Monday, 30 December 2013

Historically informed performance - historic voices?

Final scene of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman in Dresden in 1843
Final scene of The Flying Dutchman
in Dresden in 1843
The period performance movement has, by and large, been an instrumental led one; the rediscovery of period performance styles by applying original instrumental pedagogical techniques to performance. Where solo singers have been involved in similar activities, this has been generally in the realms of Renaissance and Baroque music. In later music, singers seem to have tended to develop techniques which marry well with the instrumental techniques of their compatriots. There are few signs of singers, particularly opera singers, submersing themselves in 19th century pedagogical works; developing and experimenting with techniques. There are a few areas where early and mid 19th century Italian technique differed radically from that used today: the controlled (rather than indiscriminate) use of vibrato, the expressive use of portamento, the expectation that the singers would bring not just ornamentation but a degree of re-composition to the vocal line and a general freedom from the tyranny of the written note.

The Wagner and Verdi bicentenary has thrown up a small number of experiments in historically informed practice which have been revealing for the light thrown on Wagner's orchestrations. But, rather frustratingly, no-one seems to have been inclined to take this further and experiment with what types of voices Wagner might have actually heard. This was most notable in the enterprising recording of Wagner's original version of The Flying Dutchman by Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble (see my review) where Minkowski cast as his Dutchman a singer known for his performances of the work in the modern opera house. Vocally this performance had its feet firmly in the 21st century.

Wagner himself had very strong views on singers and their techniques. He considered agility training essential if singers were to have complete control of their voices. All the singers that he worked with had undergone the standard Italian training, and would be singing traditional repertoire alongside Wagner's works (the idea of dedicated helden-soprano and helden-tenor fachs only developed long after Wagner's death).  Throughout his career Wagner emphasised the importance of beautiful, well trained voices, with understanding and clear enunciation of the text.

One of the singers that inspired him most was Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient (1804 - 1860), the German soprano. He claims to have heard her in 1829 (when he was 16) in the role of Beethoven's Leonore (certainly he did hear her in 1834 and after). She was a foremost dramatic actress with an impressive voice, but struggled in the more florid Bellini and Donizetti roles. Though, when Wagner saw her in 1834 in Bellini's I Montecchi e Capuletti he was very impressed with her use of Italianate technique.

She created three Wagner roles in Dresden, Adriano in Rienzi (1842), Senta in The Flying Dutchman (1843) and Venus in Tannhauser (1845) and she would have created Elsa in Lohengrin in 1849 if Wagner's political activities had not put paid to the performance. It can be argued, however, that these performances came during her vocal decline.

Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient and Joseph Tischatschek in Tannhauser (1845)
One of Schroder-Devrient's colleagues in Dresden with the tenor Joseph Tischatschek (1807 - 1886) who combined beauty and agility with the ability to sing dramatic parts. He created the title roles in Rienzi and Tannhauser and later added Lohengrin to his repertoire. Though he may have had stamina problems in Tannhauser (a role which is still notorious today) leading to failure of the work. Tischatschek was also singing at that period roles like the title role in Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable and Raoul in Les Huguenots, as well as Florestan in Fidelio.

Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan and Isolde
Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan and Isolde
Two of the most iconic singers associated with Wagner are the husband and wife team Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1836 - 1865) and his wife Malvina who sang the title roles in the premiere of Tristan und Isolde (1865). He died after the fourth performance and she, devastated, stopped singing. This has given rise to the legend that the sheer effort of singing the helden-tenor role killed him. In fact it was due to a chill followed by rheumatic complications which caused a stroke because the tenor was so over weight.

Schnorr von Carolsfeld made his debut in 1858 and by the 1860's was singing Pollione in Norma and Max in Der Freischutz as well as works by Verdi. Whilst his wife had a very firm (traditional) technique thanks to her study in Paris with the younger Manuel Garcia. He had a very baritone oriented voice (described as baritonartig) and she was very much in the mezzo-soprano range. In fact, that voice allocations at the premiere of Tristan und Isolde are rather different to what we generally think of. Brangane was a high soprano and King Mark was a baritone (rather than a bass).

Amalie Materna as Brunhilde at Bayreuth in 1876
Amalie Materna as Brunhilde at Bayreuth in 1876

The first Brunnhilde in the first complete Ring cycle was the Austrian soprano Amalie Materna (1844 - 1918), who is described as having a powerful but youthful sounding bright voice. In addition to Brunnhilde her other roles included Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, Valentine in Les Huguenots, Rachel in La juive, Selika in L'Africaine and Aida.

When it came to the first complete performance of the Ring, Wagner had moved to his own custom built theatre in Bayreuth. But even then, things were not quite straightforward. Despite the orchestra being in the well-covered pit changes had to be made. Heinrich Porges attended the 1876 rehearsals for the Ring premiere and commented on the changes being made, 'the imperative need to moderate dynamic expression marks, convert fortissimo to forte, forte to mezzo-forte etc. in order to ensure the singers words and inflections made their proper impact'.

And what would these singers have sounded like. Well, smaller voices, more focussed, more flexible. We have to think of Tischatschek's voice being closer to Bryan Hymel's in terms of size and style, whilst Wilhelmine Schroder-Devrient was maybe akin to someone like Emma Bell. Amalie Materna was clearly more what we would call a spinto soprano than a helden-soprano. Also, these were traditionally trained singers and sang a traditional repertoire (none specialised in Wagner's music). They would have applied portamento and vibrato as needed; in fact Wagner did on occasion indicated both of these.

There is a trill indicated in the early hojo-to's in Act two of Die Walkure which few modern sopranos do (Jane Eaglen was a notable exception). Whilst wary of too much Italianate decoration, Wagner did allow it on occasions; Lotte Lehmann told the story of her teacher Mathilde Mallinger (the first Eva in Die Meistersinger) introducing a trill and Wagner letting her leave it in. The important thing to bear in mind was that even the bigger voices were capable of trills and ornaments, a far cry from some modern dramatic voices where the vibrato is so wide a trill would be impossible.

We have recordings of five singers who sang in Bayreuth in the period 1876 to 1882; Lilli Lehman, Marianne Brandt (Kundry 1882), Hermann Winkelmann (Parsifal 1882), Luise Belce and Adolf von Hubbenet. Frustratingly Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1825 - 1904), the first Isolde, just lived into the age of the recorded disc but she had given up singing after her husband's death.

Dates are important here, during Wagner's lifetime singers were coached by Julius Hey who, like Wagner, saw nothing incompatible between the fundamentals of traditional Italian technique and Wagner's dramatic declamation. It was only after Wagner's death that Cosima replaced Hey, and introduced changes which sacrificed legato to emphatic enunciation, developing the so-called Bayreuth Bark.

But if we listen to the recordings we must bear in mind that the singers went into the studio far after Wagner's death. Lehmann's record in the Liebestod (hear it on YouTube) made in 1907 is notable for the high, focussed brightness of the voice, her flexibility and use of devices like portamento. Rather better, in audio terms, is her performance of Du bist der Lenz from Die Walkure (also recorded in 1907).

Winkelmann's recording of the Prize song from Die Meistersinger was made in 1900 with piano accompaniment and requires something of a leap of faith to listen to. His 1905 excerpt from Tannhauser is comes over rather better. Clearly the voice was in decline (he was born in 1849), you can still perhaps detect the underpinning of an Italianate technique. There are four of his recordings on YouTube.

Listening to these singers' recordings, made late in life and in poor audio conditions, requires determination, but they are important documents. We need to learn from them, and from the pedgogical literature associated with Wagner's singers.

In the 1960's and 1970's singers like Emma Kirkby and Jantina Noorman helped us to re-discover and re-interpret who sections of the Early music repertoire. We need similar singers today who will enable us to listen to 19th century opera with new ears.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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