Performance practice is a vast and thorny issue, well beyond the scope of a blog post. But I am launching Verdi Duecento with this recording: “Quando le sere al placido” from Luisa Miller (1849) sung by Giuseppe Anselmi in 1907, six years after Verdi’s death. And this recording demands that we listeners think about performance practice.
For my part, I find Anselmi’s interpretation immensely moving. Listen to his way with muto, estatico. No other tenor, not even the sublime Fernando de Lucia (1908), makes us hear a “mute” and “ecstatic” Rodolfo. No other tenor brings this degree of rapture and youthful vulnerability to this aria (which Arrigo Boito reportedly considered Verdi’s most beautiful).
And yet, by today’s standards, many listeners will find Anselmi’s singing bizarre. His intonation can be uncertain, his tone is white and bleaty, and his phrasing sometimes brings to mind a taffy pull.
Would Verdi have approved of Anselmi’s performance? No one can say for sure. Verdi repeatedly and emphatically expressed disapproval of dawdling tempos—though, as John Rosselli points out, he “does seem to have allowed plenty of rubato.”
Rosselli writes that Verdi “often stressed ability to act and to bring out the words, if need be at the expense of vocal beauty.” Victor Maurel, who created Iago, Falstaff, and the title rôle in the revised Simon Boccanegra, was a difficult man with an unremarkable voice. Nonetheless, Verdi treasured Maurel for his dramatic prowess and, above all, his beautiful enunciation.
Rosselli concludes that though Verdi’s vocal writing grew less florid over time, and though “he wanted singers to act by the more realistic standards of the 1880s, [he still expected that] they should sing well by the demanding technical standards of the 1840s.” He points out that Verdi’s preferred Aida (along with Teresa Stolz) was “the lucent, well-tuned Adelina Patti,” who was utterly unlike the foghorns and screamers often cast as Aida today.
I honestly don’t know where this leaves Anselmi, in some respects a patrician artist and in others the kind of over-the-top verista who horrified Verdi. In addition to de Lucia’s performance of “Quando le sere al placido,” I invite you to listen to ones by Aureliano Pertile (1927) and Plácido Domingo (1979). Both are “tidier” than Anselmi’s and, at first hearing, less personal than his. Yet the impassioned Pertile is devastating in his own way, and Domingo—well, I know that Domingo-bashing is fashionable in some quarters, but he seems to me faultless in this aria… albeit a tad generic compared with Anselmi, de Lucia, and Pertile.
What are your favorite performances of this aria?