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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Vocal Curiosities: Yma Sumac and Ivan Rebroff

It is very hard to say what the most ancient expressive activities are. Whether dance preceded song, or whether they grew up together (the most likely thing) is hard to say. One thing is certain—there is a very wide and interesting range of human vocal activity, whether it be song, speech, or the imitation of sounds. Opera buffs are of course interested in the most refined and perhaps extreme forms of singing, and therefore tend to have a natural kind of curiosity about truly exotic voices, those which far exceed the normal usable ranges of even virtuoso singers. Two such individuals, who excited a lively interest in the last century because of the extraordinary range of their voices, were Yma Sumac and Ivan Rebroff. Most will know of Yma Sumac, who attained a rather extraordinary level of fame for her truly exotic singing and characterizations. Her voice covered an unheard of range of 5 octaves. She could sing from male baritone to a level of sound that was no longer truly human, and can only be compared to the characteristic sounds of birds. In her case, “songbird” was more a literal than a symbolic description. She was in fact a Peruvian soprano with a unique voice. What added to her fame—perhaps notoriety would be a better word—was a possibly ill-considered cultivation of the exotic, to the point of permitting herself to be depicted as descended from Inca royalty, or being a “girl of the jungle,” etc. It gave her an initial kind of fame, but it also raised eyebrows a bit. The following video shows her at her most characteristic, and the power to startle is certainly evident. I would call your attention especially to 2:50, when she is leaning against a tree. That sound is HER! I had to play it twice before I would believe it. Be sure to listen to the video all the way through. It is not long, but it is amazing:

I do not know of another like her. Less well known, at least in America, is the voice of Ivan Rebroff. In spite of his Russian name, he was born Hans Rolf Rippert,in Germany, and was what I would call a "stage" Russian, or a “professional” Russian. He claimed Russian ancestry, but his Russian is thickly accented and not very cultivated. He was, however, a fine folk entertainer and quite popular. He sang into his 70's and made a great deal of money. He was a very big man, and dressed in (again) exotic clothing, to accentuate his size, perhaps making him seem more “Russian.” It was a show business act, and a good one. Like Sumac, he approached the 5 octave spread also. He could sing a legitimate basso profundo, and I have heard his recording (I’m not kidding about this) of the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor! In the following video, you will hear his range, as he sings from deep bass to coloratura soprano. Again, be sure to listen to the very end, because that’s where the vocal fireworks are:

Certainly a startling effect, verging on cognitive dissonance; in this case, because of the size and virility of the singer.

It may not be high art, but there is no law that says it has to be! It's musical entertainment, and very engaging. Both he and Sumac were very popular singers—their effect was mainly to startle and amaze, and in that they were successful. They both had good careers. While they both surprise with their astonishing voices, it may be that Yma Sumac’s voice was the more astonishing of the two. What detracted a bit from Sumac, at least in my opinion, was the somewhat bizarre persona cultivated for her by her husband, who had a band of his own, and toured with her. In a word, he overdid it, and she was sometimes ridiculed, which is sad because I sense a lot of talent there that was never developed. In Rebroff’s case, he simply imitated opera and choral traditions, to flesh out his persona, which was a bit of all things for all people. He was German, imitating a Russian, and lived in Greece. But with him it was all an act, and a remarkably good one. He and his audience were fond of each other, and he played it to the hilt, and more power to him! He was a fine entertainer. Yma Sumac’s case is more complicated. She evokes, at least in me, a kind of sadness, a kind of regret, tinged with emotion. I feel there was much more there than we were permitted to know about.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Story of Giuliano Bernardi: Brilliance And Tragedy

I received an email early last week from Mr. Paolo Bernardi, who sent me some links to videos of his father, Giuliano Bernardi, a brilliant singer. He told me the story of his father’s short and tragic life, which I relay to you in its essence, and in Paolo’s own words, slightly edited:

“Thanks, Edmund, for your kind words. I’m glad you appreciated my father’s voice. As you can see, I posted both baritone and tenor arias because my father, after graduation from the Conservatory of Pesaro, made his debut in 1968 [as a baritone] in the role of Rigoletto, in Mantova. He sang baritone in the most important Italian theaters, in operas such as Un Ballo in Maschera, I Pagliacci, La Boheme, La Traviata, [and] Rigoletto, always with great success, until the end of 1973, when he decided to become a dramatic tenor, [owing to the fact that] some people—and in particular his friend Pavarotti—had advised him to change because the potential as tenor was really high. With the help of Maestro Pola he made his debut as a tenor in 1975, in Macbeth. After that, he sang only two operas in Italy and Spain—Il Trovatore and La Traviata. He was preparing Otello for a performance in Spain, and was getting ready for his American debut [Chicago in 1977, and the Met in 1978/79] when an automobile accident ended his career and his life at age 37.”

This is a very sad story indeed, as I am sure you will agree when you hear this extraordinary but ill-fated singer. First as a baritone:

I honestly believe that this is one of the most beautiful renditions of Di Provenza that I have ever heard. The phrasing, the musicianship, the brilliant top—the presentation in general—is just wonderful. [Yes, I know…arms and gestures, but he is young here. In time, and in America especially, he would have learned what to do with his arms in a concert.) And witness the reaction of the audience. They are well aware of the quality of what they have just heard. Whether Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or French, you cannot fool the Latins when it comes to opera. It’s their music, ultimately, and they only applaud what they know is good. [And God help you if it isn’t!]

Several years later, Bernardi had studied tenor singing, and I offer this example:

I also listened to the Di Quella Pira, which, if the recording is running at the right speed, was sung down one half tone. It was very, very good. I cannot tell from a few clips, but I assume that he was a B natural tenor. There is nothing wrong with that; many tenors take Di Quella Pira down a half tone, as they do the Boheme aria and also the Faust aria. Now the big question: was Mr. Bernardi a true tenor, or a true baritone, or both? The few arias posted show him as brilliant in all the pieces he sings. At least two of the comments by viewers suggest that he was a TRUE lyric baritone—that he sang the way a baritone should sing. Of course, Pavarotti’s advice was also true—there is more economic potential as a dramatic tenor. I do not pretend to have an answer based on a few examples. I suppose the question I would ask would be whether it is better—and potentially healthier—to be a baritone with a high top or a dramatic tenor with a reliable top of Bb or B. I think it is important to remember that Mr. Bernardi was just 37 at the time of his death. Could he have sustained that top through his forties and into his fifties? I must admit I am not 100% sure that he could. Perhaps he could, but singing the big heavy tenor roles (Calaf, Otello, Chenier, Don Alvaro, Rhadames) can take a brutal toll on a tenor voice over time. And there was of course some mighty competition at the time, largely in the person of Giuseppe Giacomini and Plácido Domingo. Given the tendency of the voice to darken over time, a lyric baritone with a high top has a greater longevity potential than a dramatic tenor putting ever more stress on an already slightly short top.

This is of course all a moot point in this case. What the future might have been is a guessing game. As it is, it can only be said with certainty that here was brilliance and tragedy.

Thank you, Paolo, for sharing this story with us.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Georges Thill: Exemplar of French Bel Canto

The French are deservedly famous for their aggressive cultivation of high culture and high style, and I for one lament the fact that we do not hear more French opera today, and especially that we do not hear great French tenors such as Georges Thill. (Alagna deserves his own review, later.) Many myths exist about the difficulties of singing in French, and they are just that--myths. They come largely from Italian singers who cannot make the sounds properly ("le" always seems to come out "lay," etc.) or English-speaking singers who try too hard to make the sounds, and nearly choke in the process. In general, for some reason, English-speaking sopranos (e.g. Renée Fleming) do much better than the men. Listening to Georges Thill provides proof positive that French can be sung very beautifully indeed. Thill's training, like that of so many great tenors of the early 20th century, was founded upon bel canto techniques, in his case in the person of the great Italian tenor Fernando de Lucia, whom Thill greatly admired. Thill recalled, in an interview that can be seen on Youtube, that de Lucía insisted that “in order to sing well, one must open the mouth and PRO-NOUN-CE CLEAR-LY! Which he certainly did. The result was pure, easy, open phonation, only slightly covered across the passagio and into the upper register. He soared with consummate ease into the stratospheric reaches of the high Db, often (but not invariably) using mixed voice in the extreme upper register, when he felt that the tradition and the style not only permitted but required it. The following clip features him in rehearsal, and you have a chance to hear his high Db, an amazing, nearly open sound, very different from the heavily covered and dark Italian sounds so prevalent today. In the interview that follows, in French, he talks about his study with De Lucia, and the latter’s insistence on opening the mouth widely and pronouncing clearly. The section after that shows him singing----can you believe?—Wagner! Bel canto only refers to a vocal production technique—its application can be as universal as taste permits.

Thill’s voice is very much a French phenomenon.  Some, accustomed only to Italian singing, will sometimes say that the color is too “white,” or that the voice is “shrill.” I do not accept these judgments. Singing styles and vocal coloration are, in the last analysis, national—in exactly the same way that balletic style or the determination of female beauty is national. Comparisons become odious. The style must fit the language, as well as the national taste and aesthetic tradition.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Great Chaliapin

Fyodor Chaliapin’s fame is world-wide and unquestioned. Curiously, as sometimes happens in the case of the great names, analysis of the greatness is sometimes scant. A clue, in the case of Chaliapin, is that the one thing everyone agrees upon is that he was a very great actor. A vocal coach, whom I knew many years ago, had seen Chaliapin in Paris in the twenties, and told me that he was the greatest actor he had ever seen, before or since. If you think about it a moment, that is something not too commonly said about opera singers! I think it is truer in the case of the Russians, however, than of almost any other nation. The Russians, at least since the beginning of the 20th century, have tended, following Hellenists, to view the theater as the poetic activity most suited to the restoration of aesthetic life’s unified wholeness, as was the case, it was thought, in ancient Greece. Perhaps as a result of this intellectual prodding, the essential qualities of theatrical drama came to dominate both opera and ballet. Lyricism and great tragic acting come together, for example, in Russian historical operas such as Boris Godunov, in which Chaliapin was simply nonpareil. I have not been able to find a film version of Chaliapin as Boris Godunov, but there is a good recording, and there are good films of other theatrical pieces, so perhaps by putting the two together, we can get an idea. In the famous death scene that follows, there are several things to listen for, one of them a curiosity. At one point, Boris’ son comes forward, and you can hear him singing “padre mio…,” from which I take it that this was a recording made at the Met! Chaliapin’s remarkable exclamatory singing—or simple exclamation—can be heard around 3:00 into the clip, as he says “Ya Tsar!,” (I am the Tsar!) then “Bozhe!” (God!) and finally “Cmyert!” (Death!”) It’s bone-chilling. At the very end, as you hear him falling down on the floor, he says “Bozhe! Prosteetye! Prosteetye! Proste---t-----“ (“God! Forgive me….forgive me, for-give…….”) You can leave the video at 3:20 (He’s dead by then :)

It does not take great imagination to see what the power of that presentation must have been. We can get a very good idea indeed from the filmed version of the end of Don Quixote. In this clip, Don Quixote, exhausted and out of his mind, having chased phantoms around the land, lost in his reverie of reborn chivalry, is brought home to “begin a new life,” but of course it is to die, his dreams shattered, his books burned, and his despair total. When he begins to talk, and especially when he begins to sing, in this clip, you will need to turn the sound up. The words he says, before he sings, are: “I deceived you, Sancho…there is no island for you.” There are English subtitles, mercifully, because he is singing in English, but very thickly accented. He only sang Russian and French well. Here you can actually see the great tragedian in action (and the line between tragedy and melodrama was almost non-existent in the performing arts at this time):

It’s almost unbearable to watch. Can anyone deny that this was a very great tragedian?

As to the voice per se, I can only end by saying that it was a perfect instrument for projecting his acting. He was, in the truest and best sense of the word, a singing actor.