Monday, February 20, 2017

A Few Notes on "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix"

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Samson and Delilah

The other week, I ran across an article on Corymbus, via a tweet from the author, Emma Kavanaugh. It's called "Rethinking Sexual Agency in 'Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix'" and it's an analysis of Dalila's power and sexuality in the context of 19th century opera and signifiers of exoticism. This is, of course, one of the showstopper arias from Samson et Dalila, the only one of Camille Saint-Saens's dozen operas that is still performed in the US.

The article is largely on target, but I also think that Kavanaugh misses one or two significant points. In addition, one point she's trying to make is simply not supported by the musical evidence.

Here are some useful links, if you'd like to follow along:
  • Text of the aria, Wikipedia, with translations
  • Full score of the opera, IMSLP
  • Lots of mezzos and a few sopranos taking a shot at the aria. I listened to Horne in 1983, at the Met Gala, because that rich, chocolaty tone of hers works very well in this one. I tried to find a recording by a late 19th/early 20th c. French contralto with no success. I'll note that it's interesting to listen to the Italian Ebe Stignani right after Horne. She's singing in Italian, and her timbre is so bright (and admittedly it is a gorgeous sound) that she doesn't sound quite right to me.
In fact, here's Horne:

First off, we are going to take a step or two back and note that Dalila is a mezzo-soprano. This is significant, perhaps twice over. Nineteenth century French opera has some notable mezzo prima donnas, whereas in Italian opera, mezzos are usually the other woman, the witch, the mother. French opera gives us Cassandre, Didon, Dalila, Charlotte, and others. Take a minute to think of Wagner's mezzos, and, well, they're a rather mixed lot.

There's enough association between sex and mezzos, and between the exotic and mezzos, that I think somebody must have written a dissertation about this. Consider Azucena and Ulrica, Verdi's mezzo witches. They are exotic: a gypsy, to use the older term, and a black woman. Consider Princess Eboli, who is in love with Don Carlo while carrying on with his father, and who gets the most exotic, most Spanish, aria in the opera. (Keep the Veil Song in mind, because I'll be getting back to it later.) Berlioz being Berlioz, Didon doesn't have the earthiness of Verdi's mezzos, or of Dalila, but gosh, she is rather obviously having sex with Enée in the Royal Hunt & Storm and again in "Nuit d'ivresse." (There's some exoticism in Troyens but it comes in the Act IV ballet music rather than in the vocal parts.)

And (ahem) how could I forget Carmen, historically sung by both mezzos and sopranos, but sporting gypsy exoticism, the use of Spanish musical styles, and a very free sexuality?

Continuing on the theme of exoticism, if you've listened to the Saint-Saens aria, does the opening sound familiar? That's right: it's awfully similar to what the high strings are doing at the opening of Act 3 of Verdi's Aida, another opera steeped in exoticism. I see that the French premiere of the opera didn't take place until 1876, five years after its world premiere, and Samson's premiere was in 1877. Well, hmm, there are such things in scores, and it seems possible that S-S could have seen the score of Aida. In any event, I do not think this is an accident.

Now, about Dalila's sexuality and how she uses it. Maybe she's just trying to seduce Samson in order to symbolically castrate him....but if you listen to this aria and read the text of it, well, I'd say that she might just have the hots for him. Look at that text: yeah, it might be her heart opening to him, but consider how he might "fill her with ecstasy." That...is all pretty blatant, in my reading.

Kavanaugh discusses the chromaticism and increasing complexity of the orchestral accompaniment as signifiers of exoticism, which is in itself something of a stand-in for sexuality. I agree with that, but I believe she goes too far is her discussion of "wordless vocalisation." She offers as evidence the following phrase, which I've copied directly from her article:

I confirmed on Twitter that yes, she's talking about the "Ah!" in the above example.

I do not buy this as "a wordless vocalisation" (or vocalise, the word she uses earlier). To start with, we're talking about three beats, three-quarters of a four-beat measure in an aria that's about 75 bars long and has lots of words. As a wordless vocalization, it's not much.

The "Ah!" has a couple of functions. It's an intensifier, a sort of a sigh, which is not surprising when she's singing about being filled up with ecstasy. Practically speaking, it is possible the librettist or S-S himself put it in to make the French phrase more singable. Try to fit the words to the phrasing without the "Ah!" and you'll see what I mean.

Lastly, it's the first bar of a two-bar melodic sequence...and it's a sequence that occurs in a number of places in the aria proper and in the duet that follows. Here's another musical example, from the full score:

Note Dalila in the third through sixth measures, where she's singing an elongated version of what's in her aria (unless tempo changes have made the measures sound at the same apparent speed as in the first example), complete with the leap of a 7th, etc. This is now in duet with Samson, who has a sort of inversion of some of what she's singing.

You want an exotic vocalization, I've got one for you, and here we bring in "Nell giardin del bello," the Veil Song, which I suggested you keep in mind a few paragraphs back. Here's the great Fiorenza Cossotto - it's just the first verse, but that should be enough to make my point.

Listen to what she is doing starting around 1:50 or 1:55. Now there is a wordless vocalise, indicating exoticism: in this case, it's fake-Moorish style, entirely appropriate for an opera set in renaissance Spain not all that long after the Jews and Muslims were thrown out of the country. Compare with Dalila's three beats above, and that's why I'm a skeptic.


Ced said...

"Verse-moi l'ivresse" is quite poorly translated with "fill me with ecstasy". The poetic English on your wikipedia link goes with "Join in all my soul expresses" which is, well, not much better. Literally, it's: "pour me some drunkenness" which does not sound as sexy. "Get me inebriated with love" or "sweep me off my feet" would be closer than "fill me with ecstasy." If he wanted to say "Fill me" SS could have gone with "Verse _en_ moi l'ivresse", which is exactly the same meter. Maybe the point is better made with the flowers opening wet with morning dew.

Reading the text, it's more ominous than sexy though: "come back to Dalila for the last time," or "Dalila will run to you faster than an arrow can kill." And that pastoral image of wheat undulating in the light breeze is neither sexually charged nor ominous...

Chanterelle said...

Ced: "Ivresse" is routinely used--poetically--to describe an erotic rush; it is indeed tricky to translate but in this context no French speaker would think about alcoholic intoxication, though come to think of it, intoxication would be a good translation (not the alcoholic part. But I wouldn't object to rendering it as "fill me with ecstasy" either.

On whether or not Dalilah was into Samson, well, there are degrees of sexual involvement, are there not? Perhaps she thought he was hot and simply planned to enjoy the job--it certainly would have made her come-on more believable. (After seeing Poppea last night, I'd point to Poppea as one who certainly seemed to enjoy herself while casting the net that gained her the crown. This is in contrast to Jane Seymour--Giovanna in Anna Bolena--who used her sexuality to realize her ambitions but withheld her favors until the wedding.)

On the subject of mezzos in 19th century French opera, beyond the exotic femmes fatales there are also lead or major mezzo pants roles like the Muse/Nikklausse in Hoffmann, Prince Charming in Cendrillon, arguably Isolier in Le Comte Ory (1828 so very early, and of course Rossini wasn't French), and the title role in Offenbach's Fantasio, which I just finished watching on Culturebox (available for 6 months). There are probably many more examples, and that's not even talking about the young boy roles, the Stephanos and Siébels, etc. If no one has written a dissertation on that kind of part, someone should!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you! That is all very interesting. :)

Michael Strickland said...

My two favorite Dalila's at the SF Opera were Shirley Verrett (who was pure sexual seduction) and Olga Borodina (who was pure sexual conquest, a very different concept). And everyone knows Mezzos are the Bad Girls, we don't need a scholarly article to explain that basic fact.