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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Giovanna Casolla: Traditional Dramatic Soprano

It is a great pleasure to welcome again today our outstanding guest commentator Mr. Gioacchino Fiurezi Maragioglio, Italian industrialist, opera critic and historian. Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio, an  intimate friend of the great Italian tenor Giacomo Lauri Volpi, is possessed of a truly extraordinary knowledge of Italian opera and opera singers, many of whom he has known personally. I do not believe that there is anyone among my acquaintance whose knowledge exceeds his own, and there are precious few who could match it.  Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio speaks to us today of the remarkable dramatic soprano Giovanna Casolla.
During the twentieth century, the Italian dramatic soprano was a voice enjoyed all across the world. In fact, during one brilliant decade, Milanov, Ponselle, Raïsa, Cigna, Arangi-Lombardi, Scacciati and Jeritza could all be found singing the greatest roles of the dramatic repertoire: Amelia, Aïda, both Leonoras, and— excepting Ponselle—the most demanding of all: Turandot.

From her début in 1977, Giovanna Casolla has stood as an exceptional example of this great and very necessary kind of soprano. It was only after such disappointments as Katia Ricciarelli’s Turandot that people realized exactly what was missing. So, let us see Signora Casolla in this most demanding of roles, Turandot. Here is the Riddle Scene, with tenor Nicola Martinucci, cut in Torino in 2006, when the soprano was no less than sixty-one years of age, and her Calàf sixty-five!

She is in complete command in this role, and the size and power of the voice are immediately discernable. It is not difficult to compare these qualities to singers of the past, especially to Cigna! She puts forth a great effort creating Turandot, and in this rendition she is convincing as a proud and sneering princess. Her phrasing and control of dynamics, when she taunts Calàf on the final riddle, are particularly effective, owing in large part to the softness of her tone as she comments on Calàf's paleness; something ironically reinforced by the contrasting forte at the end of the phrase.

Casolla is well-known as the interpreter of difficult roles, and here she is interpreting another one: Minnie in La Fanciulla del West, singing her aria Laggiù nel soledad. As is immediately apparent, it is very hard to sing. Puccini demands the soprano move rapidly between a very lyric, reflective parlando expression and then a very dramatic, forceful expression, trumpeting out high notes. Once again, Casolla has her voice ready and waiting to assail the very difficult aria.

Her vocal coloring is particularly well-displayed in the big aria Suicidio from La Gioconda. This is a real chiaroscuro voice, with bright and clear overtones shimmering on top of what is a very dark and threatening core. This, combined with her firm legato and excellent breath control, allows her to show both the strength and resolve of Gioconda while at the same time reminding us that she is, after all, just a young and vulnerable woman.

In this next selection, Casolla interprets Verdi in a performance of Un Ballo in Maschera, in the big aria Morrò, ma prima in grazia. Besides a powerful high C, her legato and attention to text are most noteworthy. Once again, her vocal colouring is both beautiful and emotive, communicating the innocence and purity of Amelia. After such impassioned singing, it seems completely reasonable for Renato’s anger to change into mercy.

The richness and ease of production in the lower parts of Casolla’s voice also permit her to undertake congenial mezzo-soprano roles, so that in Don Carlo, for example,  Eboli is her role of choice. rather than Elisabetta. She has also performed Carmen to great acclaim, and is one of the very few singers who can boast of having sung both Aïda and Amneris equally well.

I am sure you have all noted the word ‘traditional’ in the title of this article. I chose it purposefully, and in then next very short video, which is a recording of Casolla speaking, the concepts of traditional and modern Italian singing collide distressingly.

For some, this may seem a gratuitous observation; one which seems to favor what might be considered the cruder aspects of traditional Italian singing.  I assure you, that is not the case.  What it really represents is the frustration of the old order with certain aspects of the modern operatic scene. Casolla speaks of her own dream to sing Norma, a dream which remained only that: in her own words, it was not in her throat — not in her throat to perform with all of her roles, not in her throat to perform in the Arena di Verona, or in her native San Carlo, or in Scala. Thus, it is easy to understand why Bartoli’s recording and interpretation of Norma raises some questions for Casolla.  Essentially, it is the collision of two very different worlds. Casolla’s traditional art takes place principally in the theater. Bartoli’s art is different to the extent it takes place largely in the recording studio, notwithstanding her many excellent concert and staged performances. The demands of recording a role such as Norma are less than what is required to sing it live. This is a point that I think is being lost today, and it is essentially a result of modern technology.  It is not simply my observation—it is quite general, and has been made by no less a tenor than Giuseppe Giacomini, who has said he believes that live performance, in a theater, is de naturitate different than the art of recording; that it in fact has a certain relationship to the religious theater of Greco-Roman antiquity. With all these perfect studio recordings, it is easy to find fault with live singers like Casolla, but, in fact it is Casolla who has performed these demanding roles in large theaters for more than thirty years. Thus, when someone comes along and enacts your dream in what, from Casolla’s view, is a very diminished and artificial way, it would be natural to express your reservations.

I also feel that Casolla’s comment is directed essentially at some modern bel canto and baroque artists, who are frequently regarded and promoted as ‘superior’ or ‘better’ than artists who perform Verdi, Puccini or verismo works. This is a common frustration often felt both by spectators and singers of her generation.

All good operatic singing is worthy of acknowledgment, and thus I thank our dear Professor Edmund St Austell for allowing me to present this article on Casolla, whose singing masterfully continues the tradition — and temperament — of the great dramatic sopranos of the past. If that is not recognised as great singing, what can be?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Mario Filippeschi--"The King of Tenors"

Dear Readers:  This article was originally written on June 17, and was unfortunately lost during the time I was rebuilding this site.   Fortunately, I had backed it up, and have been able to reconstruct it! 

It is a real pleasure —and distinct honor—for me to welcome the return today of our very distinguished guest writer, Mr. Gioacchino Fiurezi Maragioglio, Italian industrialist from Naples, opera critic and historian. Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio was an intimate friend of the great Italian tenor Giacomo Lauri Volpi, and is a life-time subscriber to the Teatro San Carlo, one of the world's historically great opera houses. Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio's knowledge of Italian opera and opera singers —past and present—is simply vast, and I do not believe that there is anyone among my acquaintances whose knowledge exceeds his own, and there are precious few who could match it. I know that I certainly could not. It is a rare pleasure to be able to feature this piece on the great Italian tenor Mario Filippeschi.]


 Mario Filippeschi, the tenor from Pisa, was called spadavoce* by adoring audiences in Spain. At his beloved Teatro San Carlo, he was known as Mario il mito.** Lauri-Volpi, in private correspondence, once called him the "King of Tenors." It was a title he truly deserved.


The voice was of the highest quality: warm and sonorous throughout the range, extending into a glorious treble register that finished with a gigantic high D natural. Filippeschi, like Escalais, O’Sullivan, Lauri-Volpi, Soler and others, belonged to that rarest of vocal categories— the true heroic tenor. While a dramatic tenor often has a weighty, dark voice and vast sound, (Giacomini, Vinay) the heroic tenor is more what is sometimes called a “super-lyric.” Although large, the voice is brighter and more notable for power of incision than for weight. A dramatic tenor can easily make a career without an extensive upper register, but for a heroic tenor, singing notes like the C and C-sharp must be easy and effortless.


Filippeschi was an exemplar of all these qualities. His high notes, and not just the very highest C-sharp and D, but lower notes as well, were cast into the theatre like a blast of molten gold. This stream could be modulated a piacereto a fine pianissimo. The staging of Faust at San Carlo, with Tebaldi, in 1951, was particularly memorable. Although only a young man, I remember going with my father to speak to Filippeschi before the opera. I recall that during these years, it was Di Stefano’s high C diminuendo that had captured much attention among the opera-going public, so we were most interested when Filippeschi told us that “Di Stefano is not the only one to make that little trick of "suffocation.”*** And sure enough, that night, during the cavatina, the great tenor sang a fortissimo high C, bringing it slowly down to a floating pianissimo.

 Callas attained great prominence as a reviver of Rossini and other bel canto composers. The Maggio Musicale Fiorentino performance of Armida, in 1952, is still well remembered. Less well known, outside Italy, is the role that Filippeschi played in reviving bel canto, especially Rossini. Always a generous performer, giving his best to the audience, he gave his voice with the unselfishness of a blood donor to old Rossini and his final operatic creation, William Tell, in the formidable role of Arnoldo. Singing it is not just a matter of pulling out a C — although this is important. No, Arnoldo must be sung by a voice of the right color, texture and power: it is no role for a tenorino. **** Filippeschi sang this role all over Italy and overseas as well, more than fifty times between his début of the role in 1949 and his last performance of it in 1959—a record that is unlikely ever to be equalled.

Upon hearing the cruel tessitura Verdi had demanded of the heroine of Nabucco, Rossini called him a "composer in a helmet." In the writing of Arnoldo's role, we could say the same of Rossini! Filippeschi, however, with a voice naturally suited to these heights, and harnessed with solid nineteenth-century technique, passed through these Alps of opera without a single mis-step. Here he is, singing the big scene of Act IV, O muto asil del pianto, and the cabaletta, Corriam! Voliam!

 Prior to his vocal training, Filippeschi studied the clarinet, which no doubt helped to form his musicianship and above all refine his legendary breath control. His extraordinary singing was always well-presented in another of his best roles: that of Manrico in Il Trovatore. Here, he sings Di quella pira, the big aria that the audience always waits for.  A real showpiece, requiring an extraordinary voice if it is to be done well, and pity the tenor who does not do it well!  Only first-class singers need apply!

Such incredible high Cs! There is a time for romantic and realistic characterisation in Manrico’s character,but  this comes in other places in the opera: during the cavatina to this cabaletta, earlier in "Mal reggendo," in the first act serenade, and of course in the final act in the "Miserere" and the duet "Ai nostri monti." "Di quella pira," however, is all about excitement and militaristic abandon.

 Arturo, in I Puritani, was another role with which Filippeschi was closely associated. He provided not only the high notes (always singing "A te, o cara" and "Credeasi misera" in the original key), but sustained the high tessitura of the role effortlessly. Additionally, and very importantly, Filippeschi also sang Arturo with a certain feeling for Bellini’s long, long melodic line that he is frequently accused —outside Italy—of lacking. In any case, readers can judge for themselves. Here Filippeschi sings the great warhorse, "A te, o cara."

Finally, let us look at Filippeschi in his signature role--The Duke, in Rigoletto.  Filippeschi's Duke was an edgier, darker figure than that portrayed by many tenors. During his career, his Duca was extremely pleasing to me and audiences at San Carlo, and now, listening to old recordings, I find them refreshing. Today there is a great obsession with forcing the Duke to be sung in a way which creates a sympathetic character that endears him to the audience. Nothing could be further from Verdi’s vision, which, we must remember, in fact depicts no less a personage than King Francis I of France: a sovereign emperor who needs no sympathy. Certainly his second-act aira  "Ella mi fu rapita," performed in  its correct context as an interior lament, reflected this darker character, and one can hear resonances of that more powerful, inforgiving, autocratic nature even in a passionate love song such as "E il sol dell'anima":

What a top voice!  This hardly sounds like a lovesick and impoverished student.  It sounds more like a Roman emperor! 

The versatility and stamina of Filippeschi was incredible, from the very beginning of his career in 1937, when he made his début as Edgardo, and then the very next day was called upon to sing the Duke, a role which served him well for more than twenty-five years and which he presented for his final performances. His retirement when he was only in his mid fifties was certainly not caused by any vocal problems, but by a desire for a more tranquil life with his wife and daughters. Filippeschi was, from the beginning, in high demand, frequently travelling the length of Italy between Palermo and Trieste, crossing the sea to sing in Spain, and above all, always having to hurry across the Atlantic Ocean to sing in Mexico and South America, where he was, like everywhere, a great favorite.

The quality and success of his career is reflected in the artists he performed with: names such as Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Maria Caniglia, Gertrude Grob-Prandl, Lina Pagliughi, Antonietta Stella, Adelina Cambi Fedora Barbieri, Ebe Stignani, Aldo Protti, Carlo Tagliabue, Giuseppe Taddei, Tito Gobbi, Boris Christoff, Giulio Neri, as well as the great conductors Gabriele Santini, Vincenzo Bellezza, Tullio Serafin. One person with whom Filippeschi did not have an easy relationship was Victor de Sabata: when singing at La Scala in 1949 as Alvaro, he and de Sabata clashed severely, with the result than the only later association the tenor had with La Scala was collaborating with the orchestra and chorus after Serafin asked him to be Pollio to Callas’ Norma on the famous recording. To an outsider, such a conflict might seem disastrous, for it is a common assumption that La Scala enjoys status as primus inter pares. But Italy is a land of many towers, and during the `40s and `50s, nothing could be more deceiving. Naples and Rome enjoyed great prestige, and Filippeschi’s reputation as tenor of the capital probably did not help him at La Scala, still recovering from the war.

Fortunately, Filippeschi’s legacy is secure thanks to the many recordings of this work that survive, and thanks also to the two opera films he sang and acted in (Rigoletto, Lucia di Lammermoor), his studio output, and numerous live and RAI broadcast recordings, which capture him in all his best roles, such as Arnoldo, Calàf, Chénier, Duca, Manrico, Don Carlo, and Arturo. Regrettably, no document exists of his interpretation of Fernando in La Favorita, one of his best roles, which served as his farewell to the stage in Spain, where the news that it would be his last caused tears in the audience.

Now I thank this noble facilitator, Professor Edmund St Austell, for this wonderful opportunity to showcase the King of Tenors on his blog. Like Filippeschi, he is a gentleman of great learning and great perception and the Internet is a better place for his vast contribution.


*spadavoce "A voice that cuts like a sword"


** Mario il mito "the mythical Mario," or "the Legendary Mario"


*** "Smorzando," gradually slowing down and softening the note


**** A modest, light-voiced tenor