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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.



corax said...

fortunatissimo, per verita'. despite his all-too-brief lifespan. thank you for reminding us. what a gem.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, that was quite a voice. I don't know what other baritone to compare him to, really. The voice was so smooth, so velvety, that its color confuses me sometimes so that I think of him as a bass-baritone, but that just isn't right. He was a high lyric, range-wise, but with an uncommonly "dark" sound. Quite a singer! Thanks as always for comment!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant article – now I imagine this great singer very well. It’s sad that he died so young. If I remember it correctly, he sang a lot with Bjorling, who died not old too.
The voice is extraordinary.
Warren’s top notes have some “joyful” sound . It seemed to me when I listened to his version of “Largo al Factotum” , that his singing was more melodious, while many other singers tend to declaim. Maybe it’s a wrong impression, but his version sounded differently.

Maybe opera buffs love the 1910’s because the manner of singing of that period matched naïve librettos of many operas? Galli-Curci seems more convincing as Gilda,for example, than many modern singers, because there’s some naivety in her voice. “Old-fashioned” intonations can be attractive for some people.
To my taste, the best period in Russia was the 1930’s, when Lemeshev was in his top form:)


Edmund St. Austell said...

Actually, I think you may be on to something there. I know it's not exactly what you said, but reading your comment made me suddenly realize that the singers of that period were very much closer to the period when the opera was composed. In fact, many of them participated in the premiere productions. That would explain something. The open phonation I talk about so much; the "white" sound that characterizes so many Russian voices, for example, (mainly the male voices) are much better suited to the clear enuncition of words, if you see where I am going with this. Back in those days, people followed the story much more closely, because they often had not seen or heard it before. Therefore, open, clearly articulated singing would be at a premium. And as for our friend Mr. Lemeshev:), I immediately think of his crystal clear enunciation. When he sings a simple Russian song like Вдоль по улице метелица метёт, I can understand every single word. That certainly cannot be said of all singers! So, you make an interesting point, one I am going to have to think about. Большое спасибо!

Jing said...

Edmund, thank you for your appreciative and perceptive words about Leonard Warren. I confess that he has always been the baritone closest to my heart. My very first opera LP was selections from "Traviata" (Rosanna Carteri, Cesare Valetti, and Warren). His "Di Provenza" seems to have all the vocal qualities that you point out, and I have endlessly listened to it over the years. Thanks especially for sharing "L'ultima canzone" - really a revelation. After following your link to Warren's "Avant de quitter" I then listened to the YouTube posting of the fine American baritone Dwayne Croft's rendition of the same aria. What a contrast! Musically fine - but with that pinging, almost brittle, pointedness -- a cold shower as compared to luxuriating in a warm, sudsy bath. (I've always had the feeling that Sherrill Milnes' vocal production was an attempt to replicate Warren's, but with none of Warren's ease and beauty)

I like your comments on the so-called "Golden Age" of opera singers. I occurred to me that in the case of Warren, as well as Richard Tucker and others, what characterized that time was singers staying put in one major opera house as "home" for their careers - Bing's Met in this case. And I think of New York City and Yankee Stadium. Baseball before free agents. TV when there were only several channels. Somehow a time of settledness.

From what I've heard and read, Warren was often characterized as a plodding, nose-to-the grindstone, uninspired man (with a bit of a temperament). Yet when he opened his mouth and sang, everything you could possibly want was there. I've come to think that his artistic focus must have been quite intense under an exterior of the workaday common man (who liked gin rummy and model trains). In Peter G. Davis's book "The American Opera Singer" he has a very good portrait of Warren. No one in his immigrant family had any interest in music, and even by the time he was singing at the Radio City Music Hall, nobody was particularly noticing him. He studied privately and even worked from time to time as a grease monkey. The only person to encourage Warren from childhood and on over the years was his grandfather, "a frail old man, something of a philosopher, and he used to sit me on his knee and feed me raisins and say, 'You know, Leonard, we all carry a sample case as we go through life. One of these days you're doing to be carrying that sample under your arm and you're going to have to show it. When the time comes, be prepared to deliver.'" Many years later when fame was still eluding a discouraged Warren (singing in the shadow of Robert Weede at Radio City)he confided to his grandfather, "I'm floundering. I'll never get anywhere." And his grandfather told him, "A goal never comes to a man." I like that very much.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much! A great (and informative) comment. I can't say or add much to that....except to express my admiration. And, btw, the analogy to Yankee Stadium before free agents and TV when there were only a few channels is spot on. That is indeed the spirit of the time of Peerce, Warren, Peters, Tucker and Merrill. (Although Jan Peerce made a real effort to tour America from top to bottom, which earned him the love and respect of a huge audience. I consider him the spirtual father of that group (Tucker would not agree:)

Anonymous said...

lovely singing, and though premature his death is strangely poetic.

Chloe hannah

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, poetic and tragic. One of those eerie and transcendent moments in the arts.

Avvocato Orsini said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you. Yes, that was certainly an amazing voice. The power, color and range of the voice gave him all the tools necessary to rise to super-star status. He could sing so high that he often sounds like a dramatic tenor, especially in pieces like the Prologue from I Pagliacci, where he adds the big Ab at the end!

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly love listening to his singing. one of the greatests voices in operatic history.. Sometimes I do think of him when I hear Milnes but I agree, his voice was not as natural.