I am following the natural development of opera itself. If we talk about a type of voice which is considered to be correct for the dramatic bel canto repertoire interpretation, first we have to consider that after Verdi came the Verismo and it mixed all the cards. Take for example the role of Norma. We are used to hearing it in a more dramatic voice (I think of Ghena Dimitrova) but it was not like that in the times of Bellini.
“SPIRITO”, il nuovo CD di Marina Rebeka
Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka became one of the most important young sopranos of her generation thanks to her impressive voice, outstanding vocal technique, palpable musicality, and a very strong and commanding stage presence. Her repertory spans from baroque to Mozart, Rossini to Tchaikovsky and Verdi, and now including dramatic bel canto heroines of operas from Bellini and Donizetti. Most recently, Rebeka performed with great success the title roles of Norma, María Stuarda, and Anna Bolena.
After her first two albums – the acclaimed “Mozart Arias” followed by Rossini “Amor Fatale” – Rebeka recorded her latest solo project, “Spirito”, arias from Bellini, Donizetti and Spontini.
We recently talked with Marina between her performances of Anna Bolena in Bordeaux, about how her new album was planned, the key aspects of the arias she recorded, but also about the research she did from the original sources, and the special technical details used for the recording of “Spirito”.
How did the idea of recording your new album “Spirito” come about after your all-Rossini “Amor Fatale” and your all-Mozart “Mozart Arias”?
MR: Well, the way in which opera evolved was from baroque to Mozart, then Rossini – the first composer of the bel canto period – and then came Bellini, Donizetti, and the other bel canto composers until we arrive to Verdi. I am following the natural development of opera itself. If we talk about a type of voice which is considered to be correct for the dramatic bel canto repertoire interpretation, first we have to consider that after Verdi came the Verismo and it mixed all the cards. Take for example the role of Norma. We are used to hearing it in a more dramatic voice (I think of Ghena Dimitrova) but it was not like that in the times of Bellini. Bel canto requires a dramatic personality and a certain color, but not necessarily an enormous voice, as Turandot needs. The orchestration is different in bel canto than it is in Puccini, original opera halls were much smaller, the orchestra tuning was different, and the instruments did not play on nylon strings like nowadays; in bel canto, the whole orchestration is smaller and it is more about the beauty of the line and the voice, melody, and harmony. You have nowhere to hide! You are very exposed as a singer. Dramatic bel canto it’s rooted in Rossini serio, just as the first Verdi has its beginnings in the dramatic bel canto.
At a personal level, the reason why I became an opera singer starts with bel canto. I was thirteen years old when I first heard Norma and it was love from the first sound. The beauty of the music combined with the passionate singing and the dramatic story had a huge impact on me!
Now coming back to “Spirito”, the idea of making an album of this type of repertory came, obviously, because of my love for bel canto music, the experience that I gained singing it on stage, and of challenges I had to face preparing and performing it. As I did in “Amor Fatale”, I wanted to go deeper into the original sources – manuscripts, to feel closer to the composer and understand his ideas better. I have already performed Norma and Maria Stuarda on stage several times and I am performing at the moment Anna Bolena in Bordeaux. The future will bring me to Il Pirata as well. For this recording I combined the most difficult and well-known scenes of these operas, adding two more scenes from Spontini’s La Vestale, which are less-known, but very beautiful.
Speaking of Spontini’s La Vestale, I found the manuscript of this masterpiece, which was admired by many composers and critics, in the Bibliotéque National Francaise. Spontini had written La Vestale in French.
The Italian version is better known, thanks to Maria Callas, but there are lots of differences between these two versions, I personally find the French version much more engaging.
Where did your love for the original manuscripts of the works you sing come from?
I was singing La petite Messe Sollennelle with Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale Santa Cecilia in 2012. During rehearsals, I had the opportunity to see the so-called facsimile, which is a photocopy of Rossini’s manuscript, and I saw many differences in the text, in musical signs, and then in other small details that the normal listeners might not even notice, but they make a big difference for the interpreter’s understanding of the music and of the composer‘s intention.
For “Spirito”, I visited the Bibliotéque National Francaise, the Biblioteca Braindense in Milan, the Biblioteca dell Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Newberry Library of Chicago, and was in contact with the Stiftelsen Musikkulturens Främjande in Stockholm.
When I went to the Biblioteca Braindense I quickly realized that the facsimile was very old and it had been scanned many years ago; even with the magnifying glass I was unable to see it well. After speaking to the librarian, and explaining to him that I was doing research for my new album, he kindly agreed to let me see the originals. So after signing all the needed documentation, I had the real, original Donizetti score in front of me. It was a very exciting moment.
You released “Spirito” with your own label – Prima Classic. Can you tell us how the idea of making your own record label came about?
At the moment, the major labels don’t have a lot of interest in adding singers to their roster. In today’s market, they heavily promote one or two leading singers and they ignore the rest. I have lots of excellent colleagues who are singing all around the world, they are well-known, but they don’t have any recordings. There is a sort of monopoly in terms of promoting certain artists and not others, which I don’t think is correct. People should know that there are many other singers capable of doing great things.
There is also another reason – the sound quality of the recording. Some voices are considered to be good for recordings and others are not. This happens with big voices that have large dynamics and amplitude: from pianissimo to fortissimo. There are big voices that sound shouty, harsh or too loud in recordings but in a live performance, they are the ones that cut through the orchestra and fill the hall without any effort. There is the other side of the coin, where there are voices which can’t be heard that much in live performances but sound amazing in recordings.
When I met my husband, who is a sound engineer, he taught me a lot about the physical and technical aspects of recording. This process shouldn’t be the same for every voice. It can be a creative process also. As is the case with many singers, we hate listening to our own recordings but at least we want our albums to sound almost as equal as possible to what our voices sound like live.
I also want to add that my record label is not just for my albums. We are planning several projects with other singers, conductors, and orchestras. Prima Classic is a truly independent label with its own philosophy, and actively searching for extraordinary singers.
We asked to Edgardo Vertanessian – What about the technicalities of the way “Spirito” was recorded? What makes it different from other albums?
The approach we used for the sound of “Spirito”, from a technical perspective, was one that allowed us to bring the listener closer to the singer and to the orchestra.
We believe that a recording should be technically transparent, but in order to create an engaging and meaningful listening experience, it should show every nuance that both the singers and the orchestra do.
For various technical reasons, some opera recordings sound as if there were a veil between the listener and the singers’ voices, or at other times as if the singers were physically far away from where the music is happening.
To get the results we set out to achieve, we used a slightly different microphone technique and a lot of attention was paid during the mixing process. The fact that at Prima Classic we count with our own recording and mastering studio, allowed us to invest the time and effort needed to achieve this goal.
We hope that the listeners will not think about the sound itself—because a recording is just a medium—but instead, let the voices and the music speak directly to each one of them, with beauty and clarity.
When I listened to “Spirito” I noticed that your interpretations of the arias sound fresh, even if we have already heard them with other singers, in your voice, they sound as if you had inserted your own seal.
I think it has to do with the emotional aspect of how I wanted to sing the music. It’s much easier to just sing it beautifully, but without getting too involved, without adding anything personal. If you put your emotions and your own vision of the situations these characters are going through in the arias, it becomes something that is identified with you. You have to de code the score with your own interpretation.
How was it to record “Casta Diva” after you have done NORMA in Trieste and at the MET? Because the album opens with this famous aria…
Everybody knows Norma because of “Casta diva”. I always say that it is a prayer for peace and it is important that this aria opens the album because of the situation we are living in nowadays in the world. It is also the most famous piece of the whole album. In sense of interpretation – everyone prays in his or her own way, and so did I.
Did you enjoy singing the original version of “Ah, bello a me ritorna” in the recording?
“Ah, bello a me ritorna” is a difficult one to decide how to interpret. If you sing it too fast, it would seem it is a happy and funny moment, and it really is a moment of Norma talking to herself. It is a desperate wish for the relationship she had with Pollione, a memory, but also a very intimate moment for her. I sing it at a slower tempo and I know I might be criticized for doing so. Singing the original complete version requires to do variations, not only in the melodic line but also in the tempo. The coloraturas might not be that fast, they are more reflective, not mechanical. It depends on the emotion you want to express but they have to be absolutely clear. I have two very spiritual women opening and closing “Spirito”: Norma and Julia from La Vestale. They both sing prayers but in very different contexts.
And you have two queens between them: Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena…
Yes, and some people may ask why I didn’t record the final scene of Elisabetta from Roberto Devereux? It really was because there was no more time left in the CD, which is already 78 minutes long. But also, from an artistic point of view, Elisabetta is an older woman, and I was dealing with younger queens and priestesses in all the other arias. Then we have Imogene in Il Pirata, who is a very religious noblewoman.
Speaking of Imogene, what is the difference between the Bellini in Il Pirata and in Norma?
From the arias I sing in “Spirito” I can say that Il Pirata is closer to the second part of Norma. In Norma you have very lyrical episodes, especially “Casta Diva”, and then it has nothing to do with the rest of the furious coloraturas and dramatics of the rest of the role. Il Pirata is much more central than Norma, it doesn’t go up high too much. It is a completely different character. Imogene is going crazy in her aria and Norma is singing a prayer.
Now that you are singing your first Anna Bolena, tell us about the role and how it is different from Maria Stuarda.
Anna Bolena is very interesting because there is a big difference between the historical person and the operatic role. In real life, she was very much into politics, a very ambitious and shrewd woman. This is not the case with Donizetti’s romanticized version of her. Although in the opera she is still very strong, he portrays her as a woman who is still in love with Henry. Donizetti wanted the audience to have compassion for Anna. The fact that the opera starts when the problem of Henry’s infidelity to Anna is already there, helps to make Bolena’s character more likable. We don’t see the beginning of their relationship and how she became the queen. The real Anna was not as nice as the operatic version shows her.
The story of Maria Stuarda is a bit different. Maria Stuarda was a source of inspiration for many writers and poets, she was an extremely smart, beautiful and well-educated woman. Donizetti admired her as well. At the moment when the opera starts we see her already forgotten by everybody, abandoned, then we see her conflict with Elisabeth which leads to the big final scene. Mary’s Stewart’s words remained in history – “In my end is my beginning”.
Speaking of Maria Stuarda, you’ve sung the opera in Riga and in Rome: why did you start with Stuarda and then sing Bolena?
It was all a coincidence. For me, Stuarda is more difficult than Bolena, which is more homogenous. Maria Stuarda writing goes up and down and requires darker color of the voice.
It is very important to mention that you do have a full chorus in the scenes and arias on the album. How was the selection of the chorus?
I really wanted to have an Italian chorus singing this music and to record it in the Teatro Massimo di Palermo. All the soloists are Italian, as well as the conductor. They have these operas in their blood. And the theater’s acoustic is amazing! It is not cold, as when you record in a studio.
So we can expect you to sing these roles in the future a lot…
Yes. I have many projects with dramatic bel canto in the future. I will continue the process of going from bel canto to early and then middle Verdi, which I have already started with Luisa Miller, Giovanna D’Arco, Simon Boccanegra. Also, I will include some Russian, Czech and French repertoire.
Thanks so much for the interview.
Thanks a lot to you!