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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Giovanna Casolla: Traditional Dramatic Soprano

It is a great pleasure to welcome again today our outstanding guest commentator Mr. Gioacchino Fiurezi Maragioglio, Italian industrialist, opera critic and historian. Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio, an  intimate friend of the great Italian tenor Giacomo Lauri Volpi, is possessed of a truly extraordinary knowledge of Italian opera and opera singers, many of whom he has known personally. I do not believe that there is anyone among my acquaintance whose knowledge exceeds his own, and there are precious few who could match it.  Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio speaks to us today of the remarkable dramatic soprano Giovanna Casolla.
During the twentieth century, the Italian dramatic soprano was a voice enjoyed all across the world. In fact, during one brilliant decade, Milanov, Ponselle, Raïsa, Cigna, Arangi-Lombardi, Scacciati and Jeritza could all be found singing the greatest roles of the dramatic repertoire: Amelia, Aïda, both Leonoras, and— excepting Ponselle—the most demanding of all: Turandot.

From her début in 1977, Giovanna Casolla has stood as an exceptional example of this great and very necessary kind of soprano. It was only after such disappointments as Katia Ricciarelli’s Turandot that people realized exactly what was missing. So, let us see Signora Casolla in this most demanding of roles, Turandot. Here is the Riddle Scene, with tenor Nicola Martinucci, cut in Torino in 2006, when the soprano was no less than sixty-one years of age, and her Calàf sixty-five!

She is in complete command in this role, and the size and power of the voice are immediately discernable. It is not difficult to compare these qualities to singers of the past, especially to Cigna! She puts forth a great effort creating Turandot, and in this rendition she is convincing as a proud and sneering princess. Her phrasing and control of dynamics, when she taunts Calàf on the final riddle, are particularly effective, owing in large part to the softness of her tone as she comments on Calàf's paleness; something ironically reinforced by the contrasting forte at the end of the phrase.

Casolla is well-known as the interpreter of difficult roles, and here she is interpreting another one: Minnie in La Fanciulla del West, singing her aria Laggiù nel soledad. As is immediately apparent, it is very hard to sing. Puccini demands the soprano move rapidly between a very lyric, reflective parlando expression and then a very dramatic, forceful expression, trumpeting out high notes. Once again, Casolla has her voice ready and waiting to assail the very difficult aria.

Her vocal coloring is particularly well-displayed in the big aria Suicidio from La Gioconda. This is a real chiaroscuro voice, with bright and clear overtones shimmering on top of what is a very dark and threatening core. This, combined with her firm legato and excellent breath control, allows her to show both the strength and resolve of Gioconda while at the same time reminding us that she is, after all, just a young and vulnerable woman.

In this next selection, Casolla interprets Verdi in a performance of Un Ballo in Maschera, in the big aria Morrò, ma prima in grazia. Besides a powerful high C, her legato and attention to text are most noteworthy. Once again, her vocal colouring is both beautiful and emotive, communicating the innocence and purity of Amelia. After such impassioned singing, it seems completely reasonable for Renato’s anger to change into mercy.

The richness and ease of production in the lower parts of Casolla’s voice also permit her to undertake congenial mezzo-soprano roles, so that in Don Carlo, for example,  Eboli is her role of choice. rather than Elisabetta. She has also performed Carmen to great acclaim, and is one of the very few singers who can boast of having sung both Aïda and Amneris equally well.

I am sure you have all noted the word ‘traditional’ in the title of this article. I chose it purposefully, and in then next very short video, which is a recording of Casolla speaking, the concepts of traditional and modern Italian singing collide distressingly.

For some, this may seem a gratuitous observation; one which seems to favor what might be considered the cruder aspects of traditional Italian singing.  I assure you, that is not the case.  What it really represents is the frustration of the old order with certain aspects of the modern operatic scene. Casolla speaks of her own dream to sing Norma, a dream which remained only that: in her own words, it was not in her throat — not in her throat to perform with all of her roles, not in her throat to perform in the Arena di Verona, or in her native San Carlo, or in Scala. Thus, it is easy to understand why Bartoli’s recording and interpretation of Norma raises some questions for Casolla.  Essentially, it is the collision of two very different worlds. Casolla’s traditional art takes place principally in the theater. Bartoli’s art is different to the extent it takes place largely in the recording studio, notwithstanding her many excellent concert and staged performances. The demands of recording a role such as Norma are less than what is required to sing it live. This is a point that I think is being lost today, and it is essentially a result of modern technology.  It is not simply my observation—it is quite general, and has been made by no less a tenor than Giuseppe Giacomini, who has said he believes that live performance, in a theater, is de naturitate different than the art of recording; that it in fact has a certain relationship to the religious theater of Greco-Roman antiquity. With all these perfect studio recordings, it is easy to find fault with live singers like Casolla, but, in fact it is Casolla who has performed these demanding roles in large theaters for more than thirty years. Thus, when someone comes along and enacts your dream in what, from Casolla’s view, is a very diminished and artificial way, it would be natural to express your reservations.

I also feel that Casolla’s comment is directed essentially at some modern bel canto and baroque artists, who are frequently regarded and promoted as ‘superior’ or ‘better’ than artists who perform Verdi, Puccini or verismo works. This is a common frustration often felt both by spectators and singers of her generation.

All good operatic singing is worthy of acknowledgment, and thus I thank our dear Professor Edmund St Austell for allowing me to present this article on Casolla, whose singing masterfully continues the tradition — and temperament — of the great dramatic sopranos of the past. If that is not recognised as great singing, what can be?


Anonymous said...

Wonderful article! I just discovered this blog. Somebody told me I shoud check into it, and boy were they right! I've got to say that's one of the most education pieces on opera that I've seen on the web. I wish there had been some texts like that in some of the music classes I took in College!

Gerald Worthington

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Worthington, and welcome to Great Opera Singers! Glad you enjoyed Mr. Fiurezi-Maragioglio's article. It is indeed superb. And "educational" is not a dirty word here--that's one of the things for which I have striven since I started the blog over 3 years ago. Please come back and join us any time you wish. You are most welcome!

Anonymous said...

Aother winner, Professor Edmund! I really liked the part about comparing live performance with records. Mr. Fiurezi is right! I like Bartoli a lot, but still he's right that we are talking apples and oranges when we talk about records and singing a hard role in pulic.

Martha G.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you Martha. I appreciate your faithful readership and your comments, which are always remarkably to the point. Yes, even though it might be a controversial subject for some, Mr. Fiurezi takes great care, I think, to be fair and to take a broad and theoretical view of the situation. As always, thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Well done! Most interesting. I did not know this soprano, but she was very impressive!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Jeff. Nice to hear from you. Thanks for the comment!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad Mr. F.-M. describes that recorded conversation as carefully as he does, because without placing it in context, it certainly does sound like she's putting Bartoli down. But I see the point that's being made.


Edmund St. Austell said...

For FG. Yes, I think that's crucial. I admit it could sound that way if one just takes it at face value, but as part of a general problem about differing conceptions of live vs. recorded music, it does have a deeper meaning.

JD Hobbes said...

Very fine writing. It raises questions in my mind. How do you see the future of opera? Are we being led to a resurgence of bel canto singing by the influence of people like Bartoli (who is a fine singer and a serious scholar of 18th century manuscript research) or do you see verismo as firmly established well into the future?

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes. My faithful correspondent! GREAT question, which I will leave for Mr. Fiurezi-Maragioglio to answer. I'll be very interested myself to see what he says to that, because it's a very important question! Thanks again!

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

The future of opera! I hope that every opera which has an interested public will have a secure performance base. I also hope that a greater understanding of the genres of opera becomes more common. The inability of some people to connect operas of the verismo movement with musical developments of late Romanticism boggles the mind. Even the term verismo needs better definition, because while it is reasonably appropriate to call everything before Donizetti bel canto, it is not so to call everything after Verdi verismo. Some of Respighi's operas, for example. La Campana Sommersa and La bella dormente nel bosco, as two examples. While they use the musical developments of late Romanticism also common to verismo operas, their libretti certainly place them a long distance from verismo and closer to operas like Armida!

I would also like for their to be more knowledge of the impact that registrations have on opera, even in singers equally active in the studio and onstage. Hearing Pavarotti, for example, a voice loved by the microphone, in the theatre and in a recording is a very different experience. Many people are not aware of this.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, my fiend, for that remarkable bit of erudition! Most interesting observations!

Anonymous said...

Great article, thanks. Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio is absolutely right about this singer and about development of opera in general. In fact his words about “old” singing and modern one are new to me, but I agree with him. Studio singers can be brilliant like Bartoli, but big scenic voices are equally brilliant and their tasks are more demanding. Opera uses voice to the limit, and people tend to define some singers or some operatic schools and styles as “ the best and the most perfect”; it depends on the general trend. Meanwhile perfection can be found in various styles.

Casolla is brilliant, she managed her voice with great mastery and expressiveness. Clarity of her voice was very impressive in the first recording (Turandot) at age 61.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Natalie. Good comment, as always! Yes, you are right. Opera does indeed use voices to the limit, and there is no comparing a studio recording, where engineers push buttons and turn knobs, and so forth, with an actual stage performance, where the individual singer must contend with a large theater, a large audience, and a large orchestra! Two entirely different situations. And yes, she was amazing at 61. That voice rang like a bell! Thanks again, my friend.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Glad to learn something about Casolla--a previously unknown singer for me. Thank you.

Edmund St. Austell said...

You're most welcome! Mr. F-M is a veritable treasury of such information!

Mark Giugovaz said...

And Casolla's still singing today, heard in the Verona Arena in August as Turandot. Smashed In questa reggia out of the park, really great, powerful voice, Filled the whole thing and more. The thing with Bartoli is no matter how good she is (and it's hard to find a purer musician or more intelligent performer)if took her back in time and put her onstage with Stignani, del Monaco and Siepi sixty years ago, you wouldn't hear much! Hope to see more articles from Prof Fiurezi-Maragioglio! Mark

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you Mark. Great comment! You absolutely confim the main points of Mr. Fiurezi's comments. I think you are very likely to see more articles from my friend, to whom I have given carte blanche to write for Great Opera Singers whenever he wishes. He's extraordinary!

DanPloy said...

I have been lucky enough to hear (and see) some wonderful performances in opera.

Probably the most memorable was Jones and Bonisolli in Turandot. I suspect if I hadn't been at the actual performance and just listened to a CD I would not be so impressed. Was one of those top C's slightly flat, was the pronunciation a little wrong in the Ping, Pang Pong scene, did Bonisolli not add the extra high C at the end of the riddle scene. I don't remember now.

What I do remember was an event, an amalgam of chorus and orchestra and fanstaic singing, (and even the staging was good). I remember being there with my Mum, I remember the excitement of the evening that led to us to boring anyone unfortunate enough to come within our proximity with every detail of the performance for the next month or more. It is one of my most treasured memories of my mother.

I also heard Pavarotti in his concert performance of Otello at Carnegie Hall. I loved Pavarotti and I loved Otello. I still love Otello.

That performance made me reasses a lot of my CDs, especially the studio ones, but also some live recordings. I listened to some extracts of the CD of that Otello and it did not sound the same performance I was at (I think it was put together from all of his performances and was not one single performance). The extracts allowed me to see how much he had studied the role and I appreciated the lyricism of the love duet, for example. Hearing him live, or rather not hearing him live, those subtleties were lost. From the inaudible Esultate he had lost me. This man is a warrior but he sounded like Woody Allen. (To excuse him slightly the conductor was Solti, with te Kanawa as Desdemona it was a sort of perfect storm).

I listen to Jussi Bjorling sing Calaf on his studio recording and I wonder why he never sang it live. Thanks to Mr. Fiuezi-Maragioglio's article it now all falls into place.

Bjorling knew his voice and would never consider singing something he could not do jsutice to live. First and foremost for him was the stage performance. Recordings were a poor second, probably after the recitals and the radio performances. After all a performer relies on his audience. Most great performances are live as the performers raise their bar according to the audience reaction, (including reprises of Di Quella Pira).

I did not know that Bartoli had recorded Norma and I cannot imagine what persuaded her to do it. I have never heard her truly live (I have heard live performances on DVD and TV) but I cannot imagine a role that stretched Ponselle and Cigna was remotely possible for her. You may claim musicality and musical intelligence, but unless they replaced the orchestra with a string quartet she would not be audible.

Given her popularity it is possible such a CD will be popular. If it is it in some way demeans those that have recorded it but also sang it live, that honed their performance over perhaps years before committing it to record.

Now anyone can sing anything it appears. Auto tuners can modify the flat notes, clips can be edited together over multiple takes, who knows maybe it is Marni Nixon or Gorgio Tozzi singing their role and not them.

I sometimes consider who the last great opera singer was, Caballe, Bergonzi maybe. Certainly, I thought, it was no-one more recent than that. Mr. Fiuezi-Maragioglio has shown me there are/were more recent great singers, Giacomini, Casanova and without doubt, Casolla. But these great stage performers have been overshadowed by others, much less worthy of being called great, who owe their career to the skill of recording engineers.

At least I have my memories.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Wow! Great comment, Dan. I read it with real interest, because you took the time and trouble to point out the advantages of both approaches, and moderated your opinions very carefully. A pleasure to read! Thanks so much!

Hildegerd said...

It has not been developed one great singer the last 20 years and Marilyn Horne said in 89 (when they started to mice the stages on broadway) that soon noboby will need to learn to sing anymore.

And my sister was rejected at the opera of Norway with the message: You can not sing like the old fashioned stars as Birgit Nilsson in our time and day.

In the city that gave us all Flagstad...

Edmund St. Austell said...

I'm very sorry to hear that about your sister. That is a great shame, but I'm afraid that it is typical in this day and age. Things are changing, and not necessarily for the better!

Hildegerd said...

Exactly, so I am not a fan of Bartoli or de Niese or any of the small voiced stars of today. I want my singers to be able create fire on stage with the voice alone.

New York Times has a piece about the phenomen too:

Darren Seacliffe said...

And Nilsson is one of the great Wagnerian sopranos whom you can't go wrong with..She's lasted more than each of the great Wagnerites after her: Behrens, Dernesch, Eaglen and all. If you don't sing like her, how can you sing the great heavyweight operas? I can't believe that the opera at Norway can say such things.

Sometimes I wonder if the great Mozart and baroque revival is actually harming opera.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you,Darren. Good comment! You make interesting points and raise a very serious question! Thanks!

Hildegerd said...

Well, my little sister is a tall statuesque woman, not good looking in the traditional way, so we heard gossip there after that they choosed looks before talent.

She sings Cherubinis Medea in the local opera compania this fall. The production is a blast, I will load up the entire production on the tube when it is ready.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Hvis de velger sangere for sitt utseende, og ikke for deres talent, de er ikke en opera selskap.

Hildegerd said...

It is sick, but it is obvious that this is happening everywhere. I mean, are there any good voices left on the Met (the most prestigious opera stage in the US)?

Edmund St. Austell said...

The point could probably be made that there are such creatures around that are both beautiful and also talented. (Some would make that claim for Anna Netrebko) but without getting into specific instances, it is probably safe to say that in the era of movies, it is helpful, even for the most vocally talented, to have cinematic appeal also.

Verdiwagnerite said...

Thanks gentlemen for another great article - and the discussion that follows is always so interesting and wide ranging!

No matter how many recordings Bartoli makes of roles she would never sing on stage, you can't replace the thrill of being at a live performance listening to singers giving their all. I'm not against recordings - that's how I first heard opera after all. It's worth remembering that opera is meant to be a spectator sport!

Back to Casolla - a fantastic voice with a great range. I was at Verona in 1992 to see Don Carlos & Aida where Casolla was scheduled to sing Eboli but not, unfortunately, on the night I attended.
There's nothing quite like an opera performance in the open air on a warm August night with a full moon over head! You can't get that atmosphere from a studio recording.

Well done Professors!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Kate. You are very kind, and your comments are always interesting, relevant, and well-written! It is a pleasure to have you on board. If you have any favorite singers you don't see represented on Great Opera Singers, just let me know, and I'll do my best to see if I can get a reasonable essay up on them!

Verdiwagnerite said...

Thanks Edmund - I'll take you up on the offer - the Australian born soprano Marie Collier certainly had a voice to be classed as a "Great Opera Singer". She was a contemporary of Callas & Sutherland, who died tragically young just when her career was taking off.

There are some audios on Youtube of her singing - not enough unfortunately.

Keep up the good work.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Kate. I will absolutely look into it.