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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fernando de Lucia: A Unique Window Onto 19th Century Vocalism

Fernando De Lucia's generally accepted date of birth is 1860, in Naples. He studied voice at the Naples Music Conservatory and made his operatic debut at the Teatro de San Carlo, as Faust, at the age of 25. His climb through the small houses in Italy and early engagements abroad (Spain and South America) follow the by-now familiar path of so many Italian singers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the beginning, he sang the lyric tenor repertoire for which his voice seemed particularly suited; operas such La Sonnambula, The Barber of Seville, and La Traviata. He sang in the tradition of bel canto tenors before him, and his vocalism per se was not all that different from the vocalism of other bel canto tenors of the time They all sang in a way that incorporates, virtually in their totality, the principles of singing laid down by Manuel García in his famous study, L'Art du Chant.

De Lucia's career straddled the cusp of a major divide in operatic history. Clearly trained in bel canto, he found, mid-career, that new operas, of the so-called verismo school, were starting to attract a lot of public attention. De Lucia had already, by his early thirties, become a famous tenor in Italy, and was sought out by composers. He created the role of Fritz in Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz in 1891, and, the following year, was part of the original cast of Mascagni's I Rantzau, an opera that never really got off the ground. He soon got on board with Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, and his Canio was much applauded. He went on, in coming years, to do Rigoletto, Tosca , and Cavallería. I mention these because it is clear that, even though trained in bel canto singing, and with a very flexible voice capable of near-coloratura singing, he managed to take advantage of the new verismo , and make quite a good impression in those roles. I seriously doubt if he changed his singing style one bit to do the bigger operas, relying almost certainly on a new set of mannerisms, more melodramatic in nature.

Happily for us today, De Lucia made a huge number of recordings at a very early time, and, whatever roles he may have sung in public, and whatever "school" of operatic theater was uppermost at any given time, the fact is that it is by his recordings he is known, and they reveal a singing style that is fascinating, and provides a nearly unique window on a lost era of singing; lost because even though much of bel canto has survived, and is still appreciated, this cannot be said of its highly individualized excesses. That much is gone forever.

So,to the core of the matter. Here is 1904 recording of "Ecco ridente in cielo." Almaviva was one of the roles for which De Lucia was famous, and the following is one of the most extraordinary recordings of tenor singing ever made. The fioratura is so remarkable that it almost defies belief. Be sure to listen to the video until the very end, as it is toward the end that De Lucia presents his amazing vocal display:

Isn't that amazing? It is made possible by a vocal production that creates an extremely rapid vibrato. A very good coloratura soprano once explained to me that the trick, with that kind of fioratura, is to synchronize the notes of the coloratura passage with the vibrato of the voice, so that the voice rides on the crest of the cadenza, as it were, through the agency of the vibrato. It certainly works here. I know of no contemporary tenor who could do this, although there probably are some. As pure vocal display, which was much prized in the 19th century, (as it still is by many today) this was both acceptable and praiseworthy. It must be remembered that De Lucia's reputation was great in his day. It was an honest gesture on his part to make these recordings. I for one greatly enjoy listening to them, and I know from my correspondence that I am far from alone.

Here is De Lucia singing the very difficult "Siciliana," from Cavalleria Rusticana, in a 1902 recording:

What I find interesting here is that Cavalleria is one of the warhorses of the verismo reprtoire, along with I Pagliacci, and De Lucia, based on the clear evidence of these recordings, approached the arias in vocally consistent ways. The rapid-fire vibrato is there, the elongated phrases, the diminuendos, the portamenti, and so on. It would seem that he relied on acting ability, and a dark shading of the voice, which he seemed able to do effectively, to carry off these intense dramatic roles. It was art, and not barrel-chested belting, that did the job. Most interesting.

Finally, a Neapolitan song. He was a lifelong son of Naples, and was greatly admired there. He knew many of the composers around Naples in his day, and it is very likely that at least some of the songs were written either for De Lucia, or at least with him in mind. I choose the following, the famous "Fenesta ca lucive," because it is a very dark, sad and brooding song, and I think reinforces the idea that his mastery of color and mood may be the major factor in his ability to have been so successful in verismo operas. To help understand, here is the first verse, in essence:

No light in the window?
Is my love sick.?
I asked her sister, and no!
My girl is dead! And Buried!
She slept alone too long...and cried so much.
Now she sleeps with the dead!

Not much I can add to that!

I cannot think of another tenor quite like Fernando de Lucia. Everything about his singing bespeaks a bygone era. He was unique, and his vocalism was extraordinary; very much sui generis, to be sure, but clearly founded in very early bel canto. Through his many recordings, all of very early date, we have the opportunity to visit 19th century Italian singing as if we were actually there! This is a very rare privilege!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Roberta Peters: The American Nightingale

When she retired from opera in 1985, the great American coloratura soprano Roberta Peters had been a leading principal female singer at the Metropolitan Opera longer than anyone in the company's long history. Peters was born in New York in 1930, and was discovered by her life-long mentor, patron and friend Jan Peerce when she was still a teen-ager. Rudolf Bing was convinced to listen to her when she was scarcely more than a girl, and made her sing "Der Hölle Rache" 7 times (!) from the stage of the Met, while he went from place to place in the house to make sure he could hear her from any location! Only Bing. He need not have worried. Her voice, like that of Amelita Galli-Curci and Lily Pons, her artistic predecessors, sailed right over the top of the orchestra in true, traditional coloratura fashion.

Impressed, Bing gave her a contract to sing the Queen of the Night in Magic Flute, in early 1951. However, as sometimes happens in live theater, she was called upon to replace Nadine Conner as Zerlina in a Don Giovanni scheduled almost immediately. She was 20 years old and, I am quite certain, terrified, since she had never performed the role. Worse, the conductor was Fritz Reiner, before whom mere mortals trembled. I cannot image a more frightening prospect for a girl barely 20 years old. However, showing the stuff she was made of, and winning Reiner over, to the amazement of all, she did it. Her unscheduled debut as Zerlina in November of 1950 was a huge success, with Reiner carefully guiding her through the performance. That night, in storybook fashion, a star was born.

Roberta Peters went on to sing nearly 500 performances at the Met, in 24 roles, including Queen of the Night, Rosina, Gilda (her most often performed role), Despina, Sophie, Adele, Lucia and Norina. She knew her repertoire, and she mastered it. More importantly, she stayed within it. Like her friend Jan Peerce, she was extremely sensible and knew how to take care of her gift so that it would last and last.

I have to admit to being an unabashed admirer of Roberta Peters, and I always have been. I was privileged to meet her and work with her at one time (in a fund-raising capacity) and I was very, very much impressed with her dignity, grace, and willingness to promote the fine arts in America. She and Peerce shared this love of art and willingness to support and propagate it. She was a very busy concert singer, and—again like Peerce—made it a point to go out into the country in places that were far from major cultural centers. It was always possible to hear her, either on television, or in concert venue. This is one of the many reasons that she and Peerce were two of the most popular and beloved classical singers of all time in this country.

Here is the famous aria that Mr. Bing had her sing repeatedly at her audition, and which she went on to sing many times in her life, "Der Hölle Rache":

Now THAT is coloratura singing of an extraordinarily high order! The seeming ease with which she sings the F above high C is simply astonishing. This is a true coloratura in the grand tradition. The voice is clear as it can be, the notes are precisely articulated, squarely on pitch, with no scooping or unauthorized portamentos, up or down, and—perhaps most importantly—no sense whatsoever of strain or pushing in a piece that requires such very high singing. It is immaculately pure and natural vocalism.

One of the problems Peters had to confront during her career was the fact that Joan Sutherland, admittedly one of the great voices of all time, seemed dedicated to singing this repertoire with a voice that was markedly dramatic and heavy for such roles. Peters should never have been compared to Sutherland. It's apples and oranges—the voices are in no way similar, and, Sutherland admirer that I am, I nonetheless must say that tradition is on the side of Peters. She naturally follows Pons, who naturally followed Galli-Curci. There is an unbroken string of coloratura tradition in which Peters fits perfectly. The aberration is Sutherland, whose astonishing voice made it possible to forgive all that was out of place—her size, looks, singing technique that made it impossible to say what language she was singing in; all these things were forgiven, and seen as nothing. Opera at that period had become a purely vocal art. I do not criticize the Great Sutherland in the least, I just point out the obvious.

Here is Peters in the charming aria "Je veux vivre," from Romeo and Juliet

To the words "immaculate," "elegant," "musical," and "traditional," add "perky" and just plain "cute." She looks like a coloratura, which is nice, considering the roles written for such voices.

Finally, the great test for all coloraturas, and a show-stopper if ever there was one, the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor:

I have seldom heard it done better. Even more words of praise enter the discussion at this point, and I am inspired to say "dignity of conceptualization." This particular scene has inspired a considerable amount of carpet chewing among singers of less innate dignity and restraint than Peters. It is this quality, with which she imbues all her work, that elevates it above merely "good work." It is inspired work; art that looks inward and can embrace dramatic situations of the most heart-rending kind and make them something larger, something that moves in the direction of tragic rather than simply sad or heart-breaking. In a word, toward greatness in art.

She was an amazingly good singer, and remains a great lady of opera.