Category Archives: Background

Providing context, history, juicy details.

A Cinderella Comeback

This past weekend I had the thrill of singing La Fée with soprano Laura Mitchell as my Cendrillon. We both did our undergraduate degrees in San Diego, and it was such a pleasure to be reunited and to sing together.

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Reunited with soprano Laura Mitchell. NYC, 2014.

Having the opportunity to learn the rest of the role and revisit La Fée’s coloratura-filled aria and eyebrow-raising Act 3 scene was immensely rewarding and validating. After getting through the initial bumps in the note-learning and muscle-coordinating processes, I found that the less I stressed about the hard parts, the more easily and cleanly they came. A year and a half ago the vocal demands of La Fée had left me feeling a bit beat-up, but this year I came away from the performance feeling confident and quite happy. Continue reading

Lakmé magic

Lakmé. That name freaks me out because the Bell Song is pretty much impossible: it is super long at over 8 minutes of non-stop singing, the slight variations in patterns are a pain to learn, it’s very high, AND the first section is pretty much unaccompanied so your intonation needs to be spot-on in order to avoid an embarrassing moment when the orchestra finally comes back in. Not. Ready. For. This. Yet.

So it’s a good thing Bell Song is in Act 2 and we’re only doing Act 1 for opera scenes.

I’m really glad I’m getting to know Lakmé beyond the Bell Song and, of course, the Flower Duet.  Both are beautiful, but there’s so much more gorgeous music to Lakmé than just those 2 hits.   There isn’t a single page of Act 1 that isn’t intriguing, entertaining, thought-provoking, mysterious, and/or full of life.  Did you know Lakmé has a lovely aria aside from Bell Song?  Here’s a translation:

The flowers seem more beautiful.
The sky is more resplendent.
The woods have some new songs.
The breeze that blows is more caressing.
I do not know what perfume intoxicates me.
Everything quivers, and I begin to live.
Why?
Why in the great forest do I love to stray,
and there weep?
Why am I saddened by the song of a dove,
By a faded flower, a falling leaf?
And yet these tears have some charm for me,
I feel happy.
Why?
Why seek a meaning
in the murmuring of the water in the reeds?
Why do I feel these sensual feelings in this place,
Like a divine breath
that perfumes my senses and passes?
Sometimes my mouth smiles in spite of myself,
I feel happy.
Why?

There’s also a tumultuous duet with Gerald, the British love-interest, that I found fascinating.  It’s impossible not to get caught up in the momentum.  Gerald, so entranced by the magic of India and of Lakmé, sings beautiful flowing melodies throughout the scene, but Lakmé’s music really shows her struggle.  For most of the duet, she tries to push Gerald away with threats, warnings, and pleas – her phrases are often built on repeated, chromatic, rising pitches and with rising/falling figures that contribute more to a feeling of growing tension rather than forming a clear musical identity.  She does not get to sing a recognizable, catchy melody until she accepts Gerald’s words that Love is the god of youth and  springtime, the god that caresses lovers with kisses and makes the roses bloom everyday.  The duet culminates with both of them finally singing in unison the melody introduced by Gerald, Lakmé having given into his passion and enthusiasm.  It really is fantastic.  Lakmé finally convinces Gerald to leave when she hears her father returning, and Gerald’s closing “O, douce vision!” is so over-the-top hopeful and romantic that it makes me grin even though I know there isn’t much to smile about in the next 2 acts.

The entire Sydney Opera House performance with Joan Sutherland is available on youtube – go watch!

2 rehearsals in and 1 coaching in, and it’s starting to click into place.  Aside from about 2 sections of recit that I always seem to skip when looking through the score and maybe 2 entrances, I know what the notes are supposed to be.  My note-learning phase turned out a little shorter than I first expected when I saw how many pages Act 1 was (but part of that is because I get a nice break in the middle of the act when the British party takes over for some spirited singing).  Now I just have to figured out how to not die during my first 5 pages, which consists of repeated D5, F5, B5.

Robert, toi que j’aime

Isabelle sings this beautiful floating aria in Act 4, when Robert comes into her chambers to abduct her. By this point, Robert has lost just about all his worldly possessions and his honor, and is flirting with unholy magical powers.  Isabelle pleads with Robert to spare her, reminding him of the love she has for him.  A more complete synopsis is found on the Meyerbeer Fan Club website.

Some background.  Robert le Diable was Meyerbeer’s first overwhelmingly popular splash in the opera world.  The first performance took place in Paris, November of 1831, and the opera hit 100 performance by April of 1834 (Kaufman, 1984).  Not bad!  Meyerbeer was, for a period of time, as well-known as (and maybe even more popular than) his contemporary Rossini.  Robert le Diable is no longer performed as frequently, but it’s popped up a few times over the past 20 years.  I hope the popularity tide continues to turn.

Back in the day, Isabelle’s part was not considered the prime female role of the opera, but it has been my introduction to Meyerbeer’s work. I was originally drawn to the beautiful longing in the orchestra and the alternating stretch of the “chorus” and accelerando in the “verse.”  The range is C4-C6, with plenty of visits to my difficult friends E5-A5.

For your listening pleasure, and so you really know what I’m talking about: here is a recording by Beverly Sills, and here is June Anderson’s performance.  Thoughts on which rendition you like better?  I have adopted Sills’ high C6 in the final chorus before the cadenza.  It is Isabelle’s defiant, desperate cry, perfectly expressed by the M7 interval leap from D5 to C6 – it gives me the chills and thrills!

Robert, toi que j’aime et qui reçus ma fois, tu vois mon effroi!
Robert, you who I love and who received my time, you see my fear!
Grace, grace pour toi même, et grace pour moi!  Grace pour toi!
Mercy, mercy for yourself, and mercy for me!  Mercy for yourself!
 
Quoi? ton coeur, se dégage des sermens les plus doux?
What? your heart breaks the sweetest oaths?
Tu me rendis hommage, je suis à tes genoux, à tes genoux!
You showed me favor, I am at your knees, at your knees!
Grace, grace pour toi même, et grace pour moi!  Grace pour toi!
Mercy, mercy for yourself, and mercy for me!  Mercy for yourself!
 
O mon bien, mon bien suprême, toi que j’aime, tu vois mon effroi!
O my dear, my most dear, you who I love, you see my fear! 
Grace, grace pour toi même, et grace pour moi!
Mercy, mercy for yourself, and mercy for me!

 

The challenge.  This aria is not considered a standard offering at auditions and competitions, but I’m glad to have it on my rep list.  The music provides plenty of opportunity for a singer to demonstrate long line and breath control, but I think the biggest challenge is imbuing each phrase with character and expression.  The aria has three distinct sections of verse and chorus.  The text becomes quite repetitive, which means it is even more imperative that each line is sung with intention and meaning.  Otherwise, this seven-minute long aria becomes a draaaaaaag.

My interpretation (the plan so far).  The aria starts with a loving Isabelle sweetly telling Robert that she is afraid.  The rise and fall of the melody is soothing and gentle, as if she is weaving a calm spell over the crazed Robert.  She asks for mercy, but she is still in control of herself and the situation at-hand.  When Robert sings “No, no, no,” Isabelle’s calm cracks for the first time, and uncertainty creeps into her tone.

The ascending melody opening the second verse is an expression of Isabelle’s rising fear.  She appeals to Robert’s sense of honor, asking if his heart will break the promise he’s made.  She casts herself in a vulnerable, submissive role at Robert’s feet, in the hopes that Robert will not harm the woman he has such tender feelings for.  When Robert denies her a second time, Isabelle looses her confidence and her nerve.  Her soft cries float through the air, gliding and swooping until she ends the second chorus with a dying sob.

By the third verse, Isabelle knows she is running out of options and time.  She frantically reminds Robert that he is her most beloved.  The rocking melody from the first verse weaves into the ascending line from the second verse.  Her voice rises in a chromatic pattern as her hysteria builds.  She is desperate, begging for her life – the M7 leap in Sills’ version takes place – and pleading with Robert to spare her and to save himself.

Whew, what a ride.  I hope to do Isabelle justice.

Thoughtfully,

Joyce