Angela Gheorghiu in La Bohème – Donde lieta uscì
Positioning in the space
At the beginning of the concert aria, Angela Gheorghiu is holding onto the side of the grand piano. This is a convention I have observed of singers in recitals, but one which, in my opinion, makes it harder for the audience to believe in the character.It is a constant reminder to the audience that this is a performance.
However, on closer scrutiny of the staged version, she is holding onto a banister, which does the same job as the piano does in the concert version, of securing her to one place.It is not clear to me whether this has been done because of the character (the dying Mimì) needs help to stand up, or whether it gives her some security.
Singers often find holding on to something helpful with their technique. This is because is helps them to feel grounded, which is an important element of vocal technique. A singer who is grounded is able to use the whole of their body to help emit the sound quality they are seeking. This feeling of being grounded also helps with the ability to take a much deeper breath which is another key element of vocal technique. They may also want to hold onto something for dramatic reasons, such as wanting to feel a part of the space in which they are performing, or if it helps the characterisation.
In the best of cases, the same gesture helps with both elements: the needs of the character and the needs of the performer who is trying to embody the character.
It must also be noted that during the opera performance, she spends some time with her back to the audience. This is something she does not do at all in the concert version.Generally, the concert audience expects the performer to stand face front, which also limits movement and therefore, arguably, the extent the singer can embody the character.
Her sightlines in the opera are aimed at her love Rodolfo, or when she is thinking ‘internally’ the audience can see her thinking, but her gaze is not directed at them. However, in the concert version, her eyes appear to be scanning the room from right to left, as if she is not quite sure where to look. This is a huge problem in concert singing. She is supposed to be talking to someone who is not there, and if she were to simply choose a spot where he is, in her imagination, it would look most odd to the audience.
Her expression seems to express more distress in the staged version.The make up has been done to make her look as if she is very ill, whereas in the concert version she is wearing standard make up with accentuates her best features.She seems to be much happier in the concert version, and a smile is often lurking just behind the scenes, which comes out from time to time during the aria. In the staged version, her whole expression is much bleaker, and when she does choose to lighten her expression, it is all the more powerful for it, for example at the beginning, when she sings ‘d’amore’.
Hand and arm movements
In the staged version, she is holding a large white handkerchief, which gives one of her hands a focus and something to be occupied with. One of the problems singers often encounter is what to do with their hands. A staged opera is often able to solve this problem by giving the character things to hold or do while singing. In the concert setting, props are rarely used, and so the hands can become a problem.In Gheorghiu’s concert version, she uses the left hand to help demonstrate emotion, and when it is not doing that, it moves towards the other hand to join it, or it is by her side.Her use of movement with her hands and arms does not look out of place within the concert setting, and gives just enough movement, in my opinion, to help convey the character, and not to hinder it.
Kiri Te Kanawa in The Marriage of Figaro – Porgi Amor
Porgi Amor is a notoriously difficult aria to dramatically execute well, notwithstanding the vocal demands, which are not to be addressed here.This is because it comes at the beginning of Act II of the opera,and opens with a very long introduction, during which the Countess if often given some stage business, whilst vocally preparing to sing. It is one of only two occasions when the Countess can reveal some of her inner feelings to the audience.On the one hand, it is only too easy to sing this aria in a stolid way. In terms of vocal technique, this means singing the long legato lines with considerable weight on the top notes, thus giving a heavy feel to the line. This then results a performance with little of her inner emotion being shown, and on the other, overplaying the emotion, and overdoing the top notes, both dynamically and with too much rubato, which does not suit the noble and resigned nature of the character.
In the staged version, it is much easier to address the long introduction issue. With scenery and props, Kiri Te Kanawa is able to fill the instrumental music by giving the audience more insight into the character. Te Kanawa’s characterisation shows that the Countess is not wailing and throwing herself round her chamber, but is sitting in a corner at the back, dabbing her eyes with a lace handkerchief and trying not to indulge in self pity.She is slightly turned away from the audience, which adds to the intimacy of the scene.All this preparatory characterisation during the introduction means that when the vocal line starts, the audience already understands something of how her mind is working.
She is also able to keep up the intimate atmosphere by keeping her gaze low, and she even leans on the scenery, perhaps for morale, as she, the Countess is at her wits’ end.Her hands, holding the handkerchief remain on her upper body touching her heart, which appears to be a literal demonstration of her heart ‘ache’. At the end of the aria, she sits down at her desk, and after a pause for applause, Susannah enters, and the plot of the opera continues, thus giving the mood of the aria a natural end.
The staged extract shows clearly how the music, set, props and other characters all work together to enhance the audience’s understanding of the characters.In a concert setting, much of this symbiosis is lost.The introduction is often cut to one phrase before the vocal line starts, as it would be difficult to show the Countess’s feelings in the same way when movement and props are not present.Interestingly, however, the introduction is played in full in the concert version of Te Kanawa singing the same aria.
The concert version is from much later in her career, and I believe this makes has an impact on her dramatic choices. For example, she gives a very static performance, with no arm movements, minimal facial expressions and her mouth itself hardly opens. She stares into the middle distance, not down, as she does in the staged version, and she closes her eyes briefly (at 1:52), perhaps to indicate the intimacy that she has been unable to show otherwise. The static nature of this performance intensifies the emotion she is trying to convey, and gives the audience plenty of space to listen to the vocal quality as there are no distractions with movement.
My conclusion is that she has made the Countess even more stoical and resigned in the concert version, as this fits well for the occasion. Where movement and props are absent, she has made the character someone who moves little on purpose, so it works dramatically for the environment.This is something that I will consider when looking into how to characterise my own performances in concert settings.It is a subtle approach, but one that means her concert performance is very moving to the audience.
From the four perfomances analysed, it appears that both singers use elements of the staged performance in concert, but scale it down for the concert platform. For example, instead of holding the banister, Gheorghiu holds the edge of the piano.
With Porgi Amor, the context of the aria in the opera is slightly different, as the Countess is alone on stage, however, it is still necessary to make some adjustments for the concert platform. They both seem to find ways of helping themselves with the technical issues through the characterisation.This certainly echoes a proportion of the teachers surveyed who mentioned that to them, the boundary between vocal technique and characterisation, were indistinct.