Sunday, December 20, 2009
The Great Tetrazzini
Luisa Tetrazzini was born in 1871, in Florence. She began to sing as a small child, and was trained at the Instituto Musicale in Florence. By the age of 19 she was ready to make her debut as Inez in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. She sang around Italy, and then went to Russia, where she scored a big success in St. Petersburg. She was kept busy as a young lady, learning her craft and drawing increasing attention to herself by virtue of her superb voice. She was not beautiful, as was Patti, but was rather fat from early on. Her divine voice, however, spared her from any undue or cruel criticism for her appearance. From the earliest days, she displayed a flexible and high coloratura, of the kind that was very much in vogue in the lyric theater of the day. She commanded an extraordinary trill, easily produced, and was comfortable with extensive fioratura. There was a thrilling sound to her voice that won her acclaim early on in her career. Her American debut was in San Francisco in 1905. By this time, she was well known for her lyric coloratura roles, especially Violetta, Gilda and Lucia; roles in which her great vocal endowments could be shown to advantage. She auditioned at the Met, but they seemingly were not impressed, which is somewhat curious, as she was already famous. One suspects that something unknown outside the Met may have been in play. It makes no sense otherwise. She did sing for the Manhattan Opera in 1908, but never warmed to the Met, because of their inexplicable attitude, and only sang one season there, in 1911-12. She was in such demand world-wide that the Met was inconsequential in any case. She is reputed to have made a very large amount of money. Unwise associations over time, however, led to a sad end, characterized by poverty. Most scandalous was her victimization at the hands of a dreadful male gold-digger, thirty years her junior, who married her late in her career, and stole most of her money. In spite of such reckless errors of judgment, however, she was by all accounts a lovely person, outgoing and friendly, even to the extent of letting aspiring singers live in her home, at her expense, at least during the good years. Her last days in poverty and sickness anger and bewilder many people even today. It is so wretchedly unfair. One wonders where the charity of fellow performers was. Yes, times were hard in late 30's, but Gigli, to take but one example, managed to raise a huge amount of money during this period by the many charity concerts he gave. Were people wary of her because of her poor judgment in getting involved with such a vile (although doubtless "charming") man as the one who wrecked her life? Why did no one come to her aid at the end when she was so obviously in need? The State of Italy, at least, provided her with an appropriate funeral. It's just all too sad.
Here is the great soprano in "Caro nome":
As the recording shows, the top part of her voice was quite extraordinary. Like virtually all sopranos of her age, she will scoop down into the lower registers, and that sound jolts us somewhat today, when all sopranos simply sing low notes very softly. It is possible that in Tetrazzini's time, when people actually paid more attention to the words, sopranos felt they needed the additional heft in the lower register, so that their voice, and the words they were singing, did not get lost in the orchestra. Another thing that is immediately apparent is the exceptional and easy nature of her trill. I don't think I have ever heard that many trills in "Caro nome" before. But she was just showing off one of her greatest natural endowments. Here is the famous "Ah non giunge," from La Sonnambula:
Certainly an attractive rendition, although one must be honest and point out certain tendencies that are perhaps not up to today's standard: There is sometimes a lack of adequate articulation on the cadenzas that comes dangerously close to a glide, although she was not alone in that during her day. She also sacrifices the lower parts of her voice to the top, which is certainly common (and smart) because that is what people are paying to hear. From an aesthetic point of view, however, she lays herself open to criticism for making the bottom and(especially) middle register of the voice rather open, white, and somewhat blaring. The top is excellent.
Here is a sentimental view of Tetrazzini—the only moving pictures I am aware of—listening to a Caruso recording late in life, and bursting into song along with it. Her girly and giggly abandon at the end is most charming, and just makes one upset yet again that she was treated so badly by others, and did not have the dignified and comfortable retirement she deserved.
Isn't that delightful? She seems a lovely person, and the fact that people speak of her so fondly even today, nearly 70 years after her death in 1940, is a fitting memorial to a magnificent artist, who literally gave it all.
at 2:56 PM