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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Marilyn Horne: One Of The Greatest Mezzos Of All Time

One of the pleasures of writing about singers such as Marilyn Horne is that one enjoys the freedom to make great claims.  I am not as a rule given to hyperbole, because in the fine arts, and entertainment generally, the proofs are lacking.  Having said that, I don’t think there can be much question about saying that Marilyn Horne is one of the greatest mezzo sopranos of all time.

Horne was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in California. She was musically gifted, and was involved in music, in one way or another, from her pre-teen years onward. She studied voice with William Vennard at the University of Southern California’s School of Music and attended master classes given by Lotte Lehmann. Horne is very American, as is her background. As a young woman she did all sorts of musical things, including film dubbing and background singing for TV sitcoms. She covered pop songs, and did minor character acting on TV.  Her big break came when she was discovered by Igor Stravinsky.  European appearances soon followed, starting in the mid-1950’s.  The 1960’s saw her return to the U.S., in San Francisco in Wozzeck. She soon teamed up with Joan Sutherland, and together they did an extensive series of bel canto opera seria concerts that attracted much attention.  It was back to Europe in 1964, with her Covent Garden debut as Marie in Wozzeck.  Then came La Scala, in Stavinsky’s Oedipus Rex, in 1969.  The Met debut was in 1970, in Norma, followed several years later by Le Prophète and Carmen.

From that time on, Horne became very famous, and sang extensively in all major venues, and to universal acclaim.  There was always a heavy emphasis in her repertoire on bel canto and opera seria works, which formed such a major part of her early concert work with Sutherland.  There is, additionally, an entire repertoire of modern and modern American music which we have not the time or space to mention here. There is no need to belabor a biography so easily consulted.  Let us move, therefore,  to the singer and her artistry.

One of the truly outstanding features of Horne’s singing is her absolute mastery of technique, manifested primarily in  the great flexibility of her voice  All those years dedicated to the bel canto repertoire would not have been possible without the perfect control and support required to sing this music.  Her technique can be seen at work in this aria, the coloratura classic “Bel Raggio Lusinghier,” from Rossini’s Semiramide:

And this from a mezzo-soprano!  The extreme flexibility of the voice is evident, as are the registers and the range.  One cannot say that this is simply a soprano with some low notes.  Not the case!  This is a legitimate mezzo, with a firm control over vocal quality, flexibility and extension.  This is why she sings so well, on the very thinnest edges of the cords, never leaning on the thicker vocal cords, thereby avoiding the “huskiness” so apparent in the lower registers of many singers. She can control volume, crescendo/decrescendo, and fioratura.

All this does not mean that she could not or would not sing the bigger dramatic roles characteristic of Verdi or Puccini.  Listen to her “Stride La Vampa:”

How about that!  It’s a perfect example of what I am talking about.  Did you notice all the trills at the beginning of the aria? Flexibility.  The first leap into the upper register?  Darkness, volume, and crescendo.  The same could be said for the end of the aria.  Verdi all the way, but absolutely no vocal strain, pushing, or “woof” in the voice.  Pure, clean, immaculate singing.  This is the great Horne secret.  She is an absolute exemplar of perfect singing technique.  Any young woman who wants to sing mezzo could do no better than start by listening to Marilyn Horne—not to imitate, but to watch perfect technique in action.

Finally, the dramatic and lower voice, which is very exciting.  Here is “Ô Prêtres de Baal,” from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete:” [The aria is long, but even listening to a few minutes of the beginning will make the point!]

What more can one say!  I will end as I began:  “One of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of all time.”



Sunday, February 3, 2013

Ballet Break II: Diana Vishneva

Diana Vishneva  (Vishnëva, pronounced Vishnyova) was born in  St. Petersburg  in1976  and was trained at the famous  Vaganova Ballet Academy.  Many consider her to be the greatest ballet dancer currently performing, and indeed one of the greatest of all time. One of the most commonly cited facts about Vishneva is that while she was a student  she accumulated the highest marks ever given in the history of the academy.  She was as near a perfect student as it is possible to imagine. She won the 1994 Prix de Lausanne—an astonishing feat as the gold medal had gone for a considerable time almost exclusively to male dancers.  Her talent, however, was so extraordinary that it simply could not be  ignored or passed over.  Never.  She graduated from the academy the following year and was immediately hired by the Mariinsky, where she became a principle dancer the following year.  The speed of this rise strains credulity, especially in Russia, where much is demanded of  dancers and such rapid ascension is almost unheard of.

 She quickly became known in all the major theaters and festivals, and was a world sensation in very short order.  She currently is a principle dancer both at the Mariinsky and also—and this is historically unknown—at the American Ballet Theater.  She was named several years ago by President Putin as People’s Artist of  Russia.  She is famous, so  her biography is well known and easily consulted.

First, I think it’s important to look at the young Vishneva, because the talent was so great even then that it was clear she was headed for the big time.  Here she is at 17, in a presentation built around music from Bizet’s Carmen:

It is hard not to find oneself  smiling from ear to ear when she takes her bow!  The technical command is astonishing for a girl of 17, but even more amazing is the mental and emotional grip she has on the characterization.  In writing on another occasion about this scene, I used the terms “spunk” and “sparkle.”  She captures the qualities of seductiveness and self-confidence in a way that is quite advanced for her relatively tender age.  She is at this point still a student, but all the signs of mastery are present.

It is illustrative to watch her, later, in a reheaersal and class, where we get a clear sense of her energy and her positive attitude about learning. She is having a lot of fun here, as she manages to inadvertently kick off a warm-up pad from her leg, and then begin, more seriously,  to listen very carefully to instruction, catching on almost immediately to what the instructor is asking for.  Then, briefly, we have a chance to see her rehearsing with Manuel Legris, at that time principal dancer with the Paris Opera:

Isn’t that charming!  Additionally, and more importantly, of course, it is illustrative of how quickly she catches on, how exactly she understands, and how seriously she rehearses.  A very quick study, and an exemplary attitude!

Here is a fascinating clip of Diana early in her career, at the age of 20, in a pas de deux written by Tchaikovsky as a late addition to Swan Lake, one that is almost never performed.  Here is a chance to see Vishneva , still very young, demonstrating her absolute understanding and control of classical technique.  It is an immaculate execution:

That is so lovely!  The way she carries herself is exemplary, from the port-de-bras to the ram-rod straight posture, she is elegance in motion.

Even though her classical technique is perfect, Diana’s ambitions have led her of late into much more modern  dance, including very new and experimental choreography. She has become something of a spokesperson for aggressive development and experimentation, something she feels is necessary  if ballet is to remain a vital and thriving art form.  No one is talking about giving up Swan Lake, The Nutcracker or Bayadere, but all repertoire begins to pale after a while.  The trick is to keep the development  within the parameters of  ballet basics.  One does not want to go the direction of operatic stage direction quirkiness which has become common of late, often, sadly, to the detriment of the form.  (Even Sir Kenneth MacMillan gave up on that idea for ballet after a while!)  Here is a fine example of what Vishneva spends a serious amount of time doing these days, along with the classical repertoire:

I note, with great interest, that this video has close to half a million hit on it!  One suspects very strongly that the brilliant little girl who stunned everyone, and the fully adult woman who continues to do the same, actually has a very good idea of what she is doing, and why!