It has to be conceded that although ideal, much can be gained from learning the whole role. A good knowledge of the whole role gives the singer the overall shape of the character’s emotional journey. This context provides a full understanding of what the character has gone through by the time a single aria is performed in the opera, which can then inform a concert performance.
For example, in The Marriage of Figaro, the Countess’ aria Porgi Amor comes at the beginning of Act 2. The audience has already seen that the Count is intent on exercising his Droit de Seigneur with Susannah, and completely disregards the fact that he is married, that his wife loves him, and that Susannah is betrothed to Figaro. When the Countess performs this aria, it is the first time that the audience sees her inner feelings, and it is even more tragic in the context of her callous husband.
In a concert performance, the audience will not have seen the preceding narrative leading up to the Countess’ outburst of desperation. The performer has several choices as to how they approach the aria :
- Sing as a ‘stand alone’ aria.
Porgi Amor has a beautiful sustained legato line. As it has no recitative, it is possible to sing this aria purely focussing on vocal technical excellence: giving emphasis to the legato line and ensuring the high notes are pianissimo where marked (for example on the word ‘morir’ at 2mins 23secs in Kiri Te Kanawa’s concert performance).
- Sing the aria as an extract from the opera
This would assume that the audience either knew the context of the aria within the opera, or a verbal introduction explaining the plot had been given, or there are extensive programme notes. For Porgi Amor, the singer could choose to use the performance space as if the Countess were in her private chamber, moving around it as the long introduction plays (from the start until 1mins 21secs in Kiri Te Kanawa’s staged performance). It may require a chair or other furniture on stage to give the whole effect.
- Sing the aria within the new context of the opera concert
Within the narrative of an opera concert, the aria could be performed in context of the other pieces which surround it. This requires careful programming which is discussed in Recommendation 5.