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.
at 1:46 PM