Learning about opera is a work in progress for me, and writing about things I don’t fully understand gives me the heebie-jeebies. So take this post as a shared pleasure rather than an informed review. Five minutes to read; 25-30 minutes if you listen to the versions I’ve linked to.
I’ve been playing the Di Donato recording of Alcina several times a week since I saw OperaRox perform Alcina in February 2017. The aria that I find myself humming is “Tornami a vagheggiar.” Yes, it’s partly because I saw my daughter perform it, as the cover for Morgana. Such an emotional connection is a perfectly valid reason for liking a piece of music. But I also enjoy “Tornami” because after interviewing OperaRox’s performers, I know what’s going on with the music, and can catch something new on every listen. I like music that’s complex enough to reward multiple listenings.
In “Tornami a vagheggiar,” Morgana tells her beloved, Ricciardo: Flee! Alcina is about to turn you into a wild animal. Ricciardo (who is actually Bradamante, a woman) tells Morgana s/he can’t leave: s/he’s in love with someone here. S/he means Ruggiero. But when Morgana (sister of a sorceress) says, “You mean me?”, Bradamante / Ricciardo says … Well, yes. In “Tornami a vagheggiar,” the ecstatic Morgana sings: “Come back soon to court me – I love only you. I’ll never betray you!” It’s a simple thought, repeated several times during the aria.
Chloe Schaaf, who played Ruggiero for OperaRox, said:
Baroque opera is all about emotion. The plot can get a little ridiculous, but each aria takes one emotion and examines it very thoroughly from different angles. (here)
When I listen to “Tornami,” one of the things I can focus on is how Morgana is feeling, and how she varies what she’s expressing to Bradamante / Ricciardo in each of the repetitions.
Melanie Ashkar, who played Bradamante / Ricciardo for OperaRox, pointed out:
Baroque opera has a very specific style. Many of the arias are in what we call ABA’ format. This means that you sing one section, the A section, then another section, the B, that differs in mood, text, and/or tempo, then the singer returns to the A section, but this time, adds embellishments. So, when you’re listening to an aria, pay attention to the melodies in the A, note when the B happens, then you can listen for the ornaments that the singer has added when s/he returns to the A section. You’ll really be able to tell where the original melody line was, and appreciate the additions the singer has made. Some people find this style repetitive, but I think if you know what to listen for, it’s really enjoyable. In this way, baroque opera is somewhat more flexible than later styles, because the singer writes his/her own melodic figures, and has the chance to show off his/her singing to best advantage. (here)
My daughter, Allegra Durante (cover for Morgana), commented:
I think the baroque rep has a lot in common with modern music, truth be told, and that makes it a good intro to opera. Once you start recognizing the similarities between operatic music and modern genres, opera starts to feel less foreign and more familiar. The arias follow a structure of verse, bridge, and repeated verse, which has survived through the centuries and has examples in every genre from musical theatre standards to pop songs. The singers who performed this music were the rock stars of their era, and they were given time (during the repeated sections) to “riff” like any of today’s most famous singers or lead guitarists. (here)
When I listen to the Di Donato Alcina recording, I try to catch the riffs – the “ornaments,” in opera lingo. This is not particularly easy for a mind raised on three-minute pop songs, but I enjoy the challenge, and I’m getting better at it. Also, being a word-loving person (I have a degree in philology, in fact), I listen for which words the ornaments are on. That can be the difference between “I love only you,” “I love only you,” etc.
Here are three quite different renditions of “Tornami a vagheggiar”. As a relative newcomer to opera, I’m still surprised by how a piece sung by one person leaves me cold, but sung by another, it becomes a favorite. If I’m listening rather than watching an opera live, I always go with the voices I love. Lyrics below, if you want to follow along.
- Dame Joan Sutherland (a concert performance)
- Kathleen Battle (audio with stills)
- Karina Gauvin (2015 concert; she sings Morgana in the Di Donato Alcina)
Tornami a vagheggiar, [Come back to woo me]
te solo vuol’ amar
quest’ anima fedel, [You alone this faithful heart wants to love]
caro mio bene! [My dearly beloved]
[B section / bridge]
Già ti donai il mio cor, [I already gave you my heart]
fido sarà il mio amor; [My love will be true]
mai ti sarò crudel, [I’ll never be cruel to you]
cara mia speme. [My dear hope]
Opera is a multi-media spectacle, and if I have the chance to watch it live, the quality of acting matters. I have enormous admiration for any singer who can perform such complex arias: it requires technical virtuosity plus breath control that any pro athlete would envy. (I am distracted by the image of fully costumed Met Opera singers jogging to center field of MetLife Stadium. … Back now.) Some superb singers whom I love on recordings settle for the “park and bark” style on stage, a.k.a. “stand and deliver.” I’m always extremely impressed by those who can sing while moving energetically around the stage and acting.
When I asked OperaRox performers which parts of the opera they found most challenging, Allegra wrote:
“Tornami a vagheggiar,” which is one of the most well known arias in the opera, has been staged so that it’s a physical tour de force as well as a vocal one. I’m dancing around the stage and invading the personal space of my scene partner while singing text that repeats itself to music that moves rapidly, and that’s a recipe for quickly losing your place if you lose focus. Even so, I love performing the aria because it has a lot of coloratura passages that need to be motivated by the character’s intention, and I keep discovering new ways for the coloratura and the staging to complement each other. (here)
Here’s a video of one of today’s top sopranos singing “Tornami a vagheggiar” in an opera, not a concert.
And for good measure: Allegra Durante in her cover performance with OperaRox. The scene starts about 2 minutes in.
- The recording I listen to again and again: Alcina with Joyce Di Donato as Alcina, Karina Gauvin as Morgana, Maite Beaumont as Ruggiero, Sonia Prina as Bradamante, Sonia Prina as Bradamante, Kobie Van Rensburg as Oronte, Vito Priante as Melisso, Laura Cherici as Oberto; Il Complesso Barocco conducted by Alan Curtis. It’s reviewed here and here: “If you have never heard a Handel opera before or are a little nervous about where to start then this is the best introduction to that world that I can think of.”
- Introduction to Baroque opera history: http://beggars-opera.com/history
- An emotional reaction is not the only way to evaluate art. For other types, see my Kindle book Getting More Enjoyment from Art You Love,” which originally appeared as an article in The Objectivist Standard.
- Want more art like this delivered weekly to your inbox? Check out my Patreon page.