Voi Che Sapete In Performance: A History

Adelina Patti (19 February 1843 – 27 September 1919)

Who was Adelina Patti? She was one of the most successful sopranos in history. Born in Spain, but a subject of the King of the Two Sicilies, she was in her prime a pan-European figure.

Start the video below to listen to a recording of her voice.

The recording was made in Patti’s home in 1905, and is fascinating in part just because it represents an artifact from the early days of sound recording. This is from about as far into the past as we can go in direct knowledge of the way opera sopranos actually sounded – in a sense, into the romantic era.

Yes, I know, by most periodizations 1905 was rather late for “romanticism.” The musical cutting edge had moved on into the impressionism of Debussy or the symbolism of Scriabin.

An Edisonian Artifact

But consider this: Miss Patti was born in 1843, the year Giuseppe Verdi turned thirty and Hector Berlioz forty, when both of those gentlemen were at the height of their powers.  She was singing in public as early as the 1850s, and she was an operatic soprano early enough to be a competitor of Jenny Lind for the affection of their common public.

Patti’s operatic debut was as the title character in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

Patti was well past her singing prime by the time Edison’s invention came along to allow her voice its measure of immortality, but that fact just makes such a recording that much more precious, as the reaching out to us of an era otherwise voiceless.

The song attached to the above YouTube link is “Voi Che Sapete” (“You Who Know”) composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for The Marriage of Figaro.

Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749 - 1838)

Some context: the song is assigned to what is known in the operatic world as a ‘trouser role,’ that is a character presented to the audience as a young man, but that is performed by a woman. In this case, the aria is given to the character of Cherubino, a barely-grown boy who falls in love with every woman in the vicinity and who is being sent off to the army because he’s become so troublesome to the Count.

The words Cherubino is singing here were the work of a frequent collaborator of Mozart’s, Lorenzo Da Ponte, whose portrait is above. Da Ponte also deserves credit for the words that went with that incomparable musician’s music for Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte.

How did I come to focus on Miss Patti’s performance of “Voi Che Sapete”? Simply because my recent reading has included The End of Early Music (2007), by Bruce Haynes and Haynes sees this recording as a guide to the way in which the romantic era saw the pre-Romantics, how those whose views of music developed alongside Verdi and Berlioz related to the work of … well … Mozart and Da Ponte.

A Contrasting Performance

Haynes brings up Patti chiefly to make the point that she wouldn’t be a big star today. Not singing like that. Even though opera is “the most conservative style of Classical music we have,” its own style has changed over the last century, so Patti would be “laughed off the stage of the Met.”

Here, for purposes of comparison, is another performance of the same aria, this one from the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1973. There is some introductory dialogue: the aria proper begins at 0:54.
One obvious point of distinction is tempo. Patti took her time with the song, giving it 3:24. Frederica von Stade a/k/a Flicka, gives us the same music – no, that’s wrong; she gives us her music from the same underlying notations! – in 3:11 seconds.  It is a short and expressive work – those 13 seconds of difference matter.

Patti also has what Haynes calls a “rare and expressive vibrato” in her voice of a sort that went out of style beginning a couple of decades later.  Von Stade’s performance includes its own share of vibrato, but she a good deal more economic therewith.

Would Mozart have wanted vibrato there? Expected it?  And how much? That is a very polarizing sort of question to ask. Some musicologists think they are entirely misguided questions, others believe that ignoring them is what is misguided.  Haynes’ view seems to be that they are very good questions in principle, even though in this case they may be unanswerable. Historically informed performance of baroque and classical works, in his view,  has to try to get beneath both layers of varnish – both the modern and the romantic – in order to get back to the early music as it was.

Haynes’ broad historical contention is that a new style of performing arose in the 1930s and quickly became the norm. This is the style that was associated with the composer Arturo Toscanini, the pianist Glenn Gould, and the violinist Jascha Heifetz.  What these modern figures had in common was their insistence upon “unyielding tempo, literal reading of dotting and other rhythmic details, and dissonance left unstressed,” Haynes says. The Modern style is metronomic and regular, whereas the preceding romantic style was spontaneous, impulsive, and irregular.

This Modern revolution lies between Miss Patti and Miss Von Stade.

A Third Datum

In considering how performances of “Voi Che Sapete” have developed over the decades, we might as well bring our inquiry into the 21st century with the work of another soprano, (in this case a mezzo) Joyce DiDonata.

DiDonata performed the role of Cherubino for the Opera National de Paris, in June 2003. Her version takes just 2:57. In other words, the time occupied by the play of this aria upon the ears of the audience has continued to shorten.

Also, if you listen to each of the three performances, Patti’s, von Stade’s, and DiDonata’s, in succession I think you will agree that the suppression of vibrato continues. The second of our singers used it less than did the first, and in the work of the third it disappears almost completely. Perhaps the Modern style as Haynes defined it is under challenge in some concert halls and conservatories. But it still reigns supreme on the operatic stage.

We need not take sides in historical or critical arguments today, though. Please enjoy each of these three performances on its own terms.


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