“You just drank poison!”

I’ve raved recently —  here and here — about the cabalettas in 19th century Italian operas, the rousing pieces that bring each scene to a crashing close. I talked especially (in the second link above) about the cabaletta from a duet in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, where the music just sweeps along, mostly ignoring the drama playing out on stage.

Listen, and see what you think. Doesn’t physical verve trump everything else? And if it does — and if these pieces crop up over and over again in every opera from this period — what does that say about what these operas mean, and how they should be performed?

Shouldn’t we go for broke, and make them more than a little wild? What happens on stage: Lucrezia Borgia has a problem. Her husband just poisoned her son, but his son doesn’t know it. (He also doesn’t know he’s her son, but let that go for now.) So now she has to tell him. “Unhappy man!” she sings. “You just drank poison!” And then we’re off to the races. The soprano sings the tune, the tenor sings the tune, there’s a noisy interlude, both singers sing the tune together, and then there’s a noisy coda. Somewhere in there, Lucrezia gives her son an antidote, but you can’t tell when. The music just doesn’t bother with such trivial details.

One note: in my earlier post, I said this cabaletta has horror movie chords, but they don’t stick out as much as they did in the 19th century. To find them, listen to the way the melody rises to a high note. It does this twice. The first time, the chords underneath are nothing special. But the second time, they’re pure melodrama.

The performance: Montserrat Caballé is Lucrezia, Alfredo Kraus is Gennaro, her son, and Jonel Perlea conducts.

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