Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Two Songs by Renée Fleming

When I say "two songs" I mean one song, by Leonard Cohen, and a cavatina from the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini. Each piece is, in its own way, iconic. The cavatina is the height of 19th century bel canto singing. This phrase was used in 1858 by the long-retired Rossini. He talked about the rigorous technical requirements alongside those of taste and style. He also thought that this kind of singing was lost forever saying, "today there is no such school, there are neither models nor interpreters, for which reason not a single voice of the new generation is capable of rendering in bel canto the aria 'Casta diva' [quoted in Taruskin, Oxford History of Western Music, vol III, p. 40]. Norma was written in 1831 and already, a mere twenty-seven years later, Rossini is lamenting the loss of the ability to sing this music? As promised, let's hear Fleming in a performance of 'Casta diva':

Could Rossini have been correct, that the ability to sing this kind of music had already been lost, even in his time? Or is this perhaps the kind of 'golden age' nostalgia that often seems to permeate the world of opera? Rossini is a very high-quality witness, of course...

Now let's look at another song, 'Hallelujah' from Fleming's recent album project Dark Hope which contains songs from a number of "indie-rock" songwriters and Leonard Cohen. Much as I'm tempted to do a comparison of 'Soul Meets Body' by Death Cab for Cutie (the video reminds me of Brahms' remark when vacationing in Thun about having to be careful where he walked so as not to step on the melodies that seemed to be everywhere), I can't find a version of her performance. Here is the original of the Death Cab for Cutie song:

But let's get back to Leonard Cohen. Here is Fleming performing 'Hallelujah' on BBC1:

Alas, that isn't complete as it runs to over seven minutes on the album. It does give us a bit of an idea though. Now here is Cohen's original:

That was released in 1984, twenty six years before Fleming's version. Should I play the part of Rossini and say that no-one now is capable of singing in the true style of Leonard Cohen? Now that's a silly thought! But there is something interesting here. Regarding the Bellini, Taruskin comments "When this great wave, this surge of melodic and harmonic electricity has at last subsided, one feels that one has been transported and deposited in a different place. One's own consciousness has been altered. That is Romanticism."

Cohen's songs are emphatically not that kind of romanticism, even though just to be a poet is absurdly romantic in this very unpoetic era. Cohen is often accused of being a pessimist. Once, when interviewed on Canadian television he responded to that query by saying "a pessimist is someone who thinks it is going to rain; I'm soaked to the skin." Some of his lyrics to 'Hallelujah' are dark indeed:

Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah 

There is a kind of hard-won hope there perhaps, but it is earned by means of a cold realism. Cohen's singing has the kind of grittiness that conveys this.

I think that we need different things from music at different times. This can change decade by decade. The most successful artists are those who, like Rossini and Bellini, sense what listeners really want to hear and give it to them in spades. Perhaps the contemporary equivalent to them is someone like Lady Gaga, despite the musical differences. But alongside the main stream of music there are always tributaries that offer us glimpses of other aspects: not what everyone wants to hear, but only some want to hear. Leonard Cohen is this kind of composer: he gives us dark truths, perhaps. Fleming's 2010 version of the song lightens and softens it so that the truth is less dark. Perhaps this is more what we need now than what we needed in 1984. On the other hand, unlike in 1858, we still have Leonard Cohen. I did a post on his new album here. He is as dark as ever as shown by the new song 'The Darkness'.

UPDATE: I posted this without getting to the point. Fleming singing Bellini is absolutely fantastic. Cohen singing Cohen really works, expressively. Fleming singing Cohen works, but is less convincing than Cohen singing Cohen. But what we should really be grateful for is that no-one has talked Cohen into singing Bellini. Maybe with a lot of autotune...

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