[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.
[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)
[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]