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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Giuseppe Giacomini: Defining Dramatic Tenor

Bringing up Giuseppe Giacomini (1940-) is a good way to start an argument among opera buffs. Giacomini is possibly the ultimate example of what I so often complain about in these pages—a dramatic tenor whose vocal method is the furthest extreme of the dark, greatly covered, larynx-in-the-boots school of Italian singing—voices perfect for verismo, which is to say melodramatic opera. So, I'm about to indulge myself in inconsistency, do a complete 180, at least in this single instance, and say that Giuseppe Giacomini is a brilliant tenor, and to my taste the greatest of all the dramatic tenors. (Let me say only that I do not consider the nonpareil Franco Corelli a dramatic tenor.)

I think that in the case of Giacomini, if he is unknown to anyone, the first thing to offer is a sample.   If you are fond of "Ch'ella mi creda," from La Fanciulla del West, but do not know Giacomini, prepare yourself:

Isn't that amazing? I nearly fell out of my chair the first time I heard it. I do not believe I have ever heard Bb's like that from any tenor before. The power, the richness, the ring; it's positively thrilling. He sounds here almost like Leonard Warren with a tenor range. Absolutely unbelievable, and the style and musicianship are impeccable, as they always are with Giacomini, an intellectual and very well educated musician.

Giuseppe Giacomini is possibly an epicure's taste in the somewhat giddy and show business obsessed world of American opera during the last 30 years. He was not nearly as popular here, sadly, as those tenors who obsessively and instinctively played to the gallery. He was and remains a very strong-minded man; a serious musician with absolutely no time for silliness or show business glitz. He was not a beautiful heart-throb like great Franco Corelli; he was plain: short, half bald, and very near-sighted. He appeared in concert looking exactly like he really does, often right down to the coke-bottle-lens glasses. He was there to sing, not to compete in a glamour contest. Here is a perfect example. Listen to this "Si pel ciel..." with Sherrill Milnes. What you see is what you get. And what you get is brilliant stylistics, musicianship and, of course, voice:

This is dramatic singing at its best. It is very hard to imagine the tenor part sung better, and in fact Otello was his signature role, along with Andrea Chenier.
His career was very largely in Europe, where he was quite popular. He was, for example, a staple at the Vienna Staastsoper, certainly a discriminating house if ever there was one, for fifteen consecutive years. He was enormously popular in Italy, and sang in all the major houses: La Scala, Teatro San Carlo, Teatro Reggio, Opera de Roma, Mantua, Parma, Modena. He sang in major houses outside Italy, not only in Vienna, but in Barcelona, Berlin, Lisbon, many others. It was only in America that he did not fare so well, even though he sang at the Met, The Chicago Lyric, San Francisco and so on. America, at least at that time, was not as susceptible to his studied approach. American audiences were still somewhat dazzled by stereotype and showiness. Also, he did not record much. His kind of voice is much better in the theater than on record, because the high resonances from the fine, thinner edges of the cords have been sacrificed to the thicker vocal folds, resulting in the darker sound that carries well enough in the theater (on most nights) but does not record very well. And of course he never went on TV talk shows or participated in any publicity stunts of any kind. His "outreach," so to speak, was limited to the theater, exactly where he thought it should be. He was what the Spanish call "un hombre serio y formal."

Here is a wonderful rendition, in performance, of "Non Piangere, Liu," from Turandot:

I do not see how this can be faulted in any way.

Such extreme low-larynx singing, spectacular as it can sometimes be, as in the case of Giacomini, does not come without a price. He sang well for a good 25 years, (no small accomplishment!) but eventually he developed a wide wobble in his voice, from the strain to which it had been subjected. He did continue to sing, but the wobble can be disconcerting.

But never mind. At his best, he was wonderful. He is also an admirable human being: gentle, serious, intellectual and reflective. If you can understand Italian, do not miss the four-part interview posted on Youtube, in which he talks at great length about theater, music, and especially opera. He has little competition among tenors for intelligence and musicality, except for Placido Domingo, of course, who is unique and certainly one of the world's great musicians.

Giacomini deserved much more in this country, but his fame is actually growing with time (much of it thanks to Youtube) as more and more people—especially in the U.S.—seem, at last, to be getting it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Amelita Galli-Curci: Queen of the Coloraturas

Born in 1882, in Milan, into a prominent and well to do family, Amelita Galli (the Curci is from a later disastrous marriage) seemed destined from youth for a musical career, but at first as a pianist. After the typical lessons at home, she began her conservatory study of piano in Milan in 1895, when she was thirteen. Her brilliance at the piano eventually resulted in a gold medal in competition, which in turn resulted in her being offered a professorship at the age of 23. She accepted, and seemed content with the prospect of settling into a life of concertizing and teaching piano. However, Pietro Mascagni, a family friend, heard her singing at the piano, and strongly urged her to pursue a career as a singer. After some self-training, she auditioned, and the famous charm of that voice instantly attracted attention, and in 1906, at the age of 24, she made her debut as Gilda in Rigoletto. The rest, as they say, is history. After extensively touring South America, she arrived in the United States and made her Chicago debut in 1916, to great acclaim. Shortly thereafter, she signed with RCA Victor, and her fame exploded across America, where she became very popular. She and America fell in love, and, fully adopted by the United States, she became an American citizen in 1920, after divorcing a petty Italian nobleman come to less (Curci) who was shamelessly squandering her money. She made her Met debut in 1921, and remained a permanent member of both the Chicago Lyric and the Met until her retirement in 1930. (An excellent biography can be found at

The extraordinary beauty and grace of Amelita Galli-Curci's singing, even today as captured on old recordings, is such that devotees of great singing often fall instantly in love. I count myself in that happy group. There is something in that sound that stirs images of the fresh and charming innocence of a young girl whose beauty and joie de vivre have just begun to bloom. It was incredibly attractive, and made her one of the most popular singers ever, and among the most highly paid of her day. Many, including myself, consider her the greatest of the coloraturas.

The life of a singer, however, as Enrico Caruso once remarked, should be told in song, not words, and he was right. Here is the first recording I ever heard of Galli-Curci, years ago, and I have never forgotten the effect that it had. This is the essence of the youthful innocence of which I spoke:

I have listened to this recording many, many times, and it never loses its charm. The coloratura is brilliant: ever gentle, ever graceful, ever sparkling. The articulation is brilliant, and the musicality riveting. She was self taught, and she read many old bel canto treatises, such as Garcia's famous L'Art du Chant, that most famous of all bel canto methods. With her innate musical ability, and her brilliance as a painist, she quickly internalized the great principles of 19th century bel canto singing, and took it from there. Purists may raise eyebrows at the lack of method on the very bottom of the voice, which she simply lets fall away, rather than trying to cover with a "chest voice" as is commonly done today, but I think she was right. Nobody lays down their hard earned money to listen to such a high, pure and flute-like voice sing low notes. Also, her breathing attack is largely clavicular as opposed to diaphragmatic, but this in fact largely accounts for the light and girl-like quality of the voice that so many found so attractive. We are very, very far here from the covered and strongly supported tones that are the norm today. This was another era, and reflected distinct tastes. (And in my opinion, often superior tastes.)

She recorded arias that a coloratura would never dare record today, such as the famous Tacea la notte from Il Trovatore. While she never performed the role in public, to the best of my knowledge, her recording of this aria shows new interpretive possibilities, and the musical execution in general—in particular the phrasing—are extraordinary and revealing. Those who grew up listening to Leontyne Price singing such roles as Leonora might scoff outright at the idea of so gentle and child-like a voice doing such a piece, but I invite you to listen to the result:

It is beautiful and haunting, and the characteristic youthfulness of the voice is ever so slightly tinged here with foreboding. If the voice is not "heroic," the musical, stylistic and tonal sophistication more than compensate.

Finally, to end with an aria in which she demonstrates her absolute brilliance as a coloaratura soprano, we join her for the ever popular Una voce poco fa from Rossini's Barber of Seville:

What more can I say?

Galli-Curci also recorded, for her American audience, popular sentimental tunes of the day that many people would know from the piano anthologies on the music rack of the parlor uprights that were common then is so many homes. The interested listener can find recordings of Home, Sweet Home, The Last Rose of Summer, and so on, but it is necessary to know the lyrics in advance. The beloved soprano was what might be called an early graduate of the Joan Sutherland School of Stage Diction. It is, as a result, not always easy to determine what language she is singing in:-)

But that is a matter of little consequence; she was hardly in the business of introducing new music, but was rather a singer of music that was everywhere known. What she did bring to her performance was charm, musicality, freshness, and, if there is such a thing, sheer lovability. That's quite enough for one tiny Italian-American girl!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lauritz Melchior: Defining Heldentenor

It is by now a commonplace to refer to Lauritz Melchior as opera's greatest heldentenor. The term simply means "heroic tenor," but one thing that is never talked about is what exactly is meant by "heroic." Does it refer to the roles themselves, to Wagnerian characterizations in general, to some particularly Nordic voice or style, or all of the above? After all, if it is the role that is referred to, usually Tristan, Sigmund, Siegfried, Lohengrin or Florestan, yes, they are all heroic characters, in one way or another, but then so is Andrea Chenier, along with countless other operatic main characters. As to nationality, James King and Jess Thomas certainly managed very well, as Americans, and Alfred Piccaver or Walter Widdop, great British tenors, acquitted themselves beautifully, as does the Spaniard Plácido Domingo even today. In fact, Piccaver's Florestan was considered classic, as is Domingo's Sigmund. Even Gigli recorded "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond" from Die Walküre (although to be honest, it was dreadful.) When looked at from all possible angles, "heldentenor," at least as the term is used today, comes down to some particular quality of the voice, and that quality in turn basically derives from the sound of Lauritz Melchior's voice. That is why he is always considered the quintessential heldentenor; because the very definition of the term squarely defines his voice, and vice versa.

Melchior was born in 1890. He begain to study, in Copenhagen, in 1908, when he was only 18. He trained as a baritone, and began singing the commercial repertoire of the time; Pagliacci, Traviata, Trovatore, and so on. It soon became apparent, especially to others, that he was probably a tenor. In 1917 he took time off and retrained as a tenor, and in 1918 made his debut as Tanhäuser. He climb was slow but sure, and by 1929 he was an international success. I remember hearing him once say that he learned a very crucial lesson from Jean de Reske, and that was to save the voice. He used the old axiom about considering the voice as capital in the bank--the smart person lives off the interest, not the principal. A shop-worn old saw, but illustrative and to the point. What Melchior did in fact was to sing as the bel canto singers did, strange as that may sound. People think of his voice as being giant, because the roles are heoic, and the orchestration is thick and can be very loud (often excessively so.) He could be heard through this thick orchestration, and he was a very big man. All those things taken together seem to fulfill the expectation of a huge voice. But it was not; it was a finely focused voice, and that made all the difference. His voice cut in the same way that the voices of tiny little creatures like Galli-Curci and Lily Pons did. Additionally, Melchior, like Caruso, very early on attached himself to any kind of emerging media that promised to spread his voice and name: recordings, movies, radio, and even—at the beginning of his career--a very early concert broadcast by Marconi, which resulted in his being heard by Wagner enthusiast Hugh Walpole, who was so impressed that he gave the young tenor financial support. So Melchior realized, in the most direct way, how important the media were. This is crucial, because his particular voice, finely focused and steely to an almost biting degree, recorded very well. It sounded enormous, even though the super size was an illusion. The intensity of the vocal focus was so great that Melchior's voice is immediately recognizable by any opera enthusiast who hears it. There are very few opera singers of whom this can be said.
One need only consider for a moment those other singers to whom he might be compared. The list, to judge from fansites, would likely include Jacques Urlus, Heinrich Knote, Siegfried Jerusalem, Max Lorenz, Set Svanholm, Jess Thomas, Franz Völker, Ludwig Suthaus, Ramon Vinay, Jon Vickers, Hans Hopf, Ludwig Suthaus, Wolfgang Windgassen, Walter Widdop, Rudolf Laubenthal, and perhaps a few others. Some of these names are well known, many are not. Listening to as many of these tenors as can be consulted on recordings, it is always apparent that Melchior's voice is unique. The first 2 minutes and 45 seconds of the following clip demonstrate very well the quintessential Melchior, singing Siegfried's stentorian "Notung! Notung!" which invariably sends chills up the spine of the listener. It is the essence of Icelandic Saga, heroic to the point of the archetypal, which it in fact is:

Absolutely stunning! I feel safe in saying that no one has ever done it better, but I always caution that this is a recording. His voice cut like a knife on recordings. This is not to say that it did not also cut and soar in the theater. Not much is available in the way of actual performance clips, but there is at least this 45 second clip from Bayreuth, 1934. The opera is Götterdämerung:

This is certainly very convincing, although it is worth noting that the soprano's voice comes close at certain moments to overwhelming his. (They are in different positions on the stage, however,and this may have to do with microphone placement.) His characteristically steely sound is in evidence in this fragment.

Melchior sang his last performance at the Met in 1950, when he would have been 60 years old. He was getting on in years, and Rudolph Bing was about to usher in a new Italian age at the Met which effectively squeezed out the Wagnerian wing. He also disliked Melchior, as many people did. Melchior could be annoyingly diffident, in the same way Lawrence Tibbett could, and was also somewhat prone to silly behavior and publicity stunts, including appearing in grade B movies (Two Sisters From Boston, etc.) and on early television. Like Russia's Ivan Kozlovsky, he was a bit of a clown, and that did not go down well with some of the more earnest Wagner enthusiasts. Most people of my age, who grew up in the early 50's, are likely to remember him doing a lighter repertoire, such as the old sentimental favorite "Because":

A magnificent sound and singing technique, even on this old warhorse!
Weaknesses and quirks to one side notwithstanding, one thing is certain. He was, and will always remain, in the eyes of almost all opera lovers, THE heldentenor.