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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bel Canto I

I am now and have always been an unapologetic bel canto enthusiast. Opera has lost a lot in the last century, but there are, mercifully, signs out there of a revival. If you follow the trajectory of classical singing, especially high-voice male singing, to start with a prominent example, it becomes immediately apparent that much has changed in 150 years. There is no question that in its beginnings, high-voice male singing was essentially the art of falsetto and developed falsetto, commonly called head voice. In Manuel Garcia’s L’Art du Chant (1856), possibly the greatest book on vocal training ever written, he states it clearly and unequivocally: the tenor voice is built upon the falsetto. Thence to the head voice, over time, but he makes it clear that the whole process is from the top down. While some might say, “Oh well, of course,” in fact many do not believe it, especially some teachers and voice coaches (we don’t need to mention names, you probably know them) who will have the hapless 21 year old student forcing his larynx down into his shoes, in an attempt to develop a kind of steely, dramatic sound with an artificially high (and very temporary) top. Rarely does the poor youngster have a future. His voice will sound enormous to him (largely via bone conduction) and often impressive to those standing close by, but nine times out of ten it will stagger over the footlights and die about twenty rows out. Worse, our young tenor will have set in motion a process of strain on the voice that will at first leave him sounding impressive on certain nights but curiously weak and winded on others, when the voice will not respond. Eventually, there will be a wobble, and it’s addio, career. This has happened too frequently.

Fortunately, the tradition was never completely lost. There were at least a few good tenors who studied in the early 20th century and internalized both the García method and the example of still living tenors from an earlier age, such as Fernando de Lucía, who was Georges Thill’s teacher. The most prominent 20th-century exponent of this glorious tradition is certainly Giacomo Lauri Volpi, a well-educated, intelligent, articulate (and, I would add, almost uniquely strong-willed) tenor who proceeded to set a very high standard for bel canto tenor singing; one not yet reached by another tenor. For any who do not know it, I offer the following. Please notice how the announcer refers to the fact that Toscanini said of Lauri Volpi that he possessed “la piu bella voce del mondo.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67gByGDf1C4

If your ears have recovered yet from that D at the end, I’m sure you will see what I am talking about. This voice was not only beautiful, with its expressive range from pianissimo (“Dillo ancor…”) to that window-shattering high D, it was extraordinarialy powerful. This is important because there are many who equate bel canto singing with the tenore di grazia. While this may be the case, it is not necessarily the case, witness Lauri Volpi.

Now hear the master himself give a little singing lesson. Crank up the sound, this is a very old Italian Vitaphone recording:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8erukaVLUQ

Every aspiring tenor should be required to memorize this. The movement over the passagio is smooth as silk—the golden line through the entire upper register is unbroken. What magnificent singing!


20 comments:

Anonymous said...

How do you understand "bel canto?" If it is beautiful singing, what differentiates it from any "beautiful singing?"

Anonymous said...
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Edmund said...

Entirely reasonable question. I think one first of all needs to bear in mind the date when the phrase originated. There was something verging on homogeneity of style back then (mid-1800's), so there were not really other kinds of singing doing any serious competing with "bel canto"...dramatic, stentorian singing of the kind that evolved with the advent of "verismo" was unknown at the time. Essentially, as you saw in the video clips, it is characteried by a lovely legato, a natural ease when crossing the "passagio," and really ravishing pianissimi, of the same kind Georges Thill could also produce, with the potential to soar to ringing and voluminous heights when required. Gigli made great use of that head voice, which is close to falsetto, but is more. Lauritz Melchoir once publicly proclaimed that the tenor voice was built on the baritone voice. "You can build mountains on it," I think was his phrase. Whether he picked that up from Jean de Reske, with whom he studied, or came up with it himself, I do not know. I do know he was dead wrong. It might have worked for him, but it did its share of destroying lots of voices. Perhaps if you just substitute words like "delicate," "elegant," or "cultured," for "bel" you will come close to the heart of the matter. Remember, in the early 1800's, the castrati were just ending their dominant period in 18th century opera. Bel canto owes a great deal to traditions such as that. It also helps to bear in mind the aristocratic nature of the typical audience in those days. Tastes were refined. Good question! Thank you.

Edmund said...
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Anonymous said...

Thanks for the very interesting article. I don’t know much about singing technique, but I have the same impression of contemporary tenors; too many of them scream.

Edmund said...

Truer words were never spoken:)

corax said...

edmund, you are off to a brilliant start with this post. thank you.

i have been playing this lauri-volpi video over and over. the voice is absolutely mesmerizing. i'm trying to find points of comparison -- in trying to describe it to someone else, i would say that he combines the brio of a gigli with the dolcezza of a schipa. but is that really right? this voice is almost sui generis.

and of course, another amusing parlor-game question: who else even goes into this echelon? i would say thill, yes; and maybe caruso [for the instrument alone -- the technique, alas, was often brutta come la morte]. as you know, i have also valued the instrument of bjoerling quite highly; but after our conversations about the 'covered' sound he produces, i have come to value it rather less. [we pass over without mention his pronunciation of languages other than swedish!] i surmise you would include neither caruso nor bjoerling here, and that's fine, but: who? if anyone.

and finally [for now]: is there anyone alive who is, or might be, capable of such beauty? i'd like to think that juan diego florez has the instrument for it -- if he would drop everything and come study with you for two years! but he's probably long since set his course musically ...

Anonymous said...

I do not pretend to be an expert, but I have listened to a lot of opera over many years. It seems to me there are at least 3 feats that have never been equalled. Caruso's cadenza at the end of "La donna e mobile," Gigli's "Nadir's aria" from "Pearl fishers," and Tibbett's "Largo al factotum." Can you think of any others in that category?

Edmund said...

Lauri Volpi defies comparison, in fact. You are absoutely right. Perhaps he is not quite sui generis, because he was the living incarnation of an entire school of singing that preceeded him, almost none of which, save Fernando de Lucia, was recorded. Even Lucia was only recorded in his 60's, if memory serves, and this by the grace of his proud fellow townpeople, who raised enough money to set up a small recording studio solely to preserve his vocal talent. One can only imagine what he sounded like at 30. To judge the early school of bel canto by the sole example of de Lucia, would, sadly, be the same as trying to describe the art of the castrati by the sole example of Alessandro Moreschi. Not very helpful. No, I don't think I could include Caruso or Bjoerling. They are different creatures, great tenors that they undeniably were. Caruso was brilliant, and extraordinarily popular, owing to the many records he made in the early days of the phonograph. However, and this will annoy people, I must be frank and say that Caruso, like Pavarotti, was to a certain degree a media success. This can exaggerate the level of artistry, because both these tenors began, at a certain point in their careers, to become exemplars of a stereotype, one that, in America especially, was very commercially rewarding. Caruso pushed his voice mercilessly. I do not believe he could have continued to sing into his 50's. Pavarotti sang all his life, of course, but that is another discussion. :)
As for the present, yes, I totally agree. What Juan Diego Florez lacks is the cupola, the dome of sound that Lauri-Volpi had. L-V's was extraordinary for its power, coupled with the delicate head voice and elegant phrasing. In him, bel canto triumphs, and to such a degree that it is very hard, if not flat-out impossible, to find anyone to compare him with!Excellent post, Thank you.

Edmund said...

To anonymous: Well, I certainly agree about the cadenza in La Donna e mobile. The speed and flexibility, at least as evidenced in the recording I know, which is probably the one you are referring to, is unique, and utterly brilliant. No one does it better--you are absolutely right. Largo al Factotum has been recorded by so many baritones, often brilliantly, that I think you might have trouble convincing everyone of the unique superiority of Tibbet's version, although I grant it is very good indeed. As for Nadir's aria, I am soon going to be doing a piece on great Russian tenors, and I would invite you to hear the versions of Sergei Lemeshev and Tenghis Zaalishvili. I think it may hold a surprise for you, although again, I grant the greatness of Gigli, and I know his version, which is extraordinarily beautiful, as it is a perfect vehicle for his lovely half voice. My own contribution to your list might be the piece on today's post by Lauri Volpi. I cannot imagine the "Dillo ancor" done any better. Let's talk about this again soon. The idea of "greatest renditions" is fascinating, but of course fraught with pitfalls, because you'll seldom get two people to agree. :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, very true. When I think of feats that are "unequalled," I think also of something like Cecelia Bartoli's "Anch'il mar par che sommerga" (Vivaldi). But it is so difficult that it reminds me of a gymnast performing an olympic feat. Great strength, breath, stamina, but is it "beautiful?" I suppose it is simply a different genre or type of musical accomplishment.

Edmund said...

More than anything, it reflects the tendency of the baroque period to novelty and exaggeration; the kind of thing that resulted in "baroque" now being used, often, as a perjorative adjective. This is perhaps most evident in keyboard music of the period, where the fioratura is more readily managed. Not too many human voices can accomodate it. Your gymnast comparison is apt. Bartoli has alienated as many as she has attracted with this kind of thing. There are those who feel that her singing is cold and mechanical. It certainly does not qualify as bel canto, which I am tempted to say is a theatrical art, as compared to recital art.

Anonymous said...

Hola, Edmund, soy TrovadorManrique.

Me alegro mucho de que se esté discutiendo sobre este extraordinario cantante, que yo tengo por mi favorito. Estoy de acuerdo contigo en que representa a un modelo de cantante que quedó extinto con Caruso, y del que hemos escuchado algunos pocos pero excelentes ejemplos: Marconi, Tamagno, Paoli, de Muro, Bonci, De Lucia, Garulli, Anselmi, Giorgini... todos ellos muy diferentes, pero emparentados por la manera de utilizar los resonadores de cabeza.

Sin embargo, no estoy de acuerdo en la aplicación directa que haces de las palabras de Manuel García. Efectivamente, Lauri-Volpi estudió canto, en primer lugar con Cotogni, en Roma, pero después también con su propia esposa, María Ros, que era discípula lejana de García. Y no se puede negar la gran importancia que tuvo su tratado de canto para la historia de la lírica, pero también hay que decir que es confuso y oscuro en muchos puntos: el texto se escribió cuando Duprez ya había revolucionado la voz del tenor, y podría decirse que no se adapta a esta nueva concepción. Desde Duprez hasta Caruso, todos los tenores emplearán la cabeza como resonador, pero sin utilizar jamás el falsete.

Lauri-Volpi fue un abierto detractor del registro de falsete, que sí que utilizó ampliamente su rival Beniamino Gigli. En lugar del falsete, Lauri-Volpi cultivó el mixto y la media voz que habían sido comunes entre los tenores de finales del XIX, entre los cuales se cuentan Gayarre, Tamberlick, Stagno o Masini. La deferencia entre un sonido y otro es muy sutil, pero digamos que implica una diferente posición de la voz, y que tiene consecuencias sobre el resto de sonidos que la laringe produce.

Un abrazo.

Edmund said...
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Edmund St. Austell said...

Amigo TrovadorManrique: Mucho te agradezco tus cuidadosas y penetrantes observaciones. Tú tienes toda la razón en lo que dices acerca del uso del falsete. Yo siempre me he empeñado en que la voz de Lauri Volpi fue un instrumento teatral, en todo sentido de la palabra. Ya no le quedaba lugar, en el siglo veinte, para un uso teatral del falsete, pero su media voz-tal como se revela en Gli Ugonotti, por ejemplo, queda muy cercana al falsete (se trata, esencialmente, de muy pequeños y delicados pliegues, o dobleces en las cuerdas vocals, y la utilización (o no utilización) de los mismos. La fisiología del individuo también tiene papel que jugar. Tal vez podemos decir que Lauri Volpi traía consigo lo esencial de una gran escuela del pasado al siglo viente, modificándola según se le vineran impuestas las nuevas circunstancias y realidades del teatro lírico de su época.
Gracias de nuevo por tus excelentes observaciones, y asegúrate de que quedas muy bienvenido en este foro. Los tópicos cambian, por lo general, de semana en semana. ¡Síguete, pues, en sintonía! Un abrazo,

Jing said...

Edmund - Do you think there are countertenors singing today whose vocal style would fit your definition of Bel Canto? For example, David Daniels has ranged beyond the baroque on a number of occasions (to the shrieking disdain of a number of purists!)Can this voice category find a new place (beyond the Baroque) that still affirms the legacy you refer to?

Edmund said...

That is a very interesting question! Yes, I certainly do feel that a good countertenor (or male also, if you will) can extend legitimately into early 19th romantic music. I for one would love to see more of it, especially from a countertenor of Daniels' quality. Manuel Garcia's famous book on vocal technique was not written until the late l850's, by which time the traditions of bel canto were well established, and were the way many tenors sang the early romantic operas, (although they had begun to be challenged by the new school of tenor singing represented (as pointed out in the previous comment) by Gilbert Duprez,and his famous/infamous full voiced upper register). The immediate predecessors of the half-voice and falsetto singers of the early 19th century were the castrati, so Daniels is basically following a line already established historically, from male alto to half-voice/falsetto tenor. There are some extraordinarily high notes indicated by composers such as Rossini,far above the staff, which were clearly intended to be sung in a falsetto voice. So yes, bring it on! It would be fascinating to know what Daniels himself thinks of this. I'm sure his historical knowledge of the traditions far exceeds my own.

Anonymous said...

Just Fantastic! I am a voice student myself, have been studying the past 9 years, and two years ago set to follow Garcia's approach; the 'vibrations' of the voice have almost doubled and the singing gets easier and easier and more beautiful as time goes on - your explanation is exact! Thank you.

Edmund said...

Thank you, my friend, and I wish you the very best of luck. You will never hurt your voice following the old school of bel canto. It's tonic for the voice. Edmund

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