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Since her American debut in the early nineties, Silvia Tro Santafé has become one of the most sought after coloratura mezzos of her generation. On this disc we hear the proof of her operatic talents, performing some of the greatest and most passionate arias of any operatic mezzo soprano.
Of course each generation chooses it’s own image of Spain to reflect it’s own ideals and interests. Whether it is the imagined chivalry and heroism of the so-called “reconquest” that forms the background to Le Cid; or the idealised image of the tolerance of a multi-cultural society under the Moors; or the image of an incredibly wealthy Empire stagnating in its own cruelty and stifling in the aridity of its court etiquette; or the image of a backwater which the Enlightenment passed by totally and failed to illumine or a country of volatile peasants, picturesque bandits and wild gypsies all living close to nature, Spain is all of these things at once depending upon one’s point of view. These images of Spain may be as far removed from actuality as the current image of sangria and chips is from the reality of one of the most progressive and quickly developing democracies in Europe.
Certainly, nobody can deny the extraordinary intensity of Spanish Art right across the scale. Spanish religious painting includes some of the most morbid representations in Western Art but also some of the most ecstatic; while modern art can embrace everything from the scream of La Guernica to the eroticism of Picasso and Dali.
This supports the opera world-view of Spain, a place slightly out of kilter, a country where emotions are so intense that what is actually happening may be slightly uncertain. Who can narrate clearly and lucidly the plot of Il Trovatore or La forza del destino? Does it matter? Just feel their pain as they throw their children on to the burning fire, oh, and sing about it. Operatic Spain is the place where the pain of love comes a distant second to the fury of revenge.
Naturally we ignore the corrective view of native operas. Few Spanish operas have made it to the general repertoire but two examples will suffice, and both contradict the popular image totally. At the end of de Falla’s La vide breve when Salud confronts her faithless betrayer, opera logic would dictate that as a Spanish heroine she should grab the nearest carving knife and initiate a bloodbath. Instead she limply and inexplicably expires. This ending has been criticised, but it is clearly what de Falla wanted. The image of Spanish woman he is portraying is not a Carmen, but a woman born to suffer passively. In fact this is not limited to women, in Goyescas by Granados, the hero sings a final love-duet knowing that he is going to be killed by Paquiro the toreador with whom he has to fight a duel.
Una voce poco fa (Il barbiere di Siviglia)
A tourist slinking around modern Sevilla from one grateful piece of shade to the next may wonder why two of the three Mozart/da Ponte operas as well as Rossini’s Barber of Seville are set in an area called “the frying-pan of Spain”. As our tourist wonders how he is going to get as far as the cathedral in the burning heat, a new respect grows for a man who can make love in such a climate to 1003 Spanish women alone, far less the foreigners in Leporello’s catalogue without the benefit of air-conditioning. Of course, the events of Don Giovanni are mainly (and fittingly) nocturnal, and even while Almaviva’s estate at a few hours ride away may be cooled by the “aguas frescas” the last act of Le Nozze, set after dark, is the one with the most action in it.
Only the farce of the Barber demands full-on action throughout the day, but it may explain the fact that the first act is supposed to start at about 6.00 in the morning. One of the most popular operas of all time, Rossini’s Barbiere was famously an initial failure. This had nothing to do with the music, but at the premiere the audience were unnerved by the fact that the tenor—who accompanied himself in the aubade on the guitar—forgot to tune his instrument before venturing on the stage. When a cat later wandered on to the scene, the audience gave up listening to the piece. In her opening aria, Rosina proclaims her confidence in her own abilities and her determination to win the suitor she wants, Almaviva whom she knows under the name of Lindoro.
Contro un cor
The farce of Barber leads to a number of disguises in best commedia dell’arte tradition. Almaviva, already disguised as the student Lindoro, gains admittance to Bartolo’s house firstly disguised as a soldier, and later as a singing teacher. As he plots Rosina’s escape with her, she sings an aria as part of the lesson. She tells her guardian that this is from the opera, The Useless Precaution. From quite early on, there was a tradition of substituting another aria—often with more fireworks—for Rossini’s original, but nowadays we have returned to the aria Rossini wrote.
In quail eccessi, o Numi…Mi tradì (Don Giovanni)
Da Ponte took a one-act opera and expanded it to two acts for Mozart, but he cut down the number of women in the opera from 4 to 3—presumably because of the circumstances of the Prague Company for which it was written. Of the three, the character of Elvira is certainly the hardest to understand, and yet she is the most central. She recognises the hopelessness of her love for Giovanni and yet she dwells on it deliberately torturing herself. If de Falla is right in his portrayal of Spanish women with Salud, then Elvira is perhaps the most Spanish of the women in the opera. This aria forms part of the extension of the one-act form by da Ponte. It bridges the humiliation of the scene in which she discovers that Leporello has substituted for his master while Giovanni attempts to seduce Elvira’s maid with her genuinely heroic final attempt to save his soul. Its cyclic repetitions reinforce the image of her self-torture.
O mon Fernand (La favorite)
The action of this opera takes place in the Kingdom of Castille about 1340 Donizetti’s La favorite written for Paris and first performed there in 1840 four years before La Traviata with which it shares the theme of a fallen woman in love. However, it also shows how opera can take an historical character—in this case Leonora de Guzman, the long-time mistress of Alfonso IX of Castille—and then cheerfully weave a web of operatic nonsense around her. This should not worry us, as the opera is musically one of Donizetti’s best, a slow dramatic burn in which each act is better than the one that precedes it. Leonore is torn between her love for the young Fernand and her position as Royal Mistress. Fernand forces the issue by demanding her hand of the King after winning a battle. Unfortunately he does not know of her past, and when the grateful King grants his request, the young bridegroom is shocked when the court refuses to speak to him. In a very dramatic scene, he hears the truth and rejects all the honours the King has awarded him, including Leonore, and in best operatic tradition storms off to a monastery. Of course she follows him disguised as a novice so that they can have a final splendid duet and she can expire in his arms. Long popular in the nineteenth century it is rarely revived now. One reason, apart from the libretto, may be the fact that Leonore is cast as a mezzo instead of the expected soprano, but the strength of the score can be judged by her wonderful aria in which she acknowledges her growing love for Fernand.
Chanson du Voile (Don Carlo)
Dona Ana Mendoza y de la Cerda, the original character upon whom Schiller loosely based his Princess of Eboli was an extremely forceful woman. She married young and soon became mother of a large family. When her husband died, she entered one of St Teresa of Avila’s Carmelite convents. Within months she had caused such uproar that St. Teresa had to close the convent down and to smuggle all of the other terrified nuns out at midnight. She went back to the court and took up a remarkably unsuccessful life of intrigue. What she actually did is unclear, but it must have been grave for her sentence was severe. King Philip ordered her to be locked in a single room of her own palace at Pastrana, forced to communicate through a grille. In her youth, she had been a Lady-in-waiting to the Elisabeth de Valois and this is the period covered by the opera. That she is one of the protagonists in the drama is often missed because when Verdi was forced to cut his mammoth French Grand Opera, Eboli was the chief victim of his scissors. Her role in some key scenes only becomes clear if one returns to the original.
She sings the Veil Song to divert the young Queen and her Ladies. Its “oriental” melismas hint at the lingering Moorish influence on Spanish music as well as pandering to the French taste for orientalism.
O don fatal
Later in the opera, she confesses to the Queen her part in an intrigue against her Mistresss and that she has slept with the King. When the Queen banishes her from court, Eboli curses her fatal beauty in an aria whose music fits the French original far better than the later Italian version.
If Carmen is dated from the facts of Mérimée’s novella then she met her end in the late 1820s, if it is dated from the time the opera was written we move that backward by roughly thirty years. Thus, and appropriately for this startlingly modern character, she is the youngest of our heroines. Bizet’s librettists are more concerned with place than time. Outside the Cigarette Factory in Seville, a huge red-brick building that exists to this day and is now part of the University.
Writing in A Stranger in Spain, H.V. Morton noted that had the English connection with this corner of Spain not been so strong, our image of Spain would not be so strongly dominated by Andalucia. He blamed our nineteenth-century ancestors for creating the tourist image and wonders if we had continued to make the pilgrimage to Santiago whether the image would have been of Gallegos as the prototype for the nation instead of the Andalucian with his Cordoban hat, short jacket and tight trousers. He was right that the Andalucian is perhaps the least typical of all the Spaniards; but a travel poster for Spain is almost unthinkable without the flouncey dresses, castanets and upraised arms that have as little to do with the rest of Spain as the Highland Games do with England. For this, literature and opera must share the blame. Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra may now seem humourless and patronising, but it made Andalucia fashionable. Carmen, the most popular of all operas, then stamped the image of flamenco skirts swished tempestuously firmly into our consciousness. The irony is that for Merimee, the essence of Carmen is that she is an outsider, something strange, exotic and intangible. Don Jose by way of contrast comes from a good family though his uncontrollable temper has already got him in trouble in his native north of Spain.
Bizet supports this image of dancing, heel-clicking Spain; Carmen’s arias are cast as Spanish dances, a Habanera and a Seguidilla. The first is her opening aria and it shows at once the subtlety of this extraordinary masterpiece. One of the most popular arias of all time, it does not reveal its secrets all at once. For example, to whom is she singing? The men in the chorus, or herself? She has just had a catfight with another cigarette girl. Is she singing it to restore her equilibrium or has this mercurial character already forgotten the disturbance?
Près des remparts de Séville [Séguedille]
The image of this aria is an essential one for opera. Carmen has been tied up and is being guarded by Don Jose. She wants to escape and sees him as a means to an end. Unable to use her hands or feet because she is tied up, she uses her voice instead. Potently, this aria of seduction is in the form of a fast triple-time dance.
Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux (Le Cid)
The earliest of our heroines, the action of Le Cid takes place principally around the city of Burgos in the eleventh century, however a certain amount of telescoping takes place. The King’s enemy is called Boabdil (indeed the name of the last King of Granada) and the final act takes place after the conquest of Granada. So many legends have grown up around El Cid that it is often impossible to distinguish between fact and fiction; however we may be confident in ascribing this to fiction as it would make the characters all well over 400 years old. The libretto is also a time-traveller; partly based upon Corneille, it is an odd mix of seventeenth and nineteenth century French. Massenet wrote Le Cid for the Paris Opera and it is a full-scale Grand Opera complete with ballet, Celestial Apparitions, very large cast and a large number of spectacular sets. As these militate against revivals it is hard to judge how it would work in the theatre, although it was initially one of the composer’s most successful operas.
Chimene loves Rodrigue, but she swears revenge upon him because he killed her father. He is sent off to do battle against the Moors, rather with the idea that he should not return. Chimene in this aria weeps for her dead father and for the hopes she had of marrying Rodrigue.
As so often in French Opera, the part of the heroine lies in the mezzo-soprano range.
Alza! Alza! (Don Quichotte)
As Don Quichotte is one of Massenet’s most compelling operas its current neglect is curious. As well as offering a pair of gratefully written roles for the Don and Sancho Panza, it is—like all the best of Massenet’s operas—a well-oiled and highly efficient piece of theatre machinery. By taking unconnected episodes from the novel, it was following a trend of the time in opera, which we can also see in Manon and La Bohème. Perhaps the best part of the opera is the relationship between the Don and his servant Sancho Panza and perhaps the most conventional aspect of the piece is the treatment of Dulcinee who is sentimentalised in a very nineteenth century way. Perhaps that was inevitable only 30 years after the success of Carmen. She is given 4 vapid admirers to contrast with Quichotte and an aria in which she muses about needing more out of life—a way to let her react to Quichotte perhaps but far removed from the character conceived by Cervantes. Much of the humour of the novel lies in the discrepancy between the reality and the dream-world that Quichotte makes of it. He turns a simple country girl into an image of courtly love, but Dulcinee is frankly an incarnation of Bizet’s charmer, beloved by everybody and bored with her own success.
Her opening aria is also reminiscent of Carmen’s first appearance. The town is celebrating a fiesta. She enters on a balcony and sings of her effect on all men. Massenet adds Moorish herbs to his dish with the opening melismas on the word “Alza” which recall both Carmen and Eboli.
Tim Coleman © 2009