Contralto Watch #1: Marijana Mijanovic
We’re expanding (the photo will, too, if you click it). — Where there is room for mezzos, there needs to be room for contraltos, as well. For anything that roughly falls into the “tall, dark, I-faint-at-her-chest-notes” category. And there’s no better start than Marijana Mijanovic, whom you seem to like just as much as I do: When I checked the search engine terms this morning, “Mijanovic” came up right behind “Malena Ernman” and “mezzo watch”.
Serbian contralto Marijana Mijanovic is the rare case of a voice with a spectacularly dark color, but not the voluptuousness of sound that is usually associated with low female voices – think Marilyn Horne or Ewa Podlès. The combination of dark color, but a very slender, pure tone has gotten Mijanovic more than one comparison with her male colleagues from the countertenor league. It has also gotten her pegged with the keyword “androgynous” to a point where it’s become tedious. In fact, I dare you to find a Mijanovic performance review that does NOT use the word “androgynous” at some point.
The struggle for adjective on the side of the critics shows how much confusion a voice can cause when it doesn’t fit into our expectations of gendered sound. A contralto with a dark color, according to the stereotype, has to be the kind of large, maternal sound which all Erdas are made of. The bodies, as well, that we associate with contralto sound tend to be the large and maternal kind, which puts the slender – both vocal and physical – baroque-school contraltos like Mijanovic or Sara Mingardo in an odd position.
They defy, both aurally and visually, the 19th-century-created ideal of a contralto as something elderly and maternal. Just as well, though, they defy the image of a slender contralto sound as something masculine – and idea that is very much en vogue with the abundance of countertenors and male contraltos audible today. Mijanovic doesn’t just defy gender stereotypes, she simply bypasses and encompasses the whole spectrum, embodying male baroque heroes with her timbre as well as wives (Penelope, “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria”), widows (Judith, “La Betulia liberata”) and daughters (Astarte, “Bajazet).
My interest in Marijana Mijanovic began in the living room of the friend who already introduced me to Joyce DiDonato. She mentioned that she had traveled to Bremen Musikfest for Minkowski’s rake on Handel’s “Cesare” (that was in 2003) – “You’ve got to see this! The contralto doing Cesare couldn’t possibly be more your type.”
Make that “tall, dark, killer voice”, with a sound and an appearance that have nothing of the saccharine mainstream sweetness. Mijanovic can sound so dark it borders on tart – like the kind of filigree wine you would never find on a supermarket shelf next to the pastose ones, but instead at a selective wine store. And you would never serve it without decanting it first.
Of course, that in mind, I was chagrined to see the publicity shots for Mijanovic’s first solo album, where it has clearly been tried to give her a mainstream appeal, glossy filters and glossy make-up included, instead of working with the appeal she has precisely because she does not fit the annaanderwin mainstream ideas of easy consumption and glossy surfaces. – Note to the PR folks: People who have ears sometimes have a brain in between those. And sometimes, just sometimes, that might be a marketing strategy, as well. I’m just saying.
The marketing doesn’t take away from the musical quality of the album, though. But if you buy it because you want 60+ minutes of Mijanovic uninterrupted, beware.
Of the seventeen tracks, Mijanovic sings only nine, all from the repertory Handel wrote for Senesino (since Andreas scholl already has an album out called “Arias for Senesino”, the legendary castrato doesn’t appear in name on the cover). The rest of the album is orchestral music from the featured operas. It’s lovely, for sure, but if you want Mijanovic, you do want Mijanovic, and no orchestra suites, even if wonderfully played. What Mijanovic sings, however, she does sing marvellously, including “Ah, stigie larve” from Händel’s “Orlando” and “Se in fiorito prato” from “Giulio Cesare”.
In the end, it took me until April 2007 to finally hear Mijanovic as Cesare (and yes, she was fantastic), in Vienna, but my first live experience turned out to be the Musikfest Bremen in 2006 where she starred as “Orlando furioso” (Vivaldi, not Händel) under Spinosi. It was the best I heard of Mijanovic so far and also one of the best opera nights I’ve heard in general. Mijanovic going mad as Orlando was of an intensity that literally had you hold your breath. You could hear it in every note, in the way she was not “playing mad and singing nicely on the side”, but putting the madness into the sound. It will remain one of my chief regrets that there is no recording of that night available.
Thankfully, there are other recordings available; so you might just as well go for broke and start with her “Cesare” under Minkowski. Or, another Handel, the “Floridante” under Curtis, that has the bonus of a fantastic Joyce DiDonato in addition. – Vivaldi is more up your alley? Go for “Bajazet”, which comes with a bonus DVD where each of the singers is featured with an aria. If you prefer getting a visual with your audio anyway, there are two interesting choices: One, Mijanovic’s international breakthrough performance, as Penelope in Monteverdi’s “Ritorno d’Ulisse in patria” in Aix-en-Provence in 2000 (next to Kresimir Špicer’s Ulisse, who, if I’m correctly informed, is still her partner) under William Christie. If you’re not that much into Baroque, there’s – option Two – always Mozart’s only big contralto role, the Judith in “La Betulia Liberata”, an early oratorio that is out on DVD as part of the “M22” complete edition of Mozart’s stage works. This DVD comes with a 10-minute “Making of”, to which I owe the chance to make the tanktop-and-jeans screencaps on this page.
It has been difficult to catch Mijanovic on stage this year; her last opera perfomance was with Handel’s “Orlando” in Zurich in February (you can watch a brief excerpt here, on the Swiss online Culture channel of “art tv”) and she’ll be appearing in Handel’s “Trionfo del tempo e del disinganno” in Madrid in November (am I the only one thinking “pregnancy”? Pure speculation, of course, but if you are looking look for a musical playdate for your child, well… I’d take Mijanovic Jr. over the annaanderwin offs(pr)ing any day of the week.)
But there shall be more Mijanovic on the stages again. Future projects, as stated by her management, include: “Christmas Oratorio on tour with the Basel Kammerorchester, Il trionfo del tempo at the Teatro Real, Madrid, Ottone in Agrippina by Händel with M. Minkowski in Zürich, Bach cantatas in in Paris, Stabat Mater by Pergolesi with Hugh Wolff in Francfort and Fulda, Israel in Egypt in Munich and with the Rias-Kammerchor in Berlin, concert in Warsaw with the Polish Baroque Orchestra.”
(Note to self: finally move to Zurich.)
Since it’s still a few months until Madrid (really, what is it with Madrid becoming an opera Mekka? Right now, they get DiDonato as Idamante, in autumn, they get Mijanovic as Disinganno… next thing you’ll tell me Kasarova sings there, too!), we will have to get by on our disc collections. And if you’d like to have a few more visuals, albeit of the glossy kind, Mijanovic’s management has a download gallery. And it’s awfully nice of them to make it available for free.
And, finally, there’s YouTube – I’m happy to inform you that Mijanovic moved from the single hit she had all of last year to a whooping thirty-three, so if you want to get a taste of her dark-and-filigree, gender-defying timbre, you could get started there. Perhaps with some Handel – this “Si fiera belva ha cinto” from “Rodelinda” is part of her debut album:
My favorite, however, is this “Sveni, uccidi” from Vivaldi’s “Bajazet” – the aria that is available as video on the bonus DVD.
1Photos: screencaps from the “making of” of the M22 “Betulia liberata”, scans of the booklet of “Affetti barocchi”. Youtube clips thanks to saitbey and armycasa