Musical Academy
TATYANA BELOVA, Translated by Peter Morley
A Poet’s Love and Death

Verismo Arias
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Antonio Pappano (conductor)
Orchestra and chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome.

1. Riccardo Zandonai. Giulietta, son io (Giulietta e Romeo, libretto by Arturo Rossato)
2. Umberto Giordano. Un dì all’ azzurro spazio (Andrea Chénier, libretto by Luigi Illica)
3. Umberto Giordano. Come un bel dì di Maggio (Andrea Chénier, libretto by Luigi Illica)
4. Francesco Cilea. È la solita storia (L’Arlesiana, libretto by Leopoldo Marenco)
5. Ruggiero Leoncavallo. Testa adorata (La Bohême, libretto by Ruggiero Leoncavallo)
6. Ruggiero Leoncavallo. Recitar!... Vesti la giubba (Pagliacci, libretto by Ruggiero Leoncavallo)
7. Pietro Mascagni. Viva il vino spumeggiante! (Cavalleria rusticana, libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti, Guido Menasci)
8. Pietro Mascagni. Mamma! …quel vino è generoso… (Cavalleria rusticana, libretto by Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti, Guido Menasci)
9. Arrigo Boito. Dai campi, dai prati (Mefistofele, libretto by Arrigo Boito)
10. Arrigo Boito. Giunto sul passo estremo (Mefistofele, libretto by Arrigo Boito)
11. Umberto Giordano. Amor ti vieta (Fedora, libretto by Arturo Colautti)
12. Francesco Cilea. L’anima ho stanca (Adriana Lecouvreur, libretto by Arturo Colautti)
13. Francesco Cilea. La dolcissima effigie (Adriana Lecouvreur, libretto by Arturo Colautti)
14. Amilcare Ponchielli. Sì, quest’ estrema grazia (I Lituani, libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni)
15. Amilcare Ponchielli. Cielo e mar! (La Gioconda, libretto by Arrigo Boito)
16. Licinio Refice. Ombra di nube (text di Emidio Mucci)
17. Umberto Giordano. Vicino a te (Andrea Chénier, libretto by Luigi Illica)

The title of Jonas Kaufmann’s solo disc, “Verismo Arias”, is deliberately unpretentious. The disc is meant to be a kind of anthology of the pure passion and emotion in which the music of Mascagni and Leoncavallo, Cilea and Giordano – verismo composers, in a word – is so rich. The arrival of the new disc has not gone unnoticed by critics, who have dutifully listed all 17 tracks, considered the sound quality of each of them in detail and argued over whether the German Kaufmann has enough “authentic Italian sensibility” in his dark, baritonal timbre. Yet behind the deceptively simple title, which pushes the listener into picking one track at a time and absorbing the sound at a leisurely pace, hides a unified work of art whose genesis has gone unnoticed by many.
In assembling material for the disc, Kaufmann and Pappano tried, as they put it in the accompanying notes, to “avoid similarity in mood, structure and key” of verismo music. In fact, they have achieved quite the opposite: this very uniformity of style, multiplied by the textual unity of the chosen arias, makes it possible to interpret “Verismo Arias” as a lyric cycle akin to the poetic cycles of Blok or Rilke.
Unlike a simple thematic selection, a lyric cycle is an integral work with an internal dynamic, a single imagined space (albeit each part of the cycle has some independence and self-sufficiency) and clear connections between its component parts. “Verismo Arias” has all of these traits in spades. It also has another characteristic – not formulated by Kaufmann and Pappano in any interview, but obvious enough to the attentive listener – namely, the authorial intention essential to any poetic cycle. In this case, the intention is not that of the composers and their lyricists, but of the compilers who deliberately placed the recorded arias into a specific order.
Given the three main themes running through all the arias, “A Poet’s Love and Death” would be a suitable name for this cycle. In today’s world, probably only Kaufmann could take the banalities of the Italian librettos – the obligatory “disperato amore”, “palpitar dell’anima” and “fatale vision” – and turn them into formulae of significance, interpreting them in all their freshness and authenticity of meaning, bringing out the extreme emotional tension of verismo music and the superlative realms of almost religious ecstasy, enlightenment and liberation.
We should try to forget that the disc brings together arias by different composers, that the texts were written by different librettists, and that each aria conceals a dramatic situation specific to the context of the opera from which it is taken. Let us listen instead to the story spun by Kaufmann – a tale of poetic inspiration, all-consuming love, loss and discovery; of love and death.

Loss is, of course, the very beginning, in the shape of Zandonai’s affecting Giulietta, son io, a rarity worth reproducing in full here:

Giulietta, son io, io, non mi vedi?
Io che non piango più, io che t’imploro,
io che vengo a cader morto ai tuoi piedi
perchè beato e disperato moro
senza di te, anima mia. Così, Giulietta.
Ma le fredde mani or sui capelli tuoi voglio posare,
voglio posare un cor sopra il tuo core
e la bocca che il pianto ha lacerato,
vuol la tua bocca, la tua bocca, amore.
Ah! Come, dimmi, ti potrò invocare,
con quale nome più soave santo?
Ah! Come, dimmi, ti saprò destare,
con qual grido, con qual dolce pianto,
con quale ardente bacio, anima mia?
Giulietta mia, Giulietta mia, Giulietta!
Oh! morta! morta! Dannato me!
Son io, son io, Romeo... ohimè!

Giulietta, it’s I, I, can’t you see me?
I who weep no more, I who implore you,
I who come to fall dead at your feet
because without you, my beloved,
I die blessed and despairing. Like this, Giulietta.
But I want to place my chilled hands on your hair,
I want to place my heart on your heart
and those lips, that have been rent by tears,
want your lips, your lips, my love.
Ah! Tell me, how shall I call you,
with what more sweet and blessed name?
Ah! tell me, how shall I wake you,
with what cry, with what gentle lament,
what ardent kiss, my beloved?
My Giulietta, my Giulietta, Giulietta!
Oh! dead! dead! I am wretched!
It is I, it is I, Romeo… alas!

Juliet and Romeo are, of course, characters cruelly bound up in their own story. Yet in the course of the story Romeo emerges as an abstract image, and the two subsequent arias – Giordano’s Un dì all’azzurro spazio and Come un bel dì di Maggio – describe a lyrical hero lamenting his beloved like the Poet. And moreover a poet for whom Love is an existential concept, not confined merely to being attracted to a woman, but encompassing the whole world, establishing the rules of life and giving birth to poetry itself.
Federico’s lamentation from Cilea’s L'Arlesiana, with its famous Sempre lei d’innanzi a me! and Fatale vision, mi lascia!, returns the Poet again to remembrances of his lost beloved, as does the following aria of reminiscence, Testa adorata from Leoncavallo’s largely now forgotten La Boheme. The aria is full of the same really tangible lips, hands, and head as the appeal to Juliet; the single lyrical space is undeniable:

Testa adorata, più non tornerai
lieta sul mio guanciale a riposar!
Bianche manine ch’io sul cor scaldai,
più il labbro mio non vi potrà baciar!
Gaie canzoni de’giorni d’amore,
la vostra eco lontana già fuggì.
La stanza è muta e il vedovo mio core
piange nel tedio quei perduti dì!..

Beloved head, you’ll never come back
to rest happily on my pillow!
Little white hands that I warmed on my heart,
my lips will never be able to kiss you again!
Cheerful songs of the days of love,
your echo has already fled far away.
My room is silent, and in this tedium
my widowed heart mourns those lost days!...

In a vain attempt to recoup his loss – or at least to hide it from a world that does not know genuine love (non conoscete amore! from the second track) – the Poet puts on a mask. And here comes the turn of Vesti la giubba, an unarguable hit that, from having been a stand-alone single, becomes a similar brick in the unified building erected by Kaufmann and Pappano. In their reading, this cry of despair becomes so outrageous because turning suffering into theatrical acting (tramuta in lazzi un grido ed il pianto!) means profaning the very idea of a great Love and authentic poetry, giving it up for the amusement of the crowd. Laughing through the sorrow that poisons his heart or finding oblivion and truth in wine, which the Poet tries to do in the bravura Viva il vino spumeggiante!, which naturally continues the story.
However, even the cheerful chorus and Mascagni’s boisterous toasts are unable to drive the secret pain out of the Poet's heart:

Viva vino ch’è sincero,
che ci allieta ogni pensiero,
e che affoga l’umor nero
nell’ebbrezza tenera!

Hurrah for honest wine
which lightens every thought
and drowns the blackest mood
in gentle merriment!

– in these lines Kaufmann is singing not relief, but anguished attempts at self-forgetting. His vino ch’è sincero recalls Alexander Blok’s “in vino veritas”, with the same inescapable grief for a faraway and unattainable beloved. And having not found oblivion in drunken merrymaking and feeling death to be near, the Poet sets off on a pilgrimage: troppi bicchier ne ho traccianti… vado fuor all’aperta.
The journey is two “landscape” arias by Boito that again allow us to speak of poetry as the supreme incarnation of Ministry (voglio che questo sogno sia la santa poesia, e l’ultimo bisogno dell’esistenza mia), and the first appearance of the theme of conjoined earthly and divine love:

Le torve passioni del cuore
s’assonnano in placido obblio;
mi ferve soltanto l’amore
dell’uomo! l’amore di Dio!

The heart’s grim and turbulent passions
are soothed into tranquil oblivion;
my breast seethes with one great emotion –
love of man and of God!

The Poet believes that the world must bow before this masterfully subjugating love, and this unwavering confidence is heard in Giordano’s Amor ti vieta:

Amor ti vieta di non amar:
la man tua lieve che mi respinge
cerca la stretta della mia man;
la tua pupilla esprime: T’amo!
se il labbro dice: Non t’amerò!

Love itself forbids your love’s denial:
your gentla hand that pushes me away
yet seeks the while the pressure of my hand;
your eyes are saying: “I love you”,
though you’re your lips frame the words:
“I shall not love you”.

Still, though, the soul of the Poet himself has not made a complete recovery. Cilea’s L’anima ho stancа is another attempt to find understanding, a momentary weakness in its willingness to reject a love that brings only suffering.

L’anima ho stanca, e la meta è lontana:
non aggiungete la rampogna vana
all’ansia che m’accora.
Assai vi debbo; ah! ma se amor cadrà
memore affetto in cor mi fiorirà!

My heart is tired, and my goal far away:
don’t add pointless rebukes
to the anguish that troubles me.
I am much in your debt, but if love dies
then an affectionate memory will grow
in my heart.

Yet the very next track – Cilea’s La dolcissima effigie – is a pre-vision of an ideal beloved, a foretaste of a swiftly obtained ideal:

La dolcissima effigie sorridente
in te rivedo della madre cara;
nel tuo cor della mia patria dolce, preclara
l’aura ribevo, che m’aprì la mente.

Bella tu sei, come la mia bandiera,
delle pugne fiammante entro il vapor;
tu sei gioconda come la chimera
della Gloria promessa al vincitor.
Sì. Amor mi fa poeta.

I see in you the sweet,
smiling image of my mother;
in your heart I find again
the wonderful air of my country,
which has enlightened me.
You are beautiful, like my flag,
in the smoke and flame of battle;
you are cheerful like the dream
of glory promised to the victor.
Yes, Love has made me a poet.

This track is like a lens that focuses in one powerful ray of meaning and emotion all of the cycle’s key images: the image of the mother, which first appeared in Mamma, qual vino è generoso; the patriotic fervour of true love designated in Un dì all’azzurro spazio; and the impossibility of the Poet’s very existence in the absence of love.
And the next track – Ponchielli’s Sì, quest’estrema grazia – describes yet another theme, which comes to dominate the finale of the cycle: the theme of imminent death and absolution.

Per te d’un cor morente
l’estremo addio le suoni.
Dille che a me perdoni,
e Iddio m’assolverà.

Let her hear the final farewell
of a dying heart through you.
Ask her to forgive me,
and God will absolve me.

The expectation of an Ideal Beloved and the readiness to be joined with her – and clearly not just for Earthly life, which simply does not have that pure exultation, that brilliance and radiance immanent only to the sphere of the ideal – this is Ponchielli’s Cielo e mar!, to Boito’s verse. The perfect symbolism, written and performed in sparkling colours, is devoid of any of the physicality that occupied a substantial place in the first tracks of the cycle.

Cielo e mar! l’etereo velo
splende come un santo altar.
L’angiol mio verrà dal cielo?
L’angiol mio verrà dal mare?
Qui t’attendo; ardente spira
oggi il vento dell’amor.
Ah! quell’uom che vi sospira
vi conquide, o sogni d’or.
Per l’aura fonda
non appar nè suol, nè monte.
L’orizzonte bacia l’onda!
L’onda bacia l’orizzonte!
Qui nell’ombra, ov’io mi giacio
coll’anelito del cor,
vieni, o donna, vieni al bacio
della vita e dell’amor!

Sky and sea! Heavens airy sail
shimmers like an altar.
Will my angel descend from Heaven?
Will my angel ascend from the sea?
Here I wait; the winds of passion
warmly blow this day.
Ah, sweet dreams, the man who dreams them
will achieve his heart’s desire.
Far and wide,
naught of shoreline or hill appears.
The horizon kisses the water,
the water returns the kiss!
Here in the dark I wait
with longing in my heart:
come, beloved, here the kiss
of love and life awaits you!

The intolerably bright lustre is dimmed; the picture is the same, but in a minor key. To achieve this effect, Kaufmann and Pappano include in their cycle Licinio Refice’s Ombra di nube, to Emidio Mucci’s text:

Era in ciel un arco azzurro di fulgor;
chiara luce si versava sul mio cuor.
Ombra di nube, non mi offuscare;
della vita non velarmi la beltà.
Vola, o nube, vola da me lontan;
sia disperso questo mio tormento arcan.
Ancora luce, ancora azzurro!
Il sereno io vegga per l’eternità!

The sky was an arc of dazzling blue;
A brilliant light shone down on my heart.
Shadow of a cloud, do not bring me darkness;
do not obscure the beauty of life for me.
Fly, cloud, fly far away from me;
Let this strange torment of mine be swept away.
Bring back the light, bring back the blue!
Let me see the clear sky for all eternity!

“The music shows a sadness, also a certain insecurity. You understand how that wish doesn’t come out of the blue – it’s because this person has a lot of suffering behind him”: this commentary of Kaufmann’s is quoted in the sleeve notes. Another secret is revealed in the same place: it was the artist who convinced the studio to include the final scene from “Andrea Chenier” in the cycle; a scene without which the poetic cycle would have been incomplete; a scene that crowns the entire work by exposing the genuine essence and genuine goal of the Poet’s pilgrimage.
The ecstatic duet Vicino a te is the long-awaited obtaining of the Beloved, from whom the Poet will no longer be parted. Unity and merging in death; death that does not bring grief and decay, but rather the triumph of new life. La nostra morte è il trionfo dell’amor! exclaims the Poet, and his beloved echoes him: Nell’ora che si muor eterni diveniamo! The cycle is complete. The road has been travelled from the earthly longing so powerfully seen in Romeo’s lament to the ascension into eternity – an eternity that celebrates love.

The make-up of the cycle, as is usual for such works, is centripetal. The first eight of the seventeen tracks make up the first section, which is dominated by the theme of loss and despair and attempts to be rid of it. The eight tracks from 10 to 17 form the second section, finding and rising, in which melody and emotion rise to vertiginous heights, and where “all those B flats,” in Kaufmann’s words, “seem the most natural thing in the world”. The switch clearly happens in the ninth track, Dai campi, dai prati, the first to sound the theme of a Divine love.
Analysing the lexical unity of a poetic cycle on paper is simple. A scholar of music would probably have no difficulty in doing something similar with the score, finding common melodic threads in the arias from La Gioconda (1876) and in Refice’s aria (1835), which in theory at least do not fall within the boundaries of verismo arias. But these numbers are welded into a unified poetic cycle to a much greater degree, and more strongly, by the tone and personality of the performer, who like no one else is able to create secondary and tertiary layers of meaning in each of his performances. The turn away from the worldly crowd, the finding of peace and meaning in the dawning eternity over the course of one’s final few years appear to be Kaufmann’s signature themes – in Tosca, Don Carlo and Werther. The tenore di bella morte, a term coined to describe the typical Verdian hero, is fully applicable to Kaufmann’s lyrical hero, with just one slight difference, that romantic tenors as a rule die as a consequence of external circumstances, whereas Kaufmann’s heroes carry their tragic predestination in their own souls. For all that, his heroes’ thrusting “beyond the brink”, with all the themes of decadence, is devoid of gloomy solemnity, with Kaufmann painting them not in lunar but rather in sunny tones. Ella vien con sole – ella vien col mattino – viene come l’aurora! The solar images here are key to Kaufmann’s conception of a “beautiful death”. Looking at his Werther, you begin to understand, not in terms of rational knowledge but emotionally, why Europe saw an explosion in the fashion for suicide after the publication of Goethe’s novel. And while Cielo e mar! was originally written into the opera as a “nocturnal” aria, on this disc it is the sound of dawn – in the first rays of the sun, in the form of a sinless world cleansed of earthly passions and sufferings.
Kaufmann is one of the few artists whose interpretation is able to reveal new dimensions in a work, and to open up new meanings. In the case of these verismo arias, he has managed to demonstrate not only the hyper-realism that we all know, adjoined to a similarly hypertrophied emotion, but also verismo’s close proximity to the poetics of symbolism and decadence. His singing is considered cold by many, partially mixing up emotion with a carefree negligence. His emotion, though, is always expressed with sublime nobility. These qualities are rarely associated in the popular consciousness with “Italianness”. Yet they are fully immanent to Italian operatic style, and this disc with the simple title “Verismo Arias” is further proof of this.

Translated by Peter Morley



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