Monday, June 11, 2012

ARIA READY: Leonore's "Abscheulicher!"

Lotte Lehmann as LeonoreLotte Lehmann as Leonore.
Fidelio, Beethoven's only opera and the most powerful political opera in our repertoire, will follow this summer’s Turandot as Seattle Opera’s 2012/13 season moves into the fall. This week, let’s focus on the big aria sung at the center of Fidelio by the main character, Leonore a.k.a. Fidelio, “Abscheulicher!” A woman living in a police state, Leonore has disguised herself as a man (with the name ‘Fidelio,’ i.e. “the faithful one”) and taken a job at a prison in the hopes of figuring out what has happened to her husband Florestan, an outspoken journalist who disappeared two years previously after daring to criticize the government. Sure enough, he’s languishing away, near death, in the deepest and darkest cell in Don Pizarro’s dungeon. When she sings “Abscheulicher,” Leonore has just overheard a villainous duet (is there any such thing as a duet for bass and bass-baritone where they aren’t extremely evil?) between her boss, Rocco, the warden of the prison, and his boss, the paranoid tyrant Don Pizarro, who has decided that Florestan must die. When they exit, she is alone for the first time in the opera, and Leonore releases her thoughts and feelings in a tremendous explosion. “Abscheulicher!” follows the grand eighteenth-century aria format, which is a) accompanied recitative, in which the character works themselves up into a lather and prepares to sing their aria, b) slow movement, in which the emotion is steady, followed by c) fast movement, in which the emotion has more wild energy. For other big soprano arias from this period that follow this pattern, look up Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir” from Don Giovanni or Fiordiligi’s “Come scoglio” from Così fan tutte. For the politics of this “rescue opera,” look to the American or French Revolutions of Beethoven’s childhood—or to today’s Arab Spring.

Hateful coward! What new crime are you plotting? The voice of mercy, of humanity...can nothing appease your lust for blood? Fear and hatred battle in your heart like a storm at sea. But a rainbow beckons to me, bright above the dark clouds. Its arc, so quiet, so peaceful...mirroring old times, old joys, it brings peace to my heart.
Come, hope, shine on this weary woman like a star. May your light illumine my goal, no matter how far. Love will see it through.
A wife’s love for her husband drives me on and makes me strong! If only I could get to your side, where a monster has bound you with chains, and relieve your suffering. I will not falter. My love for him makes me strong.

It’s often said that Beethoven tended to write for voices the way he wrote for instruments; that is, he expected singers to be able to do anything a violin can do. They can’t. (Perhaps that’s why he wrote only one opera!) Musical instruments can play louder and softer, higher and lower, can sustain long notes longer and play a million quick notes more quickly than voices. Violins, to take just one example, can vary their sound enormously by playing pizzicato, sul ponto, col legno, or by putting on a mute. Voices don’t have that kind of expressive range; and it isn’t easy for voices to do many things that are child’s play for an instrumentalist. The long, sustained slow notes in the slow section of this aria (“Komm, Hoffnung”), for example, demand enormous reserves of breath and strength from the singer. And the wild leaps of the fast part (“Ich folg' dem innern Triebe”) might be easy for a string player, but for a singer they’re fiendish and exhausting.

But singers have two things that no musical instrument has: words, and a direct, instantaneous connection to the human spirit who’s doing the singing. That’s the power of “Abscheulicher!” With this aria, a soprano shows us not just everything she can do, technically; she shows us who she is. The most important, and most difficult, lesson for any aspiring opera singer to learn is, “Sing it like you mean it!” To sing “Abscheulicher” like you mean it, you have to believe (for at least six minutes) in absolute evil and complete, all-conquering good; you have find the necessary humility and tranquility to ask for help from that all-conquering good, to pray in a way that works—and, having received a blessing of strength, you have to use that strength to go out and achieve all that is humanly possible. Those are the stakes. Nothing less could merit the intensity of the amazing music Beethoven wrote.

As with last week, I’d like to share two renditions of this great aria with you. Christa Ludwig was a mezzo who occasionally sang soprano roles, and in this extreme aria she shows off the beautiful consistency throughout her range. The camerawork here, mostly close up on her face, does a good job of showing us how she acts these words and music with her very soul:

For an alternative “Abscheulicher,” check out Anja Silja singing the aria, at 39:25 in this video of the complete opera. Silja achieved a great deal of notoriety because of her relationship with Wieland Wagner, and it’s often said that she took on roles that were too much for her. But it’s an interesting video and she’s reasonably credible as a boy:

What other renditions of this aria do you know and love? Does anyone have any special “Abscheulicher” memories they’d care to share?