That's the Leonora of Verdi's La Forza del destino, as sung at English National Opera by a phenomenal new American soprano on the block. I've already written a little about Tamara Wilson, London debutante of the year, but not about the visit she so freely agreed to make to my Opera in Depth course at the Frontline Club. One of my students, Robin Weiss, took both the class pictures.
Well, maybe I was daft not to ask if I could record it, because there was so much in those two hours that neither I nor the students had heard about before. As when I steered the 'Brunch with Brünnhildes' Sue Bullock and Catherine Foster, we heard all about the practicalities of singing, the slog of staying on form and making sure you're not sick for the performances, in which case you don't get a penny for all that preparation, what it's like for a woman in opera if the monthly occurrence messes up or changes the voice, and how it can; plus plenty about the technique, the perfect placement and keeping the voice even-toned and well connected throughout the range in spite of the two passaggios in the female voice where the breaks can occur; who was so good at it, like Sutherland, the queen of technicians, who rarely moved the position of her head in performance and how far you can compromise that when a director asks so much of you.
It was also fascinating to learn of the way Tamara approaches text - most singers only 'do' a literal translation from the original, but she adds one in which what's really being meaningfully expressed can be scribbled on with all kinds of profanities, if helpful (viz Donna Anna's underlying fury in her reaction to her would-be rapist). And she cried, or at least shed tears, all the way through the Verdi - how on earth could she manage that without it affecting the voice? One way is to focus on revisiting a childhood scene (if, presumably, happy) - that brings tears of the right sort. Though she found it difficult recently when her grandfather died.
Which, of course, Calixto Bieito did, and Tamara (pictured above as Leonora by Clive Barda for ENO) seemed genuinely happy about what he'd put her through. The artists all arrived at the first rehearsal expecting to sing things through, but in they went to the production straight away, going through each scene over a number of days. Some adjustments would have to be made - Gwyn Hughes Jones, for instance, wasn't happy about his placement on a ramp at one point - but the results seem to have been harmonious. And having lived in terror of Bieito's reputation, our soprano found that he was a 'real pussycat' face to face.
How different all this, then, from when she stepped in for an indisposed Latonia Moore as Aida at the Met. Just one walk around the stage for entrances and exits and positions - nothing too complicated - and then the performances. Great Violeta Urmana, the Amneris, was a help, but you can't always depend upon it. The kindness of colleagues usually saves the day, though. Tamara's best pal in the business is Christine Goerke, only now making a breakthrough with roles like Brünnhilde, Elektra and the Dyer's Wife, and partly through Goerke she knows she won't even be thinking about those pinnacles for another 10 years at least. We can wait. I was surprised to learn she made her own first breakthrough with roles like Konstanze in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and Norma is now a comfortable sing.
Which is why I suppose the bit of coloratura in the Empress's Awakening Scene of Die Frau ohne Schatten comes easily to her. Having reviewed the live Frankfurt CD set for BBC Music Magazine - the review is in the January issue along with a whopping piece on Stravinsky - I asked in advance if she'd mind if we played the whole 'Judgment of Solomon' scene in the class; as with everything else, she was easy and gracious about it and pointed out details in the sequence that helped us understand what she was doing technically. It was only a couple of weeks before the ENO opening that I heard this phenomenal and dramatically expressive voice for the first time, and wondered why we hadn't come across her before. Now we have, and there are talks afoot for more at ENO, though I wouldn't be surprised if the Royal Opera leaps in with role offers that are usually so hard to fill well.
Our five weeks on Forza inevitably filled up with a range of great recordings and performances. Dusolina Giannini and Callas give the best and most expressive interpretations of Leonora's arias, with a special spotlight for another American soprano, this time one who didn't last too well, Susan Dunn, singing 'Pace, pace, mio dio' with a youthful gleam and such ardour on her one and only arias disc. When we came to the big duets and arias for Alvaro and Carlo, we were spoilt for choice: Carreras and Bruson on CD, De Luca and Martinelli for the last duet, Carreras and Cappuccilli on a 1978 DVD from La Scala which only showed, too, what happens when you do nothing with the tricky non-conflicting Leonore-Padre Guardiano duet, even given two of the greatest singers ever (Caballé and Ghiaurov). The scene-stealers, though, were Domingo and Milnes in a Met concert with James Levine so perfectly attuned to them. Here they are, albeit in much poorer picture quality than on my Met DVD, singing 'Solenne in quest'ora'.
That's star quality for you. It still seems that the cornucopia of Forza remains most easily realisable in concert. I still wait for a staging that convinces throughout. Anyway, we've put it uneasily to bed now. On next term to Boris Godunov in six weeks with Enescu's Oedipe and Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest in the remaining four. If you'd like to come along, do contact me at email@example.com.
Stop press: reports of bad things ahead for ENO have been confirmed; more anon. Disaster lurks if the inexperienced management doesn't listen to reason. And all this started with such a piece of stupidity from the Arts Council that it makes my blood boil just to think about it. Can it be possible that one of the very best of years for the company, artistically - one fine MD setting the seal on his achievements, another weighing in with electrifying performances - could be followed by the worst, potentially from next September on?