Sunday, November 28, 2010
Florence Quartararo: A Great Singer Forgotten
It was not fully a month ago when I heard my first recording of Florence Quartararo. It was Handel's "Care Selve." It was as though someone had touched me with a live electrical wire. It was one of the most thrilling things I have heard in a long time. I was not the only one: that recording, posted on Youtube by "addiobelpassato," set off an instant flurry of activity, and I believe every song she ever recorded (sadly, not many) is now up on Youtube. I had to know more about this lady with the glorious voice. Her story turns out to be a rather sad one, although not tragic.
For this article, I asked the help of Mr. Tim Shu (dantitustimshu), one of the very best musical scholars posting on Youtube. What follows is his capsule summary of her life and (short) career, for which I am most grateful. Tim credits his own source, record producer/archivist Richard Caniell, a friend of Quartararo's, and the man responsible for getting her recordings out to the public. Tim goes on:
[Florence Quartararo] was born to music loving Italian parents living in the San Francisco Bay area. Gaetano Merola, head and chief conductor of the San Francisco Opera, was present at her baptism (Merola was a friend of her mother's brother.) She developed an interest in singing in her childhood, her idol being Claudia Muzio, whom she saw in Traviata at the SF opera. She went to the opera as a standee whenever Muzio sang. She also admired Ponselle, Rethberg, Gigli, Schipa, Bergioli and Martinelli, all of whom also sang in San Francisco. Through friends, she eventually met Bing Crosby, who auditioned her and put her on his Kraft Music Hall program, under the stage name of Florence Alba, where she appeared four times in 1945.
In that same year, she was called upon to replace Helen Traubel in a concert conducted by Otto Klemperer. Earle Lewis, Treasurer of the box office at the Met, happened to be in the audience, and he arranged for her to have an audition with the great conductor Bruno Walter. The session impressed Walter so much that he recommended her to the Met's General Manager Edward Johnson, who saw to it that she received the Caruso Award to fund her studies, as well as a Met contract. She made her Met debut in the role of Micaela in Carmen, in 1946.
She went on to sing 37 performances at the Met in 9 roles—Elvira in Don Giovanni, Violetta, Micaela, the Flower Maiden in Parsifal, Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, the Countess in Figaro, Nedda in Pagliacci, Pamina in the Magic Flute, and Desdemona in Otello. She sang with great conductors, including Bruno Walter and Fritz Busch, both of whom admired her greatly. Her performance as Desdemona brought her to the attention of Arturo Toscanini, who telephoned her personally and invited her to sing the role in his NBC broadcast of Otello. She auditioned for Toscanini and the maestro was greatly impressed, but the Met was unable to release her from its performance schedule to attend Toscanini's intensive rehearsals.
Her marriage to Italian bass Italo Tajo, whom she met during a performance of Gianni Schicchi, and the birth of a daughter, led to the end of her three year career.
I would only add to Tim's summary that she and Tajo seemed to agree that one opera singer in the family was enough, a personal decision unfortunately common enough in the day, but sad by today's standards, and a great loss to the world of music.
Here is the recording that started the recent flurry, and impressed me so greatly: "Care Selve," from Handel's Atalanta:
I still get chills every time I hear this aria! What a voice! There is an immediacy, a passionate intensity, and a vibrancy in the voice that is just amazing. Her top is wonderful, but there is, in addition, a near mezzo-like, or perhaps more accurately a dramatic Ponselle-like cover and "chest register" richness of tone that just goes through one like an arrow. An absolutely magnificent voice. I realize that arias of this genre—and age—are commonly sung in an ethereal way that comes close to hypnotic crooning, but there is no reason at all to think that they must be sung that way. A great voice is a law unto itself. Even if that were not the case, however, there is no denying her instinctive musicality that takes her directly to the core of the song.
Here is a more nearly modern classic, an aria widely performed and known, and generally well loved, "Un bel dì," from Madama Butterfly [This selection is a radio transcription, of uneven quality, but listenable. You might need to turn the volume up a bit. Also, you will need to click the following link to play it...I cannot embed this particular aria]:
Absolutely beautiful! Once again, the emotional intensity, the vibrancy, the sure musical instincts, all take her to the very heart of this tragic aria. This is a piece where the ending must triumph, because it carries the double burden, emotionally, of being a child's hopes for love coupled with an extreme vulnerability; two things that in combination set the stage for a horrible and heart-rending tragedy. Quartararo understands this, and she brings out in no uncertain terms the aria's full power.
Finally, another very famous aria that shows just how great Quartararo's potential for the big Verdi operas was, "Tacea la notte," from Il Trovatore.":
Despite her relative youth, this ranks among the top renditions of this aria! It is all there: the color, the Italianate richness of the voice, the flexibility, and once again the sure musical and stylistic instincts that go to the very core of this Verdi classic. A great singer. Period. Perhaps now, after all these years, at least some recognition will be forthcoming for a wonderful Italian American talent sadly destined to be so briefly before the public.
at 10:57 AM