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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Alessandro Bonci: A Bel Canto Master

Alessandro Bonci was born in Cesena, in the Italian historical district of Romagna, in 1870. Apprenticed in youth to a shoemaker, he showed musical interest and talent, and was able to secure a music scholarship at the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro. His first studies were with Carlo Pedrotti, with whom the great Francesco Tamagno had also studied. Bonci's training was traditional bel canto, and it was this style of singing that characterized his artistic work throughout his career. He was part of the last generation of bel canto singers, and his career overlapped the verismo school of singing most notably represented by Caruso, who was rising as an international star during the latter part of Bonci's career.

Bonci's debut was in Parma in 1896, as Fenton in Falstaff. By he end of his first professional year, he had already been engaged by La Scala, where he debuted in I Puritani, an opera with which he quickly became identified. His rise was near meteoric. He went on very quickly to the major houses of Europe, including Covent Garden in 1900. His American debut was with the Manhattan Opera Company, where he found himself in a kind of direct competition with Enrico Caruso, who was singing at the Met. He went on to enjoy a major career in all the important houses, both here and abroad, until he retired in 1925, at the age of 55, dedicating himself to teaching and concertizing.

Without question, Bonci was an elegant and well schooled bel canto tenor. His early career was in the 19th century, and his singing exemplified the tastes of that period. As mentioned, he was particularly identified with the bel canto repertoire, especially the works of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. Here is the great tenor aria "A te, o cara, " from Bellini's I Puritani:

An absolutely elegant and lovely example of bel canto tenor singing! The purity of the voice, the stylistic finesse, the easy top—where he picks a high C right out of the air, on a diminished tone, and pulls it out in a long crescendo! Not many tenors can do that! Everything about this rendition has authenticity stamped upon it. There is no doubt in my mind that Bellini would have been very pleased, and would have been likely to say "Yes! That is exactly what I had in mind."

There is a most interesting video on Youtube that has an old piece of video footage; a short conversation by some New York Italian-Americans, in a Mr. Luigi Rossi's grocery store, talking at one point about Bonci, and how he compared—in their minds, at least—with Caruso. This speaks tomes about bel canto versus verismo in the "popular" mind. The conversation begins at 2:40 on the following video; it should be possible, if you have a fairly fast download, to move the radio button forward to that point:

Isn't that interesting? The audience for opera is clearly changing, and the refinements of the previous century are not much appreciated by these gentlemen, obviously, compared to the more "real" and down-to-earth presentation by Caruso. Granted, Caruso was a very great tenor, and enthusiasm for him is entirely understandable, but the important thing here is that to these men, Bonci seems to sound effete. Never mind that he was portraying the Duke of Mantua, a foppish nobleman of the Renaissance. Those considerations seem not to be important to them. In other words, opera is becoming a purely vocal art.

It would be interesting to put these observations to the test. It so happens that Bonci recorded "La Donna è Mobile":

Bellini in Verdi-land? Perhaps. In any case, it is an unusual opportunity to see and reflect upon the passing of bel canto in favor of verismo. The Caruso recording is easily found, and can be compared. Probably most know it. It is very much more declamatory (and loud) and the famous cadenza at the end is included, including the roof-raising B natural. It is not really possible—or prudent—to pronounce on the superiority or inferiority of one versus the other. They are just two different worlds. They don't blend, and one has very little to say to the other. Apples and oranges.

In any case, we should not judge Bonci by the standards of verismo any more than we should judge Caruso by the standards of bel canto. Here, finally, is Bonci in a piece that is absolutely appropriate, squarely in the bel canto repertoire, "Spirto gentil," from Donizetti's La Favorita:

A lovely and elegant rendition of a beautiful piece of music! There is so much about 19th century opera and its fashions that was right. I for one think it is well worth preserving. Bel canto is certainly not is still there, and we can name a long list of singers who adhere even today to its essential principles. The sensible thing to say, I suppose, is let's have both. There is plenty of room. Let's just not swamp the repertoire of one with singers who clearly belong to the other. That would solve a myriad of problems!


JD Hobbes said...

Thanks for posting this one. I was not familiar with Bonci. I really like his rendtion of "La Donna e Mobile." I have never heard it sung this way, and the rapid vibratto adds much to the playful nature of the aria.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much! I find your reaction to the piece as done by Bonci to be most interesting. We have become so used to the brio performance of the aria, we tend to be taken aback by more subtle approaches. Yes, this is something to ponder. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. Without doubt he was a great singer – such effortlessness and beauty of the timbre. It seems that all the famous bel canto singers were ‘virtuosi’ .
I loved his version of ‘ La donna e mobile’. Bel canto arias are excellent, of course.
In general I love the old manner of singing with fast vibrato and flowing freely sound. To my taste it is not as dated as it may seem. It would be great to hear both schools of singing in modern theaters – bel canto and verismo (if it is possible). Modern performers can put their corrections into the old manner and intonations, but effortlessness and plasticity of sound is a necessary thing.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Very well said! Yes, I absolutely agree with experience with this blog, and the sampling of opinion among devotees that it provides, leads me to think that there are many out there who would agree. I enjoy the sound of a fast vibrato myself; in fact, that is one of the things students of the violin are taught early on--to learn how to make a vibrato so that the sound more nearly represents the quality of a human voice, and is not a steady drone. At the moment, the enthusiasm for ancient music is taking the form of the restoration of 18th century opera, and the male alto. Which is fact, it's great. Something like 80% of the operatic music ever written was written before 1800, so the field is huge. That is very good news; even better news would be the authentic restoration of bel canto opera and late 19th century singing styles. Thanks for a characteristically excellent comment!

Darren Seacliffe said...

The more younglemeshevist or Natalie comments about opera, I confess I feel more intrigued about her operatic tastes and inclinations.
It doesn't quite fit with the info she gives about herself on the channel.

To get back to Alessandro Bonci, I've listened to all three videos here and more and I've this to say. There's something curious about this singer I'd like to point out.

In most bel canto arias I've listened to, there's always the quiet sentimental buildup and the climax where the singer shows off his high notes and his ability to navigate the treacherous coloratura with his technique. A cavatina-like moment at the beginning which builds up to be something like a cabaletta at the end.

Bonci, in the two bel canto aria videos seems to be much better in the buildup than in the climax. When you hear him in the buildup, the beauty of voice, the finesse of his singing style and the effortlessness of his technique is something which many of the later tenors in the tenore di grazia tradition can't surpass. It's more beautiful than the young Di Stefano, Bjorling, Schipa and even Gigli but when it comes to the high notes, I feel disappointed.

His high notes seems forced and he seems to be under quite a bit of strain when he delivers them. I can't discern any sweetness of tone or effortlessness in technique from them. The voice is coarse and the technique's under pressure.

The beauty of tone and the effortless voice production is one thing but I don't think strained and forced high notes is a part of the bel canto tradition. Speaking of the bel canto tradition, I feel that at times we need to define it. Is it the tradition of Rubini and Nouritt, the tenor able to sing high notes effortlessly with a saccharine beauty of voice..the cooing sound, simply put? Or is it the tradition of Donzelli and Duprez, in which the high notes are delivered off the chest?

If what I read is correct, there seems to be quite a difference between the 2 traditions. How do we define bel canto in this case? The way of singing in its early days, when Rossini and Bellini composed their operas for singers like Nouritt and Rubini or the way of singing in its later days, when Donizetti composed for Duprez and others. We might have an idea of how the singing tradition of Duprez sounds like since Duprez left disciples and singers during his time and after tended to sing taking after his manner but we will never have an inkling of Rubini's or Nourritt's tradition unless we hear modern-day bel canto singers delivering the notes in the operas written for them with the exact pitch and frequency like Pavarotti. Pavarotti might be singing in Duprez's manner but we can imagine how Rubini would sound like..Pavarotti's technique with the beauty and effortlessness of Gigli. With reference to Bonci, I think Bonci sounds more like Duprez than Rubini.

As for other factors of his singing, I feel Bonci's a good singer. He sings with as much emotion and feeling as the great singers did after him. That might be the reason why I didn't find it easy to like him. I can't help thinking that the reason why Bonci is seen as great is because he was one of the earliest singers able to sing in a way that the great singers we take for granted do. If he had lived in Martinelli's time, things might have been very different.

I might be an ardent listener of bel canto opera and Rossini but I have a preference towards the later bel-canto stylists like Lauri-Volpi and Schipa compared to the earlier ones like Bonci and de Lucia. I understand that this comment's considerably heretical but I hope that these honest feelings of mine can be stomached. The reasoning I give for these comments might be amateurish but it's the best I can come up with at this level.

Edmund StAustell said...

Your comment is most interesting, in fact, and I see what it is you are talking about. As you yourself mention, some consideration needs to be given to the extreme age of these recordings. None of them is less than 105 years old. It is possible that they are best compared to recordings of similar age, let us say Bonci against De Lucia. Much of the interest in very old recordings has to do with music history, and the history of style and vocal production. It's an open window, as it were, onto the 19th century. And I think you are right that many bel canto singers would probably fare poorly against great 20th century tenors such as Lauri Volpi. I personally consider Lauri Volpi the greatest bel canto tenor of them all, and generally one of the greatest tenors of all time, period. So, no argument there! Thanks for a well written and incisive comment. Very impressive, and I will think about merits pondering! Thanks again, Edmund

Darren Seacliffe said...

Oh no,not at all,I think I must be the one who has to thank you for allowing me to express my views here.

Well,actually,as I said earlier,I feel that the bel canto singers might give us an idea of voice production and singing style during the 19th century but we can't really say that they give us a true idea of what bel canto is really about as they take more after the later bel canto stylists like Duprez rather than the true earlier bel canto stylists like Nourritt and Rubini.

Speaking of bel canto singers, is Bonci part of the earliest generation of singers we have on record? If I remember correctly, there were some singers before him who have left behind records such as Francesco Marconi. Can we classify Fernando Valero, Francesco Vignas, Francesco Tamagno among the earlier generation or among the same generation?

Hmm..can we describe Martinelli as a bel canto tenor? I prefer him to Lauri-Volpi. Lauri-Volpi's a great singer but I feel he's not in consistent voice. Martinelli's more consistent.

DanPloy said...

'He [Bonci] is the last great tenor - in the sense of the linear purity of sound - of whom Italy could boast. (Lauri Volpi, Voci parallele, 1955).

In my experience this type of voice is not captured very well by the recordings of the time.

Edmund StAustell said...

To the best of my knowledge, Martinelli is not usually considered a bel canto tenor. His was a very open sound, and the voice was not all that flexible. Perhaps it was mainly a matter of repertoire..Martinelli was a master of the big roles, the ones more commonly associated with verismo singing.

DanPloy said...

I agree that Martinelli is not thought of as a bel canto singer but I believe that is more to do with his choice of roles, or perhaps the roles with which he is most associated and his expressive singing of those roles.

Martinelli himself has talked of his difficulty in hitting the final note of Celeste Aida as written, diminuendo, although few tenors capable of doing justice to that role can do that - I can think of only Jon Vickers and Carlo Bergonzi. He was certainly not one to 'trill', but to me that embellishment actually takes away from the drama of the opera - and bel canto operas certainly have as much drama as any verismo opera, (there is a hint of a 'trill' in the love duet from Otello).

However, to hear his singing of the Nile Scene from Aida with Rosa Ponselle; well surely there we have the definition of bel canto, beautiful singing.

Edmund StAustell said...

You make a very good point. If we take the phrase "bel canto" in its general meaning, then certainly beautiful singing is to be found, and appreciated, in many places, even--perhaps especially--among those not generally thought of as exemplars of the vocal school of the same name. Great comment, thank you!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Hmm..I would agree with DanPloy.

If I remember correctly, bel canto is a style of singing in which the beauty of the singing voice plays a greater importance than the dramatics of the singing. An elegant, sweet toned, refined way of singing rather than the coloratura which we normally associate with the bel canto operas. Perhaps because Martinelli was more associated with late 'Verdi' and verismo, he was seen more as a verismo singer than a bel canto singer.

However, if one hears his singing approach to late 'Verdi' and verismo, I feel that his style is more similar to Lauri-Volpi than Pertile. Listen to these two performances of the same aria and you'll see what I mean. (Lauri-Volpi's take)
(Pertile's take)

Speaking of bel canto opera,initially I thought that Martinelli, as a verismo and a late-Verdi specialist,wouldn't have been able to sing bel canto opera. After realising that he sang those operas like Lauri-Volpi, I listened to him in his bel canto opera performances. Surprisingly, he could sing those roles as well as Lauri-Volpi did. Imagine if he chose to sing the bel canto repertoire as much as the late-Verdi and verismo repertoire, he would probably have been labelled under the same category as Lauri-Volpi. I wonder why he didn't go into these roles more often. I believe he will have done well in them.

This is the reason that made me think Martinell was a bel canto tenor: his performance of Arnoldo from Guglielmo Tell (Lauri-Volpi's version)
(Martinelli's version)

Aren't these two versions surprisingly similar?
What do you think?

Edmund StAustell said...

There certainly is no question about the two indicated selections being spectcular examples of brilliant singing! I know what you mean. Listening to the two renditions of "O Muto Asil" shows a particualr approach to singing that was perhaps best codified by Fernando de Lucia, who was George Thill's teacher. He gave Thill a simple precept. Putting all four fingers of one hand together, and inserting them vertically in his own mount, he said to Thill, "Maestro! Per cantare bene, bisogna aprire la bocca!!" And he was right. And he was a great bel canto tenor. This is what both Lauri Volpi and Martinelli do: They open their mouths very wide, while at the same time covering slightly in the passaggio (around F natural) and the result is that ringing squillo which is so exciting and which audiences just love in the tenor voice. I think what we hear in both could be codified simply as good singing technique. Both had extremely long careers, a remarkable number of good years vocally, always healthy, always able to do any roles they wanted to. That is what I hear, and it's wonderful!

Gioacchino Florio-Maragioglio said...

I am interested that many speak of the bel canto and the verismo as to distinct and discrete things, when (at least) in Italy this is not the case.

At San Carlo, in the 1950s, I had the fun of going to the theatre to see Mario Filippeschi, the sword-voiced tenor, singing roles from Arturo in "Puritani" (I hope those are the proper English title marks, if no, forgive me) to things like Canio and Mario Cavaradossi. Gianni Raimondi, too, would sing the Fernando of "Favorita" one night and the aforementioned Cavaradossi the next.

Filippeschi and Raimondi and many others too their Donizetti and Bellini with their Verdi and Puccini, singing in the same style of the time.

For example, Filippeschi, singing as Arturo, did not make the role in the way we see the great Salvatore Fisichella, and I know see his style was rather pedestrian, but those fearless attacks on the high notes, time and time again, even after three acts, thrilled us and the house, even the hardest critics, made grand applause.

I fear I don't explain well. I am trying to explain that, when I see an opera, whether it be bel canto or verismo, I go to see it because it is real opera, in the stage for its own merits. When I saw Filippeschi singing Arturo, "Puritani" was not staged because it was a bel canto opera: it was showed because it could hold it's position in the repertoire along the side of anything else: opera buffa, dramma per musica, verismo, bel canto.

In present times, I fear, sometimes the bel canto (or any genere) opera is staged and admired because it is bel canto, not because of its own merit.

Although, Mr St Austell, the fine point you make, I consider this arises because around the time of Bonci and Caruso, the opera started to become a more vocal centered art.

Edmund StAustell said...

Yes, there is much you say that sounds right to me--The case of Filippeschi and Fisichella is particularly interesting. For some reason, neither of these great tenors sang in America, to the best of my knowledge, and are virtually unknown by many opera-goers here. This is a shame, because they were wonderful. I have recently posted several of their recordings on my channel, and people are generally very impressed when they hear them. The whole "bel canto" versus "verismo" issue is a vexed one, and I think that probably your are right--we make too much of it. Great and well trained "bel canto" tenors like Lauri Volpi and Thill could (and did) sing a very wide range of repertoire. Corelli, while he did not stray very far from his big, money-making roles such as Andrea Chenier, Manrico, Rhadames, and so on, could, at least in selected arias, sound very convincing, as in "A te, o cara," for example, or "Bianca al par di neve alpina." So, yes, the more I think about it, the more I think you are right.

Gioacchino Florio-Maragioglio said...

Thank you, sir. And Corelli, you are correct. I went to La Scala for "Gli Ugonotti" with Corelli and Sutherland, with my father. Thirty years earlier, he had been to the Arena di Verona for Gli Ugonotti with Lauri-Volpi. After the first act, Babbo told me that Corelli was like Lauri-Volpi: not the same, or as good, but similar.

Corelli is not given the respect he deserves. Corelli was not del Monaco, that is sure! He was more musically sensitive, and he understood the different between the heroic tenor (Thill, Lauri-Volpi) and the modern dramatic tenor (Giacomini, del Monaco).

Corelli was the mix of the two, a very interesting man. If he had a better upper register, he would have been able to be an proper heroic tenor, but four of the note D5 in performances with Gencer and Callas, is not enough, for me, as compared to Thill and Lauri-Volpi, who had easier access to the top.

But a question, Mr St Austell, you perhaps know the answer, as Corelli sung more in America. Did you ever hear his Otello concert?

I have thought always that Corelli was wise not to sing in Otello, but I know many people who disagree. What do you think?

Edmund StAustell said...

I am sorry to say that I did not have the chance to see his Otello concert. While I cannot speak with authority, not having seen him do anything from Otello, I tend to believe that you are right. Corelli was a great tenor, much beloved in America for his Andrea Chenier, Manrico, Rhadames, Calaf, and so on, but he still was not a dramatic tenor in the truest sense of the word, like Del Monaco or, especially, Giuseppe Giacomini, who. I personaly think Giacomini was the greatest dramatic tenor of the 20th century. I have boundless admiration for him. His Otello was spectacular. So yes, this is one instance where Corelli, who was essentially a spinto, could not really compete with Giacomini.

Gioacchino Florio-Maragioglio said...

Ah, you like the Otello of Giuseppe Giacomini? Did you ever hear Lauritz Melchior sing Otello? That was was thrilling experience!!!! The power of that man's voice. And yet the refinement.

Edmund St.Austell said...

Yes! I have some recordings of Melchior singing selections from Otello. And you are right...he was wonderful!

Anonymous said...

OH Bonci had a very lovely voice...THanks for this posting.