Sunday, October 2, 2011
José Carreras: A Voice of Extraordinary Beauty
In 1970 he appeared as Flavio in Norma; a very small first role, but one which caught the attention of the great Monserrat Caballé, who heard gold in the young voice. In the same year, under her patronage, he sang opposite her as Gennaro in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. Carreras proved his patroness to have been right! He was a great hit from the beginning, and his career skyrocketed. The golden voice was unmistakable, and international debuts followed in rapid succession: London, Italy, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Vienna; all within a period of 4 years. He was on his way to greatness, in operas such as Bohème, Butterfly, Traviata, Rigoletto, and Tosca. He also did Ballo—possibly a questionable choice, because it is a very big role for the tenor, well into the spinto repertoire, and at this stage Carreras' voice was what might be called a robust lyric. By his own admission, the very top of the tenor range was not at all easy for him, while the middle was especially beautiful. This may have led many to believe that he was really a spinto verging on dramatic, but that of course would only exacerbate the difficult top, since so much more energy was being put into the middle and upper-middle registers. In a word, it's a short path to becoming a Bb tenor. However, that was not in evidence at the beginning of the career, when there seemed to be plenty of range to sing at least a good B natural, enough for virtually all the bread and butter Italian and French repertoire, where the arias containing a high C are often sung down a half tone. (Except perhaps in Italy, where a tenor can on occasion be booed for transposing a famous aria.) Recording contracts followed, and by the late 70's, José Carreras was internationally famous, and enjoying one of the great careers of the 20th century.
Here is the young Carreras, in 1973, singing one of his most popular early roles, the Duke of Mantua. The aria is beautifully sung generally, and the extraordinary beauty of Carreras' voice is very winning, and immediately makes his character sympathetic, even in the case of very flawed and unpleasant characters such as the Duke. Also, and importantly, the high B at the end is solid at this point in his career, and is clearly a bit hit with the audience.
That is truly superb! It is a world-class rendition, and a clear announcement to one and all that a new great tenor has arrived on the scene. This is what I would call the true Carreras voice. I am not alone in wishing that he had restricted himself to this kind of lyric repertoire as long as possible. But that was not the case. Like many, many tenors before, the lure of the big tragic, dramatic roles was calling, and Manrico, Chenier, Rhadames and Canio were on the way. By the late 70's and early 80's, the problem with the top of the voice was becoming self-evident. The attractive beauty of the voice, however, was such that his fame was still intact. Here is a Rhadames from 1979, six years later:
The coming trouble, as I say, is evident. The top notes in this aria are only Bb's. This is hardly more than the top of the range of many good baritones, yet notice the effort, and the change in quality from the middle to the top notes. They are not quite in line. He hops off the final Bb so quickly that the audience is confused and starts to applaud too early and has to clap again after the orchestra finishes. Almost all spinto and dramatic tenors take a big breath and hold on to that note as long as possible, ending with the orchestra if possible for the big applause cue, which seldom fails to bring a huge hand from the audience. Many conductors will help them by speeding up the tempo at the end. That just doesn't happen here—it is a weak and disappointing ending to the aria. Yes, I know that Verdi wrote a pianissimo note here, to end in a wistful, dreamy way as Rhadames dreams of his beloved Aida. But realistically that doesn't happen in performance. The triumphal chord progression in the orchestra begs for triumphalism in the voice as well.
Toward the latter part of his career, Carreras began to shift his emphasis from opera to the concert stage, where he could choose songs and arias that favored the strongest part of his beautiful voice—the middle—and avoided the highest notes, which had become too difficult. He recorded West Side Story and South Pacific, and was fond of singing "Tonight," from West Side Story, with different sopranos, but I feel this was largely a failed effort. Simply the wrong choice. It is almost impossible for the classically trained foreign operatic tenor to transition to any kind of Broadway tunes, even one where the character being portrayed is a dialect character. The over-blown cover and vowel formation always make the young lover character sound too old to be taken seriously. And also, the best Broadway tenors—John Raitt is a good example—simply do not cover. It just isn't an acceptable English language sound in music any longer. That day (Victorian fin-de-siècle) is long gone. It sounds too foreign. Where Carreras did excel was in Neapolitan songs, something squarely within the Latin tenor fach. Here is an interesting video, introduced by considerable pre-song applause and an introduction by Carreras himself, in English, of "Core 'ngrato." Very beautiful, and well received, even though the Bb at the end, while acceptable, is strained and seems to be nearly out of his range at this point.
I think it is important to end by reiterating that Carreras was a great tenor. There just isn't any doubt about that. I don't mean to overplay the vocal problems. He knew from the beginning—and was honest about it—that the top was not easily produced. But just consider for a moment what he actually did during his career in spite of that! The voice was extraordinarily beautiful, and won him much attention and affection from his vast audience. He was a handsome man who acted well and convincingly, and he sang with great passion. His repertoire was huge, and he became very famous. He even struggled with—and conquered—leukemia and its debilitating effects and never—ever—lost the affection of his fans. To fuss unduely about the odd Bb or B natural is ultimately over-pedantic. This was a great singer, a great performer, and an admirable individual. He deserves all the attention he has received!
at 1:30 PM