With more than 2,650 pages and still counting, a large format of 8 1/2
by 11 inches, hefty weight and present price of $290 plus shipping
charges, this huge work-in-progress stands as an extraordinary witness
to the expertise, seriousness and dedication of Nico Castel. (Volumes
are available individually.) His quarter-century as a character tenor
at the Metropolitan Opera has defined him as a singular stage presence;
beyond his voice and acting, Castel is fluent in six languages. He
holds the post of staff diction coach at the Met and is one of the
most widely respected linguists in his field, teaching singers how to
pronounce their lines and how to interpret the words on the page.
Sherrill Milnes' introduction to these volumes, plus testimonials from
many singers, describe the extent of Castel's influence. It is hard to
imagine how anyone could surpass his accomplishment with these
These tomes are a linguistic guide for singers, teaching the sound
and syllable first, then the word, phrase, line and whole segment,
whether recitative or set piece. They also comprise a textbook for
directors, designers, even critics, in search of the poet's and
composer's original purpose. And they offer a clear set of
instructions for anyone, professional or not, who wants to master
Italian pronunciation or simply understand why the action unfolds as
it does at any given moment.
Castel helps us grasp just how lines contribute to opera
scenes, whether through sound or action, through the individual
expression of one singer or the integrated expression of ensembles.
Castel takes us down to the moment when the poet (or sometimes the
composer) put pen to paper. By deconstructing these texts he returns
us to the moment of their creation.
Castel uses white space to separate every word and line; there are
none of the blocks of text we remember from standard librettos. Every
element is seen independently, so the integrated line can be
understood after the reader has dealt with the word. At the beginning
of each volume, Castel includes a guide through the maze of the
international phonetic alphabet, using it to provide the pronunciation
of every word. He explains in the front matter why two singers sound
different while singing the same line of text. He goes into Italian
vowels, where even Italians sometimes fear to tread, and takes the
mystery out of "è" and "e." He also defangs the
Italian "r," the downfall of everyone who speaks English or
an Oriental language. He explains the double consonants that we hear,
even when they are not written, and why someone sings "amme"
or "comme" when the printed words are "a me" and
"con me." A literal translation, word by word, is given
beneath the original, in the exact order of the phrase; when
necessary, this literal line is supplemented by a line in English,
with the words in proper order, so it makes sense. By dismantling the
original, the way a mechanic takes apart a car motor, Castel forces us
to look at the parts he lays out.
Castel's method can be distracting, even infuriating, when we first
follow his relentless word-by-word track along the Italian lines we
thought we knew. His literal translations will make most
English-speaking readers wince. It is bitter medicine, but a cure for
our old, jaundiced and dismissive view of these dense scenes.
Awareness comes. In Castel's footnotes, we find the meaning of idioms
and archaisms we have heard for years without really knowing why they
were there. Because of the phonetic guidelines, we also
"hear" how the line sounded in the librettist's or
composer's head and can perhaps even recapture a line of his original
intellectual reasoning or poetic inspiration.
Those of us who place equal value on the words and the music find
that we have been justified all along. Castel leads us with his
passion for detail and reverence for the text. This collection should
be studied by professionals and music-lovers alike. Its few
typographical errors and points of confusion are easliy forgiven
because of the importance of the project.
MARY JANE PHILLIPS-MATZ