Today, inspired by a blogging thread over at After Grog (don´t ask me what it means, maybe an Australian ET?), I just needed to hear Di Quella Pira, by Verdi. It was like a thirst. I must have listened to it almost 30 times to quench the thirst, even though the “Di Quella Pira – Domingo” CD I have sounds like it was recorded by a cassette recorder coupled onto a buzzing mixer. I made a vain attempt to ignore all the static, usually failing. The grating noise would drag me down from heaven every time I started to fly up there. Not downcast by this unfortunate fiendish noise mixed with the music, I went on to find out what the libretto says. I simply cannot listen to operas without knowing what in the world they are getting all worked up about.
The words are perfect for the music, something that does not always happen in opera. So it was no surprise to find out Il Trovatore is the most bizarre story, which I found quite off-putting, where like in many other operas, everyone is doomed, and you have that turbulent, heart-wrenching scenario that menaces you in nightmares. If I wanted this kind of human darkness, I would watch the grotesquely violent R movies that are dysfunctional “entertainment” fodder these days. Or the evening news.
Here is the Quella Pira situation, the plot that leads to this is much more bizzare:
Just as Manrico takes Leonora’s hand to lead her to the altar of the chapel, Ruiz rushes in with word that Azucena has been captured by the besiegers and is about to be burned to death. Already through the windows of Castellor the glow of flames can be seen. Her peril would render delay fatal. Dropping the hand of his bride, Manrico, draws his sword, and, as his men gather, sings “Di quella pira ‘l’orrendo foco” (See the pyre blazing, oh, sight of horror), and rushes forth at the head of his soldiers to attempt to save Azucena.
And then, when I was reading about the famous high C that no one ever told me about, what do I discover? The most amazing thing, old tenors cheat on the very high notes! Why am I always the last person to get filled in re these juicy opera tidbits?
The line, “O teco almeno, corro a morir” (Or, all else failing, to die with thee), contains the famous high C.
This is a tour de force, which has been condemned as vulgar and ostenatious, but which undoubtedly adds to the effectiveness of the number. There is, it should be remarked, no high C in the score of “Di quella pira.” In no way is Verdi responsible for it. It was introduced by a tenor, who saw a chance to make an effect with it, and succeeded so well that it became a fixture. A tenor now content to sing “O teco almeno” as Verdi wrote it would never be asked to sing it.
Dr. Frank E. Miller, author of The Voice and Vocal Art Science, the latter the most complete exposition of the psycho-physical functions involved in voice-production, informs me that a series of photographs have been made (by an apparatus too complicated to describe) of the vibrations of Caruso’s voice as he takes and holds the high C in “Di quella pira.” The record measures fifty-eight feet. While it might not be correct to say that Caruso’s high C is fifty-eight feet long, the record is evidence of its being superbly taken and held.
Not infrequently the high C in “Di quella pira” is faked for tenors who cannot reach it, yet have to sing the role of Manrico, or who, having been able to reach it in their younger days and at the height of their prime, still wish to maintain their fame as robust tenors. For such the number is transposed. The tenor, instead of singing high C, sings B flat, a tone and a half lower, and much easier to take. By flourishing his sword and looking very fierce he usually manages to get away with it. Transpositions of operatic airs, requiring unusually high voices, are not infrequently made for singers, both male and female, no longer in their prime, but still good for two or three more “farewell” tours. All they have to do is to step up to the footlights with an air of perfect confidence, which indicates that the great moment in the performance has arrived, deliver, with a certain assumption of effort — the semblance of a real tour de force — the note which has conveniently been transposed, and receive the enthusiastic plaudits of their devoted admirers. But the assumption of effort must not be omitted. The tenor who sings the high C in “Di quella pira” without getting red in the face will hardly be credited with having sung it at all.
Lovely. That’s why sopranos and tenors are the best.