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Xavier Lacavalerie

«… di qua dal dolce stil novo

                                                                 ch’i’ odo»

                                                                 Dante Alighieri (Paradiso)


«… on peut confortablement se proclamer un tenant de la musique baroque sans faire beaucoup de différence entre les œuvres et les auteurs.»

                T.W. Adorno, Du mauvais usage du baroque, 1966


To understand the decisive contribution given by the cantatrice Nella Anfuso in the interpretation to the music so called antique, we must return to the beginning of the year 1980 when the French recording company Arion published a registration with a sibylline title “Sur les traces de Pétrarque. La virtuosité dans la musique spirituelle des XVIe et XVIIe siècles”. This was amazing not because of the repertoire - even though works by Filippo Vitali, Marco Da Gagliano, Francesco Severi, Sigismondo D’India and Francesca Caccini were little known and the majority of these pieces were a real novelty in recording - but art unprecedented, in the primigenial sense of the term “never heard”, of an interpreter that plunged us into unusual aesthetics and a universe of sound that left us totally bewildered. This was claimed openly by the desire to heed to the poetic word that a long vocal and musical tradition had contributed to put on a second level.

This recording, that we can qualify without any fear as “historic” because it determined a point of breakage in the interpretation of antique vocal Italian music, was accompanied by a learned and pugnacious comment by the musicologist Annibale Gianuario that stated without qualms that this was the first time after many centuries that the Italian music of the XVI - XVII centuries was interpreted correctly.

So be it. It was time to finish with the inexpressive little voice (vocine) that the “baroque” song had imposed creating a “new” style and mesmerizing the public to the novelty that was accepted passively! Nella Anfuso imposed herself like a complete cantatrice, real master of an art and of a perfect technical instrument, characterized by a perfect fusion of the two registers of chest and head, like a single register that permits the homogeneity of the voice, the extension of three octaves and pureness of emission, qualities without which it would be impossible any virtuosity.

The fact is - second essential point - that the maturity of this voice out of the ordinary permitted her to venture where no other singer of that period or contemporary could go: to extricate oneself with ease in vocal difficulties most dangerous (trilli calati e cresciuti, messa di voce, canto di sbalzo), to ornate correctly the voice with elegance (“smooth and detached and it is the most natural” Monteverdi would say), to put, when required by the word or the music, trillo, passaggio, gruppo, cascata, exclamation and again the portar la voce, with amazing ease the intonation.

It goes with out saying that this festival of ornamentations is not there by chance. We understand that the cantatrice possessed a profound knowledge of aesthetic that characterized this repertoire, the famous representative style, of which Caccini talks in his preface to the Nuove Musiche, in that the vocal line combines the “nature” of the poetic language, respecting their strong and weak accents, the rhythm and internal prosody, and will reproduce the affects and human passions.

A quick look at her biography demonstrated her complete mastery. Anfuso was not only interpreter, but held a university degree and specialized diploma that permitted her direct access to the library for her research, finding and understanding documents and antique manuscripts, contrary to certain artist divas in show-business of the rising Baroque.

A vocal art that appeared affected and flattery, a habit made of poses, sighs and artifices, due to Nella Anfuso becomes suddenly a song of truth, finding a profound sense of a music connected to the Neoplatonic conception of the mimesis, that is to the representation and painting of all the passions that move the human spirit.

This vocal virtuosity that characterizes the art of Nella Anfuso will be maximised in a recording that imposes not for the intrinsic beauty but for the complete, unique, prodigious realization, defining the limits of reason, like a dangerous flirt with the impossible.

It concerns a recording (SN 8830 - 2 cds) consecrated favourite Airs of the castrated Carlo Broschi so called Farinello: seven works highly virtuous among which his “Al dolor che vò sfogando”: he takes great pleasure in writing the music to produce a few vocal acrobatics, like those great jumps ascending and descending that were his speciality, intervals of fourteenth (B2- G 4!) and also… of two ascending octaves (F2-F4)….

Her voice a warm sonority, rich with the resonance of chest, in accordance with the golden rule of Italian tradition, underlines the passionate and pathetic character of these Airs of bravura. The intonation and security of her emission leaves us with admiration. Never the virtuosity kills the expression. The jump of the ascending octave (for example in the cadence of da capo in the Air Al dolor che vò sfogando) the messe di voce (the first part of the Air Son qual nave), the martellata agility or the battery of trills cresciuti and calati ( the cadenza in the second part in the Air Sposa, non mi conosci), the series of acrobatic trills (25 with resolution, on a single breath, cfr. the Air Quell’usignolo che innamorato!) are simply to the service of emotions and expressions, taken to paroxysm, like a manneristic painting or a statue by Bernini.

Song with urgency, song with fever, song virtuoso! How this execution aristocratic and noble takes us away from the affected aesthetics “belcantista” of occasion in this song so called “baroque”! I remember one day listening to famous singer Monserrat Caballé in the Air “Sposa non mi conosci” attributed for a long time, with another text (Sposa son disprezzata) to Vivaldi, returned to the original text, thanks to the research by Nella Anfuso in the National Library of Turin to the real author, Nicolò Porpora: a festival of sighs and subtle sounds, eliminating cunningly the minimum expressive difficulties (the magnificent messa di voce of the first part on the word “Cieli” that Nella Anfuso sings sublimely!), not exposing herself to the series of calati and  cresciuti trills in the second part of the Air (a real present from Anfuso) and not to embellish the song in the cadenza (that is what it is there for!) of the second part of the Air - simplified because of a defect in the voice the singer showed her craft! - reduced to a simple expression, a plot….well, a together of solecisms that took us to a generalized vocal barbarism.

 Imperturbable (“Le poète insiste” writes Edmond Jabès in his Livre de l’Hospitalité), Nella Anfuso will trace her road, methodically covering four centuries of Italian vocal music (or in the Italian style like in the repertoire of Mozart), from the last third of fifteenth century to the period of Bellini. Twenty five years later, a recording rich with about forty pieces, we can measure without fatigue the vastness and importance of her contribution to our knowledge of the song and of consequence understand the evolution in an art, born at the beginning of the Renaissance period in the refined courts and camerate of Mantua and Florence, radiating itself through the Italian Peninsular and Europe before shedding it’s last flames at the beginning of Romanticism. We refer to life and death of the “buon canto” (good song), in some way, that a new taste made it disappear leaving in its place an other aesthetical style that we support even today.

Nella Anfuso helps us in our historical and aesthetical journey and to understand specifically the pure Italian song and different modes, were the muses always encounter the muses, where the music does not know how to separate itself from the poetry and its emotional charge. We hear this in the regrouping of works under the generic title of “Il canto alla corte di Isabella d’Este” (1 cd SN 8802), odi and frottole by the composers (Bartolomeo Tromboncino, Lodovico Milanese and above all Marchetto Cara) active between 1474 and 1539 at the famous court of Isabella D’Este.

The humanistic ideal of song, accompanied by the lyre or lute (here played with fluidity asked for by Terence Waterhouse), consisting in a harmonious fusion between the musical and poetical language, casting their first light. The spirit of Petrarca and Aretino flows in these pieces where love is expressed on all levels, between desires and languors, hope and regret, illusion and disillusionment. It is necessary a “varied” voice, capable of touching all the levels of expression, each time light, painful, passionate, violent, clear, impulsive, obscured, feverish, languid, to translate all the emotions. It is necessary all the same to the interpreter a great liberty that in some way must contrast with the measure to give more expressiveness and passion to the song, and dare the rubati and inflections and personal and secret accents, to give every phrase meaning of intensity and drama.

We will not be surprised to hear in this recording and in this repertoire the “first” lesson “anfusiana”. The first because it shows the refinement of a inaugural repertoire at the beginning of the Renaissance period; first because correct, in the letter and spirit; first finely because it introduces a total breach with certain interpretive traditions of modern school (?) of singing in America, Belgium, France and Germany.

In this recording, the vocal art of Nella Anfuso wants to anticipate what was theorized by Giulio Caccini under the name of “sprezzatura”, a word difficult to translate in French. The sprezzatura is a possibility given to the interpreter to sing following the poetic text and emotions they contain without compromising the indication of value to the notes in the musical measure. One should sing “without bars”, commented later Claudio Monteverdi, that is without worrying about the measure.

It is comprehensible, the history of Italian song, at the beginning of the gold era, is above all dominion of the theoretical and aesthetical continuity like a Platonic ideal. A century after the magnificence of Mantua, it is Florence that launches a “school” of composers like Giulio Caccini (1 cd SN 8817) and Jacopo Peri composer of these Madrigals (1609 - 1 cd SN 8804) and Laments (2 cds singles SN 8818 and 8819), of whom Nella Anfuso cured the critical edition.

Before the recordings of Nella Anfuso, not much was known in the art of recitar cantando (recitative singing) that is evident here, were the melody has the same impetus of the verse, were the beauty and subtlety are born from the unification of the word, harmony and rhythms. In this “nuova maniera di cantare” (new way to sing), Nella Anfuso demonstrates how much she is at ease - fluency of diction and emission - performing with pleasure groups, trills, passages and whirl of spiccate notes, like those that have to appear in the Madrigals (1601). Listening for example to the first measure of Cor mio, deh non languire, (1 cd SN 8817) and her Art of exclamation, in a supplication intonated on a pointed white note, finely diminished little by little, of whose intensity is on a held note disconnected grade descending on the word “deh”. The effect gains strength: all the rush of loving passion, the fever, urgency are here suggested, exalted by the technical mastery and by the naturalness of execution.

This Art of a vocal painting of affects, emotions, we find raised to the highest level of refinement in the repertoire of Claudio Monteverdi. The composer without doubt abused by a generation of interpreters is the most betrayed, in the letter and spirit, on the scene like a disc, by realizations that were for a long time fanciful (D’Indy, Maderna etc.) and to which we may add certain versions so called “historic” like the realization of Orfeo by Jurgens (Archiv) that takes incredible liberties with the text, betrayed by singers unprepared and completely aphonic.

The effect is even more surprising because the composer profits by abundant recordings and his works are represented all over the world. We can state clearly that Nella Anfuso is the only interpreter capable of realizing the specifics of the famous parlar cantando, that is the essence of the musical research of the composer, and to penetrate the secrets that he called his Second Practice where the melody is conceived in a platonic sense of the term: an encounter between the declamation, rhythm and harmony, where the declamation (the poetic word) determines the rhythmic process and the sound of the musical language.

To interpret a Madrigal or a virtuosic Air of the “seconda pratica”, is not just a simple case to put the words under the music, indulging to a minimal inadequacy in the ornamentation, to take liberties in relationship to the text or the accents of the language, like generations of interpreters have done. It is, on the contrary, modulating the word in proportion to the representation of the affections, of emotions vehicle of the words and music, without underlying the value of the note or the rhythmic measure. The famous sprezzatura, illustrated by Nella Anfuso in her recordings.

Conscious of the fact that this repertoire was subjected to manipulations, the cantatrice conducted her work in two ways: to insure a reliable and critical edition, with support from the musicologist Annibale Gianuario and through the Centre of Musical Studies for the Renaissance period in Artimino, and to record in disk all the Madrigals and roles she could interpret.

We must be clear: these interpretations are and will be for a long time a main “reference”. While other interpreters construct the musical line by chance, worrying about diction and ornamentation like it was frivolous and gladly ruin the Italian language, Nella Anfuso restores all the complexities of this “second practice”, where the word resounds clear, where the ornamentation has to be pertinent and spiccata fortifying the expression of the emotions. It concerns the lamentation of Penelope, or the song of the Ninfa, or the prayer of Proserpina (1 cd SN 8813), of the Lamento d’Arianna, or minor roles of the Messaggera or of the Speranza in Orfeo, how dangerous (1 cd SN 8814), or of the famous Lettere Amorose, apex of the expressive painting Monteverdian, Nella Anfuso realizes a vocal execution unique and revolutionary should serve for a long time as a model. An example for all: the first measures of the Lamento d’Arianna (1608), that the cantatrice has recorded twice, in the Venetian edition of 1623 of whom unicum is preserved in the Library of Gand in Belgium.

There have been numerous so called stars of Do, to tackle the Opera in polyphonic version that has nothing to do with the representative style dear to Monteverdi and Florentine composers: the old divas like Janet Baker or Cathy Berberian the pioneer; darlings of “Baroque” that pretend to perform music in the antique style, like Carolyn Watkinson, Emma Kirby, Helga Muller Molinari and many others, in fanciful realizations (Harnoncourt with an ensemble of strings in five parts!), in an Italian inaccurate or incomprehensible. Nothing is spared by the abandoned heroine and her misery, nor her dramatic surges, neither her expressionistic sighs, neither the lyrical flights in the pure operatic modes (a voice that joins, embodies - in the sense to “give” body - to a theatrical personage).

With Nella Anfuso this is all contrary: the emotion lives through the same language, glorified by the musical modulations. In the first words “Lasciatemi morire”, the suffering is there, present, and not created artificially by an arbitrary liberty taken from the text, but inherent in underlining the word from the principal and secondary accents of the word and intensity of the melody that combines naturally the expressive rhythm of this suffering, with its chromaticisms, dissonances and….musicological truth! It is contrary to the artifice and vagaries dear to the Theatre and Opera…

Among other great musicological and artistic interpretations by Nella Anfuso, we must remember absolutely Didone by Cavalli, for her essentiality and her very expressive declamation, underlined by the austere basso continuo of the harp; but above all the new approach to singing by Antonio Vivaldi, this composer abused for so long in his concerts by generations of interpreters and of his sacred polyphonies like “piazza San Marco”, ostentatious, picturesque and much repeated, interpreted by the “vedette” most incongruous (falsettisti, soprano and mezzosoprano superstars without voice, see Decca or L’oiseau-Lyre) of the actual star-system.

In a series of two albums (SN 8807 and SN 8808) Nella Anfuso gives us a complete panoramic view of the great works for song and basso continuo, the great profane cantatas so extremely difficult that no modern interpreter has risked performing them. Make no mistake about it: this music corresponds to the golden age of the Italian vocalism in the XVII and XVIII centuries and needs for the interpreter an absolute mastery of bona vocalità, the only correct way to sing, to do passages and trills, apex of virtuosity of which speaks the great theorist of his age, Pier Francesco Tosi, in his important work Opinioni de’ Cantori antichi e moderni.

These Venetian cantatas represent the pure school of virtuosity; be aware of those who do not dominate the portamenti, trills of every gender “semplici e raddoppiati, cresciuti e calati”, gruppi, gruppetti, appoggiature, volatine, canto di sbalzo (i.e. simple, doubled, raising and falling, turn and turnings, leaning notes, flight of notes, jumping agility), leaps of intervals (octaves and also twelfth)!

Remembering the most difficult of all ornaments, agilità martellata, typical of this repertoire that we also find in Nicolò Porpora (with regards to this, listen to the recording of the Cantatas, SN 8810 and SN 8827): an ornament that seems insignificant that consists of a “martellare” (to hammer) light and of the same mode of four notes, the first more acute, the others “hammered” on the same line and repeating this structure changing the first note every time. It is necessary constant practice, pureness in emission, art of the spiccato until every note becomes distinct in perception, such mastery in the dosage of breath to repeat this structure without toil, few singers have mastered this even in the heroic times of Vivaldi.

From these vocal exploits, Nella Anfuso comes out superbly with all honours, flirting to the limits of the impossible (the passages of agility, justly, in the cantatas La farfaletta s’aggira al lume or Nel partir da te mio caro), because, in the great tradition of interpretation of this period, she has chosen her ornaments and imagined the cadences, without avoiding the difficulties and trying to manage her voice.

This horizontal vision of Italian vocalism would not be complete without evoking the famous canto figurato of Italian repertoire or in Italian style of a later period that includes Cimarosa, Bellini, Auber, Meyerbeer, Mozart and Beethoven. Even though we near the splendour of Opera and the Romantic period, even though the song will emancipate itself progressively from the text that will only become an excuse, this virtuosic song will shine singularly and needs a certain style.

To this figurative song even to-day unknown Nella Anfuso gives all her lustrous splendour (1 album of 2 cds SN 8806): works of agility and strong point of which she makes a panoramic point with a squint of the eye towards Mozart (Ridente la calma) the most varied appoggiaturas and above all Bellini, with his impressive diatonic and chromatic scales (the famous “volatinas” in the scene and Air Quando incise su quel marmo). Without naturally forgetting to give homage to the exercise in the variation: “Sul margine d’ un rio” by the famous Angelica Catalani or by Paganini (unpublished) or again “Di tanti palpiti” by Rossini, by Giuliani, pretext of infinite passages even more complex, in a style practised between second half of the XVIII and first half of the XIX centuries.

I would not like to terminate this praise to the “Art of Anfuso” without evoking a last and important point. Only the buon canto, good singing, insures the health and longevity of the voice. After more than thirty years of activity, Nella Anfuso records the Great Opera, a few madrigals by Giulio Caccini. All is there, without a blemish, like the first days: the pureness of emission and diction, the ornamental figurations admirable and detached. Time stands still, blocked for eternity.

An instrument correctly made and cared for does not deteriorate, so a singer, accustomed to forming artistic sounds (Italian “creare il suono”) and exercised regularly, does not feel the effects of age.

It is a great victory for a cantatrice continuing to sing when other rivals - with envy, criticism and insult - have changed their repertoire or have become silent, after few years of a lightening career.

Everything comes to light, talent like everything else: in singing, like love, the roosters strut, but the eagle hides itself.


1) 1 disque 33 tours 30 cm Arion n°ARN 38532, publié en 1980. Non réédité en disque compact.

2) Lettre du 24 juillet 1627, au poète Alessandro Striggio, “librettiste” - si tant est que l’on puisse utiliser ce terme anachronique et impropre - de L’Orfeo.

3) 1601.

4) 1 coffret -  2 CDs Stilnovo SN 8830.

5) Rappelons qu’ici le messa di voce, le port de voix en français, n’est pas un ornement: il s’agit d’une note attaquée pianissimo et lentement augmenté jusqu’au fortissimo, puis diminuée jusqu’au pianissimo. Caccini emploie pour le désigner une expression explicite: il crescere e scemare de la voce, mot à mot:le “croître et le décroître” de la voix. 

6) Sauf mention contraire, tous les enregistrements évoqués dans cette étude sont publiés par Stilnovo.

7) Terme utilisé dans la préface de son Euridice (1600) et celle des Nuove musiche (1601).

8) Lettre d’Angelo Grillo à Giulio Caccini (1601).

9) Lire, à ce sujet, la lettre de Claudio Monteverdi, vraisemblablement adressée au cardinal Giovan Battista Doni, en date du 22 octobre 1633.

10) La première, avec accompagnement de clavecin (Auvidis, non disponible en cd); la seconde, avec accompagnement au chitarrone (Pier Luigi Polato) et organo di legno (Margherita dalla Vecchia) chez Stilnovo.

11) Opinioni de’ Cantori antichi e moderni, Bologne, 1723.

12) Lire, à ce propos, ce qu’écrit le théoricien Giambattista Mancini dans son ouvrage Riflessioni pratiche sul canto figurato (Milan, 1777): “cette agilité est très difficile à exécuter à la perfection, parce que pour y bien parvenir, il est nécessaire d’avoir une voix très agile, une prédisposition, un génie particulier pour s’y appliquer; et une étude approfondie est nécessaire pour surmonter les difficultés. Parallèlement à cette étude, il faut soutenir le souffle, pouvoir le doser et le reprendre sans fatigue. Il faut posséder une grande pureté d’émission afin que chaque note ‘martelée’ soit entendue distinctement…”. Et d’ajouter plus loin d’affirmer que “ce genre d’agilité est aujourd’hui méconnue, à cause justement de sa grande difficulté d’exécution”.

13) Beethoven étudia auprès de Salieri, de 1793 à 1802. Il est d’ailleurs auteur de quelques mélodies en italien dont In questa tomba oscura, enregistré par Nella Anfuso.

14) 1847, ouvrage rédigé en français. Manuel Garcia (1805-1906) consacra sa vie à l’étude du mécanisme physiologique de la voix humaine. Il a d’ailleurs mis au point un instrument, le laryngoscope, longtemps utilisé par les oto-rhino-laryngologistes. Son père (Manuel) et ses sœurs (la fameuse Malibran et Pauline Viardot) comptèrent parmi les chanteuses les plus adulées de leur époque.

15) Rappelons aussi ce fait important: Nella Anfuso dans les années 1960, apprit le chant avec la maestra Guglielmina Rosati Ricci (1882), élève d’Antonio Cotogni (né au début du XIXe siècle), lui-même élève de Domenico Fontemaggi, maître de Chapelle à la fin du XVIIIe siècle à Santa Maria Maggiore de Rome. Les “chapelles”, en Italie, ont longtemps été dépositaires de la bonne école de chant et de la tradition.


Ancien élève de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure de Saint-Cloud, est journaliste musical dans l’hebdomadaire culturel français Télérama où il a tenu pendant dix années la chronique de critique discographique classique. Il a écrit en collaboration avec Marcel Pérès Le Chant de la Mémoire (Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 2001); Ecrire la Musique, ouvrage illustré par Claude Melun (Dervy - Albin Michel, Paris, 2002) et prépare actuellement un ouvrage sur le compositeur contemporain Arvö Pärt.


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