Sunday, February 26, 2012
Geraldine Farrar: Hollywood Glamour Comes To Opera
Her earliest roles seem to have been chosen to accentuate these characteristics. She appeared in Thomas' Mignon and Massenet's Manon, as well as Juliette in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. Hints of scandalous affairs began to surface almost immediately, and were to become a staple of her career, as she quickly either cultivated or naturally fell into what might be called show business glitz, with all that it implies. By the 20's she would be one of the "modern women" of that period. She even had young female admirers known as "Gerry-flappers." Her most notorious affair was probably her long-standing affair with Arturo Toscanini, something that finally, if the stories are true—drove Toscanini from the Met when she demanded marriage. She was a mighty strong-minded woman.
All this is not to say that she was without more traditional artistic talents –not at all. In fact, she became an absolute staple at the Metropolitan for almost her entire career, until her retirement in 1922. She sang nearly 500 performances during that period, creating title roles in Mascagni's Amica, Puccini's Suor Angelica, and Giordano's Madame Sans-Gêne. Also, she was the Met's first Cho-Cho-San, in 1907.
Farrar also appeared in many silent movies, including Joan the Woman (1917), in which she portrayed Joan of Arc, and, in 1915, Cecil B. DeMille's adaptation of the opera Carmen. During her career, she made many recordings with RCA Victor.
Before listening to Farrar sing "Un bel dì," it is necessary to point out that she was among the first singing actors at the Met. She did not hesitate to use her voice to support characterization. Therefore, if she needed to portray something ugly and frightening, she did not hesitate to let those qualities be shown in her voice. She was not at all wed to pure lyricism at all costs. Here, in Cho-Cho-San's famous aria, in which she dreams of her husband's return, she deliberately creates the sound of the voice of a 15-year old girl. This will be immediately apparent at the beginning of the recording. It is important to remember what she was doing:
Very few well-known sopranos, then or now, would have the courage or the conviction to attempt this. The result is that we often must contend with hefty 40 year old sopranos singing Cho-Cho-San a tutta forza. Personally, I find Farrar's version very moving. It drives home, in the most direct way, the absolute tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes, as a child, with her own child, is about to have a child's first love betrayed. It's all just too terrible. This is the triumph of acting and characterization over all other considerations!
Here is a recording made in Farrar's youth, when she was only 27 years old. It is easy to see what kind of voice she had—very much in the ingénue category, very lovely and light, perfect for the kinds of heroines she was portraying at that stage of her life. This is the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann, with baritone Antonio Scotti, in 1909:
Mignon, Manon, Marguerite, Juliette—a perfect voice and repertoire choice joined to her youthful beauty.
Finally, Here is the "Jewel Song" from Faust, the opera in which Farrar first attracted international attention to herself as a 19-year old girl. This recording is from 1913, when she was 31, probably at her vocal peak, and shows a voice in full maturity—a rich and ringing operatic sound but with a somewhat forced B natural at the end. She never had a particularly high voice, and she was known to take on a huge schedule, which began to take its toll. She retired in 1922, when she was only 40, and it would seem to be the case that she had abused her voice with too much singing. Also, she always used the voice she had, as mentioned, in support of her acting, and that may have had some effect.
And now, an extra treat: thanks to one of our faithful readers, my dear Russian friend Natalie, here is a Youtube video of Farrar's Carmen in Cecil B. DeMille's film!
Farrar in a nutshell: Self knowledge, a mighty will of her own, an adroit use of natural gifts, and a first-class career!
at 12:09 PM