Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Killing Sarastro with bémol

Mozart was a pure genius - he composed his first opera at the age of twelve. But composing is probably the wrong way of describing what was actually going on. The creative process was not a matter of putting together bits and pieces of music; the whole opera, all of the instruments, notes and voices were already composed in his head. He worked fast, filling pages after pages of partitures like a summer thunderstorm pouring onto dry land.

Mozart's last opera was The Magic Flute which premiered on September 30, 1791. Mozart died two months later at the age of 34 and he was buried in an unmarked grave. But The Magic Flute was an immediate success. 228 years later, it is still the second most performed opera of all time.

It is well recognised that aria "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" (Hell's vengeance boils in my heart) sung by the Queen of the Night is one of the most powerful and most important operatic masterpieces in history.

The vengeance of hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
Abandoned may you be forever,
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature,
If not through you
Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!

The queen, consumed by rage, instructs her daughter to kill Sarastro, her rival.

This short aria is written for the soprano coloratura and it lasts only 2 minutes and 49 seconds. An incredibly difficult aria to sing - which requires not just the soprano’s vocal range from B3 to F6, but the ability to convey dramatic intensity in a very powerful manner at the very top of range. A soprano who can combine acrobatic abilities with power is extremely rare. And for the past 228 years, every soprano who ever lived wanted to be known and remembered as Mozart's Queen.

The first Queen was Mozart's sister in law, Josepha Hofer. At the time of the premiere, she was 32 years old and had an extraordinary upper register and an agile voice. It is said that on his death bed, Mozart hushed his wife, Constanze: "Quiet, quiet! Josepha is just taking her top F". Unfortunately, we will never know how the first Queen of the Night really did sound on stage but we do have recordings of some great queens from the past 90 years. This made me wonder: which great diva sung the aria the way Mozart had heard it in his mind?

Thanks to the internet and YouTube, we have recordings of over 40 queens from 1935 to now. Most of them are no longer with us, but their voices still are. Nowadays, there are only a handful of sopranos who perform in The Magic Flute who are regarded as the best living queens. And then there is an endless list of contenders.

Last weekend, I immersed myself in the quest of finding the best Queen of the Night.

Stating the obvious: while the winning voice would be selected subjectively, a rather firm set of objective criteria served as guidance:

-    In his mind, Mozart heard the voice of a powerful German speaking woman,       and accordingly, the perfect Queen should be German / a native German           speaker
-    Rage! In this performance, power is essential
-    Hitting the high F6 perfectly, impeccable staccatos
-    Dramatic coloratura
-    Clarity
-    Dramatic onstage performance

On Friday, glued to the screen, the quest began with six hours of watching and listening to every Queen of the Night I could find, in every version of The Magic Flute available online. I went to bed with total chaos in my head, wrecked and worn out.

By late evening Saturday, refreshed and reinvigorated, the search continued.

Unfortunately, the Chinese, Korean and Japanese divas and contenders were no longer of interest: while their vocal capabilities were as brilliant as any, their German was rather unconvincing. Had Mozart himself ever seen an Asian woman raging in perfect Austro-Bavarian? I doubt it.

I narrowed the list down to eleven divas:  Diana Damrau, Erika Mikolsa, Edita Gruberova, Natalie Dessmay, Susanne Elmark, Luciana Serra and Edda Moser - all still living - and Lucia Popp, Cristina Deutekom, Joan Sutherland, and Maria Callas, who are sadly no longer with us.

The longer I listened, the more obvious the differences between the sopranos were. By early Sunday morning, my ears and brain finally tuned in, with fine 'details' unnoticed before beginning to emerge. Two minutes and 49 seconds, over and over again, hundreds of times...

I got out of bed around lunch time Sunday completely brainwashed with "...meine Tochter nimmermehr" and "Hört! Hört! Hört!!!" echoing endlessly. Two looped phrases, two powerful voices, two divas - it was clear that one of them was going to be my winner.

The best time to immerse yourself in music is when everyone else is already in bed. Headphones on, dimmed lights, alone in a room. Damrau, Deutekom, then Edda Moser, just for a final check. Then Deutekom twice, Damrau. Deutekom again. And again...

At 7:30 Monday morning I was ready for work. With no time to waste, I played "Der Hölle Rache" just once - the 1960s version performed by Cristina Deutekom.

Cristina Deutekom (28 August 1931 – 7 August 2014), was a Dutch operatic coloratura soprano. In 1963, she made her debut with De Nederlandse Opera as Queen of the Night, but after some lesser roles with the company, she contemplated giving up singing altogether since her career did not seem to progress. Yet while she was 'warming up ' her voice for those smaller roles, Cristina would sing some of the most difficult Mozart arias in her dressing room backstage.

One day, her warm-up session was overheard by Dame Olga Maria Elisabeth Friederike Schwarzkopf, a diva herself: "Child, do you know what you are singing there?" Schwarzkopf was shocked to hear that she was not performing Mozart's masterpiece all over the world. "I do not think much of any impresario that does not recognise such talent", she said and introduced her to her own manager, Rudi Rothenberg. In no time Cristina went on to conquer the major opera houses in succession with the 'Queen of the Night' being her most prominent role. Like Mozart's sister in law Josepha, Christina was 32 years old. In 1968 she was critically acclaimed by The New York Times to be "the greatest Queen of the Night of our time".

The vocal range which covers two octaves, stone hard German r's, perfect punctuation, impeccable staccatos, rage and power, surgically clean-cut triplets, twelve bars lasting 'bonde', terrifying bémol - all sung effortlessly by Deutekom, a Queen like no other.

Headphones on. 

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