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A mezzo-soprano is a classical female singing voice whose vocal range lies between the soprano and the contralto voice types. The mezzo-soprano's vocal range usually extends from the A below middle C to the A two octaves above. In the lower and upper extremes, some mezzo-sopranos may extend down to the F below middle C and as high as ‘high C’. The mezzo-soprano voice type is generally divided into the coloratura, lyric, and dramatic mezzo-soprano.
While mezzo-sopranos typically sing secondary roles in opera, notable exceptions include Angelina (Cinderella) in Rossini's La Cenerentola, and Rosina in The Barber of Seville. Typical roles for mezzo-sopranos include witches, nurses, and wise women, such as Azucena in Verdi's Il trovatore; villains and seductresses such as Amneris in Verdi's Aida; and ‘trouser roles’ (male characters played by female singers) such as Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. Mezzo-sopranos are also well represented in baroque music, early music, and baroque opera.
If it were not for the operas of Rossini, the repertoire for the mezzo soprano would be far less interesting. Opera is often thought of as following the basic plot where ‘the tenor wants to marry the soprano and bass tries to stop them’. According to this simplistic formula, the heroine is the soprano which leaves such roles as the heroine’s sidekick, mother or nurse for the mezzo. Otherwise she is the villainess. Not too much sympathy need be expended here, evil is often considered much more interesting to play on stage. However it is true that the Romantic opera where the mezzo is both centre stage and gets her man at the end of the evening are few and far between, and nearly all the well-known examples are to be found in the works of Rossini.
During much of his career, the composer was closely associated with mezzos. Firstly, there was Marietta Marcolini, an established singer noted for her comic roles, who took the 19 year old composer under her wing. In gratitude, the composer wrote starring roles for her in five of his early operas, all but one of them comedies. L’equivoco stravagante (1811) where the tenor stops the baritone from marrying the mezzo and does it by telling him that she is a castrato singer in drag; Ciro in Babalonia; La Pietra del paragone; Marcolini did not appear at the first performance of Rossini’s earliest great success, Tancredi, but she appeared as the heroine in his next comedy, L’Italiana in Algeri (1813). The last Rossini premiere she took part in was Sigismondo (1814).
The following year, Rossini was in Naples with a generous contract to write one opera a year for a payment that included a share of the profits from the opera house’s gambling tables. The first of these was Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, written for Isabella Colbran, then at the peak of her fame. History dictates that Elisabetta was not to get her man, but Colbran fared rather better, marrying the composer. Rossini wrote leading roles for Colbran in eight further operas, all for Naples. These include Desdemona in Otello, the title-roles in Armida and Zelmira and Elena in La Donna del Lago. They left Naples and married in 1822 but her voice was showing signs of strain and he wrote only one further opera for his wife, Semiramide (1823). They later separated, but Rossini took care of her until her death and he maintained that she was one of the greatest interpreters of his music.
There is a further reason why Rossini is particularly kind to the mezzo. He usually followed the baroque tradition of casting the male lead in a serious opera as a mezzo trouser role. The tenor as hero was a development of romantic opera—a norm that was established as Rossini’s serious operas were fading from the repertory. This expectation had to be broken before they could be re-established on opera stages in the last forty years.
Angelina in our production of La Cenerentolathis Autumn will be played by Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught, who some of you may have heard singing with the WNO Orchestra at St David’s Hall last year. Tara is no stranger to the role, having received critical acclaim for her portrayal in the Wiener Staatsoper production in 2013
The evening, however, belonged to the young Irish mezzo Tara Erraught as the put-upon Angelina. With her accurate, fleet divisions and sweet disposition she won the audience’s hearts completely
As Angelina — Rossini’s Cenerentola, or Cinderella — mezzo Tara Erraught unleashed an array of coloratura fireworks in a role that affords opportunities for vocal pyrotechnics like few others. ‚Non piu mesta’ — where Angelina, the prince by her side, announces that she forgives her cruel step-sisters and step-father — is considered one of opera’s most difficult arias. No problem for Erraught. Her rendition perfectly mirrored Angelina’s transition from a servant singing a simple ditty at the fireside to a princess in full embellished voice