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Sunday, August 19, 2012

Leyla Gencer: The Power of Restraint

Leyla Gencer (Ayşe Leyla Çeyrekgil)  was born in 1928 near Istanbul, the daughter of a Turkish father and Polish mother. Her mother was of aristocratic lineage and her father a well-to-do Turkish businessman.   Leyla began to study singing at the Istanbul Conservatory, but later had the very good fortune to study privately with the great Italian soprano  Giannina Arangi-Lombardi.  She began singing small parts in the Turkish State Theater until she made her debut in Ankara in 1950 as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana.  She soon became well known in Turkey.

Gencer's Italian debut was in 1953 at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. The role was again as Santuzza. She appeared in Naples in 1954, in both Eugene Onegin and Madama Butterfly. In 1957, she made her big La Scala debut, in the world premiere of  Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites. From that point forward, she was in demand, and she began to sing abroad. Italy—and specifically La Scala, was clearly her artistic home, where she was adored and given many important roles.  While she did sing in many foreign cities and venues, including in the United States, she did not appear at the Met, for some reason.  Gencer's biography, especially from an American point of view, could be called exotic,  and it may be the case that many of her decisions about appropriate foreign engagements were determined by convictions both personal and artistic. This is not always the case, in a business where managements often make almost all career decisions for their artists.

Throughout her career, Gencer was especially renowned as a Donizetti interpreter, although she sang many, many different operas.  He repertoire was enormous, exceeding 70 roles!! She was additionally a researcher and teacher, and responsible for re-introducing many works from the Romantic period. Like her mentor and teacher, Giannina Arangi-Lomardi (q.v. in Great Opera Singers) Gencer's singing was characterized by great control and elegance.  There was plenty of power in her voice, but one always has the feeling that there is so much more in reserve.  This sense of restraint gave great credibility to her vocal presentations and always suggests refinement. The great tenor Gigli once said that he sang  through most of his songs and arias quite lightly most of the time because basically, it was loud enough, and he saved the big sound for the ending.  This common-sense approach to vocalism gave him great durability and an extremely long career.  There is something of that in Gencer also.  The power is there when she wants it, and it seems that it is always there, in reserve, even when she is not using it.  Others have done this, but it is, to my ear at least, more pronounced in Gencer.  In any case, the effect is magical.  One other quality is noteworthy, and that is the very unusual glottal attacks in her singing, for which she became somewhat well-known, for better of for worse.  This is certainly not recommended by Western voice teachers, but seeminglhy natural for her, I suspect it is a habit formed from speaking Turkish.  Here is a wonderful "Deh, non volerli vittime," from Norma:

Do you see what I mean about the intense—even smoldering—voice that somehow suggests restraint; that there is an explosion waiting to happen, whether it actually does or not?  It's not that it is not there—you can certainly hear the dramatic high voice in the B natural that jumps out around 1:40.

Here is another good example of what can be accomplished by the intelligent use of vocal dynamics.  I call your attention to the final note of this aria, which starts with a controlled and covered piano, and develops into a mezzo forte at the end.  This is a classic artistic singing device which, properly used, can be counted upon to have its desired effect on the audience.  The aria is "Addio del passato," from La Traviata:

Extremely moving!  There are not a large number of Gencer videos on Youtube, because she made few commercial recordings.   Usually, they are excerpts from actual performance, of varying quality.  I suggest, for the interested reader, having a look at the O Patria Mia and the Un Bel Dì.    Gencer's vocal technique, coupled with her admirable sense of restraint, elegance and dignity, are all exemplary, and absolutely worthy of study.


JD Hobbes said...

Yes, you are quite right about the "Addio" passage. Remarkably good. I had to chuckle when you mentioned her 70+ roles. It reminded me of Caruso's quote about a singer being 90% memory.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ha, ha! Yes, it does boggle the mind to think of holding so much music in one's head. Some of the roles were doubtless small, but even so:-) Thanks for the comment, Mr. Hobbes. Always appreciaed.

corax said...

yes. restraint. and you are quite right about the magical power of that.

i wish i could have heard her live. i very much like this voice. some of her vocal idiosyncrasies remind me of caballe [whom i often heard as a boy]. this voice is perhaps not as laden with overtones; my perception of that may be just an epiphenomenon of the lower-tech recording equipment available in her day.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ah, my dear friend! How nice to hear from you! Yes, I know exactly what you mean, and I think the answer is very likely to be that she in fact made very, very few commercial recordings. As a result, almost all recorded material by Gencer is bootleg tapes and films--some of dubious quality--made from her actual performances. Put that voice in a recording studio today, and start turning knobs and punching buttons and so forth and I suspect we would be floored by what we heard!

Again, lovely to hear from you!

DanPloy said...

How very strange. As you were probably posting this, Edmund, I was listening to a DVD of Gencer in Il Trovatore, (with Del Monaco, Bastianini and Barbieri - it doesn't get much better than that).

For some reason I had forgotten the performance, (dubbed of course, 1957 from RAI), and I listened mostly for the other participants but left wondering why I hadn't tried to listen more of Leyla.

With these heavyweights I expected her to be inaudible but far from it and I don't think they were holding back; (does anyone in this opera - this is an opera for the 'if you have it, flaunt it' singers). But she also knew to sing quietly, to shade her portrayal and as you say, she never seemed to be singing flat out, even with Del Monaco by her side which is some achievement.

Amazingly, in this rather ridiculous but wonderful opera, she gave her role a nobility, rising above all the mayhem going on around her.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Dan. What a wonderful comment. You hit the nail smack on the head. When you say "shade her portrayal," and "gave her role a nobility," you EXACTLY point out the essential qualities of Gencer; those that made her the extraordinary singer she was! Gotta hand it to you, my friend, you know your stuff! Much appreciated. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

An outstanding artist and a beautiful voice. Thanks a lot for the article. There are many comments on youtube, in which she is compared to Callas, as though they were rivals. They are very different as it seems to me, but her timbre sounds dramatic too, and she sang very expressively.
I read a book by Boris Khaikin, a famous Soviet conductor; he wrote a bit about Gencer, because he had worked with her when she performed in the Bolshoi. He wrote that at the beginning of their rehearsals he “followed " her musically, because she was a star and a guest. And finally she told him that she wanted more ‘dictatorship” from him :) Perhaps restraint in her voice has something to do with not only with her technique, but also with her behavior as a musician.


Sexy Sadie said...

She is a cult diva.

Edmund St. Austell said...

To n.a.: Thank you Natalie. Great comment. Yes, you make a good point about her wanting more "dictatorship" from the director. She always said about herself that she was a rather passive person who did not try to impose her will or anything like that. I don't know if it's true or not, but she claimed to be a very modest person. I don't think everybody felt that way:-) In her youth, at least, she was reported to be a fire-ball, very difficult and determined. HOwever, I suspect growing up and acquiring status as an artist in a country which still had significant Islamic cultural influence, although separated in political power from the state, forced her to adopt a certain public persona. If she by nature was fiery, but felt she needed to repress that part of her personality, then that would be another factor contributing to the "restraint" which I so strongly feel in her.

Edmund St. Austell said...

To Sexy Sadie: Yes, she is indeed a cult diva, and I suspect that interweaves interestingly with the other qualities of personality we are discussing: restraint, dignity, suppressed but perceived power, all leading to a kind of hauteur, a certain "grandness" that is indeed diva-like in nature.

Verdiwagnerite said...

Another great artist, Edmund. Thank you.
I agree with DanPloy's comment re: Il Trovatore - a ridiculous but wonderful opera! Gencer's scene with Bastianini when she's pleading for Manrico's life is fabulous. As is the scene to end the 1st act/part of Trovatore - I always find that scene a bit silly but the singing is exciting.
And the O patria mia from Verona (live and outdoors) is a revelation - very dignified and restrained. Just about the best I've heard.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Kate. Wonderful comment! She was great, and the dignity and restraint you mention are key. A superb artist! Thanks again!

Unknown said...

This a very realistic assessment of Leyla Gencer's talent and vocal abilities. She used to say "you have to be able to sing small in order to sing big". There are very few singers of whom I could say that I find them (at least) adequate in anything they have been singing, and even fewer of whom I can say that they were brilliant in 80% or more of their repertoire. Leyla Gencer is definitely one of them. And what a repertoire! 72 roles to be exact. And quite a range too - from low E in a private recital to high F in alt at the conservatoire. Beyond the obvious vocal and musical gifts, there is a strong personality, backed by a very extensive culture and deep knowledge of all classic authors such as Racine and Corneille. This is what makes her interpretations so deep I believe. As for modesty, yes, as an interpreter, in front of a score. But totally aware of her gifts. A diva on the stage for sure, but a discrete person in real life. This has nothing to do with her "Muslim" upbringing but rather with good education (let us not forget that Turkey had just made her secular revolution and given the right of vote to women in 1930, 15 years before France and Italy!). It is a shame she was not allowed a proper recording career. Tullio Serafin who was her earliest real mentor in Italy (before the Gui, Gavazzeni and Muti times)had nearly secured a contract for her with EMI. It is said that Elisabeth, Schwarzkopf, wife of the almighty Walter Legge EMI's artistic director) prevented the contract from being signed. If Gencer had been signed to EMI we would have had her Liu on the Callas Turandot set, and we would have had a Verdi requiem with Gencer in the soprano part, and Callas as the mezzo (Gencer had deeply impressed Callas at Toscanini's funeral in 1956). Just imagine!

Unknown said...

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