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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Locus Amoenus: Idle Summer Thoughts on Opera Singing's "Golden Age"

I spend a lot of time these days listening to the oldest recordings I can find, either in original condition or digitally remastered. I have for many years been in search of just what it was that characterized the singing of the late 19th and early 20th century. I always look for the earliest date of birth of the singer, not necessarily the earliest recording. The earliest recordings of anything are useless; simple curiosities such as Brahms hammering away at the piano (it could have been a xylophone) in 1889, or the recently unearthed "Au Clair de la Lune" (l860) which is basically noise. One of the most fascinating things I have found on the web is a 1933 film clip of Charlie Coborn singing his best known song, "The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo." Coborn was born in 1852, eight years before the American Civil War, which means that at the time of this film he was 81 years old. He had only two songs in his repertoire, this one and a piece called "Two lovely black eyes." Since there were no recording media of any kind back then you could take the same song from town to town and few would already have heard it. The reason this is so fascinating is that with so small a repertoire, he must have started singing this song at an early age, since he was on the stage by the 1870's. Now add to that the fact that this film is a good electric sound recording. We therefore have an excellent opportunity to observe the dress, the acting (or at least comic song posturing), the voice and the English language as it was on the music hall stage of England in the 1870's, because it is unlikely that he changed much, if anything, between 1875 and 1933.

I find this clip endlessly fascinating. It takes us farther back than one might at first think, because it is a safe bet that to a large extent he spoke as his parents spoke, if we allow for the "dramatic" changes necessary for a stage presentation. His recitation in the middle is perhaps a good indication of how he normally spoke. If he speaks as his parents spoke, then that takes us back nearly to the 18th century.

I wish it were that easy in opera. It isn't, because of the human age factor. It would mean very little to hear an 81 year old opera singer in 1933, because their voice would only be a shadow of its peak performing quality. Enter digital remastering, which is fine but remains largely guesswork. What would in my judgment be better would be to restore, faithfully and exactly, an ancient recording machine, such as those used in 1910 (there are some still around) and ask a famous opera singer, at the height of his or her powers, to record an aria exactly as they were recorded in 1910. Comparing the playback to a modern recording made by the same singer should show how much difference there actually is between the clear,"live" voice and the shadowy version that appeared on the old machine, with the same tiny orchestra typical of early recordings; i.e., heavy on the brass because it recorded better. This would tell us a lot. It should then be possible to retro-engineer the old recordings digitally, so that they closed the same perceptual gap evidenced in the modern singer's old recording and his or her new one. Once the difference is clearly understood, and reduced to a formula, it should be possible to digitally remaster almost exactly. I say almost because it is now impossible to tell what kind of shape the old machines were in at the time they were used, or how fast they actually ran. Still, it would be close. It is possible this has already been done, and that I simply don't know about it. I don't think that is the case, however. For one thing, it would be hard to find a famous singer willing to have his or her voice, in antique shadowy mode, at large among the public. (Possibly someone like Netrebko, whose penchant pour la nouveauté seems to know no bounds.)

For the time being, however, we need to make an intelligent compromise, and try to find the oldest singer we can, recording on a fairly decent piece of machinery, while still in the bloom of his or her career, and, in addition, someone classically trained. (Caruso made some recordings while very young, but he was always a belter, even from youth, and he had very little training.) A good candidate would be Antonina Nezhdanova, the Grande Dame of Russian opera, born in 1873, and recording as early as 1910, when she would have been only 37 years old. Happily, there is a such a recording of her, and it is good to the point of adding some real substance to the idea of a golden age of classical vocalism. However, you have to wait until next time to hear it:) Stay tuned, and we can take a good look at the amazing woman most Russians consider to be their greatest soprano, and in a country of such great opera voices, that is saying something!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Alfred Piccaver: A Great English Tenor Fom Long Ago

The phrase "Great English Tenor" is close to being a contradiction in terms—like "Jumbo Shrimp" or "Government Intelligence," but in fact Alfred Piccaver was a superb operatic tenor. There is no other English-born tenor I can think of who even comes close. The reason his name is not much known now is largely that he was born 126 years ago, in 1883. He was born in Northern England, and emigrated at a young age, with his parents, to America. I believe the family name was Peckover, a fairly common northern English name. He spent his early youth in the US, and studied in New York. He never felt at home in America, however, and later became an English citizen. Another reason he is not well known now is that his career was almost exclusively in Vienna, where he made his debut in 1910 and was an instant success with the opera-loving Viennese. He would go on to sing over 25 years at the Staatsoper, enjoying an enormous success there. He was so fond of Vienna, and the Viennese way of life, that he essentially became a permanent resident. Gatti-Casazza, general manager of the Metropolotan Opera, reportedly offered him a very lucrative contract in the 1920's to sing at the Met, but he declined, simply because he was so happy in Vienna. The result of this snub was that he was never again offered an opportunity to sing at the Met. This might sound like a head-strong and foolish move on Piccaver's part (today it certainly would be) but one needs to remember that the Met was not the international house then that it is today. On the contrary, Vienna, a major European cultural center, would have out-ranked it.

Puccini had the opportunity to hear Piccaver sing, and was greatly impressed. He said that Piccaver was his "ideal Rodolfo." Extraordinary praise indeed for an English tenor from an Italian composer! Piccaver of course had to leave Vienna eventually, when the war clouds began to gather. He went back to England, and did a fair bit of singing and some teaching there. He returned to Vienna after the war, and died there in 1958. He was given a state funeral, so permanently had his memory been etched upon the Viennese.

One of the best recordings of Piccaver on the web is Floristan's beautiful and poignant aria from Beethoven's Fidelio, "Gott, welch dunkel hier!" In this selection you can hear vintage Piccaver: the style, musicianship, vocal fluidity and impeccable diction all combine to make it a real listening treat. This aria is exceptionally beautiful to begin with, and then declamatory at the end, when Floristan, in prison, sees a vision of Leonora beckoning him to Heaven. Many tenors ruin it by screaming at the end, as though they were singing Wagner instead of Beethoven. Not Piccaver. I consider this an almost perfect execution of this touching, superb piece of music. Notice the transition at 4:10 into the dramatic part of the piece. He never breaks the style, he never shouts, he simply sings, as though he were singing Mozart, which is a much better mode for singing Beethoven than any Italian dramatic kind of singing would be. The video has English subtitles, so it is easy to follow:

Isn't that beautiful! He was already 45 years old in 1928, when this recording was made! The velvety smoothness of the singing (and he sang Wagner the same way) was a hallmark of the era and one of the things we have lost today. Piccaver dated to an era when people actually listened to lyrics, because much opera (Puccini, for example)just wasn't that old. Halls were smaller, orchestras were smaller, and the darker Italian singing, with its low-larynx, heavily covered, roaring sound, was not yet developed, and not much in vogue generally, and certainly not in Vienna. Piccaver's voice, like almost all the voices trained at that time, is "white," and employs an open kind of phonation which greatly facilitates pronunciation. It is not as easy to sing very high with this kind of voice, but Piccaver could, in his youth. He had a high C, which he used in Bohème. His recording of "O paradiso!" has two stellar B naturals in it.

Here is Piccaver as a man of about 61, singing a popular patriotic English song of World War II:

Finally, here he is singing for wounded war veterans, in l932, in an ancient film. Here you can actually watch him as he sings "For You Alone."

Yes, Virginia, there really is such a thing as an English opera tenor—very few, to be sure—but at least one great one!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Great Child Singers II: Robertino Loretti, An Adolescent Crooner

The move from Joselito's fiery and passionate gypsy singing to Robertino Loretti's slow, soft, almost coctail-lounge crooning is fascinating. He and Joselito were born at roughly the same time (Joselito in 1943 and Robertino in 1947) and both were quite popular, Joselito more so because of the very large number of films he made. They represent two extremes of child singing. Joselito's is highly unusual for a child because of the extreme flexibiltiy and power of his voice,[see previous piece if you have not] and Loretti's because of its sweetness and choir-boy-like softness. Robertino's recording of the old Italian favorite "Mamma" tells the story very well:

Notice the gentleness of the attack, the almost lilting legato, the syrupy sentimentality and the immaculate diction. You can understand every word. Also, the tempo is uncommonly slow, largely as a result of his caressing the climax of each phrase. Robertino's voice has soprano qualities and he sings more nearly on the fine edges of the chords than Joselito did. To use the language of popular music, I think one could say that Joselito was a belter and Loretti was more of a crooner. Both are legitimate; each has its audience. Joselito's voice is more exciting, but edgy and sometimes a little harsh. Loretti's is sweet as can be, but can cloy. Neither child is the result of study and auditioning. Joselito burst onto the scene full-blown, and Loretti was noticed singing as he delivered bakery products for his family. He was hired to sing at a wedding in a restaurant, and that is where he got his start. Singing in restuarants is fine, but of course it creates a certain kind of style, perhaps best described, at least in the age of the microphone, as night club crooning. His reputation grew, and a TV and concert career followed. His career was international and he was especially popular, for some reason, in Russia, where he made many friends. He is still singing today, in his 60's. He certainly never hurt his voice singing the way he did.

Robertino did not always croon—he had a more legitimate voice, although still of the coctail lounge kind, as evidenced in what I think may his best recording, Jamaica:

This is excellent singing, and quite attractive. Roberto's range is much more limited than Joselito's, but it is adequate for the kind of music he sang, and was comfortable singing.

Different kinds of singing attract different audiences, owing both to the quality of the voice and the repertoire (and looks) of the singer. Both Joselito and Robertino were nice looking boys, but their audiences were distinct. It's only a generalization, but one could say that Robertino was at least to a certain extent the darling of elderly ladies, while Joselito had such a devastating effect on girls of his own age that he had to be locked in a hotel room between shows to keep them out, much, I'm sure, to Joselito's absolute distress.

It is the sign of either a naturally intelligent child, or a very well managed one, to stick with songs that are comfortable and can be fairly easily done. Loretti seems to have had a much calmer temperament, and to have been well managed. He made a seamless transition to adulthood, although of course he is not as popular now as an adult singer because there are countless numbers of singing adults. The competition is a little tougher at 30 than it is at twelve:) Joselito's transition to adulthood was an absolute disaster, and his life largely a failure. Sometime around 2001, if memory serves, he was in jail in Angola as a drug dealer and gun smuggler. He presently lives in quiet seclusion in Spain. In his case it was ruthless and exploitative managers, coupled with the breaking of the voice which left him a kind of boudoir baritone who was utterly uninteresting.

Two children, two styles and voices, and two brilliant childhood careers.