Opera News: Sylvia Sass Anniversary Edition


MARGUERITE’S “KING OF THULE” song in Gounod’s Faust is usually a throwaway – a stepsister preface to the familiar and beloved jewel aria. It’s typical of Sylvia Sass’s artistry that in this collection that segment is a highlight, one of many moments to which this unique singer gives a personal touch and unveils new dimensions to the music and the character singing it. The first verse is simple and direct, in line with the folksong it’s meant to be. In the second verse, however, Sass colors the words differently and reshapes the phrases, elucidating Marguerite’s feelings. The recitative that leads to “Ah, je ris” is likewise subtly shaded, and the famous aria itself is at once sparkling in its coloratura and immaculately accurate. It’s significant that Sass differentiates in equally appropriate manner between the verses of the Italian Margarita’s aria, “L’altra note” (from Boito’s Mefistofele), in a different context, using the coloratura with pristine accuracy to define that character’s madness.
The anniversary referred to in this collection’s title was the forty-fifth of the Hungarian soprano’s stage debut, which took place at the Hungarian State Opera in 1971, when the singer was twenty. Sass had a twenty-four-year career in major European opera houses, with concert and recital performances after that, but she was underappreciated in the United States. Her three Met Toscas in March 1977 were poorly received, the remainder of her American appearances limited to regional houses.

Sass was, in fact, a quite remarkable singer. Her voice had a dark coloration that often elicited—to her detriment—comparisons with Maria Callas. But it was in fact a fuller, wider sound, powerful and soaring but also capable of ethereal pianissimos and all the gradations of volume and color in between. She was an extraordinary musician. The three Mozart arias that open this collection are technically immaculate and very expressive. It would be hard to find a more chilling and accurate performance of Elettra’s “D’Oreste, d’Ajace” (from Idomeneo) with the recitative appropriately wrathful and the final downward staccato scales so perfectly delineated. The concert aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” (K. 505, also based on a scene from Idomeneo) is one of Mozart’s most exquisite outpourings, a concerto-style movement with voice and piano as equal soloists. Sass takes her cue from András Schiff’s fluid keyboard work, the two creating a poignant dialogue, the singer managing the vocal line’s low tessitura with no register breaks or loss of legato. The earlier “Ah, lo previdi” (K.272) was an insert into an opera by Paisiello, in which the singer balances Andromeda’s rage with the technical requirements that were requisite to the prima donnas of Mozart’s time. Sass was enormously versatile, with so wide a repertory that it’s hard to pigeonhole her into any category. Three extended Verdi segments show her dramatic range, along with clear Italian diction and a command of the style. She begins Amelia’s “Ma dall’arrida,” from Un Ballo in Maschera, unafraid to use harsh chest notes in the lower passages, but only when that sound will achieve a particular effect. In the aria proper, she avoids chest voice in the low upbeats to the first phrases, shaping them cautiously at first, gradually building in “Deh! Mi reggi” to the big climaxes, where her Bs and Cs are real notes, not a scream. “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” is eloquently stated, capped by a gorgeous cadenza.

Her approach to “Pace, pace,” from La Forza del Destino, suggests a similarity to Amelia’s second act scena, though Sass is uncharacteristically perfunctory with the sustained-F on the opening word. In Desdemona’s “Salce” (most of the opening scene of Act IV is included, minus Emilia’s lines), she delivers the words with impeccable pitch and rhythmic accuracy, concluding the “Ave Maria” with an exquisite pianissimo ascending triad up to high A-flat.

She sings verismo arias with the musical discipline of a Mozart singer, adding the emotional fortitude that the Italian style demands. The opening line of Adriana Lecouvreur’s “Io son l’umile ancella” is a lesson in legato, adding dramatic urgency and a wide coloristic palette to that character’s Act IV solo, “Poveri fiori.” Her “Voi lo sapete,” from Cavalleria Rusticana, is noteworthy both for its expressive ping and careful adherence to Mascagni’s written notes. “Ebben? Ne andrò lontano,” from Catalani’s La Wally, is fervent, though not quite as completely under control. Her German repertory is less fully drawn. “Dich, teure Halle,” from Tannhäuser, is bright-voiced, with gleaming top notes, but the declamatory passages between the rousing opening line and the final climax are rather perfunctory. In Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, with the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra playing colorfully under András Kórodi, Sass tends to lose color when she sings softly, and underplays the consonants, settling much of the time for an all-purpose quiet legato.

Surprisingly, in light of her highly inflected Italian opera arias, Sass underplays the German consonants in Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder, making too little of the all-important words. That said, it’s thrilling to bask in the sheer tonal opulence that Sass brings to the high-lying phrases of “Frühling” and “September,” passages that many celebrated singers of this music have had to strain to accomplish. Sass sails easily through “Beim Schlafengehen,” with long-breathed melismas, but the final pages—despite excellent violin playing by Gábor Bohus and the Hungarian State Orchestra (not the same as the State Opera Orchestra) – just don’t take off the way must. The concluding “Im Abendrot” is also bland where it should be ethereal.

Robert Croan

Source: Opera News

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