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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Anni Frind: The Beauty of Elegance

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,-that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Had Keats been eulogizing singers, and not Grecian urns, I feel he would have to have found a place for elegance in his formula. It is an aesthetic problem of the first order: what exactly is the relationship between elegance and beauty? Can something be elegant and not beautiful? Or vice versa? Anything but easy! I do know that the very first time I heard Anni Frind sing, the first thought that entered my mind was, "this is absolute elegance!" And a moment later, "and very beautiful!" Whether the relationship be causal or parallel, I simply cannot say, but listening to Anni Frind may suggest an answer.

Anni Frind was born in Nixdorf, Bohemia, presently the Czech Republic, in 1900.* A musically precocious child, she was trained at an early age, in Dresden, studying with Eleanor Kahler-Riese, Grete Merrem-Nikish, and Luise Willer. She made her professional debut at the Berlin Volksoper in 1922, at first in a minor role. As so often happens in Europe, the big roles soon came along, as she gained in experience and public exposure. She was soon singing at the Munich Staatsoper, the Salzburg Festival (1926), and in Berlin, Dresden, and other major European cities. She was noted not only for her operatic singing (Mélisande, Papagena, Cio-Cio-San, Musetta, others) but also for her operetta singing and concert work, which was extensive. Like so many other European singers of her approximate age, her career was seriously interrupted by WWII, and she emigrated in 1951, along with her husband, to the United States, where she settled in New Orleans and began a teaching career at Tulane University. Her singing, throughout her career, was characterized by an extraordinary elegance, along with attention to minute musical and stylistic detail.

Anni Frind died in New Orleans, in 1987. However, as the great Caruso once observed, a singer's life should be told in song, not words. If you do not know her, please permit me to introduce you to Anni Frind!

I think a good place to start would be with an aria that will be known to most, and that is the lovely and wistful "Vilja," (Which we generally know as "The Witch of The Woods") from Lehar's eternally popular Merry Widow: (turn up volume)

So lovely! This is one of the best versions of this piece that I have heard. It is characterized from the first notes to the end by a curious but fascinating wistfulness and sentimentality that is somehow contained with the bounds of stylistic and aesthetic propriety. Sentimentality for its own sake often fails, and turns the listener away at precisely the moment he or she should be most emotionally engaged. I'm sure we can all think of moments when this happens. (Puccini, whom I admire greatly, can nevertheless have his share of faux pas in this area!) This is different. Wistful? Yes. Sentimental and retrospective? Yes. Schmaltz? NO! That is the secret, and that is the aesthetic conundrum. How does this happen? Extreme musicality, stylistic excellence, infinite attention to small detail, and a near worshipful regard for the author's intentions. It may not be the complete answer, but I believe all these elements are at the very least present.

With these notable gifts, it should not be a surprise that lieder singing was one of Anni Frind's greatest gifts. This area of musical art gave full scope to her abilities. She was particularly fond of the music of Max Reger, (and here is the respect for composer element manifesting itself again) and her rendition of "Waldeinsamkeit" is certainly one of the best ever:

That is simply exquisite. The attention to phrase and the near-infinite stylistic inflections she bestows upon the song make this a model of elegant singing. This cannot be faulted in any way—it can only be praised.

Finally, a Reger piece which I think illustrates another of the qualities that I mentioned above. If "Waldeinsamkeit" reflects the most exquisite regard for authorial intention and stylistic excellence, "Des Kindes Gebet" ("The Child's Prayer") reflects her equally refined (and almost mysterious) ability to refract sentimentality and contain it within the bounds of stylistic beauty. This is as hard, musically, as anything I can think of. Even to sing a song called "A Child's Prayer" is to immediately put the discriminating audience on alert. How does one soar above the sentimental aspect of THAT theme? Here is how:

Very, very touching, but the sentimentality is constrained. In fact, I think "constraint" may be the word I have been looking for, or perhaps "understatement." Frind is wise enough to know that the subject matter per se is all the sentiment that is needed. What she can add is musicality. Perhaps that is the secret: musicality (and this includes respect for authorial intention, something now so out of style in literature and increasingly in music ) coupled with a superior vision, which includes aesthetic purity and a restraint more Olympian than visceral. However it is that elegance becomes beauty, it would be hard to find a better exemplar than Anni Frind.

I would like to take this opportunity to advise readers that Anni Frind recorded a lieder recital in November,1954, which has been issued on Centaur Lp CRC-1002, featuring works by Schumann, Schubert, Hans Pfitzner, and Joseph Marx. It also contains comments by Frind and her pianist Peter Hansen, added in 1977. Plans are now being made for this recording to be released as a download by Centaur Records, Inc. When I hear of this release, I will advise readers.




*I am most grateful to Mr. George Weaver, at "Opertutto," who provided me both with photographs and important information relating to Anni Frind's biography.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Florence Quartararo: A Great Singer Forgotten

It was not fully a month ago when I heard my first recording of Florence Quartararo. It was Handel's "Care Selve." It was as though someone had touched me with a live electrical wire. It was one of the most thrilling things I have heard in a long time. I was not the only one: that recording, posted on Youtube by "addiobelpassato," set off an instant flurry of activity, and I believe every song she ever recorded (sadly, not many) is now up on Youtube. I had to know more about this lady with the glorious voice. Her story turns out to be a rather sad one, although not tragic.

For this article, I asked the help of Mr. Tim Shu (dantitustimshu), one of the very best musical scholars posting on Youtube. What follows is his capsule summary of her life and (short) career, for which I am most grateful. Tim credits his own source, record producer/archivist Richard Caniell, a friend of Quartararo's, and the man responsible for getting her recordings out to the public. Tim goes on:

[Florence Quartararo] was born to music loving Italian parents living in the San Francisco Bay area. Gaetano Merola, head and chief conductor of the San Francisco Opera, was present at her baptism (Merola was a friend of her mother's brother.) She developed an interest in singing in her childhood, her idol being Claudia Muzio, whom she saw in Traviata at the SF opera. She went to the opera as a standee whenever Muzio sang. She also admired Ponselle, Rethberg, Gigli, Schipa, Bergioli and Martinelli, all of whom also sang in San Francisco. Through friends, she eventually met Bing Crosby, who auditioned her and put her on his Kraft Music Hall program, under the stage name of Florence Alba, where she appeared four times in 1945.

In that same year, she was called upon to replace Helen Traubel in a concert conducted by Otto Klemperer. Earle Lewis, Treasurer of the box office at the Met, happened to be in the audience, and he arranged for her to have an audition with the great conductor Bruno Walter. The session impressed Walter so much that he recommended her to the Met's General Manager Edward Johnson, who saw to it that she received the Caruso Award to fund her studies, as well as a Met contract. She made her Met debut in the role of Micaela in Carmen, in 1946.

She went on to sing 37 performances at the Met in 9 roles—Elvira in Don Giovanni, Violetta, Micaela, the Flower Maiden in Parsifal, Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, the Countess in Figaro, Nedda in Pagliacci, Pamina in the Magic Flute, and Desdemona in Otello. She sang with great conductors, including Bruno Walter and Fritz Busch, both of whom admired her greatly. Her performance as Desdemona brought her to the attention of Arturo Toscanini, who telephoned her personally and invited her to sing the role in his NBC broadcast of Otello. She auditioned for Toscanini and the maestro was greatly impressed, but the Met was unable to release her from its performance schedule to attend Toscanini's intensive rehearsals.

Her marriage to Italian bass Italo Tajo, whom she met during a performance of Gianni Schicchi, and the birth of a daughter, led to the end of her three year career.

I would only add to Tim's summary that she and Tajo seemed to agree that one opera singer in the family was enough, a personal decision unfortunately common enough in the day, but sad by today's standards, and a great loss to the world of music.

Here is the recording that started the recent flurry, and impressed me so greatly: "Care Selve," from Handel's Atalanta:

I still get chills every time I hear this aria! What a voice! There is an immediacy, a passionate intensity, and a vibrancy in the voice that is just amazing. Her top is wonderful, but there is, in addition, a near mezzo-like, or perhaps more accurately a dramatic Ponselle-like cover and "chest register" richness of tone that just goes through one like an arrow. An absolutely magnificent voice. I realize that arias of this genre—and age—are commonly sung in an ethereal way that comes close to hypnotic crooning, but there is no reason at all to think that they must be sung that way. A great voice is a law unto itself. Even if that were not the case, however, there is no denying her instinctive musicality that takes her directly to the core of the song.

Here is a more nearly modern classic, an aria widely performed and known, and generally well loved, "Un bel dì," from Madama Butterfly [This selection is a radio transcription, of uneven quality, but listenable. You might need to turn the volume up a bit. Also, you will need to click the following link to play it...I cannot embed this particular aria]:

Absolutely beautiful! Once again, the emotional intensity, the vibrancy, the sure musical instincts, all take her to the very heart of this tragic aria. This is a piece where the ending must triumph, because it carries the double burden, emotionally, of being a child's hopes for love coupled with an extreme vulnerability; two things that in combination set the stage for a horrible and heart-rending tragedy. Quartararo understands this, and she brings out in no uncertain terms the aria's full power.

Finally, another very famous aria that shows just how great Quartararo's potential for the big Verdi operas was, "Tacea la notte," from Il Trovatore.":

Despite her relative youth, this ranks among the top renditions of this aria! It is all there: the color, the Italianate richness of the voice, the flexibility, and once again the sure musical and stylistic instincts that go to the very core of this Verdi classic. A great singer. Period. Perhaps now, after all these years, at least some recognition will be forthcoming for a wonderful Italian American talent sadly destined to be so briefly before the public.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Anna Netrebko: Brilliance, Beauty, And Controversy.

I have been a long time coming around to a doing a piece on Anna Netrebko, for one very simple reason: I could not determine exactly what I felt about this very popular soprano. The pluses are obvious—a great voice and extraordinary physical beauty. The cons, if one is inclined to find them, are a carpet-chewing acting impulse and a sometimes woeful lack of discretion in how she permits herself to be presented, presumably by directors and management. What to do!

Anna Yuryevna Netrebko (Анна Юрьевна Нетребко) was born in Russia in 1971. She is a citizen of both Russia and Austria. She says her Austrian citizenship is to facilitate endless visa applications resulting from strictly Russian citizenship, but the move angered many Russians. However, that seems to be abating somewhat following Russia's prominent recognition of her made two years ago, when she was named People's Artist of Russia. No biography is really necessary for so prominent a figure still in her 30's, and everywhere recognized as a star. In addition to People's Artist, she was called "a genuine superstar for the 21st century" by Musical America, and additionally (and here comes part of the problem) she made Playboy's "sexiest babes of classical music" list.

It may seem strange that physical beauty can be a problem, but in the archetype-driven world of grand opera, it can. Hers is a visceral (read sexual) beauty that has an immediate appeal that is worlds apart from the kind of attraction often heaped on divas. There is what might be called a "statuesque regal" beauty, most often found in prima donnas of the past, who project a psychologically complex kind of attraction that really requires a foray into Freudian theory, something I personally am not inclined to do. Suffice it to say that "sexuality" in opera and ballet is not really real, it is usually symbolic and archetypal and has to do with the female in her eternal battle with the feminine—two entirely different things. The point is, it is not realistic sexuality—that is the kind taken over by the cinema, and presented very well there. When cinema invades opera and ballet, however, trouble usually follows in its wake. This is what Sir Kenneth MacMillan discovered when he tried introducing cinematic realism into ballet. He was nearly tarred and feathered and driven out of the ballet world altogether. In the case of opera, European stage directors (and, increasingly, American) are introducing cinematic elements into opera, in an attempt to make a largely 19th century art form "modern," offering new chances for discovery of new elements in old shows. Or so the rationalizing goes. I have some problems with that, but that's too long a story for here. I will only say that a few videos of Netrebko and Alagna, let us say, cavorting in their underwear and pawing each other, is not advised immediately after having eaten, as New York opera goers usually have. BUT—on to some videos, chosen to celebrate, not criticize:

Here is what may qualify as one of the ten most beautiful arias ever written, Dvorak's almost painfully lovely "Song to The Moon," one of Netrebko's signature pieces:

What can one say? An exceptionally beautiful aria, sung by an equally beautiful young woman. I do not think this can be faulted in any way. The richness of her voice can be almost mezzo-like in certain places, and it adds a thrilling depth to the sound which is most attractive. The vocal production is flawless; smooth and consistent all the way to the top. Not a bit of harshness or strain anywhere. It really seems to be beneficial for a singer to have been born in either an Italian or Russian speaking culture. Something about speaking either of those languages seems to predispose the musculature of the throat and larynx for classical singing.

Here is a traditional soprano showpiece aria that has for a very long time been a favorite with audiences and sopranos alike, the great "Casta Diva":

As in the case of the Dvorak, the singing is impeccable, and she demonstrates here that she can project a traditional elegance and near heroic sensibility, as well as visceral emotion. There is no question that she can communicate directly with an audience, in one way or another.

Now to the controversy. I have no wish to present the most problematical of her videos, which are only too easily found, (the discretion problem) but rather one that is entirely legitimate, in the eyes of most, and that is Netrebko in a modern setting of Traviata. I invite the reader to form his or her own opinion:

Here, the problem (if you consider it a problem) is, again, the superimposition of cinema on a 19th century work of art. Is it legitimate? Is it helpful to opera? Can it be aesthetically justified? I don't know. I notice certain things—one is that the video we have just seen has over half a million hits. Is this significant? You can see the problem...It is just damned hard to judge! My opinion, for what it is worth, is that there are serious problems here. Not with Netrebko—she's stunningly beautiful, she sings exceptionally well, and is passionate in a realistic, cinematic, it isn't her, it's the stage director's concept. I find it flawed from an aesthetic point of view. La Traviata is most definitely not 20th century theater, let alone 21st century. I have the same problem here that I have with opera in translation. In the same way it is difficult to force the musical syntax of a Latin language to conform to the blocky syntax of English or German, it is hard to force cinematic conventions onto the lyric stage. It just doesn't work.

But that is not Netrebko's fault. So, where did I finally come down on the issue of Netrebko? She is a great soprano, with an exceptionally beautiful voice. She also has great beauty which she is, I believe, starting to project in more traditional ways as she grows older and more experienced.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Leontyne Price: An Aida For All Time

Leontyne Price was born in 1927, in Laurel, Misissippi. She came of age, and rose to fame, during a period of racial change in America, and she broke barriers that had long existed, becoming the first African American to sing leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, and among the first to sing such roles at the great opera houses of the world, including La Scala.

Like many before her, she showed musical promise as a child. She studied piano and also sang in choirs. It was her voice, of course, that first attracted attention. Her goals at the beginning were modest, and she first aimed at a teaching career, attending Wilberforce College in Ohio. Her first stage performance was as Mistress Ford in a 1952 student production of Verdi's Falstaff. From there on, her career begins to follow a fairly recognizable path. She moved, in reasonably short order, to Four Saints in Three Acts, Porgy and Bess, and then, unusually for the times, a TV production of Tosca. That marked the real beginning of an opera career. Her splendid vocal gifts attracted the attention of important musicians and impresarios, and success upon success soon followed: Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, in San Francisco, followed immediately by Aida, (an opera with which she would always be associated), Don Giovanni, and Il trovatore. It was as a heroic romantic lead in Verdi and Puccini roles that she would particularly come to be identified, and she did indeed excel in such roles.

Perhaps the first great moment for her in America came in 1961, in a famous production of Aida at the Metropolitan in which Price appeared opposite the great Franco Corelli. Her success was so astonishing that her final curtain call is reliably reported to have lasted over half an hour! From there on, her success is a well known story, easily consulted. Hers was, simply, one of the great careers in opera, and her voice, at its best, was a thrilling instrument of extraordinary power and beauty that one critic once said stirred feelings similar to those that can be occasioned by watching a waving flag.

Why not start with the aria with which she was most closely identified. It tells the story very well:

A simply stunning rendition! Perhaps it is the quality of the voice per se that most attracts. She sings within a very wide vocal range; like Corelli, the spinto qualities are evident, but the extra weight does not detract from the upper register. She could, and often did, sing beyond C natural. It was this particular aria, however, with which nearly everyone, critics and public alike, were riveted from the very beginning. Its particular tessitura lies squarely within the very best area of her voice, with all its thrilling resonances.

It was in the same year as her spectacular Aida debut, with Corelli, that she made another historic debut, this time in Il Trovatore, also with Corelli. This is an actual transcription of that event, and the audience, at the end, seems close to hysteria. So much so, in fact, that Corelli is reputed to have politely suggested to Rudolf Bing that he would appreciate not being cast with Price henceforth! He is said to have repented, however, but one can understand his nervousness—Aida and Trovatore are also big operas for the tenor!

Anything I could add to the invariable accolades heaped upon this performance would be somewhere between superfluous and just plain silly. In fact, it is brilliant in all ways, with perhaps one little exception that perhaps I may make bold to point out, and that is something for which she was taken to task by Von Karajan and others, and that her notorious tendency to "slide and glide." The portamenti up and down really stand out and are not, perhaps, in the truest vocal or dramatic traditions of these operas. But....good heavens, who cares!?

Finally, some attention needs to be paid to Porgy and Bess. She did not shun these roles—quite the contrary. She could easily have gone to Italy to live (she loved Italy) and played the real-life role of the great prima donna, but she was very grounded in her essential American character. (She disliked the term "African-American," incidentally; she to this day considers herself "American"—period.) Here is the big aria from Porgy. [This video is old, and not in very good shape, but hearing Price during this period of her life is illustrative]

Now here it has to be said that the portamenti up and down work just fine! This is the kind of opera where "gospel" singing characteristics work perfectly well.

A great singer, a great voice, a great lady; by virtually any set of criteria one of the great opera singers of the 20th century.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Legendary Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Featured In Some Of His Rare Recordings

There is no question that Giacomo Lauri Volpi (1892-1979) was one of the greatest tenors of all time. Trained in the classic bel canto technique, he quickly became one of its greatest exemplars, possessing a voice of extraordinary range and clarity. In a career extending over 40 years, he was everywhere known and applauded, and became a legend in his own lifetime. His biography is so well known, and so easy to consult, that I wish, in this special edition of Great Opera Singers, to dwell on Lauri Volpi as seen in four of his rarest recordings, provided by Dr. Gian Paolo Nardoianni, to whom I am most grateful. These recordings, most of them in live performance, speak volumes.

I had the singular good fortune, several weeks ago, to make the acquaintance of Dr. Nardoianni, who was a personal acquaintance of Lauri Volpi and who possesses an uncommonly good musical library of the great tenor's recordings. This is quite important, because Lauri Volpi in fact did not like to record. Like Giuseppe Giacomini, he was more a creature of the theater, where his extraordinary voice could be heard in all its glory. Any Lauri Volpi recording, therefore, is valuable, and if they are rare, they are even more so.

Because Dr. Nardoianni knew Lauri Volpi personally, his observations on the tenor's life and work are privileged, and I am pleased to be able to reproduce them as a prelude. Characterizing in general the personality of Lauri Volpi, Dr. Nardoianni wrote that:

"Lauri Volpi was a highly cultivated, deeply religious man. He studied law at the University of Rome and took part in World War One, fighting bravely. He shunned publicity in every form and—unfortunately for us—hated making records. He was fundamentally a timid man, but had to be aggressive in order to survive in the cynical operatic environment. On stage, but only when pushed, he could be diffident, touchy, even unruly. In his private life he was sensitive, refined, courteous and chivalrous. His generosity towards the needy was legendary and he had a very happy married life."

Let us go now to the first recording to be featured, and this is a unique live recording made in Barcelona in 1972:

An absolutely thrilling performance! The audience is simply beside itself. It is very hard, verging on impossible, to believe that the great tenor was only a few months short of his 80th birthday when this was recorded! Dr. Nardoianni added this historical comment:

"Lauri Volpi and Maria Jeritza premiered Turandot at the Met on 16th November 1926. On the opening night, Lauri-Volpi noticed that the public remained unresponsive to the aria "Nessun Dorma," such as Puccini had written it; that is, without the "corona" on the final high B. So, after getting Serafin's approval, the night of the second performance, Lauri-Volpi, for the first time in the history of Turandot, topped off the aria with a sustained high B which [made] the audience delirious. He can rightly be called the creator of the "Nessun Dorma" such as it is sung today."

Now, here is a real rarity that I did not know existed, and yet it is a beautiful bit of singing that shows Lauri Volpi as a young man in full control of his extraordinary gifts:

On this recording, Dr. Nardoianni added:

"Sparkling top notes produced with stunning ease and exquisite "piani." Lauri-Volpi's singing was always wonderfully nuanced." I absolutely concur!
It was in Milan, in 1954, that the following recording was made, and Lauri Volpi, now 62 years of age, sings with all the clarity, beauty of sound, stylistic excellence, and immaculate pronunciation that characterized his singing from the beginning to the end of his career. The words are so clear that it sometimes seems that it would not even be necessary to understand Italian in order to understand him! Here is "Donna non vidi mai," from Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

An absolutely beautiful rendition of a very well known aria. This is singing that cannot be faulted in any way; a true master at work!

Finally, another rarity: Lauri Volpi sings Werther's "O nature, pleine du grace!" Dr. Nardoianni has a fascinating piece of historical information on Lauri Volpi and this particular opera:

After Lauri-Volpi had sung Werther [ in French] in 1935 at the Opéra Comique in Paris, Massenet's daughter was so enthusiastic about [his] conception of the character that she presented him with a portrait of her father Jules, on which she had written that Lauri-Volpi was an admirable Werther. Lauri-Volpi was a man of great learning and his Werther was in perfect keeping with Goethe's character. In this [example, we see his Werther as] a lusty young man brimming with life, who feels exhilarated, almost intoxicated by the beauty of the nature which surrounds him. He sings with radiant voice his hymn of love to Nature as if Nature were his beloved mother and, at the same time, his lover. In Lauri-Volpi's singing, there is almost a Panic feeling which makes his rendition of this aria truly unique:

And on that lovely note, we bring our special issue to its conclusion. I do hope you have enjoyed this presentation of rare recordings of the nonpareil Giacomo Larui Volpi, a monumental artist whose greatness will only become more remarkable and more commented upon with the passage of time. Most importantly, I here express my most sincere gratitude to Dr. Gian Paolo Nardoianni for the treasures he has made available to us. I am happy to say that all these recordings, and several more, can be heard on my channel, where I invite you to drop by and hear even more of these historical testaments to one of the greatest tenors of all time.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Dame Joan Sutherland died on October 10, just a week ago, bringing to a close one of the most spectacular operatic careers of the 20th century. There is no doubt that she was one of the greatest sopranos of the twentieth century, and probably of all time, with a voice and a technique that set her apart from the beginning, and made everyone take notice that true greatness had dawned in the world of grand opera. Her contribution to the renaissance of bel canto, from the late 1950's to the 1980's, simply cannot be over-estimated.

Dame Joan was born in Sydney, in 1926. She began studying voice at 18, and made her concert debut in Sydney in 1947. The talent was obvious from the beginning, and after winning an important competition she went to London to study at the Royal College of Music, and was engaged shortly thereafter by Covent Garden to sing small parts.

She made her debut in a leading role in 1952, when she sang Amelia in The Masked Ball. The power of her voice must have been apparent to all, even at that stage in her career, for her to have landed a debut role like Amelia! Curiously, perhaps because of the size of her voice, she was at first interested in Wagner, and greatly admired Kirsten Flagstad. Big roles followed Masked Ball, along with much lighter roles such as Gilda and Pamina. Dame Joan was fortunate to have come along at a time when specialization was not what it is today, and young singers—assuming the ability was there--had an opportunity to vary their repertoire considerably.

Sutherland married Australian conductor and pianist Richard Bonyage in 1954, and it was largely he who convinced her to concentrate on the bel canto roles that would bring her great fame. She had, from the outset, a spectacular technique that made it possible for her to sing very high notes. Eb above high C was never a problem for her, and she could on occasion sing even higher. Coupled with this extreme range was a great flexibility and a flawless trill. These characteristically coloratura attributes, joined to a naturally powerful voice, made her one of the most exceptionally endowed sopranos of all time. In 1959, she sang Lucia at the Royal Opera House in a production conducted by Tullio Serafin and staged by Franco Zeffirelli. The rest, as they say, is history. 1960 and 1961 were important years for Sutherland, as she made debuts in Paris, New York and Milan at that time. From then on, her fame was universal and her extraordinary career established. Lucia had already become something of a signature role for her, and it attracted attention everywhere.

There is no reason to belabor a biography so readily consulted and so well known. Let us, rather, look at the art of this extraordinary woman. The following video is from her first telecast, either 1959 or 60, some 50 years ago. It appears to be a kinescope recording, and the video quality is poor. There is also an annoying time counter plastered across her face part of the time, and the video slips momentarily at the end, causing an audio growl, but, mercifully, the audio quality in general is good, and it is a rare opportunity to see the great lady at the time she burst forth onto the operatic scene world-wide:

Isn't that astonishing! Those rapid cadenzas have every single note articulated accurately and clearly! No glide here! The trill is perfect and the Eb at the end has the same quality as the rest of the voice. There is generally a purity and consistency to the voice, which is like a column of sound, solid from top to bottom, a characteristic most commonly found in Germanic singers, Wagnerians in particular. The more characteristic ebb and flow of the Latin singing style is replaced here by something else, which still works perfectly well in the bel canto repertoire, perhaps contrary to expectation. It is, I would venture, an instance of the total triumph of traditional technique that makes this possible. Vocally speaking, it simply does not get any better than this.

While Lucia, because of the opportunity it affords to display this superb technique, was perhaps Dame Joan's signature role, it certainly was not her only big part. She in fact sang a fairly wide range of roles, albeit largely within the bel canto repertoire. I personally think it was a brilliant move on Bonyage's part to urge her into what was at that time a neglected area, simply because it gave her the chance to foreground her astonishing voice and technique, and also because it helped re-establish the bel canto repertoire, a great repository of beautiful music.

Here is a live recording of Sempre Libera from 1965. It is amazing. There is some background noise and what sounds like a prompter, but it is very light and easy to ignore. She comes through loud and clear, to say the least!

Again, we notice the extreme consistency. Another Eb, seemingly effortlessly produced, carrying a prodigious amount of weight for a note so high! This was one of the many astonishing things about Sutherland's voice—the absolute consistency of the upper register, which actually seems, tonally, of a piece with every other register. I know of no other soprano where this is so obviously the case. Simply amazing!

I suppose that now is as good a time as any to mention the one "flaw" in Sutherland's production that was most commonly mentioned, and that is what some critics called a "mushy" pronunciation that sometimes made it unclear exactly what language she was singing in. Call it "operatic scat," but whatever the reason, it was pretty obvious. I can only say that for me it made no difference. The works in which she shone were well over 100 years old, and the libretti are hardly unknown! Does it really matter? Let us be honest—by the time of the mid-twentieth century the plots and stories are so well known that most listen now only to the music and essential vocalism. This was not the case back in the teens and twenties, when singers such as Battistini or Chaliapin could augment their vocal prowess with their acting ability—in which attention to words was crucial. We are in a different world now.

Finally, here is another role in which the great soprano was brilliant—Elvira in I Puritani. Here is the charming "Son Vergin Vezzosa." (Do notice, please, the trill at 23-25, near the beginning of the piece.)

Absolutely brilliant, is it not? Did you notice the trill very near the beginning of the aria? Possibly the greatest trill ever recorded. I can only think of one other soprano who can compete with this rendition, and that would be the divine Galli-Curci, who brought perhaps more girlish charm and ease of execution to the aria, but much less voice (which was, to be fair, the lot of every coloratura soprano who was not Joan Sutherland!)

There is no need to go on. I know I am running to superlatives, but how is it possible to discuss this goddess among sopranos and not do so? Rest in well deserved peace, Dame Joan. We shall not soon see your equal!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Titta Ruffo: "The Voice of a Lion"

Titta Ruffo (1877-1953—his actual birth name was Ruffo Titta) was born in Pisa. He had some vocal training, but he was essentially self-taught, something that would become a problem for him later in his career. His debut was in 1898 at the Teatro Constanzi in Rome as the Herald in Wagner's Lohengrin. Like so many other Italian singers, he made a slow climb up through the smaller houses, until an international reputation was finally achieved. His American debut was in Philadelphia in 1912, and he went on to sing both in Chicago—where he sang extensively—and at the Met, where he first sang in 1922, as Figaro.

Ruffo's repertoire was large: Rigoletto, (perhaps his signature role) Di Luna, Amonasro, Germont, Iago, Don Giovanni, and others. In many ways, Ruffo heralded the beginning of the robust and highly dramatic versimo baritone, contrasting sharply with his contemporary Mattia Battistini, of whom we wrote earlier (q.v. Sept. 12. 2010). Ruffo was sometimes compared unfavorably to the elegant, bel canto trained Basttistini, whose refinements were much appreciated at the time, in the same way that the early Caruso was sometimes compared unfavorably to the more elegant tenors that preceded him, such as Alessandro Bonci. However, verismo was in fact "la tónica del momento," and both Caruso and Ruffo would go on to world-wide acclaim and even spectacular success. They were more nearly rivals than friends, and they seldom sang together. They both had star status and were wary of each other. They did, however, at least record one duet together, and it is quite spectacular. It is particularly interesting because it shows how powerful Ruffo's voice was. Few could compete with Caruso, whose voice was notoriously big. (In fact, singing "a tutta forza" was pretty much his sole mode. He tended heavily to the monochromatic.) As you will see in "Si, pel ciel," the big duet from Otello, The Lion holds his own perfectly well:

Two mighty voices, to be sure! The bite and intensity of Ruffo's voice is quite remarkable. It must be said that, self-taught or not, he handled his voice with great intelligence, and made it do what he wanted. The measured vibrato in the upper register is a good indication of the exact control he had over the voice. He also holds it down on the bottom and in the middle, which is intelligent, because a voice of that size could exhaust itself quickly if he did not tone it down in the middle, and lie in wait, as it were, for the big notes, which are, especially in verismo opera, "the sound that pays the rent." All this, while perhaps typical, was not exclusive. Given a chance, and solo exposure, there were more shades in the voice than we hear in this explosive duet with Caruso. A more tender a reflective side of Ruffo is apparent in the famous aria from La Traviata, "Di Provenza il mar, il suol..."

This really aligns Ruffo and his sensibility with what Italian opera was largely to become in the first half of the 20th century: verismo at its core, but with plenty of room for expressivity and just plain beautiful singing, even if largely unadorned. Many refinements from the 19th century were abandoned, to be sure, but much remained that was both exciting and beautiful. To exclusively value one approach to music, which could, in a simplified way, be called "bel canto," to another, equally simplistically named "verismo," is not productive. There is much to value in each.

Finally, here is the great Ruffo in a baritone showpiece that is a sure way to state one's credentials: the prolog to I Pagliacci. I would call your attention especially to the high Ab at the end of the aria, followed by the G natural in the exit line after the aria: two stellar high notes which show just how well placed, powerful and resonant his voice was:

"The voice of a lion" indeed!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Great Sergei Lemeshev: The View From Russia

It is a great pleasure for me to present the third in our series of guest writers. Natalie, known to many of you by her Youtube Channel name "younglemeshevist," is especially qualified to write on Sergei Lemeshev. Natalie was among the very first to begin to spread his recordings on Youtube, along with those of Antonina Nezhdanova. All lovers of great singing owe her a debt of gratitude for this effort, as these two superb Soviet artists were unknown to many opera lovers in the United States. She is also to be praised for composing this piece in English—I can only wish that my Russian were as good! Edmund St. Austell

First, I would like to thank Edmund St. Austell for inviting me to write this piece on my favorite tenor.

In Russia, Sergei Yakovlevich Lemeshev (1902-1977) is—along with Feodor Chaliapin— perhaps the most beloved opera singer in recent history. He was born into a very poor peasant family, in a small village, and sang from his early childhood. He was always surrounded by good singers, including his parents and other villagers, as peasant Russia was a “singing country” in those days. His father died when Sergei was 10, and after four years in a parish school he started to learn shoemaking, since there was no other chance for the family to escape from poverty. In 1918 he became acquainted with architect and opera lover Nikolai Kvashnin, who, along with the rest of his family, persuaded Sergei to study voice seriously. Those were the years of the Bolshevik revolution and the Civil war, and Lemeshev was required to become a cadet in the Red Army Cavalry School. However, it was actually the Revolution that helped him make his dream of an operatic career come true, since the Bolsheviks gave the poorest peasants and proletarians a preferential right to free education. Sergei was assigned to study at the Moscow Conservatory where, after surviving a rigorous competition, he was accepted. (This determined his political views, for as he said many times, “the Soviets gave me everything".)

His teachers were tenor N. Raisky (a pupil of G. Nuvelli), N. Kardyan, and L. Zvyagina (a leading contralto of the Bolshoi.) In 1926, Lemeshev made his debut as Lensky in K. Stanislavsky’s Opera Studio, and beginning in 1927, he performed at theaters in Sverdlovsk, Harbin (Manchuria) and Tbilisi. In 1931, he became a leading tenor of the Bolshoi, where he sang for the next 34 years, winning great acclaim. His audience grew, along with his fame, and he soon gained a veritable army of fans, called "lemeshevists. His repertoire included the Duke of Mantua, Lensky, Alfredo, Tsar Berendei (from The Snowmaiden), the Indian Guest (Sadko), Faust, Ziebel, Almaviva, The Simpleton (Boris Godunov ), Rodolfo (La Bohème) The Astrologer (The Golden Cockerel), Nadir, Des Greiux (Manon), Gerald (Lakme), Romeo (Gounod’s (Romeo and Juliette), Fra Diavolo, and Werther.

His vocal and artistic qualities, evident to every listener, are beauty of timbre, musicality, effortlessness of vocal production, expressiveness, and very clear diction, qualities perhaps most commonly found in bel canto singers. These qualities can be seen is his 1940 recording of “Parmi veder le Lagrime" (in Russian). I would call attention to the extraordinarily high note at the end, a Db above high C:

An interesting comment on Lemeshev’s singing was made by the Bolshoi tenor A. Orfenov: "He developed a mixed voice of incomparable beauty, which made it possible for him to take the highest notes with such beautiful richness that even specialists could not explain how it was done technically….His high C’s … sounded virile and full…His manner of lowering his larynx a bit on high notes allowed him to perform the parts which we ordinary lyric tenors did not sing, [roles such as] Rodolfo in La Bohème, Levko in May Night, Dubrovsky, Fra Diavolo…”

Lemeshev’s emotionality, acting skills and handsomeness very quickly made him a public idol. Aside from the Duke of Mantua, which was his signature role before the war, he brilliantly performed romantic, melancholy and tragic roles such as Werther, Romeo, and Lensky. Here is his 1938 recording of " Pourquoi me reveiller":

Unfortunately, like every Soviet star in the 1930’s, he had problems securing permission to make recordings of complete operas. Several parts in which he was very successful were not recorded at all. His best early recordings of songs and arias, made on shellac, are now available on Youtube. You may consult my channel—"younglemeshevist," or that of petrof4056.

Lensky finally became his most famous role, which he refined throughout his life. His 1955 recording of Eugene Onegin, with the renowned Galina Vishnevskaya , became quite well known in the West. Here is a very good 1937 recording of Lensky’s aria:

The best years of his operatic career were 1931-1942. He was also an outstanding concert singer and a brilliant performer of folk songs. In 1938, he became the first artist to sing all 100 romances by Tchaikovsky in 5 concerts. Folk songs broadcast on the radio made him a truly “national’ singer. Additionally, the film “A Musical Story,” 1941, in which he played the main role, brought him the Stalin prize and caused Lemeshev-mania all over the USSR. It must be said that his personality was a significant part of his success. He is remembered as a very friendly and cheerful person who was also a congenial colleague. He was also quite a lady's man! Six marriages and numerous affairs focused the attention of his fans on his personal life. Their day-and-night stalking and scuffles with fans of other tenors are legendary.

The beginning of the Great Patriotic War (WWII) was crucial for Lemeshev; during one evacuation he caught a very bad cold which resulted in two attacks of pneumonia, complicated by pleurisy and tuberculosis of the right lung. He was treated with artificial pneumothorax, which is to say an induced therapeutic collapse of one lung. Although singing was forbidden, he in fact continued to sing with one lung from 1942 to 1948, when the other lung was also artificially collapsed and re-inflated. During that period he recorded Lakme, The Snowmaiden, “Pearlfishers," and Mozart and Salieri. In addition to health problems, he started to drink heavily after a divorce from his fifth wife, the soprano Irina Maslennikova. By 1953, however, he had overcome his drinking problem and was given the prestigious title "People’s Artist of the USSR." He was also appointed Assistant Manager of the Bolshoi from 1957 to 1959. Toward the end of his career, he mainly gave concerts of Russian classic romances and folk songs, taught in the Moscow conservatory, and performed on the radio. Old fans of his, who stalked him in the 1940's and 50's, are still faithful to him even now, 33 years after his death. They collect his recordings and place flowers on his grave every week.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mattia Battistini: King of The Bel Canto Baritones

Mattia Battistini (1856-1928) was born in Rome and brought up in Contigliano, a village near Rome. His father was a professor of anatomy at Rome University. Mattia showed great talent for music even as a very young man, and was soon sent to study with Venceslao Persichini, who was also the teacher of Francesco Marconi, Titta Ruffo and Giuseppe de Luca. While still a student, he sang in public, and debuted in Donizetti's La Favorita in 1878, where he enjoyed an immediate success. In the next three years he toured Italy and appeared in La Forza del Destino, Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, Il Guarany, Gli Ugonotti, Dinorah, L'Africaine, I Puritani, Lucia di Lammermoor, Aida, and Ernani. To say that he got off to a quick and brilliant start is classic understatement! He enjoyed success wherever he toured, and in 1883 he made his Covent Garden debut. To the best of my knowledge, he never sang in America, which was still, in the European view, a bit on the provincial side of things, as was Australia. He oriented his career in the direction of Eastern Europe; most particularly Imperial Russia, where he was a great favorite, and a friend of the Tsar's family. He returned to Russia regularly for 23 seasons, and made his first recordings there in 1902. The Russian aristocracy acclaimed him above all other singers. His career spanned 50 years, and he was commonly called "The King of Baritones." His reputation was enormous, and his career extraordinarily successful. *

Battistini did not sound like the baritones of today, who are, virtually without exception, verismo singers, with dark, powerful voices that are often not very flexible and tend to a rather monochromatic intensity of volume, well suited to the Verdi and Puccini roles, but perhaps less so to the kinds of romantic operas that were popular in the 19th century. Battistini can sound like a tenor on occasion, but it is simply the open sound and the lightened volume. Because he was a bel canto trained singer, his voice evidences great flexibility and range, and his pronunciation, like that of the bel canto tenors, is extremely clear. Battistini was an intelligent singer, extremely musical by nature, and he took the dramatic end of opera very seriously. He was by all accounts a superb actor, with innumerable costumes that were historically accurate. His Italian is very refined, and the open and closed e's and o's are everywhere observed, and are capable of creating the effect of cultured gentility (if the role is heroic) or explosive vulgarity, if demanded by the role. So great was the esteem in which he was held that Massenet actually re-wrote Werther so that the title role could be sung by Battistini. Here is Werther's famous aria "Pourquoi me reveiller:" Prepare yourselves: first, for a different sounding baritone voice, and secondarily for a re-written aria that only occasionally sounds like the one we all know:

I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto:) This is another world. All the signs of bel canto training are there, right down to the rapid-fire vibrato. One can, however, very quickly get used to it, and that is when the advantages of this kind of singing become apparent—the elegance, the drama, the pronunciation, the style, the musicality. Here is a famous baritone aria that makes for good comparison with today's singing style: Valentine's "Avant de quitter ses lieux:" (Please notice his costumes, for which he was renowned)

I find this rendition to be particularly engaging. The singing, from a musical and stylistic point of view, is absolutely perfect, and his voice is most communicative. This is singing of great authenticity and elegance.

Good as his rendition of music from this period is, it becomes even better when we move back to Mozart's time. Here is Don Giovanni's serenade, which is a perfect showcase for Battistini's particular talents.  This recording is from 1902, and is one of his very first:

Simply delightful! And I always feel obliged to point out that Mozart died in 1791, only 65 years before Battistini was born. This means that at least some of the teachers he would have had at the conservatory would have been born very close to Mozart's day, and would themselves have been trained by people absolutely from that period. It makes sense to think that the styles of Mozart's time were still well known. After all, we are very much aware of the musical comedy styles and practices of Richard Rogers' work from the 1940's.

Traditionally, styles and vogues come, and displace former ones, which can easily be forgotten. Happily, however, photos and phonograph recordings, now representing a considerable history themselves, are here to remind us that today's styles are not eternal, and in the case of opera, historical material shows that musical and vocal styles near or at the time of the opera's composition—which were certainly in the minds of the composers as they wrote—tell us another story.

• I would like to acknowledge the diligent work of Tim, at dantitustimshu, who provided the material that made this essay possible. Tim is one of the most serious musical historians and collectors on Youtube, and I am greatly indebted to him for the biographical references and pictures, and the playlist from which the musical selections were taken. I refer readers to his channel, which is a brilliant collection of historical material. I also alert the interested reader to a classic reference site for biographical material: "Cantabile-Subito: A Site for Collectors of Great Singers of the Past" (

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Antonina Nezhdanova [Антонина Васильевна Нежданова] People's Artist of the Soviet Union

"Antonina Nezhdanova(1873-1950),was born near Odessa,to parents who were school teachers. Both were themselves amateur singers, and her father had formed a local choir in which young Antonina sang, even as a small child. She was a good and diligent student, and after studying at Odessa, attended and graduated from Umberto Masetti's famous class at the Moscow conservatory in 1902. (She was to continue studying with Masetti until his death in 1919.) She was immediately engaged at the Bolshoi, where she remained for nearly 40 years, singing leading roles in Russian and West European operas, most frequently opposite the great tenor Leonid Sobinov. In 1912 she was Gilda at the Monte Carlo Opéra, with Tita Ruffo as Rigoletto and Enrico Caruso as the Duke. Some outstanding roles of her huge repertoire were: Ludmilla in Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla, Tatyana, Lakmé, the Snow Maiden, Volkhova, Elsa, and Rosina.

She embraced the Communist era with enthusiasm, having been taught by her parents that it was the duty of middle and upper class Russians to help the less fortunate, and support their legitimate claims to a decent life. So strong was this belief in her that she would often sing in provincial theaters for food, or even for nothing at all. This earned her the great and ever-lasting affection of the Russian people. Beginning in 1922, she became a cultural ambassador for the Soviet government, and appeared in Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Baltic capitals, and cities in Germany and Poland. In the USSR she was among the most honored singers and teachers. The government bestowed upon her the prestigious titles "People's Artist of the Soviet Union," for her great artistry, and "Hero of Labor" for her life-long efforts on behalf of socialist reform. From 1936 on, she taught at the Stanislavsky Opera Studio, later at the Bolshoi Opera Studio, and finally at the Moscow Conservatory, from 1943 until 1950." *

Nezhdanova is particularly noteworthy for the absolute perfection of her singing technique. It could be called Russian, or it could be called bel canto; I suppose it could be both: there is a premium on ease of attack and fexibility. The “color” of Russian voices, especially high voices, is “whiter” than the dark and ponderous Italian voices that have come to dominate most opera singing today. Some of this owes to the language, and some owes to the bel canto school of singing. As a general rule, as we have discussed in some detail before, bel canto singing tends to produce whiter, open phonation that reveals the more characteristic tones of the speaking voice of the singer. Chaliapin is a particularly striking example of this kind of singing, so much so that some refer to him as a singing actor because of the extremely clear enunciation that is part of bel canto training. Nezhdanova, however, does not go to that extreme. Her singing style was pure bel canto, with an emphasis on lyricism and beauty, reflecting her lifelong study with Masetti. Here is a superb example of the great soprano singing a classic Italian aria, "Una Voce Poco Fa." I call your attention to the extraordinary flexibility of the voice, and the immaculate, almost understated style, which is actually more respectful of the tradition of great singing—and Rossini’s intentions—than the often self-indulgent bombast that can accompany this particular showpiece aria. Her coloratura is perfection itself:

An absolutely astonishing piece of vocalism! It is hard to imagine it done better; both the musicianship and style are admirable.

Also of great musical interest is a recording that Nezhdanova made of Elsa’s aria from Lohengrin, and it demonstrates very well that it did not,nearer Wagner’s time, require a monster soprano voice to sing Wagner, who was in fact very impressed with some Italian composers, especially Rossini and Bellini. He is reported to have spoken very highly of Rossini after a personal meeting with him that completely dispelled for Wagner some of the silly stereotypes of Italian music and composers that were current at the time. He is also said to have expressed a wish that his tenors be trained in Italy. It is also worth noting that the pit at Bayreuth is covered, both to avoid any sight-line interruptions between stage and viewer, and also to help keep the volume of the sound down:

I strongly feel that this is exactly what would have pleased Wagner. It is clear, musically and stylistically excellent, and simply beautiful. The lyricism and plaintive nature of the piece come through in the voice in a way that is often not captured by huge and heroic voices.

Finally, another soprano showpiece, "Sempre Libera", from La Traviata, featuring a high D natural at the end. Extremely high notes were not so common in Nezhdanova's day, especially if the voice carried much weight into the extreme top register:

A wonderful soprano indeed, and a great personality! She deserves her accolades and reputation, and it is both just and gratifying that she is finally becoming known to opera lovers in the United States.
*I wish to express my gratitude both to Natalia at younglemeshevist, a good friend and connoisseur of fine arts with a prodigious knowledge of great Russian art and singing, and to Tim at dantitustimshu, a superb collector and scholar, for information which has informed my biographical sketch of Nezhdanova, and to Tim for the photos of Nezhdanova.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Giuseppe Di Stefano: A Tenor For All Seasons

Giuseppe di Stefano was born in Motta Sant'Anastasia, a village near Catania, Sicily,in 1921. He came from a family of very modest means and was educated at a Jesuit seminary. His operatic debut was in 1946 in Reggio Emilia as Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon. His La Scala debut was the next year, in 1947, in the same role. From his early youth, Di Stefano's voice was remarkable for its great beauty. After the La Scala debut, his rise was unusually rapid. His Met debut followed, in 1948, in Rigoletto. He was to be a Met mainstay for many years. From this moment on, he sprang to international fame, and sang in all the major opera houses and in many festivals. His biography is very easily consulted, owing to his great popularity.

I will say at the outset that I am, and have always been, an ardent Di Stefano fan. I can't promise too much objectivity on this one. We are accustomed to speaking of tenors in many categories: leggiero, lyric, spinto, dramatic, and heroic. Di Stefano, however, was molded in the old-fashioned way. He was essentially a tenor—period—and he sang an extremely wide range of roles, each requiring different vocal abilities, or "kinds" of voices, at least according to current mythologies. This did not concern Di Stefano. His essential training was bel canto, and he adhered absolutely to the advice of Fernando De Lucia: "Per cantare bene, bisogna aprire la bocca!" (This was reported by his most famous student, Georges Thill, in a filmed interview that can be seen on Youtube.) Di Stefano did "aprire la bocca," very wide indeed, and very consistently, and that is how he sang. His pronunciation, as a result, is impeccable. You can understand every single word, in Standard Italian, Neapolitan, or Sicilian. It was very open phonation, and while some criticized him for this, I think it served him beautifully, because it gave him an enormous range, superb control in the extreme upper register (he could diminuendo on a high C natural!) and it made it possible for him to sing roles from Nemorino to Calaf. Here is the very young Di Stefano, little more than a boy, is the popular "Una furtiva lagrima.":

A beautiful rendition for a 23 year old! Already the main qualities are in place—the open phonation, the beautiful voice, the superb enunciation, and a remarkable ability to diminuendo down to a lovely mezza-voce that is almost choir-boy-like. It was clear he was headed for the big time!

Let's progress by repertoire and age, and the "tenor for all seasons" ability will become apparent. Here he is in a very demanding role, the Duke of Mantua, which is a serious step up from Nemorino in terms of vocal demands, singing the extremely well known "La Donna è Mobile." Notice the open phonation, and the easy access right up the scale to the final B natural:

Wonderful! Did you notice that in addition to the immaculate pronunciation, that there is a distinctive, recognizable personality to his voice? It often happens that when opera singers in a given vocal fach cover their sounds heavily, it is almost impossible to tell one from another. When the phonation is open, however, the individual personality of the speaking voice is revealed. Among basses, the most striking example is Chaliapin, who was a wide-open singer if ever there was one, as tenor Giovanni Martinelli was also.

Like Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Di Stefano (whose vocal production was similar) could sing very high. Here is an extraordinary piece of singing featuring Di Stefano and Callas, his frequent collaborator (theirs was a bit of a mutual admiration society). This short finale to a longer duet features a high Db from both of them, and a B natural at the end. This, as I indicated in the description accompanying the video, is virtuoso singing of a very high order indeed:

That is simply spectacular! There is no other word for it. That is the kind of singing that makes people happy to lay down their hard earned money for expensive opera tickets, and then stand up and shout to demonstrate their satisfaction at having heard great singing.

Finally, in our progression, a very heavy role, Calaf in Turandot, in the by-now famous "Nessun Dorma:

Magnificent. Same vocal production as for Nemorino. Nothing has changed. This is the repertoire critics say he should not have sung, yet I challenge anyone to fault this rendition of "Nessun Dorma" in any way. Perhaps it did shorten his career a bit, but that turns out—considering how long his career was—to be a matter of small concern. He had a spectacular career, was greatly respected, sang all over the world in all the important opera houses and made a very large number of recordings and no small amount of money. There's a problem here? I don't think so. Also, he was certainly not the only tenor to sing with an open phonation on top. One thinks of Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Fernando de Lucia, and Georges Thill, for starters, three of the most famous tenors of all time. No, this is great tenor singing, plain and simple.

Sadly, he died a tragic but heroic death. Attacked by unknown assailants in his summer home in Kenya, he fought bravely—at age 84!—to defend his wife from the thieves. He saved her, but he paid for his heroic actions by being so badly beaten that he slipped into a coma and basically lay, in pain and semi-consciousness, for the last three years of his life, dying at 87 in Milan. This was as great a man as he was an artist!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Franco Bonisolli: Opera's Wild Man

I should start by saying that I respect the voice, the talent, and the raw energy that was Franco Bonisolli. He was a great tenor, whose eccentric behavior ultimately undercut his career and his reputation. There are elements of tragedy here, because the talent was very great, and it is that man that I wish to celebrate, not the one cruelly called "il pazzo," a nickname that unfortunately stuck.

Franco Bonisolli was born in Rovereto in 1937, and began his career at the Spoleto Festival in 1961, in Puccini's La Rondine. He sang in unusual and seldom performed operas for several years, but by so doing began his inevitable climb through the web of Italian houses until, 8 years later, in 1969, he was ready for a La Scala debut, performing in Rigoletto, L'Elisir d'Amore, and La Bohème. After La Scala, the rise was rapid. He was a handsome young man, with a spectacular voice, brilliant at the top, all the way to a high D natural. He had everything he needed for a wonderful career. He went on to sing in San Francisco, New York, Vienna, and the career quickly went world-wide.

He developed early-on the maturity required to sing the big roles, and parts such as Andrea Chenier, Calaf, and—especially—Manrico became audience favorites. Here he is in the famous "Nessun Dorma," from Turandot, a live performance from 1987, in Covent Garden:

This is beautiful and powerful singing, and the strength of the upper register is in ample evidence. This is the kind of singing and performing that won Bonisolli his international reputation. The quality of the voice is ringing and virile and absolutely consistent up and down the scale. He is an attractive man and looks very good on stage. At the beginning, he sometimes tended to under-act, rather in the tradition of the older "stand there and sing" stars, such as Zinka Milanov, who once famously asked "what good is acting if you can't sing?"

Here is another clip from 1984, a live performance on TV. This is possibly the best Bonisolli video on Youtube, and shows the tenor in full command of his great abilities, confident and in spectacular voice:

This is impossible to fault in any way! I have seldom heard this famous aria sung better. And the high notes! The high C is spectacular. Notes that high just don't get any better than this. It was this spectacular higher register that was responsible for much of Bonisolli's reputation. This is no squeezed-out high C, there is plenty of heft in that sound, and it rings like a bell. One thinks of the great Franco Corelli, one of the few spinto tenors with whom Bonisolli can be compared. He voice extended even higher. Here is a short cabaletta from Rigoletto, recorded in 1969 (early in the international career) with a high D natural at the end. The lip-synch is not very good, but he is in good voice at least, and you can see that he was a very handsome man at that time.

This is rarified singing; there is not a great deal of competition at this level.

And now, I feel that I must post the following video, if I am going to make an honest evaluation. It shows the sad degeneration toward the latter part of the career. Bonisolli's behavior had become so erratic that he was unreliable in performance and very hard to work with. This video, made at an annual Gigli memorial festival, shows him singing his signature piece, "Di Quella Pira," with a very large orchestra in front of a huge audience. He sings the piece, and basically refuses to leave the stage, infuriating the conductor. The audience gets into the game (opera can still be blood sport in Italy!) until the conductor has no choice but to play it over again. After the second rendition, watch the end of the video carefully, and you will see Bonisolli hopping, skipping and leaping off stage. A sorry spectacle, to be sure. But, to be honest, this was the problem. Great talent and intolerable antics. I suppose some think it funny. I can't, because we are witnessing a great talent deconstructing itself in front of our eyes. Sorry....maybe I should laugh, but I can't:

And there you have it. I have heard, but cannot prove, that toward the end of his life (he only lived to be 66) there were very serious health problems that were possibly neurological in nature. It may well be that that was the problem. If so, then his having had a major career was more of a triumph over illness than a failure of personality. That is certainly what I would like to think.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Salomea Krusceniski [Соломія Крушельницька]

Salomea Krusceniski was born in what was then Lvov, Poland, (today it is Ukraine) in 1872. . She studied at the Lviv Conservatory and made her debut in 1892, as Leonora in Donizetti's La Favorita, at the opera house of Lemberg. Further engagements followed quickly in Odessa, Warsaw, and St Petersburg. In 1898 she sang in Italy for the first time, as Leonora in La Forza del Destino. She enjoyed great success and was invited to sing in Rome, Naples, and at La Scala in Milan. In 1903 she settled in Milan because of political disturbances involving Poland and Ukraine. At La Scala, her Aida was a triumph, and a triumph in Madama Butterfly followed quickly. Her career soon took her abroad; to Spain, Portugal, and South America. Her repertoire eventually came to include 60 roles. She went on to have a very successful concert career, and from 1944 until 1952 she taught singing at the Lviv Conservatory. She died in 1952.* There are good biographies on the web, easily consulted.

Krusceniski's name is known to many opera lovers, especially in Italy and Eastern Europe, but she remains, for many Americans, a discovery yet to be made. I know that my acquaintance with her, via a recording of "Ritorna Vincitor," was a revelation, to say the least. More of a shock. I have seldom heard a more effective encapsulation of dramatic emotion in a piece of music. I can think of no better introduction. This is a 1907 recording, and you will need to adjust the volume for best listening. Be patient with the loading of the recording. It take over 20 seconds for it to engage:

I find that absolutely thrilling! It is not easy to explain. We enter here into the mystery of style, conviction, emotion, and musical art, in exactly the same way we do with Maria Callas. The style is perfect, and the musicality exemplary; she always sings, she never shouts. Her approach is always lyrical and musical, but the effect is more striking by far than if someone declaimed without consideration for the music. In that regard she is, like Callas, a great tragedian. That so much emotion can survive, intact, for 103 years, after having been recorded on laughably primitive equipment, is proof positive of her perfection of technique, musicality and style. I still struggle today to describe the effect this ancient recording had on me the first time I heard it.

A good way to judge the quality of Krusceniski's voice comes, curiously, from an even older recording. This recording of "Solveig's Song," from Grieg's Peer Gynt, was, amazingly, made in 1902! Yet, because of the piano accompaniment, and, apparently, the horn placement, her voice comes through as clearly as if it had been recorded electrically. This recording contains two versions of the song. Just listen to the first, the 1902 version, as it makes the point convincingly. Again, be patient with the loading of the takes 30 seconds to engage:

Amazing recording, isn't it? The quality of the voice, in 1902, when she was 30 years of age, is truly superb—a solid column of sound, from top to bottom, well modulated and flawlessly produced.

Finally, a very popular aria—"Un bel di, from Madama Butterfly. Krusceniski was one of the first interpreters of this role, and she was much admired by Puccini for her portrayal. Notice the extremely smooth musicality of her presentation, the intense emotion (of the non-screaming kind!) and a shorter high Bb at the end than current tradition would have it. Like famous high notes of all kinds—"Celeste Aida," "Di Quella Pira," "Salut, demure...," "Che Gelida Manina," and any coloratura soprano aria ending on or above C natural—one singer's triumph quickly becomes another singer's challenge. Before the days of "tradition," however, we tend to hear music as it was written and, often, as coached by the conductor himself. Puccini actually went to these performances, after all, and it is bound to be the case that he spoke to the singers about their roles. "Un bel di" is written in 3/4 time, and the final Bb is written for only one measure. Now audiences feel cheated if it does not extend for another 8 measures into the 2/4 time of the next scene!

A musically immaculate and thrilling piece of singing! Some things have been gained since 1912, but much has been lost.

*If you find yourself fascinated by this extraordinary singer—as I was—please permit me to refer you to the Youtube Channel of Tim at"dantitustimshu" (Better write it down, it's not easy to remember). Tim—a brilliant musical scholar and record collector—has the best collection of Krusceniski records to be found, and has thoughtfully collected them into a playlist, where they may be consulted. I am further indebted to him for the historical and biographical notes that appear at the beginning of the article. Also, for general reference, I refer the reader to: "subito - cantabile: A site for collectors of Great Singers of the Past" (

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Alfredo Kraus: The Personification of Elegance

Alfredo Kraus was born in 1927 in Spain's Canary Islands, and began his musical studies as a child, beginning piano at 4 years of age. He was a good and highly intelligent student of music, and developed disciplined habits at a young age which stayed with him throughout his life. He would, during his long career, be consistently praised for his extremely refined musicianship. A handsome man, in the debonair 1930's matinee-idol mold, he had an aristocratic bearing that bespoke the refinements of earlier centuries. All these qualities made it possible for him to have a superb career, and he did.

Kraus' debut was in 1956, at 29 years of age, in Cairo, portraying the Duke in Rigoletto, which was to become one of his signature roles, along with Werther, Nemorino, Arturo, and Faust. (His French was good, and he was very popular in the French repertoire.] In 1958 he debuted in Lisbon, and then, in quick succession, London, Milan, Chicago and New York, and then to world wide fame. There were no scandals in his life, no self-indulgent behavior, and no health crises. He was a model of stability, professionalism and artistic consistency, an extraordinary model for serious artists.

Kraus' voice was highly pitched. The territory around high C and even beyond, held no fears for him. Here he is (at age 59!) singing "Mes Amis," from La Fille du Regiment, a notorious aria whic contains—if you listen to it from the beginning—one B natural, two Bb's and an unbelievable five high C#'s! This aria is long. I recommend you move the radio button forward to 5:10 as soon as you can, and listen from there to the end, which is where the high C# fireworks take place.

Isn't that something! And at 59 years of age, almost unbelievable. He never lost that brilliant top. And the wildly enthusiastic reaction of the audience is a clear indication of the esteem in which he was held. The clarity, consistency and seeming ease of production of those extremely high notes are sure signs of a brilliant singer, very disciplined and in complete control of his voice.

The Duke in Rigoletto was a natural for a distinguished looking man with a high-pitched voice. It was his debut opera and remained a favorite with audiences:

Absolutely perfect bel canto technique, smooth as silk. This vocal production cannot be faulted in any way. It is very traditional, and perfectly adapted to singing tenor in opera. Curiously, given the eternal insistence from most voice teachers about low larynx and extreme diaphragmatic support, watching Kraus makes it clear that his larynx is often high, and much of his breathing is clavicular. It requires a very straight posture, which Kraus had. This may seem like heresy, in the era of belting, but in fact it is for some voices and styles of singing a time honored technique which Gigli also employed. Essentially, it is the way boy sopranos or coloratura sopranos sing. This is not to say he does not support, only that it is selective and integrated into a narrower, higher sound, less dependent on deep resonances.

Finally, the role which most consider Kraus to have owned: Werther. Here is one of the earlier arias in the opera, "O nature, pleine de grâce!"

It is very, very nice to reflect upon the fact that bel canto singing, with its elegance, beauty, and stylistic refinements, did not in fact die. It lived in Kraus,and lives in others and—given the very large number of aficionados who considered his art to be perfection itself—it is not going to leave us. It will come back, because the thirst is there.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

John McCormack: The One and Only

I think it is fairly safe to say that John McCormack is the one great tenor who had a brilliant career singing almost exclusively in the English language. That simply does not happen. There have been excellent tenors who sang occasionally in English (Alfred Piccaver, Richard Crooks) and some whose English language work was extensive and in the great opera tenor mode (Mario Lanza), but McCormack is a special case. I can visualize the hands going up, saying "Wait a minute....McCormack sang huge numbers of sentimental Irish ballads, and operetta songs....that doesn't count!" And that is where I disagree. It does count, because McCormack never let down his vocal and stylistic seriousness for any song or arietta. He always approached anything he did with all the classical vocal training and artistic seriousness at his disposal—and that was a very considerable amount!

McCormack was born in Athlone, Ireland, the fourth of eleven children, in 1884. He received his early education from the Marist Brothers in Athlone. Certainly one of the formative events of his youth was winning the gold medal in the 1903 singing contest in Dublin, when he would have been a mere 19 years of age. This brought much attention his way, and friends saw to it that he got the money necessary to study in Italy, where he studied with Vincenzo Sabatini. He married Lily Foley in 1906 and the couple had two children, Cyril and Gwen. He debuted at Covent Garden (Cavalleria Rusticana) in 1907. Shortly thereafter, he went to America, where in 1911 he sang the tenor lead in Victor Herbert's Natoma, opposite Mary Garden, at the Met. His singing was noted, but the opera itself failed. His next move was to Australia, where Nellie Melba had engaged him as lead tenor for the Melba Grand Opera Season. Melba was notorious for not getting along with colleagues, but McCormack seems to have been a special case. Their professional relationship, at least, went reasonably well. McCormack's opera career was short, and tended to peak fairly early, probably when was in his late 20's. It was when he turned his attention to concertizing and making recordings that his fame skyrocketed. His detailed biography is everywhere available, and easy to consult.

One of the most engaging features of McCormack's early recording was the silvery tone of his voice, which was accentuated by the acoustical recording horn then in use. Here is a good example from 1915, which I posted several weeks ago—the American Civil War Song, "The Vacant Chair." This song also contains what I believe is the highest note McCormack ever recorded—a D natural above high C, at the very end of the piece:

Such an emotional song, and so well sung! This is the essential McCormack. The tone is bright and silvery, without ever becoming shrill, and the enunciation is absolutely perfect, and I mean every –single- word! This is not only excellent vocal technique in action, it is a mark of true respect and consideration for his audience, a lesson many other singers could profitably learn! (Another of whom this can be said is Mario Lanza. It is no accident he and McCormack were among the most successful of all classical singers singing in English.) This is also a fine example of something I mentioned at the very beginning, and that is the serious vocal technique and artistry that he brought to every song he sang. It elevates what could have been a sentimental pot-boiler into a beautiful song of real and painful regard for the dreadful cost of war, one delivered at the very most intimate and personal setting—the family dinner table.

It was in the area of Celtic music however—most specifically Irish—that his singing was simply nonpareil. There has never been, and there is unlikely ever to be, a better salesman for the sentimental beauty of Irish Music than John McCormack. Here is "The Barefoot Trail," from 1920:

Again, the sentiment, the beautiful singing and enunciation, and a certain magic that is very hard to define, but has something to do with "soul," to use a currently popular critical word. He had it all.

Some attention needs to be given to the operatic part of McCormack's life, which, even if secondary, was still significant. He was essentially, in his youth, an opera singer in the Italian mode. Here is his recording, in Italian, of Faust's big aria, "Salut, demeure...":

If you wish, you can read my comments below the picture on this particular post. I do note that, while he takes the aria down half a tone, he is not the only one to do so, and his singing of it is, in the main, quite admirable.

But it is the McCormack of the wonderful Irish and English repertoire than finds a permanent place in the hearts of so many. There have been many great Italian tenors, but there was only one John McCormack.