Marina Mescheriakova - Soprano Arias
Eugene Onegin Norma Don Carlo Luisa Miller
Living in a global world, we rarely consider how many operasingers in the last fifty years have triumphed, at least in part, because of aparticular cultural background which shone through their public image. MariaCallas's blend of Greek, American and Italian culture, for instance, was anessential ingredient of her perceived persona, just as Leontyne Price'sdescent, with African-American memories of deportation and slavery, must havehelped with the creation of her unforgettable Aida.
Nowadays we can still detect regional varieties of tastewhen comparing opera programmes in Italy, France, Germany, Britain, the UnitedStates and Japan, but extending comparisons over the last fifty years, agrowing harmonization is undeniable almost anywhere, except in the formerSoviet Union. There things only now start to respond: only in 2002, forinstance, did the St Petersburg's Mariinsky stage their premi?¿re of Mozart'sCos?¼ fan tutte.
Ten years ago the programme of the recital here recordedwould never have been the choice of a Russian soprano. Until the final days ofthe Soviet era, Russian performers and opera lovers could know Luisa Miller,Maria Stuarda and La Vestale only from hearsay. Recordings of Callas orSutherland were restricted to a tiny elite of well-connected connoisseurs, andeven arias from standard operatic repertoire like Ernani or Norma were rarely,if ever, heard in their original context.
In other words Marina Mescheriakova's choice of programmehere is motivated by entirely personal reasons, founded on expatriation andcross-cultural encounters. Life-stories like hers are generally squeezed intothe uninspiring bio format, but become very interesting when read like anexplorer's logbook. We can say, in fact, that this recital charts the explorationof the global operatic repertoire by a brave and talented young lady fromRussia.
Composed in 1844 and based on the ultra-romantic stagesuccess Hernani by Victor Hugo, Ernani is Verdi's first opera set in Spain, oneof a series including Il trovatore, La forza del destino and Don Carlos. Allthese operas present sharp contrasts between day and night, love and duty,personal ethics and religion, young and old, contrasts on which Verdi thrived.In Ernani, Ernani, involami Leonora feels like a hostage in the castle of theold aristocrat Silva who wants to marry her. She hopes to be kidnapped by thebandit hero Ernani: his mountain cave will be heaven, compared with her gildedcage. In the closing cabaletta she bursts into an outright declaration of love.
Bellini is a supreme stylist in Italian opera, a strictobserver of quintessential elegance. His melodies curl snake-like around longsustained arches, accompaniments are kept at a meaningful minimum, chorus wordsbecome pointillist syllables detached by long pauses. With a libretto againbased on a French play, the lyric tragedy Norma was first staged at La Scala,Milan, in 1831. Norma is a druid priestess and Casta diva is her prayer to theMoon, as she performs a sacred rite in the woods of Celtic France. It is aglowing moment of beauty, as she tries to silence the anger of a communityunder Roman rule, and stifle her own sense of guilt at her association with herpeople's enemy.
Verdi and his wife loved the city of Genoa, where they oftenspent the winter at the lavish Palazzo Doria. An aural counterpart of seascapeshe loved and knew so well, the aria Come in quest'ora bruna, from the revised1881 Simon Boccanegra is an epitome of Verdi's mature style. From a terrace inGenoa Amelia looks at the sea at sunrise. She believes herself to be an orphanand has flashing memories of her dying mother. She does not know what herfuture will be, considering her adoptive family's strict code of honour.
Verdi's opera Don Carlos, based on a French version of Schiller'sdramatic poem, had its first performance, with a French libretto, in Paris in1867. The Italian version was first staged at La Scala in 1884. It centres onthe conflict between Don Carlos and his father, Philip II of Spain, who hasmarried Elisabeth de Valois, originally intended as a wife for Don Carlos. InTu che le vanit?á Elisabeth de Valois, in a crypt, addresses her plea forsympathy to the tomb of Charles V. She had hoped to marry Don Carlo and heralda new age, but is now the loveless wife of his father, who is ready to kill hisson. All dreams have vanished. She feels ready to die. This black, pessimisticscene is central not only to Don Carlo, but to Verdi's whole idea of drama.From Oberto to the end, Falstaff included, Verdi obsessively presents peoplewho speak to, but do not really understand each other. This failure incommunication is particularly prevalent between generations, as in Rigoletto orBoccanegra, but nowhere does it appear as fatal as in this portrait of a youngwoman reduced to converse with the dead.
Verdi's many prayer scenes are sometimes explained as anItalian stereotype, derived from familiar Catholic ritual. Strangely, however,these prayers never seem to yield any result. In fact, in Verdi's idea they areaddressed to an empty sky, and that is precisely why they are so tragic. Basedon Schiller's Kabale und Liebe, the opera Luisa Miller was first staged inNaples in 1849. In Tu puniscimi, o Signore Luisa Miller prays in desperation,as Count Walter's steward, Wurm, threatens her imprisoned father, demandingthat she renounce the Count's son, Rodolfo, and elope with him. She is forcedto renounce Rodolfo, but in the end the lovers die together, after Rodolfo haskilled Wurm.
Schiller's Maria Stuart was popular in nineteenth-centuryItaly in its depiction of a Catholic heroine, martyred by her Protestant rival.Donizetti's opera on the subject had a difficult early history, banned by royalcommand in Naples, where it was to have been first staged, and provokingcensorship in Milan in 1835 in a period when the execution of monarchs was asubject better avoided. In her cavatina O nube! che lieve per l'aria ti aggiriMary strolls in the park of Fotheringay where she is kept a prisoner. Sheenjoys this brief semblance of freedom: the sight of clouds moving East stirsmemories of her youth. Then she realises that Queen Elisabeth is huntingnearby, and has mixed feelings at the prospect of meeting her face-to-face.
The Italian composer Spontini established himself inNapoleonic Paris in 1807 with his opera La Vestale, a work much encouraged bythe Empress Josephine. The opera was revived by Arturo Toscanini in the earlytwentieth century and the aria O nume tutelar is taken from that Italianversion, made popular by Rosa Ponselle, Anita Cerquetti and Maria Callas. Apriestess of the Roman goddess Vesta, Giulia kneels before her altar to confessher guilt. Bound by a vow of chastity, she is in love with a man.
Tatiana's Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's 1878 opera EugeneOnegin is possibly the most famous letter scene in the history of opera. Herethe ingenuous young heroine writes of her love for Onegin, a careless young manof the world, who is to reject her. The scene unfolds in an impromptu formreminiscent of Chopin, ideal backdrop for a romantic 1830 debutante. With itsdemand for a wide palette of emotions and vocal colours, it is also above allthe text of maturity for a Russian lyric soprano.
Rachmaninov's operas returned to Russian repertoire in the1970s, when performances of his and Stravinsky's earlier, pre-Stalinist workswere again allowed. Composed on a libretto by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest,based on