White Shirt Monday: Tails As Old As Time

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[That very alluring moment where your ears realize that this Maddalena is calling all the shots (and your eyes admit that Kasarova in tailcoats, no matter the part or their gender, is a look for the ages). The Duke could clearly take a few lessons in vocal seduction here. – Vesselina Kasarova (Maddalena) in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” as staged by Claus Guth, Paris (Bastille) 2016.]

With Kasarova, I don’t care that much what she is singing, I care that she is singing it. Because when she is singing something, I always go in knowing that it will be a performance fueled by earnestness, deep thought, and unerring stage instincts. Kasarova interpretations never feel like “a little something I did on the side”.

Consistent with that dedication, she consistently retires parts before she would have to fudge things and rely more on experience than on her vocal abilities. (and her absence from those parts is sorely felt – no matter how many great new (or not so new) mezzos there are, the knowledge that  her Sesto, her Orphée, will not happen any longer will always be framed by loss for me).

This spring’s Maddalena in Paris was a reminder how much I miss many of her performances, but how much I appreciate the ones she still does. Of course Kasarova does not employ a big Verdian approach of colonialist voluptuousness – she is too intelligent for that and so, one hopes, is Guth (it’s not befitting her voice, either) –  but with parodying that very staging history of Maddalena, both scenically and vocally, even as she performs it with deliberate sensuousness.

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[Michael Fabiano (Duke of Mantua) and Vesselina Kasarova (Maddalena) in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” as staged by Claus Guth, Paris (Bastille) 2016.]

The most interesting aspect about her interpretation in this scene is, to me, how she manages to vocally turn the entire seduction game around in making it very clear that it is she who has the assertive grasp on power: simply put, she outbutches Fabiano’s Duke by at least the collective length of her boots.
Kasarova does not give Maddalena smoky looks from beneath long lashes that stare up at someone – neither in motion, nor – which I find even more itneresting – in sound, but rather looks down at the approaching Count with amusement and then calls the shots.

One part of this effect is her characteristic use of dark color and guttural shading  (Fabian is, in comparison, much ligher in tone), but also the way she lets single notes fluctuate on that dynamically. She is continuously unafraid of giving her notes that bit of a guttural push in the very beginning before the voice evens out as the sound progresses, lifts and settles.

None of this for the purists, but it is always engaging. Though I believe the actual reason for the discomfort Kasarova elicits from some listeners is not her use of chest register and according coloring – though that is generally named as the reason – but the attitude that lies behind that: a singer who audibly unmasks notions of power – something traditionally associated with masculinity – and also establishes that kind of power for herself, within her performance.

Some people simply are uncomfortable with a woman wielding power, particularly in a situation of listening where one cannot escape the assertion.

The other part that makes her dominate the scene for this number is the conscious use of her abilities. She never sings a part straight down. Rather, it sounds like “of course I could sing this straight down, but why would I?” As in: “Why would I just sing something when in singing, I can additionally transport a stance on what I am singing?” (Even in her body language: look at the small, merely briefly cited gestures of seduction. It is the choreography, but it is also how she handles the choreography: always with a level of irony)

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[Vesselina Kasarova (Maddalena) in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” as staged by Claus Guth, Paris (Bastille) 2016.]

I once called Kasarova’s approach an engaging with the space between the performer and the performed, and I still find that to be one of the most characteristic and fascinating things about her singing, especially since she does not situate herself at an aloof point of absolute control: she does take risks in her singing and she delivers impassioned portrayals, yet she always also portrays a stance on it.

[Clip with thanks to LyriqueMGK]

29 thoughts on “White Shirt Monday: Tails As Old As Time”

  1. I had a theory (after we (I, Dehggi, and Stray) saw this clip and Dehggi made the comment that VK ‘s interpreting this role like a trouser role…) Maddalena was plotting to rescue Gilda..
    Thanks for covering, i’ll listen to this again today, as i was very unfamiliar with the role and only sat through it once without much thinking and have been meaning to go back.

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    1. The get-up helps, but I think VK would also overcome the typical Maddalena (think Carmen) in sound only. But dehggi’s observation is really highlighting that whole power/masculinity aspect – Now it makes me think of her Dalila post because that’s another spot where sensuality/power/seduction/assertiveness kind of collapse into each other.

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      1. yes, i got around to her Dalila post last night too, hence hunting for VK’s documentary of “dramatic arias” where she sang it in rehearsal… as well as recalling her latest portrayal of that role, with review posted on Smorgie’s site (“VK goes full Netrebko” convincingly!, as well as Yvette’s, whose review linked on Smorgie’s).

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        1. oh, that was the train of thought! I really need more hours in my day to be able to do more blog-reading. I keep missing out on so much.

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          1. well, anything that leads to VK searches on YT… (hey, at least it’s not our current *other* occupation, or poor dehggi will get a headache from the eyerolling😉 )

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  2. Ah, here’s Peretyatko’s Gilda to be found, I didn’t get it yesterday. I love VK’s ironic interaction with the duke but also, when the scene proceeds, how the difference between her voice (and interpretation!) and the ‘innocent drama’ of Peretyatko’s voice highlights the tension of the scene.
    Not liking Gilda? to be honest, my 10 years younger self which last saw Rigoletto life didn’t question this character that much, I just wanted her not to be stabbed and this is my primary reaction now, but yes, thinking about it more closely, I think I get your point. Seeing what PP does to the perception of the character would indeed be interesting (is there much room for interpretation? but ant colonies will likely create that room) but I think there’s only a short clip on YT.

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    1. …they would create that room, I am sure (she managed with *Manon*!).
      Just like you, I never really questioned Gilda’s story when I was younger and when I say that I don’t like the character, it is also about that backdrop: how heterosexist is society when you first hear “Rigoletto” and your thoughts are “I don’t want her to get stabbed”, or in my case “oh, this is so romantic on her part!” instead of “I don’t want to see any more institutionalized violence against women, pitting one against the other over a guy is gross trope that would make Bechdel weep, why does a society value women based on sexual relations, would this have happened if Rigoletto had allowed sex ed classes, and why doesn’t she just walk away from all this?”😉

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      1. „why doesn’t she just walk away from all this?” yes, that point I had already reached even 10 years ago and this Duke is definitely among my personal top 10 of most disliked opera characters. I actually just realize that I have never seen Gilda’s decision to sacrifice herself as ‘romantic’, I think it has always been a (tragic) story of abuse for me (would have probably been different if I had known this opera as a teenager). But yes, of course, that’s how it is supposed to be perceived and, having your sociopsychological analysis in mind I’ll certainly see this with different eyes next time!

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        1. …or perhaps you would have been smart enough (I wasn’t, I also thought Aida was terribly romantic with her suicidal mania) not to buy into the trope. The thought of sacrifice not for accomplishing a deed, but because of a relationship/love (usually for a man) is still so prevalent in Young Adult literature and it always makes me mad because it is preying on the impressionable with really unhealthy ideas about romance. Opera eventually is something you can enjoy with a bit of distance when it comes to problematic repertory, and there are intelligent signers and directors who make a difference. But to have some more works where the woman walks away in the end would be lovely either way.

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          1. Having been through PP’s Gilda now, I’d say your predictions on her making a difference in the perception of this character were right, Anik. Her first scene with the duke already made clear she is not a victim in this take (very cool, how firmly she demands to know his name and how she does not let him grasp her wrist but takes his hand instead in the end of the scene) and her interpretation as descibed in the break interview is perfectly comprehensible. She even kind of walks away in the end, even if we wish that to happen in a different way. However, I wonder if the interpretation of Gilda as a victim of her father instead of the duke makes the character much less problematic? Anyway, definitely a very strong and smart PP performance. Many thanks again, thadieu! Regarding the Maddalena scene however, I found myself returning to Kararova’s take again immediately afterwards. Her approach is so unique and fitting the scene’s atmosphere so well (or rather contributing to create that atmosphere), that afterwards hardly anything else seems possible (at least for the moment).

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          2. …answering my own question on further thinking: While this is still a very tragic story and makes Gilda (indirectly) victim of a man again, PP’s interpretation does indeed take away (or diminishes) the aspect of romance created by self-sacrifice, at least if we interpret it her ‘suicide’ as a conscious act against her father as described by her in the interview. Still disturbing, but in a different sense.

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          3. Yes, the Ant Colonies can book down another win – I’m only in the first intermission interview (since I am actually writing my current paper, but it links back to Gilda in one aspect, so I have an excuse) and to tie it to the father instead of to the lover at least takes the romance angle out of the abuse story. And this Gilda *does* get moments of independence and agency. The touch she initiates towards the Duke in the duet stood out to me, as well – and I liked the gray instead of black/white during “Caro nome”: clearly Gilda is just as much projecting onto *anyone* (it wouldn’t have to be the Duke) in her isolation, so she is, in a way, also an active part in using someone and not so much the hapless victim.

            Didn’t Verdi call Rigoletto his favorite once, from a musician’s viewpoint? It is frighteningly perfect – always at a distance, always ironic, always already there. Like too bright light.

            But yes, Kasarova… I haven’t advanced to Act III yet, but: Kasarova! 😉

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      2. (ant colonies, yes, i’m trying to fight them now, they’ve found my chocolate stash!)
        but back to PP, yes, i really like her take, she has this approach of making you thinking about the character and her (character’s) mindset as she navigated through the life terrain (same with Ginevra). Thanks for the hint on the intermission, it was in French but dubbed in German so i couldn’t understand anything, but I thought you both would. And the ending was messed up but there’s a full version of this bit on tube.. I wonder if PP usually comes in with these ideas (I assume she does, as she always questions things deeply, but can only portray as deeply as seen if the concept/staging leaves her room instead of putting on tight grip?)
        As for VK, yes! i was just thinking as N.Krasteva came out that i would have never questioned this character except taking it for what she (Maddalena) is typically portrayed.. (and I remember her (NK) well, she was also Maddalena with Ciofi as Gilda in Wien back in my Alcina 2010 trip… and also at that time i was so sad to see Gilda getting stabbed <– first time seeing while also very new to opera..)

        (on an unrelated note, L.Claycomb just dropped a comment on my VK's dresden '98 romeo clip to clarify it was a photo with her I was using and not L.Aliberti.. and I took the opportunity to "suggest" I hope to see a full performance of the Paris 1996 Capuleti with her and VK given there was video footage of it from where I got the screen cap… she replied with a smile, who knows may be she has and might send me😉 ).

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        1. 🙂 I’m here for VK/Clay-puleti!

          In the intermission interview with PP, I wondered the same thing – how much did she contribute to the concept? I have not seen enough of Schilling’s work to have a clear view on that, but the most intelligent directors are those to find a way integrating the specific talents (or flaws) of their cast.

          (We are really swayed by sopranos this year, aren’t we?)

          >

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        2. Here’s an approximate translation of what PP says in the break interview, but the content might be a bit blurred by the double translation, the original French is mostly drowned by the German translation in the video.

          ‘I wouldn’t think of Gilda as a solely innocent and angelic character. She has gone through her father’s education and also resembles him strongly in her obstinacy. She very consciously takes the decision to die. It’s a character with two faces, one bright, one dark, and a strong personality. It’s also musically very interesting to interpret regarding choice of voice colours.
          The further the story proceeds the more she realizes the nature of her father’s character. That’s why in the end she takes her fate in to her own hands. Showing the same obstinacy as her father she decides to die. Her father tries to hinder her, he says, ‘don’t die’, but she answers very clearly, ‘yes, yes, I will die’.’

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  3. Petibon picks up on Verdi’s obsession with parents who destroy their children’s lives. Sons and daughters both. A Gilda as ready to die as Carlo is would rebalance the ending–and ironize the curse. So smart.

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      1. Looking through Verdi’s oeuvre: Aida’s father bringing pishing his agenda on Aida, Germont telling Alfredo whom he can marry (and Violetta whom she cannot marry), Masnadieri & Luisa Miller both tie back to Schiller, but are classic female sacrifice, Trovatore has the whole vendetta narrative in the mother figure (though that is not as deadly, I’d say the fatherly law is more represented by Luna), forza del destino is one excessive guilt-trip in the wake of Calatrava’s death… looks like a pattern?

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        1. Convinced! You really know every single libretto by heart, don’t you?🙂

          I’ve been thinking about what you say about the music and how it fits very well to what the conductor Armiliato says in his interview. This irony aspect is quite striking (and compare to what Armiliato says about the ‘humptata rhythm’). ‘Like too bright light’ yes, and like with bright light it can be brilliant but one isn’t always in the mood for it.

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          1. (the only Verdis I ever actually knew mostly by heart were “Aida” and “Traviata” – I’m much better with Mozart!😉 )

            I only just made it to the Second Act and it can’t be all Petibon, but she really turns the entire scene after the sexual encounter with the Count completely around: she’s given that slow entrance of “okay, I just slept with someone because I wanted to, now what’s going on here?” and her discomfort becomes much more about the embarrassment of seing her father humiiate himself like this, on her behalf – or rather, on the behalf of the image he has of her as some angelic mini-madonna, and then she has to sit him down and gives him the speech that looks a lot less like “oh no, my honor! Help!” and a lot more like “My life, my choices, and you’ll have to deal with the fact that I fall in love wiht people and will sleep with them.” It turns the power balance of the scene completely around and PP sells that blend of embarrassment and endearment with a parental figure extremely well.

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          2. Yes, absolutely, and still, while she seemed to partly enjoy shocking him before, I think she secretly hoped he would understand her and accept her choice and she is hurt by him just going on about her lost honour. When he then starts with ‘Piangi, fanciulla, piangi…’, her bewildered ‘Padre!’ is really like ‘What, you still didn’t get it?’ She seems sad and exhausted in the further duet.
            The basic idea of this scene might come from the director (the choice of her wearing the dressing gown fits with it) but probably wouldn’t turn out like this with a different singer.
            Both male main characters are also very good in this production both singing and acting-wise and complement Petibon’s Gilda very well, I think. I liked Calleja’s interpretation of the Duke’s personality disorder in the interview, makes him strangely more human to me (while he interprets Gilda’s character differently, maybe this speaks for it being PP’s own choice to a large extend?).

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          3. Yes, that bit caught my attention too – Calleja describing Gilda as perfectly in sync with the Duke, and Petibon’s Gilda pretty much projecting into him and doing her own thing (also the sadness at Rigoletto not understanding/accepting her choices – and the echo at the very end (I watched it via the YT clip by the Bayerische – once more, beware of comments) where she decides that she cannot live with this mindset and walks away)

            I swear, every time I get to “piangi, fanciulla, piangi” my first thought is “another entitled paternalist d*ck like Germont, here we go”. ;->

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