Friday, 5 August 2016

Becoming a lirico-spinto soprano: I continue my encounter with Elizabeth Llewellyn prior to her debut as Tosca

Elizabeth Llewellyn - photograph Shirley Suarez
Elizabeth Llewellyn - photograph Shirley Suarez
In this second part of my interview with soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn  (see part one of our interview on this blog) we talk in more detail about the lirico-spinto voice sitting between a lyric and a dramatic soprano, as well as looking in more detail at the title Tosca, and how beautiful singing is just a base-line from which to build the drama. Elizabeth will be making her debut as Tosca at Theater Magdeburg in October.

Elizabeth sees her voice as a Straussian one, one which loves long lines. She can give outbursts of real power, but is not able to sing a role which requires sustained power. Elsa, Tosca and Giorgetta (roles she has sung at Theater Magdeburg and the Royal Danish Opera) are written in a way which is right for her, Elizabeth finds them well-paced with powerful moments. This she feels is Puccini's and Wagner's genius, and thinks that there is a case for a lirico-spinto voice singing the roles because that is how they were written. She has always taken to heart the soprano Isobel Baillie's motto 'Never sing louder than lovely', and adds that there are so many other beautiful roles out there that she should, and hopes to sing, rather than looking at the more dramatic roles.

Momentary outbursts of real power are something she can do, and she finds it amazing that it does not cost her anything. She cites as an example Act Three of Lohengrin which she finds very much Elsa's act.  A singer needs to have physical and vocal stamina for it, and needs to have the strength in reserve to nail the top B which is the climax of the scene.


Elizabeth feels that with characters like Elsa and Tosca, a dramatic soprano can sound a bit too matriarchal and the roles lose their charm. In their different ways, Elizabeth sees both as characters who are not always in control and this needs to show in performance. After all Elsa is a just a young girl who knows nothing about the world and she does not have cunning in her arsenal. At the beginning of the opera Elsa is just a child, and we need to believe this, and then during the opera she grows before our eyes.


Elizabeth Llewellyn as Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, with English Touring Opera. 2013
Elizabeth Llewellyn as Amelia in Simon Boccanegra,
with English Touring Opera. 2013
Tosca by contrast is a different, a grown up woman in a relationship but there is a naivety to her. Elizabeth does not think that Tosca is high maintenance, and sees her and Cavaradossi as being well suited. But also Elizabeth things she is a bit of a dreamer, you have to believe that though a successful singer,  she wants a simple life She is a heart-on-sleeve person with no filter, saying what she thinks, and we have to see that she is almost naive enough to believe that Scarpia will do as he says.

She finds that the detail in Act Two of Tosca makes it a fantastic play, and that moments like Cavaradossi's comments to Tosca, 'Stupid woman, what have you got to say' take her breath away. Scarpia is totally in control and his one weakness is the woman in front of him. Will she take advantage of it? You certainly don't expect her to kill him. For Elizabeth, the killing of Scarpia does not come naturally to Tosca. It is a traumatic moment and changes her perception of herself. Elizabeth finds both strength and vulnerability in the character. She sees the drama as less melodramatic than some, she just does not find it in the music.

During the discussion she mentions a couple of recordings which have made a big impression on her, citing the Lohengrin with Elisabeth Grummer, Jess Thomas, Christa Ludwig and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, adding that the latter two are great word-smiths and that it is fabulous to hear them on the recording. The Tosca recording which she values is the one with Carol Vaness, Giuseppe Giacomini and Giorgio Zancaro, she admires the level of detail in the performance and finds that Zancaro makes the character of Scarpia so seductive and so elegant.

Elizabeth Llewellyn as Mimi in La Boheme
Elizabeth Llewellyn as Mimi in La Boheme
She does use recordings when learning a role because they are useful when trying to get a sense of the broad sweep of a piece. You need to be able to run the entire act, and this is difficult if you do not have a pianist with whom you can work regularly. Recordings are also useful for what the danger points are in a role, and the details in the orchestration which are not in the piano score, details such as passages where you are being accompanied just by upper strings and harp. With these knowledge of these details, you can really feed of them as you start to sing. But as soon as she has the feel of a piece, when she gets to the meat, she stops listening. There is a danger you might start to sound like the singers you are listening to, and make their mistakes.

She also thinks that there is also a lot your can learn from recordings with regard to style, both good and bad. This includes what not to do, and an idea of the pitfalls people fall into. Recordings also give an indication of the conventions that are not written into a score, but which develop in the canon over time. And here Elizabeth feels that it is good to ring the changes, to return to the score and say that this is not what Puccini wrote. She feels that a lot of Puccini performances do things the way that it is always done, but for Elizabeth there is usually a reason why he did not put a line over those particular notes, why you should or should not do a portando.

She enjoys listening to as early a performance as possible on disc, listening to issues of speed and phrasing. She finds that performances of Puccini on lot of early recordings are clearer, cleaner and less overblown, less over-sung, which she finds encouraging. She mentions an interview with the soprano Maria Jeritza, who sang Tosca for Puccini, in which Jeritza explained that Puccini said of the opera "I don't compose operas, I compose musical dramas in which everything fits into an order without interruption. Between it must always be continued drama." This takes as a given that the singer has a beautiful voice and can do the role, but then the performance needs to serve the drama.

Elizabeth Llewellyn
Elizabeth Llewellyn
When people come to the theatre they want to see theatre, and beautiful singing should be a baseline, but she finds that in some productions singers make a beautiful sound and no more. When Elizabeth performs she wants an audience member to be moved, and feels she needs to be as good an actress as a singer. It is important to understand the shifts of power and the unexpected corners in the story you are telling.

Whilst her challenge is to use spectacular singing to serve the drama, even as her voice has changed her performance still has its roots in bel canto. She is currently learning Leonora in Il Trovatore and aiming to sing something as beautiful as she can, yet she needs to invest physically and emotionally in the performance too. She finds that everyone responds the more committed your are, and you draw performers in.

She gave eight performances as Giorgetta in Puccini's Il Tabarro (part of Il Trittico) with Johan Reuter as Michele. She found Reuter really committed to things which made it easy for her to commit. So the level of drama terrific, and it really felt as if the two of them were in a dysfunctional marriage.

Looking ahead it is mainly her performances of Tosca at Theater Magdeburg which dominate, but Elizabeth is looking at further productions of Tosca, and performances operas by Strauss and Verdi though she emphasises that these are just discussions. She finds it exciting the direction her voice has taken, and adds that it is not even a direction any more, it is where she is. The last few years have proved that to her, to audiences, to critics and to intendants.

Puccini's Tosca, with Elizabeth Llewellyn as Tosca and Paul O'Neill as Cavaradossi, at Theater Magdeburg directed by Karen Stone and conducted by Kimbo Ishi opens on 20 October 2016 with performances until 4 March 2017.

In Part One of this interview, Elizabeth and I discuss the roles of Elsa and Tosca, and the importance of knowing our voice when looking at roles.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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