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Surrender - Voices of Persephone

Ilona Domnich (soprano), Southbank Sinfonia, Simon Over (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: August 2014
St Augustine's Church, Highbury, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Rupert Coulson
Engineered by Rupert Coulson & Mike Cox
Release date: March 2015
Total duration: 67 minutes 2 seconds

Ranked among Opera Now’s Top 10 High Flyers, rising operatic star Ilona Domnich releases her debut Signum album. Domnich is joined by Italian baritone Leo Nucci and the Southbank Sinfonia conducted by Simon Over for thirteen arias from her operatic heroines, including Gilda from Verdi’s Rigoletto, Magda from Puccini’s La rondine and Rosina from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia.


'The selection of arias represents an interesting mix of roles, many of which I know that Ilona Domnich has sung on stage … there are moments in the French pieces which are quite stunning in their combination of text, music and drama and I hope to hear far more of her in this repertoire' (Planet Hugill)
‘Man cannot discover new oceans until he has courage to lose sight of the shore’ (André Gide)

I see the word ‘surrender’ as an active/dynamic rendering force. I have an image of someone who climbs the mountain, who surrenders to listen to his body and to connect with nature in order to progress. To ‘surrender’ is to fully engage with our own self. For me ‘surrender’ is not letting go in a passive way and floating in a spiritual blissful peace, but a force that one needs courage to consciously tap into, in order to prosper.

The word prosper shares its root with Proserpine or Persephone, the goddess of the underworld. Persephone’s story is a complex Greek myth of abduction into the underworld. But perhaps in the words of modern psychology, Persephone accesses the ruins of her female underworld in search of the inner balance between the dark and light, the underworld and the earth. When she finds it she reaches a stage where she can draw on vast experience and see things as they are, neither a meadow of flowers nor a vale of tears. Not so much robbed of innocence as awakened to complexity, to the cycle of life and death.

For me ‘surrender’ is also a journey of choices, the courage of listening to the inner voice and connection to myself, to the deepest resources of hope, energy, confidence, trust and love. I guess it is part of growing for me and the beauty of facing the wilder and innately instinctual self. One of the most blissful spiritual surrenders for me is in singing.

The process of recording this CD was also a journey of surrender, discovering the freedom together with huge strengths. ‘To surrender makes you feel how music is, life is, beauty is, nature is.’

‘For a tree to become tall it must grow tough roots among the rocks’ (Friedrich Nietzsche)

When I was 8-10 years old my parents went through an excruciatingly painful separation, which made me want to escape and I escaped into the word of literature. I managed to miss a year of school, and in that year I discovered a lot of Russian literature including Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, together with Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. My greatest fascination was Greek mythology (I memorised almost word by word all the Greek myths—in Russian).

Like all children I loved stories. Now I can recognise that stories are like medicine: they have such power, they do not require you to do anything, only listen, for the healing remedies are contained in the stories. They awaken excitement, sadness, questions, longing and understanding—just like music! In a sense I continue to be a child, being fascinated each time I encounter the stories of my operatic heroines. It is through them that the human race’s vitality is restored. My parents have come full circle to talk to each other after 20 years and here I am returning to my fascination, through the story of Persephone—the goddess of the underworld and rebirth. I am investigating a universal story of the ages of woman, illustrated through the great operatic heroines.

Persephone was the beautiful daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. But her father, Zeus, allowed his brother Hades, the god of the underworld, to carry her off to his kingdom. Demeter was distraught, and searched the earth for Persephone, until the sun god Helios told her where she had been taken. In her grief, Demeter brought about a famine across the earth, until Zeus sent Hermes to intervene. He told her Persephone could be returned, provided she had not tasted the food of the dead. Hermes entered the world of the dead and Hades agreed to release his bride. But one of the gardeners shouted out that Persephone had eaten pomegranate seeds, so she would have to stay with Hades. Persephone became the queen of the underworld, dividing her time between her mother and Hades.

The myth of Persephone has been interpreted in many ways, one of which mirrors the Edvard Munch painting showing the stages of a woman’s life. The picture shows an innocent maiden in a long gown, a mature naked woman openly displaying her sexuality, and a shadowy figure of an older woman, dressed in black. Munch originally displayed the painting under the title Sphinx, a reference to the riddle of the Sphinx whose solution—the three ages of man—was deduced by Oedipus. Munch’s own notes read: ‘Woman in all her diversity is a mystery to man—Woman is at one and the same time saint, whore and an unhappy devoted one’.

Journey of the CD
What intrigues me is how different women find the balance between darkness and light, and what their journeys are into the Renaissance: women’s initiations through cycles. I am going beyond the simple trichotomy of virgin/whore/mother or lover that afflicts women in patriarchies. Each stage has complex archetypes: each woman has within herself myriad variations. My operatic women and their voices help me examine their journeys and choices.

I think of the third stage as wisdom. Wiser woman—not necessary older—but with experience and knowledge, is taking responsibility for her actions, making her own choices, growing roots and wings to fly. She has faith in love, in herself and she has inner confidence and contentment. Just as Persephone achieves balance, there can be found a profound love, especially if it is rooted in the seeking of one’s own self, to learn the deepest aspects of the human soul, to hold on to what we have learnt, to speak out for what we stand for. It takes boundless endurance, which all my operatic woman have; when woman comes from the underworld she is definitely no longer tame.

Through me, my operatic women live the questions, starting with the young girl who is hungry for experience, trusting, ready to open her heart. Gilda, Rosina and the Snowmaiden set the scene. Next the woman who has tasted life, loved, known disappointment and loss, exploring life and taking chances, playing with fire—Manon and Elle from La voix humaine, and Linda di Chamounix help to tell the story. Finally, the wise, courageous and responsible woman, ready to choose between dark and light or to blend the two. This strong, free woman, reborn from the ruins of her own underworld is illustrated by Contessa from Figaro, Magda from La rondine and the final duet of Gilda and Rigoletto. She surrenders to life, to love and to her own voice. Although I have allocated arias to illustrate each stage, within each aria my women go through changes. Very often I watch my heroine go through all three stages in one aria. Some of my heroines do not reach a certain stage, but it is still their choice.

The three stages

1. The pure, innocent, stage of discovery, curiosity, belief and full trust (Snowmaiden’s aria from The Snowmaiden by Rimsky-Korsakov; Gilda’s aria ‘Caro nome’ from Rigoletto by Verdi; Rosina aria ‘Una voce poco fa’ from Il barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini; Linda’s aria ‘O luce di quest’anima’ from Linda di Chamounix by Donizetti)
2. Maturity, tasting life, passion, playing with fire, experiencing love, loss, disappointment, betrayal, suffering and pain (Manon’s aria ‘Je marche…obéissons’ from Manon by Massenet; Gilda’s duet with Rigoletto ‘Tutte le feste…Piangi’ from Rigoletto by Verdi; Elle’s aria ‘Tu as raison…je t’aime’ from La voix humaine by Poulenc; Jacqueline’s aria ‘Je ne vois rien’ from Fortunio by Messager)
3. Wiser woman who has lived, making her own choices. She is simply free (The Contessa’s aria ‘Dove sono’ from Le nozze di Figaro by Mozart; Magda’s aria ‘Ore dolci e divine’ from La rondine by Puccini; Gilda’s final duet with Rigoletto by Verdi)

About the arias
Oh luce di quest’anima (Linda di Chamounix)
This is such a fun aria to sing, a brilliant show piece full of elegance and charm. Linda believes she is in love with Carlo, who she thinks is a painter, while he is in reality a nobleman. She goes to live with him in Paris and is found by her father in these compromising circumstances. He curses her, causing her to lose her sanity. Her loyal Pierotto brings her back home and into the arms of the man she loves, and she is revived to the delight of everyone on stage and in the audience. Her journey is full of light and she never loses hope. Her suffering is internal and overwhelms her mind; the symbol of this is that she herself is lost, unable to comprehend reality. She goes into a state of somnambulism, she gives up her passionate, creative and instinctive life. She is suspended in this state until she sees the light in the eyes of her beloved to whom she was always constant. I adore singing Donizetti and can’t wait to be singing Linda, Adina, Norina, Lucia and eventually the Queens.

Tu as raison … si, je t’écoute (La voix humaine)
Every time I sing Elle I plunge into the nightmare world of a fragile woman, whose only link with reality is the telephone voice of her ex-lover. In most productions, including the ones I have sung, Elle kills herself by taking pills, hanging herself on the telephone cord or slitting her throat with a knife, symbolically cutting the human voice. I have sung it in three different productions and in the most recent my daring Elle didn’t die. On the last chord, she cut the telephone wire, never to speak to this man again, never to hear his voice, never to let herself suffer because of him. It was the most satisfying experience to set her free, to end her suffering. The orchestra was caressing my voice, gently caring for it, surrounding and cushioning it through the ups and downs of her suffering. I felt that the audience were listening to every word and being touched deeply by it. I was so happy at the end: the extraordinary effort of concentration during the performance, the constancy of being true to the character filled my heart with endless joy. After her suffering I let her go and wanted to dance, jump and fly—that is how joyous I was.

Tout est sombre … Lorsque je n’étais qu’une enfant (Fortunio)
Jacqueline is in her 20s, one year into marriage with M. Andre, a wealthy lawyer in his 60s. It’s a marriage of convenience, to improve her social status, like many other young girls of her time. Her life is limited to his public appearances, listening to him, with no real chance to express herself. But she loves him like a father: they don’t share a bedroom. The arrival of an attractive officer shakes her pleasant, boring existence. Clavaroch charms her, she gives in to his forceful advances, perhaps out of curiosity, and he awakens her sexual freedom. She discovers that she can have excitement, be physically satisfied. However this doesn’t last long. Clavaroch is extremely vain—apart from his looks and sex appeal, there is not much depth to him. Soon she realises that he is using her and doesn’t really love her, but he opens the door for her to search for fuller, deeper love. First she is touched by the simplicity and honesty of Fortunio’s poetic expression. The beauty of raw emotion touches her and she is moved by his honest view of life. She wants to spend more time with him, he makes her dream, he makes her realise that the world she is living in is fake, and she falls for him. Clavaroch is planning to kill Fortunio, as he senses the change in Jacqueline. Fortunio is ready to die for the woman of his dreams. Even if Jacqueline was finding it hard to trust in true and tender love, she is finally convinced and gives her heart to Fortunio. She loves how Fortunio makes her feel but, even more, she loves the change his love has made in her. Jacqueline is three-dimensional, unlike her husband or Clavaroch, who are static commedia dell’arte characters. She has a sense of humor, but it is not a comic role: she and Fortunio are serious lovers, who experience deep emotions and go through dramatic changes. She changes and learns from her mistakes.

Denaro! Nient’altro che denaro (La rondine)
I imagine Magda as a sensuous, elegant woman full of mystery and conspiratorial charm. She has a magnetic presence, yet her soul is a complex combination of passion and lyricism. She is a character with a rich internal life living out her ultimate fantasy, with the energy of a consummate actress who almost fools herself into believing her assumed role. An expert seducer consciously allowing herself to be seduced, Magda uses Ruggero to fall in love with love again. She is playing with fire, the way she pursues Ruggero is both touchingly desperate and coldly deliberate; yet when her fantasy threatens to become real, the complexity of her sorrow is truly moving.

Magda goes through pain and heartbreak; I both love and pity her. Magda is an enigma and I long to understand her joys, pains, what excites her, what is important to her. What is she dreaming of, searching for? Is she bored or has she been hurt so much that she no longer trusts herself or other people? And does she find temporary healing in constant entertainment? Perhaps her desperation comes from her one-dimensional relationship with Rambaldo, with her soul urging her to look for a deeper human connection that brings real joy and freedom in togetherness. Yet until she meets Ruggero she doesn’t know how to get there and is locked in the same pattern. I admire her decision to tell him the truth and let him go. Through the pain of separation, she grows up, and on the other side of her pain is the realisation that she can’t live this life of deceit and must take a new path. I am not convinced that she goes back to Rambaldo. I feel that for her it is a new beginning, a rebirth. But of course many La rondine lovers will disagree!

Je marche sur tous les chemins … Obéissons quand leurs voix appellent (Manon)
Manon starts as a fragile and confused young woman, on her way to the convent when she meets des Grieux. In an instant they fall in love and flee together. Already there are hints of incompatibility, he aspires to create a family and she yearns for the excitement of Paris. While they are together she is still hungry for adventure and changes her heart to go with Bretigny. This aria “Obéissons quand leurs voix appellent” (“Let us obey when their voice calls us”) comes in Act Three. Her impulsive nature pushes her to live in the moment and play with fire. She is admired and loved—or so she thinks. Her driving force is to enjoy youth fully before it passes her by.

Her journey continues, she craves for des Grieux’s love and returns to him. For me her final moments always pose a question. Does she regret anything, is she reconciled to everything, and does she ever find balance in the depths of her unsettled soul? Does she really want to find it or does she simply follow the different inner voices of each moment until she dies? She is definitely an enigma for me. I love how Massenet’s music is full of vitality and charm, and the story is most endearing and heartwarming.

Snegurochka’s Aria (The Snow Maiden)
The daughter of Spring and Father Frost yearns for the companionship of mortal humans. She likes Lel, but her heart is unable to love. She is asking for a loving heart and as soon as she falls in love she melts in the first rays of the sun. There is a parallel in melting and surrendering for me in the Snowmaiden’s journey, her courage and determination; it is her choice. I don’t see it as the story of a naïve girl, melted by the sun, but as a story of courage, wanting to break free, curious and passionate about life and experiences and then letting go, surrendering herself to life and the beauty of nature; becoming a part of nature herself. I love the pagan tales of ancient Russia: there is something so beautiful in worshipping nature, it makes you appreciate and be grateful for the beauty that we are surrounded by. The tales are filled with wisdom and teach us about the circles of life and human relationships.

Gualtier Maldè … Caro nome (Rigoletto)
Gilda is my favorite heroine, who journeys through the three stages. Is Gilda innocent? Gilda is innocent in her lack of experience or knowledge, curious about love and life. But she has the mental capacity to understand everything on the deepest level, to love fully, to forgive generously, to take responsibility for her actions, and to make her own choices about her life.

How does Gilda develop? It is a journey of extreme psychological change. Locked up, longing to escape her father’s house, falling in love with the Duca, abducted to his palace, making love to him, explaining to her father, witnessing the Duca’s betrayal, yet continuing to love him and have faith in his love. She overhears the assassination plot against the Duca or her father, decides to sacrifice her life and is killed. As she dies, she begs her father to forgive and promises to pray for his soul. Here is the parallel with Persephone, abducted into the underworld and returned reborn. Gilda is the only character in the opera who undergoes change; she grows up very quickly and finds strength in herself to escape all the weak men around her. For a woman of her status, death is probably her only option. Was abduction secretly desirable to Persephone/Gilda? Were they destined to go through such dramatic changes?

Mio padre! / Tutte le feste al tempio / Piangi, fanciulla … Si, vendetta (Rigoletto)
Does Gilda really love the Duca? Gilda’s initial longing is to escape from her father, to find her identity. When she meets the Duca, he is the first man to tell her his name (even though it is false). Verdi gives her a whole aria to contemplate, fantasize, and discover her sensuality, all on the dearest name of her heart. She is ready to fall for the Duca. She believes him and trusts him, and perhaps sees in him the potential to change, to love deeply. Perhaps if he was with her, she could heal him, help him find contentment so that he will finally love both her and himself: deeply, not selfishly like he does now. This is the first age of woman. But he is a pathetic coward; he betrays her and essentially himself; her heart is wounded. She continues to love him and to have faith in him despite him not giving anything in return. Here is the second age of woman: she chooses to sacrifice her life.

Her choice to save him from death can be interpreted in many ways. I think it has more to do with her own journey than her love for him. Here is the third age of woman: there is nothing she can do for her father or for the Duca, because they are not prepared to change, so she frees herself from them. Gilda understands that in life there is always a choice, even in the most difficult situation. In Rigoletto, there is a theme of destiny, curse, inevitable fate…yet Gilda’s death can be seen as a symbol of freedom, rebirth, new beginning and happiness, and this is her destiny.

E Susanna non vien … Dove sono (Le nozze di Figaro)
Of course the opera is called The Marriage of Figaro and is about Figaro and Susanna, but I really like it when La Contessa is given a chance to be the centre of attention. She goes on an incredible journey: after marrying the Count she finds that her marriage is limiting; she was locked in with Bartolo and will not be locked in again. Yet my Rosina is not naïve, not waiting for things to come her way: she decides to take control of her life, to let go of negative feelings and surrender to her own voice. This inner voice tells her to keep faith, to find a solution. ‘If love is the answer, can you rephrase the question.’ She turns her world upside down to make this change happen.

‘Dove sono’ is probably the most difficult aria and the most satisfying. There is not a single emotion that can escape from Mozart’s sensitive score. The three stages of the Countess in one aria. The recitative is full of doubt and pain, her inner turmoil and questions. Then the memory of how it was when they first met and how much she wants that back, and finally the vision of a clear path. Her own choice of what to do with her life and how to do it. It is the most beautiful example of a woman finding her inner balance and unafraid to act to make her life better, happier.

Una voce poco fa (Il barbiere di Siviglia)
This aria establishes Rosina’s character: she is gentle, she is sweet, but if you step on her you must beware. The opening chords show the beauty and nobility of her character, and the many coluratura runs are there to express emotion: joy, sadness, laughter, happiness. Every note is there for a reason. I think you have to have experienced life to understand what Rosina is all about, where she is going to and why, before you can sing this role. She is shapely and very witty, hair in ringlets, cheeks like summer roses, eyes full of laughter and the daintiest little fingers. Rosina knows what she wants and is full of confidence, but this opera is not all about fun and laughter for her. She faces the trial of losing trust in Almaviva. So even comic heroines dive into the ruins of their own underworld to search for balance.

I love singing bel canto, everything is in the music. Not only the emotions, but one can also hear the way the characters look and walk. It is fantastic. And I love singing this music because I can demonstrate the acrobatics of a lyric soprano coloratura voice. After all bel canto is not so much about the beautiful voice, but about what this voice can do.

Chi e mai, chi e qui in sua vece? … Lassu in ciel (Rigoletto)
Why is she so forgiving, and why does she ask everyone to forgive? When Gilda talks about forgiveness she is not saying that what they did to her was acceptable, but that she is not going to let it ruin her happiness forever: her happiness is freedom. She is begging her father to let go of revenge, to break free of weak people who cause pain and to find inner peace. Gilda is begging all the men around her to change, to face the truth, to look deep into their hearts and into her own heart. But she is losing the battle; no one is prepared to change. They are fearful, weak men, locked in repeated patterns of behaviour. Rigoletto blames everything and everyone: Destiny for his being a hunchback and for losing his wife; the Duca for his being a jester; a curse for what happens to him and Gilda. He never takes responsibility for his actions, he is never honest with himself or with Gilda. Even Gilda’s death doesn’t make him understand anything. The Duca is locked into a different pattern. He is a womaniser, which he thinks will get him closer to happiness and help him find peace and contentment. He is in denial, always after the next woman for temporary salvation instead of looking courageously into his own heart. He takes no responsibility for the pain he is causing all these women.

Experience of recording and performing
For a few days before the recording, I sat quietly and thought about all the heroines I was about to sing. I created an image for each of them as if they were standing in front of me, as if I was looking into their eyes. Incredible warmth spread through my body and I realised they are all bursting to speak, wanting their voices to be heard; through me their stories will be sung.

The recording lasted 3 days, after 2 days of rehearsals. Each day was as different as the phases of my women; I am grateful for each one of them. I discovered freedom, surrender, I discovered huge new strengths and how good it feels to really connect to myself, listen to my own voice, to what I need and want. The recording presented challenges and tested my stamina. It stretched my vocal ability as far as I have ever gone, mainly because of the intense and demanding schedule. I discovered that the less I gave, the more I had. I learnt that some emotions are better put aside, as they stand in the way and block the freedom of your mind and soul: the more complex the situation, the simpler the solution. All I had to do was to listen to my body and my voice and understand what they needed. The process of this recording and the results took me by surprise and brought great joy. This is my journey and this CD reflects that. I was taking inspiration from people around me, young musicians, who were there with me and for me. I hope this CD becomes one of many, all different, presenting a phase or a fascination in my own life. But I will always remember this first opera CD, the youngest orchestra I have ever sung with, and the discovery of surrender. The dance with many partners: your soul, the words, the music, the conductor and orchestra. This recording was an exhilarating dance of many voices.

Ilona Domnich © 2015

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