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18 mélodies

AR RE-SE 2004-8

The hidden side of Verdi's sun

Verdi is among those composers who are associated with a single genre : in the same as way as Chopin or Liszt are identified with piano, Verdi and opera, like for Wagner, his contemporary, are as one. But we learn from musicologists and the composer specialists that he also wrote, in an extremely fringe manner compared with the rest of his work, a few instrumental pieces (notably a string quartet), as well as some thirty melodies with piano. The latter, like the operas, certainly relate to vocal music, bearing witness to the composer’s virtually exclusive interest in vocal expression, in song : but while the Verdi genius is above all and mainly a dramatic genius, a more intimate Verdi is discovered here, a chamber – or rather salon – Verdi.

The eighteen melodies presented here (which therefore represent two-thirds of his total production in this field) cannot in actual fact be considered as “melodies” in the same sense one speaks of French melody: they much rather emerge from the genre of romance, a term which incidentally figures explicitly in the title of the composer’s two principal collections (published in 1838 and 1843 respectively). Indeed, French melody of the late XIXth century took its roots by getting away from romance, through experimentation with harmony and versification, through exacting literary choices, through a continuous and no longer stanzaic form of writing, and, last, through the aesthetics of a concentration of effects more than melodramatic ostentation: a contrario, Verdi’s melodies are closely linked to the spirit of opera aria: much more, they prefigure and, in rare cases, accompany or even recall some of Verdi’s opera arias for which they constitute a sort of laboratory. For greater convenience, however, we are retaining the term of melody in its broadest sense, “romance” referring stricto sensu to a strophic-type melody, which is not always the case here.

The close links of these melodies with romance is moreover very well explained by their chronology: with a half exception (the second version of Brindisi [Trinquons !], published in 1869 but whose first version in all probability dates back to 1835), it should in fact be noted that all were composed during Verdi’s first creative period, between 1838 and 1849, that is to say in the era of Nabucco (1842), I Lombardi (1843), Ernani (1844) and Macbeth (1847), and prior to the series of his grand operas of maturity: Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore [Le Trouvère] (1853), La Traviata (1853), Les Vêpres siciliennes (1855), Simon Boccanegra (1857), Un Ballo in Maschera [Un bal masqué] (1859), La Forza del Destino [La Force du destin] (1862, rev. 1869) or Don Carlos/Don Carlo (1867/1884) – not to mention, of course, the last three grand operas which are Aida (1871) and the two ultimate Shakespearean masterpieces, Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). The first half of the XIXth century was the time par excellence of romance, in Italy as in France.

Moreover, one can perceive in these melodies reminiscences, echoes or influences of the Italian masters of the romantic bel canto style, Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini, who had a profound impact on Italian, and more generally European, music, notably through invention, mastery and melodic splendour (the term “melody” this time being taken in its technical sense – as opposed to “harmony” -- of thematically arranged song line).

Verdi’s melodies – a certainly fringe output of the composer – can therefore be listened to both as a synthesis of the different bel canto inspirations which preceded him and as a laboratory for his own operatic creations to come.

Sei Romanze [Six Romances], first book (1838) : with elegy as the keynote

The first book of Sei Romanze [Six Romances], which came out in 1838, constitutes the first published work of the young Verdi. He was twenty-five years old at the time and trying, unsuccessfully to begin with, to arrange a performance of his first opera, Rocester, composed in 1836 to a text by Antonio Piazza, a revised version of which was finally brought to the stage with great success in Milan at the end of 1839, under the title of Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio. This collection is in fact not a cycle in the same sense as can be heard in the works of Schubert, Schumann or, in the domain of French melody, Fauré: there is in fact no narrative or dramatic thread linking together the different pieces it is made up of; but they still however draw their unity (some would say their uniformity) from an elegiac inspirational similarity, very different from the dramatic contrasts one could have expected from the future composer of operas. Expressed in this elegiac inspiration is the influence of the bel canto model embodied by Bellini, Donizetti or again Rossini, not only through the allure of the accompanied melody but also through more or less specific reminiscences of their works, while the manner of Verdi is starting to emerge, several passages prefiguring even certain arias in operas to come.

Non t’accostare all’urna [Ne t’approche pas de l’urne], to a poem by Jacopo Vittorelli, brings to the ear echoes of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1831) or, in a more veiled way, of Gaetano Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor, 1835). This romance thus seems to be the classic example of the initial romantic bel canto style. After a short piano introduction whose tremolos set a stirring scene, the melody unrolls its broad lines, taut and expressive; three parts, including a strongly contrasting central part, closely illustrate the text, the elegiac wailing set against a movement of rebellion (“Cruel!"). More, Elisa, lo stanco poeta [Meurs, Elisa, le poète fatigué], to a poem by Tommaso Bianchi, infused with reminiscences of Juliet’s aria in Les Capulets et les Montaigus (1830) by Bellini “O Quante Volte”, as well as Desdemona’s willow aria in Rossini’s Otello, moreover heralds Leonora’s first aria in Le Trouvère. The ABAB musical structure rhythms the strophes in alternate fashion.

In solitaria stanza [Dans la chambre solitaire], once again to a poem by Jacopo Vittorelli, introduces the major mode into the cycle, yet without forsaking the elegiac tone: “Moi, opprimé par le désespoir, / Je cours par voies perdues, / Et je hurle d’un ton / Qui pourrait émouvoir les roches.” This romance appears to herald Oronte’s cavatina in Lombards (“La mia letizia”), at the start of Act II, an opera first produced a few years later in 1843.

Was the poet Carlo Angiolini remembering Racine’s Athalie when writing Nell’orror di notte oscura? It is likely, considering how close “Dans les ténèbres de la nuit obscure” seems to the famous verse: “ C’était pendant l’horreur d’une profonde nuit ”. However, the comparison stops there, because the sentimental lyricism of the poem is otherwise far removed from Racine aesthetics. Verdi displays here his ability to musically render an equivalent of the text, by introducing a low register tessitura as well as a contrast between major and minor.

The two romances which end the collection are taken from Goeth’s second Faust, through an Italian translation owed to Luigi Balestri. Perduta ho la pace [J’ai perdu la paix] brings to the ear the wailing of Marguerite to her spinning wheel, illustrated some twenty years earlier in a famous lied by the young Schubert (Gretchen am Spinnrade), while Deh, pietoso, oh Addolorata [Vierge de douleur] constitutes the same character’s prayer in the dungeon (prayer equally set to music by Schubert in Gretchen am Zwinger). Both, like Nell’orror, play on the contrast between major and minor, also much employed (but in a completely different fashion) by Schubert in many of his lieder in particular.

From the first to the second collection: three separate melodies with experimentation as the keynote

The two melodies published by Verdi in the following year of 1839, L’Esule and La Seduzione, possess a character that could be called one of experimentation (it would be excessive to say “experimental”) so greatly it appears that Verdi is putting to the test here the full potential of vocal writing that he was to implement, and with such strength of persuasion and emotion, in his operas: mezza di voce, sustained tones, coloraturas, cadences, etc.

L’Esule [L’Exilé] is composed to a poem by Temistocle Solera, destined to play an important part in Verdi’s creative works since he was the librettist of no less than five Verdi operas: from Oberto, (first Verdi opera, premiered in Milan the same year of 1839) to Attila (1846), and including Nabucco (1842), I Lombardi (1843) and Giovanna d’Arco (1845). Very different to the strophic structure of romance, this melody seems to be a lyrical monologue, in a free-flowing, continuous form (that is to say non-strophic), which marries it to a certain range of cantata. After a fairly long piano introduction, recitative and aria follow each other twice over, the latter in the form of cavatina and brilliant, virtuoso cabalette. The music underlines all the inflections of the text, through the tempo, the lively nuances, the harmony, and by the contrast between major and minor modes. Thus this melody presents all the characteristics of an opera aria, particularly of Verdi’s earliest operas, as is spectacularly shown by the triumphant top C which crowns the sparkling cadence: the text in fact unexpectedly passes from the wailing of the exile to the enthusiastic raptures of his homeland memories. It can be interesting to compare this treatment of the exile figure with that of Berlioz in La Captive op. 12 (1832), for voice and piano (then orchestra), to a poem by Hugo.

La Seduzione [La Séduction], also published in 1839 and composed to a poem by Luigi Balestra (translator of the last two Goethe romances in the previous year’s collection), goes further into the detail of the bel canto model which predominated the first book of Six Romances, heralding La Traviata through certain melodic constructions, in particular the duet by Germont and Violetta in Act II (“Pura siccome un angelo”).

È la vita d’un mar d’affanni [La vie est une mer de tourments], a melody composed in 1844, is surprising by its brevity: it seems to be a lyric miniature (“lyric” used here in the sense of lyric poetry and not musical lyric drama), in which Verdi nevertheless doesn’t deprive himself of the possibilities of a cadence in the high-pitched tessitura, which voices, in a figural fashion, the expression “the splendour of love”.

Sei Romanze [Six Romances], second book (1845) : with popular and comic opera inspiration as the keynote

The second book of Sei Romanze [Six Romances], published in 1845, seven years after the first one, is of widely different inspiration. With the exception of Il Mistero [Le Mystère] which keeps its elegiac tonality, and the poetic Ad una stella [Pour une étoile], these are pieces with character, of popular and sometimes comic opera inspiration: once again, the collection finds its tonal unity in this inspirational similarity. Verdi can be seen here pursuing vocal experimentation in the sense of virtuosity (trills, use of coloraturas, great interval skips, etc.).

With Il Tramonto [Le Crépuscule; second version], the collection opens to a romance whose text – owed, as for two others among them, to Andrea Maffei (future librettist of I Masnadieri [Les Brigands] in 1847) – brings to mind a poem by Lamartine on the same theme in Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (1830), without however this representing anything other than a romantically-inspired encounter. The fairly simple bipartite melody, which again plays on the expressive contrasts between major and minor modes, is, six years ahead of time, coloured with the melody of the duet between the Duc de Mantoue and Gilda at the end of Act I of Rigoletto (“E il sol dell’ anima”). With La Zingara [La Gitane], to a poem by Maggioni, next comes a stirring piece, very spirited, fresh and light, to a wild bolero rhythm, introducing a personage typical of Verdi’s art of characterisation: the most famous gypsy figure in Verdi will in fact be found in Le Trouvère (1853); yet, melody-wise and vocally, you would think you are hearing Oscar, the page in Un bal masqué (1859) (sung, let us remind ourselves, by a soprano).

Ad una stella [Pour une étoile], again to a poem by Andrea Maffei, bathing in the beautiful nocturnal tonality of A-flat major, is a masterpiece of melodic purity and expressiveness, and could take its place among the most beautiful opera arias.

With the extraordinary, stunning Lo Spazzacamino [Le Ramoneur], one recognises the bouffe inspiration dear to the poet Maggioni, whose musical incarnation in the melody prefigures Preziosilla’s aria in La Force du Destin or, again, certain passages in Bal masqué (still Oscar!). The very spirited comic refrain evokes the popular trade cry to be found in the works of other composers, from the profane songs of Claude Le Jeune to Gustave Charpentier (in the second act of Louise).

Il Mistero [Le Mystère] recalls, as already mentioned, the elegiac inspiration of the first collection of 1838; it is incidentally significant that the romance was composed to a poem by Felice Romani, an extremely prolific librettist who wrote many texts for Bellini, notably that of Norma (a work which precisely embodies this romantic bel canto), but also, a few years early, that of the second opera of Verdi himself, Un Giorno di Regno (1840).

The cycle closes to the second version of Brindisi [Trinquons !] (the first version dating from approximately 1835) in which the poet Andrea Maffei – his inspirational source very different from his two previous romances -- takes up the model of the drinking song, which was to become one of the trademarks of Verdi’s grand operas, be it in Macbeth, La Traviata or Otello. Thus, here again, Verdi appears to be testing the components of his language, his aesthetics, his poetics and his dramatic art, turning his romances into a veritable laboratory for his future operas.

Three isolated, post-second collection melodies: the last fires of Verdi melody

Il Poveretto [Le Petit Pauvre], published in 1847, illustrates the same popular aesthetics – characteristic of the poet Maggioni – as La Zingara and Spezzacamino, but with greater elegiac inspiration, thus combining the two poles of Verdi inspiration. Emblematic of Verdi’s first creative period, the musical arrangement emphasises all the nuances of the text, without forgetting the second part patriotic flights, the alternated ABAB strophic structure allowing the composer to play on lively and expressive contrasts.

L’Abandonnée, to a French poem by the Parisian music publisher Léon Escudier, was composed in 1849 during Verdi’s second stay in Paris in the company of his future second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi.

Stornello [Ritournelle], to an anonymous poem, is the latest-produced melody presented here: composed in 1869, it is a contemporary of Don Carlo but its spirit recalls Oscar’s aria “Volta e la terra” in Un bal masqué: for the first time, in 1869, the melody is no longer a prefiguration but a reminder. Also, at this epoch, Verdi had practically stopped composing for this repertoire.

The Verdi melodies therefore seem to be both a synthesis of the romantic bel canto style which preceded him and an experimentation laboratory, in which the composer tests and tries out a wide variety of vocal methods, as much at technical level as that of expression : what remained for him to do, in his operas, was to create dramatic movement by which the scenes which can only be presented in melodies in the form of tableaux could be given their full meaning, all their force, that is to say their vitality. In short, for the composer it was to be a question of passing from behind-the-scenes to the theatre itself.

Michel Marie

The press covers it !

« Released after a first recital of French melodies in which Thierry Guyenne had highlighted "the vocal opulence and the dramatic committment of this French soprano", this program dedicated entirely to Verdi represents an even riskier strategy for Norah Amsellem. A confirmed talent is indeed necessary to navigate with ease in a repertoire which is close to opera but is only ostensibly easy and alluring, hiding in fact a good deal of difficulties. For each of these pages composed over the years, sometimes responding to a commission, often under the guise of a circumstantial hommage, it is necessary to find the most appropriate tone: not excessively dramatizing what should be a mere suggestion; coloring with subtlety what risks to become monotonous in the course of an hour or more. This is a difficult art, even more difficult than playing the standards with the support of an orchestra. Let it be recognized that Norah Amsellem gets through these obstacles pretty well, bringing to these melodies her already rich experience. One notices this in particular in the works that have a particular picturesque quality, where the tone is the most straightforward. Stornello, Lo spazzacamino or the Brindisi are interpreted vivaciously, with the necessary panache and gusto. The soprano, who is accompanied with great care and accuracy by Lydia Jardon, knows how to alternate emotion with lustre and short flights of lyricism with atmospheric evocations. In a melody such as Perduta ho la pace she displays a whole array of nuances, conserving the elegance that tempers this well-mannered passion. A beautiful work on the whole, this well-composed recital, which also has a very balanced technical approach, suffices in itself to justify Norah Amsellem’s ambitions. »

Opéra international, March 2005, Pierre Cadars

« Norah Amsellem needs no introduction: this young soprano has made music lovers happy worldwide, since she sings all over Europe but also in Japan or the United States where her performances at the San Francisco opera or the New York Metropolitan have been hailed by the international press. She is accompanied by pianist Lydia Jardon, with whom she has recorded a CD of Verdi’s songs. Lydia Jardon is the creator of a very original festival: the Women in Music Festival on the island of Ushant, the so-called "Island of Women". She has also created a new, all-feminine record company: AR RE-SE (which means "those women there" in Breton), which publishes in this collection the CD of Verdi songs recorded during the summer of 2004. »

France 2, "Musiques au coeur", Lundi 7 march 2005 at 1h10, Nouveaux talents d'aujourd'hui et de demain

« In addition to his operas, Verdi composed a rather small number of melodies. The first ones were brought together in a collection of six items in 1838, a year before the performance of Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, his first opera. After a few stray pieces, another collection of six was published in 1845, a prolific year during which Alzira and Giovanna d’Arco were also composed. In the following years, Verdi publishes a few more melodies. The last one (Stornello) dates from 1869. Most of these side lines were therefore composed during the « salad years » where the young composer produced one opera after the other, coining his personal style and breaking free from any earlier influence. That this quest, but also these influences, are perceptible in these melodies is thus not surprising. These songs are neither salon romances nor German-style Lieder but, more often than not, little drama scenes that could find their place in an opera or characteristic pieces which show how well Verdi could depict a character or a dramatic situation. These melodies are often performed live by opera singers, but there are few recordings of them. The most significant one is the complete songs by Renata Scott (Nuova Era). Norah Amsellem sings the two collections from 1838 and 1845, plus six separate songs. This young singer has already accomplished a fairly distinguished career as a lyrical soprano (Gilda, Micaëla, Liu, Violetta, the Contessa from the Nozze…). Her main asset is a quite beautiful tone which in certain sections possesses a color akin to Montserrat Caballé’s. The low register is well grounded and the voice powerful enough to render dramatic effects. Moreover, the breathing is perfect, as is the coloring which allows to diversify the musical effects and to give life to the phrases. (…) This recital is well complemented by Lydia Jardon’s piano. Although the accompaniment is obviously not the most important part in these pieces, this interpreter, who has made such outstanding interpretations of Granados’s Goyescas or Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, makes it nimble, lively and dramatic. »

ClassicsToday France, March 2005, Jacques Bonnaure

« There have been far fewer recordings of Verdi’s 25 songs (after the complete rendition by Renata Scotto in 1989 and the ulterior recording by Margaret Price) than of his opera arias, and indeed these songs’ relative sobriety may throw the listener off. Of course, Verdi is above all a playwright who can only fully express himself onstage. The arresting charm of these songs is, however, rendered with clarity even when the text is sung at a fast pace (Stornello). The inner intensity of Deh pietozo, the quiet emotion, as it were, of Il Tramonto, the burning sensuality of La Zingara, the harsh opposition between voice and piano in Il misero, are all present in this recording. Norah Amsellem’s beautiful timbre and her qualities of expression and nuance are a good match to Verdi’s seduction. Sometimes intimate, at other times glistening with popular verve, these pages serve as excellent encores for recitals but also deserve to be listened to as such. »

Crescendo, February-March 2005, Bénédicte Palaux Simonnet