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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Florence Quartararo: A Great Singer Forgotten

It was not fully a month ago when I heard my first recording of Florence Quartararo. It was Handel's "Care Selve." It was as though someone had touched me with a live electrical wire. It was one of the most thrilling things I have heard in a long time. I was not the only one: that recording, posted on Youtube by "addiobelpassato," set off an instant flurry of activity, and I believe every song she ever recorded (sadly, not many) is now up on Youtube. I had to know more about this lady with the glorious voice. Her story turns out to be a rather sad one, although not tragic.

For this article, I asked the help of Mr. Tim Shu (dantitustimshu), one of the very best musical scholars posting on Youtube. What follows is his capsule summary of her life and (short) career, for which I am most grateful. Tim credits his own source, record producer/archivist Richard Caniell, a friend of Quartararo's, and the man responsible for getting her recordings out to the public. Tim goes on:

[Florence Quartararo] was born to music loving Italian parents living in the San Francisco Bay area. Gaetano Merola, head and chief conductor of the San Francisco Opera, was present at her baptism (Merola was a friend of her mother's brother.) She developed an interest in singing in her childhood, her idol being Claudia Muzio, whom she saw in Traviata at the SF opera. She went to the opera as a standee whenever Muzio sang. She also admired Ponselle, Rethberg, Gigli, Schipa, Bergioli and Martinelli, all of whom also sang in San Francisco. Through friends, she eventually met Bing Crosby, who auditioned her and put her on his Kraft Music Hall program, under the stage name of Florence Alba, where she appeared four times in 1945.

In that same year, she was called upon to replace Helen Traubel in a concert conducted by Otto Klemperer. Earle Lewis, Treasurer of the box office at the Met, happened to be in the audience, and he arranged for her to have an audition with the great conductor Bruno Walter. The session impressed Walter so much that he recommended her to the Met's General Manager Edward Johnson, who saw to it that she received the Caruso Award to fund her studies, as well as a Met contract. She made her Met debut in the role of Micaela in Carmen, in 1946.

She went on to sing 37 performances at the Met in 9 roles—Elvira in Don Giovanni, Violetta, Micaela, the Flower Maiden in Parsifal, Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, the Countess in Figaro, Nedda in Pagliacci, Pamina in the Magic Flute, and Desdemona in Otello. She sang with great conductors, including Bruno Walter and Fritz Busch, both of whom admired her greatly. Her performance as Desdemona brought her to the attention of Arturo Toscanini, who telephoned her personally and invited her to sing the role in his NBC broadcast of Otello. She auditioned for Toscanini and the maestro was greatly impressed, but the Met was unable to release her from its performance schedule to attend Toscanini's intensive rehearsals.

Her marriage to Italian bass Italo Tajo, whom she met during a performance of Gianni Schicchi, and the birth of a daughter, led to the end of her three year career.

I would only add to Tim's summary that she and Tajo seemed to agree that one opera singer in the family was enough, a personal decision unfortunately common enough in the day, but sad by today's standards, and a great loss to the world of music.

Here is the recording that started the recent flurry, and impressed me so greatly: "Care Selve," from Handel's Atalanta:

I still get chills every time I hear this aria! What a voice! There is an immediacy, a passionate intensity, and a vibrancy in the voice that is just amazing. Her top is wonderful, but there is, in addition, a near mezzo-like, or perhaps more accurately a dramatic Ponselle-like cover and "chest register" richness of tone that just goes through one like an arrow. An absolutely magnificent voice. I realize that arias of this genre—and age—are commonly sung in an ethereal way that comes close to hypnotic crooning, but there is no reason at all to think that they must be sung that way. A great voice is a law unto itself. Even if that were not the case, however, there is no denying her instinctive musicality that takes her directly to the core of the song.

Here is a more nearly modern classic, an aria widely performed and known, and generally well loved, "Un bel dì," from Madama Butterfly [This selection is a radio transcription, of uneven quality, but listenable. You might need to turn the volume up a bit. Also, you will need to click the following link to play it...I cannot embed this particular aria]:

Absolutely beautiful! Once again, the emotional intensity, the vibrancy, the sure musical instincts, all take her to the very heart of this tragic aria. This is a piece where the ending must triumph, because it carries the double burden, emotionally, of being a child's hopes for love coupled with an extreme vulnerability; two things that in combination set the stage for a horrible and heart-rending tragedy. Quartararo understands this, and she brings out in no uncertain terms the aria's full power.

Finally, another very famous aria that shows just how great Quartararo's potential for the big Verdi operas was, "Tacea la notte," from Il Trovatore.":

Despite her relative youth, this ranks among the top renditions of this aria! It is all there: the color, the Italianate richness of the voice, the flexibility, and once again the sure musical and stylistic instincts that go to the very core of this Verdi classic. A great singer. Period. Perhaps now, after all these years, at least some recognition will be forthcoming for a wonderful Italian American talent sadly destined to be so briefly before the public.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Anna Netrebko: Brilliance, Beauty, And Controversy.

I have been a long time coming around to a doing a piece on Anna Netrebko, for one very simple reason: I could not determine exactly what I felt about this very popular soprano. The pluses are obvious—a great voice and extraordinary physical beauty. The cons, if one is inclined to find them, are a carpet-chewing acting impulse and a sometimes woeful lack of discretion in how she permits herself to be presented, presumably by directors and management. What to do!

Anna Yuryevna Netrebko (Анна Юрьевна Нетребко) was born in Russia in 1971. She is a citizen of both Russia and Austria. She says her Austrian citizenship is to facilitate endless visa applications resulting from strictly Russian citizenship, but the move angered many Russians. However, that seems to be abating somewhat following Russia's prominent recognition of her made two years ago, when she was named People's Artist of Russia. No biography is really necessary for so prominent a figure still in her 30's, and everywhere recognized as a star. In addition to People's Artist, she was called "a genuine superstar for the 21st century" by Musical America, and additionally (and here comes part of the problem) she made Playboy's "sexiest babes of classical music" list.

It may seem strange that physical beauty can be a problem, but in the archetype-driven world of grand opera, it can. Hers is a visceral (read sexual) beauty that has an immediate appeal that is worlds apart from the kind of attraction often heaped on divas. There is what might be called a "statuesque regal" beauty, most often found in prima donnas of the past, who project a psychologically complex kind of attraction that really requires a foray into Freudian theory, something I personally am not inclined to do. Suffice it to say that "sexuality" in opera and ballet is not really real, it is usually symbolic and archetypal and has to do with the female in her eternal battle with the feminine—two entirely different things. The point is, it is not realistic sexuality—that is the kind taken over by the cinema, and presented very well there. When cinema invades opera and ballet, however, trouble usually follows in its wake. This is what Sir Kenneth MacMillan discovered when he tried introducing cinematic realism into ballet. He was nearly tarred and feathered and driven out of the ballet world altogether. In the case of opera, European stage directors (and, increasingly, American) are introducing cinematic elements into opera, in an attempt to make a largely 19th century art form "modern," offering new chances for discovery of new elements in old shows. Or so the rationalizing goes. I have some problems with that, but that's too long a story for here. I will only say that a few videos of Netrebko and Alagna, let us say, cavorting in their underwear and pawing each other, is not advised immediately after having eaten, as New York opera goers usually have. BUT—on to some videos, chosen to celebrate, not criticize:

Here is what may qualify as one of the ten most beautiful arias ever written, Dvorak's almost painfully lovely "Song to The Moon," one of Netrebko's signature pieces:

What can one say? An exceptionally beautiful aria, sung by an equally beautiful young woman. I do not think this can be faulted in any way. The richness of her voice can be almost mezzo-like in certain places, and it adds a thrilling depth to the sound which is most attractive. The vocal production is flawless; smooth and consistent all the way to the top. Not a bit of harshness or strain anywhere. It really seems to be beneficial for a singer to have been born in either an Italian or Russian speaking culture. Something about speaking either of those languages seems to predispose the musculature of the throat and larynx for classical singing.

Here is a traditional soprano showpiece aria that has for a very long time been a favorite with audiences and sopranos alike, the great "Casta Diva":

As in the case of the Dvorak, the singing is impeccable, and she demonstrates here that she can project a traditional elegance and near heroic sensibility, as well as visceral emotion. There is no question that she can communicate directly with an audience, in one way or another.

Now to the controversy. I have no wish to present the most problematical of her videos, which are only too easily found, (the discretion problem) but rather one that is entirely legitimate, in the eyes of most, and that is Netrebko in a modern setting of Traviata. I invite the reader to form his or her own opinion:

Here, the problem (if you consider it a problem) is, again, the superimposition of cinema on a 19th century work of art. Is it legitimate? Is it helpful to opera? Can it be aesthetically justified? I don't know. I notice certain things—one is that the video we have just seen has over half a million hits. Is this significant? You can see the problem...It is just damned hard to judge! My opinion, for what it is worth, is that there are serious problems here. Not with Netrebko—she's stunningly beautiful, she sings exceptionally well, and is passionate in a realistic, cinematic, it isn't her, it's the stage director's concept. I find it flawed from an aesthetic point of view. La Traviata is most definitely not 20th century theater, let alone 21st century. I have the same problem here that I have with opera in translation. In the same way it is difficult to force the musical syntax of a Latin language to conform to the blocky syntax of English or German, it is hard to force cinematic conventions onto the lyric stage. It just doesn't work.

But that is not Netrebko's fault. So, where did I finally come down on the issue of Netrebko? She is a great soprano, with an exceptionally beautiful voice. She also has great beauty which she is, I believe, starting to project in more traditional ways as she grows older and more experienced.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Leontyne Price: An Aida For All Time

Leontyne Price was born in 1927, in Laurel, Misissippi. She came of age, and rose to fame, during a period of racial change in America, and she broke barriers that had long existed, becoming the first African American to sing leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, and among the first to sing such roles at the great opera houses of the world, including La Scala.

Like many before her, she showed musical promise as a child. She studied piano and also sang in choirs. It was her voice, of course, that first attracted attention. Her goals at the beginning were modest, and she first aimed at a teaching career, attending Wilberforce College in Ohio. Her first stage performance was as Mistress Ford in a 1952 student production of Verdi's Falstaff. From there on, her career begins to follow a fairly recognizable path. She moved, in reasonably short order, to Four Saints in Three Acts, Porgy and Bess, and then, unusually for the times, a TV production of Tosca. That marked the real beginning of an opera career. Her splendid vocal gifts attracted the attention of important musicians and impresarios, and success upon success soon followed: Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, in San Francisco, followed immediately by Aida, (an opera with which she would always be associated), Don Giovanni, and Il trovatore. It was as a heroic romantic lead in Verdi and Puccini roles that she would particularly come to be identified, and she did indeed excel in such roles.

Perhaps the first great moment for her in America came in 1961, in a famous production of Aida at the Metropolitan in which Price appeared opposite the great Franco Corelli. Her success was so astonishing that her final curtain call is reliably reported to have lasted over half an hour! From there on, her success is a well known story, easily consulted. Hers was, simply, one of the great careers in opera, and her voice, at its best, was a thrilling instrument of extraordinary power and beauty that one critic once said stirred feelings similar to those that can be occasioned by watching a waving flag.

Why not start with the aria with which she was most closely identified. It tells the story very well:

A simply stunning rendition! Perhaps it is the quality of the voice per se that most attracts. She sings within a very wide vocal range; like Corelli, the spinto qualities are evident, but the extra weight does not detract from the upper register. She could, and often did, sing beyond C natural. It was this particular aria, however, with which nearly everyone, critics and public alike, were riveted from the very beginning. Its particular tessitura lies squarely within the very best area of her voice, with all its thrilling resonances.

It was in the same year as her spectacular Aida debut, with Corelli, that she made another historic debut, this time in Il Trovatore, also with Corelli. This is an actual transcription of that event, and the audience, at the end, seems close to hysteria. So much so, in fact, that Corelli is reputed to have politely suggested to Rudolf Bing that he would appreciate not being cast with Price henceforth! He is said to have repented, however, but one can understand his nervousness—Aida and Trovatore are also big operas for the tenor!

Anything I could add to the invariable accolades heaped upon this performance would be somewhere between superfluous and just plain silly. In fact, it is brilliant in all ways, with perhaps one little exception that perhaps I may make bold to point out, and that is something for which she was taken to task by Von Karajan and others, and that her notorious tendency to "slide and glide." The portamenti up and down really stand out and are not, perhaps, in the truest vocal or dramatic traditions of these operas. But....good heavens, who cares!?

Finally, some attention needs to be paid to Porgy and Bess. She did not shun these roles—quite the contrary. She could easily have gone to Italy to live (she loved Italy) and played the real-life role of the great prima donna, but she was very grounded in her essential American character. (She disliked the term "African-American," incidentally; she to this day considers herself "American"—period.) Here is the big aria from Porgy. [This video is old, and not in very good shape, but hearing Price during this period of her life is illustrative]

Now here it has to be said that the portamenti up and down work just fine! This is the kind of opera where "gospel" singing characteristics work perfectly well.

A great singer, a great voice, a great lady; by virtually any set of criteria one of the great opera singers of the 20th century.