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!
at 2:11 PM