Search This Blog

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Great Tetrazzini

Luisa Tetrazzini was born in 1871, in Florence. She began to sing as a small child, and was trained at the Instituto Musicale in Florence. By the age of 19 she was ready to make her debut as Inez in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. She sang around Italy, and then went to Russia, where she scored a big success in St. Petersburg. She was kept busy as a young lady, learning her craft and drawing increasing attention to herself by virtue of her superb voice. She was not beautiful, as was Patti, but was rather fat from early on. Her divine voice, however, spared her from any undue or cruel criticism for her appearance. From the earliest days, she displayed a flexible and high coloratura, of the kind that was very much in vogue in the lyric theater of the day. She commanded an extraordinary trill, easily produced, and was comfortable with extensive fioratura. There was a thrilling sound to her voice that won her acclaim early on in her career. Her American debut was in San Francisco in 1905. By this time, she was well known for her lyric coloratura roles, especially Violetta, Gilda and Lucia; roles in which her great vocal endowments could be shown to advantage. She auditioned at the Met, but they seemingly were not impressed, which is somewhat curious, as she was already famous. One suspects that something unknown outside the Met may have been in play. It makes no sense otherwise. She did sing for the Manhattan Opera in 1908, but never warmed to the Met, because of their inexplicable attitude, and only sang one season there, in 1911-12. She was in such demand world-wide that the Met was inconsequential in any case. She is reputed to have made a very large amount of money. Unwise associations over time, however, led to a sad end, characterized by poverty. Most scandalous was her victimization at the hands of a dreadful male gold-digger, thirty years her junior, who married her late in her career, and stole most of her money. In spite of such reckless errors of judgment, however, she was by all accounts a lovely person, outgoing and friendly, even to the extent of letting aspiring singers live in her home, at her expense, at least during the good years. Her last days in poverty and sickness anger and bewilder many people even today. It is so wretchedly unfair. One wonders where the charity of fellow performers was. Yes, times were hard in late 30's, but Gigli, to take but one example, managed to raise a huge amount of money during this period by the many charity concerts he gave. Were people wary of her because of her poor judgment in getting involved with such a vile (although doubtless "charming") man as the one who wrecked her life? Why did no one come to her aid at the end when she was so obviously in need? The State of Italy, at least, provided her with an appropriate funeral. It's just all too sad.

Here is the great soprano in "Caro nome":

As the recording shows, the top part of her voice was quite extraordinary. Like virtually all sopranos of her age, she will scoop down into the lower registers, and that sound jolts us somewhat today, when all sopranos simply sing low notes very softly. It is possible that in Tetrazzini's time, when people actually paid more attention to the words, sopranos felt they needed the additional heft in the lower register, so that their voice, and the words they were singing, did not get lost in the orchestra. Another thing that is immediately apparent is the exceptional and easy nature of her trill. I don't think I have ever heard that many trills in "Caro nome" before. But she was just showing off one of her greatest natural endowments. Here is the famous "Ah non giunge," from La Sonnambula:

Certainly an attractive rendition, although one must be honest and point out certain tendencies that are perhaps not up to today's standard: There is sometimes a lack of adequate articulation on the cadenzas that comes dangerously close to a glide, although she was not alone in that during her day. She also sacrifices the lower parts of her voice to the top, which is certainly common (and smart) because that is what people are paying to hear. From an aesthetic point of view, however, she lays herself open to criticism for making the bottom and(especially) middle register of the voice rather open, white, and somewhat blaring. The top is excellent.
Here is a sentimental view of Tetrazzini—the only moving pictures I am aware of—listening to a Caruso recording late in life, and bursting into song along with it. Her girly and giggly abandon at the end is most charming, and just makes one upset yet again that she was treated so badly by others, and did not have the dignified and comfortable retirement she deserved.

Isn't that delightful? She seems a lovely person, and the fact that people speak of her so fondly even today, nearly 70 years after her death in 1940, is a fitting memorial to a magnificent artist, who literally gave it all.


Nate said...

Thanks, Edmund, once again for your perspicacious comments about the great Tetrazzini. One point for consideration: according to the Gattey biography ("The Florentine Nightingale"), Tetrazzini did not actually die in poverty. According to his sources, the notion that she was in abject poverty at the time of her demise is simply a myth that has been perpetuated, similar to the myth that she made her debut as Ines in Africaine at a moment's notice. I can neither verify nor falsify Gattey's claim, not having done any research in this area. More important for our purposes, the voice and singing of Tetrazzini, though laden with contradictions from critics of her age and ours, as well as recordings,
more than justifies her legitimate claim as one of the greatest coloratura sopranos on record. The "Ah! non giunge" is certainly one of her most famous displays of coloratura singing, and still holds up very well today. Some of her less frequently heard discs--including two wonderfully performed songs by Tosti: "Aprile" and "La Serenata"--show that her tremendous appeal is not confined to trills, staccati, scales, and sheer brilliance and power, but also can be heard in her ability to mold a phrase, her pure legato, ravishing portamenti, tonal colors, and Italianate tone production on the breath. Curiously, her breath control is not always perfect (she sometimes clips her phrases), her registers and scales not always even, her middle and lower tones sometimes white, pallid, or frankly bizarre-sounding. But, all in all, I think a fair-minded listener would have to agree that Tetrazzini's many vocal gifts--not least of which is her joie de vivre and spontaneity expressed in song--far outweigh her few flaws.

Edmund St. Austell said...

And thank you again, Nate, for a very scholarly contribution. I certainly share your enthusaistic assessment of her abilities. I didn't know what to do about the traditional story of her last years. I opted for the widespread version, I suppose because it has become something like canon, although I am at the same time aware that canon can instantly become urban legend with the discovery of even a reliable fact or two. And therein lies the problem. Whether in poverty or not, one thing is certain, and that is that her final years were rather shrouded, if not in obscurity, at least in relative silence. Where to begin researching something like that! It would be a worthwhile project, one I would be willing to at least take a shot at, if and when I ever retire:) I would be more than happy to be wrong if it should turn out that there was some dignity and comfort in her last years. I'm pretty sure Italy did foot the bill for the funeral, whatever than may (or may not) mean. Perhaps it just an honor they chose to pay, as Naples did for Caruso. If Gattey is right, it would explain why there were not charity concerts for her. On the other hand, what would the rationale be for spreading the poverty story, which is by now everwhere repeated. Perhaps the stories about Mario Lanza's last days (I know several, but I can't print them)are revealing: there is a kind of perverse delight some take in bringing down the glorious and successful. So, for now we wonder. I would love to have it proved that it is not true. I wouldn't mind being wrong on this one. Hell, I'm a past master at that:) Great and thought provoking comments, Nate. Very much appreciated!

JDHobbes said...

The YouTube clip of her singing with Caruso is very touching. Perhaps it is more touching to us now, because it seems so distant and of another era. Still I can only wonder what her memories and thoughts were at that time.

corax said...

what do we know about the acoustics [specifically the overtones] of the flute? we often speak of a 'flute-like' voice, but it seems to me that tetrazzini's is the most truly flute-like i have ever heard [maybe lilli lehmann rivals it at times]. i wonder if actual oscilloscope readings of a flute playing and of tetrazzini singing might look unusually similar.

on a less rarefied note, i think it would be fun someday to serve chicken tetrazzini with peach melba for dessert! we could have eggs bizet as a starter, and bellinis to drink [even though that's the wrong bellini] ...

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, it is tinged with nostalgia, and she seems carried away by his singing. One imagines her saying goodbye to it all in her mind. That was 1932, at the end of her career. It's a very touching film. On the other subject, I think I can postulate, in my imagination, a critical apparatus for determining her approximate financial situation toward the end. One needs to establish the date at which the horrid husband left her, and then calculate the number of recitals she gave between that date and 1932, when she retired. Then try to find out what the typical recital fee was. Do the math, and one has an approximate idea of her income post-thief. If the amount turned out to be significant, Gattey may be right. I don't pretend that getting any of these facts would be easy, but it might be at least possible, if one is content to work with approximate numbers. That would then raise the other question and to why the rumor, if indeed it was a rumor, was spread. It COULD have been a conscious ploy to ward off other would-be thieves. All speculative, I know, but now my curiousity is aroused.

Edmund St. Austell said...

The above comment is obviously for Nate, and this is for Corax.

Ha, ha! Yes I love it. Your mind and mine work so similarly! I was going to mention in the piece the feud between Tetrazzini and Melba (one of the only ones she had...people tended to like Tetrazzini a lot) so I could work in a sentence like "But Tetrazzini was no chicken! I'm sure she made toast of Melba!" However, the gag reflex, which is usually pretty strong in me, started to relinquish its grip, and I decided, in a rare gesture in the direction of taste, to omit it:)

And I am intrigued by the flute idea. Yes, why indeed? We use these comparisons endlessly, without ever stopping to analyze them. Yes, indeed.....I wonder what the oscilloscope would show!

Edmund St. Austell said...

OK folks, I am messing up the comments and answers. The answer above this is for Corax, and above that for J.D. Hobbes, not for Nate. Sorry, guys....Still a learning curve in effect for this section. Edmund

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting article, sir Edmund. Happy Holidays to you too.
What a gorgeous voice! Very passionate Italian sound and great technique. Maybe her voice has some defects, but it sounds rich and her high notes are beautiful. It is very strange that Met didn’t hire her; she was a perfect partner for Caruso even in that video, where she was 60:). A charming video, I totally agree. It’s hard to imagine that she was a prima donna, her behavior is absolutely different.
She was too kind and trustful person, of course.


Anonymous said...

"I could work in a sentence like "But Tetrazzini was no chicken! I'm sure she made toast of Melba!"

We have jokes about some composers’ names. For example, the most loved combination is of Bach and Glinka. "Bach" in Russian reminds a loud sound of something falling down, while "Glinka" is similar to “glina”, a slippery clay:)


Edmund St. Austell said...

Большое спасибо за комментарий, сердечный друг:) Yes, I agree absolutely. She simply does not fit the mold of a temperamental prima donna; quite the contrary--she seems by all accounts to have been quite lovable. She only had one feud, and that was with Nellie Melba, who WAS a temperamental prima donna. In fact, she was flat-out unpleasant to almost everyone, so the sympathy comes down on the side of Tetrazzina in that one. Yes, conservatory students here are quite fond of making up little jokes based on composers' names. Unfortunately, most of them cannot be repeated in public:) "Handel," which in English can also mean "fondle," makes a good start. From there, one just loads it onto the bathysphere and sets out to plumb a new low:):)

Gerhard Santos said...

MOLTO BELLO!!! Thank you my Friend for sharing this Valuable Biographical information.