A compelling Nearness of Melodrama

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A Compelling Nearness of Melodrama

21M.273 Essay #4: Comparing and contrasting live performances of Handel's Agrippina and Donizetti's Lucie de Lammermoor with their DVD counterparts.

Emily Wang


On October 22, I stepped into the lushly decorated Jordan Hall to see a Boston Baroque performance of Handel's Agrippina. I padded along the green carpet lining the hallway and made my way to the balcony, immediately experiencing the familiar sense of vertigo that always accompanies the experience of sitting on Jordan Hall's balcony. The world sloped away from me, decorated with gold paint, green velvet, and taupe-colored leather. I made my way to my seat at the very edge of the balcony, skirting the feet of those who had arrived before me. As the balcony's lavish bannister partially obscured my view, I had to perch on the very edge of my seat and in order to see all of the action onstage. Being an old veteran of Jordan Hall concerts, it took little time for me to adjust to the acoustics of the concert hall. I was momentarily startled, as I always am at live performances, by the compelling nearness and penetrating volume of the music--listening to CD and DVD recordings somehow can't compare to the sound that fully embraces you in an acoustically-favorable concert hall such as Jordan Hall. The cast of Agrippina included familiar faces, as I'd seen Boston Baroque's production of Handel's Alcina two years ago. The roles I will focus on in this paper are that of Twyla Robinson, Kevin Deas, and Michael Maniaci, who play Agrippina, Claudius, and Nero respectively. I will compare their performances to those of the Fisbach and Malgoire DVD production, where Veronique Gens, Nigel Smith, and play Agrippina, Claudius, and Nero respectively. Specifically, I will examine Claudius's "Cade il mondo" aria in Act II, Nero's "Come nube chi fugge dal vento" aria in Act III, and Agrippina's "Pensieri" aria in Act III.

On Nov 2, I made my way to the Schubert Theater to see the Boston Lyric Opera production of Donizetti's Lucie de Lammermoor, in which the youthful Tracy Dahl and Yasu Nakajima played the roles of Lucie and Edgard. I arrived at the theater in a rush, as I had underestimated the walk from the Park T-stop to the Theater District, and was at the door to the balcony only minutes before the performance began, snagging an empty seat located a few rows back from the balcony's edge. The steep inclination of the balcony made me feel as though I were seated on the side of a peaked roof, moments away from slipping off the edge. The balcony was full of clamoring students approximately my age and younger, and their raucous activity before and during the performance greatly contrasted wth the respectful silence of the more elderly audience at Handel's Agrippina. A more jarring contrast was the acoustics of the hall: the sound felt dead and unresonant, and the singers were often overpowered by the orchestra, either due to the location of my seat or due to overamplification of the instruments. This prevented me from being fully engaged in the story, as I was constantly distracted by the poor balance between the singers and their accompaniment—I most appreciated the passages that were sung with little or no accompaniment. To compare the live performance with the Metropolitan Opera DVD performance that I watched, I will discuss the addition of the deer character, the replacement of Normanno and Alisa with Gilbert, who was played by Alan Schneider in the live performance, and the different interpretations of the Lucie/Lucia's mad scene.


In the live performance of Claudius's “Cade il mondo” aria, the singer's tone quality, ornamentation, and rubato were generally less virtuostic and prominent as compared to Nigel Smith's performance in the Fisbach and Malgoire DVD production. This was evident early on in the live rendition of the aria: I had waited expectantly for the incredibly dramatic low note in Claudius' opening line, on the word "cade", but was disappointed when Kevin Deas' voice did not plummet to the same depths. On the second repeat of the A text of the aria, Deas' ornamentation and rubato was much more minimal that Smith's. While Smith's voice treats the audience to a veritable array of scales and turns throughout the bass range, using much rubato while he does so, Deas chooses to deviate only slightly from the score, taking less time and adding less ornamentation, particularly noticeable on the repeat of the word "cade." In general, Deas showcased a narrower singing range throughout the aria, and his voice did not have the same compelling, deep resonance that Smith's had. My perceptions may have been influenced by the fact that the live production cast Claudius as a more comic character, rather than an imposing one. For example, Deas often grinned widely, made comical gestures, and was dressed simply in a suit. These factors contributed to my impression that Deas' singing of the "Cade il mondo" aria was merely perfunctory, unlike in the DVD, where Claudius is portrayed as a valiant hero and his ostentatious opening aria echoes his noble appearance in battle regalia.

Comparing the live and DVD interpretations of Nero's "Come nube chi fugge dal vento" in Act III also reveal differences in tone quality, ornamentation, and tempo. In the DVD performance, Philipe Jaroussky's voice had a very even tone, and his voice soared smoothly up and down the scales of his coloratura ornamentation. His singing is almost too effortless, however, like that of a bird showing off its talents, and while the quickness of the coloratura displays agitation, the aria comes across as aristocratic, slightly removed from the tumult of true emotions. In comparison, Michael Maniaci's voice was much more powerful, and his tone quality much rougher--in his long coloratura passages, each note had an audible "attack" to it, vividly portraying Nero's anger at Poppea's portrayal. While Jaroussky's vowels were very round and consistently shaped, Maniaci's vowels sounded animalistic, uneven, and fierce. The virtuostic sixteenth notes of Maniaci's coloratura passages burst forth with more suddenness and more volume than those of Jaroussky's. Rather than taking more time to add ornaments to his singing, Maniaci simply increases the tempo so that the notes become very dense, tumbling one over the other in a vivid Thus, with this aria, I found the live performance much more thrilling and melodramatic. Overall, Maniaci does a much better job at expressing the emotion of wounded anger.


Differences in the live and DVD interpretations of Agrippina's "Pensieri" aria in Act III could also be heard in the tone quality, tempo, ornamentation, and phrasing. In the DVD performance, Veronique Gens employed a smooth and even tone to depict Agrippina's lament. Gens shaped her vowels so that they were round and full, much the way Jaroussky did in Nero's "Come nube" aria, and her notes were long and sustained. Even in the quicker, dance-like B section of the aria, Gens' voice remained smooth, her attacks on the notes fairly gentle. In contrast, Twyla Robinson took the aria at a somewhat faster tempo and sang her notes with stronger accents throughout, displaying more restlessness. While Gens used much rubato in the A section of the aria to add ornamentation and draw out her notes, Robinson chose to stick to a more set tempo, shortening the time value of her notes in order to add ornamentation. As a result, Robinson's ornamentation was much denser, like that of Maniaci's in Nero's aria, and the quick neutral figuration gave her voice a sparkling quality that fit with Agrippina's bold and scheming character. Overall, the live performance gave the "Pensieri" aria an actively stewing mood, while the DVD pe rformance gave the aria a slower-paced, brooding air.

Thus far I have mainly discussed the musical aspects that have differed between a live and DVD performance, as I found musical differences quite striking between the live and DVD performances of Agrippina. In comparing the live and DVD performances of Donizetti's Lucia/Lucie, I found that I was more aware of nonmusical differences, perhaps due to the fact that the live performance was a different version of the same opera, resulting in more obvious differences in staging, mood, and plot. One obvious difference was the addition of the deer character and the theme of the hunt throughout, which added a melodramatic component to the entire opera. The deer--a woman garbed in a flowing dress and a crown of antlers--was the first character we saw as the curtain rose and the doleful opening notes of the low brass were heard in the orchestra. As the overture music quickened and sudden dissonant chords were heard in the orchestra, a hunter appeared with bowstring pulled taut and arrow aimed squarely at the deer's unaware back. Although blind to the hunter's presence, the deer disquietly rose to its feet and walked, dreamlike, across the stage, into the embrace of a matronly woman clothed and spotlighted in red. This sequence of events is symbolic of the way Lucie is blindly trapped into betraying her true love and marrying a man she does not love, and it sets the tone for an opera that is riddled with despair and anguish. Later, after Lucie has bid farewell to Edgard by the fountain, the deer appears again, limp and in the arms of one hunter, its antlers triumphantly carried in the hands of another. This scene foreshadowed the failure of Lucie and Edgard's attempts to keep their love alive in the face of opposition--those plotting to entrap Lucie succeed in the end, as the hunters succeed in capturing their prey. Thus, the addition of the deer chillingly mirrored Lucie's unavoidable entrapment into marriage with Arthur and her descent into madness and death.

Another significant difference was the addition of the scheming Gilbert, who replaces Normanno and Alisa of the Italian version, who were the servants and confidantes of Enrico and Lucia, respectively. Normanno is a subservient lackey, eager to please Enrico: in the opening scene of the DVD, Normanno echoes Enrico's hate for Edgardo, singing quickly and with vim as he tells Enrico that the intruder who has been secretly wooing Lucia is their family's enemy. Alisa, a gentle mezzo-soprano, is Lucia's only support throughout her doomful tale, and her empathy for her mistress is clear in Lucia's opening aria, "Regnava nel silenzio." After Lucia has shared her fearful vision with Alisa, Alisa sings a trembling minor passage of descending phrases, her voice growing in volume each time she leaps back to her high starting note, showing that she fears for Lucia. With both Normanno and Alisa, the audience gets a sense that they are firmly on the sides of their masters, ready to support them in their times of need. In contrast, although the character Gilbert appears to serve both Henri and Lucie in the live French version, he feels loyalty for no one, only following the highest bidder. This can be seen in Henri and Gilbert's exchange after the opening hunt scene, when we see Henri brooding and angry about Lucie's forbidden love, his voice growing in volume and his notes becoming furiously accented when he speaks of his hate for the Ravenswoods. Gilbert is removed from such tumultuous emotion--he is merely a mercenary seeking to profit from others' love and hate. So in contrast with Henri's highly emotional singing style, Gilbert sings short, glib responses that reveal how he is willing to kill Edgard for the right price. The evenness of his tone and dynamics further show a lack of emotion; Gilbert presents himself quite honestly to Henri as a cool and calculating man. Gilbert exudes a noticeably different character when we first see him interact with Lucie, just before Lucie and Edgard meet at the fountain in the first Act. Meeting Lucie alone in the forest, Gilbert presents himself to Lucie with respectful gravity, bowing and singing humbly. Gilbert's voice mirrors Lucie's earnest one--his tone is warm and serious, his tempo moderate. Gilbert shows himself to be a wily chameleon, contrasting with the devotion of the two characters he replaces in the live, French version.


There were also important musical differences between the live and DVD performances: for instance, the stylistic differences in how the lead role of Lucie/Lucia was sung. Tracy Dahl was a much lighter-voiced soprano than Joan Sutherland--while Sutherland's Lucia had great fullness and maturity of tone in her voice, Dahl's Lucie had a thinner, more piercing voice. The lightness of Dahl's voice was well-suited for the brilliant coloratura role of Lucie, as she performed ornamental scales, leaps, and turns with virtuostic facility. Dahl's voice was showcased particularly well in the mad scene following Lucie's murder of Arthur. The music of this scene was also transposed up a step in the live, French version, and this combined with Dahl's childish, piercing voice caused the mad scene to sound particularly edgy and surreal. On the DVD, Sutherland also performed the coloratura of the mad scene brilliantly, but compared to Dahl, her singing tone is more mellow and does not touch the edge of madness as keenly as Dahl's does. Sutherland does use dynamic contrast to better effect, however, practically whispering certain lines, such as when she sings, "How kind Heaven is...." She then startles the audience with a sudden increase in volume afterwards, vividly portraying Lucia's shattered mind. Both Sutherland and Dahl succeed in skillfully portraying Lucie/Lucia's madness and loss of connection with reality.

Overall, I found the live performances of Handel's Agrippina and Donizetti's Lucie de Lammermoor more vivid and compelling. The live performance of Agrippina, with the notable exception of Claudius' "Cade il mondo" aria, drew me into the characters emotions with their more furious and sometimes rougher singing styles. While I enjoyed the beautifully even, resonant tone quality of Gens and Jarroussky in the Fisbach and Malgoire DVD production, the biting note attacks and breathless ornamentation of Robinson and Maniaci added more melodrama of the story. The live performance of Lucie de Lammermoor also showed heightened melodrama as compared with its Italian DVD counterpart. The addition of the deer hunt theme foreshadowed the Lucie's unavoidable tragedy early on in the opera, instilling fear that prevaded the whole story. The addition of Gilbert and loss of Normanno and Alisa lent a more ruthless air to the story's unfolding, as the plot was orchestrated by a cold mercenary who cared little for Lucie's tragedy. When Lucie went mad in the live performance, the light, acrobatic voice of Dahl fluttered and cavorted with convincing madness, a tense whole step higher than the DVD rendition of the same scene. Thus the musical, character, and plot choices of the live performances of Agrippina and Lucie de Lammermoor made them come alive for me, lending the characters' melodrama a compelling nearness to both my physical presence and my emotions.

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