It is both a pleasure and an honor for me to welcome the return today of our distinguished guest writer 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. I am very pleased today to be able to feature his article on the great Italian tenor Gianni Raimondi!
By Gioacchino Fiurezi Maragioglio
Gianni Raimondi represents the best version of the operatic singer. In addition to vocal endowments of exceptional quality, Raimondi also possessed the correct technique, a fine musical sensitivity and was a performer of great integrity; respected and lauded by both public and management. He had incredible staying power, serving as a leading tenor at, among others, the Teatro alla Scala, for more than twenty years, and remaining just as potent and relevant a performer in the last years as in the first. Raimondi’s abilities enthralled even a young Luciano Pavarotti, who would watch his idol for hours in the hope of mastering his exemplary technique.
Though not especially large, Raimondi’s instrument had the resonance and pure tone of a fine bell. It was a sharp voice, poking through the orchestra and becoming mellifluous as it carried all through the theater. It was also a very beautiful voice, and, as mentioned, one harnessed with impeccable technique.
The following recording shows Raimondi at 38, in his vocal prime, having been singing for about thirteen years, and touring in South America with company no less illustrious than Leyla Gencer! Here is A te, o cara, from the Teatro Colón, 1961:
Such singing of the role of Arturo is rarely equalled. To have such color and authority in the treble register is uncommon enough, let alone to sing a C-sharp of such quality and power! But Raimondi does not content himself simply with a clarion top note: his legato is perfect, the voice so smooth and evenly blended, produced without any hint of strain. His articulation, though not as accurate as modern-day interpreters, is nevertheless good, and elegantly executed. His diction is clean and unaffected except for inflections appropriate to the context. In a few words, this is bel canto singing. Indeed, a measure of his ability and success as a bel canto performer was such that he spanned two generations of the revival: beginning in the early `50s he was a frequent partner of Callas, while by the `70s, he was appearing alongside Caballé.
His is all the more remarkable given that his repertoire was centred not with Bellini or Donizetti, but rather upon the heavier works of High and Late Romanticism—Verdi and Puccini. While remembered fondly for Arturo, it was Mario Cavaradossi which was usually considered his signature role. Thus: Recondita armonia, 1965, at Geneva.
The same qualities are once again demonstrated: beautiful tone with a healthy bloom, clear and unaffected diction, perfectly moderated breath control and extreme technical mastery. Note not only the magnificent high B-flat sustained effortlessly, but also his adroit handling of the music afterwards, particularly the tricky passage “sei tu,” which has a habit of choking many tenors. In the video, we can also note his stage deportment; Raimondi stands upright, with noble posture and without undue extraneous movements, more a knight that a lover, without the same romantic qualities, as, for example, Franco Corelli, a formidable competitor!
In 1961, when the Night of the Seven Stars (Les Huguenots) returned to La Scala, led by Joan Sutherland as the Queen and having in Giulietta Simionato a genuine soprano-falcon, Raimondi was a natural choice for Raul; who better to traverse such a long, long role laden with a high tessitura and numerous florid passages? Elements conspired to suggest Franco Corelli, who got the role and led Gli Ugonotti to tremendous success. This is not at all about slighting Corelli’s talent and masterful performance; simply, it regards the fact that there can be only one Raul, and the casting of Corelli prevented Raimondi from performing it. There is a balance to everything: in hearing Corelli’s stupendous performance, audiences were denied the opportunity to hear Raimondi.
Nevertheless, some suggest that Raimondi got his own back four years later, when he assumed the role of Arnoldo in Guglielmo Tell, which Corelli had planned to perform but found to be too high and uncomfortable. Raimondi, once again partnered with Gencer, performed the role at Teatro di San Carlo in 1965, and then repeated the following year in 1966, at the Teatro Còlon, from which this recording comes.
Ultimately, despite the ease with which he sings the formidable romanza O muto asil del pianto—brilliant, squillo-drenched high notes and perfect stability, and the passionate audience response, Raimondi untimely found Arnoldo too taxing to keep in his active repertoire.
Throughout his career, Raimondi was conservative with regards to the roles he performed. This is not to suggest his repertoire was small and light: in his vocal maturity, begining around 1970, he sang many heavy and demanding roles: Arrigo, Pollione, Riccardo, Rodolfo (Luisa Miller), and Enzo Grimaldo among them. Nevertheless, he had an acute sense of what was right for his voice, and he consistently refused the persistent offers of many opera houses to sing Manrico and Alvaro. He also displayed an affinity for early Verdi, starring in an acclaimed production of I Masnadieri, with Ilva Ligabue and Boris Christoff, at the Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma in 1972, all the while maintaining his most cherished roles of il Duca, Pinkerton, Cavaradossi and Alfredo.
It is with Pinkerton I would like to leave you: the love duet of the first act, captured live with Renata Tebaldi in 1958. Despite the power and size of Tebaldi’s voice, Raimondi is never less than audible, never abandoning his refined phrasing and immaculate vocalism to strain for volume as others sometimes do. I would like to further point out this performance occurred in August, at the Arena Flegrea. That is, during very hot weather in a very large outdoor venue!
The performance is of course, as the fashion in those times, capped with a clarion high C!
This, then, is Gianni Raimondi: titan of the old lirica italiana. Though he did sing to great acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera in 1965 with Mirella Freni in La Bohème, and of course toured in South America and other European countries such as Germany, he nevertheless spent the majority of his career in Italy, in the Italian way. A few performances of Faust were his only excursions beyond Italian music. A sharp encounter with Hebert von Karajan which led the gracious Raimondi to simply describe him as una brutta persona speaks volumes of his character and person. No endless rants and public disgrace; merely a succinct comment on the abysmal way von Karajan could sometimes treat singers that disagreed with him. Raimondi’s near analogue of a tenor, Alfredo Kraus, had similar experiences with the great German conductor, and indeed many parallels can be drawn between the two: both were considered to have the best technique of tenors of their generation, and both demonstrated an unwavering commitment to performance at consistently high standards, night after night, live in the opera house.
Like Kraus, another aristocrat of the lirica without pretension or falseness, Raimondi simply performed as the best version of himself, a shining model to his adoring public and other singers, and one that I feel is particularly relevant to the circumstances of today.