Thursday, March 07, 2013

When is the tenor a villain?

Fairly frequently in the opere serie of Rossini. This is
primarily because of the striking talents of tenor Andrea Nozzari. According to
contemporary accounts, his voice was quite dark and powerful, but also very
agile, an unusual combination that was even unusual in those days although
less unusual than today, when darker and more powerful tenors are never
called on for any agility. The one exception of the past 60 years or more has
been Jon Vickers.

In Nozzari's case, some of the villain roles that he created were parts like
Agorante in Rossini's Ricciardo e Zoraide, Pirro in Ermione and Antenore in
Zelmira. Those are just the most demanding of them, Antenore being especially
taxing, and they are all villains. Their tessitura is practically baritonal, but in
the agile passagework, they do run up to the occasional high C, etc. To
distinguish the villain from the hero, Rossini would -- usually -- assign the hero
to a high tenor, often David, who drew a distinct contrast to Nozzari. We
would recognize David today as the traditional lyric tenor with high notes galore
and a primarily sweet vocal style. (A startling exception is the last 20 minutes
or so of David's role, Oreste in Ermione, who suddenly turns into this crazed
avenger driven by bloodlust -- but that quality typifies much in that whole
haunted score.)

Later on, Donizetti writes the role of Ghino in his Pia de Tolomei for a tenor.
This too is a villain, and surprisingly, the hero is the baritone. But Ghino is not
as heavy a part as any of the Nozzari roles, although it does require a more
forceful tone than some Donizetti roles (still not as demanding as
Poliuto/Polyeucte, unique for its heroic writing in the entire Donizetti canon,
although unquestionably the sympathetic hero of the piece).

I'm not sure if one would call the baritone Rigoletto a sympathetic hero,
although one can empathize with much of his pain. After all, he really is
horrible to the devastated Monterone, and his implacable drive for revenge
ultimately causes Gilda's death -- in a way. Also he is not in a romantic love
relationship with the soprano. There is however no question that the chief
villain is still the tenor role, the Duke.

The thing is, the relationships between the David and Nozzari roles and the
hero versus Ghino in Pia are much more clearcut: The David role generally is in
love and his love's usually requited, and the audience is solidly on the side of
the two lovers, and the same is true of the sympathetic baritone's requited
love for Pia. It's hard to think of an example anywhere like that in Verdi or
Puccini -- certainly not in Rigoletto, and certainly not in Madama Butterfly
either, where it might seem a bit forced to say that, with the tenor Pinkerton
plainly a villain, Sharpless, though sympathetic, is therefore the real hero. We
get no indication he is carrying the torch for the heroine, after all. (In fact,
given the way the music swells up at Yamadori's entrance, whose love for Cio-
Cio San is all too passionate and very sincere, one might almost say that
Yamadori is the hero!)

Geoffrey Riggs

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