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Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Great Mark Reizen, People's Artist of the USSR

It is safe to say that Mark Reizen was one of the great singing basses of all time. Until recently, he has not been so well known outside Russia and the other countries of the former Soviet Union. Thanks to Youtube, and the web generally, the work of this magnificent singer is becoming much better known in the West.
Mark Reizen was born into a family of miners in Zaitsevo, in present-day Ukraine, in 1895. He was drafted into the Tsarist army at the outbreak of World War I, and greatly distinguished himself in battle. He was a very big man; strong, severe and courageous. He was twice decorated with the St. George Cross for Bravery, 4th class—the highest honor with which a regular soldier could be honored.

Encouraged by friends to try and develop his abilities as a singer, he began his studies after the war and made his operatic debut in 1921 as Pimen in Boris Godunov. At six foot three, and possessed of a very serious and dignified manner, he was a commanding presence on the stage. One success led quickly to another, and at the age of 35 he became a member of the Bolshoi, where he remained until his retirement in 1954. He had by that time received the Stalin Prize three times (1930, 1941, 1949) and had been named People's Artist of the USSR in 1937. These are extraordinary honors, especially considering the fact that Reizen was Jewish, and Stalin was known not to like Jews in general, and particularly on the stage portraying Slavic heroes. However, even with this prejudice, he could not resist honoring Reizen, whom he greatly admired as an artist. Reizen bore the honors with great and almost severe dignity. He was a private person, very formal and taciturn. He was certainly aware of the potential handicap of being Jewish, but his retreat into aloofness worked very well for him. (And of course it did not hurt that he was prodigiously gifted.) He continued to teach after retiring from the Bolshoi, and embarked on a long career of concertizing, singing brilliantly until he was very old. His last public appearance was at a gala at the Bolshoi in honor of his 90th birthday, at which occasion he sang Gremin's aria from Eugene Onegin. We will see that video shortly. It defies belief.

Reizen's voice was big, and he handled it well. He never barked or growled (a failing of some basses), but invariably bestowed grace, elegance and control—as well as drama—on the music he sang. He sang all the great bass parts, and sang them all well. The comparison with Chaliapin always arises, and I believe the simplest way to differentiate them is with the observation that where Chaliapin was a singing actor, Reizen was an acting singer. You will see what I mean.

Here is the great bass as Boris Godunov, singing the well known monologue:

The acting is wonderful, restrained and dignified, and the large voice, as always, is under perfect control. One has the impression that there is always much more available, in reserve, for use at moments of high drama. It is impossible to fault this interpretation, in any way.

Here is Reizen, at 85 years of age, singing Rachmaninov's "Do Not Depart," a song typical of those he sang in concert during this period of his life:

Such singing at any age is admirable, and at 85 it is truly astonishing.

This is not, however, the most amazing of his performances. That would surely have to be his appearance in the Bolshoi gala production of Eugene Onegin. Reizen here is 90 years of age. I call your attention in advance to the reaction of the audience, and, even more telling, that of the other singers on the stage and in the wings, who realize they are seeing something absolutely unique: This video is well worth watching to the very end, (the aria is only 5 minutes) because it is one in a million. It is, for example, at the very end, when friends and family help him to a platform to accept applause, that one realizes just what it means to be singing an operatic aria at 90 years of age!

The great, and unique, Mark Reizen.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Anne Sofie von Otter

[Dear Readers: This is the second in our series of guest essays, and I am very pleased indeed to be able to present a prodigiously talented young woman from Switzerland whom I have known for over five years now, and who never ceases to amaze me with her knowledge and abilities. I am honored to have her as a faithful reader of this blog. A brilliant artist (witness her rendering of Anne Sofie von Otter on this page), a stunning linguist (German, Swiss German, French, Italian and—very much to the point today—English. She possesses a graduate degree in musicology and is currently finishing her Ph.D. in interactive computer program design, with a view toward creating software for classical music education targeting a young adult audience. She also, not coincidentally, knows more about modern opera and modern classical music than anyone I know. Her knowledge greatly exceeds my own in this area, and I am delighted that she has chosen to do the following piece for us. I will respect her privacy, as we all do with each other, and call her by her website name Chloe Hannah ( ]

Anne Sofie von Otter

Anne Sofie von Otter was born in 1955 in Stockholm and at the age of 28 made her professional debut in Haydn’s Orlando Paladino In Basel. Basel is also the city where I was born and raised; the city where I was introduced to opera. Basel has a long tradition of nabbing brilliant young singers who later go on to enjoy highly successful careers. Examples include Montserrat Caballé, Angela Gheorghiu and Nina Stemme, whom I am old enough to have worked with myself in my days as a student volunteer (one of my school friends actually looked after Stemme’s baby during rehearsals).

As the Basel Theatre claimed the prestigious (German-speaking) Opera House of the Year award a few months ago, Anne Sofie von Otter’s return to Basel was announced. Since the early eighties she has sung just about everything from Bach to Zemlinsky at opera houses around the world, including performances at La Scala and the Met. I was particularly excited to relive von Otter at the Basel Theatre, because I had seen her sing Octavian in Vienna 15 years earlier in a rather traditional production, where she excelled at her boyish performance thanks to her physical height, her vibrant personality and, of course, the warmth of her deep, mezzo voice.

My friend Waltraud, an alto in the Basel choir who used to perform as a soloist, fondly told me about how she had been singing the Mother to von Otter’s Hänsel all those years ago; about how Waltraud’s unborn child would kick during her performance (not surprising if you know the crazy melodic lines Humperdinck wrote for the role), and how von Otter grinned at her and said, "Your third child." "My third?" "Well, you’ve already got Gretel and me. Though, if you don’t mind my saying, I hope you do a better job with this one!"

It appears that von Otter was the one to get back in touch with the Basel Theatre. Naturally, the director said, "Whatever you want to sing, we will make it happen." Not only did von Otter choose her piece, Offenbach’s little-known Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, but she also expressed her desire to work with Swiss stage director Christoph Marthaler, who had brought forth a few productions in Basel some fifteen years prior. "For him," she stated, "I would play a cleaning lady!"

Before going on the Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, however, I think it would be good to hear the magnificent von Otter voice, shown off to great advantage in a this recording of Alban Berg's song "Nachtigall" I personally think this is stunningly beautiful and hope you get as much enjoyment out of her singing as I do!

If you’re a big opera fan, operettas are often something you merely tolerate, a by-product of a greater art form, the cheddar sandwich you settle for when they are out of smoked salmon. An Offenbach operetta is never going to have quite the pull of a Strauss opera. And then there is Marthaler, the director who painfully probes your patience.

Gérolstein is no exception here. The first twenty minutes pass without any music being played. The singers and choir walk aimlessly around the stage until one of them turns towards the audience and calls out loudly "Is there a stage director in the audience?" Gradually the orchestra pit fills up as the instrumentalists, dressed in military gear, dribble in, initially playing the Tannhäuser overture before the conductor realizes he picked up the score for the wrong evening (this of course results in huge laughter from the audience).

Von Otter, in the meantime, is tantalizingly drifting around the stage, but only starts singing 40 minutes into the performance. She plays the title role, a duchess who, out of boredom, begins a war. And boy, does she exude majesty! A head taller than some of the men sharing the stage with her, she sings, completely in control of her every move and her voice. Her pronunciation, both in the sung French and in the spoken German dialogues, is perfect (possibly the happy result of growing up as the daughter of a diplomat).

Then, more important than the music in the case of a mediocre operetta, there is the acting. Von Otter has to perform some strange moves. As she sings, an actor gives her face a massage. When she sees her love interest for the first time, she groans to the audience, "I am so… hot!" We watch her bob her head to loud techno music, wear ridiculously large sunglasses, bury a man’s head in her chest, and then, after the orchestra has left to join the battle offstage, those remaining start drinking and von Otter gurgles a melody in her whisky glass. It is actually at this point – the break with Offenbach’s operetta – that we are treated to von Otter’s most beautiful singing. To the notes of a piano and a lone baroque cello, von Otter lies down and sings the gorgeous Händel duet "Son nato a lagrimar" from Giulio Cesare. Her voice catches all the subtleties that were not required by Offenbach’s deft score. This moment, along with the aria "Piangerò la mia sorte" that follows, marks the highlight of the evening before von Otter joins the rest of the ensemble in their drinking binge, gets married while a woman in the background throws up, stumbles down the steps, purposely singing off-tune, to finally fall asleep clutching one of her beloved rifles.

Just for a moment one wonders how Marthaler could treat a great opera star in such a grotesque way. But the enthusiasm in von Otter’s face dispels any skepticism, so evident is her dedication to the performance. At the premiere she threw her arms around Marthaler during the applause. It also speaks volumes about her character; that cheeky Hänsel from 1983 is just as easy-going and unpretentious nearly 30 years into her career. And just one week into 2010 all January performances of Gérolstein were sold out.

Here is a video, accompanied by a very few short interviews with those involved in the production, speaking of how von Otter got back in touch with the theatre; of Offenbach’s operetta; of the changes made to the original score; of the stage design; and of Marthaler’s style of directing. The performed piece really needs these explanations because the original score is not well known, nor does one really understand many of the choices made by the stage director. Von Otter is the real pull here:

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Franco Corelli: Prince of Tenors

It is safe to say that Franco Corelli was one of the great tenors of the 20th century, and almost certainly of all time. Born in Ancona, in 1921, Corelli was encouraged as a young man in college to sing in a music competition, where he impressed the judges sufficiently to win their encouragement to study further. He did so, at least briefly, and then through self study and application was able to develop his voice to such an extent that he was hired by the Rome Opera in 1951 to sing Manrico. The Rome Opera became his base for the next several years, during which time he also started singing in regional theaters throughout Italy. He was a hard working and highly disciplined young singer, memorizing many roles, not only the standard bread and butter repertoire, but also roles seldom done. His voice was a natural spinto tenor, with a lovely and somewhat dark color. It was a thrilling voice, with a brilliant and ringing top that extended all the way up to and beyond the high C. This places him in a category distinct from that of the typical dramatic tenors of his day whose voices characteristically did not possess the range or the velvet-like color of Corelli's, and were essentially baritonal in nature. There was always something of a lyric smoothness and line to his singing that was not characteristic of the dramatic tenors who often tended to bark and shout, and who did not have much usable range beyond Bb. Corelli always sang (even if loudly) and never condescended to shouting or barking for dramatic effect. He was a consummate vocalist (if not always the greatest stylist) whose essential technique—and this will sound strange to some—was not that far from traditional bel canto singing. It is possible to sing in such a way and still have a big, darkish, powerful voice. One does not exclude the other. Lauri Volpi, the greatest of the bel canto tenors, considered him a great tenor and went so far as to say that Corelli was his natural heir. Taking into account the more than considerable opinion that Lauri Volpi had of his own reputation (deservedly so, I am forced to concede), this was a kind of ultimate compliment from one great tenor to another. Because Corelli never had much formal study of music, his style and musicianship can be faulted in some instances, but his natural musical instincts, coupled with what an intelligent and hard working young man can learn from great conductors world-wide, were more than sufficient to make him a perfectly acceptable musician. Also, importantly, he was extraordinarily handsome; so much so that had he not had a great voice, or an inclination to sing, he would have been a natural for the movies, a real matinee idol. Because of all these qualities, he found adoring audiences all over the world, especially at the Met, where he began singing in 1961, and where he remained a great favorite for the next 14 years.

One of the roles with which Corelli is particularly associated is Manrico, the ill-fated troubadour. Here is a relatively young Corelli (36) in the famous "Di Quella Pira:

This is the essential Corelli; the coloration of the voice is whiter than that of many dramatic tenors, and the top is simply magnificent. Those high C's take no prisoners! Very, very few tenors have ever had such splendid vocal endowments.

One of Corelli's truly noteworthy qualities is his ability to sing bel canto showpieces such as "A Te, o Cara," from Bellini's I Puritani. This was also a favorite showpiece for Lauri Volpi:

The high C is of course spectacular—it always is with Corelli, but that is not what I most notice in this piece; rather, it is the musical line. The length of Bellini's musical line is notorious, and everywhere commented upon, and it is precisely this stylistic quality which characterizes this famous aria. One cannot rely on high notes alone (Corelli actually sings it down one half tone); the aria will not work if the line is broken at any point. And he does not break it; it is one long, unbroken flow of sound, always coming to rest on the appropriate word, so that the grammatical period of the lyrics coincides exactly with the resolution of the musical phrase. I will say again that this is something few if any dramatic tenors can do properly. It is for that reason that I have never considered Corelli a dramatic tenor. He could sing all those roles, certainly, and he did—very well—but he never compromised musical line.

Here, finally, is a role with which the great tenor was also associated, Andrea Chenier. This video is from a 1971 Tokyo concert. I find it as thrilling today as I did then. I do not believe I have ever heard the "Improviso" sung more intensely or beautifully:

Simply stunning!

Corelli does of course have his detractors; those who claim he was monochromatic (on the loud side), or who fault his musicianship and style, saying that he exaggerated the high notes and the big moments in an "old fashioned" way, like the divas of past ages; that he sang poorly in any language other than Italian (as if anyone cared) and so on. Rubbish. He was extremely popular because he was a great singer, physically beautiful, and an intense dramatic presence on the stage, and, hardly coincidentally, because he possessed a lovely voice with a wide range and an almost uniquely thrilling top. There have been few tenors like him, and there are no more in the works, at least not at the moment. In many ways, the day of that kind of grand singing has passed. Perhaps that is as it must be, evolutionarily, but it is missed by many.