Nostalgic Recollections of a Concert that Did not Take Place

Film: » Fuoco sacro – A Search for the Sacred Fire of Song «

by Jan Schmidt-Garre

The hall of the velvet fin-de-siècle theatre had filled up, the orchestra had taken its places on the small stage, and while we were still talking, we felt, without looking up, that something was happening. The conversations quietened down and finally became completely silent. It had darkened imperceptibly. Nobody had noticed the conductor’s entrance. Tender minor chords resounded out of the the gloom, parallel fifths of the woodwinds and high strings. Sounds like those of Ravel or Debussy, but warmer, more archaic, coming from a different world than that of France. A female voice mixed in, from the middle of the stalls, pulsating like an open heart. A cone of light captured the slim woman: simple white dress, almost a smock, pitch-black hair tied back. As the “Angel of the Lord” she walked to the podium and reminded us of the origin of all the music from the prayers of Saint Cecilia that God may preserve her purity – a prayer “which blossomed into songs and fragrant harmonies”. She sang the prologue to the opera “Cecilia” by the priest Licinio Refice, written at the end of the 1920s in Rome for the soprano Claudia Muzio. The singer left the stage during the postlude and the conductor went over to the flute solo at the beginning of Debussy’s first “Épigraphes antiques” – in the same key as the end of Licinio’s prologue – without giving the audience the opportunity to applaud him, the now brightly lit orchestra or the disappeared singer.

When she returned, she wore a dark dress. Again the orchestra had begun before she entered the stage. It played the broken chords before the first aria of Adriana Lecouvreur from Cilèa’s opera about the great actress of the 18th Century. The singer held a textbook in her hand, Racine’s “Bajazet"; she memorized her lines, played with accents and vocal gestures. Then the aria, tellingly: “I am the humble maid of the creative spirit. He gives me language, I carry it into the hearts.” With a smile, the singer blurred the boundaries between Cilèa’s artificial character and the performer standing in front of us on stage. Finally applause.

The orchestra repeated the last chord of the aria and transformed it into the pale harmonies of Mascagni’s “Lodoletta”. Months ago, Lodoletta had left her home village to find her childhood love again. Now she stands in front of his door, looks through the misted windows and imagines their reunion. As if she wanted to prove Adriana Lecouvreur’s aesthetic credo, the singer was now, despite her modern dress, the lost girl from the countryside, who already knows that her lover has forgotten her. Exit of the singer and movement two from the “Six Épigraphes”, again picking up the key and gloomy atmosphere of what had just been heard.

At the next entrance everything had changed. Now a grand piano stood in front of the orchestra, which could only be seen vaguely in the semi-darkness, on it a lamp with a green shade. A pianist received her with the arpeggios from the first act of Puccini’s “La rondine”. The singer stepped to the grand piano, greeted the pianist with an inclination of the head – as if surprised to meet an old friend here – and followed his musical invitation. His arpeggios led to the two-part song about the mysterious Doretta, who spurned the king’s hand and was not impressed by his wealth. The singer sang not only Magda’s verse, conceived for soprano, but also that of the poet Prunier, who declaims the riddle of Doretta to his friends and asks them for the solution – and the completion of his song. Magda knows the answer: The kiss of a student is worth more to Doretta than all the riches of the king. “Oh golden dream to love so deeply.” Singer and pianist, it seemed, played only for each other, in intimate dialogue, like at a house concert among friends. Only late did the orchestra join in to gently conclude the scene after the floating high notes of the soprano.

And again the conductor denied us applause. While the pianist rose from his stool and sat down on an armchair at the edge of the stage to listen to the progress of the concert, he combined Puccini’s final chord with the nervous chromatic scales of the prelude to Wally’s aria from Catalani’s opera. Salon, irony and theatre in the theatre were forgotten. We were now in the grand opera, and the singer made us live it. With Wally we also thought we had to leave family, home and our beloved. “So I go, as far as the sound of the bells goes.” Ecstatic applause, intermission.

When the orchestra had taken their seats again, the stage of the red velvet theatre seemed to have become even smaller to us. The musicians were now flanked on both sides by a women’s choir, which announced Cio-Cio-san’s entrance with the “Ah!” shouts from the first act of “Madama Butterfly” as soon as the conductor had given the cue. Carried by the soft carpet of female voices, the singer slowly came forward from the depths of the stage to finally take the top of the sound pyramid with the high G-flat on the word “amor”. The orchestra led us imperceptibly into the second act of the opera, taking place three years later. A contralto parted from the women’s choir and entered the middle of the stage, where she turned into Suzuki, Cio-Cio-san’s servant. Together the women, whose voices stood in a characteristic contrast to each other, whereby the timbre of the soprano again gained a new illumination, sang the flower adornment duet. Suddenly it became clear what both scenes and perhaps the whole opera were about: anticipation. Cio-Cio-san, who is still a child, anticipates what love could be; Cio-Cio-san, a young adult, anticipates the reunion with her lover – a joy already clouded by the pain of too long a separation.

After the applause and departure of the singer – the contralto rejoined the circle of chorus ladies – the conductor played the fourth of the “Épigraphes antiques”, and now the function of these short interludes was revealed to us. After the sumptuous dishes of Puccini, Cilèa, Catalani and Mascagni, we were longing for a musical diet, for pure, transparent sounds, for a zero-point of composition, as Debussy formulated it in 1915. His floating dance, the final third of which the conductor combined in the finest way with the one at the beginning of the fourth scene in Riccardo Zandonais “Francesca da Rimini”, cleaned the slate of our consciousness and made us receptive to the subtle colours of this great composer. Again, the singer, who entered the stage after a two-minute prelude, was carried through this great scene by the contralto – in the role of her sister Samaritana – and the women’s choir. While “Madama Butterfly” was about anticipation, it was now about its melancholic older sister, the presentiment. The drama of Francesca has not yet begun – at least she doesn’t know anything about the deception she will fall victim to – and yet she and Samaritana feel that something will happen. After the sisters’ moving dialogue, the singer sat down on the armchair by the side of the stage and followed with us the idyllic choral tableau with which Zandonai concludes the first act of his opera.

The fifth of the “Six Épigraphes” prepared the ground for the climax of the evening, a scene from the first act of Pietro Mascagni’s “Iris”, which for the last time the conductor let flow without interruption out of the symphonic interlude. From her armchair, the singer smilingly watched the magnificent choir of laundresses, their song praising the water, moon and sun, rose, walked slowly to the centre of the stage and crowned the ensemble with her glowing soprano. While Cio-Cio-san’s anticipation and Francesca’s presentiment had still referred to the past and the future, these women now celebrated being in the now, the fulfilled presence. With the inadequate means of applause and bravos, we tried to express our enthusiasm for this apotheosis of nature and thought the concert was over. The singer left the stage, the conductor, the orchestra, the contralto and the choir bowed; it became dark.

However, a peculiar tension in the hall prevented us from leaving our seats. It became quiet. Minutes seemed to pass in this no man’s land between art and life. “Padre, ho pregato.” A woman’s voice cut the silence, speaking more than singing. “Father, I prayed.” With quiet chords the organ joined in, then, tenderly, the orchestra. A spotlight revealed the singer to us, in the white dress of the beginning. She was Saint Cecilia of Rome in the opera of the priest Licinio Refice, the prologue of which the evening had begun with; she was Cecilia, who had remained untouched by the pyre of the Romans, and who now, in the circle of the Early Christians, died transfigured with the words “Christ, I look at you”. Quite simply and naturally she played this death as a long dying away of the voice. The applause began only hesitantly and did not start until the singer had left and, after a small break, returned to the stage.

She now wore an Empire-style red velvet dress, a necklace with gold rubies, and presented us with Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” as an encore. From the actress Adriana Lecouvreur to the singer Floria Tosca, she had come a long way, on which she, in Tosca’s words, “gave her singing to the stars and the sky, making them even more beautiful”. We still pondered over the play of references and destinies on this special evening, when the singer sang a simple song and saw us off into the moonlit night. 

Film: » Fuoco sacro – A Search for the Sacred Fire of Song «