The latest Rosenblatt Recitalist, Italian mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi, is something of a revelation. At 26 years old, the lively young woman from Naples exhibited a level of artistry well in maturity of her years. She studied at the Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Rome, and has performed major roles such as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Zurich, and Angelina in La Cenerentola. Malfi has an ebullient personality, making eye contact with her audience, and she performs with an honesty that is truly endearing. She shows the depth of her emotional involvement with her vocation in a recent interview with the Rosenblatt Recitals team, as part of their “In conversation with…” series:
“I will never forget the excitement that accompanied me throughout all the acts [of my debut in La Cenerentola] and I will never forget the many uncontrolled tears that came from my eyes as soon as I had sung my last note… although the orchestra still had a coda to play!”
Malfi’s appearance at St Johns, Smith Square was her “first ever recital”. It was interesting to see what themes would be present, and how she would express her background and personality through the recital program. The balance between aria and song was excellently conceived, and used to emphasise the contrasting and complimentary modes of expression available in each genre. Malfi emphasised her Neapolitan roots, through the use of both composers native to Naples, such as Gasparo Spontini, and music with Neapolitan themes, such as “Uocchie de suonno” (Dark eyes).
One other interesting feature of the concert was that many of the composers had also trained, or performed, as singers. This was true of Vincenzo Righini, Pasquale Mario Costa, and Malibran and Viadot themselves. By using works composed by singers, Malfi was able to showcase music which had been created with real understanding of the singing mechanism. She also focused on the arias performed by the diva Maria Malibran, and her sister Pauline Viadot.
La Malibran, as she was known, was a young, feisty diva who wowed the musical establishment at the time with her amazing musicality, and her phenomenal range, which comfortably fell between G3 and E6, (though she had been known to sing down to a D3!). To associate oneself with such a figure (as did Cecila Bartoli, for instance, in her album Maria) is a brave and confident thing. Malfi, like Bartoli, was more than up for the challenge!
The opening three pieces were songs from Dodici Ariette (Op. 7), by Vincenzo Righini who, like J. A. Hasse before him, had trained as a tenor before becoming a composer. He took over from Antonio Salieri as court kapellmeister in Vienna for a short time, before being appointed to the Royal Prussian court in 1793. The opening line of the first piece, “Vorrei di te fidarmi”, had Malfi producing a sound richer and more voluminous than many had been expecting. The most engaging of the three songs was the third, "Mi lagnerò tacendo", which was slightly darker than the other two, and was best suited to her voice.
Next on the menu was a song from the Neapolitan composer Gasparo Spontini, who apparently had altercations with Felix Mendelssohn while working for Frederick William III of Prussia in Berlin. Malfi sang "Ben mio ricordati", a song which suited her strong, emotive voice. Her treatment of the melody on the lines "Io se pur amano le fredde ceneri nell'urne ancora t'adorerò" (And if the cold ashes can love you in the urn I will still adore you) was particularly haunting.
One of Malfi’s future engagements will be the Role of Annio in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, at the Teatro Real in Madrid. Here she sings an aria attributed to Sesto (originally performed by the castrato Domenico Bedini). In the Adagio section of “Parto, parto ma tu ben mio”,Malfi’s Sesto was full of longing and adoration for his beloved Vitella. There were some lovely touches, like the carefully emphasised discordant leading note on the word “piace”, and the change from flowing melody to staunch declamation on the phrase “Quel che vorrai faro”.
In the Allegro the combination of power and agility made for an electric performance. Her speed and accuracy on the rising triplets up to the Bb were impressive, as was her delivery of the surprise drops into the chest such as the drop from F5 on the word “Beltà” to the D4 on the word “donaste”. The subsequent syncopated rise back to the F5 was glorious, as was the finale, which was typical, joyous Mozart.
Another composer not originally intended for musical greatness was Nicola Vaccai, whose parents intended for him to study law. He instead chose music, and left a legacy of 18 operas, of which Giulietta e Romeo was the greatest. The opera premiered in Milan in 1825, and had its London premier at King’s Theatre in 1832. The role of Romeo was written for Contralto Adele Cesari, who sang the role en travesti. The scene chosen by Malfi, “È questo il loco... Ah, se tu dormi, svegliati”, was made famous by Maria Malibran when she inserted this scene into Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi during her performance. This then became a trend which continued until 1897.
“È questo il loco... Ah, se tu dormi, svegliati” was one of the highlights of the evening, requiring the singer to express several conflicting emotions. The opening was tender, yet fearful. Malfi kept the suspense building until the terrible cry of “Giulietta”, where Romeo believes his beloved is dead. The aria “Ah, se tu dormi, svegliati”, is a masterpiece of musical phrasing, charting Romeo’s oscillation between reality and madness. The most touching moment was Malfi’s almost ecstatic singing on the phrase “Amor si condurrà” followed by the heartrending realisation of “Ma tu non odi”.Malfi coped well with the low tessitura, and exhibited a maturity of musicality that was most impressive.
Malfi reprised the role of Romeo in the next aria, this time from the great Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Many of its arias had been taken from his previous opera, Zaria, which had been a failure. Bellini said: "Zaira, hissed at Parma, was avenged by I Capuleti". In the introductory recitative, Malfi asked us all to listen “poichè verace favella io parlo d’amistade e pace” (because I bring you a true message of friendship and peace). She then launched into the first part of the aria, “Se Romeo t’uccise un figlio”.
Malfi sang the opening lines gracefully and passionately: in true Bellini style. Malfi carried the full bodied richness from the top to the bottom of the phrases, while her descent down to G3 on the phrase “e piange ancor” was powerful and bold: no“bottoming-out” here! Both of the ascents to G5 on the twice repeated phrase “e un altro figlio troverai” were fiery and bold. Malfi exuded martial energy in the second half of the aria, “La remenda ultrice spada”. The drops into the chest register were truly frightening, and the high B5’s were solid and thrilling. This was a perfect way to end the first half of the concert.
Malfi’s first song of the second half was “Più non t’amo” by Luigi Caraccilo which warmed her up for the beautiful “Non è ver!” by Tito Mattei. Mattei was a prodigy, who gave his first concert at the age of 5, and was made a professor at the age of eleven. He was the King of Italy’s pianist, Conductor at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, and he even received a gold medal from the Pope! The song “Non è ver!”was perfectly chosen to showcase Malfi’s creamy and luxurious middle register. With a gentle touch, Malfi took some of the weight from her voice, giving an intimate performance which was a hit with the audience. The highlight was the ardent sound in the rising phrase “Ma mentisti, indegno, appien”,followed by the cry of “Non fu il cor”, where Malfi exploded into full voice.
As the applause died away I looked up towards the high window of the church of St John’s, Smith Square, and saw the burnt-red evening light. It was a perfect vision to introduce the next song: “Sogno” (Dream) by Francesco Paolo Tosti. Tosti, a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, received a knighthood from King Edward VII. Malfi was enchanting, singing with a darkened tone. The most beautiful part of the song was the last two lines “Chiusi gli occhi, ti stesi le braccia, ma sognavo e il bel sogno svanì”. Particularly powerful was the exclamation on the words “ti stesi le braccia”. It was a lovely piece, and one which I hope she records.
Pasquale Mario Costa, another tenor-composer, was the next offering from Malfi. He was a singer, composer, and poet who enjoyed adding folk images to his songs. The song performed by Malfi was called “Napulitanata” or “Uocchie de suonno” (Dark Eyes). The melody screamed “Neapolitan”, and I was interested to see if Malfi would emphasise her native dialect: she did! The performance was amazing – all strutting, posturing, and big emotions, and her Rubato on the phrase “de ‘sta faccella janca ánema site” was perfectly executed. The whole piece left me with a vision of a night-time soirée, filled with laughing, dancing and glasses of chilled Limoncello.
The next three pieces were written by the Garcia sisters, Pauline and Maria. Maria, of course, would later be known as Maria Malibran, the famous mezzo. She made her debut in London at the tender age of 17, singing the aria “Nacqui all’affanno” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Sadly, she died after a riding accident in London, aged only 28 years old. Her sister, Pauline, was also a mezzo of great renown. She had much success, but decided to concentrate on teaching and her love of composition. Both of the Garcia sisters composed songs which they themselves performed.
The two songs by La Malibran were perfect vehicles for Malfi’s feisty and playful character, but it was the song by the younger sister, Pauline, that was truly captivating. The beautiful “Haï luli” was the only non-Italian piece in the recital. The gentle piano introduction, like the patter of raindrops, leads to the opening line of this romantic lament: “Je suis triste, je m’inquiète”. Malfi’s tender singing on the phrase “Haï luli” was soft yet expressive, and full of pathos. In the third verse, Malfi vents her jealous rage in the phrase “Si jamais il deviant volage…Le village n’a qu’a bruler, et moi-même avec le village!”, and ardently ascends to the G5 on the final “Haï luli”.Then, tenderly and sorrowfully, she asks: “A quoi bon vivre sans ami?”
After that, we all needed cheering up! So Malfi decided to let off the fireworks with the magnificent “Nacqui all’affanno... Non più mesta” from La Cenerentola. One of Rossini’s best loved operas, La Cenerentola still pulls the crowds into opera houses around the world. Written in three weeks, when the composer was only 25 years old, the opera contains some of the most exciting music in the whole of the Rossini repertoire. Some of this is recognisable to those acquainted with other Rossini works. In fact, “Non più mesta” was originally written for a tenor in the opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia. (You can read about the tenor version of this aria in my article on leggiero tenor Bogdan Mihai.) In La Cenerentola, the aria was first performed by the famous coloratura contralto, Geltrude Righetti.
“Nacqui all’affanno”, is a mix of accompanied recitative and arioso. Malfi easily navigates the wide range required in this section, exuding power in the lower register while keeping the notes above the stave solid, full and without flare or shrieking. The transition between the upper and middle registers is silky smooth, while Malfi booms magnificently as she smashes into the basement notes. There was absolutely no slur in the rapid coloratura of the phrase “come un baleno rapido”, which was performed with skill and confidence.
In the aria “Non più mesta”, the opening staccato notes were like pin-drops, and pitch-perfect. The machine-gun coloratura of the four-semiquaver-per-syllable section was stylish and energetic, without losing tonal or vocal integrity, and her control during the runs from A5 to G3 was astonishing. It was nice to hear the G3 ring out, rather than disappear into breathiness. At the final cadence, Malfi’s magnificent B5 rang out across the hall.
After so much applause that Malfi herself was taken aback, she held up her hands for quiet, and proceeded to give us the first of her two encores. In the first, Malfi opted for comedy, with the aria “La ra la” from Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio. The final offering from Serena Malfi can only be described as exceptional. The aria was “Vedrò con mio diletto”from the opera Il Giustino by Vivaldi. Premiering in Rome in 1724, Vivaldi used music from around 20 of his earlier pieces, and one can even hear bits of “Spring” from the Four Seasons in the first act. Interestingly, as the opera was performed in Rome, the company had to abide by the Papal decree that no women could perform on stage. Thus, all of the female roles were performed by castrati en travesti.
Malfi’s interpretation of this aria was pure magic. The interplay between her and pianist Angelo Michele Errico was perfect: two people performing with one mind. Malfi reached into the heart of the piece, and found the soul that Vivaldi had created all those years ago. The key to performing this piece is threefold: legato, breath control, and intelligent dynamics. The accompaniment in this aria is syncopated staccato, giving the singer sole responsibility for carrying melodic line. This means that a strong sense of legato, of smoothness, must characterise the performance of this aria.
Cecilia Bartoli talked often about the phenomenal breath control of the castrati (The aria was originally sung by the castrato John Ossi who created the role of Anastasio, the Emperor of Byzantium in the opera), and it is this ability to sing through to the end of the passage which makes all the difference in the performance. Combined with a mastery over the art of dynamics, the third major requisite, the singer can produce an almost mesmeric effect which gives an esoteric, almost mystical quality to the aria, and it was this mystical quality which Malfi was able to produce. So masterfully did she weave her enchantment that even the hustle and bustle in the street outside seemed to disappear. As Malfi sang through the 5-bar line “il core del mio cor”, she allowed the volume to ebb and flow like a tide, gently rocking the dynamic backwards and forwards.
The F minor ‘B’section was very touching, particularly the pianissimo “sospireò penando”phrase which floated effortlessly above the piano accompaniment. In the Da Capo, Malfi was restrained and subtle, which was exactly the right choice. The volume was reduced, and the phrasing just that little bit gentler. When Malfi finished, there was a moment of silence, before people started to breathe again. Then: the applause. It was well deserved: Malfi’s rendition of this aria was the best I have ever heard. It was also the aria on everybody’s lips as we left the hall.
It was a pleasure to listen to this amazing singer: Malibran herself would have joined in the applause.
Serena Malfi’s Future engagements include Zerlina in Don Giovanni at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris, and Annio in La Clemenza di Tito at the Teatro Royal in Madrid. The next Rosenblatt Recitalist will be Vuyani Mlinde, the South African Bass-Baritone, on 28th June at 7:30pm.