Leonid Sobinov: A Great Russian Tenor And A Golden Career
Leonid Vitalyevich Sobinov (Леонид Витальевич Собинов) was born in 1872 in Yaroslav. Unlike so many artists, Sobinov's childhood was relatively calm and unproblematic. He was in fact a golden boy, destined for an astonishingly fortunate and successful life. His father Vitaly, a Naval officer, saw that Leonid got a good education, and placed him into a boy's school at the age of 9. He joined a choir upon graduation, and proceeded to enroll in the University of Moscow, where he earned a law degree. Upon graduation he began to practice law and fulfill his military service, taking time to begin singing lessons. This led to an audition for the Bolshoi theater, which was a big success, and he received a 2 year contract in 1897. He performed, in quick succession, many operas, both in Moscow and Petersburg. These included works such as Faust, Manon, Lohengrin, Rigoletto, Tanhäuser, Prince Igor, and Eugene Onegin. Sobinov met, and was impressed by Chaliapin, who was very nearly his age, and they sang together, in performance, when Sobinov was only 27 years old.
Sobinov was a very wise young man who understood the importance of guarding his vocal gifts carefully, and he was careful to expand his operatic repertoire with care. To that end, he traveled to Italy as a young man, to learn, and hopefully to perform. He did both, and even sang at La Scala in the early 1900's, expanding his repertoire to include such standards as Marta, Werther, Mignon, and Romeo et Juliette. He went on, with La Scala now in his background, to attract very favorable attention in London, Paris and Madrid.
To make a fairly long story short, Sobinov went on to have a brilliant career, everywhere loved, everywhere respected. He was handsome, a real ladies' man, and had a storied romantic life. (Of course....everything seemed to go well for him!) After the 1917 revolution, he became director of the Bolshoi theater. In 1923, he was named People's Artist of The Soviet Union. He died, peacefully, in 1934.
If ever there were a charmed life, it seems that Sobinov had it. I'm sure there were problems along the way—no life is perfect—but they seem remarkably few and far between. What a lucky fellow he seems to have been! It reminds me somewhat of the modern life of star prima ballerina Diana Vishneva. Prodigiously talented, and stunningly beautiful from childhood, now People's Artist of Russia, she has known only success since winning the Prix de Lausanne in 1994 at 17 years of age. Some people are just born under lucky stars!
So, what did our golden boy sound like? Need you ask? Naturally, he was very good. His voice was classically lyric, and that is the simplest definition I can think of. As was the custom in his time, opera singers sang a very wide repertoire. This does not happen often today (unless one is Jonas Kaufmann), when specialization seems to be the norm. Sobinov sang Wagner as well as bel canto comic operas such as don Pasquale. It was very much simpler then. Singers sang. Tenors sang high, Basses sang low. Baritones sang in the middle. That pretty much covered it. Here is an absolutely lovely version of "Mein Lieber Schwann," from 1910:
A classic and very beautiful rendition of this aria; one that is actual sung as opposed to declaimed. Like his friend and fellow People's Artist Antonina Nezhdanova, Sobinov always sang Wagner as though it were Bellini, and it worked very well. I am convinced it would also work very well today if conductors, managers and stage directors would let it. It was this kind of lyric singing that most characterized Sobinov's art, even though he sang roles which today are sung by more heroic voices. Also, his technique was slightly different than common singing technique today. His support was rather less, with the result that in the upper register one often hears a kind of "rip" or a "tearing" sound at the end of a note, when he releases it. This is often accompanied by a slight gasp, as though the breath has run out. This means it is only slightly supported. However, that was characteristic of the time, and it did not effect the essential beauty of the singing. Here is the very popular "Je crois entendre encore," from 1911:
Again, very beautiful singing, but without the customary high note at the end. The extreme top was not Sobinov's particular forte, it was rather the quality of the voice and the artistry of the style that command attention. Finally, here is Werther's aria "Pourquoi me reveiller":
One of my most faithful readers, Mr. J.D. Hobbes, wrote a comment when I published this blog, several hours ago, and noted that Sobinov's rather obvious holding on to high notes, until there is a gasp and slight "rip" in the voice, may have had something to do with the demands of acoustic recording, and the need to keep the sound volume high to the very end. It occured to me to check an electric recording of him as an older man, to test this idea. I was able to find an old sound film, whose voice recording was obviously electric. Here it is....it is revealing. Just listen to Sobinov as he sings at the very biginning of the video:
I find that most interesting! All the delicate nuance and musical line is intact! I think we have discovererd something here. It may well be the case that his breathing and lack of diminuendo on the old acoustic recordings were simply an act of necessity. Thank you Mr. Hobbes, for that fascinating suggestion!
Summing up, it seems fair to classify Sobinov's voice as straight-line lyric, an instrument of great beauty, well enough produced for the time, albeit a bit short on top compared to the Italian model. It is a remarkably consistent voice, strong and commanding. For me, at least, the outstanding aspect of Sobinov's singing is the intellectual and stylistic artistry that is always present. There is something hypnotic about his singing that is most attractive, and was, in his day, greatly praised. A golden life, a beautiful voice, and one of the greatest careers in opera!