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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Nicolai Gedda: An Epicure's Taste And A Great Favorite

Nicolai Gedda was born in Stockholm in 1925.  He was from early youth bilingual in Swedish and Russian, and went on to learn important world languages on his own.  He was, as a result, possessed of a great linguistic versatility during his career and sang convincingly in many languages.  Gedda is an extremely famous tenor and his biography is so easily consulted, that I need say only a few words by way of introduction.

After some introductory vocal study with Carl Martin Öhman, a  Wagnerian tenor from the 1920s, Gedda—as characteristically happens—drew almost immediate attention to himself.  His voice was large for a lyric tenor, and he always had an amazing and utterly reliable top, capable of singing above high C.  After understudying Giuseppe di Stefano at the Edinburgh Festival around 1951, he debuted with the royal Swedish Opera in Adam's Le Postillon de Lonjumeau, where he had ample opportunity to display his very high voice.  He attracted the attention of von Karajan in 1953, and his La Scala debut took place in 1953.   The role was Don Ottavio, and Gedda quickly became identified as an absolutely superb Mozart tenor.  After la Scala came the Paris Opera in 1954 and the Met in 1957.  By then, the career was international, and was to become one of the great careers in opera.  He was at the Met for 26 years, and performed 28 roles there, including all the famous "bread and butter roles."  People often mistakenly think of him primarily in terms of the French repertoire, but in fact his repertoire was very broad, including the big Italian roles and Russian roles as well.

I think the first thing that merits listening to is his "Il Mio Tesoro" from Mozart's Don Giovanni.  A well known New York opera coach once told me something that I have never forgotten:  "Everybody likes the big Mozart tenor arias, like "Il mio tesoro," but they don't want to hear them sung by a church tenor."  So very true!  This is where Gedda shone.  He sings this Mozart aria with the same verbal gusto he would use to sing arias from the standard Italian or French repertoire.  The result is one of the most viril renderings of the aria ever recorded, while remaining true to Mozart and to the essential stylistics and musicality of the piece:

That is an "Il mio tesoro" to be proud of!  The audience response at the end of this tape, which is a live Met performance, tells the story.  It is one of the most enthusiastic applaudings of the piece that I have ever heard.  I heard him in concert, in 1961, sing this aria, and I was stunned by the amount of voice he put into it.  His was a big voice, and he made it work beautifully in Mozart.  It was stunning.  I have never forgotten it!

This does not mean that Gedda always sang lyric arias with great vocal  energy—not at all.  Here is an exemplary "Je crois entendre encore:"

Isn't that just beautiful!  This is Gedda in a characteristic French mode that became something of a calling card for him.  It is perhaps because of singing like this, in French, that he developed the reputation of being something like a French tenor.  He was not, of course, but he did handle the language beautifully, and his elegance and sense of style—coupled with an innate musicality—contributed considerably to that notion.

Finally, an aria not commonly asociated with Gedda, but one which he sings very well indeed.  The great perennial favorite "A te, o cara," here recorded at La Scala, where he was quite popular.  He sings it beautifully, and it provides a good vehicle for his high voice, which—considering its size—was somewhat miraculous. (I can testify to the size of the voice!)  Notice that he sings it in the original key, so the high note is  a C#. Gedda was at home, however, in this stratospheric range:

And there you have it!  A great tenor, a great stylist, a very reliable, very high tenor voice, always under control.  For many people, and all things considered, this was a tenor for the ages!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Robert Merrill: The Rolls-Royce of Baritones!

The popular American baritone Robert Merrill (Moishe Miller) was born in 1919, or thereabouts, in Brooklyn, the son of Polish immigrants. Merrill was part of that wonderful Jewish artistic immigration to the United States, around the turn of the century, which gave us the likes of Beverly Sills, Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce, Roberta Peters, and Leonard Warren, among others. Along with the great vaudevillians from the same period—Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, George Burns, Sophie Tucker and many others, it constituted one of the greatest artist windfalls ever enjoyed by a relatively young country in the process of developing its own cultural traditions. In the classical arts of the 20th century, this means Jewish-American, and it was spectacular!

Like Beverly Sills, Jan Peerce, Helen Traubel, Lawrence Tibbett and so many others of the period, Merrill always had one foot in popular entertainment, especially Broadway, radio and TV. Today we think of opera singers as almost exclusively opera singers, but that was not really so at that time. Actually, I think the case could be made that opera and opera singing are at their healthiest and probably most popular—at least in this country—when they exist in the company of the popular arts. That cozy relationship was shattered for good, it seems, not by opera singers and opera enthusiasts, but by the extraordinary developments, post-Elvis, of a rock-driven American popular culture that simply has nothing at all in common with traditional arts like opera. It wasn't opera's fault. But that is another story, and another blog!

There is no good reason I can think of to waste your time or mine with a mini-biography of Robert Merrill. If you're reading a blog like this, it's safe to assume you already know a lot about opera singers. Merrill was so well-known that a simple glance at Wiki will tell you anything you may not already know about this popular American baritone. A trivia point—you may not know that he was a very accomplished semi-pro baseball player, and paid for his musical education at the beginning with money he made pitching in a semi-pro league! There is always something more to people: like the fact that Roberto Murolo, the grand master of Neapolitan song and song history, actually paid his way through college as a championship swimmer:-) You just never know.

It's all about Merrill's voice. His was one of the smoothest, most elegantly and easily produced of baritone voices. Here is an absolutely classic rendition of "Some Enchanted Evening" that shows very well the perfection of his singing technique:

Now how is that for smooth! Absolutely perfect singing, as best I can judge. I am reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with Daniel Ferro, at Juilliard, one of the world's outstanding voice teachers. He compared Merrill's technique to the automatic gear-shifting of an expensive luxury automobile. He said you never notice the shift between registers; it is so smooth that it is like a perfect, steady progression. I don't think it can be said better.

Such smoothness and exemplary legato immediately suggest Valentin as a near ideal French role for Merrill, and indeed he was superb in such repertoire. Here is the much-loved aria "Avant de Quitter ceux lieux" in a live 1955 performance:

Again, the words that first come to mind are "smoothness," "legato," and "tonal consistency," all accompanied by a remarkably in-line transition to the upper register. It often comes as a surprise to realize that Merrill is sometimes singing Gs and even Abs as though they were part of the middle of his voice!

Finally, the one baritone aria that even those who know nothing of opera will know, Figaro's ultra-famous "Largo al factotum," staple fare of concerts, anthologies, singing textbooks and even cartoons!

Absolutely excellent! This cannot be faulted. I would call it a classic rendition—completely free of the extraordinary idiosyncrasies so frequently visited upon it by lesser talents. The Italian diction, which frequently gets muddled in the mouths of Americans, is pretty clean and clear here; as always, the register transitions are perfect, and the tonal consistency is absolute. That's the kind of singing that guarantees a very long career! And that indeed is what Merrill had—long, distinguished, profitable, and—not merely coincidentally—a lot of fun!