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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Amadeo Zambon: The Authenticity of Voice

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 Italian tenor Amadeo Zambon.


Given the current judgement of many critics, it would be easy to believe we live in an era without the large and powerful voices of the past, and in a time of unsure and unaware artists. While such a comment would be an inaccurate and inappropriate one, it is nevertheless refreshing to visit a world where such a statement would have been unthinkable.

Amadeo Zambon represents just such a singer. The generation that included Gianfranco Cècchele, Nicola Martinucci, Lando Bartolini, Mario di Felici and Mario Malagnini  kept alive the flame that had been nurtured by a previous generation that included such giants as Francesco Merli, Aureliano Pertile and Galliano Masini, not to mention post-war stars such as Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli.

Lirico-spinto, drammatico spinto, drammatico, robusto, di forza; these are the categories of tenor of which we speak — big voices, sure technique and style. Style? Yes, style in the sense that there is no further proof of innate style than an absolute commitment to the way one sings! This is the case with Amadeo Zambon: he was possessed of a blooming and luminous tenor, with strong high notes.  It was voice that he understood how to use.  Though small at close distance, the voice was laden with such clarion overtones and squillo that it could fill even spaces such as the Arena di Verona  while at the same time  permitting the use of  diminuendo and other dynamic effects. 

His career is a testament to correct vocal production and firm knowledge of one’s vocal abilities; a trademark of the aforementioned generation. Thus, it is no surprise that Zambon maintained his presence on the stage across three decades, always in abundant vocal health.  Notwithstanding a certain resemblance to Mario del Monaco, we can safely say that the glorious sound that he poured forth, especially in regard to tone and timbre, were his and his alone.  

It seems appropriate then to begin our introduction to Zambon at an earlier moment in his career. The following recording of Celeste Aïda comes from 1969, at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino:

The golden voice and secure high B-flats are a joy to listen to, and of course were produced without the benefit of a lengthy recitative to warm the voice. One need not be concerned by the ending: the forte approach was approved by Verdi, should it fit the tenor’s vocal ability better than the written morendo, which the master certainly did NOT wish to be sung in falsetto! In any case, the progression in the orchestra and the mood of the music lend themselves as easily to exultation as they do to trance. What cannot be debated however, is that this is a mighty voice, utilised with complete commitment by the singer. There would be nothing so unpleasant as a tenor who attempted the stentorian ending but could not sustain it!

Proceeding to a more lyric mode, let us look his recording of the Flower Song, from Prato, in 1976:

The richness and fluidity of the timbre are amply displayed, and Zambon displays an elegant diminuendo as well as firm legato. The power of his voice is equalled by the restraint with which he uses it, and the legato is never disturbed solely for the sake of a trumpet blast. Of course, we do not delude ourselves: we listen not to Don José, but Don Giuseppe: and taken for what it is, rather than what it is not, we must all agree it is a very pleasing interpretation. Some may listen and simply remark, “this is not how one such as Thill would sing it,” and true though this may be, we must invariably consider that an artist of Thill’s calibre would certainly respect Zambon in a way that would not be accorded to a mere provincial bellower.

Continuing in the chronology of the career, we take ourselves to 1980, Bari. The opera, Turandot, and the aria, Non piangere Liù.

Once again, the tonal quality immediately commands attention. It is clear and produced without any hint of strain or force, again possessing power and restraint in equal measures. Zambon displays once again his innate sense of style, with the broad shaping of dynamics and a masterful and very lively rendering of the aria that reminds us that once upon a time, singers learned their roles not note by note or word by word, but breath by breath from the great ones, so they that too might become great. Of course, one cannot but take the ringing high A interpolated toward the end of the ensemble following the aria per se, and the masterful technique that permits it!

On this theme, I would feel culpable not to highlight another example of this stupendous acute that recalls Lauri-Volpi and Filippeschi in the firmness of production and levity of tone. The phrase, again from Turandot, non non, principessa altera, ti voglio tutt’ ardente d’amor:

Glorious notes, sung with tonal integrity and absolute reliability — the two excerpts represent not merely a very good night for the tenor, but instead what was a common occurrence.

Now, moving later in the career, but without the slightest hint of decline, is this performance of Manon Lescaut, the moving aria Pazzo son, from 1984.

In the style of Gigli, with the sobs, interpolated cries and second high B, it would be difficult to argue that Zambon here displays good taste. It would be equally difficult to argue that his interpretation is displeasing — the spontaneity is overwhelming, and just like Gigli, the sobbing does nothing to impede the forward progress of the music. Further, the high note retains its primary importance, while the voice is always capable of the demands made of it. The nuance of phrasing and diction is not lost in search of further decibels, but utilised to further the aria’s impact.

In a word, Zambon is authentic. An authentic tenor, with an authentic sense of style that betrays no artifice, no superficial style foisted upon it. In operatic singing, style for style’s sake alone is surely the quickest path to artistic oblivion, while authenticity in the voice and the kind of commitment so amply displayed by Zambon are the harbingers of a long and successful career. Such a career, of Radamès, des Grieux, Calàf, Giuseppe, Chénier, Pollione and many other taxing roles, sustained over a period of more than thirty years, is the sign of an authentic tenor; both in the physicality of vocal production, and in the mental attitude of the singer — an aspect that must never be underestimated. 




Sunday, April 14, 2013

Child Singers On The Rise, I: Elena House

Today, I wish to begin a new short series on Great Opera Singers, dedicated to current child singers whom I see as “on the rise,” which is to say either already established or in the process of becoming known, such as Elena House, the subject of today’s presentation.

One of the truly refreshing things about Elena is that she presents herself for exactly what she is—a 14-year old girl who is multi-talented and making her first tenuous steps into an extraordinarily demanding profession.  She is not yet a fully professional singer, although some of her performances equal what some young professionals do.  She is at a tender stage, both in her growth and her training.  She is being very wisely taught by a teacher who knows what he is doing and does not push her one little bit past what is prudent and appropriate for a young teenager.  Children of this age are all about growth and tender first steps.  I’m sure we have all heard the horror stories—promising children pushed too hard, too fast, in an attempt to sound older than they are.  Near-toddlers trying to sound like Marilyn Horne; exercises in self destruction.  Some astonishing artificial effects can be created in such cases, and they draw an instant curious attention.  However, what they are is vaudeville acts.  A few fast dollars, a few rave notices, and then oblivion.  This applies not only to child singers, but very young musicians of all kinds.  Elena’s voice is very light, with a certain attractive breathy quality—at least at the moment—but one where growth and potential are everywhere to be seen and heard. She is very light in the lower and middle register, which is appropriate, and then, with no strain whatsoever, can soar (as much as is appropriate for a 14 year old girl) and she suddenly lights up in the high register.  We will hear a fine example of that in the first video, where we see a hush grow into a very convincing high B natural at the end of her song. 

Her first presentation is a sultry femme fatale rendition of Giuditta’s aria “Meine Lippen Sie Küssen So Heiss.” Well, as fatale as a femme can be at 14, I suppose:)  Some might see this as a bit on the far side of propriety, but theatrically, I would say that it is justified by her exceptional beauty and marked acting ability.  She also moves with a dancer’s grace.  When I first saw this video I was reminded of words I wrote in this space when discussing the young ballerina Diana Vishneva and spoke of her “spunk and sparkle.”  Here is Elena House:

Talk about attractive!  I call your attention again to the perfectly in-line B natural and the sudden appearance of the potential coloratura sound at the end.  Not yet developed, obviously—she’s 14 for Heaven’s sake—but I hear what is on the path to development in another 4 years! And the acting and looks speak for themselves.  She captures the essence of the young seductress, both visually and vocally.  The breathiness will disappear on its own in a few more years.  Or, she may wish to cultivate it for pop music.  No law says she has to become an opera singer.  At the moment, there are many possibilities.  Here is an attractive rendition of “Think of Me,” from The Phantom of The Opera”, complete with her own little promotional ending, directed to an obviously very young audience.  Not only is it as cute as can be, but listening to her drives home  just exactly how young she is, and can make us appreciate even more the sophistication of some of the presentations for one so young.

That’s quite charming!  What calls my attention, again, is the ease with which the light, admittedly breathy low and middle registers blossom, with the first rise of the voice, into the legitimate sound characteristic of the transitional and upper register.  To my ear, this is proof positive that her teacher knows what he is doing.  All the vocal musculature is poised, ready to spring into action when called upon.  A little more age, a little more work, and a different voice is going to start to emerge, one that will be solid and well protected from harm, because not a bit of strain will have been introduced during the earliest preparatory years, where Elena currently finds herself.

Finally, a single operatic piece which will stylistically tolerate the light treatment which can be given by a child at this stage of her development.  I hear real potential here!  I can see this kind of repertoire coming on faster than one might think.  I call your attention especially to one passage and one note.  Check out the phrase leading to the A natural, starting somewhere around 2:20, when she stands up and the music swells.  All of a sudden, at that point in particular, I hear an older girl, and the beginnings of vocal drama, and this is where I hear the genuine operatic potential.  Here is “Poveri Fiori.”:

This is a talent that bears watching closely over the next several years.  We need to remember that children grow up, and that every great singer was once a child!    Miss Elena House!


[Positive, constructive or informational comments may be accepted, at my personal discretion.  Please be understanding if any particular comment, however well intended, is not published.  I have very strict standards where children are concerned, both as a critic and a parent!]




Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Great Dorothy Kirsten

Dorothy Kirsten was born into a musical family in Montclair, N.J., in 1910. Her mother was an organist and music teacher and  her grandfather was a conductor, so it is not surprising that young Dorothy was drawn to music and acting early in life.  It was not opera, but popular music that attracted her at the beginning.  Her life was one almost exclusively dedicated to music from the beginning, as she left high school at 16. (Not as drastic a thing then, however, as it would be now.)  She took ordinary jobs for a while, trying to save enough money to take voice lessons, and eventually did work for her vocal teacher in exchange for free lessons.  She was showing the spunk and determination at a young age which are such important motivating factors in the successful artist. However, she did not set her sights on an operatic career until she had achieved some modest success as a popular singer.

By the late ‘thirties, she was singing professionally on radio, both as a member of the Kate Smith Chorus and in her own solo spots.  Grace Moore heard her on the radio in 1938 and became her mentor and benefactor, sending her to Rome for a year of study with Astolfo Pescia, who was Beniamino Gigli's vocal coach. She had to return to New York, however, at the beginning of WWII.

 She did a concert at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and soon reunited with Grace Moore, who helped arrange a debut for her at the Chicago Grand Opera, where Dorothy made her operatic debut as Pousette in Massenet's Manon in 1940. She went on to sing 15 small roles during her first season and the following year shared the stage with Grace Moore in a Chicago performance of La Bohème, singing Musetta to Moore's Mimi.

By 1942, Kirsten was singing leading roles in opera, including the San Francisco Opera, and had launched her own radio program, "Keepsakes," which ran for a year.

She was not an instant operatic success story.  She paid her dues the old fashioned way, with a lot of hard work, concerts, smaller (but serious) opera companies, and radio work.  Little by little, she made the acquaintance of famous singers and many conductors and directors, until, in 1945,  she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Mimi in La Bohème.  Four years later, she recorded Manon Lescaut with Jussi Björling, and she had by then pretty well made it.

Kirsten was to sing primarily in America, making the Metropolitan Opera her artistic home, for almost 30 years!  She sang abroad on occasion, but she was solidly planted here, as she was an American artist through and through,  maintaining a long-lasting relationship with her popular work, such as singing on the radio with popular entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nelson Eddy and Perry Como. She appeared in two films, Mr. Music (1950) and The Great Caruso (1951). Her last performance at the Met was in 1979 as Tosca, at the somewhat astonishing age of 69!  An American success story if ever there was one.

I have heard many compare Dorothy Kirsten’s voice to that of Renata Tebaldi, and it is not a bad comparison.  She could sing dramatic roles, such as Tosca, but the voice never lost a natural freshness and youthful sound, which is almost certainly one of the reasons she was able to sing for so many years.  She was very well trained, and had learned to take care of her voice singing in so many popular venues.  Here is “Vissi d’Arte,” from Tosca, one of her better known roles:

I do not know her age at the time of this telecast, but she was clearly a middle-aged woman, yet her voice is light, and has the sound of youth about it.  Yet, as I say, there is drama in the voice and that is a result of musicality, style, and—not a small thing—excellent stage Italian.  Also, she was a remarkably pretty woman, something very much in evidence in her youth.  Here is “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess:

You can see what I mean!  A very beautiful woman, and her switch-over to Broadway style is perfect.  What enunciation!  Not many opera singers are willing to sing “and your ma is good lookiNN,” laying on—and actually singing—that nasalized N. She does it though, and the extreme longevity of her voice is good evidence  that it didn’t hurt her a bit.  What it does do is make the sentence perfectly understandable.  English is a tough language to sing in the theater, largely because of those harsh nasal sounds.  But it can be done.  And she did it!

And finally, an aria done beautifully, and in a repertoire that is perfect for Kirsten.  Here is “In quelle trine morbide,” form Manon Lescaut:

As I pointed out in the description part of that video, that is the kind of repertoire in which she excelled, and in which extreme longevity is possible.  She displayed great intelligence, all her life, in how she took care of herself and her voice:  Popular music, lighter (near ingénue) operatic repertoire, and the intelligent mix of French and English into the always more common Italian.  I will again, however, in that regard, reiterate that her Italian is excellent, and very cultured.  All in all, a superb American singer, and a fine model for English-speaking American sopranos to study very, very carefully!