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Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Great Tetrazzini

Luisa Tetrazzini was born in 1871, in Florence. She began to sing as a small child, and was trained at the Instituto Musicale in Florence. By the age of 19 she was ready to make her debut as Inez in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. She sang around Italy, and then went to Russia, where she scored a big success in St. Petersburg. She was kept busy as a young lady, learning her craft and drawing increasing attention to herself by virtue of her superb voice. She was not beautiful, as was Patti, but was rather fat from early on. Her divine voice, however, spared her from any undue or cruel criticism for her appearance. From the earliest days, she displayed a flexible and high coloratura, of the kind that was very much in vogue in the lyric theater of the day. She commanded an extraordinary trill, easily produced, and was comfortable with extensive fioratura. There was a thrilling sound to her voice that won her acclaim early on in her career. Her American debut was in San Francisco in 1905. By this time, she was well known for her lyric coloratura roles, especially Violetta, Gilda and Lucia; roles in which her great vocal endowments could be shown to advantage. She auditioned at the Met, but they seemingly were not impressed, which is somewhat curious, as she was already famous. One suspects that something unknown outside the Met may have been in play. It makes no sense otherwise. She did sing for the Manhattan Opera in 1908, but never warmed to the Met, because of their inexplicable attitude, and only sang one season there, in 1911-12. She was in such demand world-wide that the Met was inconsequential in any case. She is reputed to have made a very large amount of money. Unwise associations over time, however, led to a sad end, characterized by poverty. Most scandalous was her victimization at the hands of a dreadful male gold-digger, thirty years her junior, who married her late in her career, and stole most of her money. In spite of such reckless errors of judgment, however, she was by all accounts a lovely person, outgoing and friendly, even to the extent of letting aspiring singers live in her home, at her expense, at least during the good years. Her last days in poverty and sickness anger and bewilder many people even today. It is so wretchedly unfair. One wonders where the charity of fellow performers was. Yes, times were hard in late 30's, but Gigli, to take but one example, managed to raise a huge amount of money during this period by the many charity concerts he gave. Were people wary of her because of her poor judgment in getting involved with such a vile (although doubtless "charming") man as the one who wrecked her life? Why did no one come to her aid at the end when she was so obviously in need? The State of Italy, at least, provided her with an appropriate funeral. It's just all too sad.

Here is the great soprano in "Caro nome":

As the recording shows, the top part of her voice was quite extraordinary. Like virtually all sopranos of her age, she will scoop down into the lower registers, and that sound jolts us somewhat today, when all sopranos simply sing low notes very softly. It is possible that in Tetrazzini's time, when people actually paid more attention to the words, sopranos felt they needed the additional heft in the lower register, so that their voice, and the words they were singing, did not get lost in the orchestra. Another thing that is immediately apparent is the exceptional and easy nature of her trill. I don't think I have ever heard that many trills in "Caro nome" before. But she was just showing off one of her greatest natural endowments. Here is the famous "Ah non giunge," from La Sonnambula:

Certainly an attractive rendition, although one must be honest and point out certain tendencies that are perhaps not up to today's standard: There is sometimes a lack of adequate articulation on the cadenzas that comes dangerously close to a glide, although she was not alone in that during her day. She also sacrifices the lower parts of her voice to the top, which is certainly common (and smart) because that is what people are paying to hear. From an aesthetic point of view, however, she lays herself open to criticism for making the bottom and(especially) middle register of the voice rather open, white, and somewhat blaring. The top is excellent.
Here is a sentimental view of Tetrazzini—the only moving pictures I am aware of—listening to a Caruso recording late in life, and bursting into song along with it. Her girly and giggly abandon at the end is most charming, and just makes one upset yet again that she was treated so badly by others, and did not have the dignified and comfortable retirement she deserved.

Isn't that delightful? She seems a lovely person, and the fact that people speak of her so fondly even today, nearly 70 years after her death in 1940, is a fitting memorial to a magnificent artist, who literally gave it all.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Adelina Patti: An Enchanting Echo of a Distant Past

Ancient recordings provide a kind of evidence of the past that is at once fascinating and problematical. When written words alone are evidence of the past, our minds are free to construct a reality that is almost always fanciful, and one which bears at best a tenuous relationship to the real events or persons involved. In opera, the same forces are at work. The golden age, the locus amoenus, always rears its head and asks us to daydream about the bygone glory days of singing. It sometimes happens, however, that old recordings come to the rescue of sober assessment. There are not a few 19th century singers whose tenuous grip on what would today be called solid technique belie such fanciful idealizations of the past. Particularly in the case of sopranos, there is a lot of evidence of insufficiently supported top notes, inadequate cover, and perhaps most annoying of all, what I "register scoops." Some singers of that era had a clearly defined notion of different registers, but paid inadequate attention to smoothly blending them together. It can happen, therefore, that a modern listener can be carried aloft by floating high soprano tones, only to be jolted by a sudden unmediated drop into a husky, alto-like chest register, usually initiated by a crack in the voice. It can shatter what had been a lovely vocal image. It is all the more noteworthy then, and excites genuine admiration, when one looks at the soprano who may be the oldest recorded opera singer of note in the 19th century, the divine Adelina Patti, praised effusively by the great composers of her day, and celebrated everywhere as the acme of the opera singer's art.

Born 166 years ago (!) in 1843, Adelina Patti was the daughter of tenor Salvatore Patti. She was born in Spain, while her family was on tour there, but moved to New York as a child. She began singing when she was little more than a girl, making her debut at New York's Academy of Music at 16, as Lucia. I am not one who as a rule yearns for things past, but I have to admit I would give a lot to be able to go back in time and hear that! She was beautiful as a young woman, with what all contemporaries claim was a pure, sweet, lyric voice. Imagine a beautiful Lucia so near the age of her heroine! We have by now become accustomed to seeing very mature (and often rather large) women sing that role, and much is lost, dramatically . [In the 18th century, it would have been possible for a boy soprano to take the part, but, verismo and romanticism having done their work, that would now be so unseemly as to be impossible.]

At 18 years of age, she made her Covent Garden debut in La Sonnambula, and in 1862 sang for President and Mrs. Lincoln, upon the death of their son Willi. From there on, there was no holding her back. She was already a star, and she promptly soared to super-stardom. There are good bios of her on the web, as her life has been much studied, so we can proceed to hearing a recording.

It has not been easy to choose a decent recording. Most are from 1905 and 1906, when she was either 62 or 63 years old. She did make an Edison cylinder recording in 1895, but it is, sadly, little more than a few inchoate shrieks. In my opinion her best recording, and one that with only a little imagination can show what the glory of that singing must have been 30 years earlier, is the 1906 rendition of "Ah, non credea mirarti," from Bellini's La Sonnambula:

That is just stunning! Remember that she was 63 years old when this was made. The clarity and purity of the voice are most noteworthy, as are the floating, haunting tones that are almost hypnotic. The breath control is exquisite, and she sings perfectly on the breath, which is how she is able to float those tones and portamento up and down so smoothly and seamlessly, and also trill so well and so easily. The fluidity of the presentation makes me almost weep with desire to have heard that 16 year old Lucia! This is an excellent recording, and there is only one instance, toward the end, where she breaks the legato and pops out of line with a quick high note and exclamation that probably on stage would have been heard simply as dramatic, but it's the kind of thing a horn tends to resonate and amplify, and is a bit jolting. But that is a matter of no consequence.

Another recording that is interesting is the 1906 "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto," from Mozart's Don Giovanni:

She excels in the same areas indicated in the previous recording. The purity of tone, the (musically appropriate) simplicity of the phrasing, the easy fluidity of the voice, are all exceptional. The same small, distracting qualities are also there. Notice the "register scoop" into chest voice on the last note...also the turns on the top of phrases toward the end pop out of line. Not really a problem, because of the probably, again, of the recording horn being the villain. One other thing is worth mentioning—Patti was born a mere 57 years after Don Giovanni was premiered in 1787. That distance is small; it would be no more distant for Patti than would Rodgers and Hammerstein be for a girl born today. I rather suspect the singing and stylistic traditions would still be alive, easily transmittable, virtually unchanged, for any teacher in his or her 50's or 60's at the time of Patti's youth. I am ever on the lookout for hints about how the music of bygone eras was actually performed. This could be one of those hints, but I will make no more of it because it is largely speculative.

Of one thing there can be no doubt, however, and that is that Adelina Patti was indeed an astonishing vocal talent, and even the faulty recordings that survive are enough for an attentive listener to be able to see and appreciate the depth and breadth of that astonishing talent from so long ago.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Louise Homer: A Great Met Favorite for 30 Years

The contralto Louise Homer was one of the most popular of the Met regulars in the earliest years of the twentieth century. She was born Louise Dilworth Beatty in Pittsburg in 1871, and in 1895 married the composer Sidney Homer. Her 1898 European debut was in Vichy, in La Favorita, and in 1900 she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Amneris in Aida. She was an immediate favorite, and would go on to sing 42 roles in over 700 performances at the Met, which became her artistic home. Her voice was noteworthy for its power and beauty. She was a genuine contralto, and sang very convincingly in that range. Here is a recording I posted on Youtube a few days ago, which lets us hear her in the lovely and poignant "Voce di Donna," from Ponchielli's La Gioconda. You may have to turn up the sound a bit. This is a vinyl transfer of a 1912 recording, and I did not sufficiently power up the audio input. I will correct it shortly:

As you can see, hers was a very lovely, dark voice. She sang quite well technically, largely avoiding the annoying scoops and plunges into different vocal registers that were all too common, especially among sopranos, at that time. There is a charming and attractive Italian legato to her singing that made her a very credible fit with great Italian singers of the day, especially Enrico Caruso, who was a friend and colleague, and often paired with her. Here is a gem from Aida. You can gauge the power of her voice by noticing how well she holds up her end of the duet against the great tenor, whose voice was renowned for its power. The Bb's in the duet ask a lot of a contralto, but Homer handles them quite well. And this is without any electrical tricks, because they were both standing side by side, sharing a large recording horn:

She was quite something! Although she got rather heavy in later life (now there's a novelty for an opera singer!), it did not diminish her popularity one bit. There was something very personable about her, and she was a real American singer, grounded in American life and music. (She even recorded the National Anthem) Not only was she the wife of composer Sidney Homer, but she was the aunt of Samuel Barber, as well as a good friend of Alma Gluck, wife of Efrem Zimbalist. She was everywhere surrounded by the music and musicians of her day. She recorded many sentimental Victorian favorites and a fair amount of popular American church music, which spread her fame greatly. This is the era of the parlor piano, whose music rack contained anthology after anthology of songs known and loved by almost all Americans. Here is a wonderful duet, very evocative of that time. She teams with Alma Gluck in "Rock of Ages," one of the best known hymns of the day. They alternate the verses and join on refrains:

Ice cream socials, Sunday strolls in the park, with parasols, barbershop quartets, Easter Day parades down Fifth Avenue, and an innocent America—it all comes back, listening to this simple hymn sung by two great Metropolitan Opera voices. This has to be one of the most charming and instantly identifiable periods of American history, and Louise Homer was solidly within it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Charles Castronovo: Brilliant Young Tenor on the Rise

I have had the good fortune lately to become more acquainted with the singing of a brilliant young tenor, Charles Castronovo, who is showing all the signs of launching himself soon into star status worldwide.

Born in New York in 1975, and raised in Southern California, Castronovo began his singing career with the Los Angeles Opera and was soon singing debut roles in many opera centers worldwide, including New York, London, Berlin, and Vienna. Endowed with a robust lyric voice, centered exactly and comfortably in the tenor range—i.e., this is a real tenor!—his production is smooth and equal, up and down the scale and through all registers, which blend perfectly. Here he is singing a principal aria from Romero's Zarzuela La Taberna del Puerto, "No puede ser una vulgar sirena..."

This is a flawless technique, and the voice is absolutely consistently produced. I know that comparisons are odious, and I admire both Flórez and Villazón, but I will simply say that Castonovo's voice is more robust than that of Flórez, who is very much more of a tenore leggiero; and further, that Castronovo will never find himself in the kinds of vocal troubles that have plagued Rolando Villazón. His technique and natural endowments are exactly appropriate for the repertoire he is currently singing. There are enough examples out there of lyric tenors who over-reached and did major harm to their voices later in their careers, Ferruccio Tagliavini being one of the sadder cases. His may have been an ultimate lyric gift, in his youth, but being human he doubtless yearned for the acclaim that (unwisely, in my opinion) was lavished on dramatic tenors in the 50's and 60's.

Here is Castronovo, in Russia, singing one of the great lyric classics, "Una furtiva lagrima."

A near perfect rendition! The ease with which he moves back and forth from piano to mezza forte is proof positive that the voice is easily and appropriately centered, and very much within its appropriate repertoire.

Finally, calling a bit more on an innate robustness in the voice, but without stepping outside his repertoire, here is Werther's lament "Pourquoi me reveiller...," sung at the same concert in Russia:

Beautiful, and stylistically perfect! To these vocal and stylistic endowments, one can also add the not-insignificant fact that Mr. Castronovo, as evidenced in these videos, is a most handsome man, and presents himself very well indeed. With this powerhouse combination of gifts, I think it perfectly reasonable to say that here is a tenor to watch!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Beniamino Gigli: "At last we have found THE tenor!"

On-going arguments about who was/is the greatest opera tenor, soprano, alto, bass, baritone and so on are part of the frustration but also the fun of being an opera buff. To say that so and so was the greatest whatever immediately begs questions, all of which lean on definitions. By "greatest," we need to know whether we are referring to a singer's physical beauty and sex appeal (Corelli, Netrebko), their acting ability (Chaliapin—or almost any Russian, for that matter), the most extreme range (Lauri Volpi, Krauss, famous coloraturas), world-class musicianship (Domingo), highly dramatic and powerful voices (Turner,Giacomini) and so on.

If we look at Beniamino Gigli with reference to any of the above, he does not, sad to say, fare so well. As for looks, he did an excellent—albeit unintentional—imitation of Lou Costello on the stage. His musicianship, by today's standards, was poor. His range was adequate for a tenor, but for the most part he avoided very high notes, especially as he grew older. He was a reliable Bb tenor, with some recorded high C's, in his youth. While he could imply drama, his voice was not that powerful. His acting ability was non-existent. One critic, rather cruelly, once described his appearance on stage as resembling a peasant farmer following a plow. (You need to think about that one a moment.) WHY in the world, then, is he considered to be one of the very greatest tenors of all time? The answer is not hard to discover: he was endowed by nature with what is arguably the most beautiful tenor voice of all time. All else was forgiven.

Born in 1890, Gigli came from an extremely poor family, and received his first education from the local monastery in Recanati, where he sang in the choir as a boy alto. He immediately began to attract attention because of the uncommon beauty of his voice. He was able to get a scholarship to study in Rome, at the Santa Cecilia school of music. He sang in an international contest in 1914, where one of the judges, Alessandro Bonci, himself a brilliant bel canto tenor, famously exclaimed: "At last we have found THE tenor!"
They had indeed found THE tenor. Here is a real bel canto classic, from La Sonnambula:

Isn't that absolutely ravishing! It is simply one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. One reaches for adjectives like "divine," in an attempt to describe a voice that beautiful. All the qualities characteristic of Gigli are there: the effortless, floating sound, the long phrases, the exquisite color, and the masterful use of pure head voice. Gigli had an almost invariable technique for singing a song or aria. He always looked for the beauty inherent in the music, and he played first and foremost to that beauty, milking it for every ounce of potential, rarely moving out of head voice or falsetto, and then, typically, toward the end of a piece, pouring out the sound and making a climactic ending with a big high note. (This aria is an exception.) He was a smart man—one can sing forever that way, and he did. He sang continuously from the time he was a child until he was over sixty.

A great part of Gigli's extraordinary popularity during his lifetime derived from the many films he made. Most of what we can see today of him singing is from the movies. The cinema by the 1930's had usurped most of the popular audience from grand opera, with the result that more popular singing styles were less welcome in the opera house at the same time they were embraced by the movies. While Gigli himself managed to stride these two worlds, his heart was with the emerging popular music. Virtually uneducated in anything except music, he was nonetheless a very clever man, and was certainly aware of his shortcomings for an opera audience that was becoming increasingly intellectual. He did not do well outside the limits of melodic and sentimental Italian music. Some of his recordings, such as "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond," or "Il Mio Tesoro Intanto," are just plain silly. He sensed, however, a big opportunity in films, and this turned out to be a brilliant move on his part, for several reasons. First, it gave him a huge audience that would never have seen him in an opera house, and second, films were—curiously enough—often able to show his slight acting skills to advantage by the clever subterfuge of letting talented actors play off him, so that we look at audiences, love interests, dramatic complications, etc. while he is singing. This keeps our ear on him, and our eye on better actors. A good example is the film "Non Ti Scordar di Me." He sings the title song in front of a curtain (he portrays an opera singer in the film) while his beautiful love interest sits in the front row, weeping. We see much more of her, but we hear the unequaled voice of Gigli:

In spite of his penchant for movies and sentimental favorites, however, he did not abandon the operatic repertoire. Quite the contrary. He was everywhere renowned for his opera performances, both in person and on record. Here is what is clearly one of the best recordings ever of Nadir's aria from "The Pearlfishers":

What can one say? It is illustrative to look at some of the viewer comments below these videos. They are very consistent and endlessly admiring, even today, of the nearly inexpressible beauty of that voice. Tenors come and tenors go, but Gigli is forever; eternal evidence of the fact that while admirers of the arts may be moved by many things, they are moved by nothing quite so much as by beauty.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


[Dear readers: This is the first of what I hope will be several guest articles from our faithful and very knowledgeable correspondents. I am privileged to count, among my acquaintances, many distinguished connoisseurs of great music. Regular readers of our comments section will recognize today's author by his nom de plume JING, which I respect here. Let me say only that I have known our author since our university days together, lo these many years (half a century!), and we share more than a few happy memories. A distinguished theologian and discriminating lover of great music, he shares with us today his singular insights into the art of his friend David Daniels, the internationally recognized alto whose work will be familiar to all my readers --Edmund St. Austell]

Full disclosure on a personal note: My wife and I have, for the last fourteen years, been close personal friends of the great countertenor David Daniels, and I confess that we are adoring and shameless fans. As a person, David is extraordinarily appealing. He is one of those “what you see is what you get” people. He is utterly incapable of striking poses or being a different person to different people. The fact that he is a world-renowned opera star is still something that somehow seems new and incredible to him. He is down-to-earth and plainspoken, and while he may sometimes appear nonchalant, he is, in fact, amazingly focused. He is a totally devoted artist of incredible integrity.

I have seen Daniels in numerous opera productions, from his first appearances in the musical world through his Met debut and first Carnegie Hall performance (the first solo recital ever for a countertenor at that venue). On the opera stage, he is an excellent actor and projects his voice and personality with great confidence. In the recital setting, whether it be a large hall or intimate space, he is personally charming, relaxed and in utter command of his art. His first CD established him as an authoritative interpreter of Handel. But over the years he has ranged widely beyond this, refusing to allow himself to be pigeon-holed as solely a Baroque or period singer.

David grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Both his parents were singers and his late father was a college voice teacher and professor of music. His family was and is extremely close and supportive. He dreamed, from an early age, of being an opera singer. In high school he excelled in sports, especially basketball. He later attended the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and pursued his not untypical dream of being the next Franco Corelli; but, try as he might, he did not have the vocal characteristics of the tenore robusto. Transferring to the University of Michigan, he kept at it. But he never told any of the faculty about his “other voice.” In the shower, at parties, or wherever, this other voice would sing soprano or alto arias. One day, when he felt he had finally hit the wall as a tenor, he made a cassette recording of the other voice, played it for his voice teacher and said, “Tell me what you think of this singer.” After listening for a few minutes, the teacher said, “That’s you. And it’s beautiful.” And from that moment forward, David Daniels was a countertenor, and an extremely good one; he was in fact the first countertenor ever to be awarded the Richard Tucker Prize. Here he sings at the award gala. (The recitative is long, and the aria proper begins at 3:35. Feel free to move the radio button forward when you can, if you wish.)

I think his story is significant because it illuminates Daniel’s role as a pioneer. Artists like Marilyn Horne (his great friend and early champion), had been leading the revival of Baroque opera, but there were simply no males to be cast in the castrato roles. Singers like Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin were attracting audiences, but they always tended to remain musical curiosities to all but a small following. In this regard, the performance history of Guilio Cesare, generally regarded as Handel’s greatest opera, is telling. The role of Caesar was originally composed for the castrato Senesino, but when the popularity of Baroque opera and the castrati declined, Giulio Cesare was rarely performed. In the sixties, a staged revival took place at the New York City Opera (there had been two concert performances at Town Hall prior to that), but Caesar was played by the great bass-baritone Norman Treigle. Later productions then featured female stars singing and acting the role of Caesar. Daniels debuted in this opera at the Met, but in the role of Sesto. Jennifer Larmore was Caesar. His duet with contralto Stephanie Blythe (“Son nata a lagrimar”) was acclaimed by the New York Times as the most beautiful few moments of the entire Met opera season. Last year we attended the Chicago Lyric Opera production of Giulio Cesare with Daniels in the title role. He had performed it earlier at the Glyndebourne Festival in England, with Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra. The opera was staged in the setting of British Empire India. The performance lasted nearly five hours! But, amazingly, so brilliant was the production that there was never a single dull moment: not one. There were none of the odd time-filling, useless stage movements to accommodate the da capo style, and none of the planting of the singer on stage just to sing. My wife and I were blown away, and at dinner afterwards, David was passionate about how it really is possible to have Baroque opera that is well-sung, interesting, entertaining and great drama. And the same was the case in a production of Tamerlano, at the Washington National Opera, with Daniels in the title role.

Here is the aria “Furibondo” from a live performance of Partenope. (Perhaps not the most elegant staging or quality recording, but you are sure to sense Daniels’ stage energy.)

Talent and timing are both critical, and the opera world was ready for the emergence of male singers capable of performing these classic roles. But it was Daniels, above anyone else, who was the one who effected the breakthrough, especially in the United States. The excellent Andreas Scholl was gaining popularity in Europe at more or less the same time, but his focus was less on opera performance and much more on oratorio and some of the dustier corners of the Baroque repertoire. I still find it a bit odd that despite an established career in European opera houses and concert halls, the European critics still tend to refer to The “American Countertenor Daniels,” and are among the loudest to complain when he has the audacity to range beyond what they consider his “proper place” in the Baroque, eschewing the “proper sound” of the countertenor – “eerie, vibrato-less, and uncanny.” Listen to something from the album “A Quiet Thing.” One of my favorites, yet one least appreciated by some critics.

In fact, there are some wonderful roles for the male alto beyond the Baroque; the title role in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and Oberon in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, to mention only two.

Daniel’s success has made it much easier for new countertenors to emerge. And many of them are quite good, in America and Europe. We are now entering a time in which, as with other voice types, there will be great debates about “who is the greatest.” (You know my opinion about that!) So be it. Daniels’ career is now secure and established, and I am convinced he will continue to expand his musical horizons. His superb vocal gifts and brilliant artistry stand on their own. I believe that David Daniels will always occupy a unique place of his own in the world of opera – that of an authentic and courageous pathfinder.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Great Jussi Björling

For opera lovers of my generation, there was (and remains) a great admiration for the brilliant Swedish tenor Jussi Björling. He was, like Zinka Milanov, Robert Merrill, Richard Tucker, Maria Callas, Leonard Warren, Jan Peerce, Franco Corelli, and a host of other great singers, an integral part of the golden age of opera that I have referred to previously; a period from approximately the mid 30's to the mid 1970's.

Bjöling was born into a musical family, and received his first instruction from his father. As a child he toured with a family quartet, so that singing in public was an important part of his life from earliest youth. In fact, one of the remarkable things about Björling's career is how early everything happened for him. (This is very fortunate, because he only lived to be 49, a likely victim, tragically, of alcoholism.) He was already on stage in Sweden, doing small parts, by the tender age of 19. This is most unusual in opera. Even more astonishing is that he made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 26 and his Metropolitan Opera debut in the following year (1938), at the age of 27! The role was Rodolfo, in La Bohème, so his youth certainly fit the character, but there are few if any major tenors making a debut at the Met at that age. There may be some, but none come readily to mind.

I clearly remember, as a boy, the first recording of Björling's that I ever heard. It was "Che gelida manina," on an old 78. Here is a wonderful 1938 recording of that aria, made from a live performance. Bear in mind that he all of 27 years old here:

Does it get any better than this!? It is hardly necessary to call attention to the high notes. He was blessed from earliest youth with a brilliant top. An amusing historical anecdote is that when he auditioned for the Met, earlier that year, one of the reviewers wrote simply: "Good top." Yes, you might say that! :)
Many tenors can sing very high, but often at the expense of a thin or strident sound. It is most unusual to hear a warm, beautifully covered voice like Bjöling's carry its essential quality all the way up to the C with no quality change from the middle on. That is an essential element of the Björling voice that thrilled one and all. Much of the secret for that astonishing vocalism is to be found in the Swedish language itself. Like other Germanic languages, but perhaps even more so, the umlauted vowels of Swedish are quite pronounced. The placement of an umlauted "o," for example, is excellent for tenor singing. It can be approximated in English by taking the "ir" sound of the word "bird" and eliminating the "r." The sound that remains is close to an umlaut. If you are a singer, try vocalizing on that sound, taking care to cover strongly through and past the passagio, and to open the mouth as you go up. It is important to moderate the "r" of "bird" almost out of existence, or you will choke! It really facilitates the high notes, and trims away the rough edges. This, to use the words of a great voice teacher I was once privileged to know, "is the sound that pays the rent." Bingo. For Björling, it was a natural thing to do, thanks to his native language.

One of the glories of Björling's voice was that it blended beautifully with other singers, again owing to the softness of the sound. Here is a rare treat: Björling and Robert Merrill, singing what is generally conceded to be the most beautiful tenor/baritone duet ever written, in a recording that is likewise generally acclaimed to be the very best, still unsurpassed:

And on that note (those notes?) I am simply going to quit writing, because any attempts at elucidation are silly, unnecessary, and bound to fall short of the mark. That recording says almost everything there is to say about the golden age of opera singing, and especially about the golden voice of Jussi Björling.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Zinka Milanov: The Velvet Voice

Croatian by birth (1906), Zinka Milanov made her initial debut in Solvenia in 1927, at the tender age of 21. She sang in local opera houses, slowly and carefully learning her craft (one of the benefits of the European system) over the course of the next several years, finally reaching the upper echelon of European houses and being catapulted, via Berlin, to her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1937 as Leonora in Verdi's Il Trovatore.

Once having burst onto the international opera scene, there was no looking back. Hailed from the very beginning for her extraordinary voice, she soon claimed many roles in the dramatic soprano category for herself. Like Caruso, she had that rarest combination of qualities in her voice: beauty and power. She was from the beginning possessed of a voice that was velvety-dark in color, with a brilliant upper register and—especially—capable of the most ravishing pianissimi, extolled by virtually all critics. In some ways, she makes a very interesting contrast with Maria Callas. Where Callas was extraordinary in her acting, her musicality and her style, Milanov was not so strong. Her musicality was certainly acceptable, but her style was grandiose (she was a diva, make no mistake!) in a more conventional and melodramatic way. She is once reported to have said, in response to questions being raised about her acting, that it didn't matter much if one were a great actor if they couldn't sing. Fair enough, in a general way. Certainly, if one could sing like Milanov, that may have tended to be the case—Callas always being excepted.
Whatever one's feeling on that subject, the fact remains that Milanov's was one of the greatest soprano voices ever. First, Leonora, the role which served her so well as a debut piece in her early years. I call your attention especially to the piano high notes:\

Isn't that just absolutely beautiful! The color of her voice is hard to describe in anything resembling dry or objective language. Adjectives like "ravishing," "velvety," "luscious," "dark" and so forth give a fairly good idea, but it is almost impossible not to slip into hyperbole. Such sounds elicit an entirely affective response from the listener, and that always leads to a struggle with mere words. Her control is incredible, and most praiseworthy. This is where those 10 years or so of singing in small European houses and working endlessly on her technique really pays off. The different registers of her voice blend seamlessly together in a glorious golden thread of sound. It sometimes happens today that young singers, especially the high voices, are rushed into premature appearances in major houses, doing big roles, as soon as they show extraordinary promise. That can become a problem for them. As the great comedian George Burns once observed, lamenting the disappearance of the vaudeville theaters, young entertainers "need some place where they can fail."

Here is the great soprano in another signature role, Tosca, where she also displayed her voice to great advantage. It also affords another chance to see where and how she differed from Callas. Milanov was very much of the "stand there and sing it" school, which is fine. For the truly great voices, it is enough:

This is great singing...there is no other way to describe it. Nothing else matters when Milanov sings. She was 50 years old when this film was made, and her voice is still in fine form. Her technique is rock-solid, and never lets her down. For those who might like to hear her talk about her career, there is a video on the sidebar entitled "Zinka Milanov on Tosca."

She remained at the Met until she was sixty, and was greatly missed when she retired. She was one of the most popular sopranos in Met history, and her audience simply adored her. People often talk about the "Golden Age of Opera," usually referring to an approximate period centered somewhere toward the end of the 19th century. There probably was a golden age of great operatic singing, but in my judgment, it would be more nearly mid-20th century, perhaps from the end of WWII to about 1975. If one runs down the Met roster for those years, the great voices just leap off the page. And certainly one of them was Zinka Milanov, one of the most outstanding dramatic soprano voices ever.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Maria Callas: Dark Passions

If there was ever a diva engulfed in near-mythological passions and controversies, it is surely Maria Callas. Hailed from early on in her career as "La Divina," she became one of the greatest names ever in the world of opera. The career, however, was surrounded by controversy from the very beginning. To this day, over thirty years after her death, she has both dedicated admirers and near-rabid detractors. I frankly admit to being an admirer, and while I understand that anyone as intense and passionate (and uncompromising) as she was is bound to attract intense opposition from some quarters, I still find the way she was treated by back-biting gossipers and the popular press to have been unfair and scandalous.

Maria Callas was born in New York, in 1923, into an unhappy family, with a mother who, by Maria's own account, seems to have been a character penned by Christina Crawford. "Stage Mother" doesn't come close. So intense were the dark passions surrounding Maria from birth that she seems, like Gaia, to have been born the daughter of chaos. Her parents moved back to Greece when Maria was still a child, and she received her earliest education there. Later, as a young woman, she would make her initial career in Italy.

She had been forced into public singing as a child by her mother, so that Maria and the stage were intimates almost from birth. It was not at first a happy relationship. She resented never having had a childhood, and hated singing. She was a fat and unattractive child and felt that she was unloved and pushed into situations against her will. This unpleasant family situation was exacerbated by the war, and her family knew poverty and fear. In many ways, Callas' life reminds me of that of another fiery diva, Galina Vishnevskaya, who likewise suffered a dreadful youth, and was often criticized for being "difficult." War takes no prisoners. There is no shortage of information on the web about Callas' life, and it may be easily consulted there. The Wikipedia article on her is especially good—both scholarly and detailed.

As she grew, Maria came to see in the theater an excellent outlet for her frustrations, and she began to work very hard, both on her voice and on the artistic aspects of singing and acting. She was to become a powerful actress and absolute master of style, especially the grand style of tragedy. A good example of the intensely passionate—and totally convincing—power of her characterizations can be seen in the aria "La Mamma Morta," from Giordano's Andrea Chénier. This is the kind of music in which Callas excelled. We hear in this recording the brilliant marriage of word and music that was so typical of Callas and so noteworthy:

The only words that come to my mind are "Mediterrean Fire." In many ways, Callas was the ultimate singing actress, and in that fact lies the heart of the controversy. Her voice was not always beautiful...nor did she think it had to be. After all, some of the things she is saying are not beautiful...they are terrible. Her voice always tended to reflect—accurately—the emotions she was portraying. The papers and the fans started a gossipy rumor at one point that she was involved in a deadly feud with Renata Tebaldi, who had one of the smoothest, most beautiful voices ever; but that was another myth. They actually respected each other. The feud was certainly about the beautiful versus the sometimes not so beautiful voice. There are fans who believe that a woman should always sing beautifully, with round, covered, lush tones. A great tragedian and actress might not agree. That was the argument.

There is something else. From the early days of her career, Callas drew down upon herself the bitter jealousy and ridicule of other singers, sopranos especially. While this is not uncommon, in her case it was extreme...even to the point (in the early days) of hissing off stage and trying to distract her. I think I know why. It is because Callas places great demands on her listeners, primarily to the extent she defines and totally takes control of the character she is portraying. What this amounts to, in the eyes of those who might also like to sing the part, is that Callas has stolen the character from them. She has run off, as it were, with Violetta, Tosca, or Elvira. And that is, to other aspirants, unforgivable. Most sopranos just play the character; Callas claims the character's very soul.

Here is the maestra singing "Vissi d'Arte," this time in a filmed scene which will show her magnetic and powerful acting:

It is incredibly moving. Again, utter conviction and the characteristic marriage of word and phrase to music. It is hard to imagine it more convincingly portrayed. The voice itself, as I suggested, was not always beautiful. There can be a sharp edge to it at times. Part of this is the fact that she is at core a mezzo-soprano who by force of will built a top to her voice. Some feel that a huge weight loss in mid-career hurt the voice. Also, she sang an unbelievable variety of roles, ranging from Wagner to Bellini. That can put a strain on even the greatest natural apparatus. Whatever the cause, the result is that there is not always an easy blend between the rich and deep bottom of the voice, which can be contralto-like, and the high top, which can seem thin and sometimes a bit shrill by comparison.
But that, to me at least, is a matter of small concern. The voice always served her dramatic and stylistic intentions, and her fiery and passionate personality, coupled with a magnificent musicality, gave an utterly convincing reality to the greatest heights of tragedy and pathos that even opera is capable of demanding. One in a million. She will always be "La Divina."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Philippe Jaroussky: Coloratura Alto

One of most gifted new stars of the Early Music revival, which is now becoming an ever more important part of the international opera scene in general, is Philippe Jaroussky, a brilliant young French alto whose remarkably beautiful and flexible voice, coupled with both a precious and precocious musicality, is attracting an ever wider and more enthusiastic audience.

Born in 1978, Jaroussky began his musical studies with the violin and won admission to the Versailles Conservatory, where he soon switched his area of focus to voice, via a short stint of piano study. He received a diploma from the Conservatoire de Paris, having worked there with the Early Music faculty.

The first musical selection, "Pianti, sospiri," from a Vivaldi cantata for voice and continuo, shows the essential Jaroussky: young, vigorous, extremely musical, and absolutely brilliant in his execution of the very demanding fioratura in this piece. I wish to call to attention something that might sound like a strange thing to focus upon, and that is the very obvious delight that these young players and singers bring to their music. This is one of the things that is most attractive about ancient music, and that is the unalloyed pleasure and enthusiasm that accompanies pure music. This is a superb example of ars gratia artis—art for its own sake, art as its own reward. For the musically and aesthetically sensitive music and theater lover, this is the perfect antidote to the vulgar and dreary self importance of verismo, which has come to annoy so many. This is pure music, almost pure magic. Its appeal is instantaneous to those for whom the best music, the ideal music, is something that can be classified as a "sting quartet in Ab," as opposed to "The Mountain King Surveys the Wondrous Beauty of His Realm." The typical post-Wagnerian program music, for me at least, has always been just one step short of a film score. [There is, however, a great exception here—program music is often the ideal format for interactive programs created by music educators to introduce young people to classical music. The utility of such music there is extremely important.] But enough. Back to the 18th century. There is a short spoken introduction to this section, but the radio button moves forward quickly, so you should be able to move it rapidly to the beginning of the musical selection, which starts at 1:25. Also, there are several selections on the video—the first is perfectly adequate on its own:

Aren't they adorable! It's hard to say who is having the most fun; Jaroussky, the harpsichordist or the cellist. It's hard not to fall in love with everyone in the ensemble. This is unalloyed pleasure and musical happiness and it is greatly affecting. I'm well aware that all these young people are "precious and expensive" conservatory types (Jaroussky has spent a large part of his life in conservatories), where not only musical sophistication but even virtuosity are taken for granted, which makes musical execution like this possible. They are so far advanced that they can pretty much forget technique and self-consciousness and relax into the rapturous expression of musical art. That is certainly part of the charm, but it goes beyond that. One can see it easily in another famous alto, Cecilia Bartoli, who has basically chosen to dedicate her life to Baroque music, even musical scholarship, to the dismay of some opera fans who resent the fact that they seem to have lost a breast-beating Amneris in favor of an entire album dedicated to Antonio Salieri or to the many concerts showcasing Vivaldi's music, an area in which she has established herself as a respectable scholar, even to the point of having discovered some of the Prete Rosso's previously undiscovered manuscripts. This is a new breed of independent young singer indeed, and I applaud them.

Finally, here is Jaroussky doing an operatic selection, "Se in ogni guardo," from Vivaldi's Orlando Finto Pazzo (Orlando Feigning Madness). This is the kind of music in which the 18th century castrati excelled, and with which they made splendid livings, attracting huge audiences. My own feeling is that the great bulk of them could not compete with today's altos such as Jaroussky or David Daniels. The pen is mightier than the sword, and technique mightier than the knife! Again, the music starts at 1:35, and the first piece is adequate:

That is so spectacular! I will say, however, that Jaroussky's hopping and bouncing around, while it is amusing to watch, is not the best idea. Great singers have characteristically stood absolutely still when they sing in concert; their entire attention concentrated on the diaphragm and the throat. He is very young, though, and he may well learn to hold it down, lest he take flight on gossamer wing, up, up and away:)

Let's all wish this brilliant young man a continuing career. No one can say what is going to happen, but the signs of stress are everywhere apparent in the operatic repertoire we have all become accustomed to in the last 50 years. The history of elegant singing during the Baroque represents a distinguished past, and if past is indeed prelude to the future, then we have reason to rejoice.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dame Eva Turner: One of the 20th Century's Greatest Voices

Dame Eva Turner is likely to be the greatest opera singer England ever produced. Her dramatic soprano voice was, at the height of her career, without peer. Opera enthusiasts will of course argue about so hallowed a position as "the best" whatever, but I do feel perfectly comfortable saying that hers was one of the greatest voices of the 20th century. Many concede first place to her among all the sopranos who ever dared tackle Turandot, and I would heartily concur. I do not believe she was the very first to sing the role, but she did sing it the same year it was first produced—1926—and immediately claimed it as her own. There are of course other great Turandots whom others will champion, Birgit Nilsson being the leading contender.

Dame Eva was born near Manchester in 1892, and died in 1990, a month or so before her 97th birthday. She sang small roles to begin with, but by 1924 her ringing and powerful voice had attracted the attention of no less a conductor than Arturo Toscanini, who engaged her for La Scala's production of the Ring Cycle, in which she sang the roles of Sieglinde and Freia. She went on to sing in all the major opera houses, performing leading roles in Lohengrin,, Die Meistersinger, Tannhäuser, Siegfried, Die Walküre, Tosca and Aida, all roles in which her dramatic voice served her well. But let us go immediately to her recording of "In Questa Reggia," Turandot's big aria: It is 5minutes, but I urge you to hear it to the end, to hear the incredible high C's: [You may need to turn your speakers up a bit, as London Records were among the worst for miking singers. It's a good recording but the volume needs a boost]:

Isn't that something! It is easy enough to see why she is considered by many to be the greatest Turandot, and the recording also makes clear why hers was one of the great voices of the 20th century!

Her talents were also well displayed in Tosca, as this superb recording of "Vissi d'arte" will show:

Her mastery of the Italian language and style are notable. Many voices which are well suited to Wagner (Nilsson again comes to mind) fare less well in the Italian repertoire, but from her earliest youth, Dame Eva showed a rather remarkable propensity for the Italian way of singing, and a particular affinity for the music of Puccini, essentially a contemporary. This is uncommon for an English-speaking singer. However, one of the things that is sometimes overlooked when Dame Eva is the topic of discussion is her personality, which is decidedly grand, broad and highly romantic. This is not just an offhand idea of mine, it can be demonstrated. Because she lived to such an extraordinary age, there are films and tapes of her available. Happily, there is a wonderful interview on Youtube that will show exactly what I am referring to. Plácido Domingo is also on the tape, and you will need to listen to him sing a brief excerpt from a Zarzuela piece, while seated at the piano, but this is a pleasant enough task! Depending on how quickly the video loads for you, you might be able to move a bit ahead. It is at approximately 4:44 that Dame Eva talks for a moment about her opinion of Domingo. Just watch her and listen to her for a minute, for a rare insight into the grandeur of an age long gone, of which Dame Eva (95 at the time of this video) was the last survivor. She has both Domingo and the interviewer by her, but she sees only the audience, and it is that connection that says it all:

See what I mean? And we do need to recall that the great energy and enthusiasm displayed here were from a little woman who was not far from 100 years of age. Imagine her at thirty five or forty!

With that personality and that broad, melodramatic sense of grandeur fueling her amazing voice, all the elements were indeed in place, from the very beginning of her career, to create one of the world's great opera singers.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ferruccio Tagliavini: The Heavenly Voice

It would be an impossible task to say of any one person that he or she possessed, in their prime, the most beautiful voice in the world, but if such a thing were possible, I for one would put my money on the great Italian tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini. I will not even pretend to be objective about Tagliavini, such is my love of his voice, so brace yourself for an onslaught of hyperbole.
Born in 1913, he made his debut in 1938, at the age of 25, as Rodolfo, in La Bohème. He very quickly rose to prominence, and sang in all the major opera houses of Europe and the United States. His voice was a wonder; exceptionally beautiful and hailed by all, especially in the lighter repertoire in which he excelled. Within this repertoire he had few rivals, except of course the great Gigli, another prime candidate for the "most beautiful voice award," or perhaps Tito Schipa, a brilliant lyric tenor. This is one of those cases where a little bit of sound is worth many, many words. The following aria is real tenor warhorse, and you have doubtless heard it sung by many tenors, but I ask you to consider for a moment if you have ever heard it more beautifully sung:

It is simply wonderful. Every aspiring young lyric tenor should be made to listen to this. The legato is amazing—the music flows in one long stream from the beginning of the aria to the end. His mastery of swelling a note starting from a gentle piano is one of the great secrets of his vocal style, and it is one to which the Italians are particularly sensitive, and to which they always respond with enthusiasm.

The next selection is a real treasure. I had the misfortune, in my youth, to hear this aria for the first time sung by Mario del Monaco. Talk about a bull in a china shop! For those who are used to hearing "E la solita storia del pastore" sung by huge tenor voices determined to blow windows out of the theater, I daresay this could be a real eye-opener, primarily because it shows what this aria—one of the loveliest ever written—can sound like in the hands of a musical master who understands what "beautiful singing" is all about:

I do not believe that I have ever heard it done better, or more convincingly. He naturally refuses to sing the interpolated high B natural at the end which many tenors feel they have to do to get a big hand. It's an atrocious interpolation, and a sign of artistic and stylistic insensitivity on the part of singer who feels he "has to do it." He doesn't.

The thing about Tagliavini's kind of singing is that it does in fact carry. I heard him in concert back in the 70's, in New York, in a large hall filled with people. His Italian diction was excellent—as was Gigli's and Schipa's—and I could not only hear every word, but understand it. Even his dialect songs were understandable. Schipa once said that all you have to do is to get the words up to the lips, and if the sound is properly produced, they will fall off the lips right into the ears of the listeners. And he was right. Would that many singers today could learn this valuable lesson! A great deal was lost when verismo, with its attendant vulgarities, became the "tónica del momento." Really good dramatic tenors, like Giuseppe Giacomini, could manage it, and turn in exceptional performances in the theater, but few tenors, as I have pointed out recently, were in Giacomini's class as far as musicianship and absolute mastery of a tricky technique are concerned.

Here is Tagliavini in what may have been his signature role, Nemorino, singing the very famous and much loved aria "Una furtiva lagrima."

What can I possibly say? It is perfection. No one ever did it better. Take the three arias presented above, distill them into one session, intelligently commented upon, and you have the ultimate master class in tenor singing, which could be presented anywhere in the world.

I know that no one is perfect, and some balance is needed. I cannot think of any reasonable criticism that can be made of Tagliavini in his appropriate repertoire. Unfortunately, however, for reasons I do not know, he started, later in his career, to take on some bigger roles, and the inevitable happened—he strained and thickened his voice. Bel canto was in decline, as far as public popularity was concerned, and perhaps he was seduced by the rise of the spinto tenor and the dramatic tenor, and the great public acclaim laid upon them. If so, it is sad, because his voice, musicianship, and style all worked together to make his singing some of the most beautiful ever heard on the operatic stage.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dame Nellie Melba: The Enigma

There is no early opera singer I can think of who deserves a clear-headed and objective study more than Dame Nellie Melba, but it seems impossible The mere mention of her name can even today, 148 years after her birth, create unpleasant arguments among opera lovers. The animus toward her remains colossal. However, before embarking on any kind of discussion of this problematic singer, I think it is important to hear at least two of her recordings. They are all short, because of the primitive state of the technology then. Some are even done on cylinders. Melba was renowned for her Gilda, so it makes sense to start with a 1904 recording of "Caro Nome"  You'll need to turn up the volume on this recording:

Here we come face to face with the first of the difficulties of evaluating the art of a singer on the basis of a 108 year old recording. What comes through, tonally, is a mixture. There are moments of genuine beauty, especially when she trills. She necessarily covers just a bit (you cannot trill on a wide-open sound), and that additional cover places the tiniest cupola on the voice which erases the edge that such open phonation often produces. In those moments, one can sense what may have been—ten years earlier—a lovely floating sound in the opera house; angelic and pure. In fact, she was commonly praised in her day for that very kind of pure, sweet, angelic sound. The record also revels, if we are going to be honest, a sometimes wide open production above the passagio that starts to resemble a blaring horn, or worse, a screech. It pops up out of the vocal line like a jack-in-the-box, and can ruin the musical phrase within which it is contained. Here is her very first recording, also in 1904. It is a portion of the "Mad Scene" from Lucia.  Again, turn the volume up:

You will of course have noticed the lack of a very high note at the end, which is by now obligatory. Once someone does it, it becomes tradition; sadly, for some sopranos. In any case, Melba, free from almost any traditions, owing to the earliness of her career, did not sing it. This aria, it must be said, is much better sung than "Caro Nome." Within this ancient recording, the sound that seems to possess some of the qualities for which she was famous is more in evidence. This singing,however, at least as evidenced in these old recordings, does not in my judgment rise to the level of singing attained by Galli-Curci, but then Melba comes from an earlier period. Melba is actually from the generation prior to Caruso! I think this is important to remember. We are really dealing with a historical artifact here. Whence, therefore, the undying animus?

When controversy surrounds an opera singer, it usually revolves around technique (Giuseppe Giacomini), eccentric acting (Anna Netrebko),  erratic behavior (Franco Bonisolli) or selling out to popular stereotype (Luciano Pavarotti). In the case of Nellie Melba, I have to admit that I have always wondered at the visceral dislike that still exists among many opera fans for a singer born in 1861, (shortly after the beginning of the American Civil War!) who spent a great part of her career in the Victorian world of the late 19th century. The "Caro Nome" and "Mad Scene" fragments were recorded when she was already 43 years old. One would think that it would be possible by now to view so ancient a career with a kind of disinterested objectivity. Not so. A casual glance at the Youtube video postings of Melba's old records is a clear indication of the fact that there are very few civil disagreements about Dame Nellie Melba. This has been going on for years. I remember it clearly fifty years ago, when, if anything, it was worse.

I talk a great deal about the archetypal, because in opera especially, the themes—both musical and dramatic—are so very broad. Sometimes this infects the singers, whose melodramatic portrayals, emotionally felt and presented, are fortified by the approving applause and shouts of the audiences, year after year. Some people begin to act, in their everyday lives, in the same kind of way. This quickly conduces to what might be called the "prima donna" syndrome. For some reason that I can recognize but not explain, the Latin and even middle-European "prima donna," as a type, can often elicit the occasional smile—there is something vaguely amusing about it all, and in a strange kind of way, the "prima donnas" themselves seem to know it. There is a kind of Latin grandiosity, for example, that is understood by both audience and performer to be a bit of a schtick, by turns annoying or funny, but entirely tolerable. But curiously, this does not work at all well in the Anglo-Saxon world, where mistrust and dislike of such behavior is intense. Melba is a case in point. There was a crudeness to her prima donna antics that was not in any way funny; on the contrary, it was mean-spirited and self-obsessed; a dead-eyed and humorless arrogance coupled with a chilling disregard for others. There was no misty-eyed love of the art that carried her to silly but somehow grand Olympian heights of rapture and artistic ecstasy. No "Vissi d'arte " here—more like "d'amour propre." She came from humble beginnings in Australia, whose level of culture at the time was not what it would one day be. The same could be said of the United States at the time. In fact, Melba's humorless grandiosity reminds me of some notable Americans born in the 19th century who also fell prey to this strange, unsophisticated, grand sense of self importance. I think of Frank Lloyd Wright and Douglas MacArthur; two extraordinarily self important and unpleasant individuals who treated others badly and asserted their superiority to one and all. Both, to be fair, were prodigiously talented men. And Melba was a world-class singing phenomenon. Perhaps there is a New-World naïveté in all these individuals, who became fatally entranced by the increasingly tawdry glamour of a rapidly decaying European aristocracy. Melba, who gave command performances before crowned heads of Europe, who had an early and scandalous affair with Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, and who paraded herself endlessly in aristocratic gatherings, had in fact fallen in love with all the mannered affectations of European aristocracy, which she wore like an ill-fitting dress. On her, the gold turned quickly to brass.

I know this is a one-sided picture so far. No one can be so simply and negatively described. To her credit, she did admirable work entertaining soldiers and raising money during the First World War. She endowed conservatories and supported and encouraged some younger singers (although usually younger sopranos who showed promise of becoming "the new Melba.") Also, it was not the public who disliked her—quite the contrary: she had a tremendous following, and praise and adulation was showered on her, especially in Australia. The animus of which I have spoken turns out, upon reflection, to be held largely by other performers, both those who worked with her and had to suffer her (perceived) insults and slights, and the generations of performers who followed, and saw in her—as an archetype—all the forces arrayed against them and their own hopes. That being the case, perhaps we should not take the negativism all that seriously.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Giuseppe Giacomini: Defining Dramatic Tenor

Bringing up Giuseppe Giacomini (1940-) is a good way to start an argument among opera buffs. Giacomini is possibly the ultimate example of what I so often complain about in these pages—a dramatic tenor whose vocal method is the furthest extreme of the dark, greatly covered, larynx-in-the-boots school of Italian singing—voices perfect for verismo, which is to say melodramatic opera. So, I'm about to indulge myself in inconsistency, do a complete 180, at least in this single instance, and say that Giuseppe Giacomini is a brilliant tenor, and to my taste the greatest of all the dramatic tenors. (Let me say only that I do not consider the nonpareil Franco Corelli a dramatic tenor.)

I think that in the case of Giacomini, if he is unknown to anyone, the first thing to offer is a sample.   If you are fond of "Ch'ella mi creda," from La Fanciulla del West, but do not know Giacomini, prepare yourself:

Isn't that amazing? I nearly fell out of my chair the first time I heard it. I do not believe I have ever heard Bb's like that from any tenor before. The power, the richness, the ring; it's positively thrilling. He sounds here almost like Leonard Warren with a tenor range. Absolutely unbelievable, and the style and musicianship are impeccable, as they always are with Giacomini, an intellectual and very well educated musician.

Giuseppe Giacomini is possibly an epicure's taste in the somewhat giddy and show business obsessed world of American opera during the last 30 years. He was not nearly as popular here, sadly, as those tenors who obsessively and instinctively played to the gallery. He was and remains a very strong-minded man; a serious musician with absolutely no time for silliness or show business glitz. He was not a beautiful heart-throb like great Franco Corelli; he was plain: short, half bald, and very near-sighted. He appeared in concert looking exactly like he really does, often right down to the coke-bottle-lens glasses. He was there to sing, not to compete in a glamour contest. Here is a perfect example. Listen to this "Si pel ciel..." with Sherrill Milnes. What you see is what you get. And what you get is brilliant stylistics, musicianship and, of course, voice:

This is dramatic singing at its best. It is very hard to imagine the tenor part sung better, and in fact Otello was his signature role, along with Andrea Chenier.
His career was very largely in Europe, where he was quite popular. He was, for example, a staple at the Vienna Staastsoper, certainly a discriminating house if ever there was one, for fifteen consecutive years. He was enormously popular in Italy, and sang in all the major houses: La Scala, Teatro San Carlo, Teatro Reggio, Opera de Roma, Mantua, Parma, Modena. He sang in major houses outside Italy, not only in Vienna, but in Barcelona, Berlin, Lisbon, many others. It was only in America that he did not fare so well, even though he sang at the Met, The Chicago Lyric, San Francisco and so on. America, at least at that time, was not as susceptible to his studied approach. American audiences were still somewhat dazzled by stereotype and showiness. Also, he did not record much. His kind of voice is much better in the theater than on record, because the high resonances from the fine, thinner edges of the cords have been sacrificed to the thicker vocal folds, resulting in the darker sound that carries well enough in the theater (on most nights) but does not record very well. And of course he never went on TV talk shows or participated in any publicity stunts of any kind. His "outreach," so to speak, was limited to the theater, exactly where he thought it should be. He was what the Spanish call "un hombre serio y formal."

Here is a wonderful rendition, in performance, of "Non Piangere, Liu," from Turandot:

I do not see how this can be faulted in any way.

Such extreme low-larynx singing, spectacular as it can sometimes be, as in the case of Giacomini, does not come without a price. He sang well for a good 25 years, (no small accomplishment!) but eventually he developed a wide wobble in his voice, from the strain to which it had been subjected. He did continue to sing, but the wobble can be disconcerting.

But never mind. At his best, he was wonderful. He is also an admirable human being: gentle, serious, intellectual and reflective. If you can understand Italian, do not miss the four-part interview posted on Youtube, in which he talks at great length about theater, music, and especially opera. He has little competition among tenors for intelligence and musicality, except for Placido Domingo, of course, who is unique and certainly one of the world's great musicians.

Giacomini deserved much more in this country, but his fame is actually growing with time (much of it thanks to Youtube) as more and more people—especially in the U.S.—seem, at last, to be getting it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Amelita Galli-Curci: Queen of the Coloraturas

Born in 1882, in Milan, into a prominent and well to do family, Amelita Galli (the Curci is from a later disastrous marriage) seemed destined from youth for a musical career, but at first as a pianist. After the typical lessons at home, she began her conservatory study of piano in Milan in 1895, when she was thirteen. Her brilliance at the piano eventually resulted in a gold medal in competition, which in turn resulted in her being offered a professorship at the age of 23. She accepted, and seemed content with the prospect of settling into a life of concertizing and teaching piano. However, Pietro Mascagni, a family friend, heard her singing at the piano, and strongly urged her to pursue a career as a singer. After some self-training, she auditioned, and the famous charm of that voice instantly attracted attention, and in 1906, at the age of 24, she made her debut as Gilda in Rigoletto. The rest, as they say, is history. After extensively touring South America, she arrived in the United States and made her Chicago debut in 1916, to great acclaim. Shortly thereafter, she signed with RCA Victor, and her fame exploded across America, where she became very popular. She and America fell in love, and, fully adopted by the United States, she became an American citizen in 1920, after divorcing a petty Italian nobleman come to less (Curci) who was shamelessly squandering her money. She made her Met debut in 1921, and remained a permanent member of both the Chicago Lyric and the Met until her retirement in 1930. (An excellent biography can be found at

The extraordinary beauty and grace of Amelita Galli-Curci's singing, even today as captured on old recordings, is such that devotees of great singing often fall instantly in love. I count myself in that happy group. There is something in that sound that stirs images of the fresh and charming innocence of a young girl whose beauty and joie de vivre have just begun to bloom. It was incredibly attractive, and made her one of the most popular singers ever, and among the most highly paid of her day. Many, including myself, consider her the greatest of the coloraturas.

The life of a singer, however, as Enrico Caruso once remarked, should be told in song, not words, and he was right. Here is the first recording I ever heard of Galli-Curci, years ago, and I have never forgotten the effect that it had. This is the essence of the youthful innocence of which I spoke:

I have listened to this recording many, many times, and it never loses its charm. The coloratura is brilliant: ever gentle, ever graceful, ever sparkling. The articulation is brilliant, and the musicality riveting. She was self taught, and she read many old bel canto treatises, such as Garcia's famous L'Art du Chant, that most famous of all bel canto methods. With her innate musical ability, and her brilliance as a painist, she quickly internalized the great principles of 19th century bel canto singing, and took it from there. Purists may raise eyebrows at the lack of method on the very bottom of the voice, which she simply lets fall away, rather than trying to cover with a "chest voice" as is commonly done today, but I think she was right. Nobody lays down their hard earned money to listen to such a high, pure and flute-like voice sing low notes. Also, her breathing attack is largely clavicular as opposed to diaphragmatic, but this in fact largely accounts for the light and girl-like quality of the voice that so many found so attractive. We are very, very far here from the covered and strongly supported tones that are the norm today. This was another era, and reflected distinct tastes. (And in my opinion, often superior tastes.)

She recorded arias that a coloratura would never dare record today, such as the famous Tacea la notte from Il Trovatore. While she never performed the role in public, to the best of my knowledge, her recording of this aria shows new interpretive possibilities, and the musical execution in general—in particular the phrasing—are extraordinary and revealing. Those who grew up listening to Leontyne Price singing such roles as Leonora might scoff outright at the idea of so gentle and child-like a voice doing such a piece, but I invite you to listen to the result:

It is beautiful and haunting, and the characteristic youthfulness of the voice is ever so slightly tinged here with foreboding. If the voice is not "heroic," the musical, stylistic and tonal sophistication more than compensate.

Finally, to end with an aria in which she demonstrates her absolute brilliance as a coloaratura soprano, we join her for the ever popular Una voce poco fa from Rossini's Barber of Seville:

What more can I say?

Galli-Curci also recorded, for her American audience, popular sentimental tunes of the day that many people would know from the piano anthologies on the music rack of the parlor uprights that were common then is so many homes. The interested listener can find recordings of Home, Sweet Home, The Last Rose of Summer, and so on, but it is necessary to know the lyrics in advance. The beloved soprano was what might be called an early graduate of the Joan Sutherland School of Stage Diction. It is, as a result, not always easy to determine what language she is singing in:-)

But that is a matter of little consequence; she was hardly in the business of introducing new music, but was rather a singer of music that was everywhere known. What she did bring to her performance was charm, musicality, freshness, and, if there is such a thing, sheer lovability. That's quite enough for one tiny Italian-American girl!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lauritz Melchior: Defining Heldentenor

It is by now a commonplace to refer to Lauritz Melchior as opera's greatest heldentenor. The term simply means "heroic tenor," but one thing that is never talked about is what exactly is meant by "heroic." Does it refer to the roles themselves, to Wagnerian characterizations in general, to some particularly Nordic voice or style, or all of the above? After all, if it is the role that is referred to, usually Tristan, Sigmund, Siegfried, Lohengrin or Florestan, yes, they are all heroic characters, in one way or another, but then so is Andrea Chenier, along with countless other operatic main characters. As to nationality, James King and Jess Thomas certainly managed very well, as Americans, and Alfred Piccaver or Walter Widdop, great British tenors, acquitted themselves beautifully, as does the Spaniard Plácido Domingo even today. In fact, Piccaver's Florestan was considered classic, as is Domingo's Sigmund. Even Gigli recorded "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond" from Die Walküre (although to be honest, it was dreadful.) When looked at from all possible angles, "heldentenor," at least as the term is used today, comes down to some particular quality of the voice, and that quality in turn basically derives from the sound of Lauritz Melchior's voice. That is why he is always considered the quintessential heldentenor; because the very definition of the term squarely defines his voice, and vice versa.

Melchior was born in 1890. He begain to study, in Copenhagen, in 1908, when he was only 18. He trained as a baritone, and began singing the commercial repertoire of the time; Pagliacci, Traviata, Trovatore, and so on. It soon became apparent, especially to others, that he was probably a tenor. In 1917 he took time off and retrained as a tenor, and in 1918 made his debut as Tanhäuser. He climb was slow but sure, and by 1929 he was an international success. I remember hearing him once say that he learned a very crucial lesson from Jean de Reske, and that was to save the voice. He used the old axiom about considering the voice as capital in the bank--the smart person lives off the interest, not the principal. A shop-worn old saw, but illustrative and to the point. What Melchior did in fact was to sing as the bel canto singers did, strange as that may sound. People think of his voice as being giant, because the roles are heoic, and the orchestration is thick and can be very loud (often excessively so.) He could be heard through this thick orchestration, and he was a very big man. All those things taken together seem to fulfill the expectation of a huge voice. But it was not; it was a finely focused voice, and that made all the difference. His voice cut in the same way that the voices of tiny little creatures like Galli-Curci and Lily Pons did. Additionally, Melchior, like Caruso, very early on attached himself to any kind of emerging media that promised to spread his voice and name: recordings, movies, radio, and even—at the beginning of his career--a very early concert broadcast by Marconi, which resulted in his being heard by Wagner enthusiast Hugh Walpole, who was so impressed that he gave the young tenor financial support. So Melchior realized, in the most direct way, how important the media were. This is crucial, because his particular voice, finely focused and steely to an almost biting degree, recorded very well. It sounded enormous, even though the super size was an illusion. The intensity of the vocal focus was so great that Melchior's voice is immediately recognizable by any opera enthusiast who hears it. There are very few opera singers of whom this can be said.
One need only consider for a moment those other singers to whom he might be compared. The list, to judge from fansites, would likely include Jacques Urlus, Heinrich Knote, Siegfried Jerusalem, Max Lorenz, Set Svanholm, Jess Thomas, Franz Völker, Ludwig Suthaus, Ramon Vinay, Jon Vickers, Hans Hopf, Ludwig Suthaus, Wolfgang Windgassen, Walter Widdop, Rudolf Laubenthal, and perhaps a few others. Some of these names are well known, many are not. Listening to as many of these tenors as can be consulted on recordings, it is always apparent that Melchior's voice is unique. The first 2 minutes and 45 seconds of the following clip demonstrate very well the quintessential Melchior, singing Siegfried's stentorian "Notung! Notung!" which invariably sends chills up the spine of the listener. It is the essence of Icelandic Saga, heroic to the point of the archetypal, which it in fact is:

Absolutely stunning! I feel safe in saying that no one has ever done it better, but I always caution that this is a recording. His voice cut like a knife on recordings. This is not to say that it did not also cut and soar in the theater. Not much is available in the way of actual performance clips, but there is at least this 45 second clip from Bayreuth, 1934. The opera is Götterdämerung:

This is certainly very convincing, although it is worth noting that the soprano's voice comes close at certain moments to overwhelming his. (They are in different positions on the stage, however,and this may have to do with microphone placement.) His characteristically steely sound is in evidence in this fragment.

Melchior sang his last performance at the Met in 1950, when he would have been 60 years old. He was getting on in years, and Rudolph Bing was about to usher in a new Italian age at the Met which effectively squeezed out the Wagnerian wing. He also disliked Melchior, as many people did. Melchior could be annoyingly diffident, in the same way Lawrence Tibbett could, and was also somewhat prone to silly behavior and publicity stunts, including appearing in grade B movies (Two Sisters From Boston, etc.) and on early television. Like Russia's Ivan Kozlovsky, he was a bit of a clown, and that did not go down well with some of the more earnest Wagner enthusiasts. Most people of my age, who grew up in the early 50's, are likely to remember him doing a lighter repertoire, such as the old sentimental favorite "Because":

A magnificent sound and singing technique, even on this old warhorse!
Weaknesses and quirks to one side notwithstanding, one thing is certain. He was, and will always remain, in the eyes of almost all opera lovers, THE heldentenor.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Locus Amoenus: Idle Summer Thoughts on Opera Singing's "Golden Age"

I spend a lot of time these days listening to the oldest recordings I can find, either in original condition or digitally remastered. I have for many years been in search of just what it was that characterized the singing of the late 19th and early 20th century. I always look for the earliest date of birth of the singer, not necessarily the earliest recording. The earliest recordings of anything are useless; simple curiosities such as Brahms hammering away at the piano (it could have been a xylophone) in 1889, or the recently unearthed "Au Clair de la Lune" (l860) which is basically noise. One of the most fascinating things I have found on the web is a 1933 film clip of Charlie Coborn singing his best known song, "The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo." Coborn was born in 1852, eight years before the American Civil War, which means that at the time of this film he was 81 years old. He had only two songs in his repertoire, this one and a piece called "Two lovely black eyes." Since there were no recording media of any kind back then you could take the same song from town to town and few would already have heard it. The reason this is so fascinating is that with so small a repertoire, he must have started singing this song at an early age, since he was on the stage by the 1870's. Now add to that the fact that this film is a good electric sound recording. We therefore have an excellent opportunity to observe the dress, the acting (or at least comic song posturing), the voice and the English language as it was on the music hall stage of England in the 1870's, because it is unlikely that he changed much, if anything, between 1875 and 1933.

I find this clip endlessly fascinating. It takes us farther back than one might at first think, because it is a safe bet that to a large extent he spoke as his parents spoke, if we allow for the "dramatic" changes necessary for a stage presentation. His recitation in the middle is perhaps a good indication of how he normally spoke. If he speaks as his parents spoke, then that takes us back nearly to the 18th century.

I wish it were that easy in opera. It isn't, because of the human age factor. It would mean very little to hear an 81 year old opera singer in 1933, because their voice would only be a shadow of its peak performing quality. Enter digital remastering, which is fine but remains largely guesswork. What would in my judgment be better would be to restore, faithfully and exactly, an ancient recording machine, such as those used in 1910 (there are some still around) and ask a famous opera singer, at the height of his or her powers, to record an aria exactly as they were recorded in 1910. Comparing the playback to a modern recording made by the same singer should show how much difference there actually is between the clear,"live" voice and the shadowy version that appeared on the old machine, with the same tiny orchestra typical of early recordings; i.e., heavy on the brass because it recorded better. This would tell us a lot. It should then be possible to retro-engineer the old recordings digitally, so that they closed the same perceptual gap evidenced in the modern singer's old recording and his or her new one. Once the difference is clearly understood, and reduced to a formula, it should be possible to digitally remaster almost exactly. I say almost because it is now impossible to tell what kind of shape the old machines were in at the time they were used, or how fast they actually ran. Still, it would be close. It is possible this has already been done, and that I simply don't know about it. I don't think that is the case, however. For one thing, it would be hard to find a famous singer willing to have his or her voice, in antique shadowy mode, at large among the public. (Possibly someone like Netrebko, whose penchant pour la nouveauté seems to know no bounds.)

For the time being, however, we need to make an intelligent compromise, and try to find the oldest singer we can, recording on a fairly decent piece of machinery, while still in the bloom of his or her career, and, in addition, someone classically trained. (Caruso made some recordings while very young, but he was always a belter, even from youth, and he had very little training.) A good candidate would be Antonina Nezhdanova, the Grande Dame of Russian opera, born in 1873, and recording as early as 1910, when she would have been only 37 years old. Happily, there is a such a recording of her, and it is good to the point of adding some real substance to the idea of a golden age of classical vocalism. However, you have to wait until next time to hear it:) Stay tuned, and we can take a good look at the amazing woman most Russians consider to be their greatest soprano, and in a country of such great opera voices, that is saying something!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Alfred Piccaver: A Great English Tenor Fom Long Ago

The phrase "Great English Tenor" is close to being a contradiction in terms—like "Jumbo Shrimp" or "Government Intelligence," but in fact Alfred Piccaver was a superb operatic tenor. There is no other English-born tenor I can think of who even comes close. The reason his name is not much known now is largely that he was born 126 years ago, in 1883. He was born in Northern England, and emigrated at a young age, with his parents, to America. I believe the family name was Peckover, a fairly common northern English name. He spent his early youth in the US, and studied in New York. He never felt at home in America, however, and later became an English citizen. Another reason he is not well known now is that his career was almost exclusively in Vienna, where he made his debut in 1910 and was an instant success with the opera-loving Viennese. He would go on to sing over 25 years at the Staatsoper, enjoying an enormous success there. He was so fond of Vienna, and the Viennese way of life, that he essentially became a permanent resident. Gatti-Casazza, general manager of the Metropolotan Opera, reportedly offered him a very lucrative contract in the 1920's to sing at the Met, but he declined, simply because he was so happy in Vienna. The result of this snub was that he was never again offered an opportunity to sing at the Met. This might sound like a head-strong and foolish move on Piccaver's part (today it certainly would be) but one needs to remember that the Met was not the international house then that it is today. On the contrary, Vienna, a major European cultural center, would have out-ranked it.

Puccini had the opportunity to hear Piccaver sing, and was greatly impressed. He said that Piccaver was his "ideal Rodolfo." Extraordinary praise indeed for an English tenor from an Italian composer! Piccaver of course had to leave Vienna eventually, when the war clouds began to gather. He went back to England, and did a fair bit of singing and some teaching there. He returned to Vienna after the war, and died there in 1958. He was given a state funeral, so permanently had his memory been etched upon the Viennese.

One of the best recordings of Piccaver on the web is Floristan's beautiful and poignant aria from Beethoven's Fidelio, "Gott, welch dunkel hier!" In this selection you can hear vintage Piccaver: the style, musicianship, vocal fluidity and impeccable diction all combine to make it a real listening treat. This aria is exceptionally beautiful to begin with, and then declamatory at the end, when Floristan, in prison, sees a vision of Leonora beckoning him to Heaven. Many tenors ruin it by screaming at the end, as though they were singing Wagner instead of Beethoven. Not Piccaver. I consider this an almost perfect execution of this touching, superb piece of music. Notice the transition at 4:10 into the dramatic part of the piece. He never breaks the style, he never shouts, he simply sings, as though he were singing Mozart, which is a much better mode for singing Beethoven than any Italian dramatic kind of singing would be. The video has English subtitles, so it is easy to follow:

Isn't that beautiful! He was already 45 years old in 1928, when this recording was made! The velvety smoothness of the singing (and he sang Wagner the same way) was a hallmark of the era and one of the things we have lost today. Piccaver dated to an era when people actually listened to lyrics, because much opera (Puccini, for example)just wasn't that old. Halls were smaller, orchestras were smaller, and the darker Italian singing, with its low-larynx, heavily covered, roaring sound, was not yet developed, and not much in vogue generally, and certainly not in Vienna. Piccaver's voice, like almost all the voices trained at that time, is "white," and employs an open kind of phonation which greatly facilitates pronunciation. It is not as easy to sing very high with this kind of voice, but Piccaver could, in his youth. He had a high C, which he used in Bohème. His recording of "O paradiso!" has two stellar B naturals in it.

Here is Piccaver as a man of about 61, singing a popular patriotic English song of World War II:

Finally, here he is singing for wounded war veterans, in l932, in an ancient film. Here you can actually watch him as he sings "For You Alone."

Yes, Virginia, there really is such a thing as an English opera tenor—very few, to be sure—but at least one great one!