Friday, August 5, 2011

Singing Italian music: come si parla

I recently received a recording of a piece I am interested in doing at my school, Garica’s I Cinesi. It is one of a series of one act operas written by Manuel Garica to be performed in salons, and is for voices and piano. The works are all gratefully written for the voice, and are a bit like early Rossini in style. The modulations are individual and surprisingly original. The vocal writing demands an assured coloratura technique.

The recording I have is of a college opera department, and they sing, for the most part, pretty well. The Italian is curious, to say the least. All of the vowels are correctly pronounced, and the double consonants are all there; but to my ears it still sounds like terrible Italian. The actual cadence or phrasing of the Italian language is simply not there.

Most young singers have no idea that they are expected to impose the shape of the language on the notes. This may be why so much collegiate Italian is so bad. In Italian music, for example, whenever a composer sets a word with an unstressed ending, a decrescendo, or “phrasing off” (often an appogiatura) is expected., even if what is on the page are two equal notes on the same pitch.

On the more global level, every phrase of the music corresponds to the natural pronunciation of the text; this requires carrying the stress patterns of the language over to the written out notes themselves. In classical repertoire, very little of the performance dynamics are actually written into the music. To a young singer, it may requires a certain courage to add so much to the written score. It is an expected part of the performer’s job.

In Mozart, for instance, once you begin to sing the music with the cadence of the language, you begin to perform in the Mozart style. Mozart usually writes his high notes on unstressed syllables, except at the climax of the piece. This means that most Mozart high notes are should be sung piano; it is the same phrasing you can hear when any good violinist plays a Mozart Concerto.
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