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Wednesday, August 19, 2015


The Great Neapolitan Tenor Francesco Albanese
 

                 Francesco Albanese was born in Torre del Greco, Naples, and was a popular lyric tenor, known not only for his work in opera, but as one of the greatest singers of Neapolitan song.  His life and career were almost entirely in Italy, although he did sing in London, Portugal and South America.  As a result, his work was largely within the Italian repertoire,  but that of course is a very large part of opera!   He did not, to the best of my knowledge, ever sing in the United States.  We have an unfortunate tendency in the US to think that Italian singers who never sang here were  unsuccessful or unimpressive.  That is a silly kind of chauvinism, of course; nothing could be further from the truth.  He in fact had a very good career, and is greatly respected today.

His first studies were in Rome, with Francesco Salfi, and it was there that he made his debut, at the Teatro dell'Opera, in Gluck's Alceste  His early repertoire was to become his characteristic repertoire, which is leggiero, or light lyric roles, such as Almaviva, Fenton, Rinuccio, Ottavio, Ramiro, Ernesto (Don Pasquale), Armida, Alfredo and Nemorino.

He recorded both Ifigenia in Tauride, (1957) and La Traviata (early 50's )  opposite Maria Callas.

It was not only in opera that Albanese had a good career.  For lovers of Neapolitan music, Albanese is commonly considered one of the greatest of all singers of Neapolitan songs, which have a remarkable history all their own.  As I always hasten to point out, whenever I speak of Neapolitan songs, there is a great misconception about what they are.  It seems, for example, that nearly every operatic tenor and baritone on earth feels obliged to sing these songs, whether or not they know anything about Naples, its language, literature, or musical history.  As a result of this, many of the songs are done poorly.  In fact, the Neapolitan song has a style all its own,  because these songs have a long history and in their earliest iterations, they were art songs, much more restrained and dignified in tone than they now often appear in the hands of many singers. Further, they were, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a principle means of instructing a large and unlettered populace in Neapolitan cultural and literary history--they served as a kind of instruction in napolitanità ; which is to say in what it meant to be Neapolitan.  Therefore, a great familiarity with Naples, its music, its political history,  its language and its literature is required to do them well.  Several names come immediately to mind, including Fernando de Lucia—still the all-time favorite tenor of many Neapolitans—modern singers Roberto Murolo and Aurelio Fierro, and of course Francesco Albanese.

I think it's possible to get a good idea of just what a fine singer Albanese was by listening to him sing one of the most popular of all Neapolitan songs, Dicitencello Vuje.  When I posted this on Youtube, I included the lyrics, and translated them from Neapolitan into English.  It makes it possible to follow the song carefully.


Isn't that just absolutely wonderful!  That is what a Neapolitan song is supposed to sound like.  The first thing you will notice is that it is completely devoid of shouting, moaning, groaning, glycerin tears or schlock.  It is in fact as well constructed, singable and  dignified as many a Schubert Lied, making allowance for the theme of romance expressed in a Latin way and in a Latin language.  Of course, these tonal differences will be expressed in ways particular to both cultures, but that says nothing about the quality of the artistry, just the intrinsic nature of the different cultures, languages, and peoples.  You can hear the same differences in political or scientific discussions or speeches.  On the same Youtube page where this song appears, you can find, in the right hand sidebar, the same song "sung" by the Three Tenors.  I don't recommend it:-)

As for opera, here is "Parigi, o Cara....," from La Traviata, with Maria Callas:


Notice the restraint and the elegance of his singing.  This is classy singing, there is no doubt about it, and very much against stereotype.  I would contend that this is exactly the quality I find in the Neapolitan songs he sings, and one of the major reasons he sings them so authentically and beautifully.  A first class tenor, and a credit to Italian music!

Thursday, August 13, 2015


Andrés Huc Santana

By

Fr. Cornelius Mattei

 
Andrés Huc Santana

                There have been at least two substantial 20th century Franco-Argentinian singers; one who was the master, indeed the shaper of the tango, Carlos Gardel, probably born of a single mother who emigrated from Toulouse to the river Platte estuary, whether in Montevideo, Uruguay or Buenos Aires, it is not known.  But the great  “morocho del tango” is not the subject of our piece today, but rather Andrés Huc Santana, he who became a star basso in France and Brussels in the 1940’s and 50’s.  

To start, let us hear Santana in Song.  Here is the old but always popular  “Le Cor”:


Very beautifully and masterfully done!

Having  begun his operatic career with a small role in “Louise,” Santana and his young wife left Paris for Marseille where, patronized by countess Lily Pastré, he was hired by Paul Bastide for the Théatre Municipal, making his debut in 1941 as Phanuel in Massenet’s “Hèrodiade.”

In 1943 he returned to the capital, where he auditioned for Jacques Rouché, singing “Le Cor” as we have heard it here, making his debut as Sparafucile and also singing Ramphis and the Commendatore.  His next important step was becoming a star bass at Monte Carlo, where Gunbourg entrusted Boris, Don Giovanni, the four Hoffman villains, Gounod and Boito demons to him, thus setting him on his true way. 

At approximately  6’ 7” he certainly had the imposing physique!

Here is his Faust:


In addition to some of the previous roles…he sang Bazile in “Le Barbier” at the Comique…he also performed the Berlioz “Mephisto” and built a following as a bass protagonist at the Opéra, where he was to remain until the mid-1960’s in a variety of roles, memorably as both Philippe and the Grand Inquisitor in the Margherita Wallman production of “Don Carlos.”

In Brussels for seven consecutive seasons, he wrote his own ticket, appearing in so-called Chaliapin roles, even essaying both Galitzkiy and Khan Konchak in the same performances of “Prince Igor.”  At Aix-en-Provence he appeared memorably in Rameau’s  ”Platée.”  In Argentina, as may be imagined, he sang at the Teatro Colón.  He was heard to advantage in the French theaters outside Paris, memorably at Toulon and other venues in the south, so avid for opera in those days, as well as in Italy, Tunis and Algeria.

American students attending the AIMS program in Graz, Austria, have fond memories of him there in the 1970’s.  He was also prominent on the juries of the international vocal competitions.  Still teaching in retirement, he passed away on January 21, 1982 in Paris.

A final offering:  Le Pas d’armes du roi Jean”


 


 
                                     Father Cornelius Mattei

 

 

Friday, August 7, 2015

John Charles Thomas, The Great American Baritone

John Charles Thomas was born in 1891 in Meyersdale, Pa., the son of a Methodist minister.  After study for a medical a career, he won a scholarship to the Peabody Institute in Baltimore in 1910.  In 1912 Thomas left the Peabody and toured with a musical troupe, and starred in many musicals, including “Her Soldier Boy”, Maytime, “Naughty Marietta,” and “Apple Blossoms.”  His opera career began in 1925 as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida.  He went on to sing in San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia.  He would remain at the Met until 1933 , singing opposite great sopranos of the day, such as Rosa Ponselle.  Thomas sang a very wide variety of songs:


Here is Thomas in opera, "O du mein holder Abenderstarn:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_M2oTNjOxY4


Here is “The Last Time I saw Paris”


And here is the”Green Eyed Dragon”


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ywcugcb1D1g&noredirect=1


And let's not forget Gilbert and Sullivan!

 

Thursday, July 16, 2015


                                       WELSH OPERATIC TENOR DAN BEDDOE

The Welsh operatic tenor, Dan Beddoe, was born in Aberdare, Wales, UK on March 16th 1863. He died in December 1937 at the age of 74.

A Cincinnati Enquirer review of a May 1931 performance stated that he "stole the show with voice clear and ringing" with "countless" calls for encores and "with the entire audience of many thousands rising en masse to pay him special tribute."

A December 1931 New York Evening Post article, recalling his singing in the Messiah and the Elijah for the Oratorio Society of New York, noted that he had "been singing for a generation" since his first appearance there in 1903 and described  how he was "in marvelous voice and received a standing ovation after each aria he sang.

A New York Times review of the same performance noted that "For Dan Beddoe it was the fortieth year of public appearance. He has become almost indispensable to the Society's performances of the Messiah. The 64-year-old tenor sang as always in keeping with the spirit of the work and with fine musicianship. Age does not stale the many resources of his art."

Here is the great Welsh tenor singing "O Danny Boy:"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3otalrk8Ig

And here is "A Moonlight Song:"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06OJQ_eJTyY

Friday, July 3, 2015


Jozef Sterkens: Golden Voice of the Royal Flemish Opera

Introductory Note

[Before I can even begin to tell the story of Jozef Sterkens, I need, first and foremost, to publicly thank Pierre at Jozefsterkens2.com. for his absolutely indispensable  assistance.  Pierre 's site is one of the oldest and most respected on Youtube, and he is certainly the foremost authority on Jozef Sterkens, after whom he has named his site. I owe to him the videos and the biography which I have used in the preparation of this article.  Secondly, it is important to point out that Jozef Sterkens' life consists of two distinct parts: artistry and politics, and the two influenced each other.  He was a leading figure of the Flemish artistic renaissance in Flanders, during the very stressful  period of WWII.  I can only deal here with the artistic life.  Edmund St.Austell]

Jozef Sterkens (pseudonym of Jozef Steuren) was born in Antwerp in 1893.  His parents had a laundry in Antwerp, and hoped that young Jozef could study to become a teacher. He was a good scholar, and so they arranged—although their funds were limited—to send him to  the Normal School in Ghent, in 1908. Bright boy though he was, he failed to develop much interest in his studies, generally speaking, but he did have the chance to take music lessons from the Flemish composer Emiel Hullebroeck, who soon discovered that young Jozef had a beautiful tenor voice. Hullebroeck strongly recommended singing lessons, but family finances made it impossible for Jozef to do anything but become an art teacher after graduation. Within a few years, WWI broke out, and Jozef joined the armed forces, where he spent the next four years working as a nurse in a military hospital.  While in the army, he had the opportunity, along with other artists, to sing for soldiers at the front.  His patriotic diligence and hard work led to his being decorated on four different occasions.

After the Armistice, Sterkens returned to Antwerp and resumed his teaching career, while also studying at the Royal Flemish Conservatory. In 1923, he sang for the music critic of a local newspaper, who in turn introduced him to Edmond Borgers, the leading heldentenor of the Royal Flemish Opera.  After hearing Sterkens sing "In Fernem Land,"  he offered to give him singing lessons.  In that same year, Sterken's career began, in a modernistic vein that would characterize much of his later work.  His first concerts consisted of works by Flemish composers Peter Benoit, Jan Blockx,  Jef Van Hoof, and Renaat Veremans, and were presented to largely Flemish-speaking audiences.

One of the main reasons many opera lovers, especially in this country, do not know much about Sterkens'  career now is that from the very beginning he became strongly associated with presenting Flemish music, and music in Flemish.  There were two opera houses in Antwerp:  The Royal French Opera and the Royal Flemish Opera.  The French Opera dedicated itself largely to French and Italian works, and the Flemish house to German works, and works in Flemish translation.  Because of Sterken's association with the Flemish house, he did not have much opportunity  to sing the French and Italian repertoire that held so many great roles for tenors. There were strong political pressures for him to adhere to Flemish.  At this time, Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, was completely dominated by French speakers and French culture, and the need was greatly felt, by the Flemish, to establish Flemish art and culture in Flanders.  Sterkens was, in fact, to become an important figure in that Flemish struggle for cultural liberation.

He joined the Royal Flemish Opera in 1925, and his first big success was Tamino, in 1927.  He quickly became the leading lyric tenor in the company.  The following year he sang the St. Matthew Passion in Paris, under the baton of the famous Flemish conductor Lodewijk de Vocht, and made his first recordings for the French Gramophone Company. He was also becoming a fixture on Belgian radio.  In 1929 he sang Florestan opposite the Leonore of Lotte Lehmann, who was a frequent performer at the Royal Flemish Opera.   During this period, he took part in presenting the Dutch versions of Sadko (1925), Paganini (1927), Jenufa (1927), Sly (1929), Die tote Stadt (1932), and Daphne (1939)

Sterkens' story from this point until his death in 1952 is primarily a story of administrative work, both at the Royal Flemish and elsewhere.  Unfortunately, it is a sad one, full of the political intrigues and politics of the time.  He was even jailed at one point, after the liberation of Antwerp in 1944, for a period of about 8 months.  After that, he fell into obscurity for a long time, but slowly began to regain his reputation.  Just at the moment when he was to be given a significant post as chairman of the Musical Copyright Society, he died of a heart attack.  The year was 1952. It's a rather depressing story, really. Those interested in reading of these matters in more detail can consult 401 Divas, http://401dutchdivas.nl/en/belgian-singers/440-jozef-sterkens.html   I am indebted to this site for my biographical information.

I think it is important to first hear Sterkens in one of the most lyrical and beautiful renditions I know of  the aria "Glück das mir verlieb," from Korngold's Die tote Stadt:


Now isn't that just absolutely beautiful!  I certainly think it is!  What kind of voice is it, essentially?  I think of Sterken's voice as being in the Gigli/ Tagliavini/ Schipa fach, which is to say high lyric tenor, but with a decidedly German/Dutch color.  If you associate colors with vocal sounds, this might be called "brown,"  as compared to the darker, "black" quality of the typical Italian voice—or at least that of Gigli, perhaps not so much that of Tagliavini.  Of one thing there can be no question:  this is a very beautiful voice, absolutely without strain or harsh edge, a superb lyric tenor.

Next, we can hear in Sterken's voice the introduction of drama, of a dark and mysterious kind, in Respighi's Campana Sommersa,  a mythical opera concerning a sunken bell between two worlds, the world of humans and that of fairies.  Choices have to be made, and tragic consequences may hang on the quality of the choice.  It is basically a verismo fairy-tale with dark forebodings:


The voice, while lyric, has here acquired some edginess; it is also more dramatic, with greater dynamic variations.  Clearly, the potential for development into a slightly darker voice is there,  but it was never pushed.  It was always the lyric and the beautiful that dominated Sterken's singing.

Finally, to illustrate that point even more, here is a real rarity, the only known film footage of Sterkens.  It is from a silly, light-hearted comedy of the kind that proliferated during the 1930's.  Here is the Dutch song "Elisa," from the movie "De Witte:


Notice the voix mixte high C sharp at the end?  A famous voice teacher once told me that opera voices would be better and longer-lived if singers and conductors ever figured out that most people far prefer what is pretty to what is simply loud!.  Case in point!  I cannot help but wonder what Sterkens' fate would have been if he had been born in Italy or France, in years of relative peace, and had had the opportunity to sing extensively in the standard Latin repertoire of those countries.  I believe I would be telling an entirely different story

Sunday, May 31, 2015


Mabel Garrison, Brilliant Coloratura Soprano

 

 


 

 Mabel Garrison was born in Baltimore in1886. She finished her undergraduate work in 1903 and went on to study singing at Peabody Conservatory. She studied with George Siemonn and then studied further with Oscar Saenger and Herbert Witherspoon in New York. She made her debut in 1912 with the Aborn Opera Company as Philine in Mignon. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut on February 15, 1914 in concert, singing arias from operas by Verdi and Mozart. Her first role at the Met was Frasquita in Bizet's Carmen. Other roles included Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore, Bertha in Euryanthe, Biancofiore in Francesca da Rimini, Crobyle in Thaïs, the Dew Fairy in Hansel and Gretel, Gilda in Rigoletto, Lady Harriet in Martha, Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera,the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute,Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and Urbain in Les Huguenots.. Her last performance at the Met was as the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor  1921.  First, here is the Garrison voice in its prime, in the Doll Song from Hoffman:


 
In 1921 Garrison made guest appearances at the Berlin State Opera and made a world concert tour that same year She was a member of the Chicago Opera Company during the 1925-26 season. Garrison had a great and well -trained coloratura voice, as she demonstrated in both opera and concert and in several recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company.

 Like others of her era, she made “popular recordings” that were always good for a few extra dollars; many, very often.  Here is a superb recording of “Dixie:”


 
This is a very good place to thank Mr.Douglas Curran for posting these Garrison videos on his Youtube channel (Curzon Road) one of the very best classical music channels on Youtube; in fact, one of the finest channels of any kind.  I believe that every Mabel Garrison video on the web is from Mr. Curran,  a friend and brilliant record collector.  Thank you, my friend!
 

Mabel Garrison died in New York City on August 20, 1963

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, May 23, 2015


The Great Marcella Sembrich

 


 

Marcella Sembrich  (1858 – 1935) was the stage name of the Polish coloratura soprano, Prakseda Marcelina Kochańska. She was born  in Wisniewczyk, then part of Austria, and now part of Ukraine. She first studied violin and piano with her father, and later she entered the Lemberg Conservatory and studied piano with her future husband Wilhelm Stengel . She was able to enter the Vienna Conservatory in 1875. It was soon discovered that her voice was exceptional, and she dedicated herself exclusively to voice from then on.  She made her operatic debut at the relatively tender age of 19 in Athens, as Elvira in I Puritani, in 1877.  She was engaged shortly thereafter by the Vienna Opera, but due to pregnancy she broke the contract. Later, after the birth of her first son, she had to wait for another opportunity and was finally hired as a guest artist at the Dresden Royal Opera House in September, 1878, as Lucia. Her success was immediate and she was dubbed the "Polish Patti." She remained in Dresden for two years, but decided to act boldly—in order to make up for lost time—and broke her Dresden contract and began concertizing on her own, in order to raise money.  She managed to get to London, and after a successful audition was accepted at Covent Garden, where she was quick to sign a contract with them. She created quite a sensation in her 1880 debut there in Lucia.  

 Emboldened by her success, she broke her London contract two years early and came to the United States in 1883 to make her Met debut, also as Lucia.  From there it was on to St. Petersburg, and eventually back to the Met in 1898, where she finally settled.  She remained there until 1909, having given over 400 performances.  She concertized for years, finally retiring after WWI.  From then on, she dedicated herself to teaching, in important conservatories.  She was very successful as a teacher, and had significant influence. Among her students were the great Alma Gluck, Hulda Lashanska,  a successful concert singer, coloratura soprano (and novelist!) Queena Mario, and dramatic soprano Dusolina Giannini, who had a very successful international career.  Also among her students was radio vocalist and concertizer Conrad Thibault, who studied with her at Curtis, and who told the distinguished musical biographer James A. Drake,  in an interview in 1976, that “she was always very attentive and generous to her students, and talked to them personally about the [singing teachers Francesco and Giovanni Lamperti ] and their methods.”  Drake goes on to say, interestingly, that  “He (Thibault) added that at least in his experience with her, she never demonstrated vocalises or otherwise sang even so much as a single tone.”  *    She was also a fundraiser for Polish causes, following WWI. 

Since Lucia played so large a part in her earlier career, serving as a frequent debut opera, it seems appropriate to begin there.  I apologize for the scratchiness of the recording.  I cannot find a better recording than the one I posted some years ago, and I was not able to clean up the scratching on the transfer without taking some quality from the voice.  Here is the 1906 recording of “Ardon gl’incensi”: 


What most impresses me about this singing is the clarity, purity, precise intonation, and general absence of affectation, either stylistic or vocal. It is, as a result, what can honestly be classified as elegant singing, not always the case with divas of the era.  She was often compared to Patti, especially in her youth, and one can see why:  We note the same  clarity and purity of the voice, including the  floating, haunting tones. Like Patti, Sembrich  sings perfectly on the breath, which is how she is able to  portamento up and down so smoothly and seamlessly, and also trill easily. There is considerable vocal fluidity to be noted in the singing of both these great divas from the distant past.
Another favorite opera for Sembrich was I Puritani.  Here is the lovely “Qui la Voce sua Soave” from 1907:


Lovely!  This is really very accomplished singing for the period.  At the beginning of the aria, the same “straight,” restrained and haunting melodic line is apparent.  One can notice a slight development of weight in the lower register, compared to the Lucia recording of the previous year, but it is slight and still well integrated with the rather remarkable top register.  Later in the aria, the great flexibility so characteristic of her voice is on display:  the rapid and well executed cadenzas, with a brilliant, in-line C sharp inserted, stand out for their precision.  It was common during this time for sopranos to attempt cadenzas they could not really articulate at speed, with the result that they were in effect glissandi, often musically inappropriate.  Not the case here, as it was not the case with Patti.   Sembrich’s intonation and articulation are both precise, and this is most admirable.

Finally, a 1912 recording of a song from Leo Fall’s 1907 Musical Comedy Die Dollarprinzessin (“The Dollar Princess”): 


Sembrich was 54 years when this was recorded.  What we finally have here is a wonderful recording, first of all because the recording itself, as an artifact, has been cleaned up to such a degree that it gives us a very real look at her singing!  The digital transfer was done by my friend Doug at Curzon Road, one of the best classical music sites on the web.  He is extremely skilled at creating audio files from old recordings, and this is so important.  I feel I can very nearly hear the voice of this singer from long ago with a clarity resembling what one might hear in the opera house.  Several things become apparent; first, the purity of intonation and articulation of which we have spoken is not an aural illusion from faded 107-year-old records!  It is very real, and absolutely characteristic of the voice and training.  Second, the vocal registers remain superbly well integrated; there are no “register scoops” and there is no inappropriate “huskiness” in the lower register at all.  The purity of the high soprano voice remains spotless even at age 54.  This is a diva who deserves her reputation!  A fine, elegant, articulate, vocally and stylistically immaculate first lady of the lyric stage!

*My thanks to Jim Drake for sharing this information with me.