The audio below is two performances of ‘Dove sono’. The first is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf from the late 1950s and the second is Veronique Gens, in the René Jacobs recording of Figaro on Harmonia Mundi (1999).
In some ways this is an unfair comparison. What jumped out at me with the Gens/Jacobs version was partly how she sang it and partly the balance of the recording. The Schwarzkopf recording is over sixty years old, so in terms of pure sound it’s in a completely different category. However, I decided on Schwarzkopf because the only other ‘dove sono’ I have is Röschmann (three versions! And they are all different! This cartoon is becoming creepily relevant to my intellectual life!) and I will allow that it may be possible to have too much of a good thing. Besides, listening to a version of the aria recorded in mono back when people ate shrimp aspic and cars had no seatbelts makes what I want to say about the second one more obvious.
The first thing with the Gens version is that you hear much more of the orchestra. The orchestra is almost a character in and of itself – e.g. the dynamic and tempo changes during the recitative. Or, not an additional character, but a kind of externalization of parts of the Countess’s own thoughts. What is going on in her head is located at least in part between the vocal line and the orchestral writing.
And then there is Veronique Gens. This is not going to turn into an Ode to the Vocal Loveliness of Veronique Gens, but I think it might come kind of close. There is a wonderful agility to her voice. It’s got this beautiful liquid quality. This may be what people are referring to when they talk about a ‘bell-like’ tone. Anyway. There is that.
There is also the tempo, which is a little quicker, and the ornamentation that Gens adds in the repeat (beginning at 10.45). This really caught my attention, because I don’t often hear those little ornaments in recordings of this opera, even modern ones. It’s very ‘early music’ in some ways and I quite like it. It’s very pretty for one thing, and it also gives an impression — which is reinforced by that lovely interplay of singer and orchestra that you really hear on this recording — that the Countess is still thinking. What she intends to do, or at the very least how she feels, is not quite settled yet.
The strings and the piano move forward again beginning at 12.52. This is the final section of the aria, and the words here are ‘di cangiar l’ingrato cor’ / ‘of changing that ungrateful heart’. The sound of the piano here is like a moment of additional intensity amid the Countess’s thoughts. She’s going to change the Count (good luck with that, Rosine), she’s excited and quite determined, but the Countess is the kind of person who is always going to have quite a few layers to what she’s thinking or feeling, which comes through here in these elegant little conversations between the words and the orchestral writing.