Soprano Sunday: Throwback Soundbytes

[because literally every day will be made better with listening to this. – Patricia Petibon with Mozart’s “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio” (under Harding); clip with thanks to Pakito Palote.]

But, actually, this is a post that started here in the comments, thanks to “early career stage clips” posted by Agathe and thadieu, and then starting to ponder what the “essence” of a voice or an artist is that is already palpable at a very young age, and that is – thanks to the wonders of YT, mostly – fascinating to sample in comparison to later, more polished performances.

And yes, I know, it’s sopranos again (White Shirt Monday programmed for tomorrow, though. With a mezzo. Promise!). Because at the end of the day – mezzo or not, trousers or skirts – we simply talk about music and interpretations that move us. Lately, that includes quite a few sopranos (if you want to blame someone, blame the Paris “Mitridate”).

So, time travelers, buckle in and behold mid-twenties Patricia Petibon in 1994, with Handel’s “Messiah” under William Christie (thanks again for the find, Agathe – clip with thanks to RITAGORR):

Apart from the impressive technique – range and control of dynamics and also  coloring at that age! (I always remember the Bartoli quote of “At age 20, I had exactly one color”) – look at the sheer joy of employing color and dynamic range (much smoother today, but how could you not be impressed by that will to transmit something?), and, most of all, look at the absolute earnestness and conviction of her delivery.

I don’t find that to have changed at all in the past 20+ years, and it is perhaps a core element of her stance that has enabled her later artistic trajectory.

Talking about one soprano favorite and their expressiveness of course led us to other soprano favorites and how earlier soundbytes often give us a better grasp on what, in current recordings or performances, are technical decisions, and what is a given timbre, and I find it fascinating particularly for singers who work a a lot with conscious styling as opposed to just sailing into the horizon on a boat of pretty material.

On Eye Bags, we come from a wide array of professional backgrounds – people with musicological training and without, people who do or do not practice music in addition to listening it. And I find that to give surprising insights into what moves listeners beyond the usual range of semi-trained or wanna-be musicologists who sagely nod at things they recognize in their reviews in the print press or ‘expert forums’.

thadieu shared an early clip of Anna Caterina Antonacci, who evokes strong reactions across the board – from belcanto lovers, it’s usually how her singing is ‘flawed’, or even technically ‘wrong’. – But from what perspective?
Antonacci’s voice may not be the prime example of sheer tonal beauty. And her approach is surely not to sound as beautiful as possible (and, yes, some of her technical choices may be outside of what is considered ‘good’ belcanto), but then again, what is her aim? She is a very gifted storyteller. A bit like the Anna Magnani of Italian singing – proving that beauty is an approach or an action, not a material fact. And material beauty can, at times, stand in the way of transmitting a story. (and I don’t mean this in a verismo way, necessarily. I think you can sing early seicento that way, too – just listen to the way Antonacci does some of her finest dramatic work in Monteverdi)
thadieu, who does not speak Italian, says, “but I get it” when Antonacci sings, and isn’t that what it is all about? (it’s also interesting how most singers named on here, independent of tonal beauty – that e.g. Petibon, I would argue, has in spades – get singled out by us for their expressiveness and perhaps that is also because for the most part, we don’t judge as much by technical facts and belcanto conventions. And, yes, you can objectively – more or less – judge how well a singer fulfills a technical requirement, and you can be a perfectly good storyteller within these confines, but sheer technical prowess does not necessarily move your audience to tears, travels to your shows, and lengthy social media discussions. (recent personal example: I certainly didn’t write the possibly longest post in the history of Eye Bags on Papatanasiu’s Sifare because of the sheer beauty of her tone.)

For Antonacci in comparison, listen to the 2003 Cassandre of Berlioz’ “Les Troyens” in Paris (fine, not that current, but I couldn’t find the 2012 Covent Garden):

[clip with thanks to Danny Nachmani]

And now listen to this clip (thanks to ziropera for providing it) of Antonacci singing “Col sorriso d’innocenza” from Bellini’s “Il pirata”, at the Callas Competition all the way back in 1988.
Yes, some bits are wacky and there are technical aspects she does of course control much better later, but just listen to that same, fearless commitment to actually transmitting something above all else. Look at perhaps not the storytelling per se (of course she has grown in that regard, too), but look at the *drive* behind her storytelling. That’s already there.

Lastly – and because that is what happens these days if you let thadieu and me talk to each other about singing and singers for any length of time – we talked about Myrtò Papatanasiu, and one of her very early clips on YT (though if any of you owns that 2003 “Fidelio” bootleg: we are listening!).

Papatanasiu has been around for more than a dozen years (so not quite the mid-90s of Petibon, or the late 80s of Antonacci, but still, we’re kind of late to the party), and there is a 14-year span between this year’s Paris broadcast of her Sifare (I’m not embedding the clip here because a) I have a vasted interest in it remaining online since there will likely be no DVD of it, and b) because I know that on thadieu’s channel, you don’t need sunglasses against nasty comments) and this early Pergolesi “Stabat mater” below (taped in Larisa in 2002 with the local conservatory choir). You’ll have to tell your ears to be patient with the tempi, if you’re used to historically informed performance practice, and be a little lenient with the recording quality, but it’s another time-travel glimpse at the Artist as a Young Woman: Of course Papatansiu is more polished in commanding her range today, and she has much more color variety at her demand, especially in work with diction. But listen to that innate grasp of line she has here already, and I don’t mean that as ‘good instincts’ but as  ‘conscious choices’ as to where a phrase accent should go to make a listener sit up and take note: listen to how at this point already, she moves beyond a lyrical approach of just building a beautiful line.

[clip with thanks to the Larisa conservatory choir channel on YT. They have a full cast & crew listing, too.]

Perhaps what sets all these ‘younger’ clips apart is, more than any outstanding vocal material, the audible commitment to telling stories, from a vantage point that may still be a little blurry, but in all these cases, you have a clear claim to a distinct vantage point already.

If you want to objectify voices at a distance – sink into them in a culinary way without actually *listening* to them and letting them challenge you in your own humanity – I would say that these three are not for you. I guess you *could* listen to at least Petibon and Papatanasiu that way (and then probably scoff at the “imperfections” and the “over-acting” in the YT comments), but I think it would be a disservice to their approaches.

Perhaps in all beauty, it is still foremost stories that we connect to. And it is stories – those narrative eyes of the  beholder – that constitute beauty in return…?

17 thoughts on “Soprano Sunday: Throwback Soundbytes”

  1. i just switched off Idomeneo and clicked on the first link in the newest post… (because i couldn’t resist)… and now i think there’s no turning back… onto 2nd clip, she’s sooooo addictive to listen to!! I want to find this entire Händel Messiah!!

    (and we can also put out an advertisement we’re all ears (listening) for M.Papatanasiu’s (Clorinda? in) Monteverdi’s combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, i read somewhere she made her debut with that piece, and then some other debut with Fidelio..)

    Back up a little bit to the first link.. i was really trying to understand why, even from the first bar of music, I already feel helpless (disarmed), and as soon as she entered.. and since I’ve spent the last 2 days feeling rather “paralyzed” whenever she sings this, i decided to read up on the libretto 🙂 (that’s the way it works for me, the music stirs something, so it’s time to read up..) , and she’s making a confession. But I think it’s not merely a confession to God here that I interpret (in hearing): it’s the admission to oneself (you know how sometimes you can admit something but you haven’t really fully self admitted?) , and it is a very vulnerable position (to oneself). Her way with the color (i think that’s the right word): it’s not fully rounded (rehearsed), the music line is not beautiful and well thought out (rehearsed) but rather cut short, one really enters Clorinda’s internal mind as she’s admitting this to herself. As it is so vulnerable, the listener can identify immediately (or at least I can, as I say, without my Italian comprehension, I can get quite imaginative 😉 , as much as the singer/music/orchestra allows and perhaps beyond..).


  2. Admitting something to someone and by that finally admitting it to oneself: um, that’s my coming-out (and probably not just mine) in a nutshell — only of course it would never have sounded as lovely 😉

    “Despite” the beauty of the sound, my attention is also drawn to the diction. And now I will have to listen to it another few times to look out for that “cut short” you mention. She absolutely never leaves the line, but there is a tiny bit more breath (at least in color) on the first Vorrei, as if a whisper. At the moment my favorite: how she draws back that second “fato” into piano. Very effective.

    And Combattimento: that kind of brings your Monteverdi question full circle, doesn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. by “cut short”, i don’t mean in a truncating of the musical line or phrase, but sort of when you ask yourself a question where you’re not fully knowing the answer, you sometimes trail off.. so it gives an impression of an internal conversation / self confession.. which technically only Clorinda knows but somehow we’re eavesdropping and seeing how vulnerable she is..

      and yes, the other Clorinda, and my question regarding if MP would sing more Monteverdi in the future 🙂

      my day has been productive.. i went through these links 3x.. then a huuuge list of ACA’s Monteverdi.. and those first two acts in Les Troyens are great. She was even better in acting (!) in London in 2012.


      1. Like drawing the phrase inwards or not putting weight at the end? Yes, I agree.

        London 2012 was fantastic (also, you still can’t convince me Didon didn’t marry Anna in that one). I remember many screencaps!

        Monteverdi in general seems to be accommodating, I find, also of non-Early Music voices, as long as there is a balance of commitment to line and storytelling (Haim did Combattimento with Villazón, which was at my personal limits – too much emoting via sound instead of text handling – but an intriguing choice for sure).



        1. Like drawing the phrase inwards or not putting weight at the end?

          and generally, the weight of her voice, i can’t describe it, every time i turn this on i’m completely overtaken. Good thing, as Agathe said, the 2nd section gives back one’s (mine) ability to move.. else i might be stuck in it the same way i once got caught in S.Mingardo’s Kindertotenlieder take..


          1. Part of it, or me, is also how the aria is written since it has that floating arc feel — but she really stops the clocks there. I had it running again this morning in the office.


            1. yes, but i’ve heard it sung before, without feeling this effect (though i had to get to a meeting so had to stop that… now able to sample other music..)


            2. true, not *quite* the effect with others (my first version was Gruberova with Harnoncourt, which I still really like, but this one upends me more now)


  3. I had to think about the strong reactions you quoted that some singers (like Antonacci) evoke. Actually, I can understand both sides here. We spoke before about how much of our reaction to singers is ‘personal taste’ (wherever that comes from, probably a lot of it being formed by our background and history and certainly something we cannot consciously change). Now, if we put aside people who only judge because they want to make themselves important as ‘experts’, I think the strong reactions rather indicate that neither fans nor critics solely want to ‘consume something from a distance’, but rather feel strongly about the music and its interpretation. While of course leaving grouchy comments on YT is an unfair thing to do and I also like your policy, Anik, of not writing openly negative reviews, I can in part understand when people have strong feelings of certain interpretations not working for them. CD recordings are often technically flawless if recorded in a studio and this may have many listeners more intolerant against little imperfections in life performances. Still, this type of ‘intolerance’ against things that may be at odds with our personal and internalised vision of the music we love, is something that can’t be controlled consciously. Intellectually, I can absolutely agree to your argument of ‘beauty lying more in the storytelling then the perfect sound’ (I hope to have paraphrased this correctly) but my emotional reaction to singers will not be influenced at all from the conclusion I might intellectually reach (as with your Lungi post where I could absolutely follow your arguments on the comparison of MP and Te Kanava, still being quite struck by the beauty of Te Kanva’s interpretation).
    I’m only speaking in general terms here not specifically referring to the singers addressed in this post (but isn’t PP just marvelous in every respect?) Oh, and I was surprised by how much I liked Antonacci’s Monteverdi!


    1. I wanted to add to what you said re. recordings vs live: when i was seeing VK 5x in Munich for that Romeo, i was struck by the contrast in comments i hear between her fans: those who saw many live shows of this run vs those who only saw the broadcast (and some quoted often that they were re-listening to her recording of I capuleti as their reference in preparation for the broadcast; for me it was Dresden 1998 as reference for the longest time before i got past it to be able to ingest live versions): at least in my experience i realize how dangerous it is to having only 1 or 2 selective recordings and keeping going back to them as ref versus having a reference point of a/multi live performance(s). We forget the aspect that singers are not machine and that their organic body/voice changes with every performance and that NONE of them are anything similar to the polished recordings. Not only that, the voice changes with time and so do the interpretations. I guess for people like me who can’t even tell anything regarding the music sheet we only get stuck at the “phrasing” (she doesn’t do this like my fav singer does, she does that up/down not the way i’m used to hear in such and such recording…) and i have to consciously remind myself to keep the ears open for various interpretations.

      And yes, in the end, there’s also our preferences, as we discovered through the discussion of Lungi. I wanted to thank you again for participating (instead of just me doing the sampling/hearing), as it was truly eye-opening!

      And on Antonacci’s Monteverdi: what can i say, i’m addicted. I did not know she sang his work since the near beginning of her career (there’s a whole 3-hr Poppea with her from Bologna way back in 1993 on tube which I love).. and once i found out about that.. well, pretty much a diving-in-head-first case (and happily swimming in)!


      1. ‘Consciously reminding oneself to keep the ears open to various interpretations’, yes, I agree! As a perfect example, I’m very glad to have tried Antonacci’s Monteverdi interpretations because, I admit, I’m not an unreserved fan of hers, e.g. her vibrato is often a bit too much for me (maybe I’m too much of a belcanto purist) and I hadn’t expected to like Monteverdi with this rather full-bodied voice of hers. So, I’m quite impressed on how she adapts her voice to the style of the music, making it lighter and really excelling in expressiveness, fitting the music so well.
        I also had quite similar experiences to yours regarding having ‘the one’ reference recording, once you get to much invested in one particular recording, practically every other interpretation will fall short in comparison and how much would we miss if we’d stick to only one recording.


        1. ps- quick note on vibrato: i must admit i can *not* hear this .. Eyes had tried to explain to me once and gave me listening exercises and I didn’t have a clue what she was pointing to… But occasionally I can “hear” oscillation in the voice, and by that point, i find it to be quite a distracting thing, with the worst case being that the voice oscillates in and out of audible range such that I couldn’t even hear the music line. An example of what i mean by oscillation is with Netta Or in Mitridate in Salzburg , is that what you call “vibrato”?


          1. Can’t open the Netta Or right now as I am sitting in a keynote – now wouldn’t that liven up things… Will get back to you on that later tonight, or perhaps Agathe or someone else among the White Shirts will be quicker?



          2. ‘Oscillation’ yes, exactly, I think that is how you would term it scientifically, so I guess we mean the same thing. And I agree Or has quite pronounced vibrato.


    2. Emotional vs. intellectual reaction – very good point, Agathe. I think what annoys me is people – whether professionals or not – passing off their emotional reaction as intellectual and objective. Of course we can never detach completely from an emotional reaction, and I don’t think we should strive to do that, but I would welcome some more awareness of that fact.

      That there are things that don’t work for us personally: also, yes, of course. Actually, hadieu and I talked just this weekend about how pointless reviews are that are only gushing and 120% positive (well, I complained about it) because it also gives the impression of someone not having engaged with a performance, if it’s not differentiated or singling out some aspects. And sometimes it is more helpful to get an understanding of an interpretation when it talks about things that did not work for a person. For me, there are several layers to that: I try not to write overall negative reviews, least of all from a position of emotional entitlement, because I remember what that felt like for my colleagues on the production side, and I don’t write for some print publication that disappears quickly. But it is something else to say “this does not work for me” (like Hansen’s sound approach), or “I hear this technical flaw” (like bellowed Early Music coloratura) or “this was done sloppily and carelessly” (like the recent “Tito”). And I try to be aware that I usually hear a singer just one time in something, so if we both have an off night, it may just be that night and not an overall thing. Something that is tricky for me is e.g. Early Music performances through people who do not work with the – for me essential – understanding of diction and ornamentation. It’s still interpretations that can move people, even I myself can’t unhear my own training. Take e.g. Kozena’s Monteverdi: it’s much more line/color than diction (and I like her tone, and e.g. her Händel recordings, and usually also her idiomatic approach) and she simply does not work with embellishments that may not be in the score, but are supposed to be there. She wasn’t trained to do that, of course, even though I think if you go into that repertory, you think about things. None of this make her Rückert Lieder any less wonderful, though. Or take Karl Richter, whose passionate pathos worked for many, but I simply cannot stand it.



      1. Yes, probably very difficult to write a differentiated critique, trying to be objective and fair while being aware of one’s own emotional involvement. I also think, if we are very much impressed by some aspects of an evening, we tend to see the whole performance in that light and vice versa and individual reviews might get biased by that.

        ‘Can’t unhear my own training’, absolutely, but with regard to personal enjoyment of music I am starting to think that musical training can also be in one’s way in the sense of being less tolerant (in the sense of involuntary emotional reaction) against little imperfections (like singers sometimes being slightly out of tune as may happen in life performances) or less open to less historically informed approaches (like Kozena’s).
        Richter, I recently heard from my brother that he is kind of cult again with church musicians who have had to hear to many WO’s already and yearn for some variety.


        1. Richter back in vogue?! But yes, he *is* different for sure. And I remember my parents having his WO, and cherishing it. It may not be my taste, but can I call something “wrong” because it does not observe historical principles (which we can never fully regain anywhere)? I don’t think so. Just like I don’t think reviews can be objective (so much is about taste and emotion and personal histories) – my stance at the moment is to not try for that, but make clear my stance and try to be fair from that viewpoint.

          Before I listened to Antonacci’s Monteverdi I did not think I would enjoy it – much like you, I come from a belcanto perspective and sometimes too much pathos or vibrato will disconnect me from a performance – but I did (and do), a lot. It was another of those instances where my formations/prejudice would have kept me from a great performance. So I try to keep “an open ear”, as thadieu says, and sometimes fail…



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