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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Leonard Warren: "Morir! Tremenda Cosa!"

There is a tendency among opera buffs to speak of a "golden age" of opera singing, and most refer to the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the twentieth. I seriously doubt it. I believe those who say that are speaking, perhaps without realizing it, of costumes, grand manners, prima donna behavior, a high public regard for opera, and an aristocratic vogue generally during the Victorian era. In strict terms of the singing art, recorded evidence does not support the idea of a golden age of singing per se. Extant recordings of famous opera singers made from 1900 to 1920 (and there are many) often reveal a rather primitive technique: open phonation, insufficiently supported top notes, unblended registers, (especially annoying in sopranos) and a tendency to stridency, even in the greatest voices. If there were any period of great opera singing that deserves to be referred to in locus amoenus terms, I would suggest that it would most likely be somewhere around 1950 through 1970, with much of it centered at the Metropolitan Opera. To run down a list of names is subject matter for another discussion, but it is precisely within this era that baritone Leonard Warren should be placed. Many consider him the greatest of all the Verdi baritones—a mighty claim, to be sure—but I think one that may be justified. He certainly possessed one of the greatest voices of the 20th century.

Born Leonard Warrenoff in New York City, in 1911, he was the son of poor Russian Jewish immigrants. He began singing in the chorus of Radio City Music Hall in 1938, and decided to audition for the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air in that same year. He made a big impression. He was taken on by the Met, who sent him to Italy to study, as he had little formal training at that time. His Met audition was the following year, in Simon Boccanegra, and the rest is well documented history. Possessed of one of the great voices of all time, his rise in the opera world was meteoric, and he soon distinguished himself in all the major opera houses of the world, winning particular praise for his work in Verdi and Puccini operas. His voice was exceptionally mellow, and he had a very high top, able to sing notes in the extreme tenor range when he wished.

Although valued most as a Verdi singer, Warren certainly had a much broader repertoire, as the famous rollicking "Largo al Factotum" shows very well:

Isn't that simply magnificent! Did anyone else notice the two high A naturals in that piece!? The mellowness of the voice is very much like the effect created by the low-larynx school of verismo tenor singing, Giuseppe Giacomini and Mario Del Monaco being prime examples. In Warren's case, as a baritone, I do not get the impression that this kind of vocal production was as forced or as studied as it is in the case of the tenors. Some complained that his voice was actually too soft, that it would have benefitted from more intense focus, more like the voices of Sherrill Milnes or Robert Merrill. I find that questionable, to say the least. Warren's mellifluous voice had not only the added benefit of an extreme top, but it also gave him to ability to sing softly when he wished, with an absolutely beautiful half-voice. Here is a piece I posted on Youtube just a day ago; a recording made from a live performance made in Russia in 1958 of Tosti's "L'ultima canzone:"

This intelligent use of a great voice on a gentle Italian song like "L'ultima canzone" is a sure sign of a master at work.
This same set of abilities also worked well for him on the stage. Not all baritone roles are blood-curdling drama. Valentin's touching aria to his sister Marguerite, in Faust, is a classic that has tended historically to be over-sung, defying the tender filial emotions of the piece. Here is the great Warren in what I have to call a bel canto moment:

Absolutely perfect. Gounod would have been thrilled. I believe that if one wants to put the "he should have sung with more focused tonal intensity" idea to the test, it would only be necessary to listen to Warren sing this aria, and then listen to it again, featuring one of the baritones with exactly the described quality of "focused" voice, to see how this lovely and elegant song can be shattered like a dropped piece of Sevres porcelain.

Warren's untimely death is highly dramatic and remembered to this day. It was in the third act of Verdi's La Forza del Destino, at the Metropolitan Opera, on March 4, 1960. He had just finished singing Don Carlo's stirring aria which begins with the words "Morir! Tremenda Cosa!" ("To Die! A Momentous Thing!) when he fell face forward onto the stage, dead. He was 48 years old.

Even though his life was too short, his legacy far surpasses what some other artists leave after a long lifetime of effort. Warren was one of the great opera singers of the twentieth century—perhaps of all time—and his recorded legacy is more than sufficient to support that reputation far into the future.