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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ferruccio Tagliavini: The Heavenly Voice

It would be an impossible task to say of any one person that he or she possessed, in their prime, the most beautiful voice in the world, but if such a thing were possible, I for one would put my money on the great Italian tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini. I will not even pretend to be objective about Tagliavini, such is my love of his voice, so brace yourself for an onslaught of hyperbole.
Born in 1913, he made his debut in 1938, at the age of 25, as Rodolfo, in La Bohème. He very quickly rose to prominence, and sang in all the major opera houses of Europe and the United States. His voice was a wonder; exceptionally beautiful and hailed by all, especially in the lighter repertoire in which he excelled. Within this repertoire he had few rivals, except of course the great Gigli, another prime candidate for the "most beautiful voice award," or perhaps Tito Schipa, a brilliant lyric tenor. This is one of those cases where a little bit of sound is worth many, many words. The following aria is real tenor warhorse, and you have doubtless heard it sung by many tenors, but I ask you to consider for a moment if you have ever heard it more beautifully sung:

It is simply wonderful. Every aspiring young lyric tenor should be made to listen to this. The legato is amazing—the music flows in one long stream from the beginning of the aria to the end. His mastery of swelling a note starting from a gentle piano is one of the great secrets of his vocal style, and it is one to which the Italians are particularly sensitive, and to which they always respond with enthusiasm.

The next selection is a real treasure. I had the misfortune, in my youth, to hear this aria for the first time sung by Mario del Monaco. Talk about a bull in a china shop! For those who are used to hearing "E la solita storia del pastore" sung by huge tenor voices determined to blow windows out of the theater, I daresay this could be a real eye-opener, primarily because it shows what this aria—one of the loveliest ever written—can sound like in the hands of a musical master who understands what "beautiful singing" is all about:

I do not believe that I have ever heard it done better, or more convincingly. He naturally refuses to sing the interpolated high B natural at the end which many tenors feel they have to do to get a big hand. It's an atrocious interpolation, and a sign of artistic and stylistic insensitivity on the part of singer who feels he "has to do it." He doesn't.

The thing about Tagliavini's kind of singing is that it does in fact carry. I heard him in concert back in the 70's, in New York, in a large hall filled with people. His Italian diction was excellent—as was Gigli's and Schipa's—and I could not only hear every word, but understand it. Even his dialect songs were understandable. Schipa once said that all you have to do is to get the words up to the lips, and if the sound is properly produced, they will fall off the lips right into the ears of the listeners. And he was right. Would that many singers today could learn this valuable lesson! A great deal was lost when verismo, with its attendant vulgarities, became the "tónica del momento." Really good dramatic tenors, like Giuseppe Giacomini, could manage it, and turn in exceptional performances in the theater, but few tenors, as I have pointed out recently, were in Giacomini's class as far as musicianship and absolute mastery of a tricky technique are concerned.

Here is Tagliavini in what may have been his signature role, Nemorino, singing the very famous and much loved aria "Una furtiva lagrima."

What can I possibly say? It is perfection. No one ever did it better. Take the three arias presented above, distill them into one session, intelligently commented upon, and you have the ultimate master class in tenor singing, which could be presented anywhere in the world.

I know that no one is perfect, and some balance is needed. I cannot think of any reasonable criticism that can be made of Tagliavini in his appropriate repertoire. Unfortunately, however, for reasons I do not know, he started, later in his career, to take on some bigger roles, and the inevitable happened—he strained and thickened his voice. Bel canto was in decline, as far as public popularity was concerned, and perhaps he was seduced by the rise of the spinto tenor and the dramatic tenor, and the great public acclaim laid upon them. If so, it is sad, because his voice, musicianship, and style all worked together to make his singing some of the most beautiful ever heard on the operatic stage.


corax said...

i have to say: it takes a lot for a musician to actually, literally, give me chills these days. the more one experiences, the less easy it is for one to be impressed. but tagliavini does it -- above all in this recording of 'una furtiva lagrima.' how is it possible that this is even an actual human voice? and how does he sound so *young* in the process? this is filmed/taped in color; and if he was born in 1913, he was not a young man. but part of the magic of this sound is the [apparent] youthfulness of his instrument, combined with the perfection of technique. the analogy that springs to mind is that of an extremely gifted boy soprano -- a juxtaposition of the fragility [and ephemerality] of youth, with the kind of technical sophistication that one would expect to take many years to achieve.

may i once again also note the obvious, which is that your own perspicacity and cogent observations are couched here [as usual] in an elegant, lucid, and highly readable prose?

Edmund said...

Thank you very much indeed. I always appreciate your kindness and perceptive comments. It is a rare pleasure to have readers of such sophistication and enthusiasm.

Yes, Tagliavini's technique was stellar. There is a purity of tone and smoothness of musical line here that is truly extraordinary. He, Gigli and Schipa, taken together, form a triumvirate of absolute masters of beautiful singing in the old style. I'm very glad that a whole new generation of students has access to these videos, all collected on Youtube. What a treasure they must be to the young student who can see and hear the greatest singers of the last 100 years, all within a few clicks of each other. No other generation has had such instant access to the treasures of the past, and it is very helpful to be able to see them sing also. There is a wonderful video of Gigli recording Ombra Mai Fu which is a study in how to sing. He does not move one single muscle from the neck down. He stands like a statue and sings. All the concentration is on the vocal apparatus--not on hands and feet and what to do with them. Another thing that impresses me is that so many of the comments posted under singers like the three I mention reflect a real admiration for a class and generation of singer that is very different from many they hear today. I think this has to be good.

corax said...

> so many of the comments
> posted under singers like
> the three I mention reflect
> a real admiration for a
> class and generation of singer
> that is very different from many
> they hear today. I think this
> has to be good.

i heartily concur. is it too much to hope that this might signal, or even initiate, a renaissance of that school of singing?

Edmund St. Austell said...

I think there is some chance, yes. One of the things that encourages me the most is the revival of very high voiced male singing that we have seen in the last 10 years. Suddenly, we are hearing operas that have not been heard for 150 years. Things are changing, and the pace of change is accelerating. I intend to do a series of pieces on some of these great new singers: Philippe Jaroussky, David Daniels, and Andreas Scholl: three of the best new altos to come along in quite a while. I believe the kind of refinement that once characterized opera audiences may be returning, because opera has by now lost most of its "popular" audience. "Verismo," as a result, (O please, God) could be moribund. If this is the case, and I believe it is, bel canto will, I sincerely hope, be back in force. Bellini has enjoyed a real renaissance, especially I Puritani, so--let us hope!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the headline – the voice is heavenly. There is no exaggeration in your article.
The most important thing about Tagliavini is that his singing was poetic, not only technically perfect. To sing like this one has to be a very intelligent, profound person.

It’s natural that modern audience has great respect for such masters as Tagliavini, because beautiful singing makes strong physical effect . It’s very difficult to hear beautiful singing and to pretend , that you don’t like it:)


Edmund St. Austell said...

Ah, spoken like a true, passionate Russian artist!:) :) Yes, I absolutely agree with you. Something this beautiful brings forth a gentle flood of warm feelings. It's interesting, from an aesthetic point of view, to reflect upon how much of that beauty is purely vocal, and how much is stylistic; i.e., how much is from an ability to sense exactly what the composer felt when he or she wrote the beautiful music to begin with. And of course, in order to do that, one has to be able to recognize the beauty first, and then respond to it and recreate it anew. So at that point, the two things blend together, and you have a lovely instrument placed in the service of a refined musical sensitivity.

Excellent comment, as always. thank you!

JD Hobbes said...

When I was young, I lived in an old house. One day my brother brought home an old 78 rpm recording of Caruso singing "Celeste Aida." I thought it was wonderful. In later years I lived in a Victorian home (1885) and had an old Victrola. I even had a contemporary copy of the little dog listening to "his master's voice." Toward evening I would sit in the living area and crank the Victrola to play various scratchy records from artists long dead and from contemporaries like Gigli and Tagliavini. When the sunlight filtered through the tree leaves and the wooden Venetian blinds onto antique wallpaper, I listened to the music and felt transported somehow to the 1800's. I realised that life was no better then. Some ways it was worse. But the music made me feel that it was a better time. Perhaps it was that "heavenly realm" you mentioned above. Perhaps it was the feeling of "beauty is truth; truth beauty," as the poet wrote. Nevertheless, singers like Gigli and Tagliavini captured its essence so well and moved us to a different place. Good comment and good comments from your other readers as well.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Lovely thought. Nothing I can add there, except to say that it is noteworthy what lyric sentiments a singer like this can stir! Highly dramatic and stentorian singing can sometimes excite, but never transport.

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

A fine article. I heard him many times, singing Nemorino, and it was nearly the best Nemorino. The only better (in my opinion) was Alfredo Kraus, but then he is a different type of tenor: Tagliavini was no leggero.

His Nemorino was so good because his characterization was so accurate, combined with his vocal shading and mezza-voce. His was the last great Italian tenor who used the mezza-voce. Others tenors sing Nemorino like a fool, but he is not a fool. He is a rural man, and he has a rustic intelligence that Tagliavini, Kraus and Gigli were perfect at declaiming.

On the other way, Pavarotti was a vocally perfect Nemorino, but bland, boring! No shading, no change.

An other thing, I want to make a statement about this passage:

"He naturally refuses to sing the interpolated high B natural at the end which many tenors feel they have to do to get a big hand. It's an atrocious interpolation, and a sign of artistic and stylistic insensitivity on the part of singer who feels he "has to do it." He doesn't."

I have a complete understanding of what you are trying to say, but, I am sorry for saying, you are confused about why it happens. Today, there is no reason for it, and as you say, it is insensitive.

However, in Italy, where this tradition started, until the 1980s, and even in some places until the day, tenors did not interpolate a high note because they wanted applause. They did it because it was expected and they would be booed if they didn't. For the example, in «Madama Butterly» no Italian audience of those times would let Pinkerton not sing a C5 in the end of the first act duet. There are many other examples.

Of course, when Italian tenors went to America, they took their traditions, better and worse, with them.

EdmundStAustell said...

Very good point. Yes, I see exactly what you mean. I had not thought of that. I keep forgetting that opera can be blood sport in Italy, and audiences can be much bolder about expressing their opinions! Here, and even more so in England, audiences very seldom boo, but if they are unhappy, they will often let the singer finish to the sound of dead silence. I remember hearing Beverly Sills once finish Lucia's big Mad Scene to the sound of silence (just her going "clunk" on the stage floor.) She had cracked a high note at the crucial moment. In England, the audience at Covent Garden once notoriously let Maria Callas finish a big aria to silence. She nearly walked off the stage. I really don't know which is worse! Thanks for clarifying that...I appreciate it!

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

In my opinion, I think booing is better than silence. To be an opera singer, you need a certain amount of steel in your spine, and if you are booed, you must think very carefully about why it happened. Silence, on the other hand, could be a sign of respect: the audience was displeased, but they respect the performer too much. Silence is ambiguous.

You are correct about "blood sport". In Italy the audience must be pleased. They are not so interested in hearing fine art as they are to be entertained.

Only tenors like Tagliavini, Gigli and Schipa could get away with no high register because they had such beautiful and elegant singing.

Another note: in Italy it is considered worse to skip a high note than crack on it.

Giacomo Lauri-Volpi famously cracked at La Scala and was loudly booed, but the critics appreciated the difficulty of his art and were kind, and so today we correctly revere Lauri-Volpi as the greatest tenor of those times.

Coming back to Pavarotti, few Italians had much respect for him after the 1995 performance at New York of "Fille du Regiment" when he took down "Ah mes amis".

Edmund StAustell said...

This is extremely interesting, and I am so grateful to you for providing the Italian point of view on these questions. These are things Americans cannot fully appreciate unless they have been lucky enough to have spent a fair bit of time in Italy, listening to the Italian singers and getting to know the Italian audiences. As I have said many times, it is your music, your art, and we do well to become as familiar as possible with exactly how you view such matters as these. Many thanks!!

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

Thank you Edmund.

I must correct myself. The incident I was referring to occurred in Firenze, not La Scala. Pardon my error.

Pebbles said...

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Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much and welcome to Great Opera Singers. You are always welcome, and it's nice to meet you!

Boom said...

When I first heard Tagliavini's "Una furtiva lagrima" recorded in 1947, I thought that he overused head voice, and that his kind of singing was more suitable for the microphones in recording studios than to opera houses (especially large ones).

Then I had a chance to hear a live broadcast of his performance as Edgardo in "Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Met (Jan 1, 1949). I was simply floored by what I heard. The voice had all the youthfulness and glowing sweetness of his studio recording, but it projected with a golden, ringing intensity (and impeccable phrasing) which I found irresistible.
I don't think I ever heard a more memorable performance (live or studio) of that final scene...