Thinking about Verdi, and specifically about Don Carlos made me remember this, which is an item of a fairly specific type: the recital CD that is a pleasure to listen to but which you can make yourself sick of fairly quickly. This is nothing against Magdalena Kožená. She sings these arias about as lyrically and stylishly as it is possible to sing them. But it’s the kind of material that has limits as far as repetition goes. And I say this as a person who has a fairly high tolerance for repetition. (That Salzburg DVD of Clemenza? I can tell you right before Röschmann glances behind her in Act I to make sure that a pillar she thinks is there is actually where she expects it to be that that is what she is going to do. Because I’ve watched it that many times.)
This CD contains a performance of “Au palais des fées,” a.k.a the veil song. In some ways, you might think that this would not belong on a CD of French arias. It is in French, but it was composed by an Italian. And it’s a little weightier than most of the other stuff on there.
On listening to this again, my first reaction was that it sounds so little! Kožená isn’t normally a Verdi singer, and both she and the orchestra seem much smaller in scale than what you expect for this character and this type of music. But this is an obvious point.
And it is here that YouTube commenters make themselves useful. I didn’t read all the comments for the video linked to above because I have noticed that if you read very far into a YouTube comment thread someone is invariably going to say something that requires refutation, which in turn requires a cooling-down period while the reader decides that comment brawls do no one any good and it is best to just let the thing go. (Update: there actually isn’t anything awful on this one, although a French person does claim that Kožená’s pronunciation is terrible.) But there was one comment in there that caught my attention, something along the lines of that this aria sounds as if it was written for a separate character. This reminded me that when I listened to Verrett sing it again the other day that I was struck by how light and agile and clear her voice could be. Those two things are related.
I think the fact that someone with a voice like Kožená’s can sing this and make it work indicates maybe a little more than that Kožená has a flair for lighter Verdi arias. The first time that I saw Don Carlos performed was this production in Boston about ten years ago. One of the things I remember about it was that the mezzo singing Eboli, whose name I can’t find right now, used the veil song as an opportunity to be a little bit silly. Not in an irritating way, but in a way that suggested Eboli was capable of clowning around and being goofy.
This is clearly not a concept that originated in Boston. Nadja Michael is up to it as well, in terms of what Eboli does while she’s singing:
(Michael does not sound what I would call terrific here, and she doesn’t seem to have quite the vocal agility to make this work perfectly, but never mind right now.)
But this is not just a matter of staging. That lightness in the music is, well, in the music. The vocal line itself is more agile and humorous and self-aware than we expect given the sort of role this is and I think it suggests a slightly different version of what the YouTube commenter said: that Eboli could be a different person. Or she used to be in the past. Or, more appropriately for this opera, she could have been, under different circumstances.