Saturday, August 28, 2010
"Antonina Nezhdanova [Антонина Васильевна Нежданова] People's Artist of the Soviet Union
"Antonina Nezhdanova(1873-1950),was born near Odessa,to parents who were school teachers. Both were themselves amateur singers, and her father had formed a local choir in which young Antonina sang, even as a small child. She was a good and diligent student, and after studying at Odessa, attended and graduated from Umberto Masetti's famous class at the Moscow conservatory in 1902. (She was to continue studying with Masetti until his death in 1919.) She was immediately engaged at the Bolshoi, where she remained for nearly 40 years, singing leading roles in Russian and West European operas, most frequently opposite the great tenor Leonid Sobinov. In 1912 she was Gilda at the Monte Carlo Opéra, with Tita Ruffo as Rigoletto and Enrico Caruso as the Duke. Some outstanding roles of her huge repertoire were: Ludmilla in Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla, Tatyana, Lakmé, the Snow Maiden, Volkhova, Elsa, and Rosina.
She embraced the Communist era with enthusiasm, having been taught by her parents that it was the duty of middle and upper class Russians to help the less fortunate, and support their legitimate claims to a decent life. So strong was this belief in her that she would often sing in provincial theaters for food, or even for nothing at all. This earned her the great and ever-lasting affection of the Russian people. Beginning in 1922, she became a cultural ambassador for the Soviet government, and appeared in Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Baltic capitals, and cities in Germany and Poland. In the USSR she was among the most honored singers and teachers. The government bestowed upon her the prestigious titles "People's Artist of the Soviet Union," for her great artistry, and "Hero of Labor" for her life-long efforts on behalf of socialist reform. From 1936 on, she taught at the Stanislavsky Opera Studio, later at the Bolshoi Opera Studio, and finally at the Moscow Conservatory, from 1943 until 1950." *
Nezhdanova is particularly noteworthy for the absolute perfection of her singing technique. It could be called Russian, or it could be called bel canto; I suppose it could be both: there is a premium on ease of attack and fexibility. The “color” of Russian voices, especially high voices, is “whiter” than the dark and ponderous Italian voices that have come to dominate most opera singing today. Some of this owes to the language, and some owes to the bel canto school of singing. As a general rule, as we have discussed in some detail before, bel canto singing tends to produce whiter, open phonation that reveals the more characteristic tones of the speaking voice of the singer. Chaliapin is a particularly striking example of this kind of singing, so much so that some refer to him as a singing actor because of the extremely clear enunciation that is part of bel canto training. Nezhdanova, however, does not go to that extreme. Her singing style was pure bel canto, with an emphasis on lyricism and beauty, reflecting her lifelong study with Masetti. Here is a superb example of the great soprano singing a classic Italian aria, "Una Voce Poco Fa." I call your attention to the extraordinary flexibility of the voice, and the immaculate, almost understated style, which is actually more respectful of the tradition of great singing—and Rossini’s intentions—than the often self-indulgent bombast that can accompany this particular showpiece aria. Her coloratura is perfection itself:
An absolutely astonishing piece of vocalism! It is hard to imagine it done better; both the musicianship and style are admirable.
Also of great musical interest is a recording that Nezhdanova made of Elsa’s aria from Lohengrin, and it demonstrates very well that it did not,nearer Wagner’s time, require a monster soprano voice to sing Wagner, who was in fact very impressed with some Italian composers, especially Rossini and Bellini. He is reported to have spoken very highly of Rossini after a personal meeting with him that completely dispelled for Wagner some of the silly stereotypes of Italian music and composers that were current at the time. He is also said to have expressed a wish that his tenors be trained in Italy. It is also worth noting that the pit at Bayreuth is covered, both to avoid any sight-line interruptions between stage and viewer, and also to help keep the volume of the sound down:
I strongly feel that this is exactly what would have pleased Wagner. It is clear, musically and stylistically excellent, and simply beautiful. The lyricism and plaintive nature of the piece come through in the voice in a way that is often not captured by huge and heroic voices.
Finally, another soprano showpiece, "Sempre Libera", from La Traviata, featuring a high D natural at the end. Extremely high notes were not so common in Nezhdanova's day, especially if the voice carried much weight into the extreme top register:
A wonderful soprano indeed, and a great personality! She deserves her accolades and reputation, and it is both just and gratifying that she is finally becoming known to opera lovers in the United States.
*I wish to express my gratitude both to Natalia at younglemeshevist, a good friend and connoisseur of fine arts with a prodigious knowledge of great Russian art and singing, and to Tim at dantitustimshu, a superb collector and scholar, for information which has informed my biographical sketch of Nezhdanova, and to Tim for the photos of Nezhdanova.
at 11:20 AM