Scenas, Solo Cantatas and Concert Arias: James Jolly Recommends 10 Works in Which the Singer-Almost Invariably a Woman-Conjures Up a Dramatic Predicament, Away from the Operatic Stage, in Music Written for Performance in Concert

By Jolly, James | Gramophone, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Scenas, Solo Cantatas and Concert Arias: James Jolly Recommends 10 Works in Which the Singer-Almost Invariably a Woman-Conjures Up a Dramatic Predicament, Away from the Operatic Stage, in Music Written for Performance in Concert


Jolly, James, Gramophone


When Tosca sings 'Vissi d'arte' or the Duke of Mantua 'La donna e mobile', or Isolde launches her Liebestod, time stands still for a few moments, yet the drama of the opera rolls on. Imagine those moments shorn of their dramatic context and presented as stand-alone numbers--not too difficult, as aria programmes are hardly a novelty. But take a situation that doesn't rely on the context of a stage work to set it up, concentrate it into 12 minutes or so, and you have a wonderful genre that might be called a 'scena', 'solo cantata' or even 'concert aria'. Whatever the title, these intense monologues have spurred composers into writing some of their most passionate music.

Here are 10 works that find a single singer opening her heart (they're rarely written for men) and pouring out her anguish and pain (equally, they're rarely happy pieces!). The inner turmoil of an abandoned woman (grief, terror, anger, fear, revenge, serenity and perhaps finally the resolution to face death) gives the composer a psychological palette from which to draw--and many have risen magnificently to the challenge.

Even more than the dramatic potential of these miniature libretti, it was often the singer selected to premiere the work that added to its stature. Britten created Phaedra especially for Dame Janet Baker (and it's no surprise that, as an interpreter of a rare intensity, she has recorded a number of my chosen works--here presented in chronological order--with success); Mendelssohn had Maria Malibran, Mozart composed for Nancy Storace and Beethoven wrote for Josepha Duschek.

These works present a unique challenge to their interpreters--to create a dramatic situation with little build-up and with no fellow singers to help. Yet done well, they, too, can make time stand still.

THE SPECIALIST'S GUIDE

(10) Ligeti

Mysteries of the Macabre (1991)

Barbara Hannigan sop

YouTube / Digital Concert Hall

Plucked from Ligeti's 1970s opera Le Grand Macabre, this mesmerising and totally dotty tour de force for coloratura soprano and small ensemble is a thrilling piece. There are a couple of stunning performances online by the fearless Barbara Hannigan (one with Simon Rattle on vocal form) which demand to be seen. It's sung by Gepopo, the chief of the secret police, to warn people of an impending comet, but he's so terrified that only occasional phrases and words emerge.

(9) Britten

Phaedra (1975)

Dame Janet Baker mez

Decca (S) 425 666-2LH2 (7/77(R))

A cantata in name but a scena in style, Phaedra was written for Janet Baker, who first performed it in 1976 at Aldeburgh. Based on Racine's play in Robert Lowell's translation, Phaedra is scored for strings with a Baroque-style 'continuo' of solo cello and harpsichord. It tells of a mother's illicit and destructive love for her son - one of the numerous 'outcasts' from society who fill Britten's dramatic works. As the poison fills her body, the music rises to an astonishing apotheosis.

(8) Berg

Der Wein (1929)

Anne Sofie von Otter mez

DG (M) 479 1514GTC (7/96 (R))

A concert aria, based on Baudelaire, Der Wein (The wine') is, in typical Berg fashion, a perfect palindrome (bars 112-40 are mirrored by 140-70) and based on a tone row (a D minor ascending scale with the remaining

notes forming a G flat scale). The words describe wine's restorative powers as well as its power to inspire and give courage. The lush tonality conjures up the world of Berg's Lulu, complete with dance references and hidden coded messages. Sadly, it's seldom performed in concert.

(7) Mendelssohn

Infelice, Op 94 (1834)

Cecilia Bartoli mez

Decca (F) 475 9078DH (12/07)

Written for the Philharmonic Society of London to words by Metastasio, Infelice has a substantial part for solo violin (originally planned for the virtuoso Charles-Auguste de Beriot, who would soon marry Maria Malibran, for whom the vocal part was presumably also written; neither performed it). …

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