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Monday, May 31, 2010

Tito Schipa: Ultimate Tenore di Grazia

Tito Schipa (1888-1965) is perhaps unique in opera: he was a very popular operatic tenor, sang in all the major houses (with the exception of Covent Garden), had—and still has—legions of fans, and yet he seems at first glance to possess almost none of the characteristics generally associated with operatic tenors. He was basically a Bb tenor (and barely that), and his voice was quite small, and even bit husky. He sometimes reminds me more of Tony Bennett (also a great singer, incidentally) than he does the great opera singers of his day: Lauri Volpi, Caruso, Gigli, Martinelli, etc. What then was the secret of his great success?

The answers are not hard to find, and they are a great lesson to all who aspire to sing: first, he was a superb musician. No endless fermatas, no invented notes. Even more importantly, he was a master of style: the precise reason for any song or aria he sang was always clear to the audience, and, more importantly, to him. His enunciation was crystal clear, and one can understand every single word he sings. He possessed, in abundance, a musical and stylistic understanding sufficient to make him an absolute master of musical line. Line is perhaps the greatest of all the artistic attributes necessary to sing beautifully, and—all too often—one of the rarest. By linking notes (legato),the singer can create a flow of sound that swells and diminishes, according to the composer's intentions, and when this ebb and flow is connected to a corresponding linguistic syntax that accompanies the music, the total effect is stunning; the kind of thing that brings audiences to their feet shouting. The public responds much more to beauty than it does to anything else, even pyrotechnic displays of fioratura, trills, and ear-splitting volume. All have their place, but beauty is always first. (In this regard, I would venture that small opera houses are the greatest boon there is to beautiful singing. Six-thousand seat houses always necessarily put a premium on volume.)

The proof of all this is in the listening, so let us move to a good example: Here is the famous tenor aria from Von Flotow's Marta:

Isn't that lovely? No big sounds, no particularly high notes (did anyone else notice that even this modest aria is transposed down one-half tone?) Somehow it doesn't matter. It works, and it's lovely; that does matter.

There are of course limitations to this kind of singing as far as repertoire is concerned. He would simply have been woefully out of place in things like Aida, Otello, Andrea Chenier, and so on, even if he could have sung them. The big operas cannot be part of what a singer like Schipa does. But there is nothing wrong with that—there are plenty of operas left where his style of singing does work. A principal instance would be The Elixir of Love, and here is one of the best known and best loved tenor arias in the entire repertoire. Turn your speakers way down, this was recorded by the poster at a very high volume:

Now, isn't THAT something! It is hard to imagine it sung better. The only competition he has as far as this aria is concerned is Ferruccio Tagliavini, another superb tenore di grazia. I think it is worth saying that the limitations of which I spoke work in the opposite direction also. Big tenors often think that because they have huge voices, they can sing anything in the repertoire. Not so. They can sound ridiculous singing music like this. It soon becomes the proverbial "bull in a china shop," and the dramatic and aesthetic qualities of the piece are just blown to pieces. Let them leave this music alone—they can make plenty of money doing Aida and Otello.

Finally, here is a fascinating clip someone has posted, taken from an old movie, apparently now lost, in which Schipa sings to his own guitar accompaniment. I call your attention to the extreme purity and clarity of his enunciation. It's so pure that I swear you could understand it even if you don't speak Italian!

A great and unlikely opera singer whose career and whose success contain so very many lessons. Any singer anywhere, singing any kind of music, can benefit from studying the artistic legacy of Tito Schipa.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Great Fedora Barbieri

Fedora Barbieri was born in Trieste, Italy, in 1920. Encouraged by friends and family to develop the vocal talent she displayed as a child, she began her formal study and was able to make her professional debut in Florence, in 1940, as Fidalma in Cimarosa's Matrimonio Segreto. She sang her first Azucena the next night and repeated Fidalma the night after that, displaying the kind of hard work and determination that Ernestine Schumann Heink also displayed at an even younger age. She was a mezzo soprano with a dramatic, powerful voice that was capable of displaying many colors, and was perfect for the Verdi roles, in which she excelled. She made a La Scala debut in 1942 in a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. It was on to the Met in 1950, where she appeared as Princess Eboli in Verdi's Don Carlo. She was to go on to perform 96 operas at the Met. A favorite with both European and American audiences from the 1940's on, she was particularly admired for her appearances as Azucena in Il Trovatore, Amneris in Aida, Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma, and in the Verdi Requiem.

Here she is in one of her signature roles, Azucena in Il Trovatore, singing the bloodcurdling "Stride La Vampa":

The drama in the voice is more than evident in this exciting recording. This is vintage Barbieri. The depth of the voice is impressive, almost contralto-like, and the top is very powerful, capable of ringing and dramatic tones for the big climaxes that are so characteristic of Verdi operas, especially the ones in which she excelled. Someone once said that there were hundreds of colors in her voice, and I can believe it. It was a wonderful, rich instrument, capable of startling effects, very much in the style of Maria Callas, whose voice was similarly colored. Here she is, in a filmed 1955 version of an aria from Cilea's Adriana Lecourveur. Note the complete change of vocalism toward the end:

This is a perfect example of the many colors of the voice, and her ability to switch from dramatic to lyric mode instantly. The lovely, lyric passages at the end of the aria sound very much like a lyric soprano. She can float the long, legato lines of that part of the aria very convincingly, and it is hard at that moment to think of the bone-chilling dark drama of, let us say, "Stride la Vampa." This is a very impressive flexibility, and one that won her much praise.

Barbieri never really retired. She continued to sing even into old age, although she sang much less as she aged. She was always a great favorite, not only because of her voice, but because she had a personality, and a certain near-melodramatic sense of acting, that served her very well. It is often common to talk of Callas and Barbieri together, not only because they were friends and often sang together, but because their dramatic sensibilities were also quite similar.

Finally, here is the great mezzo in a stirring dramatic piece, "O don fatale," from Verdi's Don Carlo. We are now back in dramatic mode, to be sure:

Absolutely wonderful! This was Fedora Barbieri. She was much beloved, and these excerpts show why. Like Zinka Milnov and Maria Callas, she knew how to put the "grand" in "grand opera"!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Roberto Alagna: A Popular (And Controversial) French Tenor

Roberto Alagna is still a relatively young, and certainly very popular French tenor, born in 1963 in Clichy-sous-Bois, France. His parents were Sicilian immigrants into France (hence the Italian name) but he is thoroughly French: born, raised and educated in France. As a young man, he was largely a café singer, without much in the way of formal training. Clearly possessing a first class voice, of considerable range and power, he moved fairly easily and obviously to opera, and made his debut as Alfredo in 1988, with the Glyndebourne touring opera company. His rise to fame was fast. There have not been many first rate tenors from France since the days of Georges Thill. He was soon in demand everywhere. His biography is easily consulted, and Youtube is fairly alive with his videos. We can move directly to a discussion.

There is no more typical or well known role for a French tenor than Faust. This has always been the case, and it is a good place to start. Faust's big aria, "Salut demeure, chaste et pure," is one of the best known in opera, and it has been a near career-wrecker since it was written. The exposed high C, at the aria's climax, was actually written by Gounod, as opposed to being interpolated by singers. French tenors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries took the big note in head voice, which had long been a French tradition. Even Thill, in the 20's took the note in head voice, something that is seldom if ever done today. Here is Alagna, in 2004 at Covent Garden, in this famous aria. You will note the crowd's reaction at the end, in a house known for its ability to turn to ice at the least slip by even the greatest of singers (most notably Maria Callas):

There have been few French tenors, historically, who can produce a climactic high C in that particular aria as successfully as Alagna does. The range is rock-solid, from top to bottom. He is also a very handsome man, and his stage presence is striking, at least in this formalized setting, where Alagna, in my opinion, is at his best and least controversial. When he sticks within the French repertoire, in traditionally produced operas, which is where he belongs in my opinion, he is virtually without serious competition.

Here he is with Bryn Terfel, the great Welsh bass-baritone, in one of the most beautiful arias ever written, known by all opera lovers, the duet from the Pearl Fishers:

It is very beautiful, very authentic, and, as in the case of the Faust aria, vociferously applauded by the audience. I think it is important to observe that these videos are, respectively, from Covent Garden and the Met. These are important opera audiences. I say this because I want to stress the degree of his success and the level at which he sings. And this brings us naturally to the other side of Alagna. He is disliked by a significant number of people. Most will remember the fiasco as La Scala a few years ago, when, in a production of Aida, the notorious loggionisti decided to give him a hard time after his rendering of "Celeste Aida," for reasons that have never been entirely clear but which may have been as politically as musically motivated. Most singers who run afoul of these ill-mannered boors simply ignore them. Alagna, however, is rather temperamental and thin-skinned, and made the devastating mistake of walking off stage, pretty much bringing the opera to a halt until some understudy, score in hand, in his Levis, moved on stage to somehow get the show through the first act. Alagna was banned for life from La Scala as a result of this outburst. It must also be said that a few months later he did Aida at the Met, and was received with a standing ovation at the end of the opera. Music as blood sport.

The controversy runs deeper, however. This final video, from Romeo and Juliet, is very long and I do not expect anyone to watch it all the way through. In fact, if you have just eaten, it might be a good idea not to. The first couple of minutes tell the story:

Well, I'm sure you get the idea.

La Rochefoucauld once observed that "Some people have more intelligence than taste, others more taste than intelligence; but there are more quirks and variations in taste than in intelligence." And so it would seem. When I was growing up, in the 1950's, opera, at least in New York, was a pretty standard and largely predictable business: Traviata, Cavalleria, Pagliacci, Carmen, Rigoletto, Tosca, Andrea Chenier, Turandot, La Boheme, Masked Ball, Rigoletto, Trovatore; all the heavy-duty verismo-tending standard repertoire. Now, something like atomic fission has taken place—the atom that was opera is split. Much energy has been released, and some it is taking curious forms. We see world-wide performances of Orfeo ed Euridice, Julius Caesar, Rodelinda, Europa Riconosciuta, Mitridate, and many, many other 18th century operas, which are finding an increasingly large audience. Male altos abound again, as they once did. On the other hand, we have extremely "modern" stage settings of formerly standard repertoire favorites. I think of this as a post-verismo phenomenon, trying now not only to be "realistic" in the standard sense of the word, but avant-garde, often to the extent of trying to outdo popular culture and its quasi-pornographic obsessions. This seems to me like a Rococo flash of convoluted confusion, spelling danger for "realistic" opera in general. God, was there ever anything "real" about opera!?

These tasteless stage settings do not do opera any good, and they bring a dubious kind of attention to Alagna. This is a shame, because he is a good and popular opera star, fulfilling a long-felt need for another great French tenor. With so much going for him, why settle for what is clearly second-rate, transitory trendiness?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Beloved Contralto

Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Beloved Contralto

The great contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink was born Tina Rössler in the German- speaking town of Liben, near Prague. Her father was a shoemaker, and the family moved many times in her youth: Chezkoslovakia, Austria, Italy, Germany and Poland, finally to Graz, in Austria, where she had her first voice lessons as a girl in her early teens. In 1877, when was only 16 years old, she made her debut in Graz, singing in a performance of Beethoven's 9th. The following year, she made her opera debut at Dresden's Royal Opera House, singing Azucena in Trovatore. (at 17!) It was during this period that her first big break came, in Hamburg, when she substituted for another singer who had fought with the management and refused to sing. She performed Carmen with one day's notice and no rehearsal! It was a success, spurring the angry (and perhaps jealous) prima donna to walk out altogether, with the result that young Tina sang La Prophete the next night, again with no rehearsal, and Lohengrin the following night, again with no rehearsal! This was an amazing feat for the young woman, and what it means, in essence, is that she knew the roles already, and had them in her head. She was a very hard working woman, and remained so for the rest of her life. Her biography is easily consulted. It is a tale of endless toil and many troubles.

By 1898, she had sung all over Europe and was appearing regularly at both Bayreuth and the Metropolitan. She was very active in the Wagnerian repertoire. Schuman-Heink, as she was by then known, had one of the rarest of voices—a real contralto. There have always been a fair few mezzo-sopranos parading as contraltos, but there have in fact not been that many genuine contraltos. Schuman-Heink was possibly the greatest of them all. The lower register of her voice was very deep, and yet curiously she possessed so solid a technique that the upper register was amazingly flexible, and she commanded an excellent trill and even the ability to sing coloratura passages when required. Here she is in a 1909 recording, when she was already 48 years of age, singing the lovely "Parto, parto," from Mozart's The Clemency of Titus:

Isn't that just wonderful! I call your attention especially to the trills and coloratura passages at the very end. This was a voice that had it all...range, timbre, color and flexibility, all handled with a great musical and stylistic sense born of a near lifetime in the theater.

Here is a recording I posted on Youtube just a few days ago—and I believe it may be the only example of it currently up, in which Madame Schumann Heink sings what is easily one of the best known and most loved melodies of the 18th century, Gluck's "Che farò senza Euridice," from Opheus and Euridice. This recording is in German, and dates to 1907:

This is what might be called tragic lyricism—not easily comprehended or controlled. It is stylistically excellent, exactly in the 18th century tradition. She was not, however, without the extreme dramatic sense that characterized much classical singing in her day, and to a large extent still does now. When she needed it, it was there. Here is a particularly spine-tingling interpretation of Der Erlkönig, a famous poem by Goethe, set to music by Schubert:

She seems almost on the point of losing control of herself toward the end, but such are the (melo)dramatic requirements of the song, which depicts the horror of child attacked by a supernatural being, and finally killed.

Schumann Heink established herself in America eventually, and lived in California, on a 500 acre ranch. She was, like Alma Gluck and Louise Homer, very much a musical presence in America in the 20's and early 30's, thanks to her many recordings and regular appearances on the radio. By the mid to late 20s, she was especially known for her Christmas/New Year's appearances, when she commonly sang Brhams' "Lullaby," and—on Christmas Eve—"Silent Night":

A larger than life figure, Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink elicited extreme affection from her audience, one that resonates even now, some 74 years after her death. One of the true giants of classical music; of that there is no question.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Nicholas Spanos: A Brilliant New Greek Alto.

It is always a pleasure to be able to note the rise of brilliant young singers, and Nicholas Spanos is a case in point. It is the rise, or revival of certain genres that almost instantly creates new artists responding to new opportunities. The rise of Baroque and Ancient Music in general over the course of the last 25 years has been a thrilling and inspiring artistic experience for those of us who esteem the music of the past so highly. Over half the operas ever written were written before 1800, and those earlier operas are a wonderful field, ripe for mining. Opera is returning, slowly but surely, to its pre-verismo roots. Thank God. Don't misunderstand—there are wonderful late romantic and even a few "verismo" operas that are just plain good listening any day. One must be sensible. However, the slow return to a period of greater elegance and refinement, of art for its own sake, is most welcome. Like literary "naturalism," "verismo" is a misnomer to begin with. What exactly is "real" or "true" about Commedia dell'arte clowns having an emotional meltdown and murdering a rival in the audience in a fit of wild-eyed rage? Not a typical daily newspaper item, certainly.

Nicholas Spanos was born in Greece and began his studies as a young man in his early twenties. Studying first in Greece, he came to the U.S. in 2000 to study at the University of Maryland, where two years later he graduated with an M.A. in Voice/Opera Performance. Since then he has sung widely in Greece, and additionally with the Bach Sinfonia in the United States. In 2002, he was named "Best Young Artist of The Year" by the Theater and Music Critics' Association of Greece for his interpretation of Arsamene in Handel's Xerxes with the National Opera of Greece. His exposure and recognition have, since then, grown apace. From an occasional presence on Youtube a year ago, the numbers of videos showcasing him have increased exponetially. He clearly is a young artist on the rise. Here is his rendering of "He Shall Feed His Flock," from Handel's Messiah. His English is excellent:

That is simply beautiful, and very artistically rendered! I immediately notice that while a few of his low notes, coupled with the piece chosen, clearly spell "alto," in point of fact he is not far from a soprano. This augers well for the future, because there is altitude to spare in his voice. His stylistic and musical sensitivity are also immediately apparent. He has been extremely well trained, and has an absolute grip on the music he is singing. This is inspiring.

Here is a classic warhorse that one must approach with great care, because it has been sung and recorded by some of the greatest singers in the world, including the nonpareil Marilyn Horne:

Beautifully done, I think you will agree! Notice the floating line, the beautiful legato, and the extremely controlled nature of the vocalization. One has the feeling that there is much more there in reserve, and this lends an air of assurance and controlled calm to the presentation. Very, very well done!

Finally, we hear Spanos in what is possibly the best known piece of opera music from the 18th century, "Ombra mai fu," from Handel's Xerxes:

Smooth as silk, and absolutely correct in style and intonation. Here we see evidence of what I mentioned earlier about Spanos' voice. There is an F natural in this piece, which he handles very intelligently. That is high for a male alto, but he knows what to do. He does NOT try to over-support the tone. This kind of male singing is the one instance I can think of in classical music where support is not a good idea, because the tensing, the opening up of the laryngeal passages generally, and the increased volume that will result, all invariably thicken the voice at the top. Far better to sing as a choir boy does, and approach it gently and clavicularly—that kind of approach has a vocal future, witness Gigli!

This is a young man to keep an eye on. From all appearances, he has it all: a beautiful, pure, and uncommonly high alto voice, superb musicianship and innate musicality, and he is a very good looking young man—not an inconsiderable factor for public performance. We wish him well!