Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday Classics snapshots: Count Almaviva goes a-wooing, then and now

Urged on by Figaro (Ross Benoliel), "Lindoro" (Luigi Boccia as Count Almaviva) identifies himself to Rosina (Stephanie Lauricella), with Enrico Granafei playing the guitar and Jason Tramm conducting, at New Jersey State Opera, June 2012. (For English text, see below.)

by Ken

I'd like to think we established the premise well enough in last week's "snapshots" post, "Rosina I and Rosina II," where we heard aural snapshots of young Rosina first as the spitfire being wooed by the supposed poor student Lindoro in the opera Rossini fashioned from the popular Beaumarchais play The Barber of Seville, and then, a mere three years later, as the desolate, pretty much emotionally abandoned Countess Almaviva in the opera Mozart fashioned from Beaumarchais's equally popular sequel, The Marriage of Figaro.


Mozart's Countess is, I think, one of music's most heart-piercing creations, and the transformation Rosina has undergone in those several years is a horrible thing to behold. By the end of The Barber, of course, she knew that her suitor wasn't the imaginary student Lindoro but the real life Count Almaviva. Yet he managed to persuade her that this only added to the fairy-tale-like ending of that story.

Some fairy tale! So I though we would listen this week to a bit of the sonic transformation of the Count, from the ardent wooer of The Barber to the aristocratic monster of Figaro, via another set of before-and-after aural snapshots.

Again, we have to note that the operas were written in reverse chronological order -- Rossini's Barber (1816) as, effectively, a "prequel" to Mozart's Figaro (1786). And hard as it was to find a single singer to hear singing both Rosinas (we came up with Victoria de los Angeles), I really wouldn't know where to look for a single interpreter of the two incarnations of Count Almaviva. Mozart had cast his as a baritone or bass, while Rossini for obvious reasons made his young wooer a tenor (as I assume was the case in all the other operas made from Beaumarchais's Barber -- and there were a slew).

(You could, by the way, argue that the Count hasn't really been "transformed," that he simply behaved differently when he was pursuing Rosina from the way he behaves once she's a mere "conquest." Either way, it's bad news for the Countess.)


ROSSINI: The Barber of Seville: Act I, Scene 1, Song, Count Almaviva, "Se il mio nome saper voi bramate" ("If you wish to know my name")
We're on a street in Seville outside the house of the crotchety old Dr. Bartolo, where, as Act I, Scene 1 began, the dashing young Count Almaviva had appeared at dawn, disguised as a poor student and accompanied -- in both the "in the company of" and the musical senses -- by a ragtag band of hired musicians, to serenade the doctor's beautiful young ward, Rosina. Following the Count's serenade, and an uncontrollably parting with his musical posse, and then an unexpected street reunion between the Count and his old servant Figaro, Rosina managed to drop a note from her balcony. Figaro read the Count the note, in which Rosina invited her mysterious serenader to devise, as soon as her tyranncial guardian left the house, "some ingenious way of indicating to me your name, your status, and your intentions." Figaro promptly handed his guitar over to the Count, suggesting a nice little song.

COUNT: If you wish to know my name,
from my lips hear my name.
I am Lindoro,
who faithfully adores you,
who wants you as a spouse,
who calls you by name,
always talking about you thus,
all day from dawn to dusk.
ROSINA [heard from inside]: Continue, my dear, continue thus!
FIGARO: Listen! How do you like that?
COUNT: Oh, happy me!
FIGARO: Bravo, back to you, continue!
COUNT [resumes singing]: Your loving and sincere Lindoro
can't give you, my darling, a treasure.
I'm not rich,
but I can give you a heart,
a loving soul
that, faithful and constant,
sighs thus only for you,
all day from dawn to dusk.
ROSINA [from inside]: Your loving, sincere Rosina
from her heart Lindo-
[She is suddenly interrupted.]

Giuseppe di Stefano (t), Count Almaviva; Lily Pons (s), Rosina; Giuseppe Valdengo (b), Figaro; harp accompaniment, Alberto Erede, cond. Live performance at the Metropolitan Opera, Dec. 16, 1950

Cesare Valletti (t), Count Almaviva; Roberta Peters (s), Rosina; Robert Merrill (b), Figaro; guitar accompaniment, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded September 1958

Francisco Araiza (t), Count Almaviva; Agnes Baltsa (ms), Rosina; Thomas Allen (b), Figaro; guitar accompaniment, Neville Marriner, cond. Philips-Decca, recorded 1982

This is a tough little number to sing with real ease and beauty of tone. Cesare Valletti has the advantage of being closest in vocal weight (light) and handling to a true Rossini tenor, but the young Giuseppe di Stefano offers the obvious compensation of that remarkable if inelegantly handled tenor (isn't the soft singing in the second stanza special?), and Francisco Araiza has some vocal gold too, though not much vocal ease -- maybe he felt he didn't have much to lose in his subsequent transition to heavier-weight repertory.


MOZART: The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492: Act III, Recitative and aria, Count Almaviva, "Hai già vinta la causa" ("You've already won the case") . . . "Vedrò, mentr'io sospiro, felice un servo mio?" ("Shall I see, while I sigh, a servant of mine happy?"
The Count, even as he has multiple schemes in play to delay if not prevent the marriage of Figaro (who's back in his service), and Susanna, the Countess's personal maid, has been attempting to seduce the bride-to-be on her wedding day and thought he had her consent until he overheard her telling Figaro that he's "won his case," and realizes he's been tricked.

"You've already won the case." What do I hear?
What trap have I fallen into? I want
to punish you in such a way . . . the sentence
will be at my pleasure. But what if he were
to pay off the old woman who lays claim to him?
Pay her? In what manner? And then there's Antonio,
who will refuse to give his niece in matrimony
to this unknown Figaro.Cultivating the pride
of this old fool . . .
Everything has its uses. The die is cast.
Shall I see, while I sigh,
a servant of mine happy?
And must he enjoy a pleasure
that I desire in vain?
Shall I see an unworthy man
united by the hand of love
to one who inspires in me a desire
that she does not feel for me?
Ah no, I won't give you the satisfaction
of leaving you in peace!
You were not born, insolent man,
to give me torment,
and perhaps also to laugh
at my misfortune.
Already my hope of revenge alone
consoles my spirit
and makes me rejoice!

Eberhard Wächter (b), Count Almaviva; Philharmonia Orchestra, Carlo Maria Giulini, cond. EMI, recorded Sept. and Nov. 1959

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (b), Count Almaviva; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ferenc Fricsay, cond. DG, recorded September 1960

Gabriel Bacquier (b), Count Almaviva; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded January 1970

My earlier thought had been to offer the duet in which the Count thinks he is successfully seducing Susanna, but that captures him in earnest wooing mode, which really doesn't reflect the difference we hear in him these three years after his successful wooing of Rosina. So instead we're hearing the Count's monologue, where he responds to the discovery that he's being made a fool of -- and by servants of his! The obvious temptation is to offer, as Conrad L. Osborne once wrote of a Fischer-Dieskau performance of the role, not the character but your opinion of the character.

The point would be better illustrated if I'd chosen a more extreme F-D performance of the aria, of which there are a bunch on records. It's a choice with history in Germanic performing tradition, and Wächter doesn't escape it entirely, but at least he sings it beautifully. Especially by this time Bacquier can't match the tonal richness, and Klemperer's gradual tempos don't make his task easier, but he does try to give us a fuller characterization.

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