Sunday, October 30, 2011
Licia Albanese: Vocal Melodrama
Like so many Italian singers of her day who were destined for a major career, progress came quickly. Italy's system of regional theaters has always presented wonderful opportunities for young singers to be heard fairly early on in their careers, and Albanese was no exception. By 1935 she had made her debut at La Scala (in Gianni Schicchi) and she was on her way. She was excellently suited, by voice, training, looks and temperament, for the Verdi/Puccini verismo roles, and she quickly became an international presence, especially in Bohème, Traviata, and Butterfly.
Albanese's Metropolitan opera debut was in 1940, somewhat predictably in Madama Butterfly. She was to perform this signature role at the Met over 70 times. It was a great success, and she was to make the Met her artistic home for the next 26 seasons, in a variety of roles. She also quickly made America her patriotic home, acquiring American citizenship in 1945. In 1946 she did a series of radio performances with Arturo Toscanini. Albanese did not limit herself exclusively to the Met, being an artistic presence also at San Francisco. She did, however, tend to limit herself to her adopted land, and while she sang overseas occasionally, she was essentially an American soprano from that point on. In later years she became very active as a fundraiser for the arts, and for her Licia Albanese Foundation, established to help aspiring singers. Like other great Italian American singers before her, most specifically Amelita Galli Curci and Enrico Caruso, she was enormously popular here, and made very significant contributions to the arts in America.
It is necessary, at the very beginning to address Licia Albanese's voice and singing style, in order to avoid instant analysis or judgments. I do not believe it is possible to describe her singing by comparison to any other soprano, except possibly her teacher, Baldassarre-Tedeschi. (I recently posted two Baldassare-Tedeschi videos on my Youtube channel. You can find a link in the righthand sidebar of this page.) I find it more helpful to compare her to male singers, specifically Giuseppe Di Stefano and (brace yourself!) Feodor Chaliapin. Quirky as that may sound, there is a reason: all are extraordinary singing actors, and they place their voices in the service of the melodrama which characterizes their repertoire. It is fruitless to compare Licia Albanese to great lyric sopranos whose fine and flute-like voices soar with abandon; she will seem thick and over-heavy in the middle of her voice and short on top. The darkness in her voice will at times seem like a bark. No, she uses her voice to serve the part she sings. Like Di Stefano, she enunciates extremely clearly; it sometimes seems as though she is speaking to you. Most importantly, she uses her voice as Chaliapin used his, to vocally portray a character, usually in the grip of great emotion, distress or outright despair. People in those situations do not trill prettily. In terms of style, Albanese, like Callas, shows great conviction in her portrayals, and conviction is the absolute bedrock of great style. Here is the "Un bel dì" from her signature role, Cio-Cio-San:
Do you see what I mean? What strikes me immediately is the characterization in the voice. Like Giuseppe Di Stefano, she sang, to a large extent, as she spoke. The enunciation is extraordinary. I sometimes forget she is singing, and think she is speaking to me. The voice is dark and highly dramatic. She is a singing actress, and this is not an exercise in pure vocalism—it is simply a part of the whole picture. One thing she had was power in abundance. I can testify from having heard her in person that it was an astonishingly big voice for so tiny a person. Yes, the voice is showing signs of wear here, at 40, but one must remember that she started singing at 21, and almost the entirely of her repertoire was verismo, with all the attendant demands made on the voice. You will hear "prettier" Bb's than she manages here, more cleanly produced, but you will seldom hear a more moving, better articulated or more realistically convincing version of this famous aria.
Here is Albanese in another Puccini aria, "In Quelle Trine Morbide," from Manon Lescaut:
This is a much more traditional bit of singing, and excellent in every way. The dramatic intensity is there, as it always is, and the vocal line is clear and well connected stylistically to the music. It is perhaps more lyrical than the Butterfly selection, and soars where "Un bel dì" cries. That, however, derives from characterization more than anything else.
Here, finally, is Licia Albanese at her absolute best; as Violetta in La Traviata. This great scene, "Addio del Passato," shows all her strengths. The recitation at the beginning is so clear and painfully felt that it easily brings tears. The articulation is so precise that it almost seems possible to understand even if one doesn't speak Italian! Finally, the singing soars, and Albanese's dramatic voice is displayed to full advantage:
Say what one will, I personally would lay down my hard-earned money any place, any time, to hear something like that!
at 2:22 PM