Search This Blog

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]:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6SfhUzhO9E&feature=related


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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veyNV053HmA


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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pC4rzV-I8Uk&feature=related


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.

22 comments:

corax said...

EStA! every time i think you've reached the ne plus ultra, you scale new heights. this woman is really something. and i thought i knew a fair amount about the singers of this period ... but i had never heard a recording of turner till now.

and WOW what a voice. would i be far off the mark to say that it combines the power of nilsson with the sweetness and clarity of farrar? in her softest, gentlest moments i could almost believe it was farrar. but obviously this is a much bigger instrument than farrar ever had.

and yes, her personality is delightful. i just wanted to hug her after those comments about domingo! i have the highest regard for him, but i kept wishing he would pause and let her speak some more ... luckily we can hear her hold forth on performing TURANDOT in another of the youtube clips you refer to above:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3P201IZ2FRg

in discussing her sound, she uses an italian phrase ['impostazione davanti' if i understand her correctly] that might perhaps explain the qualities i hear that remind me of farrar?

corax said...

a' propos of the carter/farrar comparison, i thought it might be interesting to listen to them both sing the same aria. to that end, here are youtube clips of UN BEL DI' -- one for each -- plus, for good measure, the same aria sung by ponselle, a giant of a dramatic soprano who shared some traits with turner, and others with farrar:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziHx9cwCEiQ [turner]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5Y6_93jeVo [farrar]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVj-bawfbNA [ponselle]

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, my friend. Your observation about the power of Nilsson in combination with the sweetness of Farrar is characteristically spot-on. Yes, exactly. That is what I was reaching for--not as cleverly as you put it--when I mentioned the curious penchant for Puccini, and her remarkable success in the Italian repertoire. It is especially notable in the Vissi d'arte, where the tender, lyric moments suddenly explode in that incredible upper register into a torrent of sound. BTW, did you notice the little Gigli-sob at the end? Cute touch. I smiled from ear to ear...I think Dame Eva was having a bit of fun at that point. And yes, the brilliance comes from what, in her day, the Italians called "forward placement," although that is only an image, as we now know, used to describe physiological manipulations that occur entirely in the larynx. Experiments have been done with recording singers first placing the sound "in the mask," and then recording the same phrase again with cotton stuffed into their sinuses (Yes, I know, I quail at the thought) and there was no difference at all. What is happening is that as certain muscular positions in the throat cause slight deformations of the larynx, we sense a kind of sympathetic tensing around the nose, and some facial muscles also contract. But that has nothing to with sound production. It's all in the throat. And isn't she an absolute doll! Those rolled R's and broad sweeping gestures of the arms are just delightful. OH, what an era hers was! How utterly grand. Corny, yes, probably, but as if opera isn't?! And notice her generosity. She means it! She was one of the few great opera singers who regularly attended the Royal Opera House to listen to operas, and to delight in them, right up to her 95th year, as evidenced in the fact that she had seen Domingo do Otello the previous night. And doesn't she make an interesting contrast with Dame Nellie! She was grand in a lovable way; one that makes the phrase "prima donna" come alive with smiles, as we cheer her on. Whereas Dame Nellie, well.............we know.

Edmund St. Austell said...

And thank you for the clips! I will set about to listen to them forthwith, and get back with a reaction!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Well, I have listened to them all, in the great Un Bel Di cagematch:), and I must say that the three different sopranos reveal themslves pretty clearly in this aria. Farrar is the least dramatic of the lot. She sounds a bit like an ingenue, at least in this recording. Ponselle is very dark and heavy, characteristically--very much a high alto, imho, but with a thrilling dramatic sense. Turner's promised to be the best of the lot, until the Bb at the end which puzzled me. She hopped off it quite quickly and the piece did not come to it's typically thrilling climax. Of course, it was a live 1937 recording in the opera house, and perhaps she was not in great voice that day, or tired, or had been pushed by the conductor to get on with it...it is very hard to say. So I suppose if we could take Turner's rendition up the end, and then graft Ponselle's ringing and dramatic Tebaldi-like Bb to the end of the aria, we would have our ideal dramatic soprano--Turnerelle:) What's your take on the three of them?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another interesting article, Sir Edmund. She is a great singer with a beautiful voice and she is a very interesting person. The video with her and Domingo is excellent. Such a nice lady. She spoke like an artist, who must always “carry the sound to the audience”:) Looks like Turner didn’t have anything “Victorian” in her personality –she was so energetic, even “heroic.” I imagine that she was very good in Wagnerian roles. She sounds very modern (in a good sense), though her technique is classic. It seems to me that her “grandness” is actually a passionate, almost fanatical attitude to her profession. All the great old singers were such fanatics. perhaps because they had full responsibility for the show. They couldn't justify a bad performance by blaming awful stage direction with bizarre sets or unnecessary physical exercises, etc.

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

BRAVA! Excellent comment! I think you have hit on something important there. The great singers did indeed "carry the show" back in that day, although Toscanini was just beginning to rise, and he tempered the freedom of singers to a considerable extent, just as he managed to get encores "outlawed" forever at the Metropolitan Opera. Still, your point is excellent. Those singers formed back in the first two decades of the 20th century were a grander and more expansive kind of creature than what we have today. And you idea about the wear and tear that frivolous and quirky stage direction can cause is excellent. I have to admit that this is something I had not thought about before. Вы должны написать книгу! Большое спасибо!

JD Hobbes said...

I probably shouldn't say this, but I have various performances of Toscanini's orchestra and found them often so precise, so disciplined, so "military" that I do not enjoy them. But that is just my feeling.

Edmund St. Austell said...

No need to apologize for an honest opinion, my friend! Not on this blog:) Opinion is the very essence of art appreciation...it's all in the formulation. Reception, whether it be reader reception in literature, or art enthusiast in the realm of the fine arts, it's all an act of re-creation in any case, and we all re-create differently.

And anyway, at a real level:) I do actually know what you mean. Toscanini could overdo it, and often did. He was a needed rememdy to a self-indulgent era, but he could, to plunge to the vernacular, be as stiff as an old board.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Sir Edmund. It’s not enough to write a book, but I’m sure that even Netrebko would have sung better if she didn’t have to perform upside down:) There are huge threads about modern directing on our operatic forums, because some Russian directors do very strange things. For example, this video of the duel scene from Onegin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5a02F0jETvk&feature=channel_page

This staging with all its unbearable noises, screams and changes in libretto got a lot of awards. And it was not the worst staging, though there were many moments when it looked like singers didn’t understand what they were doing. Of course, the director’s name was more important than Tchaikovsky's.

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, exactly, and that is the whole problem. Tchaikovsky gets left in the dust while some wacky director pushes into the production and basically re-creates a masterpiece, always ruining it in the process. It's as though someone were to decide that the funny elongated faces in Del Greco's character studies didn't really look like he thought they should, so he takes denatured alcohol and erases them and puts his own crude cartoon faces on them. The whole thing is just sacrilege, in my opinion. I agree with you 100%

corax said...

re the three recordings: i very much like the notion of a 'turnerelle'; and with today's audio technology, it should be a fairly simple operation to combine those two recordings ...

now. a' propos of the farrar clip: i'm intrigued that she fares so poorly, even in this stiff competition. she was arguably more famous than *either* of the other sopranos in this role. in fact, she starred in the US premiere of BUTTERFLY; and, if i am not mistaken, she still holds to this day the world record for number of performances of cio-cio-san.

do you suppose that she in fact records [even] less well than the other two? or/and that the magic of her performance was more located in her acting [and/or her photogenic appearance] than in the pipes?

Edmund St. Austell said...

I listened again to the Farrar recording. I think, on second hearing, that we have to take into account that the old acoustic recording did not do her voice justice. Several things lead me to this conclusion. The criticism of her day praised the quality of her voice, and Caruso, with whom she sang a fair bit, was quite fond of her voice. In his published comments, gathered from here and there, I always had the impression that he was an astute judge of soprano voices and (probably unwisely) did not hesitate to talk about them. Also, litening to the much heavier "chest voice" (God, I hate such inaccurate terminology!) she uses on the bottom notes indicates to me that she had more color and "depth" in her voice than is revealed in this ancient recording, made under who knows what circumstances on who knows what kind of machinery. I think what's wanted here is a review of some more recordings of hers. You have got me intrigued now. I'll see what I can find on the web. Thanks for the follow-up.

corax said...

thank *you*. will look forward to more conversation about this ...

Lisa Hirsch said...

Couple of small points - Rosa Raisa was the first Turandot.

Turner died on June 16, 1990, a couple of months after her 98th birthday, which was on March 10, 1990.

Lisa Hirsch said...

P. S. I would not consider Puccini (born in 1858) and Turner to be contemporaries.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed for the corrections! I appreciate it! Edmund

Neville Sumpter said...

Hello
Dame Eva Turner was not born in Manchester but she claims Oldham, Lancashire. Pauline Tinsley who she coached in many roles especially that of Turandot claims that Dame Eva was actually born in Ashton in Wakerfield which is between Wigan and St Helens? I wonder if we will ever know?
Neville

Edmund St. Austell said...

I know exactly what you mean! I about went crazy trying to get facts straight on Alfred Piccaver also, even after talking to his family. I'll check into Dame Eva and see if there is anything I can find. Thanks for the information; very much appreciated!

Gioacchino Florio-Maragioglio said...

A little information for you, kind Mr St Austell: you may like to look on the "Youtube" pages for the recording of Gina Cigna and Francesco Merli singing the riddle scene of "Turandot". It is the match for this wonderful soprano here, the dame.

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much. I will look it up right away!

Anonymous said...

What you hold in your mind , you see in a dream.