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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Giuseppe Anselmi: The Triumph of Elegance

Sicilian tenor Giuseppe Anselmi was born in 1876, and achieved a great reputation throughout Europe in the early years of the twentieth century.  He was also quite popular in St. Petersburg, at the Mariinski, and he also  sang in Warsaw.  Unlike some other singers of his era, he never came to the United States, possibly because Caruso had debuted here in 1903, and was, virtually from the beginning, a very popular tenor, actually one of the first superstars of opera.  That was a matter of small consequence, however, because Anselmi was an entirely different kind of tenor, one more characteristic of the 19th than the twentieth century.  He was at least something of  a bel canto tenor, in the same approximate school as Alessandro Bonci. 

He had a very good career in Europe, and the basis of his fame was the elegance of his singing.  His predilection for bel canto—while not reflected so much in his repertoire choice –made possible some very refined singing, and opened the door for older works.  He sang the bigger Italian roles quite consistently (Canio, Turridu,Cavaradossi,Il Duca, for example),  so while some might loosely call him a "bel canto" tenor, that did not rule out for him the heavier Italian roles.  The divisions between voice types and roles barely existed at that time, and singers often sang a very wide repertoire.  Anselmi sang Ottavio and Almaviva as well as Canio and Turridu, and would also sing Handel and Richard Strauss. He even recorded one song in Russian. 

Anselmi's reputation for elegance came not only from his bel canto training and his linguistic abilities; he was an excellent musician, having studied both piano and violin at the Naples Conservatory as a young man.  His debut was in Genoa, in 1900, when he was very young indeed, and he quickly became popular.  His next move, the following year, was to Covent Garden, and subsequent debuts at San Carlo, La Scala, Monte Carlo came quickly.  From there, it was Brussels, Germany, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Poland and Spain; everywhere a success. While he did not travel to North America, he did travel to South America, and  sang at the Col√≥n in Buenos Aires.  He was not in very robust health, it seems, and by 1910, he was waning, and, sadly, died of tuberculosis in 1929, only 53 years of age.

While Anselmi sang a lot of the "bread and butter" Italian roles, he was no stranger to more modern and more refined music, witness this recording of R. Strauss' "Morgen":

I think you will agree that this is beautiful and musically elegant.  This is not a "trendy" or "occasional" thing that he was doing.  His singing reveals both an understanding of  and control over the style of the song.

Here is an example of bel canto training as reflected  in his handling of Loris' famous aria from Fedora.  We are used to hearing this done by some very robust tenors, but this is another approach to the song that works very well:

How about that!?  Talk about elegance and bel canto technique!  That is absolutely beautiful singing, and the stylistics and musicality are inspiring.  It is not hard to see why he was revered throughout Europe.  That kind of singing is close to being a lost art among tenors.

Here is an Anselmi rarity.  He recorded a soprano aria from Handel's Xerxes, "Va godendo," only recently posted.  This is a real treat:

 Just lovely!  We can say exactly the same thing about this aria that we can say about the first two selections:  purity, elegance, musicality, control of style, tone and phrasing.  All the arts of beautiful singing.  And as for recording a soprano aria from Handel, that just wasn't done by tenors in his day.  There are clearly resonances of a very much earlier time here.

Finally, and I present this because it is linguistically very  rare,  a recording of an Italian tenor singing in Russian.  I suspect, as I point out in the description I put on this video when I posted it,  that this is something he learned in St.Petersburg, where he was exceptionally popular:  (I wrote the first half of the description on this video in Russian, for my Russian audience, but scroll down a bit, I also posted it in English.):

An unusual tenor, a golden age, and arts now largely lost, but there is always the possibility of recovering the essence of the lost arts, if not the actual techniques.




JD Hobbes said...

Another fine entry. At first I thought he reminded me of John McCormack. But then I settled more on Gigli.

Beautiful singing.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes. As always, I appreciate your comment. Yes, it is lovely singing. I can't readily find a tenor he reminds of. I think of the old-timers, mainly--Alessandro Bonci, Carlo Dani, others. Very good, no doubt about that! Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article on this brilliant singer. He was a master with an elegant manner and a beautiful timbre – I agree. Some recordings seem speeded up a bit, but I like his manner of vocal production. Though it may seem dated, I really miss it in modern recordings:)
I also listened to “La donna e mobile” and Werther’s aria – he was very intelligent as an actor.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, my dear friend, for a superb comment. You hit all the important points, and these things, taken together are exactly what made him so popular. His intelligence, both as an actor, musician and stylist (related to the acting)made him a unique figure among tenors of his day. I always look forward to your comments because they are just so GOOD:-) Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I am learning so much reading these blogs about singers I didn't know about! Anselmi was wonderful. I just love that kind of old-fasioned singing especially the fast vibrato. I wish singers still sang like that! Thanks for thisw!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Martha. The pleasure is mine, be assured! I'm glad you like Anselmi. He was a fine, unusual tenor that seemingly still has a lot of fans today, to judge by the large number of videos on Youtube. RE the fast vibrato. You are not alone. Many people like that sound, and you can still find it among some modern European popular singers. Edith Piaf comes to mind--she had such an intense and passionate vibrato that it caused a real emotional effect in listeners. Unfortunately, it is completely out of style today, especially among men. I'm not entirely sure why.

DanPloy said...

Hello Edmund, I wonder if you deliberately chose Anselmi to follow Florez.

The comparison over the century is very revealing of what we have gradually lost in singing.

Anslemi take huge liberties with the music, something that would never be allowed today. Individualism has been squeezed out of the singers. The fast vibrato has been noted but also phrases are taken with a single breath, his aspirations, when he sings soft or loud or starts a note loudly and then gradually softens it to a whisper, all make the piece of music alive and even with jaded old war horses he makes you listen again.

He was a great singer although sometimes infuriating when his 'experiments' perhaps do not work. But what he always does is make the music alive. He was a great musician.

Listening to the same piece sung by a modern singer the music has no life to it, the characters are bland. Some singing is louder, some softer, but there is no feeling in the singer (I appreciate that is a generalisation).

Today the producer, the conductor, the art director, the lady that makes the salmon sandwiches, all seem to have more say in how opera should be sung than the singer.

Thank-you for reminding us how the golden era sounded.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Dan! I really appreciate your comment! It is clear you and I think pretty much alike, and you are so right about individualism having gone out of singing. Anselmi is always Anselmi. He doesn't even resemble other singers in the same approximate fach. Take De Lucia, for example. Another old-time tenor that still has huge numbers of fans. He always sounds like De Lucia. It is impossible to mistake him for another tenor of his era, and the same can be said of Anselmi. And they never particularly resemble each other. We've lost a lot. There's no doubt about it. Thanks again for a great comment!

Anonymous said...

Special thanks for posting the Russian recording. Though he sings with a strong accent, his performance is very intelligent again, and it’s clear that he knows and understands very well the meaning of the Russian text. His intonations are “Russian”. The performance is also musically perfect.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Again, my dear friend, many thanks for your comment. Perhaps he, like me, had become very fond of Russia and its amazing culure, and wanted to show that appreciation by trying to learn your mind-numbing language:-)