The history of Italian opera is inextricably linked with Manuel Garcia and his children who shone in the works of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Balfe and Gounod to name a few.
They established themselves as icons of the 19th century whose culture and societal life of the sisters Maria, known as La Malibran, and Pauline, wife of Louis Viardot, dominated like no other diva of the romantic era. In addition, they have left behind an important work of instrumental pieces, songs and operas that both recall their Spanish heritage and trace the musical influence of the maestros with whom their lives are so intimately linked.
In her new album “The Unknown Pauline Viardot”, American mezzo Anna Tonna pays homage to the younger Garcia sisters, bringing to life a multilingual selection of songs that excel in their melody, spirit and diversity. She is accompanied by pianist Isabel Dobarro and soprano Corina Feldkamp who, in turn, joins her as a duo and is heard solo in three of the album’s 19 songs.
Anthology by Pauline Viardot
The program is very well chosen not only for its musical merits and the emotional variety with which Tonna must jump, say, from the onomatopoeic lightness of “Mi nÃºmen parlo “ at the solemnity of the monologue of PhÃ¨dre. It also draws attention to Viardot’s literary culture, as his compositions are based on texts by such greats as Petrarch, Racine, Lord Byron and Ivan Turgenev (with whom she had a tumultuous love “affair”).
Most importantly, all tracks except “ScÃ¨ne de PhÃ¨dre âandâ CaÃ±a EspaÃ±ola âare world premiere recordings, makingâ The Unknown Pauline Viardot âthe first and only anthology of its kind. As such, it constitutes an essential contribution to the musicological assessment of the creative production of Viardot from the years 1840 to 1897 when âI don’t like the torosâ – the last song chronologically – was written.
As for the performance, I think it is undeniable that the musical care of Tonna and her associates can be felt at every moment of this recital. There isn’t a single time when a sense of rush or unpreparedness would manifest in the name of business interest.
However, it is equally undeniable that some notes of Corina Feldkamp, ââmainly in the upper register, can be hard on the ear. This is the case in the opening sentence of “El corazÃ³n Sad â, as well as inâ Come fan ‘le ragazze âwhen the tonal accent slackens onâ SciÃ², sciÃ², gallina â. For the same reason, pairing Feldkamp and Tonna in duets is sometimes not ideal. This should not distract from the harmony, for example, from the coloratura part in “Mi nÃºmen parleo âbut overall the disconnection increases as the range is higher.
“Made for tragedy”
Tonna, meanwhile, relies on what is in essence a very distinctive sound, warm to its heart but sharp towards its extensions or, in the words of Saint-SaÃ«ns, “a little harsh, made for tragedy and l ‘epic’. bit bitter, made for tragedies and the heroic epic â). Insofar as the judgment of Saint-SaÃ«ns was adapted to the voice of Pauline Viardot, I find it fair to draw a parallel with the instrument of Tonna, whose capacities are most salient in the dramatic soliloquy of PhÃ¨dre. As a tragedian, she brings together the meaning of music and her lyrics in a much more palpable way than the chamber-room character of her Spanish songs would allow.
Perhaps a sequel to “L’Inconnue Pauline Viardot” will uncover one or two other gems of the composer’s late dramatic vein.
A final distinction goes to Isabel Dobarro whose sensitive attention to detail transcends her accompaniment of Tonna and Feldkamp. It is on this basis that the album builds its not quite absolute success as a complete anthology of the compositional heritage of Pauline Viardot.