Sloppy musicianship cannot be hidden behind rubato, as one might conceivably be able to do in a Puccini aria, and, if the rest is missing, the piece will not come to life as it should.
Last year, when Norah Amsellem sang Gilda in the Seattle Opera Company’s production of Rigoletto, I did not have this checklist explicitly in mind, but I do remember thinking during “Caro Nome” that, while her voice was not as big as might be desired for the Verdi dramatic soprano roles, as Gilda she had the range of color and dynamics needed to keep the aria alive throughout. On this CD devoted completely to Verdi’s smaller scale Composizione da Camera, the piano accompaniment puts fewer volume demands on the voice, while at the same time depending even more upon vocal color and dynamic range, since the full orchestra is not there to provide sonic variety.
It would follow that this disc would be a great showpiece for Amsellem’s talents, which in many ways it is. And yet, when I listened to it as a program from start to finish, it was not completely satisfying to me. It has been hard to pin down exactly why this is, as I could not fault the artists’ musicianship, and beyond that, whenever I looked for performance examples that I could responsibly criticize, I would hear other examples in which Amsellem beautifully did what I had set out to say that she did not do. “Ad una stella” is, to my ear, a fine example of Verdi singing: smooth legato, dynamic swells in all the right places, and an exquisite skip up a seventh on “sera” in the final verse. Similarly, “Perduto ho la pace”, which is an Italian translation of the scene in Goethe’s Faust where the erotically agitated Gretchen sits at the spinning wheel, is beautifully sung and phrased, and, while the music lacks Schubert’s unforgettable evocation of the moving wheel echoing the girl’s turbulent emotions, we hear a more subdued, but palpable, shiver in the piano part before the resumption of a ghostly quiet verse.
In the pieces that demand more coloratura, such as “La Zingara” and, to some extent “Lo spazzacamin”, the singing is less satisfying, perhaps because Amsellem brings too much weight into the sound. “La Zingara”, in particular, loses dynamic contrast and the notes at the bottom of the challenging skips are in some places virtually inaudible. And yet, in “L’abandonée”, which closes the program, the coloratura is clear and the ornamentation much lighter, which leads me to wonder whether the fact that the piece is in French is freeing Amsellem from a perceived requirement to force her voice into a spinto weight. In fact, throughout the disc, the places where I find myself less pleased with the sound I hear tend to be at the louder end of the dynamic range, as if, in an effort to make a larger sound, she is pushing her voice into a wider vibrato than is comfortable.
The only other quibble I might have with these performances is that in some places they could show more character. In many of the songs the emotion is expressed by the music itself, and here Amsellem’s bel canto proficiency shines, but “Stornello” and “Lo spazzacamin” cry out for some more imaginative character portrayal than she provides. Likewise, in “Nell orror del notte oscura”, it is hard to imagine that a character who is really thinking about the meaning of the word “maledetta” would perform Verdi’s repetitions of it in such a straightforward way, without injecting a marked emotion into at least one of its appearances.
I have focused on these details largely to make peace with my concerns about what is overall a fine sampling of the most significant of Verdi’s songs. They are presented in an order that attempts to provide an interesting musical progression and contrast. To understand where the individual songs fall chronologically and with respect to the rest of Verdi’s works, one reads the liner notes, which are provided in English and French. The texts are provided in Italian, English and French, and the liner is rounded out by biographies of Amsellem and Lydia Jardon, the pianist, as well as a summary of Amsellem’s career highlights to date.