Search This Blog

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Gianni Raimondi: The Star of La Scala in the Golden Age

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!
Gianni Raimondi: The Star of La Scala in the Golden Age

                                                                       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.   



Anonymous said...

Oh, Edmund (and Gioacchino!), what a wonderful tenor this is! Why, oh why have I not heard him before??I am begining to wonder what is wrong here in the States! Why don't we know about these wonderful Italian singers I keep reading about on your blog! This is just great! Thank you both so much! Martha

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Martha! First, for being such a faithful reader of the blog, and of course mainly for your enthusiasm! You raise a great point here, and one for which I do not have an imnmediate answer. I know that I have also become aware (and these articles by Mr. Fiurezi have been an important factor in this)of the fact that the tenors (and other voice types too)that we assume are great Italian tenors in this country are not necessarily seen that way in Italy. I could mention a few names,but I won't:-) and that Italians have their own ideas on this subject! I have come to respect their opinions. It is, after all, their music to a very great extent. I think that needs to be remembered. But....that is the subject for another blog, one that is beginning to foment in my mind! Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! Just plain, bloody brilliant!

Jason D.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thanks, Jason! I couldn't agree more:-)

G. F-M said...

A footnote: Raimondi sang as a part of the concerti series 'Incontri memorabili' the arias from Mignon and L'Africana, though both in Italian. To my knowledge, that is the extent of Raimondi's singing of non-Italian music.

Thank you for the kind comments, I am so pleased to see the great Raimondi remains of interest today, more than twenty years since this retirement.

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio

JD Hobbes said...

Another excellent article. I particularly liked the "A te, O Cara" selection.

DanPloy said...

I was lucky enough to already be familiar with Raimondi. There is little more to be said, he is just a (very) great singer.

But something else was touched on in the comments that I would like to add my own opinion to.

OK, I will say it. The only great tenors are the Italian ones. There is one possible exception to this, and that is Jussi Bjorling. But in all other cases if you name an singer from South America, or Russia, or Germany, or France or wherever, I believe I can name a better singer from Italy.

America can produce fantastic baritones (my own favourite being Lawrence Tibbett) and great tenors, such as Richard Tucker. But if you listen to Tucker you hear an Italian, and that is what made him great. He adopted the Italianate style of singing, the freedom, the emotion, the legato.

Domingo never did. Domingo sang as a Spaniard all his life, no matter the opera. It can be passionate, but it doesn't quite touch the emotion in the way an Italian can. Alan Blythe once wrote of Pavarotti's Otello, that it was so good to hear an Italian sing the role. I am inept at languages, but I think that it may be the key. It is not enough to be fluent in a language, to sing opera you need to have the language run in your veins. Then when you sing, assuming you have the technique ( a big assumption) then every ounce of your being can be used to imbue the words with emotion from your heart.

Most opera that we (I) listen to is Italian. That is not to say every Italian singer naturally sings it better, but I do believe it means that every great Italian singer does sing it better. It comes naturally. It is possibly, in the blood. Martinelli and Ponselle and others sang a lot (mostly) outside of Italy. But they never lost that instinct, the smell of streets as one lecturer once told me. That is something you cannot teach at singing school.

As a non-Italian I can only be grateful for these singers allowing me to sense, however transitory, what it must be like to fly with the gods.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thanks, Dan! Wow! What a comment! You lay it out with stunning clarity, and I have to say that there is a great deal in what you say! A great deal. I admit to a few non-Italian favorites, Sergei Lemeshev chief among them, but in general I must recognize the truths behind what you say. I have come to trust Italian taste, as I have mentioned before. The people in charge of the Met, to take a big example, often do not highly regard the same set of tenors that the Italians do. I have come to trust the Italians. It is, as I so often say, largely their music, and I have to believe they know what they are talking about.

Anonymous said...

Hi Edmund:

That is a lovely blog. The selection of the pieces was terrific.
Such a gorgeous voice he had. I can't even name my favourite of the
pieces; I really liked all of them so much. Many thanks to Mr. Fiurezi-Maragioglio.

Sally D.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Sally. Nice to hear from you. Hope all is well in sunny Switzerland:-) Yes, I agree, this blog is a real gem, and Mr. Fiurezi's choice of Gianni Raimondi was wonderful. What a tenor! There are so many great Italian tenors that we need to hear more about in this country, and Raimondi was one of them!

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio for the excellent article. I simply cannot add anything to his words. He described Raimondi so precisely as “an aristocrat”. He had everything a great tenor needs - beautiful voice, intellect, great skills, handsomeness - fantastic artist.


Anonymous said...

Edmund, thanks for mentioning Lemeshev:)

To me singer’s personality and artistry are the most important, though it's clear that Italian operatic school is the greatest, and every singer should take lessons from Italian teachers .


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, Natalie! So good to hear from you! Greatcomment! As always, you hit the nail right on the head! Yes, indeed, he had it all, a wonderful singer!

Edmund St. Austell said...

And yes, Natalie, again, I agree. At least take lessons from good Italian teachers. Even Richard Wagner agreed with that--he is said to have wanted his tenors trained in Italy. It might not be quite as important for other voice types, but tenors are a rather unusual kind of creature, and they really need special training. Go to Italy to learn how to sing, and go to Russia to learn how to dance! Did I send you a video of the little girl from Texas--Joy Womack--who was determined to go to Moscow to get into the Bolshoi school? It's a great story. She was accepted--almost no Americans ever make it-- and when she finished her studies she was hired by the Bolshoi and is working there now. She is a very happy girl,and it kind of marks a new beginning for Americans at the Bolshoi:-) So yes, go where the tradition is!

JING said...

What a pleasure! Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio's comments and musical selections never fail to inform and amaze. But his presentation of Raimondi gave me more pure pleasure and enjoyment than ever. Bravo! And I can only say "Amen" to all the astute observations that others have added. I would venture only one more thought. Part of my enjoyment in this case is due to my preference for live performance recordings. Listening to audience enthusiasm stirs mine. Which leads me to wonder if one of the reasons for the supremacy of Italian singers, especially tenors, and especially those who perform mainly in Italy, is the constant interaction in the opera house between singer and opera goers. It seems palpable to me. Opera performance in America often carries many cultural overlays that I sometimes sense when I attend here - e.g. the singing is in another language, the cultural history of audience snobbery (and ignorance of opera),unwritten dress codes,the valuable but distracting surtitles, etc. All these, it seems to me, inhibit the unbridled and spontaneous response of the audience - which brings out the best in the singer, especially the passion. (And, a disappointed audience can have the opposite effect.)Anyone who has performed on stage knows the difference between an enthusiastic and engaged throng and a dead one. But an audience that is enjoying itself, and lets the singer know right along (not just at the end of an aria)inspires a singer to do the best he or she can.

Edmund St. Austell said...

That, my friend, is a superb comment! Boy, did you hit the nail on the head! Very well said! I thnk this multi-voiced conversation about Italian singers vis-a-vis others is very profitable. There is something very important involved here. Much to think about! Thanks again, great observations!

Anonymous said...

By in Large the greatest Italian tenors where Italian born but several non Italians where very fine and better then some native Italians of course. Tucker was more Italian in his sound and his emotion then Bjoerling and Wunderlich was magnificent, with gaining fame quickly but died too soon. However the Italians had the language and it's their music so we have had so many really great ones from Italy.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Good comment, my friend! Thank you very much!

Darren Seacliffe said...

In the past, I used to consider Gianni Raimondi a second-string singer because I felt his vocal identity (what makes a fan able to identify a singer) wasn't as distinct as di Stefano, Corelli or even Bergonzi. However, now after hearing these performances and gaining more experience elsewhere, I feel he's a first class tenor up there with Anton Dermota.

The excerpt from Puritani reminded me of what made me like Raimondi in the first place. He was perfect for bel canto roles. There might be a few tenors who could perform these roles with comparable ease and elegance but how many of them can make the music sound so beautiful? Kraus' Spanish accent, the inherent nature of Pavarotti's voice and Florez's thin voice bring some distance between their Arturos and the perfect Arturo but Raimondi achieves it.

The excerpts from Tosca and Butterfly were really well sung. The performance isn't as dramatic as Corelli's or as sentimental as di Stefano's but the beauty of Raimondi's voice and the smooth delivery of the lyrics makes this first-class. Sometimes we associate Puccini with blood-and-guts verismo so often that we feel that the singers must make the earth shake under our feet for the performance to be good. We end up forgetting that being one of the last great opera composers, Puccini fits the popular concept of good music better than any of his predecessors. So long as the performance sounds good, it's good even if Raimondi doesn't resort to the histrionics which his better remembered contemporaries employ to no small extent. A misconception made me fail to realize the extent of his greatness.

For Arnoldo, you can't question Mr Fiurezi-Maragioglio's comments. If this performance had been done in the studio, I'm afraid that it's sadly just enough not to make you feel bad about spending your money on such a performance. However, this performance was done live. From what I heard, Arnoldo is a really difficult role to sing live. Being able to perform it live is a feat in itself so we have to leave it at that.

Regarding Dan's comment, I'm afraid I have to disagree. The Italian school of singing stands tall above the others because it's the easiest to appreciate rather than being the best. Every school of singing has its own unique characteristics. From what I heard from Mr Fiurezi-Maragioglio, the Italian approach is a spontaneous one. On top of that, lots of squillo, the thing the Italians value above all else in singing, makes the performance leave a deeper impression. A deeper impression makes it easier for one to like and to hate a performance. I've tried listening to the French, the Russians, the Germans etc. but each time, I need to take time to appreciate their finest singers but for the Italians, I can decide for myself outright in more than half the cases I've heard.

The great old singers are best heard in the operas of the countries where they came from and vice versa. Even if you ask di Stefano to sing Des Grieux in Italian, it can't beat Legay's in French. The same for Lensky. We all know nobody can beat Kozlovsky let alone Lemeshev in that role, even if Wunderlich may sing it in German.

One last point I'd like to make is this: if anybody really likes Gianni Raimondi, maybe he or she might want to try Anton Dermota. I feel he's more similar to him than Kraus was. Kraus has that irritating Spanish accent when he sings. I wonder if that's because he's from the Canary Islands but we'll never know. There's no other top Spanish singer from that place.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Darren, for a very impressive and detailed comment!