael Harnisch (Lindoro)
Xavier MONTSALVATGE (1912-2002)
Madrigal sobre un tema popular (El cant dels ocells) [05:12]
with Peter Bruns (violoncello)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier: Trio & Duet (Act III): Maria Theres’! … Ist ein Traum [12:14]
with Adrianna Pieczonska (Marschallin), Diana Damrau (Sophie), Dominik Licht (Faninal)
Elīna Garanča (mezzo)
Staatsopernchor Dresden, Staatskapelle Dresden/Fabio Luisi
rec. Lukaskirche, Dresden, July 2006
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON CD 00289 477 6231 [58:21] 

Another 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”.

In 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.

But 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!”

Funnily 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.

However, 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 …

Elīna 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 moment.

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.

The “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.

However, 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 inimitable verve.

If 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?

Strangely, 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 date.

The 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 this much.

In 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.

I 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 spoken to”.

She 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.

The 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.

Christopher Howell 


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