Rossini: Never light; and or The art of Lucia Valentini Terrani

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Dear friends,

During a recent coaching with a pianist, we got to talking about repertoire, and my pianist friend gave me his candid opinion about the lack of art of Rossini’s music.  He cited the few times that James Levine conducted Rossini’s operas at the MET as clear proof of his views; the pianist went on for a full 15 minutes about this topic.  He certainly did not know of my own personal investment in this composer; I thought it a waste of time of energy to try to persuade my friend to a different view point, as he was resolute. He had obviously never tried singing the roulades in La Cenerentola; I don’t know of another role that take as much gumption and courage as this one; and I doubt if my pianist friend ever heard the Italian mezzo Lucia Valentini Terrani sing Rossini.

I first learned of Lucia when I was making my way through my first years in NYC as budding young singer doing the audition rounds. Recently out of The Mannes College of Music, I answered an ad in the magazine The Classical Singer for an audition of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri.  It was for a now defunct opera company called OperaSpectives; they were to do an adaptation of the above mentioned opera called “Italian Girl in …Astoria?” I went to an apartment in the Village and auditioned in a crowded, tiny room with a single light bulb hanging down, and sang Cruda sorte.  I was casted in what was to be my unofficial New York City debut, singing the role of Isabella in a church basement in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Wearing an orange mini skirt, open toed high heeled sandals and dark sun glasses, I was suppose to act (besides very bossy) like an Italian starlet from the 60’s.  Even with my limited experience and vocalism, I was able to navigate the coloratura and found the part and music congenial to my nature.

Me as Isabella from L’italiana in Algeri”, my first Rossini opera role

I started to look for recordings of L’italiana and of course I found the commercial one with Valentini Terrani on Sony Classic, and promptly bought the live recording of Valentini Terrani and tenor Ugo Benelli.  I fell in love with Lucia’s dark sensuous color, which weaved its spell on me.  These were the days before Youtube and Spotify, so in order to continue to get my Valentini Terrani dosage, I bought her commercial Cenerentola recording with Araiza (also on SONY Classic). I recorded L’italiana from LPs borrowed from the Lincoln Center Library to audio cassette so I could listen on my Walkman (dear readers, I know I’m dating myself!).  Her high notes were not spectacular, but her coloratura and phrasing and voice color where, well, like drugs to me; I couldn’t get enough; it was just about the sexiest sound I had ever heard (to rival the Anna Moffo’s Debussy album with her song “Le balcon”, which is practically x-rated!). I learned the role of Isabella with this recording, and at that point had not bothered to obtain the Berganza recordings.  Lucia knew “how it went” and I trusted her completely.

Years later I auditioned for the Spanish agent Pere Porta, and somehow her name came up. He mentioned she had recently passed away of leukemia. Shocked, I did a web search and found a beautiful website, constructed lovingly by her husband the Italian actor Alberto Terrani in her tribute:  http://www.luciavalentiniterrani.it/index_en.htm

I had never really seen these pictures before, and printed several of them out for myself.

Around the time of my first Cenerentola with Taconic Opera, I used one of her photos for my Cenerentola hall of fame notebook; you see, I believe in opera ancestor worship…I guess its some sort of opera shamanism…am I the only one? I somehow do not think so…

Unlike the general thought here in the US that this composer is “light music” to be done by young singers, in Italy Rossini is serious stuff.  Valentini Terrani sings this music like it was holy and sacred; she approaches it like some sort fabulous vestal priestess; check out her “Amici in ogni evento…cual piacer”, Isabella’s final Rondo in L’italiana. She is dressed in a white Greek-like robe, accompanied by a men’s chorus, and enacts the whole scena with intense solemnity of a religious rite; it is a Rossinian “Casta Diva” moment:

The total vocal perfection and almost antiseptic aesthetic we are now so used to hearing with commercial recordings here is completely absent; what we get instead is fervor, urgency and a torrent of emotions. I don’t think that emotion wise, she gives Rossini any less weight than singing Verdi.

What I love about singing singing Rossini is the light/dark contrast, feminine/male thing that is CONSTANTLY happening in this music.  Besides the travesti roles, within the female characters themselves, the music switches between aggressive and soft, virtuosity and expressiveness; I get to be some sort of fabulous “macho girl”…never a static expression. Its a music that mirrors the constant state of flux of my mind and emotions; like some sort of early 19th century Proustian stream of consciousness, always changing.

The book Diva by Helena Matheopoulus has one of the few interviews in English I have found of Valentini Terrani, and I close this entry with Lucia’s own words taken from this book, regarding her thoughts on the music of Rossini:

“It  is better to do something less than perfect every now and then rather than something boring.  Rossini’s genius is very modern, yet difficult to penetrate because it is so marked by duality and contradiction. He is both easy and difficult; introverted and cerebral in one sense, extroverted manic, mad in another; indeed he is all those things, often at the same time…like a clown, he is a comic with a deep melancholy and ironic streak”.

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