When someone mentions the “Di rigori,” I am mostly like “OMG OMG OMG”. Now this is the long version.
I love Rosenkavalier, since I first encountered it. The reasons I never fell out of love are too many to count. I try to be brief, I promise! … and focus on the aria of the “Italian Tenor” (usually simply called “Ein Sänger”, literally “a singer” in the German original), a famous show-piece for lyrical tenors – for good reasons.
The author promised to be brief
The aria of the Italian Tenor is a showpiece for many reasons, among them:
- It’s simply beautiful – a perfect Italian aria (at first glance; its imperfection is part of its beauty, but I’ll get to that.)
- The “singer” needs a lot of qualities that cannot be faked, like excellent lyrical lines, a nice squillo and a beautiful tone, and also a brilliant top range plus a significant amount of guts to deliver the top notes with due abandon, transporting utmost conviction and self-assurance.
A quick side-note to the aforementioned guts: The whole scene is about ten minutes long; the part of the “singer” is maybe three minutes in total. Unlike in other operas, he won’t get a second chance. (It’s the same kind of ugly in that respect as the coxswain’s “Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer” from Wagner’s Flying Dutchman.) It’s the vocal equivalent of having to do a 100 m sprint when everyone around you is busy jogging a marathon.
For the ones among you who don’t know it yet, here’s Wunderlich singing the part. There is sheet music to read along (of a piano reduction). It suffices to get an impression of the orderly chaos that is evolving around the “singer” in the scene – even if you cannot read sheet music.
Who is this “Singer”?
Let’s start with taking a closer look at how Strauss characterizes the “singer”; and let’s only focus on the music. (Even if you can’t read sheet music, don’t worry; I’ll try to make myself clear anyway.) See what Strauss did there? The whole piece is notated in three-quarter time.
Yet it doesn’t really fit, the natural emphasis of the words is persistently off-beat at the start. It would be feasible to arrange the melody somehow in a triple measure, somewhat like that:
(Yes, it’s boring in comparison, and you may roll your eyes; it’s just that Strauss was a genius while I am surely not.) So why didn’t Strauss do it similarly? The phrase in the celli right before suggests when the set-in of the tenor should be happening – on the first beat there – and it doesn’t.
He starts one beat late. What happens next? For me, the semiquavers give the “ri-go-ri” a hurried appearance, as if the singer now wanted to make up for the time he missed out on, trying to fix one glitch with a second, still not succeeding to solve the mess. That the celli pick it up, doing as he does, may be an illustration that they now all work on getting it back on track together.
On the “se-no” we feel the actual three quarter beat coinciding with what is sung for the first time, corroborated by the subsequent “con-tro a ….”
What I am thinking at the “contro amor …” is “Hey, our ‘singer’ found the orchestra!” (Actually, I am thinking this from time to time in many productions, yet more on the side of “Oh my god and how do they want to ever get together now” while I keep my fingers crossed up in my opera-mouse seat in the rafters.)
While in my case, my sympathies generally lie on the singers’ side, I feel that the joke, in Strauss’ case, is at the expense of the “singer,” standing in for his whole profession. While I am unsure if Strauss ever said something detrimental about tenors, he is said to have coined such gems as “Never look at the trombones – it only encourages them.” If anyone has any anecdotal evidence to provide, I’d be delighted to hear!
But there is more! In that specific scene, the singer is a whole person that is characterized, just as the bird-vendor, the lakai, the hairdresser, … So, what we gather from the actual music: He is not a really good singer. Also it is evident that he took a side-job, singing at the morning audience of the Marschallin (maybe because his opera career isn’t quite life-sustaining.)
There is more evidence to corroborate the claim that the “singer” is not really a good one. Look at the “in un baleno” which seems to have several composed “Sängermätzchen” – singers’ bad habits – rolled into one:
The seventh-chord upwards seems somewhat stumbling (and also as if the singer wanted to fit in one note to many there), creating a syncope that isn’t convincing and unsustained by the orchestra, the “baleno” is dragged over into the new measure. Thus it also breaks the pattern set by the “ribellai …” and the “vaghi rai” later. Oh, and the fermata, of course. Because singers just like to flaunt their exposed notes, don’t they? Well this one surely does, furthermore highlighted in the first final note which looks like this:
And this is only the first half of it! Without delving deep into psychoanalysis – this singer wants to extend his part, he is not quite happy with the short end of the rope that life has handed him.
There are many examples to show that what Strauss does here is not at all accidental, like the inserted filler of the emotional “ah!” – my personal favourite.
If you compare the “ma fui vinto in un baleno, (ah!) in mirar due vaghi rai” with the one immediately before it, you notice that a whole bar has been inserted, where the “singer” literally doesn’t give a damn what anyone else is doing or if it fits anything – he wants to sing a high note here and now! And because “in mirar …” is worse to sing than an “ah!” – you see what Strauss did there and has his “singer” do.
So, in short: this “singer” gives hardly a damn about restrictions placed upon him by the composer, plain musical common sense or even taste, he struggles with set-ins, with upwards chords, with counting, … and it is beautiful.
It takes a genius of Strauss’ calibre to make the result so fantastic and enjoyable to hear in its own right.
There are a few recordings (Wunderlich’s among them), where the singers seem to enhance the aspect of the aria being a parody, exaggerating some of the phrasings (most notably with Wunderlich in the “Ahi! che resiste…”). I don’t think it’s even necessary; it’s already all there in the music, in every note that is on the paper.
What is ironic, of course, is that the most famous tenors of all time shone in the part. The aria is also a terrible understatement, because none of the singers who are cast are ever “bad singers” – the character of the “singer” is though; or at least he is laid out as being far from perfect.
The Italian singer, styles of composing and society
That an opera singer is invited to supply the music at the audience is another part of accurate perception and description of the society back then, which makes it melt beautifully with Rosenkavalier as a whole.
Back then, Italian style opera was still all the rage among the bourgeoisie and the nobility of which Rosenkavalier is a painfully accurate description. Some elements of criticism can be noted in the scene (because the “singer” isn’t the only one to be made fun of): There is no real appreciation for the singer or his art; at best, it is supposed to be background music, offending no one. No one gives attention or cares what he is singing even. It is just that one has a singer to show one’s status – a feather in their cap just as the “negro boy” serving hot chocolate.
Italian opera is Strauss’ musical background, the one he tried to break free from, which he surpassed in his unique style of composing.
It seems as if Strauss was trying to say “You know what – sure I can write in ‘Italian’ style, but hey, … *shrugs*” – and while making a parody of the style, he excels in it.
Rosenkavalier was premiered in Italy at the Scala in 1911 under Tullio Serafin, and generally well received. I can’t help thinking that it might have been in parts because of that one aria that is a parody, but also a homage to all which is beautiful about Italian opera.
So, Strauss created maybe one of the most beautiful Italian arias ever – just to bury it in parts by the ensemble, when we in the audience either want to hear it in full, undisturbed, or we want to follow the dialogue which in turn the aria renders difficult. So the result is designed to give itches, being satisfying for close to no one (apart from nerds like me on some level, maybe, who can’t stop marvelling at the intricate maze this ensemble is.)
Maybe – but this is pure theory now – Strauss and Hofmannsthal were also hinting at the general reception and function of art in society, and this view is more depressing.
Breaking the fourth wall
The “singer” is the only one labeled that way, thus breaking the fourth wall from the backside, a bit like the acting troupe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If one is definitely marked as a singer or an actor, the reverse conclusion is that it grants the rest more reality, and lets them appear less artificial.
Strauss enhances this with one of the messiest, most confusing and hilarious ensembles ever written. The frame for the action: The “Marschallin” (the field marshall’s wife) is holding audience. Some orphans want money, someone is trying to sell exotic birds, Valzachi wants to update Her Ladyship about the latest gossip, which she doesn’t want to hear, while the “Ochs” (literally meaning “oxen”, a good measure for the character’s sensitivity) haggles about details of his marriage contract to the unhappy spouse Sophie, basically, he wants to have a dowry, he doesn’t intend to give one. Then there is a hairdresser, a “negro boy” serving chocolate, and … the “singer”! His aria fits in somewhat like “Arsch und Friedrich” (a wonderful German expression) at first glance – it isn’t connected to anyone’s mood at the point of the opera the aria is set in.
Finally – Spoilers!
But there is more! I don’t know if many usually give attention to what the singer actually sings. (I will leave out here to which extent the bit gives a nod to Metastasio, the god of baroque librettos, using bits of phrases like moving parts of a scenery to construct a very Italian libretto indeed – my ramble is long enough already!). So here it is:
Di rigori armato il seno
contro amor mi ribellai
ma fui vinto in un baleno
in mirar due vaghi rai.
Ahi! che resiste puoco a stral di fuoco
Cor di gelo di fuoco a stral
With severity my breast was armed
and I rebelled against love
when with one stroke I was slain (lit: in a flash of lightning I was conquered)
on seeing two lovely eyes.
Ah, how feebly
an icy heart resists such fiery arrows.
Libretto and translation via: [x]
It is to be noted that it also shares some keywords and phrases with these lines of Sophie:
So what he is singing about – what no one on stage and hardly anyone in the audience realizes (because this is how wonderful and how subtle Hofmannsthal and Strauss really are) – is love at first sight, which is the centre of the plot. Without the Rosenkavalier falling in love with Sophie – and vice versa – at first sight, there would be no opera.
And now comes the next twist: If we realize that parallel (“Hey, he is basically paraphrasing the opera!”) – it’s a great example of how song-lyrics work. We align and make the connection to ourselves and our feelings, our problems, in our head. It’s not as if Adele thought “Hey, in case you, yes, precisely you, ever have a particularly bad day, here is ‘Rolling in the Deep’ for you.” It’s how attachment to songs works, to music, to everything. We are creating the connections; ours are the associations without which any art would be devoid of feeling and life. We also manage the split to realize the parody of the piece, but at the same time – at least in my case – to love it with religious zeal.
To wrap it up here: I just love the “Di rigori,” okay?
Tomorrow I’ll be seeing Rosenkavalier at the Stuttgarter Staatsoper, where the wonderful Bogdan Mihai is surprisingly going to stand in (after I managed to miss him in 2009 because I’ve been living under a rock!) So, … OMG OMG OMG!