At one time, the pathway to success for a virtuoso was simple.
- Sing what everyone else sings
- Sing it better than anyone
- …and by doing so, prove that you’re the best
The game has changed. I own several CDs that follow the model listed above: and I rarely listen to them all the way through. While such recordings do establish a performer’s credentials, they don’t necessarily serve the listener.
When the primary market for opera recordings consisted of the knowledgeable buyer wanting to sit in judgment of that virtuoso dynamic, there was always a limit to what you could accomplish even with an amazing voice. Within each Fach you’re only going to have so many touchstones of excellence. If it’s agreed that there are five to ten key arias whereby one shows one’s mastery, either you undertake those same arias –showing us how you measure up—or you sidestep the question by performing something else. It means that the competition between the singers –the game of demonstrating virtuosity –is in some respects alien or counter-productive to the goal of entertainment.
We won’t even mention “art” because a CD of excerpts lined up in this way is an affront to the idea, arguably an exercise in bad taste. While you’re at it, imagine a meal consisting of 10 different types of cupcake, or 10 different types chocolate truffle or 10 different full fat cheeses; ask yourself how you’d feel after devouring the entire meal, and whether you’d want to repeat the experience even once.
Got that visceral image in your head?
I bring this up because a singer who could probably prosper at the old game –of showing off her voice—has taken a different path.
Last season I saw Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta three times at the Four Seasons Centre, in a Canadian Opera Company production conducted by Andrew Davis. More recently I saw her –in a different costume in the same role—on medici.tv in a more recent production from Baden-Baden with Christian Thielemann, where –in the old fashioned dynamic of the virtuoso—Archibald very sweetly blew her Ariadne (Renée Fleming) completely off the stage. Admittedly Archibald had ridiculous advantages:
- While both women are beauties, Archibald is younger
- Archibald was wearing a revealing outfit
- And –the coup de grace—Archibald was aggressively taking the stage as Zerbinetta, a character who usually steals the show, when it’s not pre-emptively handed to her on a silver platter
I say this as preamble to Jane Archibald’s award –winning CD of Haydn arias from ATMA.
Instead of showing us that she’s the best at the old game, by singing the same arias everyone else sings, Archibald does something rather different. Yes we get high notes ( for example, several glittering examples of the same high E that Zerbinetta sings, in the very first aria, “Al tuo seno forunato” from L’anima del filosofo).
But we also get a CD full of music that is largely unknown.
Haydn? While his symphonies are regularly programmed, his operas still haven’t penetrated into standard repertoire as one might expect. Il Mondo della Luna, Haydn’s 1777 opera with libretto by Carlo Goldoni deserves to crack that charmed circle of popular operas, a wonderful creation that will likely be seen more and more in the years to come. Archibald gives us two delightful arias from that work.
ATMA have created a wonderfully harmonious CD that reminds me a bit of their CD for Michael Slattery singing Dowland, in the combination of instrumentals with vocals. Instead of giving us a dozen or more tracks that are all essentially the same thing –that deadly array of sweets I was describing in the old-fashioned CD from a soprano or a tenor—the brains at ATMA thought to show some variety. Where the Dowland CD includes Dowland instrumentals to go with his songs, the Haydn CD gives us Haydn operatic Overtures to broaden our enjoyment. Orchestre Symphonique, Bienne conducted by Thomas Rösner have an edgy historically informed sound (the kettle drums sound fresh from the Napoleonic Wars) even though they use modern instruments. But the lessons of period performance have informed the approaches of studious musicians regardless of the kind of instruments they play, as we saw when Harry Bicket conducted the Canadian Opera Company production of Orfeo ed Euridice.
The CD recently won the Juno (Canada’s “Grammy”) as best classical CD: deservedly.
I heartily recommend Archibald’s CD as a window on Haydn, even as I look forward to her return to Toronto as the title role of the upcoming COC production of Handel’s Semele, opening May 9that the Four Seasons Centre.