Mercoledi Musicale

Many glowing tributes to my beloved Teresa Berganza over the past week have included clips from performances and albums and all of them spotlit the warmth and sheer beauty of her voice. However I found this simple unaccompanied medieval canticle to the Virgin Mary says everything to me about why I fell in love with her and her artistry.

The court of Alfonso X el Sabio (the Wise) was a centre of learning, science, and the arts in 13th century Castile. Alfonso encouraged Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars at his court and commissioned translations into Castilian of books in Arabic and Hebrew. He set the foundations for the development of Spanish sciences, literature, and philosophy. Amongst the codices on astronomy, Mediterranean history, and chronicles of Iberia, the Cantigas de Santa Maria (Canticles of Saint Mary) stands out as a singular achievement. This vast collection of 420 lyric poems in the Galician-Portuguese language is the largest collection of vernacular monophonic (solo) songs to survive from the Middle Ages.

Each song contains a reference to the Virgin Mary – many recount her miracles, some like Cantiga 10: Rosa das rosas (Rose of roses) sing her praises and others are prayers for her intercession. Cantiga 100: Santa Maria is a prayer asking for her guidance and protection. The album cover shown here is Narciso Yepes, the renowned guitarist, however Teresa Berganza recorded it a capella as part of a compilation album with him.

The word for May 18th is:
Canticle /ˈkan(t)ək(ə)l/: [noun]
A song, hymn, or chant, often with a biblical text, forming a regular part of Christian worship.
Middle English: from Latin canticulum ‘little song’, diminutive of canticum, from canere ‘sing’.

Another Great Has Left the Stage

Teresa Berganza
March 16, 1933 – May 13, 2022

Teresa Berganza in 2018 receiving a Lfetime Achievement Honour at the International Opera Awards.

I awoke this morning to the news that my beloved Teresa Berganza had passed away earlier today. She was a singer I fell in love with the first time I heard her on a recording of Handel’s Alcina in 1962. Though I had bought the three record set because it starred Joan Sutherland I came away for it with Berganza’s voice sounding in my ears. She appeared in recital at Massey Hall several months later and when I met her afterwards she was warm and very indulgent of a teenager with a crush.

I had the good fortune to see her as Ruggerio in Alcina at Aix-en-Provence in 1978 and once again her “Verdi prati” had an simple elegance and grace that has never been matched. One thing I remember from evening was the silence at the end of the aria that was followed by thunderous applause. It is captured well in this clip from that production.

The warrior Ruggerio (Berganza) leads his lady love who is disguised as a knight (Ann Murray) to safety through the enchanted forest of the evil Alcina.

I am pretty sure I owned all of her records – particularly the complete operas and the various recitals. She was known for her performances as Rossini’s Isabella, Rosina, and Cenerentola. Unfortunately I never saw her in a Rossini opera – I had tickets for Cenerentola in Paris but took ill when in London and came home early. But I was to see her at the Paris Opera as Cherubino, another of her signature roles, in an all-star Nozze di Figaro that included my equally loved Teresa Stratas.

Berganza often sang “trouser roles” and her Cherubino was seldom equalled. She had sprung onto the scene at Aix-en-Provence and was much loved (with reason) there. And no I wasn’t there in 1962!

I’ve told the tale on here of one of the great evenings I’ve spent in an opera house: May 1980 – Carmen with Berganza and Placido Domingo at the Opéra Comique in Paris. I didn’t have a ticket but took a chance.

Standing in line for five hours at the Opera Comique waiting for a cancellation for the Berganza-Domingo Carmen. Enduring the abuse of the lumpy spun-sugar blond vendeuse at the box office. “Vous–etes fou d’attender” she heckled repeatedly, then magically produced a front row 1st loge seat 2 minutes to curtain time. The abuse was worth it – one of my great evenings at the opera.

There will never be another Carmen like her. This was not the hip-swaying slattern so often seen but a flirtatious, sensual free spirit. She was sly, seductive, playful and ultimately tragic. She was Carmen!

I was in the audience that May night in 1980, I’m sure you can hear me screaming my brava in that ovation at the end.

After her retirement from the stage she became a much sought after and loved teacher. Her master classes – many were filmed – were a reflection of her warmth as a person and her art as a musician.

Dear Teresa – you have given me much joy since that first recording; I thank you. Rest in Peace.

The word for May 13th is:
Beloved /bəˈləvəd/: [1. adjective 2. noun]
1. Dearly loved
2. A much loved person
Late Middle English: past participle of obsolete belove ‘be pleasing’, later ‘love’.

Mercoledi Musicale

Sevilla has served as the setting for several of the more famous operas. Rossini’s Barbiere not only practices his tonsorial talents there but proudly proclaims his home town in song and title. Mozart’s Don spectacularly fails to seduce any of the maidens in his birthplace (or at least not in DaPonte’s version). Leonore, disguised as Fidelio, rescues her husband from the clutches of the evil Don Pizzaro after his long stay at a suburban prison. Verdi’s Leonora plans to run away from Sevilla with her Peruvian boyfriend get botched in Act 1 and then she doesn’t see him again until Act 4 then promptly dies.

And Bizet’s Carmen – well now that’s a story isn’t it? She works in the Real Fábrica de Tabacos rolling cigars when she isn’t rolling customs guards in the nearby Sierra Madres.   And I’m told tour guides in Sevilla are more than happy to show you were she worked and, though I’m not sure how true this is, the odd one can show you the spot, if not the blood stain, on the the Plaza de Toros where Don Jose stabbed her!

I’ve oft recorded that one of the great evenings I spent at the opera was back in May of 1980 at the Opéra Comique in Paris.  Teresa Berganza had agreed to sing Carmen the year before at Edinburgh provided that the “Spanish” cliches were avoided.  Conductor Claudio Abbado, producer Piero Faggioni and designer Ezio Frigerio built a production around her that was low-keyed, restrained and superbly successful.  Unfortunately by the time it reached Paris Abbado – in a dispute over which orchestra was to be used – had bowed out and was replaced by Pierre Dervaux,   But the main draw remained: Teresa Berganza as Carmen.

In 1984 in conversation with Bruce Duffie she had this to say about the role:

BD:  Is Carmen at all a nice lady?

TB:  Yes, she’s a delightful lady – enchanting.  The problem with audiences going to see Carmen is that they don’t understand who she is.  She has so often been presented as a bad prostitute, and she is not a good or a bad prostitute.  She is a gypsy woman.  Audiences don’t often understand that.  If she were a prostitute, she wouldn’t be working in a cigar factory.  She would have accepted Don José and then given him horns [deceived him] with 5 or 6 men at the same time.  If she were a prostitute, she would have a rich lover and be covered with jewels.  And, if she were a prostitute, she wouldn’t have stood up to José and let him kill her.  She would have fled.  But she is not that.  She is a free spirit, a special woman. . . a liberated woman.

BD:  Do these kinds of women still exist?
TB:  Of course.  It is important to understand the gypsy people, because they are free people.

BD:  Does Carmen plan a few steps ahead or does she just let things happen around her?
TB:  Carmen believes in destiny.  She believes in the cards, so as to preparation, she doesn’t believe that it would make any difference.  The destiny is there.  She has read it in the cards and she goes forward to meet this destiny at the end.  This is the story that Mérimée wrote in his nouvelle and this is the story that Halévey and Meilhac wrote in their libretto and what Bizet put into the music.

BD:  So she goes to meet it rather than fight it?
TB:  She does not fight.  She accepts.

© 1984 Bruce Duffie

And that’s exactly how she played and sang it – and when she suggests to poor Don José (Placido Domingo) what happens Près des remparts de Séville he doesn’t stand a chance.

You might just hear me – from my first row Circle seat – amongst the cheering audience that glorious night in May.  This video brings back some wonderful memories of an glorious evening.

Mr Duffie’s interview with one of, in my opinion, greats of the operatic world is available here

March 26 -1351: Combat of the Thirty : Thirty Breton Knights call out and defeat thirty English Knights.

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Mercoledi Musicale

When the great castrato Giovanni Carestinti first sang the role of Ruggerio in Alcina he was not pleased with the aria Handel had written for the Crusader hero in Act 2.  Charles Burney recorded the singer’s displeasure and the composer’s reaction:

Verdi prati, which was constantly encored during the whole run of Alcina, was, at first, sent back to Handel by Carestini, as unfit for him to sing; upon which he went, in a great rage, to his house, and in a way which few composers, except HANDEL, ever ventured to accost a first-singer, cries out: “You toc! don’t I know better as your seluf, vaat is pest for you to sing? If you vill not sing all de song vaat I give you, I will not pay you ein stiver.”

It is a deceptively simply aria, basic ABA, with very little opportunity for the florid ornamentation that Carestini was famous for.  But its very simplicity makes it a challenge for any singer.  I first heard it on a recording – I think possibly the first LP I ever owned – issued by London Records back in 1962.  Looking back now I realize it was a pioneering effort as very few of Handel’s operas were consider saleable quantities at that time.  No doubt London recorded and released it at the insistence of Joan Sutherland who was one of their brightest stars in what was one of the starriest list of  operatic voices on the planet.  London was not stingy when it came to casting the other roles – Monica Sinclair, Graziella Scuitti, Luigi Alva, a very young Mirella Freni supported the slightly droopy – not many consonants in sight – Australian diva and as Ruggerio the incredible Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza. I fell in love with Berganza from very first listening and my favourite track was “Verdi prati” – I’m sure I drove my mother up the wall playing it over and over again.

A rehearsal photo of Teresa Berganza as Ruggerio in the 1978 production of Alcina at the Aix-en-Provence Festival.  I found it while going through a box of old programmes that had been in storage.

Sutherland sang Alcina on stage in Venice, Dallas and London but to the best of my knowledge Berganza only appeared in it once – at the 1978 Aix-en-Provence Festival.  It was a banner year for Aix and I saw Janet Baker in Dido and Aeneas conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras; Don Pasquale with Gabriel Bacquier; and  Christane Eda-Pierre, Ann Murray, Valerie Masterson and my beloved Teresa in Alcina led by Raymond Leppard.  The weather that year was perfect, Aix was at its most festive, the food was incredible and the music…   as I said it was a banner year.  And if it had been sixteen years since Berganza recorded “Verdi prati” the passage of time had only enriched her performance.  Fortunately it was preserved on video for French Television and I am able to relive that magical experience.

Ruggerio, a crusader knight, has fallen under the spell of the enchantress Alcina, who turns former lovers into rocks, trees and wild beasts.  Brademante (Ann Murray in this clip), Ruggerio’s beloved, has disguised herself as a knight to gain access to Alcina’s magic island and attempts to save the knight.  He is given a magic ring which restores him to his senses and he sees the island as it really is—a desert, peopled with monsters. Appalled, he realizes he must leave,  and sings “Verdi prati” (“Green meadows”) where he admits that even though he knows the island and Alcina are mere illusion, their beauty will haunt him for the rest of his life.

While going through a box of programmes in an effort to get rid of “stuff” I discovered the rehearsal shot of Berganza neatly tucked into the book from that year’s Festival. It brought back memories of that summer and a magical evening of music under the stars in the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace.  The programme and the photo went back into the box – how could I rid myself of anything that brings back such happy memories?

24 agosto/August – San Bartolomeo

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Mercoledi Musicale

One of the great nights – and in the past 50 years there haven’t really been all that many – I’ve spent at the opera was May 14, 1980. I shared this memory in a posting back in February of 2007:

Standing in line for five hours at the Opera Comique waiting for a cancellation for the Berganza-Domingo Carmen. Enduring the abuse of the lumpy spun-sugar blond vendeuse at the box office. “Vous-etes fou d’attender” she heckled repeatedly, then magically produced a front row 1st loge seat 2 minutes to curtain time. The abuse was worth it – one of my great evenings at the opera.

The performance was being broadcast that night by Radio France and when I finally got my hands on a copy of the DVD memory had not deceived me or romanticized the event.

Teresa Berganza simply was Carmen – sly, seductive, playful and ultimately tragic. Not for her the hip wagging slattern that so often passes for Bizet’s gypsy. And she did it all while singing like an angel.

And though Domingo may have sung “La fleur que tu m´avais jetee” with more subtlety on other occasions that night it was the dramatic core of the opera. The tragedy that followed found its impetus in that aria.

It’s the standard by which I’ve – fairly or not – judged every other performance of Carmen since.

25 giugno – San Guiglielmo

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