Monologues bonitatibus PROSP0068

Anna Bonitatibus (mezzo soprano)
Adele D’Aronzo (piano)
Texts and translations included
rec. 2022, Sala registrazione Griffa & Figli Sri, Milan, Italy
Prospero PROSP0068 [2 CDs: 82]

The superb mezzo Italian mezzo Anna Bonitatibus is, I suppose, most famous for her performances in opera, whether on stage or in the recording studio, but she is also a distinguished concert artist, in repertoire which ranges from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater to Berio’s Quattro canzoni populare. On this new album, she sings some largely unfamiliar repertoire which occupies a kind of middle ground between the opera house and the concert hall.

The result is an outstanding recording, in which Bonitatibus displays something like the full variety of her voice, a variety governed by a strong sense of the appropriate style for each piece, whether in the largely classical idiom of Zingarelli’s Ero or the mature Rossini of Giovanna D’Arco. Throughout there is a strong sense of drama. This is not achieved by a showy theatricality, but primarily by the skill with which Bonitatibus creates a depth and weight of character and the deftness with which a back story is created/recreated.

The quality of the verse Bonitatibus sings is variable. Zingarelli’s Ero has a somewhat pedestrian text by one Gaspare Mello (1752-1837) a magistrate and amateur poet, whereas Viardot’s Scène d’Hermione sets a text loosely adapted, perhaps by Viardot herself, from Act IV Scene iv of Racine’s Andromaque (1667). Something of Racine’s verbal subtlety survives, as does more than a little of his gift for the dramatic expression of emotion. The text, translated from Shelley’s ‘Arethusa’, which Roberto Ascoli prepared for Respighi’s Aretusa is both fluent and generally faithful to the poet. For (Les) Adieux de Marie Stuart, Wagner was reasonably well-served by Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780-1857). While by no means a great poet, Béranger was a popular one; his interest in French history is communicated in readily understood and often sentimental poems.

The literary tradition behind these monologues begins with the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC- AD 18). His collection the Heroides, is largely made up of a series of poems pretending to be ‘letters’ written by some of the aggrieved heroines from Greek and Roman mythology, such as Penelope, Briseis, Phaedra, Oenone, Dido, Ariadne and Laodamia. Some of the women reimagined by Ovid are still familiar and resonant names, while others are familiar chiefly to classical scholars. In each case Ovid presents their response in a time of crisis, usually a crisis related to love, whether being, for example, betrayed or abandoned (e.g. Ariadne or Medea) or coping with uncertainty about a husband’s safety (e.g. Penelope). In recent times feminists have understandably objected to the assumption that a male poet might feel free to represent female emotions and attitudes towards such matters, but for many centuries the poems of the Heroides were immensely influential. They were frequently translated and imitated, especially during and after the Renaissance.

Italian Renaissance poets were, unsurprisingly, very ready to make use of the model provided by Ovid’s Heroides. Nor is it in any way unexpected that with the rise of monody (in which composers believed themselves to be following an ancient model) composers were soon involved in the creation of solo vocal pieces which imitated (though now with music) what Ovid had done in the Heroides. Although Monteverdi’s opera L’Arianna is lost, one extended piece, known as the ‘Lamento d’Arianna’ does survive. This was important in creating the fashion for scenes of female lamentation in the Italian opera of succeeding decades. It was also a significant influence on the creation of solo vocal cantatas presenting the sorrows and anxieties of female protagonists. Examples, to mention a few that come to mind, include Handel’s Armida abbandonata (c.1707) and Lucrezia (1708), Clérambault’s Médée (1710) and, to skip a few decades, Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos (c.1789).

Born in Naples, where he initially studied at the Conservatorio Santa Maria di Loreto, Niccolò Zingarelli had a considerable reputation during his lifetime, but now seems to be largely forgotten. He held several prestigious positions, being at various times maestro di cappella at Milan Cathedral, choir master of the Sistine Chapel, and maestro di cappella of the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto. He composed almost forty operas including one of his few operas which is still remembered, Giulietta e Romeo, premiered at La Scala in January 1796. He also wrote a substantial body of sacred music. His Ero imagines Hero’s feelings as she waits one night for her lover Leander to swim across the Hellespont from Abydos to join her at Sestos. Without a great deal of subtlety Mollo’s text implies that the night in question is that on which Leander will drown in the attempt to reach her. In the opening lines, Ero tells us that desio [desire] and spavento [fear] are at war in her agitate mente [disturbed mind]. The external storm of wind and rain is, as it were, interiorised in Ero. Zingarelli’s music evokes much of this restlessness, internal and external and at its best Mollo’s text conflates Hero’s turmoil with the storm which surrounds her. That the changes in her emotional state are largely convincing in this performance owes, I suspect, more to Bonitatibus and D’Aronzo than to Mollo or Zingarelli. Still, their performance makes one suspect that Zingarelli’s current obscurity may not be wholly deserved. Even with such skilled advocacy, however, he is unlikely ever to achieve again the kind of fame and respect he had in his own time, which was such that Donizetti wrote a sinfonia funebre for performance at his funeral.

It is a nice touch, then, that the second piece in the programme should be by Donizetti. There is another connection between the composers. They both contributed to the contemporary interest in the Greek poet Sappho – though as a book like Margaret Reynolds’ The Sappho Companion (London, 2000) makes clear she and her work have fascinated writers and artists continuously across many centuries. There was a particular flowering of such fascination in Italy in the first decades of the nineteenth century. A few years before Donizetti wrote his Saffo, Zingarelli had written (c.1818/19) a cantata with same title (again with words by Gaspare Mello), while Giovanni Pacini’s opera Saffo was premiered in Naples in 1840. The most enduring of these reconsiderations of Sappho was, however, poetic rather than musical. This was a remarkable poem by Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), one of the greatest Italian poets. His ‘L’Ultimo canto di Saffo’ – one of the great Romantic poems – was written in 1822 and first published in 1824. Like the text which Donizetti set, Leopardi’s poem is concerned with the legend of Sappho’s death, according to which she fell passionately in love with a handsome young man called Phaon and when he did not return her love she jumped to her death from a high cliff. Whoever wrote the text for this piece it certainly seems to be one that pleased the composer and which brought out something like the best of him. Hitherto largely forgotten (written when Donizetti was around 26/27), it is a work which, while being eminently pleasing in itself, also looks forward to some of the operas Donizetti would go on to write. Although Saffo is scored for the soprano voice, Bonitatibus performs it superbly, her singing emotionally powerful but sensitive to every nuance of text and music. After a slow piano introduction in which Adele D’Aronzo sets the scene beautifully – the scene being, of course, entirely imaginary – Bonitatibus makes a thing of beauty out of the opening recitativo arioso, a powerful expression of Sappho’s anger at Phaon, ‘il perfido’ This is followed by a calmer, but melancholy and troubled andante aria in which the interplay between D’Aronzo and Bonitatibus effects some ravishingly beautiful emotional expression in verse which makes use of imagery from the natural world. This central section of Saffo is extraordinarily beautiful and moving. The closing phase of the work, which has a greater sense of urgency, articulates Sapho’s eagerness to embrace death. Again, the performance is powerfully and intensely passionate. The whole is revealed by these two superb musicians to be a work of real substance, which admirers of Donizetti will surely want to hear, or better still, to have in their collection.

When Donizetti wrote his Saffo he had very little operatic success behind him. On the other hand, when Rossini wrote Giovanna D’Arco, his CV already included works such as Tancredi (1813), Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816), Otello (1816) and Guillaume Tell (1829). This, in short, was the work of a more mature composer. In an interview with Katherine Cooper available on the Presto Music website (Anna Bonitatibus on Monologues | Presto Music ) Anna Bonitatibus declares “I’ve always been very interested in this unclassifiable area of vocal music that runs in parallel to opera – pieces that occupy a terra di mezzo between opera and art-song without being either of them. From Monteverdi’s Lettera Amorosa onwards, there’s this rich tradition of works with a strong dramatic structure and a single, fully-realised character (usually from history or myth) with a compelling story to tell.” She also makes it clear that this work by Rossini lies at the heart of the ‘Monologues’ project: “My starting-point in terms of repertoire was Rossini’s Giovanna d’Arco, which is a work I’ve performed and loved for decades […] Rossini has been so much part of my operatic career, and this particular piece has been with me for so long – but it’s extremely demanding, and I really wanted to record it now, with a deeper knowledge and experience of Rossini serio, compared to my beginnings. My pianist and I approach it in a totally new light, removing all of the rubbish that we singers plaster all over Rossini’s music and getting back to what he actually wrote – respecting tempi, agogica, expression-signs and everything else.” That she has thought long and hard about the piece, and that she has learned from the experience of singing it, is evident everywhere in this splendid interpretation. The anonymous text cannot be said to be anything more than serviceable, but that doesn’t inhibit Rossini – or, for that matter Bonitatibus. The work is made up of two recitatives, each introducing an aria. The opening recitative introduces the scene and the character “E notte, e tutto addormmenato è il mondo, / Sola io veglio, ed aspetto / che un destrier passi, / che una tromba chiami” – Joan waits in the night, eagerly anticipating a summons from a rider on a warhorse or a trumpet call. The first aria begins with Joan imagining her mother’s reaction when she discovers her daughter’s absence. This aria is based on just eight lines of text, but makes a compelling impact, as Rossini – and these outstanding interpreters – affirm that after her initial distress Joan’ mother will be envied by all French men and women when her military achievements (about which Joan has absolute confidence) are known. Military imagery takes over in the second recitative – Presto un brando, marciamo pugnando. / Viva il Re, la vittoria è con me.” [Let us march stabbing, with sword at the ready. Long live the King, Victory is with me]. The closing aria is celebratory in tone, as “Corre la goia di core in core” [Joy spreads rapidly from heart to heart]. Every transition of mood is articulated with the kind of mastery one expects from Rossini. The whole is both powerful and sensitive. The partnership between Bonitatibus and D’Aronzo has here a remarkable synergetic power.

At the age of 26/27 Wagner was in Paris, struggling for money, not for the first or last time. Friends encouraged him to write songs, perhaps a vocal lament. He wrote a several settings of French texts, including ‘Attente’ (setting a poem from Hugo’s Les Orientales) and ‘Mignonne’ (text by Ronsard): these were written in 1839. In March of the following year, he composed the far more substantial Adieux de Marie Stuart – longer and altogether more ambitious. The ‘occasion’ ventriloquised in Béranger’s poem is the moment in August 1561 when the eighteen-year-old ‘Marie’ was obliged to leave France, where she had been brought up since the age of six and which she loved, on the death of her husband Francis II, and return to claim her place as queen of Scotland. A sixteenth century verse ‘complaint’, sometimes attributed to Mary, survives and probably influenced Béranger as did Friedrich Schiller’s tragedy Maria Stuarda (1800). The main features of Wagner’s setting of Béranger’s poem are well described by Barry Millington in his Wagner Companion (1992, p.37): “Wagner seizes the opportunity for some grand operatic gesturing (he was in the middle of Rienzi at the time). The vocal line scoops down through a whole octave, for example, on the words ‘patrie’ and ‘Marie’, while cadenza-like flourishes later in the song become even more extravagant. Delivered with panache and conviction, the song makes a considerable dramatic effect”. Panache and conviction are not in short supply in this performance – though unlike Millington, I would be inclined to identify its effect as psychological and emotional rather than ‘dramatic’. This is not to say that Wagner doesn’t also think in ‘scenic’ terms – notably in the way in which the piano part evokes the movement of the ship on which Marie/Mary must reluctantly sail to Scotland. Indeed, the success of the interplay between Bonitatibus and D’Aronzo makes this monologue sound so absolutely convincing I find myself wondering whether they haven’t perhaps made (Les) Adieux de Marie Stuart sound better than it really is.

Pauline Viardot was, of course, a world-famous singer. She was also a more-than-competent composer, new light on which has been thrown by the increased interest in women composers in recent years. She was a good enough pianist to play duets with both Chopin and Clara Schumann. Franz Liszt is reported to have said – I haven’t been able to find the source for this – that in Pauline Viardot the world had its first female musical genius. Saint-Saens described Viardot’s compositions as “highly creditable” and “extremely original” (quoted thus in Michael Steen’s entertaining biography of Viardot, Enchantress of Nations, Pauline Viardot: Soprano, Muse and Lover, 2007, p. 91). Her output as a composer included five chamber operas, a great many songs, some piano pieces and some works for chamber ensembles. Her musical knowledge and judgement were such that some composers (Meyerbeer seems to have been one such) welcomed her collaboration when writing roles that she was to sing. Her Scène d’Hermione is certainly a very accomplished piece of work. Its text is an adaptation of part of a famous scene (Act IV Scene v) in Racine’s tragedy Andromaque (premiered in 1667), essentially isolating Hermione’s immensely powerful speech which closes that scene. Who made the adaptation doesn’t seem to be known – the Parisian Viardot, could easily have done the job herself. Scène d’Hermione opens with what is essentially recitative, in which piano tremolos reinforce Hermione’s passionate anger (doing full justice to the power of Racine’s language). That anger gets even more forceful expression in the following section (Andante mosso) in which Bonitatibus sings with a glorious intensity which is simultaneously ferocious and perfectly controlled. The central passage of the work (Andante) feels like the threatening lull before the breaking of the storm – a storm which explodes in the closing passage of the work (Allegro), where vocalist and pianist work together with remarkable emotional intensity, the lower end of the piano used to great effect, as Bonitatibus’ voice takes on greater weight and darkness of tone. The delivery of the last line in the text is utterly overwhelming in its vehemence. The whole is irresistible, with a startling range of colours perfectly united by the sense of character and situation created by Bonitatibus and D’Aronzo. (Maybe one needs to know the story of Hermione, at least in outline, to respond fully to the work. Fortunately, the booklet notes provide enough of the back-story).

I have left until last Mel Bonis’ Salomé and Respighi’s Aretusa since both of them are, as it were, outliers in terms of the Album’s programme; Salomé most obviously, since it is a piece for solo piano, not a vocal monologue. The poem by Shelley, translated by Roberto Ascoli, which is set by Respighi, is a third person narrative not a first-person dramatic monologue. In it, Aretusa is the personification of a natural feature more than a woman in crisis as other protagonists on these discs are. The name Salome carries with it a weight of associations – biblical, literary and musical. Most cultural representations of Salome have been created by men such as, for example, Oscar Wilde, Richard Strauss, Caravaggio and Gustave Moreau, Bonis’ Salomé being an important exception. Though the work is described as a ‘dance for the piano’ any expectation that this will be ‘a dance of the seven veils’ will be disappointed. Even though there are some sinuous and sensuous elements in the writing, Bonis’ Salomé has no dealings with erotic frenzy. A more appropriate context in which to consider and appreciate the work is provided by seeing at as part of an important strand in Bonis’ work, a series of pieces to which she gave the title  Femmes de légende, who include figures such as Mélisande, Cleopatra, Ophelia and Desdemona. Some of the works were only published posthumously. Bonis herself gave the premiere of the piano version of Salomé in 1909. I think of the sequence as a female musician’s repossession of that tradition of male voicing of female emotions which began with Ovid’s Heroides. Salomé’s use of orientalising motifs is tempered by a typically French elegance. The work has quiet moments of reflection and an underlying sense of seriousness. This Salome is finding, with purposeful self-discipline, a way to exert female power in a male dominated world. There is no loss of emotional control here. The result is a beautiful short piece. Though it is relatively free in structure, there is never any sense of the diffuse or shapeless. Adele D’Aronzo’s performance is utterly persuasive, the variety of colours and dynamics perfectly judged.

As noted earlier, Respighi’s Aretusa is not a monologue in the sense that, say, Zingarelli’s Ero and Rossini’s Giovanna D’Arco are, being a third person narrative in which she is one of the characters. Her story was told by Ovid, not in his Heroides this time, but in Book Five (lines 865-98) of his huge collection of mythological narratives of transformation, Metamorphoses. She was a wood nymph in Arcady who bathed in a river, not realising that this was the river god Alpheus. On seeing Arethusa, Alpheus lusted after her, but she resisted and fled. To help her escape, Artemis transformed her into a subterranean stream which ran beneath the sea to Sicily. The version of this story set by Respighi is that found in Shelley’s poem ‘Arethusa’ in a generally faithful translation by Roberto Ascoli. Shelley essentially reads the myth as an account of natural phenomena, as about the fusing of two water sources. In the text, Arethusa is given a very brief moment of quasi-human complaint, which I will quote in the Shelleyan original: “Oh, save me! Oh, guide me! / And bid the deep hide me, / For he grasps me now by the hair!”. For the most part, however, ‘human’ emotions are absent from the poem, which ends in the unification of the two rivers/streams beneath the mountains of Enna – “Down one vale where the morning basks, / Like friends once parted / Grown single-hearted, / They ply their watery tasks”

For reasons such as these, Respighi’s elegant Aretusa is less emotionally intense, less personal, than the other vocal works in this album, even if the text is clearly related to the theme of predatory male attitudes to women which characterises several of those other pieces. Less emotionally intense it may be, but Aretusa is an assured piece of work. I have admired this beautiful piece for some years. Long ago – it was issued in 1992 – I had a copy of Janet Baker’s performance of the orchestral version of Aretusa, with the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Richard Hickox (Collins Classics 13492). Here we have what is claimed – doubtless correctly – to be the first ever recording of the version for voice and piano. Though I am an admirer both of Baker (especially) and Hickox, this new recording seems to me superior, but currently I can listen to the Baker/Hickox recording only on YouTube. In this new version I have heard new subtleties in the music; Bonitatibus interprets the (rather good) Italian text with great finesse and precision, and I have always found the orchestral accompaniment a little too fussy. The piano part is, in Bonitatibus’ words “prominent, with a dense and virtuosic scoring, particularly attentive to timbre and sonority”, but it makes for a more balanced relationship between instrumental and vocal dimensions of the work. Many a modern pianist could cope with the technical demands of Respighi’s piano part, but relatively few could, I suspect, combine that part so beautifully with the vocal lines. I have found this recording of Aretusa little short of revelatory.

The recorded sound on this album is excellent and so is the documentation in the handsomely produced booklet. I cannot praise too highly the skill and perception that inform the performances of Anna Bonitatibus and Adele D’Arronzo. I imagine that this will be one of my choices when the time to choose Recordings of the Year comes round again.

Glyn Pursglove

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Niccolò Zingarelli (1752-1837)
Erop, monologo per voce e pianoforte (c.1804)*
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848)
Saffo, cantata a voce sola e pianoforte (1824)**
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Giovanna D’Arco, cantata a voce sola e pianoforte (1832)
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
(Les) Adieux de Marie Stuart, Lai [Lamento] pour voix et piano (1840)
Pauline Viardot (1821-1910)
Scène d’Hermione, pour contralto et piano (1887)
Melanie Bonis (1858-1937)
Salomé, Op. 100, Danse pour piano (1909)
Ottorino Respighi (1979-1936)
Aretusa, Poemetto per voce e pianoforte (1910)*

*First recording for voice and piano
**World premiere recording