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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Marszalek’s Tenors: The Standard-Bearers of Operetta (II)

Today we feature Part Two  of Mr. Darren Seacliffe's article on the tenors of Franz Marszalek!

During the 60s, Franz Marszalek would turn to another group of tenors to play the leading roles in his broadcasts and recordings. The first and least-known of the three was the German lyric tenor Reinhold Bartel. Like Franz Fehringer, he would start out singing lyric tenor roles in the provincial German opera houses; roles such as Tamino, Don Ottavio, Idamante and Jacquino. A typical lyric tenor of his time, Bartel had a bigger and more beautiful voice than Fehringer’s. Most importantly, where Fehringer’s voice was dry, Bartel’s was warm, like Groh’s, but not as large. Technically, he was more proficient than Fehringer. When he sang the high notes,
they were very pleasing to the ear. Just as Fehringer’s case has shown, a tenor didn’t need to have a beautiful voice or a good technique to have a successful singing career in operetta so long as he could touch the audience with his singing. However, for an operatic career, audiences then were more interested in witnessing a singer’s technical prowess or hearing the beauty of their singing than in leaving the opera house with a memory of a complete and intact aesthetic experience. Unsurprisingly, Bartel was able to maintain a successful career in the opera house in conjunction with his prolific broadcasting and recording career in the radio station and the studio, as opposed to Fehringer.  To showcase Bartel’s artistry, here we have two numbers from my collection; first, "Ein Spiel mit der Liebe, from Dostal's Die Vielgeliebte, and then a two-aria video featuring "Ich Will Sie Lieben, Treu Und Heiss," and  "Wie  Gerne Sagt' Ich Ihr, " from Leo Fall's Die Dollarprinzessin" 

 From my experience, Bartel, though admittedly good, pales in comparison to predecessors like Groh, Anders and Fehringer. As mentioned earlier, his voice isn’t as warm as Groh’s, his singing isn’t as elegant and polished as Anders, and even if he does sing with feeling, you can’t call that emotion when you compare it to Fehringer. Nevertheless, he does give a good performance. To me, what defines his singing is its dreaminess, if not "folksiness." His singing feels quite light and is relatively easier on the ear. When he goes for the ‘’high notes.’’ the ease and smoothness with which he does it is most attractive, even if they do not "ring" like those the great opera singers deliver. There is some feeling in the performance but he gives you the impression of someone who loves rather than someone madly in love.

 Of the three tenors whom Marszalek cast in his operetta broadcasts and recordings from the 60s, one of them was the provincial lyric tenor Reinhold Bartel, whom we discussed earlier. The other two were the Hungarian spinto tenor Sandor Konya and the German lyric tenor Fritz Wunderlich.  Konya sang a wide range of German and Italian lyric and dramatic tenor roles as well, including Parsifal, Rodolfo, Dick Johnson and many more. Today, Konya is perhaps best remembered for being a near-perfect Lohengrin, a superb Walter, and a much-appreciated Edgardo. These achievements have overshadowed his work as a consummate operetta singer in Marszalek’s performances. Konya had been cast by Marszalek in his operetta broadcasts and his performances of the great operas in German on the radio even as he maintained his flourishing international singing career.

For Konya’s operetta work, here is an aria from Johann Strauss' Wiener Blut:

Sandor Konya’s singing can best be characterized by the ‘teardrop in his voice.’ For me, this ‘teardrop’ alone is enough to touch me and make emotions well up in my heart. He gives a melancholy performance which is at times strikingly contrasted against the backdrop of cheerful frothy Viennese dance music. Superficially, it may seem that his singing spoils the mood of the party but on deeper thought, it feels as though his character has a bitter-sweet recognition that the good times are not to last so he makes the most of every moment he has. In doing so, he sheds another light on the operetta numbers he sings, lending them meaning and giving them impact in a way no other tenor does.

Last but not least of these three tenors is one who needs little or no introduction, Fritz Wunderlich, a singer whom many feel was the greatest German tenor the world ever had. Looking through the list of recordings Franz Marszalek has made, Wunderlich’s name pops up quite often from the late 50s to the early 60s. It may be the case that Franz Marszalek saw Fritz Wunderlich as the successor to Peter Anders, something that Marszalek had been looking for. Of Wunderlich’s work for Marszalek, I have selected two highlights from Leo Fall’s most well-known work, Der Rose von Stambul, which I have uploaded in an extended video. The soprano Gretel Hartung accompanies him in the later duet.

In almost all German operettas, there are at least 2 tenors in the cast. The lead tenor will usually be a lyric tenor. The numbers which he sings are the ‘’more operatic’’ ones, show-stealing numbers similar to the arias which we hear in the opera house. Operetta excerpts which we usually hear tenors sing mostly fall under this category. Examples will be ‘’Zwei Marchenaugen,’’ ’Dein ist mein ganzes Herz’’ and ‘Komm Zigany.’’ The other type of tenor which we see is the buffo tenor. In most cases, he is either a comprimario or a singing actor. The numbers which he sings are usually lighter fare. Their purpose is often comic relief, or they might fill in the empty spaces between the show-stealing moments and the ensembles which are key to the development of the plot.

Two of Marszalek's best buffo tenors were the German Willy Hoffmann and the Austrian entertainer Peter Alexander. Historically an operatic comprimario,  Willy Hoffmann eventually moved into operetta as a buffo tenor who took part in many radio and TV operetta broadcasts. His superb performances as a buffo tenor would earn him the nickname ‘’the national buffo.’’ For an idea of how a buffo tenor would appear on stage, you can watch the following video. This aria from Kalman’s Csardasfurstin is actually a duet. This, I think, was taken from a live TV performance, with Hoffmann in the flesh:

According to the definition of buffo tenor, one wouldn’t expect him to have any good musical numbers. But Hoffmann in fact did, and he even joined with the "buffa" for a good comic duet.  Here is a good example, featuring Hoffmann and Rita Bartos in Jara Benes' Auf der Grunen Wiese:

 Buffo Peter Alexander, on the other hand, did not come from an operatic background, but was something like the German-speaking world’s Frank Sinatra. Just as Frank Sinatra occasionally performed on Broadway, operetta was very much part of Peter Alexander’s repertoire. In the operetta broadcasts and recordings, he was good fun to listen to, bringing as much charm and sentiment to the musical numbers he sang as his operatic colleagues did.  Here he is with Herta Talmar in the Piccolo-Duet from Oscar Straus’ Ein Walzertraum

Peter Alexander’s rendition of these operetta numbers harkens back to the day when they were once performed by singing actors instead of opera singers. Though his singing may not be authentic, he does what they did; delivering these numbers in the musical style of the day with a honeyed baritone that charms and touches the hearts of the audience. If that isn’t good entertainment, I honestly don’t know what is!

It may seem that I over-stress the virtues of operetta—especially as compared to opera— but actually, what I truly feel is that operetta should simply be treated the same way as opera is. Opera is unquestionably an art form which stands above all the rest and will almost certainly be preserved for posterity. However, I feel that operetta also deserves great respect and attention.  It serves as a reminder of the things we have lost in a world where things are changing at a breakneck rate and competition is becoming increasingly cutthroat. Some, of course, may disagree. Being a dissenter in the past, I’ve this to say to these people. If you give Marszalek’s operetta recordings a chance to work the same kind of magic on you as it did on me, I believe that you’ll be able to see why operetta is a musical genre well worth preserving!  

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Operetta! Marszalck's Tenors: The Standard-Bearers of Operetta!

[Today I am pleased to offer to readers another guest commentary by Mr. Darren Seacliffe, from Singapore. Darren is an undergraduate student in his early 20's pursuing a degree in a private university in Singapore. His interest in both opera and operetta spans a wide variety of genres, from Rossini to German operetta. I will only add that Mr. Seacliffe's knowledge of opera and operetta history—especially for one so young, is truly extraordinary! Here is a blossoming music critic if ever I saw one, and that is a happy sign indeed, for all kinds of reasons!  Edmund StAustell]


There are currently two forms of musical theater which we commonly encounter. One is the musical that is either produced as a movie—in Hollywood—or presented in theaters  on Broadway and in New York's West End. The other is the opera. Both are celebrated as a combination of the arts, with singing, acting,  dance, drama, orchestral music, and often, lavish sets and costumes. In fact, the word "opera" itself is a plural word—the plural of "opus," and translates as "works."  These two forms of musical theater  may sound different but the similarities they share suggest a strong relationship.  Musicals, as we recognize them today, are essentially—but not exclusively—a 20th century form, while opera has been performed for centuries.

There is, however, a third form that bridges these two forms of musical theater, and that is operetta, the relatively more obscure and less regarded ‘half-brother’ of opera. Where opera's audience, historically speaking, was aristocratic, the audience for operetta was not, at least as a rule.  Even when its plots involved a fanciful notion of high society manners, they were just that—a middle-class fantasy. Just like opera, operetta requires orchestral accompaniment, but unlike opera, the musical numbers in operettas were not always performed by trained singers. Each country had its own forms of operetta. Spain had the zarzuela, France had the operettas of Offenbach, Messager, Lecocq, Audran, and others, while England had the Savoy operas by Gilbert and Sullivan, and America enjoyed operettas by Friml, Herbert and Kern.  Germany, which will be the focus of this article, had Viennese and Berlin operetta.

At the moment, Berlin operetta is rarely performed and even Viennese operetta performances are limited to the traditional New Year’s Eve performances of Die Fledermaus in opera houses worldwide, the occasional Merry Widow and rare performances of The Land of Smiles, The Gypsy Princess and Countess Mariza. Besides these, every now and then, we hear singers like Anna Netrebko singing some of the musical numbers in their recitals as though they were opera arias,  or Andre Rieu performing extracts of the dance music in his concerts and recitals. As recently as seven years ago, if anyone wanted any operetta performances on CD, the best one could find were the competent operetta performances on EMI helmed by opera singers who were past their prime; singers such as Anneliese Rothenberger or Nicolai Gedda. Unlike today’s singers, such as Netrebko, these singers either had a history of giving complete operetta performances (Anneliese Rothenberger) or could identify with the operetta tradition (Nicolai Gedda) because they had grown up at a time when it was the popular music of the day. Things have changed recently, with new German and/or Austrian labels like Membran, Cantus Classics and HAFG releasing recordings of radio broadcasts of operetta performances from the 50s and 60s by conductors like Wilhelm Stephan, Werner Schmidt-Boelcke, Max Schonherr and the most important of them all, Franz Marszalek.

Franz Marszalek was an operetta conductor whom several German and Austrian connoisseurs felt was the best of them all. Having worked with several operetta composers like Eduard Kunneke before the War, he was considered to be a ‘walking encyclopedia of operetta’, with no rivals in terms of understanding and mastery, and whose performances of the works of Kunneke and Leo Fall were felt to be the most authoritative. (Kunneke was a good personal friend of Marszalek)   After the War, having taken over as the conductor of the West German Radio Orchestra based in Cologne, he got together a group of opera and operetta singers from the neighboring provincial opera houses and musical theaters.  He also engaged several pop and folk music singers, both past and present, and both broadcast and recorded several operetta performances that set standards  which remain unsurpassed.

For the lead tenor roles in each of these operetta broadcasts, Marszalek cast reputed tenors who would go on to have successful domestic and international careers; tenors such as Fritz Wunderlich and Sandor Konya.  In addition, he added lyric tenors based in smaller German opera houses in the provinces, tenors like Franz Fehringer and Reinhold Bartel and, additionally, tenors who once had or continued to have flourishing radio careers like Herbert Ernst Groh and Peter Anders. For the comic tenor roles, most were performed by the buffo tenor Willy Hofmann, lauded by some as the greatest buffo tenor Germany ever had. In the next paragraphs.  

Of all these tenors, Marszalek considered Peter Anders to be the best of them all, the ‘ideal’ operetta tenor.  Here is  Anders singing ‘’Ich bin dein Untertan,’’ in a duet with Liselotte Losch, from Leo Fall’s Madame Pompadour:

As you can see, a fine singer with a beautiful voice and a secure singing technique. He sang a great number of roles in his operatic repertory,  from the lyric Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote to the dramatic Otello in Verdi’s opera of the same name; all with equal success. At the same time, Anders was considerably successful in oratorio and lieder.  Building on this background, he always took his operetta performances very seriously, displaying the same amount of artistry and musicality as he did in his operatic, oratorio and lieder performances. In simpler terms, he dedicated some thought to his operetta performances, to be sure he provided them with the same elegance and emotional nuance which his operatic performances enjoyed. 

Though I may find the young Anders’ voice lighter and sweeter, his singing was always beautiful and elegant even when he started taking on heavier and more dramatic roles later on in life. In his operetta performances, I found him an expressive singer who displays a tasteful amount of emotion. Listening to Peter Anders’ performances, (and I know this will seem an adventurous thing for me to say) I actually feel that he may have a  stronger claim on the title "Germany’s greatest tenor than his successor Fritz Wunderlich did, based on the larger number of roles he sang throughout his career and his considerably richer artistic legacy.  Here he is singing "Sei nicht bos," an aria from Zeller's Der Obersteiger:

Unfortunately, just as Peter Anders was about to move into Heldentenor roles, he would die in an untimely car accident in 1954. Of the few recordings he managed to make for Marszalek before his sudden passing, there are complete performances of Strauss’ Der Zigeunerbaron and Karneval im Rom, Lehar’s Paganini and The Land of Smiles, Goetze’s Liebe im Drieklang and considerable extracts of several other operettas.

In his quest to find Peter Anders’ successor in operetta, Franz Marszalek would cast several tenors in subsequent broadcasts and recordings. In the 50s, the first of the singers he would turn to was Herbert Ernst Groh, a tenor with a  successful radio career behind him. Groh was a fellow student of Richard Tauber, whom he would eventually replace as the leading operetta tenor of the radio stations when Tauber fled from Nazi Germany. I found Groh’s voice warmer and larger than Tauber, probably because Groh’s voice was captured better on record. He had an all-encompassing voice which would literally envelop you with warmth and emotion that was just as beautiful and sweet as Tauber’s. Of Groh’s performances, these are two that I’ve selected for sampling.  Here is Herbert Ernst Groh singing "Ich hab mit freuden Angehort,"  Lieutenant Niki’s entrance aria in Oscar Straus’ Ein Walzertraum or as it is known in English,  A Waltz Dream.  Then, we hear him sing a spectacular version of "Am Rio Negro," from Maske in Blau:

Another tenor Marszalek also turned to was the German lyric tenor Franz Fehringer.  Fehringer was a lyric tenor who sang roles such as Rodolfo, Don Ottavio, Fernando (Così), and Almaviva in  provincial opera houses early in his career during the 40's. During the late 40's, he moved to radio, where he performed several operas in German and many operettas under several reputable conductors, including  Hans-Muller Kray, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Kurt Schroeder, Werner Schmidt-Boelcke and the most important of them all, Franz Marszalek. In my honest opinion, Fehringer was a typical lyric tenor. His voice was small and pleasant but dry. The dryness in his voice made it seem neither sweet nor beautiful. Technically, he was good, but not great. Nevertheless, in spite of these attributes, Fehringer was a great operetta singer. Personally, I consider him my favorite. Here he sings a waltz song form Leo Fall's Der Liebe Augustin:

On first hearing, Fehringer may sound just like any other second-string lyric tenor, but there’s an attribute to his singing which vaults him into greatness. It’s the same attribute which makes Giuseppe di Stefano special: the fact that he literally gave his all when he sang, infusing a great deal of emotion and passion in the breath of life which he gave to his stage and record characters. In Fehringer’s case, it was that heartfelt earnestness. From his performances, you can feel that he literally means what he sings. This earnestness makes his small, pleasant voice a charming and poignant one which can reach deep into the soul. It is something that imparts an inner warmth to the listener. Every one of the characters he plays, in each of the operettas he recorded, is a thoughtful, sensitive and melancholy character that is often head over heels in love head over heels with the heroine. The plots of many of these operettas, with all the bizarre twists, silly turns and incredulous coincidences, may seem paper-thin,  but  such portrayals as Fehringer's make them credible.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Great Kirsten Flagstad

Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962)

Today it is my great pleasure to present another in our series of guest commentators, Dr.Marie-Louise Rodén, whose photo appears to the left. Professor Rodén is Swedish but grew up in the United States and received a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. She is currently Professor of History at Kristianstad University in Sweden, and her research specialty has been the political development of the Roman Papacy in the Early Modern Period. She also has a background in classical music and is currently, together with Daniele D. Godor, preparing a biography of Set Svanholm, which will be published in 2014.  I am indeed honored to have so distinguished a scholar make a presentation today on Kirsten Flagstad.

December 7 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Kirsten Flagstad's death. There is little risk that this memorable Wagnerian soprano of the past century will ever be forgotten. She is considered to be Norway's foremost practicing musician of all time and her countrymen have dubbed her "The Voice of the Century (Århundredets Stemme)".

Early Years
Målfrid Flagstad was born on July 12, 1895 in Hamar as the eldest of four children to Mikael Flagstad and Marie Nielsen. Both parents were professional musicians—her father a violinist and her mother a pianist. Flagstad was surrounded by music during her youth and her parents soon recognized that she possessed an extraordinary talent. She was given a score of Wagner's Lohengrin to mark her tenth birthday, and she managed to learn and sing Elsa's part in a short time. Flagstad also recalled that her deep speaking voice led her father to presume that she was an alto, so when he presented her with a score of Schubert's Lieder, he chose the setting for lower voice. Flagstad's vocal education began with Ellen Schytte-Jacobsen and continued with Albert Westwang in Oslo. She also studied with the controversial Dr. Gillis Bratt in Stockholm, who was active both as a physician and voice teacher, specializing in the development of extended breath.

In 1913, Flagstad made her operatic debut as Nuri in Eugene d'Albert's Tiefland, and during the early part of her career sang roles in both opera and operetta. In 1919 she married Sigurd Hall and her only child Else was born the following year. The marriage failed after a few years and in the 1920's Flagstad resumed her singing career. She did so with a voice that had grown considerably in size and now took on more dramatic roles in the Italian repertoire, such as Desdemona, Tosca and Aïda. Norway did not yet have a permanent National Opera, so many singers from that country had to find other opportunities, and therefore Flagstad sang at the opera in Gothenburg, Sweden from 1928. Her years at Stora Teatern have unfortunately not been documented in any known "in-house" recordings, for this was the last period in her career in which she sang a great variety of roles in French and Italian repertoire.

In 1930 she married the wealthy Norwegian industrialist Henry Johansen (1883-1946) and, together with him and her daughter Else heard her first performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Staatsoper in Vienna—or at least part of it. Her American accompanist and friend Edwin McArthur recounts that "[s]he confessed many times later that she was so bored that she could hardly stay awake. Actually, she would not have stayed through the performance except for Johansen's insistence: he wanted her to know the work."
She could not have guessed that she would sing the role of Isolde as soon as 1932, when the National Theater in Oslo decided to stage the music drama, giving Flagstad only six weeks to learn the part. The performance was a great success and now word of this talented Wagnerian began to spread outside her native country. Alexander Kipnis had sung the role of König Marke in the Oslo performance and was convinced that Flagstad should perform at the Metropolitan Opera. In the meantime, she did participate in two seasons at Bayreuth—1933 and 1934 -- but mainly in smaller roles. The Metropolitan Opera was in need of another Wagnerian soprano at that time, and Flagstad finally agreed to travel to St. Moritz in Switzerland to audition.

Historic Debut
Present at Flagstad's audition in 1934 were Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the General Director of the Metropolitan, and the conductor Artur Bodanzky. The audition took place in a hotel room with heavy draperies and curtains: for that reason the representatives of the Metropolitan did not receive a correct idea of Flagstad's vocal resources. According to Robert Tuggle,  archivist of the Metropolitan Opera, the telegram that went back to New York simply stated "We've heard Flagstad and we think she'll be fine." It was therefore only a few days before her debut that Bodanzky really understood what kind of singer he had recruited. During a dress rehearsal of Götterdämmerung he simply dropped his baton and ran to get Gatti-Casazza so that he too could come and hear for himself. Flagstad's first Saturday afternoon broadcast on February 2, 1935 was thus almost unheralded. The renowned soprano Geraldine Farrar had been engaged to speak during broadcast intermissions, and she too dropped her prepared manuscript to announce: "a new star has been born". Let us share what thousands of American listeners heard on that Saturday afternoon. Here is Kirsten Flagstad in "Du bist der Lenz" from the first act of Wagner's Die Walküre. (Be patient.  There is a 30-second pause before the singing begins on this video):
The young American pianist and conductor Edwin McArthur (1907-87) was among those who heard that historic broadcast. He immediately obtained Flagstad's address in New York and wrote a letter requesting an interview for the position of accompanist, and sent it off by special delivery. Flagstad asked him to meet her at the Astor Hotel and after a pleasant chat requested that he play two songs by the Norwegian composer Eyvind Alnæs (1872-1932). The interview ended with a cocktail and the soprano later revealed that she hired McArthur not only because he was an excellent pianist with a good knowledge of Scandinavian music, but also because he was so very tall. They would therefore look good together onstage and Flagstad, who was quite tall herself, would not appear as a giant at his side. Let us listen to a recording where McArthur accompanies Flagstad in Edvard Grieg's "En Drøm":

Flagstad's debut in Tristan und Isolde followed on February 6 and before the month was over the Metropolitan audience had heard her as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and in Götterdämmerung. The same season she added the role of Kundry in Parsifal to her repertoire but wisely refused to take on the role of Norma in Bellini's opera of the same title. She neither felt comfortable with the Italian language or the stylistic demands of the work. The leading Wagnerian tenor of that generation at the Metropolitan was the Danish-born Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973). Flagstad and Melchior were soon hailed as the greatest soprano-tenor couple since Caruso and Ponselle, but their partnership off the stage was not equally cordial.

The diplomatic McArthur successfully mitigated some of the feuds in which the two Scandinavians were engaged, and conducted them on several occasions. Recordings of excerpts from Wagner's works made in November 1939 under McArthur's direction are among the finest that document these two singers. The very same month Flagstad appeared in a production of Tristan at the Chicago Opera with Giovanni Martinelli -- she was convinced that the Italian tenor would make a very fine Tristan and McArthur conducted even on this occasion. In February of 1941 he became the first native-born American to conduct Wagner at the Metropolitan, and also did so in Flagstad's final pre-war performance of Tristan und Isolde on April 12 of that year. Acceding to her husband's wishes, she had decided to return to Norway, occupied by Nazi Germany almost exactly a year before. Here is Kirsten Flagstad in an exceptional recording of the "Liebstod" from Tristan, recorded in London in 1948. She performed Isolde's role 182 times in the course of her career.
Years of Silence
Kirsten Flagstad's decision to return to Norway in 1941 was catastrophic in terms of her career, but she had always considered private life to be her first priority. Flagstad never sang in Germany during the war and never sang officially in occupied Norway. During these years of silence she gave a couple of performances in Sweden and Switzerland, which were both neutral countries. Her husband Henry Johansen was a conservative businessman and member of the party founded by Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945), Nasjonal Samling (NS). He was eventually persuaded by Flagstad and his daughter to leave the party, but was arrested at the end of the war and accused of war profiteering. He died in prison before a trial could ever take place.

The Norwegian government now accused Flagstad of complicity in her husband's affairs. They would not renew her passport, fearing that she would leave the country with some of the wealth that Johansen had accumulated. She was only exonerated from all charges against her— which included not only economic matters but also performing German Lieder in concerts in the United States -- once Edwin McArthur traveled to Norway to witness at the Torridal County Court in Kristiansand in October of 1946. But the rumors of her Nazi sympathies were persistent, especially in America, and after the war she initially had great difficulties in obtaining any engagements. Organized protesters marched outside concert halls where she was to perform and hired claques disrupted concerts with shouting and stink bombs. An invitation to return to the Metropolitan would have helped her greatly during this dismal period, but the General Manager Edward Johnson, soon to retire, was hesitant.

The situation was eventually resolved when Sir Rudolf Bing succeeded Johnson in 1950 and established that Flagstad was completely innocent of any involvement in her husband's economic affairs and of any sympathies for the Nazi regime: she would thus return in his first season as General Manager. Lauritz Melchior had questions about this decision, and made it fairly clear that he did not wish to share the stage with Flagstad again. Bing in turn stated that he did expect a certain  level of professionalism from his artists  and felt that he had been forced into a position where he had to take a stand, whatever his personal feelings may have been. He therefore dismissed Melchior.  In 1951, Flagstad sang a number of performances of Tristan, an entire Ring cycle and the following year Gluck's Alcestis marked her farewell to the Met.

Some of Flagstad's most significant activity in the post-war period took place in the recording studio. Stereophonic recording technique was in a process of development in the 1950's and therefore we have a fine record not only of her Wagnerian roles, but also of Lieder repertoire and sacred music. Her most frequent partner on stage and in the recording studio during this period was the Swedish tenor Set Svanholm (1904-64). Among the memorable recordings from this last period in Flagstad's career are a complete Tristan conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler with Ludwig Suthaus from 1952; the first act of Die Walküre with Svanholm, conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch, the third act of the same music drama and the "Todesverkündigung" from the second act with Svanholm, both conducted by Sir Georg Solti and recorded in 1957; and finally a complete Norwegian Radio broadcast recording of Götterdämmerung, also with Svanholm and conducted by Øyvin Fjeldstad from 1956. Flagstad's voice had grown deeper in the late 1940's and '50's, and thus she made some rare recordings of alto repertoire as well as taking on the mezzo-soprano role of Fricka in Das Rheingold in the first part of the "Solti Ring", recorded in 1958.

Though we today associate Flagstad mainly with the works of Wagner, it should not be forgotten that she even in later years made other valuable contributions to both German and Scandinavian repertoire. She was the soloist in the first performance ("Uraufführung") of Richard Strauss's Vier letzte Lieder in London 1950 with the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, and has left us as an outstanding interpretation of selected songs of Jean Sibelius from 1958. The same year Flagstad was appointed first General Manager of the Norwegian National Opera, whose initial activity she generously supported with private funds. She could only retain that position until 1960, when she retired due to a cancer that she had been fighting for several years.

During the last years of her life she confined her performances to benefit concerts in the local churches of Norway. In remembrance of Kirsten Flagstad's commitment both to her native country and to sacred music, I would like to close with her rendition of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's beautiful motet "Oh for the Wings of a Dove."


Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Great Neapolitan Tenor Francesco Albanese


Francesco Albanese was born in Torre del Greco, Naples, and was a popular lyric tenor, known not only for his work in opera, but as one of the greatest singers of Neapolitan song.  His life and career were almost entirely in Italy, although he did sing in London, Portugal and South America.  As a result, his work was largely within the Italian repertoire,  but that of course is a very large part of opera!   He did not, to the best of my knowledge, ever sing in the United States.  We have an unfortunate tendency in the US to think that Italian singers who never sang here were  unsuccessful or unimpressive.  That is a silly kind of chauvinism, of course; nothing could be further from the truth.  He in fact had a very good career, and is greatly respected today.

His first studies were in Rome, with Francesco Salfi, and it was there that he made his debut, at the Teatro dell'Opera, in Gluck's Alceste  His early repertoire was to become his characteristic repertoire, which is leggiero, or light lyric roles, such as Almaviva, Fenton, Rinuccio, Ottavio, Ramiro, Ernesto (Don Pasquale), Armida, Alfredo and Nemorino.

He recorded both Ifigenia in Tauride, (1957) and La Traviata (early 50's )  opposite Maria Callas.

It was not only in opera that Albanese had a good career.  For lovers of Neapolitan music, Albanese is commonly considered one of the greatest of all singers of Neapolitan songs, which have a remarkable history all their own.  As I always hasten to point out, whenever I speak of Neapolitan songs, there is a great misconception about what they are.  It seems, for example, that nearly every operatic tenor and baritone on earth feels obliged to sing these songs, whether or not they know anything about Naples, its language, literature, or musical history.  As a result of this, many of the songs are done poorly.  In fact, the Neapolitan song has a style all its own,  because these songs have a long history and in their earliest iterations, they were art songs, much more restrained and dignified in tone than they now often appear in the hands of many singers. Further, they were, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a principle means of instructing a large and unlettered populace in Neapolitan cultural and literary history--they served as a kind of instruction in napolitanità ; which is to say in what it meant to be Neapolitan.  Therefore, a great familiarity with Naples, its music, its political history,  its language and its literature is required to do them well.  Several names come immediately to mind, including Fernando de Lucia—still the all-time favorite tenor of many Neapolitans—modern singers Roberto Murolo and Aurelio Fierro, and of course Francesco Albanese.

I think it's possible to get a good idea of just what a fine singer Albanese was by listening to him sing one of the most popular of all Neapolitan songs, Dicitencello Vuje.  When I posted this on Youtube, I included the lyrics, and translated them from Neapolitan into English.  It makes it possible to follow the song carefully.

Isn't that just absolutely wonderful!  That is what a Neapolitan song is supposed to sound like.  The first thing you will notice is that it is completely devoid of shouting, moaning, groaning, glycerin tears or schlock.  It is in fact as well constructed, singable and  dignified as many a Schubert Lied, making allowance for the theme of romance expressed in a Latin way and in a Latin language.  Of course, these tonal differences will be expressed in ways particular to both cultures, but that says nothing about the quality of the artistry, just the intrinsic nature of the different cultures, languages, and peoples.  You can hear the same differences in political or scientific discussions or speeches.  On the same Youtube page where this song appears, you can find, in the right hand sidebar, the same song "sung" by the Three Tenors.  I don't recommend it:-)

As for opera, here is "Parigi, o Cara....," from La Traviata, with Maria Callas:

Notice the restraint and the elegance of his singing.  This is classy singing, there is no doubt about it, and very much against stereotype.  I would contend that this is exactly the quality I find in the Neapolitan songs he sings, and one of the major reasons he sings them so authentically and beautifully.  A first class tenor, and a credit to Italian music!


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pol Plançon, French Basse Chantante

Pol Plançon was born in Fumay, France, in 1851.  Because so large a part of his life and career was in the 19th century, during the 80's and 90's, he is properly seen as an exemplar of 19th century singing, and most especially of 19th century French singing, with its many refinements.

Plançon's teachers were the famous tenor Gilbert Duprez and Giovanni Sbriglia, who also numbered among his students the de Reszke brothers, Jean and Édouward.  His debut was in 1877, in Lyon, in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots.  His rise was quite rapid, and in short order he was singing in Paris, both at the Théâtre de la Gaîté Lyrique (1880) and the Paris Opera, where his debut (1883) was Faust, an opera that was to become one of his most frequently performed, as Mephistopheles quicklybecame a signature role for him.  He would spend 10 years at the Paris Opera,  where he participated in several premieres,  including Le Cid, and Saint-Saëns's Ascanio.  He also sang at Covent Garden, to general acclaim, during the early 1890's.  He continued to add new roles to his repertoire, including Massenet's La Navarraise, Lalo's Le roi d'Ys, and Massenet's Hérodiade.  Plançon did not neglect the standard repertoire, and during the peak of his career he could be seen in  Aida, Fidelio, Die Meistersinger, Mefistofele, The Damnation of Faust, and Martha.  He only avoided those roles that required anything approaching  roughness or—especially—buffoonery, as he was, above all else, debonair and elegant—the ultimate bel canto singer, with extraordinary vocal and aesthetic refinements at his command, including a perfect trill, and a remarkable ability to sing fioratura and rapid cadenzas.  These abilities and refinements are almost never seen in basses.  Plançon's Metropolitan Opera debut was 1893, in Gounod's Philémon and Baucis.  He sang at the Met until 1908, in over 600 performances.  He retired from the stage in 1908 and returned to Paris, where he gave lessons.  He died at age 63, in 1914.

The first recording I have chosen is a truly extraordinary record of bel canto bass singing.  It shows the essential Plançon gifts:  Absolutely immaculate French, with every syllable perfectly clearly pronounced; smooth and elegant vocalism, supporting a musically perfect style, and, from the middle of the recording to the end, what I believe are unique examples of rapid cadenzas and fioratura executed by a bass.  If you do not know Plançon, and this is the first example  of his singing you have heard, keep an open mind!  Those among us who have been raised in the verismo era of giant-voiced, roof-shaking Russian basses are in for a surprise at this example of an elegant French bel canto artist singing 108 years ago! :

Now isn't that something!  You can see, right away, why he is the darling of bel canto lovers.  This is one of the important examples of 19th century bel canto singing, recorded in 1904, when Plançon would have been 53 years old. His was not a huge or even large voice, yet he could be heard perfectly well (as most bel canto artists could be) even in large theaters such as the Met, which even back then was a large house.  It isn't size that accounts for carrying power, it is, and always has been, focus.  And of that he had enough.

This next recording is a gem, and my own personal favorite of Plançon's recorded arias.  It is not easy to think of this voice as a Verdi bass, and yet his performance of this aria from Verdi's Don Carlos is so good, and so sensitively done, that it is absolutely heart-rending.  Don Carlos, known in Italian as Don Carlo, was originally written in French, and Verdi intended it to be a big 5-act French opera.  This aria, which we know today from the later Italian version as "Ella giammai m'amò,"  ("She never loved me") has to be one of the saddest things ever written, and when it is sung by a consummate artist like Plançon, as opposed to being sung in the many window-shattering renditions by huge basses, one actually feels the excruciating painfulness of the lyrics:

Not much I can add to that!  Sigh..................

Finally, a non-operatic selection.  The season now being fairly close to hand, here is his delicate and beautiful rendition of O Holy Night:

Pol Plançon, clearly one of a kind!



Sunday, October 14, 2012

Giovanna Casolla: Traditional Dramatic Soprano

It is a great pleasure to welcome again today our outstanding guest commentator Mr. Gioacchino Fiurezi Maragioglio, Italian industrialist, opera critic and historian. Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio, an  intimate friend of the great Italian tenor Giacomo Lauri Volpi, is possessed of a truly extraordinary knowledge of Italian opera and opera singers, many of whom he has known personally. I do not believe that there is anyone among my acquaintance whose knowledge exceeds his own, and there are precious few who could match it.  Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio speaks to us today of the remarkable dramatic soprano Giovanna Casolla.
During the twentieth century, the Italian dramatic soprano was a voice enjoyed all across the world. In fact, during one brilliant decade, Milanov, Ponselle, Raïsa, Cigna, Arangi-Lombardi, Scacciati and Jeritza could all be found singing the greatest roles of the dramatic repertoire: Amelia, Aïda, both Leonoras, and— excepting Ponselle—the most demanding of all: Turandot.

From her début in 1977, Giovanna Casolla has stood as an exceptional example of this great and very necessary kind of soprano. It was only after such disappointments as Katia Ricciarelli’s Turandot that people realized exactly what was missing. So, let us see Signora Casolla in this most demanding of roles, Turandot. Here is the Riddle Scene, with tenor Nicola Martinucci, cut in Torino in 2006, when the soprano was no less than sixty-one years of age, and her Calàf sixty-five!

She is in complete command in this role, and the size and power of the voice are immediately discernable. It is not difficult to compare these qualities to singers of the past, especially to Cigna! She puts forth a great effort creating Turandot, and in this rendition she is convincing as a proud and sneering princess. Her phrasing and control of dynamics, when she taunts Calàf on the final riddle, are particularly effective, owing in large part to the softness of her tone as she comments on Calàf's paleness; something ironically reinforced by the contrasting forte at the end of the phrase.

Casolla is well-known as the interpreter of difficult roles, and here she is interpreting another one: Minnie in La Fanciulla del West, singing her aria Laggiù nel soledad. As is immediately apparent, it is very hard to sing. Puccini demands the soprano move rapidly between a very lyric, reflective parlando expression and then a very dramatic, forceful expression, trumpeting out high notes. Once again, Casolla has her voice ready and waiting to assail the very difficult aria.

Her vocal coloring is particularly well-displayed in the big aria Suicidio from La Gioconda. This is a real chiaroscuro voice, with bright and clear overtones shimmering on top of what is a very dark and threatening core. This, combined with her firm legato and excellent breath control, allows her to show both the strength and resolve of Gioconda while at the same time reminding us that she is, after all, just a young and vulnerable woman.

In this next selection, Casolla interprets Verdi in a performance of Un Ballo in Maschera, in the big aria Morrò, ma prima in grazia. Besides a powerful high C, her legato and attention to text are most noteworthy. Once again, her vocal colouring is both beautiful and emotive, communicating the innocence and purity of Amelia. After such impassioned singing, it seems completely reasonable for Renato’s anger to change into mercy.

The richness and ease of production in the lower parts of Casolla’s voice also permit her to undertake congenial mezzo-soprano roles, so that in Don Carlo, for example,  Eboli is her role of choice. rather than Elisabetta. She has also performed Carmen to great acclaim, and is one of the very few singers who can boast of having sung both Aïda and Amneris equally well.

I am sure you have all noted the word ‘traditional’ in the title of this article. I chose it purposefully, and in then next very short video, which is a recording of Casolla speaking, the concepts of traditional and modern Italian singing collide distressingly.

For some, this may seem a gratuitous observation; one which seems to favor what might be considered the cruder aspects of traditional Italian singing.  I assure you, that is not the case.  What it really represents is the frustration of the old order with certain aspects of the modern operatic scene. Casolla speaks of her own dream to sing Norma, a dream which remained only that: in her own words, it was not in her throat — not in her throat to perform with all of her roles, not in her throat to perform in the Arena di Verona, or in her native San Carlo, or in Scala. Thus, it is easy to understand why Bartoli’s recording and interpretation of Norma raises some questions for Casolla.  Essentially, it is the collision of two very different worlds. Casolla’s traditional art takes place principally in the theater. Bartoli’s art is different to the extent it takes place largely in the recording studio, notwithstanding her many excellent concert and staged performances. The demands of recording a role such as Norma are less than what is required to sing it live. This is a point that I think is being lost today, and it is essentially a result of modern technology.  It is not simply my observation—it is quite general, and has been made by no less a tenor than Giuseppe Giacomini, who has said he believes that live performance, in a theater, is de naturitate different than the art of recording; that it in fact has a certain relationship to the religious theater of Greco-Roman antiquity. With all these perfect studio recordings, it is easy to find fault with live singers like Casolla, but, in fact it is Casolla who has performed these demanding roles in large theaters for more than thirty years. Thus, when someone comes along and enacts your dream in what, from Casolla’s view, is a very diminished and artificial way, it would be natural to express your reservations.

I also feel that Casolla’s comment is directed essentially at some modern bel canto and baroque artists, who are frequently regarded and promoted as ‘superior’ or ‘better’ than artists who perform Verdi, Puccini or verismo works. This is a common frustration often felt both by spectators and singers of her generation.

All good operatic singing is worthy of acknowledgment, and thus I thank our dear Professor Edmund St Austell for allowing me to present this article on Casolla, whose singing masterfully continues the tradition — and temperament — of the great dramatic sopranos of the past. If that is not recognised as great singing, what can be?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mario Filippeschi--"The King of Tenors"

Dear Readers:  This article was originally written on June 17, and was unfortunately lost during the time I was rebuilding this site.   Fortunately, I had backed it up, and have been able to reconstruct it! 

It is a real pleasure —and distinct honor—for me to welcome the return today of our very distinguished guest writer, Mr. Gioacchino Fiurezi Maragioglio, Italian industrialist from Naples, opera critic and historian. Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio was an intimate friend of the great Italian tenor Giacomo Lauri Volpi, and is a life-time subscriber to the Teatro San Carlo, one of the world's historically great opera houses. Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio's knowledge of Italian opera and opera singers —past and present—is simply vast, and I do not believe that there is anyone among my acquaintances whose knowledge exceeds his own, and there are precious few who could match it. I know that I certainly could not. It is a rare pleasure to be able to feature this piece on the great Italian tenor Mario Filippeschi.]


 Mario Filippeschi, the tenor from Pisa, was called spadavoce* by adoring audiences in Spain. At his beloved Teatro San Carlo, he was known as Mario il mito.** Lauri-Volpi, in private correspondence, once called him the "King of Tenors." It was a title he truly deserved.


The voice was of the highest quality: warm and sonorous throughout the range, extending into a glorious treble register that finished with a gigantic high D natural. Filippeschi, like Escalais, O’Sullivan, Lauri-Volpi, Soler and others, belonged to that rarest of vocal categories— the true heroic tenor. While a dramatic tenor often has a weighty, dark voice and vast sound, (Giacomini, Vinay) the heroic tenor is more what is sometimes called a “super-lyric.” Although large, the voice is brighter and more notable for power of incision than for weight. A dramatic tenor can easily make a career without an extensive upper register, but for a heroic tenor, singing notes like the C and C-sharp must be easy and effortless.


Filippeschi was an exemplar of all these qualities. His high notes, and not just the very highest C-sharp and D, but lower notes as well, were cast into the theatre like a blast of molten gold. This stream could be modulated a piacereto a fine pianissimo. The staging of Faust at San Carlo, with Tebaldi, in 1951, was particularly memorable. Although only a young man, I remember going with my father to speak to Filippeschi before the opera. I recall that during these years, it was Di Stefano’s high C diminuendo that had captured much attention among the opera-going public, so we were most interested when Filippeschi told us that “Di Stefano is not the only one to make that little trick of "suffocation.”*** And sure enough, that night, during the cavatina, the great tenor sang a fortissimo high C, bringing it slowly down to a floating pianissimo.

 Callas attained great prominence as a reviver of Rossini and other bel canto composers. The Maggio Musicale Fiorentino performance of Armida, in 1952, is still well remembered. Less well known, outside Italy, is the role that Filippeschi played in reviving bel canto, especially Rossini. Always a generous performer, giving his best to the audience, he gave his voice with the unselfishness of a blood donor to old Rossini and his final operatic creation, William Tell, in the formidable role of Arnoldo. Singing it is not just a matter of pulling out a C — although this is important. No, Arnoldo must be sung by a voice of the right color, texture and power: it is no role for a tenorino. **** Filippeschi sang this role all over Italy and overseas as well, more than fifty times between his début of the role in 1949 and his last performance of it in 1959—a record that is unlikely ever to be equalled.

Upon hearing the cruel tessitura Verdi had demanded of the heroine of Nabucco, Rossini called him a "composer in a helmet." In the writing of Arnoldo's role, we could say the same of Rossini! Filippeschi, however, with a voice naturally suited to these heights, and harnessed with solid nineteenth-century technique, passed through these Alps of opera without a single mis-step. Here he is, singing the big scene of Act IV, O muto asil del pianto, and the cabaletta, Corriam! Voliam!

 Prior to his vocal training, Filippeschi studied the clarinet, which no doubt helped to form his musicianship and above all refine his legendary breath control. His extraordinary singing was always well-presented in another of his best roles: that of Manrico in Il Trovatore. Here, he sings Di quella pira, the big aria that the audience always waits for.  A real showpiece, requiring an extraordinary voice if it is to be done well, and pity the tenor who does not do it well!  Only first-class singers need apply!

Such incredible high Cs! There is a time for romantic and realistic characterisation in Manrico’s character,but  this comes in other places in the opera: during the cavatina to this cabaletta, earlier in "Mal reggendo," in the first act serenade, and of course in the final act in the "Miserere" and the duet "Ai nostri monti." "Di quella pira," however, is all about excitement and militaristic abandon.

 Arturo, in I Puritani, was another role with which Filippeschi was closely associated. He provided not only the high notes (always singing "A te, o cara" and "Credeasi misera" in the original key), but sustained the high tessitura of the role effortlessly. Additionally, and very importantly, Filippeschi also sang Arturo with a certain feeling for Bellini’s long, long melodic line that he is frequently accused —outside Italy—of lacking. In any case, readers can judge for themselves. Here Filippeschi sings the great warhorse, "A te, o cara."

Finally, let us look at Filippeschi in his signature role--The Duke, in Rigoletto.  Filippeschi's Duke was an edgier, darker figure than that portrayed by many tenors. During his career, his Duca was extremely pleasing to me and audiences at San Carlo, and now, listening to old recordings, I find them refreshing. Today there is a great obsession with forcing the Duke to be sung in a way which creates a sympathetic character that endears him to the audience. Nothing could be further from Verdi’s vision, which, we must remember, in fact depicts no less a personage than King Francis I of France: a sovereign emperor who needs no sympathy. Certainly his second-act aira  "Ella mi fu rapita," performed in  its correct context as an interior lament, reflected this darker character, and one can hear resonances of that more powerful, inforgiving, autocratic nature even in a passionate love song such as "E il sol dell'anima":

What a top voice!  This hardly sounds like a lovesick and impoverished student.  It sounds more like a Roman emperor! 

The versatility and stamina of Filippeschi was incredible, from the very beginning of his career in 1937, when he made his début as Edgardo, and then the very next day was called upon to sing the Duke, a role which served him well for more than twenty-five years and which he presented for his final performances. His retirement when he was only in his mid fifties was certainly not caused by any vocal problems, but by a desire for a more tranquil life with his wife and daughters. Filippeschi was, from the beginning, in high demand, frequently travelling the length of Italy between Palermo and Trieste, crossing the sea to sing in Spain, and above all, always having to hurry across the Atlantic Ocean to sing in Mexico and South America, where he was, like everywhere, a great favorite.

The quality and success of his career is reflected in the artists he performed with: names such as Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Maria Caniglia, Gertrude Grob-Prandl, Lina Pagliughi, Antonietta Stella, Adelina Cambi Fedora Barbieri, Ebe Stignani, Aldo Protti, Carlo Tagliabue, Giuseppe Taddei, Tito Gobbi, Boris Christoff, Giulio Neri, as well as the great conductors Gabriele Santini, Vincenzo Bellezza, Tullio Serafin. One person with whom Filippeschi did not have an easy relationship was Victor de Sabata: when singing at La Scala in 1949 as Alvaro, he and de Sabata clashed severely, with the result than the only later association the tenor had with La Scala was collaborating with the orchestra and chorus after Serafin asked him to be Pollio to Callas’ Norma on the famous recording. To an outsider, such a conflict might seem disastrous, for it is a common assumption that La Scala enjoys status as primus inter pares. But Italy is a land of many towers, and during the `40s and `50s, nothing could be more deceiving. Naples and Rome enjoyed great prestige, and Filippeschi’s reputation as tenor of the capital probably did not help him at La Scala, still recovering from the war.

Fortunately, Filippeschi’s legacy is secure thanks to the many recordings of this work that survive, and thanks also to the two opera films he sang and acted in (Rigoletto, Lucia di Lammermoor), his studio output, and numerous live and RAI broadcast recordings, which capture him in all his best roles, such as Arnoldo, Calàf, Chénier, Duca, Manrico, Don Carlo, and Arturo. Regrettably, no document exists of his interpretation of Fernando in La Favorita, one of his best roles, which served as his farewell to the stage in Spain, where the news that it would be his last caused tears in the audience.

Now I thank this noble facilitator, Professor Edmund St Austell, for this wonderful opportunity to showcase the King of Tenors on his blog. Like Filippeschi, he is a gentleman of great learning and great perception and the Internet is a better place for his vast contribution.


*spadavoce "A voice that cuts like a sword"


** Mario il mito "the mythical Mario," or "the Legendary Mario"


*** "Smorzando," gradually slowing down and softening the note


**** A modest, light-voiced tenor