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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bel Canto II

We can’t leave the subject of Lauri Volpi and Bel Canto without looking a little further at the man and his extraordinary art. Thanks to TrovadorManrique, there is an excellent video on Youtube of Franco Corelli talking about Lauri Volpi, with whom he studied. This is exactly the kind of first-hand information, from one distinguished professional to another, that has great historical value.

What a document this is! Corelli (whom I adore, incidentally) makes many points, but several strike me particularly. The first is when he reiterates, in a very clear way, something that I have always maintained; that Lauri Volpi’s was first and foremost a theatrical voice. This is much more important than might appear at first, because it explains things about his particular technique. His training was essentially bel canto—this we know. He was a lifelong exponent of the method, even though he rejected the falsetto as a voice appropriate for the stage in the 20th century. Gigli could use falsetto a lot (and he did) because he made so many recordings and films. It works perfectly there, because it does not have to fill a theater. Which brings me to the second thing that struck me in this video. Corelli relates a comment from another person, who said that L-V’s voice was the only one to ever make its vibrations felt in the furthest reaches of the upper balcony. And then he adds, “not the voice, but the vibrations of the voice.
Some viewers might find this confusing, but as an avocational harpsichord builder, I knew immediately what he was talking about! I had the sad experience, a few years back, of hearing the Academy of Ancient Music perform, using a harpsichord that I knew well, a unique Hubbard dual-manual built locally and rented for the evening. I had once contemplated buying this harpsichord, and had played a few scales and passages on it, so I knew exactly what it sounded like, and I can assure you that as a strumento da camera it was magnificent. On stage, however, it disappointed. The theater was not all that large—perhaps 700—but the poor harpsichord was lost in it. From where I sat, in the first balcony, it sounded like nothing quite so much as a sack of 10-penny nails being unceremoniously dumped on the stage floor. This is a common experience. The lovely and ancient harpsichord just doesn’t make it as a concert instrument in a large modern-day hall.

This, in the realm of the human voice, is what Corelli is talking about. You can hear many singers’ voices in the last row, but not the vibrations of their voice; which is to say not the overtones. And the uniqueness of L-V’s voice, according to Corelli, was that the overtones of his voice did reach the last row. Some sounds survive distance with the fullness of their amplitud, and some do not. I am reminded of something Lily Pons once said. A colleague, concerned that he could not hear her voice (she was a tiny creature, less than 5 feet tall) mentioned this fact to her. She replied, “don’t worry, you may not hear me on stage, but they will hear me in the audience.” And she was right. It is the higher frequencies of the voice that account for this. This is what served Lauri Volpi and his bel canto technique so well, and it also served Pons. Among those not well served by this phenomenon are heroic and dramatic singers who cover to the point of clamping down on their voices, and even though they may be booming at close range, they often do not carry as well in the theater as one might have expected, because many of the higher resonances are missing. Someone might ask why the higher resonances of a harpsichord don’t carry. The answer is that they do, but unfortunately the higher resonances of copper overlap with those of steel! Hence the metallic clang. We cannot compare metals with the soft human flesh of vocal chords.


corax said...

absolutely fascinating, and i am with you both on L-V and on corelli, btw. and of course also [alas] on the harpsichord problem. it raises an interesting archaeological problem, as one might call it: e.g. what were the dimensions of the room in which bach played for the margraf von brandenburg? and how many people could it hold? similarly, i'd be interested to know the size of the halls in which bellini and donizetti expected their operas to premiere.

Anonymous said...

I have been in quite a few of those halls and palaces in Europe, and (other than cathedrals) I do not remember them being that large. Of course 30-40 years ago I was not thinking in terms of music as you have been discussing it. But I think your estimates of 150-200 people would be pretty good ones. Some of those rooms had wood and tapestries that would absorb sound. Many, though, glistened with marble and stone that would "brighten" the sound considerably.

With regard to other discussions on this blog, I was thinking about your discussion of the "vibrations" of singers' voices. About40 years ago I heard Richard Tucker sing in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was traveling with Henry Mancini, as I remember. Anyhow, he sang in the Coliseum, and it was a very large space. (If I remember, it was not a domed area but had a flat ceiling.) I sat in the back row and was amazed at the "ring" of his voice. It was almost an echo sound and was remarkable. Is this the vibration you mention and I assume it resonanted from the placement of the sound in the front of his facial structure?

Edmund said...

These questions and observations are good, and raise even more questions. It is not easy to come up with any specific numbers. I know that the Tureck Bach Research Institute resurrected an old building in (the former) East Germany, where Bach was reported to have given small orchestral performances, using about 25 musicians, if memory serves, and when they had put a platform at one end to accomodate the 25 instrumentalists, the hall held about 150 people. However, when I look at Renaissance paintings of chamber music performances, the musicians often seem to be virtually on top of each other, and crowded around the instrumentalists. I suppose a lot of it had to do with how grand the palace was. If it were the struggling local marquis, it might be a pretty crowded gathering:) A ducal palace, on the other hand, might be grand. Many chamber music performances were given in the library, or the main drawing room. I'm guessing that 75 to 100 people would be a good crowd.

On the question of early romantic opera performances, I have always been a little surprised at how large the halls actually were. Opera was of course the grand old lady of the performing arts for centuries, and it seems to have drawn large crowds. And the operas themselves--Donizetti, Rossini,and even earlier, Lully, Rameau, and Lully's aesthetic heir Salieri, were very grand affairs indeed, with wonderful machinery, out of which innumerable gods, goddesses, chariots, etc. came forth. These halls seated thousands. And of course if we go back to antiquity, and look at the outdoor theaters of the Romans, they were, even by modern standards, very large. It is useful, I think, to consider the grandeur of early opera. Sometimes the shows even had to be taken outdoors. Opera itself is a plural word, of course (sing. opus)which clearly refers to the fact that it was a show that today would be called "multimedia": singers, dancers (especially in Rameau's operas)elaborate stagecraft, musicians, etc. Quite a to-do!

RE Tucker's voice. A great voice, full of resonances. He had a very high speaking voice, and he certainly sang well. He never pushed his voice, and was singing beautifully intil the day he died, much too young. He sang off the thinner edges of the chords, as did Lauri Volpi. That's the way to do it, and the voice lasts and lasts--and has that ring, or squilo, that you mention.

Anonymous said...

Having been to London recently and seen the recreation of the Globe Theater, I was surprised at how many people would be packed into a space like that. It is ample but certainly not huge. There are also balconies. But the lower class were packed on the main floor, and that would help accommodate a large crowd for that day. Their idea of physical space and ours are different. I also concur with your thoughts about ancient theaters, etc.

Edmund said...

Yes, you raise an interesting point about the differing concepts relating to space. The crowds in the palace chambers would have been a better class of people than the penny stinkers in the Globe, certainly, but they may indeed have been tightly packed. Certainly paintings I have seen from the period suggest that.

Anonymous said...

It has been estimated that the Colosseum in Rome seated 50,000 or about what our modern sports stadia seat. If the emperor spoke, I wonder how well he could have been heard. Of course, the background noises of traffic would have been quite different then. The value of the spoken word and the skills of listening were probably also more highly esteemed. In amphitheaters in Greece, Italy, and Turkey there were similar situations where acoustics were quite good. The art of oratory and performing were highly developed, I imagine. I am struck when I listen to old recordings of men like William Jennings Bryan at the dramatic flair those people had. Quite different from today.

Edmunt said...

I think it is worth taking one more look at the Verona Arena where the 1933 performance of Gli Ugonotti took place. Just look at the SIZE of that theater inside, and the enormity of the stage! There must be 30 or 40 people on stage, complete with a large dog running across it. The audience is in the thousands, and by the look of it, suffering terribly with the heat, and all a bit unruly. Lauri Volpi, in the meantime, is roaring away at the top of his voice, and apparently being heard. This is a very revealing video, studied in detail.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Edmund, I'm TrovadorManrique:

You are rigth about Lauri-Volpi: his voice looked like made of metal. Italian critic Rodolfo Celletti often refers to it as the "silver trumpet" due to the incredible resonance an pureness of the sound. That's what in Italy calls "squillo", I mean, the quality of the voice that trasspases the orchestra and arrives to the "loggione" like a knife. Gigli's sweetness is apropriated for other kind of operas and for not so big auditoriums.

Tucker had similities with Lauri-Volpi due to the brigthness and the power of the squillo.

Anonymous said...

I agree with corax – the article is fascinating.
Perhaps acoustics is also important. The Bolshoi is for 2200 people. Neither Lemeshev nor Kozlovsky had big voices, but people on the upper balcony could hear them very well. Another Soviet tenor Anatoly Orfenov who worked in the Bolshoy in the 1930’-50’s wrote ( I’ll try to translate, thought I’m not sure about professional terms),” There is a distance of 18 meters between a singer, standing at the closest spot to the audience, and a conductor […]It is hard for a voice that is not too big ( and I’ve never thought that my voice was big), to carry the sound to the people at the upper gallery. Sometimes singers start to force the sound, but the Bolshoi’s acoustics is such , that forced voices do not sound well. I remember one show when Bogdanov [ a baritone] told me about the impression that my singing had made, ”What does audience hear when I can’t hear anything, while standing within 3 meters from you? And suddenly they began to applaud” This means that small voices, if not forced, can properly resonate and fill the hall.”
Corelli’s interview is very interesting

Edmund said...

Yes, excellent observations. Thank you both. I had begun to suspect that the acoustics of the Bolshoi Theater were very special when I watched the wonderful video of Mark Reizen singing Gremin's aria at the age of 90, and it was apparent that the voice was carrying and that people were understanding him. His words were clear and very understandable. Quite a theater. I wonder what the secret is? I'll have to read up on the Bolshoi and see when it was built and try to find out something about its construction. And Orfenov's story exactly corresponds to what I have always heard from good teachers, and have myself observed in the opera house. Болшое спасибо за замечание!

And yes, TrovadorManrique--"silver trumpet" is a wonderful and very exact phrase to describe L-V's voice!

Anonymous said...

It was written somewhere, that clay pots filled with broken glass had been set into the walls. Perhaps, it’s not original, and other old theaters have the same system. Now the theater is being restored and there is a strong suspicion that it’s acoustics will be damaged.

I totally agree about Lauri-Volpi.

Edmund said...

Very interesting comment. I had heard about the broken glass and clay pots...was it from you? I'm not sure, but I wonder if it is true? I did know that the Bolshoi was under reconstruction, along with the Marinksi (the old Kirov), all under the directorship now of Valery Gergiev, who is a real wild man! Fortunately, he's close friends with both Putin and Medvedev, and he seems to be getting all the money needs to get the job done. He even managed to beat 30 million dollars out of Yeltsin years ago, and that was no small accomplishment! I hope it doesn't ruin the acoustics, because that would be tragic.