In dressing, the blessing is not all the attire
It’s the way that you wear the clothes
And bear the clothes upon you
It’s the way that you air the clothes
It’s all in the poise and pose…
It is never the thing that you wear
It’s the way it is worn.
George M. Cohan, “All in the Wearing”
The Yankee Doodle Dandy may or may not have been an opera fan, but his lyric has time and again proved to be as applicable to musical performance as it is to fashion.
Here’s an example: a number of years ago I saw Jane Eaglen sing “Norma” at the Met. You’ll recall that for a while at least the lady was pure “go to” for all the leading Wagner soprano roles. But she had another idea, as many dramatic sopranos often do, and became infatuated with one Vincenzo Bellini. Well, suffice it to say that Norma sure deserved better that night—Ms. Eaglen had absolutely no sense of line, the Number One prerequisite for singing this composer. It sounds odd, but matters were actually made worse by her Adalgisa, Daniela Barcellona, whose tremendous bel canto style blew Eaglen’s Norma right off the stage. The capper came at intermission when I dropped by the Lincoln Center gift shop. There the staff was
bitchily lovingly playing Maria Callas, in all her glory, singing “Casta Diva.” Ouch. You’d have to be unconscious not to hear the difference between a mistress of the genre and one who had absolutely no idea how to sing this type of music.
This happens more often in performance than you’d think, though fortunately not as disastrously as the night Vincenzo was done wrong. Baroque opera is of course very popular these days, but while many singers are called, few are chosen. It demands excellent musicianship and a certain style. As an illustration, one of my favorite opera recordings, Handel’s “Ariodante”, conducted by Alan Curtis, features a roster of singers who know precisely how baroque should be performed. They seem to ride the music the same way a surfer rides a wave. It’s exhilarating. Although other singers can sing the notes, they lack the sense of rhythm and phrase that Handel demands.
This was nowhere more evident than yesterday afternoon at Carnegie Hall when Joyce DiDonato took the stage to present her “Drama Queens” program with Il Complesso Barocco. Notice I said “with” and not “accompanied by” when referring to this wonderful group of musicians. This was a total collaboration between singer and orchestra, led by violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky. The concert, featuring arias from DiDonato’s new CD, began somewhat slowly—too many lamentations by too many bereaved ladies—but the last selection on the first half, a wickedly a tempo aria by Orlandini, found Joyce in terrific form and busting some moves during the orchestral sections. (Baroque is irresistible for dancing—it swings. My friends and I used to do the Jerk to Handel in junior high music appreciation class when Mr. Asprey wasn’t looking). The second half of the concert was pure magic, featuring back-to-back Cleopatra arias by Hasse and Handel. For those like myself who grew up on Beverly Sills, DiDonato’s “Piangerò la sorte mia” is a revelation. Her singing of the sicilliana, “Madre diletta,” from Giovanni Porta’s “Ifigenia in Aulide,” seemed to suspend time. What a musician. And for the fashionistas who may be reading this, she wore the above red dress, which was accessorized by a matching shawl, a short jacket, a bustle and epaulets (for Cleopatra) at various points during the concert. And speaking of style, the men of the orchestra wore red socks to match—a lovely touch indeed.
It’s not just opera or classical music that requires this type of skill. The other day I listened to the original Broadway cast album of “1776” featuring one of my favorite actors, William Daniels, as John Adams, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson and a very young Betty Buckley as Martha Jefferson. Check out Betty’s version of “He Plays the Violin.” No one has ever done it better. Yes, she’s helped by that suggestive violin spiccato, but her phrasing, her sense of going with the music, the way she colors certain words—that’s an artist who can sing not just the notes but who can create the musical experience the way it should be heard. The “way it should be worn.”