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12.10.04

Alessandra Marc at the National Gallery

Congratulations to Ionarts music critic Jens Laurson, who has hit the big time and is now writing reviews for the Washington Post. His review of Alessandra Marc's recital at the National Gallery of Art ran in today's paper. See his follow-up remarks here.


Other Resources:

Nuno Miguel Marques, Singing is her destiny—an interview with American soprano Alessandra Marc, for Classical Voice

Parterre Box interview with Alessandra Marc

Alessandra Marc
Alessandra Marc as Turandot
The National Gallery of Art opened its 63rd Free Concert Series last Sunday, with a program from the National Gallery Orchestra. On Sunday (October 3), I went to hear this season's second concert (no. 2,054), featuring soprano Alessandra Marc and pianist David Chapman. (Please note, if you are a regular at these concerts, that the starting time has been moved up to 6:30 pm every Sunday.) Ms. Marc (née Judith Borden) spent some time singing in the Washington area before her career took her around the world. She has made numerous recordings and has been acclaimed on the operatic stage, particularly for her recent appearances in the title role of Puccini's Turandot (for example, here at the Washington Opera in 2001, as reviewed by John C. Shulson for ConcertoNet.com).

First, let me say that this is an instrument that is so rare that it must be treasured, an extremely potent dramatic soprano, the hydrogen bomb of the female register. Second, and most likely completely unrelated to the first point, that incredible sound is contained in a woman of sizeable proportions. This is perhaps unremarkable in the world of opera singers, where a large frame is not untypical (perhaps less these days than in the past). I chose to make my first point first because, for me, the voice is what matters, even when watching opera on the stage. It makes perfect sense to cast Ms. Marc as Turandot, and judging from the piece that ended her recital's first half (Puccini's aria "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca), she has got what it takes. You use the powerful voice, no matter what the packaging. However, as shown by the case of Deborah Voigt at Covent Garden (see my post Opera Grotesquely Superficial? What?, June 23), more and more directors are thinking about body type when they cast, and it has had an impact on Ms. Marc's career as well. (That is in spite of her skills as an actress, praised by James Jorden in his review of Marc's Turandot in New York, for Reviews from Parterre, in which he wrote, "For all of Marc's much-discussed problems with her physical size, she presented perhaps the best-acted Turandot of my experience, bordering on hysteria in the Riddle Scene, and then half-drunk with desire for the victorious Calaf as the second act finished.")

Ms. Marc's program was well chosen in the first half, which began with an operatic scena (recitative and aria) from the 26-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven, "Ah! perfido" (op. 65). The text is adapted from an opera libretto called Achille in Sciro, by none other than Pietro Metastasio [born Pietro Antonio Trapassi], the most prolific and influential author of libretti for opera seria. (Achille in Sciro, it turns out, was one of the last operas composed by Antonio Caldara, at the Imperial Opera in Vienna in 1736, for the wedding of Archduchess Maria Theresia to Duke Francis of Lorraine. Metastasio lived in Vienna from 1730 to 1782. The libretto was also set by Jommelli for Vienna in 1749, by Hasse for Naples in 1759, by Agricola for Berlin in 1765, and by Paisiello for St. Petersburg in 1778, among several others.) Beethoven composed the piece for soprano and orchestra in 1795 to 1796, dedicating it to the Countess Josephine de Clary in the manuscript copy, but not in the published version in 1805. Beethoven had moved to Vienna from Bonn late in 1792, and according to Joseph Kerman and others, he apparently stopped composing at the same furious rate at that point until he had been in Vienna for a couple of years. (He spent some of that time revising several of the Bonn works, and he was studying for a brief time with Haydn.) The piece has some challenging and beautiful moments for the soprano, after some dramatic recitatives (sung by Deidamia, the wife of Achilles who bore him a son named Pyrrhus, at the conclusion of Act III, scene 3, of Metastasio's text), in the slow and fast aria sections, to text that is harder to identify as Metastasio's.

A short mythological diversion, because it's fun: "Sciro" is the Italian spelling of Skyros, the island ruled by King Lycomedes, where Achilles as a young man was hidden by his mother. (Here is what the citadel of Lycomedes looks like today.) She dressed him as a girl because an oracle had told her that Achilles would die as a young man at Troy. Deidamia was the king's daughter with whom Achilles fell in love. Odysseus goes to Skyros with Phoenix and Nestor to find Achilles, because they need him to win at Troy. Ever the trickster, Odysseus disguises himself as a merchant and offers a treasure to each of Lycomedes's daughters. Achilles, disguised as "Pyrrha," chooses weapons and is discovered. In Metastasio's version, Achilles goes off to the Trojan War, leaving Deidamia to sing the piece that Beethoven set.

The second piece on the program was the most interesting choice, Alban Berg's Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven early songs, for voice and piano, 1905–1908). Berg revised these songs for publication, in an orchestral version, in 1928, when they were first performed in Vienna. (I don't know how different the piano and orchestral versions are, or which version we heard.) He had met Arnold Schoenberg, who became his teacher, in the fall of 1904, but they had not yet begun to work out the twelve-tone system. Although these songs reveal a number of post-tonal influences (I hear an almost Debussyian whole-tone approach in the first song, Nacht), they mostly end on pure triads and are still far from being fully atonal. This set of songs was the highlight of the evening, not only because they featured Ms. Marc's voice so well, but because the piano accompaniment was also rendered excellently by Mr. Chapman. In particular, "Traumgekrönt" (Crowned in a dream), set to a poetic fantasy by one of my favorite poets, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Johannes Schlaf's "Im Zimmer" (In the room) charmed my ears. To conclude the first half, with Puccini's "Vissi d'arte," Ms. Marc swept aside her music stand, which she had used to check her score carefully during the Berg, with a knowing smile.

For the second half, I would much rather have listened to a few more Italian arias than the fluff that Ms. Marc programmed: two Gershwin songs, Richard Rodgers's "Climb Every Mountain" (yes, that one), and three spirituals. As is always the case with operatic voices singing this sort of repertoire, the power of Ms. Marc's voice only brought to our attention the paucity of musical interest. These are all pretty tunes, but we don't need a nuclear weapon like Ms. Marc's voice to perform what a small pistol could carry off. I was lifted out of my boredom only by fine performances of the arias "Trees on the Mountain" (from Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, 1954) and "My Man's Gone Now" (from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, 1935).

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