La Diva alla Puccini

Maria Callas (1923-77) is a name known to all who love opera – and perhaps to just as many who don’t. Her colourful lifestyle ensured that she was a frequent focus of media attention, especially later in her life, when she became associated with Aristotle Onasis. She possessed all the qualities you might expect for a true diva: amongst them a soprano voice with enormous range; but, equally important, a stage presence which totally held the attention of her audience – as well a reputation for the occasional tantrum. Music lovers are divided about the quality of her voice, (and her technique was certainly found wanting from time to time),  but its power is beyond dispute, until it waned in the ’60s after a sudden weight loss, bringing her career to an early end. Of the roles she made her own, few were more dramatic than the doomed Tosca in the opera of that name by Puccini (1858-1924).

Today’s aria “Vissi d’arte”, taken from the second act, is a moving plea, in which she concludes “Oh, Lord, why do you reward me like this?” She can hear as her lover, Cavaradossi, is being tortured by the henchmen of Scarpia, the chief of police in Rome, to reveal the whereabouts of an escaped convict. Scarpia, a thoroughly unpleasant individual, has lyingly promised Tosca that if  she allows him to have his wicked way with her, he will ensure Cavardossi’s safety. Well, she’s having none of that. In a nutshell, the aria says “I’ve lived for art and love, I’ve been a good girl and said my prayers, so why, Lord are you rewarding me like this?” Sadly her pleas fall on deaf ears, as it all goes horribly wrong for everyone.

If you’ve not heard this before, you’re in for a treat. Puccini is another of those top tune writers! Be patient, it’s a slow lament, but at only just over three minutes long, it’s worth the wait. It’s all about the build up to a wonderful high Eb, a note Callas reaches without the slightest strain, as she was actually capable of going a few higher.There are obviously many renditions of this piece (a close second for me is sung by Kiri de Kanawa). I chose Callas for two reasons: first, if you asked any opera lover to name a famous Tosca, Callas would undoubtedly feature more than anyone else; and secondly, it is not just the peak which is tremendous here, but also the way Callas sings the two glorious notes which immediately follow it on the way down. The power of her voice is quite extraordinary.

When the opera was first performed in 1900, it led one critic to describe it as a “shabby little shocker”, but with its cocktail of love, passion, jealousy, murder and revenge, it has now become one of the repertoire’s favourites and most widely performed. The ending sees Tosca realise that her lover has not participated in a fake execution, but that Scarpia, whom she has previously stabbed, has ensured that it’s the real thing. The curtain falls as Tosca flings herself off the parapet in despair. The opera has a number of stories linked to it, amongst the most famous of which, probably attributed to many divas in the role, relates how one stage crew became royally fed up with the antics of the leading lady. Instead of placing a thick mattress to await her fall, they replaced it one night with a tightly strung trampoline – ensuring that the helpless hysterical heroine was seen a few more times before the curtain fell.


Today’s smile…a ray of Mozart sunshine.

It is time for some Mozart (1756-1791). There is very little that an amateur enthusiast such as myself can add to the millions of words which have been written about this child prodigy, who was composing whilst others his age were learning to read. His output was truly prodigious, covering every possible field in music. Many of his pieces, such as the clarinet concerto, the horn concertos, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the Jupiter symphony, piano concerto no.21 (Elvira Madigan music)  – to name just a handful – are now so overplayed and so familiar to us that we risk overlooking a great amount which gets less coverage. Obviously I will have lots to post on him over time.

In 1788 Mozart composed what were to be his last three symphonies, 39, 40 and 41 (The Jupiter). Of these, 41 is unquestionably the most famous (first heard by many of us as backing for the Wombles!), but it is 39 which stands out as my personal favourite of all his symphonies. Today’s piece is the final movement of that symphony, written the year after his father had died, his wife was ill, his daughter had also died recently, and Mozart was deeply in debt. And yet this movement, a Rondo, is a passage of unalloyed optimism and sheer love of life. It is a perfect example of how the real genius, in whatever art form, is the creator who can evoke any mood or emotion without necessarily having to be either a miserable geezer or a stand-up comedian.

There is only one theme in this peace, even if varied slightly, and it is a ray of sunshine which just makes you want to dance. It has a wonderful momentum, with occasional breathers, but to me it almost feels like a whistle-stop ride on a fast steam train. I don’t know who made this recording, which is why you’ve only got a picture of the man himself, but I chose it for its tangible and controlled vibrancy. One more thing: have you ever thought, as I often have, “I  wish he’d have ended it like this, rather than the way he actually did”? If you have, be sure to wait to the end – Mozart does not finish this symphony in the conventional manner of a few affirming final chords, but in the way you might hope he would dare to do.

Tip: for best results, turn volume right up  and don’t bother to sit down, because you may feel the urge to move. Then see, whatever you are doing, how quickly you can stop after the music does. Bet you’re still going.



Today’s smile … a surreptitious tear from Donizetti

In my last post, I alluded to the difficulty of getting a good tune out of your head, and ever since selecting my next piece, I have fallen victim to just that! But this is entirely natural: I happened to stumble upon a quotation by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) the other day, who said, perhaps rather grandly, in a BBC broadcast in 1953 that, “Good music is that which penetrates the ear with facility and quits the memory with difficulty.” Well, he’s right enough on this one. It’s also a good way to end the day.

One of Donizetti’s  (1797-1848) most famous and widely performed operas, ‘L’elisir d’amore’ (‘The Elixir of Love’) had its first performance in 1832. I don’t think we need trouble ourselves too much on a lengthy synopsis, but setting the context very briefly for today’s choice is helpful. Nemorino, a peasant, is madly in love with Adina; who, being well-off and well-read, is, frankly, also well out of his league. This doesn’t dissuade him from trying, to no avail, to win her over – indeed she initially accepts the proposal of someone else. But the arrival of a quack doctor comes to his aid. Having overheard Adina reading about a magic potion which Tristan used to capture the heart of Isolde, Nemorino asks the doctor to sell him some. What he downs in one is, in fact, cheap plonk, but it has the effect of giving him Dutch courage, for he is confident he will soon be irresistible to Adina; so much so, that his flirting with other girls upsets Adina, and she realises she loves him after all. (The fact that he unexpedetly inherits a fortune from an uncle comes as a late bonus.)

On noticing a tear in her eye, Nemorino sings one of opera’s most tender romances ‘Una furtiva lagrima’, here performed by the Peruvian tenor, Juan Diego Florez. It starts in the minor key, perhaps to suggest his regret at Adina’s apparent sadness, but listen to how Donizetti opens it up into the major key when Nemorino affirms his knowledge that Adina loves him – it is a statement of pure happiness. The melody is repeated, but this time unfolding with even more confidence. It is measured, rather than overtly ecstatic, but the message is clear. There are few things in life better than to know we are loved, especially by those we love ourselves; and there are few better examples in music of that feeling being conveyed.

One last observation. I don’t want to diss the bassoon, but the reality is that its sound is not the most instantly appealing. Although many of you will know it as the instrument which Prokofiev chooses to represent the curmudgeonly grandfather in ‘Peter and the Wolf’, its solo repertoire is not all that extensive. And yet, inspirationally, it is the bassoon, with a little harp backing, which Donizetti uses to introduce this most romantic of arias. Once heard, you really can’t imagine it being achieved with anything better. Genius choice.

I’m conscious that my first vocal piece was also a tenor, so I shall redress the balance next time, but in the meantime I hope Beecham’s words ring true…