The Track not Taken: “Mercè, dilette amiche”

A guest post by Ginger Dellenbaugh

Picking the order of tracks on an album can almost be as onerous as the production of the songs themselves. Tempo, flow, instrumentation, mood, topic: all are taken into consideration. How these elements affect the overall album as an artwork can sow dissent among band members and producers. Radiohead, for example, is notorious for their arguments about track order, which guitarist Ed O’Brien once blamed for the poor reception of the band’s first album, Pablo Honey. When digital technology allowed consumers to arrange tracks, fans began performing their own personal post-production, arranging alternate listings for their favorite albums. 

The order of arias or songs in a classical concert is also subject to the same scrutiny as popular albums, though as most concert programs are conceived as live events, there are additional concerns about vocal stamina and health. That is, not only must the order of the arias or songs be designed to hold the interest of the listener, not only through mood, tempo or key, but in historical style and language, it must also allow the singer to ‘rest’ the voice during the program. For example, an aria that features several ecstatic high leaps might be followed by an aria or set of songs that remain in the middle register of voice and have a more conjunct melodic contour. (This could be thought of as a kind of vocal ‘flow yoga’ after a strenuous HIIT workout.)

While nearly all of the arias on Lyric and Coloratura Arias are showstoppers, there is a clear division between the lyric, verismo pathos of the first five tracks and the coloratura flamboyance of the four that follow. In this regard, the choice of Rossini to bridge the gap between the two is clever; Callas mixes her verismo and coloratura styles in this particular performance in a way that prepares for the ornate arias that follow. The symmetry of the Meyerbeer, followed by the disjointed ‘exotic’ feel of the Lakme, form a satisfactory end to a spectacular show of vocal mastery.

And yet, the Bell Song is not the final track on the album. There is one more—“Mercè dilette amiche” from Giuseppe Verdi’s I vespri siciliani (1855). In the scene from which the aria is taken, the female lead, Elena, is welcoming guests to her doomed wedding in the final act of the opera. The opening flourishes of the orchestra establish a decidedly “southern” folk atmosphere; the 6/8 dance rhythm and minor  tonality bring to mind peasant dances like the tarantella or the csardas. It is modeled on a form that would have been familiar to 19th century ears: the siciliana, a pastoral dance genre that became popular during the Baroque period for adding exotic flair to larger musical works.

Maria Callas – I Vespri siciliani (Florence, 1951)
Maria Callas, Giorgio Kokolios Bardi and Enzo Mascherini – I Vespri Siciliani (Florence, 1951)

In a live concert program, an aria like “Mercè, dilette amiche” is appropriate as an encore—a sprightly digestif for the ears as reward for a round of enthusiastic applause. On an album it seems superfluous after the vocal labors of a behemoth like The Bell Song. This perceived redundancy, however, is only part of the reason why I chose not to include it in the book. I have a (perhaps irrational) dislike for the aria itself that is on par with my irritation with another popular concert encore: Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.”

My antipathy for both numbers can be distilled down to two distinct vocal moments. In the Sondheim, it is the word ‘clown’. “Clown” can really only be reasonably sung with a British inflection on the vowel, otherwise it sounds comically flat and (clownishly?) American. As such, that plummy “Klahoown” pronunciation inevitably makes the word sound over-pronounced, pretentious, and painfully deliberate. In “Mercè, dilette amiche,” it is the tripping series of vocal ornaments that the soprano must articulate several times in the course of melody. Like the yips of a small, irritating dog, these grate on my ear, and while Callas articulates them with lightness and vocal dexterity, they nevertheless sound canine. 

Irritations at the yelping aside, there are, however, two vocal moments of particular interest on this recording. The first occurs at about two and half minutes into the aria at a transition point, where Callas repeats the same note, on “sì,” and commits a cardinal singing sin. She goes sharp. Deliberately. And not just a little bit. The up-pitching is too sustained and pronounced to be accidental and, quite frankly, it is difficult to imagine a singer as experienced as Callas committing such a faux pas without intention. On repeat listening, the tuning takes on an almost punk, transgressive quality. This is Callas singing against the rules, and she wants you to know it. The bending of the pitch launches your ear into the next section of the aria before you even know something is about to change. Her voice beats you to it. 

The second notable moment is the final, jarring high note that presents itself as a rather perfunctory climax in an otherwise flouncy aria. It sounds almost as if someone has stabbed Callas with a fork and she tries to make it work. The resulting tone is angry and crass; rather than cry of release, this note sounds more like a scream, a vocal eruption without nuance or rafinesse, stupid and final. As a kind of foreshadowing, however, this vocal gesture is apt, as Elena, and all the other members of the wedding party, will become victims of politically motivated mass murder just before the curtain falls. 

It must be said that while concert programs might be tricky to arrange, most opera composers sure know how to go out with a bang.  For singers, it is customary to go out on a high note, but all high notes are not alike—you should be careful which one you choose.

Ginger Dellenbaugh is a music historian who has taught and written about music and politics, the cultural techniques of the human voice, and vernacular notation systems. She lives in New York City and Vienna, Austria.

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