Music for a Monday: Una Voce Poco Fa (Rossini)

Welcome to a new week, and this morning’s lesson is: don’t cross the mezzo soprano.

This is, in my view, one of the most fun arias in the Mezzo Soprano repertoire.  Actually, it’s such a good aria that the sopranos want to sing it too, and there’s a fair bit of debate about whether Rosina should be a soprano or a mezzo.  This piece of music comes from The Barber of Seville, an opera based on a play by Beaumarchais.  Its sequel, The Marriage of Figaro, was turned into an opera by Mozart, and the third play in the trilogy has been operatised by several different composers, but hasn’t quite achieved the same popularity as the two earlier stories.

This is Rosina’s aria early in the opera, during which she first expresses her love for Lindoro and her intention of having him, and then explains that she is in fact sweet, docile and obedient, so long as nobody crosses her.  Lyrics are below (apologies for the bad translation – my Italian is not good – I found a translation online, and tried to fix the things that were obviously wrong):

Una voce poco fa
qui nel cor mi risuonò;
il mio cor ferito è già,
e Lindor fu che il piagò.
Sì, Lindoro mio sarà;
lo giurai, la vincerò.

Il tutor ricuserà,
io l’ingegno aguzzerò.
Alla fin s’accheterà
e contenta io resterò.

Sì, Lindoro mio sarà;
lo giurai, la vincerò.

Io sono docile, son rispettosa,
sono obbediente, dolce, amorosa;
mi lascio reggere, mi fo guidar.
Ma se mi toccano dov’è il mio debole
sarò una vipera e cento trappole
prima di cedere farò giocar.

A voice has just
echoed here into my heart
my heart is already wounded
and it was Lindoro who shot.
Yes, Lindoro will be mine
I’ve sworn it, I’ll win.

The tutor will refuse,
I’ll sharpen my mind
finally he’ll accept,
and happy I’ll rest.

Yes, Lindoro will be mine
I’ve sworn it, I’ll win.

I am docile, respectful.
I’m obedient, sweet, loving;
I let myself be ruled, be guided.
But if they touch where my weak spot is
I’ll be a viper and a hundred traps
I will lay for them before I give up.

I love the sweetness and lightness of Battle’s voice in this aria – and indeed, elsewhere, she’s a really lovely singer – but I must admit, I particularly love her comic sense here.  Her exaggerated sweetness at the start of the second part of the aria, and her clear delight in contemplating the traps she will lay in the path of any who try to cross her are absolutely charming.

Here is a totally different version by Maria Callas, who has a much deeper, fuller voice – she’s definitely at the mezzo end of the Rosina spectrum.  Where Battle floats up to those top notes as though she is ready to keep going, Callas has more power in her lower range.  And while Battle seems quite playful in her interpretation, Callas has moments of sheer anger in hers – whenever she sings ‘ma’ (but), her face says ‘don’t cross me’, and then she quickly goes back to ‘oh, I’m just a girl, how bad could my traps be’.  Very bad, one suspects.  I do think Battle’s coloratura is better, though – Callas has more power, but Battle has the dexterity to make it sound effortless.

And here’s another version, by Teresa Berganza, another mezzo, but one with a lighter voice than Callas.  This one is really fun, because it’s a film version – and already I want to see the rest of the film – and this allows for a lot more movement, and for some very entertaining camera angles and cuts.  I especially like the cut to a shocked looking portrait when Berganza goes from being sweet and obedient to viper mode.  This one is rather brilliant, actually, and Berganza has lovely vocal dexterity and acting skills.

Of course, now I could sit here all day giving you more and more versions of this aria to listen to – the fact is that just about everyone has a go at it sooner or later.  I know I’m planning to.  So I think that just for fun, I’ll leave you with the final sextet from the Battle version of this opera.  Enjoy!

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