Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Witches, Bitches, & Britches, Baby: A Birthday Tribute to Tatiana Troyanos

Everyone who loves opera has a number of favourite singers.  There are favourites for each fach and era, and preferred interpreters of different roles, but there is only one singer who tops your desert island list, whose voice you want to be the final sound you hear.  And anyone who doesn't pick Tatiana Troyanos must be deaf.

Ha, ha, just kidding.  It's a matter of personal taste.  I like rich, round, lush voices, with power, warmth, and depth, that don't thin out on top – or anywhere else.  The voice alone, without visual cues or histrionics, must convey every nuance of emotion for the character.  Both the voice and the singer must radiate gravitas and dignity, and the singer must remain the consummate professional both on- and off-stage, no diva antics.  The voice must be by turns playful, sexy, regal, seductive, anguished, overjoyed, despairing, and all with equal conviction, each note spinning out with perfect technique, dynamics, and control.

So, of course we're talking mezzo.  Heh, heh, sorry the truth hurts.  I was once a soprano, or thought I was.  I sang in a church choir for nine years, then went off to college and studied voice with dreams of singing all the melodramatic (Tosca) and consumptive (Mimi, Violetta) heroines.  I wanted to play the lead, have the show-stopper arias and duets, and get the tenor in the end (or die trying, depending on the opera).  But biology is destiny and at the tender age of 20 I was given an ultimatum by a new teacher:  You study with me as a mezzo, or not at all.  This felt like devastating news at the time.  "What operas have a mezzo in the lead?", I wondered.  Well, let's see, there's Carmen.  And Carmen.  Um, and, I guess Carmen.  That's about it.  Opera composers almost universally relegated mezzos to supporting roles, such as the maid (who mostly stands around and looks sympathetic as she listens to the soprano sing about her troubles with the tenor); the stepmother (who is usually trying to have the soprano or the tenor killed, sometimes both, occasionally well-deserved); the (losing) competition for the tenor; and, most commonly, trouser roles in operas that, back in the day, would have featured castrati.  The triumvirate of mezzo role types is known in the biz as "witches, bitches, and britches".  We are the BAMFs of the opera world.  We don't take anyone's shit, least of all the goddamned tenor's.  (We may occasionally fuck the baritone (or the soprano, see trouser roles, above) but, hey, sopranos and tenors can't have all the fun.  Just pity the poor bass, who never gets anyone.)

After a suitable period mourning that I'd never utter a vitriolic "Scarpia, avanti a Dio!" as Tosca jumping off the parapet, I embraced my mezzo-ness.  Sopranos, I rationalised, are a dime a dozen.  Mezzos are rare and my type, dramatic, rarest of all.  We don't have many roles but, by gods, you don't forget us.

You certainly don't forget Troyanos.  I was lucky enough to see her perform at Lyric Opera in Chicago as Romeo in Bellini's I Capuleti and as Fricka in Das Rheingold.  She was booked to sing Carmen during my senior year of college when I was spending Field Work Term as a backstage intern at the Lyric.  That would have been heaven on earth but she cancelled due to illness.  When I moved to NYC in August 1993, I was looking forward to seeing the many performances she was scheduled to sing at the Met, but she died that month from breast cancer, after having kept her illness a complete secret from everyone.  She performed through treatments, and sang for the patients in Lenox Hill Hospital the day she died.

So, the first performance I ended up seeing at the Met was a memorial concert.  In tribute, I wore a sexy dress that I call my "Carmen dress".  I sat in the audience and heard a host of the luminaries of the opera world speak about their experiences working with her, and then sing in her honour.  At the start, Maestro James Levine stood up and choked, "The idea that we are gathered here to pay memorial tribute to Tatiana Troyanos is incomprehensible."  I lost it at that point.  I know life isn't fair, but Troyanos dies young and Donald Trump is still alive -- really, universe?

I don't know that I can adequately articulate what makes her voice stand out to me.  One reviewer described it as, "larger than life yet intensely human, brilliant yet warm, lyric yet dramatic."  What distinguishes a soprano from a mezzo is not range – a soprano should have low notes, and a mezzo high ones.  The difference comprises two factors: tessitura and colour.  The tessitura is the range in which most of the notes in a piece fall.  A soprano is more comfortable, and the voice sounds more brilliant, in a higher tessitura.  A soprano singing a mezzo piece will sound dull, the voice will not be shown off at its best in the lower tessitura.  A mezzo struggling to maintain the higher soprano tessitura will damage her voice – as I did, luckily not permanently.  Colour refers to a darkness in the tone that is especially audible in the lower register.  A mezzo has this rich, dark colour; a soprano doesn't.  To paraphrase a quote about pornography, you know it when you hear it.

An unfortunate-for-posterity side effect of Troyanos' performance schedule (over 270 appearances in more than 22 roles at the Met alone) was that she did not record nearly enough of her repertoire.  I specialise in early music.  She didn't, but she sang a few notable roles.  The tessitura of early music is low enough that some parts shift between sopranos and mezzos at the director's whim.  The preference today is almost always for a soprano in the female lead role, with a mezzo in drag as the male lead.  I think these directors should be the first up against the wall, but that's a rant for another post.  Few people know that before Troyanos sang the titular role in Handel's Guilio Cesare in Egitto, she recorded it as Cleopatra, in 1969.  This was before authentic early music performances came into vogue, so the lack of ornamentation on the da capos is jarring to modern ears, but the odd simplicity also allows the clear tone and astonishing beauty of Troyanos' voice to stand out in Cleopatra's arias:

Piangero la sorte mia

Da tempeste

Tu la mia stella sei

In 1975, she sang my most coveted opera role (Poppea), in my very favourite opera (L'Incoronazione di Poppea) in her San Francisco Opera debut, opposite Eric Tappy as Nerone.  My aunt and uncle not only saw this performance, they taped the broadcast off the radio on reel-to-reel tape.  Many years later, they provided me with a cassette tape of it.  When I wore it out, they made me another one.  By the time I wore that out, technology had marched on and they were able to make me a CD.  The perfection of Troyanos' voice in this role is unmatched (and today's directors who cast Poppea as a soprano should be required to listen to it at gunpoint).  The best parts are not available on YouTube so I can't share them in this post.  The seductiveness of her entrance duet with Nerone, as he reluctantly departs her bed, is terrifying.  A far better man than he would have refused her nothing.  Her assurance to her worried old nurse that the fickle gods are on her side features the strongest, clearest, most powerful high G's ever sung.  I wish SFO had videoed this production but that wasn't common back then.  Someone has posted the final duet, so you can at least hear the most beautiful duet in all of opera sung by its greatest interpreter:

Pur ti miro

Listen to the glorious spin on "io son tua".  There isn't a singer alive who can do that.  (Believe me, I've tried.)

You'd think that "Mon Coeur" would be the safest go-to dramatic mezzo showpiece.  It's lyrical and melodic, it's in French, it lies in a comfortable tessitura, it highlights the darkness in the lower range, and it doesn't even go up to a high G.  If you've got a big enough voice for it, how can you go wrong?  Well, two ways, actually:  The melisma requires stellar legato, and most singers seem to misinterpret it as a love song.  It's a seduction song, not at all the same animal.  Nine out of ten renditions of this aria are unlistenably awful.  (And don't get me started on the sopranos who attempt it.)  I cringe to recall that I sang it, at 22, in my senior concert in college.  Why?  Because I was young and stupid and no-one told me not to.  Troyanos, as you might expect, gets it.  She knows it's a pull-out-all-the-stops seduction aria, and Samson doesn't stand a chance against her Delilah:

Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix

My opera fantasy was always to win the Met Council auditions with a jaw-dropping, standing-ovation-from-the-judges "O Don Fatale".  Never mind that the cut-off age for the competition is 30 and no-one under that age has any business touching that aria.  As will surprise no-one at this point, I don't think any other singer can hold a candle to Troyanos' Eboli.  The first section is both strident and anguished; the middle lyrical; and the final section brings the fucking house down:

O Don Fatale

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