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Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Great Sergei Lemeshev: The View From Russia

It is a great pleasure for me to present the third in our series of guest writers. Natalie, known to many of you by her Youtube Channel name "younglemeshevist," is especially qualified to write on Sergei Lemeshev. Natalie was among the very first to begin to spread his recordings on Youtube, along with those of Antonina Nezhdanova. All lovers of great singing owe her a debt of gratitude for this effort, as these two superb Soviet artists were unknown to many opera lovers in the United States. She is also to be praised for composing this piece in English—I can only wish that my Russian were as good! Edmund St. Austell

First, I would like to thank Edmund St. Austell for inviting me to write this piece on my favorite tenor.

In Russia, Sergei Yakovlevich Lemeshev (1902-1977) is—along with Feodor Chaliapin— perhaps the most beloved opera singer in recent history. He was born into a very poor peasant family, in a small village, and sang from his early childhood. He was always surrounded by good singers, including his parents and other villagers, as peasant Russia was a “singing country” in those days. His father died when Sergei was 10, and after four years in a parish school he started to learn shoemaking, since there was no other chance for the family to escape from poverty. In 1918 he became acquainted with architect and opera lover Nikolai Kvashnin, who, along with the rest of his family, persuaded Sergei to study voice seriously. Those were the years of the Bolshevik revolution and the Civil war, and Lemeshev was required to become a cadet in the Red Army Cavalry School. However, it was actually the Revolution that helped him make his dream of an operatic career come true, since the Bolsheviks gave the poorest peasants and proletarians a preferential right to free education. Sergei was assigned to study at the Moscow Conservatory where, after surviving a rigorous competition, he was accepted. (This determined his political views, for as he said many times, “the Soviets gave me everything".)

His teachers were tenor N. Raisky (a pupil of G. Nuvelli), N. Kardyan, and L. Zvyagina (a leading contralto of the Bolshoi.) In 1926, Lemeshev made his debut as Lensky in K. Stanislavsky’s Opera Studio, and beginning in 1927, he performed at theaters in Sverdlovsk, Harbin (Manchuria) and Tbilisi. In 1931, he became a leading tenor of the Bolshoi, where he sang for the next 34 years, winning great acclaim. His audience grew, along with his fame, and he soon gained a veritable army of fans, called "lemeshevists. His repertoire included the Duke of Mantua, Lensky, Alfredo, Tsar Berendei (from The Snowmaiden), the Indian Guest (Sadko), Faust, Ziebel, Almaviva, The Simpleton (Boris Godunov ), Rodolfo (La Bohème) The Astrologer (The Golden Cockerel), Nadir, Des Greiux (Manon), Gerald (Lakme), Romeo (Gounod’s (Romeo and Juliette), Fra Diavolo, and Werther.

His vocal and artistic qualities, evident to every listener, are beauty of timbre, musicality, effortlessness of vocal production, expressiveness, and very clear diction, qualities perhaps most commonly found in bel canto singers. These qualities can be seen is his 1940 recording of “Parmi veder le Lagrime" (in Russian). I would call attention to the extraordinarily high note at the end, a Db above high C:

An interesting comment on Lemeshev’s singing was made by the Bolshoi tenor A. Orfenov: "He developed a mixed voice of incomparable beauty, which made it possible for him to take the highest notes with such beautiful richness that even specialists could not explain how it was done technically….His high C’s … sounded virile and full…His manner of lowering his larynx a bit on high notes allowed him to perform the parts which we ordinary lyric tenors did not sing, [roles such as] Rodolfo in La Bohème, Levko in May Night, Dubrovsky, Fra Diavolo…”

Lemeshev’s emotionality, acting skills and handsomeness very quickly made him a public idol. Aside from the Duke of Mantua, which was his signature role before the war, he brilliantly performed romantic, melancholy and tragic roles such as Werther, Romeo, and Lensky. Here is his 1938 recording of " Pourquoi me reveiller":

Unfortunately, like every Soviet star in the 1930’s, he had problems securing permission to make recordings of complete operas. Several parts in which he was very successful were not recorded at all. His best early recordings of songs and arias, made on shellac, are now available on Youtube. You may consult my channel—"younglemeshevist," or that of petrof4056.

Lensky finally became his most famous role, which he refined throughout his life. His 1955 recording of Eugene Onegin, with the renowned Galina Vishnevskaya , became quite well known in the West. Here is a very good 1937 recording of Lensky’s aria:

The best years of his operatic career were 1931-1942. He was also an outstanding concert singer and a brilliant performer of folk songs. In 1938, he became the first artist to sing all 100 romances by Tchaikovsky in 5 concerts. Folk songs broadcast on the radio made him a truly “national’ singer. Additionally, the film “A Musical Story,” 1941, in which he played the main role, brought him the Stalin prize and caused Lemeshev-mania all over the USSR. It must be said that his personality was a significant part of his success. He is remembered as a very friendly and cheerful person who was also a congenial colleague. He was also quite a lady's man! Six marriages and numerous affairs focused the attention of his fans on his personal life. Their day-and-night stalking and scuffles with fans of other tenors are legendary.

The beginning of the Great Patriotic War (WWII) was crucial for Lemeshev; during one evacuation he caught a very bad cold which resulted in two attacks of pneumonia, complicated by pleurisy and tuberculosis of the right lung. He was treated with artificial pneumothorax, which is to say an induced therapeutic collapse of one lung. Although singing was forbidden, he in fact continued to sing with one lung from 1942 to 1948, when the other lung was also artificially collapsed and re-inflated. During that period he recorded Lakme, The Snowmaiden, “Pearlfishers," and Mozart and Salieri. In addition to health problems, he started to drink heavily after a divorce from his fifth wife, the soprano Irina Maslennikova. By 1953, however, he had overcome his drinking problem and was given the prestigious title "People’s Artist of the USSR." He was also appointed Assistant Manager of the Bolshoi from 1957 to 1959. Toward the end of his career, he mainly gave concerts of Russian classic romances and folk songs, taught in the Moscow conservatory, and performed on the radio. Old fans of his, who stalked him in the 1940's and 50's, are still faithful to him even now, 33 years after his death. They collect his recordings and place flowers on his grave every week.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mattia Battistini: King of The Bel Canto Baritones

Mattia Battistini (1856-1928) was born in Rome and brought up in Contigliano, a village near Rome. His father was a professor of anatomy at Rome University. Mattia showed great talent for music even as a very young man, and was soon sent to study with Venceslao Persichini, who was also the teacher of Francesco Marconi, Titta Ruffo and Giuseppe de Luca. While still a student, he sang in public, and debuted in Donizetti's La Favorita in 1878, where he enjoyed an immediate success. In the next three years he toured Italy and appeared in La Forza del Destino, Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, Il Guarany, Gli Ugonotti, Dinorah, L'Africaine, I Puritani, Lucia di Lammermoor, Aida, and Ernani. To say that he got off to a quick and brilliant start is classic understatement! He enjoyed success wherever he toured, and in 1883 he made his Covent Garden debut. To the best of my knowledge, he never sang in America, which was still, in the European view, a bit on the provincial side of things, as was Australia. He oriented his career in the direction of Eastern Europe; most particularly Imperial Russia, where he was a great favorite, and a friend of the Tsar's family. He returned to Russia regularly for 23 seasons, and made his first recordings there in 1902. The Russian aristocracy acclaimed him above all other singers. His career spanned 50 years, and he was commonly called "The King of Baritones." His reputation was enormous, and his career extraordinarily successful. *

Battistini did not sound like the baritones of today, who are, virtually without exception, verismo singers, with dark, powerful voices that are often not very flexible and tend to a rather monochromatic intensity of volume, well suited to the Verdi and Puccini roles, but perhaps less so to the kinds of romantic operas that were popular in the 19th century. Battistini can sound like a tenor on occasion, but it is simply the open sound and the lightened volume. Because he was a bel canto trained singer, his voice evidences great flexibility and range, and his pronunciation, like that of the bel canto tenors, is extremely clear. Battistini was an intelligent singer, extremely musical by nature, and he took the dramatic end of opera very seriously. He was by all accounts a superb actor, with innumerable costumes that were historically accurate. His Italian is very refined, and the open and closed e's and o's are everywhere observed, and are capable of creating the effect of cultured gentility (if the role is heroic) or explosive vulgarity, if demanded by the role. So great was the esteem in which he was held that Massenet actually re-wrote Werther so that the title role could be sung by Battistini. Here is Werther's famous aria "Pourquoi me reveiller:" Prepare yourselves: first, for a different sounding baritone voice, and secondarily for a re-written aria that only occasionally sounds like the one we all know:

I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto:) This is another world. All the signs of bel canto training are there, right down to the rapid-fire vibrato. One can, however, very quickly get used to it, and that is when the advantages of this kind of singing become apparent—the elegance, the drama, the pronunciation, the style, the musicality. Here is a famous baritone aria that makes for good comparison with today's singing style: Valentine's "Avant de quitter ses lieux:" (Please notice his costumes, for which he was renowned)

I find this rendition to be particularly engaging. The singing, from a musical and stylistic point of view, is absolutely perfect, and his voice is most communicative. This is singing of great authenticity and elegance.

Good as his rendition of music from this period is, it becomes even better when we move back to Mozart's time. Here is Don Giovanni's serenade, which is a perfect showcase for Battistini's particular talents.  This recording is from 1902, and is one of his very first:

Simply delightful! And I always feel obliged to point out that Mozart died in 1791, only 65 years before Battistini was born. This means that at least some of the teachers he would have had at the conservatory would have been born very close to Mozart's day, and would themselves have been trained by people absolutely from that period. It makes sense to think that the styles of Mozart's time were still well known. After all, we are very much aware of the musical comedy styles and practices of Richard Rogers' work from the 1940's.

Traditionally, styles and vogues come, and displace former ones, which can easily be forgotten. Happily, however, photos and phonograph recordings, now representing a considerable history themselves, are here to remind us that today's styles are not eternal, and in the case of opera, historical material shows that musical and vocal styles near or at the time of the opera's composition—which were certainly in the minds of the composers as they wrote—tell us another story.

• I would like to acknowledge the diligent work of Tim, at dantitustimshu, who provided the material that made this essay possible. Tim is one of the most serious musical historians and collectors on Youtube, and I am greatly indebted to him for the biographical references and pictures, and the playlist from which the musical selections were taken. I refer readers to his channel, which is a brilliant collection of historical material. I also alert the interested reader to a classic reference site for biographical material: "Cantabile-Subito: A Site for Collectors of Great Singers of the Past" (