Thursday 16 November 2017

Most difficult opera aria ever? Possente Spirto from Monteverdi's Orfeo (1607)

This is pretty much the first surviving opera - certainly the earliest to retain a place in the performing and recording repertoire - however, at its centre is an 'impossible aria' for the lead character Orfeo.

What makes Possente Spirto impossible is that there are extremely long and sustained musical phrases, which ought to be sung without taking a breath - and therefore must be done at a reasonably quick tempo; also if performed too slowly the music loses cohesion, and becomes dull.

However, embedded within these long phrases are decorations - runs (short notes, going up and/or down the scale) and repeated notes (sometimes called Monteverdi 'trills', but not really so, because a trill is a rapid alternation of two notes). These decorations are extremely difficult to articulate at the necessary speed, to differentiate each individual note clearly from the notes on either side.

And especially the machine-gun-like rapid-fire repetition of single notes (i.e. that 'Monteverdi trill') is something which singers are nowadays simply never required to do  - and hardly any singers can get anywhere near to achieving it; but instead just slur over the repetitions; with a great reduction in the dramatic power.

Here the aria is done by Anthony Rolfe Johnson in a very highly-regarded performance (with probably the best modern conductor of this music) which you can follow on the score; however - if you do this - you can see quite clearly that ARJ is just-not singing all the notes of the rapid passages - nor is he separating the rapid repeated notes.

The nearest any singer gets to articulating all of the written notes was probably Nigel Rogers; who (I once heard him say in a radio interview) needed to study some kind of Eastern folk singing tradition (I can't recall which) in order to develop a technique that is alien to the operatic or choral tradition.

Rogers voice was neither loud, nor (to my ear) was it particularly sweet-toned - however, by attacking the rapid decorations (with an almost hair-raising effectiveness!), he achieves a dramatic quality (in the right way) which is overall more effective than his many later rivals.

Judge for yourself:

Anyway - this first great tenor aria is perhaps the only one that is also impossible; at any rate it seems very unlikely that there will ever (ever again?) be a tenor who has all the qualities of tone, power and agility necessary to sing Possente Spirto as well as it might potentially be sung.


William Wildblood said...

Nigel Rogers' performance has long been a favourite of mine because he puts such feeling into it as well as being technically superb. Some Baroque singers can sound a bit bland. I remember when I first heard the trills in this aria I was reminded of goats bleating but I still loved it!

Duo Seraphim from the Monteverdi Vespers is another superb piece with trills

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - As you perhaps know, some people call the Monteverdi trill the goat trill (in Italian); but that isn't a good name for it because it refers to defective execution (with aspiration between notes - which indeed Rogers sometimes does to a slight extent); and is open to confusion with a similar term for the type of 'vibrato' some singers display - which consists of a rapid variation in volume, rather than pitch (the countertenor Russell Oberlin is an example).

Duo Seraphim is sublime - and although it is also 'impossible' - the 'scrunches' (dissonances) between the two musical lines makes it easier to perform effectively.

Along similar 'scrunchy duet' lines to Duo Seraphim - but later and in the baroque style - is the opening of the Stabat Mater by Pergolesi. If you don't already know it, here 'tis in a glorious performance by Emma Kirkby (female treble) and James Bowman (countertenor):

William Wildblood said...

The goat trill may be one of the things I used to know about but have forgotten I knew until reminded. Unfortunately there are quite a few things like that!

I do know Pergolesi's Stabat Mater though the performance I have is by Gillian Fisher and Michael Chance

Hrothgar said...

Fascinating stuff, thanks.

I was quite unaware of all this despite this particular opera being among my personal favourites. (I tend to prefer earlier opera and seem unable to tolerate much post-1800 work for some reason I can't quite put my finger on, though it has at least something to do with the big mushy vibratos, vapid "plots" rather too reliant on the patching together of various contrived episodes of sexual jealousy and betrayal, and general suffocating air of swooning hothouse hysteria that seem favoured by much "Romantic" and later opera.)

For what my opinion is worth, I do do think, from the evidence provided, that Rogers' crisper and more controlled style gives to this aria a depth of emotion previously lacking, together with an elusive sense of something primal and exotic which draws me a little, just a little closer to the ancient, mythic origins of the story itself. Rolfe Johnson's performance seems by comparison pleasant, comfortable, mellow, indulgent of somewhat superficial emotions, and even rather contrived - more fit to give a certain kind of decorous delight to fine ladies whose natural habitat is fine drawing-rooms filled with fine china (off which only the finest of guests, if anyone, ought to be served) than to deepen the insight of a modern seeker after ancient mysteries.

Too-deep immersion in such a performance seems likely to soon drown the listener's senses in the fug of nearby smoke stealing in from the expensive cigars being enjoyed by some sound chaps in the next room, something that quite overpowers the faint, poignant odour of Delphic incense with which Monteverdi presumably meant to entice the listener into the faraway world he was trying to reveal.

Given my tastes I would likely be drawn to this conclusion in any case, though, especially as my listening includes various forms of serious "Eastern" art music to a far greater extent than most classical listeners, so this may be for the most part just my existing prejudices speaking. I suspect that the average contemporary opera lover would much prefer something more like Rolfe Johnson's version - and it is they, not I, on whose support the contemporary opera world relies...!

So far as pure difficulty goes, that aria with ridiculously high tenor notes from the final act of Bellini's I puritani (which hardly anyone actually sings as written, or presumably has ever been able to) must also be a formidable contender. I'm not sure whether singing it in the original version really adds much value, though.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Hrothgar - Thanks for your comment.

wrt Bellini - my understanding is that it was written when operatic tenor's in the Bel Canto tradition had what modern listeners would regards as a light, agile voice (capable of coloratura) that blended into falsetto at the top of the range. SO the high notes would be 'floated' out in a sweet, semi-'head voice', rather than sung with volume and a thrilling quality 'from the chest' as a modern tenor would be expected to tackle them (the kind of high note that leads to a standing ovation!).

SO Bellini would be sung by somebody like Luigi Alva - here singing a famous Rossini with a excellent separation of notes in the runs (although at the cost of some 'aspirates')

Of course, Alva's top notes do not same have the same thrilling quality as a more powerful ('spinto') tenor such as Pavarotti or the like. Pavarotti could, uniquely, sing Bellini's Fille de Regiment or Rossini's William Tell in live perfomance with all the many high notes 'from the chest' - as exhibited in his album King of the High Cs.

But musically-speaking, this was perhaps more a remarkable feat than being as the composer envisaged it, or as musically optimal. A very interesting album calle The Art of Bel Canto used a very light tenor with an extremely flexible voice (he can do a real, controlled trill!) called Richard Conrad to pair with Joan Sutherland and Maryln Horne, and it gives a flavour of how Bel Canto may have sounded (although voices of the quality of Sutherland and Horne must always have been exceedingly rare).