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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!