Cher Public

A pretty girl milking her cow

clari_amazonIf I had been handed Clari’s score without being told the name of the composer, I might have thought it was a lost Rossini opera, albeit a minor one.  I would have probably assigned it to the early period of Rossini’s career, because it shows more similarities with works like La pietra del paragone and L’inganno felice than his later masterpieces, particularly in the first act.

When Fromental Halévy’s Clari was premiered in 1828 in Paris, the renowned music critic Fétis called it a “Rossinade”, summing up with just one word the essence of this opera. Halévy had no choice.  Rossini was the most fêted living composer, and audiences in all Europe could not have enough of his operas and their imitations.  In addition, he wrote it in Italian for the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris, where the Swan of Pesaro was venerated as the Messiah himself.  And finally, he was specifically composing for one of the most acclaimed divas of the time, Maria Malibran, a Rossini specialist, as was also the tenor, Domenico Donzelli. 

Despite their presence, Clari was not an overwhelming success, and had only six performances.  After an extensively revised revival the following year, it vanished into thin air, to become no more than a mere title in Halévy’s long but uneven canon.

Clari is a semiseria opera, its plot strictly following the conventions of the genre.  There is a damsel in distress, in danger of losing her honor, and a couple of servants who provide comic relief.  The slight variant is that here the amoroso and the villain are represented by the same person, the tenor.  This is the plot in a few words: Clari (mezzo-soprano) is a poor girl who falls in love with a Duke (tenor) and leaves her family.  The Duke avoids commitment; he loves her but is hesitant about marrying below his status.  He keeps her in his place, passing her as her cousin.  Clari’s father (bass) goes almost insane and suicidal because of the shame she has brought upon him.

During Clari’s birthday party, the Duke’s servants, Luca, (bass) Germano (bass) and Bettina (soprano), the latter two forming the typical buffa couple necessary counterpart to the seria pair of lovers, stage a play within the play that eerily mirrors Clari’s story.  The poor girl goes insane and causes a scene.  The furiously embarrassed Duke tells her he will not marry her.  Clari returns home to face her father’s wrath, but the Duke, in prey to remorse, follows her and declares in front of her father that he will keep his word and wed the girl.  Happy end.

After almost two centuries of oblivion, the Zürich Opernhaus has exhumed Halevy’s score as a vehicle for their biggest star, Cecilia Bartoli.  The Roman mezzo-soprano (soprano?, who knows, who cares at this point…) happened upon this opera while researching material associated with Malibran during the preparation of her CD dedicated to the Spanish primadonna, and the Zürich Opernhaus was more than happy to provide her the means to fulfill her wish.

When dealing with the semiseria or sentimental genre, producers tend not to trust their material; they believe it cannot be taken seriously and that modern audiences will find it silly, implausible and dated.  Therefore they do not take it at its face value and believe they have to reshape it, re-fashion it, update or parody it.  Producers Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, with the collaboration of costume designer Agostino Cavalca and set designer Christian Fenouillat, set the action in modern times.

During the long introduction to Clari’s cavatina, Leiser and Caurier adopt the technique of the “photo-novel” by projecting slides portraying the events that precede the beginning of the action. Thus we learn that Clari is an Eastern European farm-girl eager to escape her harsh life by sending her photographs to one of those Internet sites providing wives to Western men.  The Duke clicks on her photo, fancies her and sends her a plane ticket.  The mailman delivers the envelope to Clari while she is milking a cow; Clari leaves her humble adobe amidst her father’s curses.  The Duke is waiting for her at the airport carrying a sign with her name and a bouquet of roses.  Then the real plot begins.

Clari’s birthday party occupies most of the first act, which concludes with her breaking down and losing her senses.  In pure “metaphor for dummies” style (remember: for everybody she is the Duke’s long lost cousin) there is a giant gorilla in the room, upon which the protagonist climbs in her “mad scene”.    Among so many ideas, the producers however do not find anything to do for soloists and chorus in the long concertato of the first act finale.  The second act, which according to the libretto should take place in Clari’s room, is here set in a hospital, most likely a psychiatric ward, where the chorus of nurses check Clari’s heartbeat while singing “oh, come il cor le balza”.

Then the girl, rejected by the Duke, injects herself with some kind of drug and sings the Willow Song from Rossini’s Otello (and the unintended result is to highlight the inferiority of Halévy’s music), first moving like a zombie and gradually giving in into a sort of frenzy.  After this drug-induced mad scene, she manages to escape, with the intent to go back home and beg for her father’s forgiveness.  In the third act the action takes places in and around Clari’s shanty.  The Duke arrives in a muddy luxury sedan and sings his big aria.

Inside the shack, the girl’s father, Alberto, is still devoured by the feeling of shame for his daughter’s behavior.  As mentioned before, happy end ensues, but not before Clari sings another interpolated aria, this time borrowed from the only other Italian opera Halévy set to an Italian libretto, the much later work La tempesta.  Obviously Bartoli could not end the performance with a simple concertato.

In my opinion, the production, albeit entertaining, it emphasizes the “semi” to the detriment of the “seria”.  In a few words, it puts excessive stress on the comic element of the story.  Everything is fodder for laughter, from the purposely garish sets to the outlandish costumes: the Duke, clothed in tight gold lame pants with suspenders and a long shiny coat of the same color, looks like a cross between Elvis and Liberace, or something one can see only in Las Vegas.  Even the most heartbreaking and sincere music of the opera, Alberto’s long lamentation in the third act, is an excuse to stage a small comic play.

The DVD director, Felix Breisach, seems to belong to another era, with very straightforward, simple, minimal camera movements, completely alien to the cinematographic effects of the latest Met HD broadcasts and their hoards of imitators.  If this is good or bad depends on one’s taste.

Adam Fischer shows great feel for this music.  Under his direction, the Orchestra La Scintilla, an ensemble playing on original instruments, is bubbly, scintillating, vaporous without being vapid.  The Hungarian conductor manages to make this music more substantial than it actually is, and this is no small feat.   He especially succeeds in the Overture, which contains a pleasant clarinet solo, makes an interesting use of tubas and trombones, and is probably the most intriguing part of the opera.  He also displays considerable talent in following and often taking a back seat to the singers; one can presume that if this were not the case, Ms. Bartoli would have vetoed him.

The cast of comprimari is not first-class.  Oliver Widmer (Germano) has a rough-edged bass uncomfortable in the patter-style of his long buffo aria, while Eva Liebau, whose second act couplets, the only music of true Gallic flavor in the opera, are eliminated (with so many interpolations, something had to go, and it wasn’t going to be any of the primadonna’s music) is a shrill, soubrettish Bettina.  Carlos Chausson is a powerful and moving in the short but essential and mostly declaimed role of the father.  Giuseppe Scorsin (Luca) and Stefania Kaluza (Simonetta, Clari’s mother) do not have much to sing.

John Osborne, an adept belcantista, is quite admirable in the challenging role of the amoroso/villain Duke.  His timbre is somewhat generic, not immediately recognizable as Florez’ or Brownlee’s, but he has very good technique and taste.  This part however, having been composed for baritenor Donzelli, lies too low for him.  Both the bipartite first act cavatina and the tripartite third act aria require a canto di forza that is not Osborne’s best feature.  Just like any other singer of the belcanto era would have done when dealing with a score not completely congenial to this or her own strengths, the tenor adds puntature towards the upper regions as often as he can, capping for example his second solo with a glowing D natural.

Clari is a typical Malibran role, with a very wide range, from a low G in the concertato of the act I finale, to a sustained high C in the dramatic act II duet with the tenor.  While it lingers mostly in the middle register, it does not shy from sailing in the territory between G and B flat for long stretches of time, particularly when the situations gets more heated as well as in the ensembles: after all Malibran wanted to make sure she could be heard over the other soloists and the chorus.  It basically calls for a mezzo-soprano with extreme facility in the high register, and thus a perfect fit for Cecilia Bartoli’s vocal characteristics.

Thought I have never warmed to Bartoli’s talent, over the years I have almost begrudgingly come to admire nad respect her for the original, unorthodox and noncomformist way she has managed to build one of the most striking and longer lasting careers of these past few decades.  It takes considerable determination and confidence in one’s own skills to manufacture such a career defying conventions and expectations.  It is certainly this type of meticulous career planning that has allowed her to maintain her instrument virtually intact twenty-six years after her debut.

I have never been fond of the combination of a vinegarish timbre and saccharine ligne du chant, that boasts a whole arsenal of tricks like sighs, whispers and miaowing, not to mention her trademark machine gun agility.  Her mannerisms include a tendency towards an artificial hyper-articulation, as if she feels she has to spell every single syllable.  I believe that this habit has something to do with her performing mostly for non Italian audiences and that she thinks, consciously or not, that such a precious overplayed fraseggio should play in some way the same function super-titles normally do.

To her credit, she sings an unusually unaffected, sincerely moving Willow Song.  Otherwise, it’s feast of gratuitous fireworks, where a cadenza (like the one in the interpolated act III rondo) can last almost two minutes.  As an exegete of belcanto, I cherish my coloratura like nobody else, but I do believe it should have a hint of dramatic purpose and be in syntony with the general atmosphere of the piece.

This performance finds Bartoli with her usual merits and failings.  Her fans will treasure it and her detractors will abhor it.  It will not be Clari to make either camp change their minds.

  • Pelleas et Melisande @ Most Addictive Opera

    La Cieca,

    You haven’t commented yet on Friday’s performance of ‘Pelleas et Melisande’ at the Metropolian Opera.

    Why is that?

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    It is always interesting to read the comments and writings that Ercole Farnese posts here, but this production of CLARI is old news for those who were able to see the telecast when the production was first aired in Europe.

    If you would like to see the score of the un-updated version of the opera you can download the music here by clicking the disclaimer

    I wonder how the team in Zurich dealt with the missing third act.

  • danpatter

    What a brilliant and interesting review, Ercole. Thanks so much for posting it. I’m still dithering about whether or not to buy the thing, but now I feel I can make a much more informed decision. I probably will, after Christmas.

  • m. croche

    For those curious to learn more, here’s the opening of a cute little review from 1823 of the play on which Clari was based:

    “Clari, or the Maid of Milan. A Serious opera from the French is a serious evil. The light gossamer pieces which are woven from that source, on sultry summer nights, look bright and glittering for their hour, and then pass away. But a long solemn heavy drama of three acts, as long as Jenkinson’s legs, constructed on a foundation of false sentiment, is too much. We can cry our eyes out with any gentlemen living, for three quarters of an hour, at a murder miraculously discovered by a brace of ravens flying over the ruffian’s head on the night of Easter Monday, when he has his best clothes on; and can damp as many white pocket handkerchiefs as our betters, at the girl and the spoon, where she is involved in trouble by the natural means of a magpie, who puts the Spoon in the spout of the church, until a person in the nick of the moment takes it out of the spout, or, to speak less slangly, redeems it. These temporary troubles please us well enough, and we love the gentle dishonesty. But when the extravagance and pestilent pathos of the French come to be forced upon us for three hours, we beg leave to dry our eyes, pocket our cambric buckets—button up our pockets, and protest as stoutly as we can, against our tears and our money being so plentifully drawn upon.”

    The continuation is here:

  • Fischer’s conducting is so good here!

  • I used to love Cecilia, but she’s going a wrong path. She is not using her voice cleverly and her bizarre musicality and acting is not so coniencing.

    She is very fun as a cult diva, but in that case i prefer the german Bartoli- Simone Kermes.
    She is crazy, but unlike Bartoli it has a style. I don’t regard this as great singing, but it is fun and unique.

    Her preformance from the LAVA CD to a Pergolesi aria:

    and a very cute Surabaya Johnny on baroque instruments:

    As to Halevy’s music: On home listening I found it a little disappointing, but live on stage the opera La Juive was interesting, pretty and flowing even if not masterfull.

    • Quanto Painy Fakor


      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        • ‘CORRECTION’??

          Did you read my message? It said ‘I don’t regard this as a great singing’.
          Anyway, I like Lenya but if you’re looking for an excellent recording of the original Weill scores you should check out Von Otter’s album with Gardiner.

          • Quanto Painy Fakor

            The correction was not of Haydn but of that woman. For younger Parterriani, that is Aaron Copland introducing the second of the Lenya videos.

  • I enjoyed this review very much, Ercole. Do you or someone else mind explaining what “ligne du chant” means? Thank you. I am not going to buy it but I wouldn’t mind hearing a recording of this opera.

  • I absolutely have to assume that Bartoli did this ONLY for the money. It is simply too silly. And, if the director wanted a little more realism, why is the hospital gown not open in the back???

    • I don’t agree with you here. I don’t think Bartoli did it for the money. I am sure she was handsomely compensated, but this was her own project. It’s not like Zurich decided to stage Clari and offered it to Bartoli. It was she who unearthed the score, found something she liked in it and proposed it to Zurich, which is basically the only company for which she still sings staged opera. She could have picked ANY obscure opera, and Zurich would have staged it. What surprised me is her willingness to go along the producers’ crazy ideas, when she could have not only refused to do some of the weirdest things, but she could have singlehandedly fired them. I am pretty sure she is the one who asked for them to begin with.
      For Louannd: ligne du chant, or linea di canto in Italian, is difficult to translate into English. The best translation is perhaps “vocal line”. If you understand Italian, “modo di porgere” is something similar. It’s how singers shape their vocal lines.

      • Modo di Porgere?

        • I am dumb: it took me one minute and a half to grasp the connection between the video and il modo di porgere…

          • Il modo di bess is easier to understand.

        • OMG, massive *facepalm*!

          Why did they transform it into an aria? Is the actor playing Porgy actually “black” or is he merely southern Italian (and what’s the difference, oops I said it). This is *intense*.

        • But you know, props to Moffo for not singing in the Gershwin dialect. Sure she says “loves you” but on Lawd I’m on my way I notice a decided lack of “lawds” and “you’ll be dere” still…unreal to my post PC eyes.

          • rysanekfreak

            Many years ago, a British conductor came to San Antonio to lead the Symphony and their Mastersingers in a concert of excerpts from Porgy and Bess. At the first rehearsal, he told everyone that they must enunciate final “g”s. “Plenty of nothinGGG.” Then, he tried to tell a soloist that he needed to sing “I HAVE plenty of nothing” instead of “I GOT plennny of nuthin’.” Individuals and the chorus started objecting that they needed to sing in an American regional dialect. The conductor wanted crisp British articulation.

            An impasse was reached. Symphony bosses had to intercede. The American regionalism won. The conductor (can’t remember the name) was very unhappy. The chorus members hated him. It was not one of San Antonio Symphony’s better nights, but old-timers still talk about the contentious rehearsals.

        • OK sorry last thought on this is that these exports of Porgy and Bess actually make a stronger case against the work than performances in this country. For how many Italians was this work the only knowledge they had of black Americans. I mean the PM called Barack Obama “tanned.”

          • m. croche

            When the PM in question is Silvio Berlusconi, then any outrageous remark made is due not to the fact that he’s an Italian, but because he’s an asshole.

        • MontyNostry

          Povero Porgy. Not only is he (to coin the opera’s politically incorrect phrase) a cripple, he is now dumb too. Overall, the Gershwin estate should sue for blatant misrepresentation of one of their most precious assets. But I do love me some jazzy, floaty Anna, scoops an’ all.

          • richard

            Yeah, it’s sort of wrong but I like Moffo’s singing here too. All the scoopy stuff gives it a very sultry quality.
            She sings this way on her Rondine recording for RCA and her Magda has a sensuality that the other recorded Magdas don’t quite have.

            Problem is that the mannerisms took over and later they so clogged up her singing that it sounded like she was singing underwater. The recordings from the mid 70s show this.

      • or -- ‘phrasing’ ?

        • I thought about it, but in my mind phrasing concerns more the delivery of the words, the text, the importance you give to each word in relation to the others, while linea di canto has more to do with the way you maintain the vocal arch, i.e choppy, legato, even, using ritardandos, accelerandos etc.

          • one more thing: in singers like Bartoli or Fleming I would describe their linea di canto as usually fussy.

          • I’m very used to instrumental musicians using exactly the ‘phrasing’ term to denote the lie of the musical phrase, which I should think is fairly equivalent to the vocal line. I’d say, maybe, the topography of the line? ? :)

          • Exactly, EF. I’d say, for example (you may contradict me), that Gheorghiu has a built-in instinct for Puccini’s unique linea di canto.

          • Interesting, Ercole. Aside from the fact that I had not hear the term “linea di canto” before today, I’ve always thought of phrasing from a musical perspective (like C/F).

          • Please, if you will, Ercole, this is very interesting.

            In italian there also exists the equivalent of phrasing -- fraseggio. Checking on the internet, I got the following :

            Modo di articolare in maniera espressiva l’esecuzione di un brano.

            So, in Italian, is the term linea di canto reserved exclusively for a sung line? Because, based upon reading and extensive experience with English speaking musicians, mainly Brits, the term ‘phrasing’ is used both for singing and playing. You might say that articulation can either be used to denote a general rule followed in musical execution, or conversely, the means with which the musical phrasing is achieved. Articulation is also used in terms of spoken text.

            Or conversely, in Italian, is there a deeper semantic difference between fraseggio and linea di canto?

          • CF, no, I don’t think that the term linea di canto concerns only the human voice. Figurately, it can be applied to any instrument. After all, one often hears instrumentalists (especially winds and strings, but also pianists) say that one of their main goals is “far cantare il loro strumento”.
            Regarding the difference between fraseggio and linea di canto, while I agree that there is a lot of overlapping, I have always considered fraseggio, as I said in an earlier post, as the way to expressively articulate the execution of the music, with an emphasis on the words (this, of course, when we talk about singers). One could say that Ms X has a dull fraseggio, while her linea di canto is impeccable: with that I would mean that Ms X’s delivery of the vocal arch (or arcata vocale, (breath in the right place, good placement of the voice, sustaining the sound in the same place) is good, while she is unable to fully convey the meaning of what she is singing. Or vice versa.
            I recommend reading Rodolfo Celletti’s “History of belcanto”, translated also in English (Oxford Press). He was in my opinion the leading expert in vocal matters in Italy. He also wrote a monumental history of recorded opera (Il teatro d’opera in disco), where he analyzes every studio recording up to the late 1980s, but I don’t think it has ever been translated. If you know some Italian, it’s invaluable reading and it’s been my “bible” for decades. There is another ery good to recorded opera in Italian, by Elvio Giudici, who however is more prone to Pindaric flights and seems to enjoy his own prose a bit too much.

          • Thank you so much for your effort!

            So, if I got it right, the term linea di canto is mainly concerned with the physical aspect of singing, mainly the breathing and placement, the ability of maintaining maximum vocal flexibility in order to do justice to the music, whereas fraseggio concerns itself with aspects of interpretation, achieving a balance between text, meaning and line and having the requisite stylistic awareness? Or am I totally in the wrong again?

            Thank you once more, for your reading suggestions. I once helped a friend with deciphering an article by Lorenzo Bianconi, so maybe I could venture to read further in Italian, chissa. In my experience, the best way to better one’s acquaintance with a language is by tackling reading material in a field of knowledge in which one has some kind of specialisation.

          • Batty Masetto

            Isn’t this what they used to just call “line” in singing? Or is that yet another can of worms?

          • LOL I have a feeling you’re right Batty

      • Thank you all. A great day on Parterre.

        • I am in complete agreement with you, CF, about Gheorghiu’s built-in instinct for Puccini’s linea di canto. Of course, in my opinion, nobody beats Scotto in this department.

          • MontyNostry

            And you could hear Scotto over a live orchestra, which always helps.

          • With that I totally agree. BTW I heard La G. live, no problem over a large symphony orchestra. The voice ain’t large but very well defined and well positioned in the mask. So the text, the bottom, middle, top, the velvety (and beautiful, IMO) timbre, everything clearly audible and crystal clear, even at mezza voce.

            No arguing about Scotto’s higher pedigree. A most unique singer, even if sometimes a bit calculated in the studio (Tosca).

        • Isn’t it great? I’ve learned so many fun Italian terms on this site (“You call that morbidezza?”). The distinction between fraseggio and linea di canto is very interesting.

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    What you say about the production and its emphasis on the ‘semi’ of semi-seria is something I recognise from the Pelly Fille Du Regiment -- any trace of genuine pathos in the piece gets trampled underfoot with all the mad-cap silliness going on.

    I must say I think of phrasing as a purely musical term too -- what a singer does with text can of course become involved with phrasing, but it is just that handling of a musical arch and appropriate rubati that you think of as the more rarified term ‘ligne du chant’.

  • Angelo Saccosta

    Bravo, Ercole. Excellent, informative and perceptive review. It’s always a pleasure to read your words.

  • Angelo Saccosta

    And I like the use of the word “exegete.” Nice going !