Déjà Review: this review was first published in March 2002 and the recording is still available.
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Le Belle Immagini
Prague Philharmonia/Michel Swierczewski
rec. 2001, Dvořák Hall, Prague
Deutsche Grammophon 4713342 
What is a mezzo-soprano? This is a question which has occupied a good many of my thoughts over the past year or so since an Italian soprano with whom I do much work changed teacher, was diagnosed as a mezzo-soprano and is now blossoming vocally in a way hitherto unimaginable. I have therefore witnessed the transformation stage by stage. But what are the signs? How can you tell what a singer’s real voice is?
I suppose I had vaguely presumed up till that time that a mezzo-soprano was a soprano voice pitched about a third down, but it doesn’t seem quite that simple. For one thing, the category hasn’t always been recognised, at least not explicitly. In Mozart’s C minor Mass, for example, there are parts for two sopranos (however, according to the edition you have, one of them may be labelled “mezzo-soprano”). But the big solo for the lower of the two, while it descends to a low A, is not suitable for all mezzo-sopranos since its coloratura passages lie fairly high, and it is sometimes taken by a “normal” soprano who can “manage” the lower notes. But an ability to “manage” the lower notes does not necessarily turn a soprano into a mezzo-soprano, for the part of Fiordiligi in Così fan Tutte also descends to a low A. But elsewhere a lot of the role goes extremely high and it has never been suggested that a mezzo-soprano might take it (well, recently there have been hints that Cecilia Bartoli might do so, but she is a special case; more of this later). There are also Mozartian parts which go neither particularly high nor particularly low (Cherubino, Dorabella) and which can be taken by either, and there are also some leading parts (Oktavian in Rosenkavalier, Rosina in Barbiere, Carmen) which have been taken by one or the other; the choice regards the tone-colour one wants to hear in the part (in the case of Rosina some of the decorations change according to which voice sings). So, while the actual label “mezzo-soprano” seems not to date back very far, there has always been a recognition by composers that voices all had their individuality and the strict definitions “soprano” and “contralto” ignored the reality that many singers were not wholly one or the other.
If you hear any female singer rehearsing, you will realise that women have a faculty which men do not have. When they sing a phrase over, not projecting the voice but to themselves, maybe to check word underlay or intonation, they mostly sing an octave down, at tenor pitch. Even a high soprano can get remarkably low when not singing “in voice”. This of course has no practical application in classical music since the sound reaches no great distance (in light music, with a microphone, the technique is actually cultivated). Then they take a deep breath and project the music in their singing voice, which usually means an octave up. If the singer is a contralto then she might sing at the same pitch since she will have rich, natural tones which take her down to a G or even an F with little need to employ her “chest voice”. Even a soprano can project her voice on these low notes, but she will have to use exclusively her chest voice. Singers of light music (those with what we call a “smoky” lower register) use this technique extensively and actually learn to carry their chest voice up quite high (think of Shirley Bassey, for example). Classical singers will tell you this hurts their voice and they avoid doing it. Occasionally you will hear a soprano doing what sounds like a Marlene Dietrich imitation as a stunt, by and large, though, a singer has to train as one or the other and any attempt to run parallel careers only ends in grief.
But there is also a way of catching some of the chest resonance to enrich the lower notes. If you listen to a singer like Christa Ludwig you will hear that even as high as the F above middle C she catches this resonance which then gives fullness to her timbre as she descends to her lower notes. This is a very different matter from the throaty roar which we hear from Risë Stevens in her recording of Gluck’s Orfeo – the effect there is not of enrichment, for there is nothing to enrich, it sounds merely worn out and jaded. So, setting aside what is just unpleasant singing, if you compare a pure contralto like Ferrier and a mezzo like Ludwig singing the same music, you will hear two quite distinct timbres, two different kinds of richness, equally beautiful.
That’s one end of the voice. Then there’s the question of the passaggio, or break, between the middle and upper registers. Again, you might think that a mezzo-soprano would have this about a third below the soprano and the contralto lower still, but actually it seems to be in roughly the same place for all women, around the F on the top line of the stave. A contralto will probably stop here, a light soprano will be as happy as a lark singing above it. Between these extremes each singer finds the area where she is happiest, and also, one hopes, that in which she can exhibit what is most individual in her own timbre of voice. So a mezzo-soprano may have all the top notes of a soprano, yet feel she is giving the best of herself in her middle register. A light soprano could presumably develop her chest register to descend as low as a mezzo, but will have chosen not to do so, probably on the basis that her upper register is where she feels happiest and where her voice appears to best advantage. There is at least some degree of choice in the matter, since for psychological reasons a singer may feel she is expressing herself best up on high or down in the depths. And the voice itself may shift up or down with the passing of time. Magdalena Kožená – to get down to brass tacks at last – has told how she used to sing Gluck’s Orfeo but now finds the role too low for her. My query – which formed itself in my mind before I saw the interview in question – is how long she is going to remain a mezzo-soprano at all.
The test piece is the Lucio Silla aria. This goes down to a low A, and she resolves it with a weakish chest-note. Any soprano could manage this. The bulk of the aria is pretty high, with a top C in the cadenza which does not seem to trouble her (but we don’t know how easily she can hold this note for a long time). She seems entirely happy – as she had already shown in Mysliveček’s Antigona aria – to rattle off coloratura around and above her break. From her middle register up to her highest notes her voice has a natural, fairly light, golden sound. Her vibrato is, shall we say, inclined towards the maximum acceptable, but for the moment it is a voice you can just sit back and drink in for its own sake.
One pleasing aspect of mezzo-sopranos (whether they really are that or not) is their willingness to look out new repertoire, presumably a reflection of the fact that standard operatic pieces don’t quite fit them. Recently Cecilia Bartoli had a tear-away success with a disc of pre-reform Gluck (Decca 467 248-2 – see my review of this). One of the Clemenza di Tito arias turns up again in Kožená’s collection of fairly rare Mozart (a swift but actually rather gentle “Voi che sapete” being the exception), rarer Gluck and even rarer Mysliveček. The obvious point when comparing the two versions of Gluck’s “Se mai senti spirarti” is that Bartoli sings it a tone higher (so what was the original key?), carrying her up to a high B which she resolves with celestial ease. Her tempo is also much slower (involving considerable feats of breath control) and time seems to stand still as her almost disembodied tones float languidly on the orchestra. Kožená’s estimable version seems plain beside this. So if Kožená is hardly a mezzo-soprano, what is Bartoli? Well, she could sing as a soprano, but her lower register assumes a contralto-like richness, which she can carry right down without undue use of chest tones. So yes, I think she is a mezzo, if one with a rather exceptional range.
Leaving aside the technical questions, what matters is that Kožená has a lovely, fresh-timbred voice, whether you regard it as a mezzo or not. Her manner of interpretation is more straightforward than Bartoli but her commitment is not in doubt. She does her compatriot Myslivicek proud (Gluck was a compatriot too, of course). Mozart always retains his special qualities but she makes out a case for Mysliveček being on a level with the lesser-known works of Gluck: He emerges as a little more traditional, more inclined to take at face value the florid traditions of opera as he found it, while Gluck moved towards reforming them. There is a bitterness in the text of “Dunque Licida ingrato” which I don’t find in the music (and I don’t think this is any failing of Kožená’s) but the music is otherwise vital, soundly composed, never banal and a fine vehicle for the voice. With good support from orchestra and conductor this is a disc which should be bought even by those who resist hype on principle.
From a mezzo-soprano who may not be a mezzo-soprano I next move to the other end of the scale to consider the case of a singer who is billed as a mezzo-contralto, Rebecca De Pont Davies.
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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
La clemenza di Tito: Parto, ma tu, ben mio
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Paride ed Elena: Le belle immagini d’un dolce amore
Josef Mysliveček (1737-1781)
Abramo ed Isacco: Chi per pietà mi dice – Deh, parlate, che forse tacendo
Le nozze di Figaro: Voi che sapete
Antigona: Sarò qual è il torrente
Idomeneo: Ah qual gelido orror – Il padre adorato
Paride ed Elena: O del mio dolce ardor
Lucio Silla: Dunque sperar poss’io – il tenero momento
La finta giardiniera: Va’ pure ad altri in braccio
L’Olimpiade: Dunque Licida ingrato – Più non si trovano
La clemenza di Tito: Se mai senti spirarti sul volto
L’Olimpiade: Che non mi disse dì!
La clemenza di Tito: Deh, per questo istante solo