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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.


corax said...

as a young boy, the first opera i studied in any sense -- and 'studying' at that tender age consisted, basically, of playing it over and over and over on LP -- was price's CARMEN [also with von karajan and corelli]. i was born long enough ago that 'stereo' was a newish technology at that time. the combination of the brightness of the recorded sound, the fiery interpretation of von karajan, and the innate brilliance of bizet's music was almost overwhelming. corelli gave an over-the-top rendition of don jose, but isn't that character over the top? merrill's performance, with that big glossy sound, was just right for the bombast of escamillo. but price as carmen was completely riveting. the range, the richness, the power -- i was utterly captivated. i still am.

JD Hobbes said...

What I particularly like about her voice is that there is nothing shrill or frivolous about it. It is controlled, has breadth and depth, and seems to resonate from her entire being.

A solid and substantial person.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, my friend! As always, I appreciate your comment. I know that particular recording, and you are absolutely right....she was spectacular! And she and Corelli made a wonderful vocal team. Both spinto singers, with enough of that intense, somewhat driven sound that is just plain thrilling. Yes, indeed.!

Edmund St. Austell said...

For J.D. Hobbes: Very well said! I agree with you absolutely; the control, breadth and depth you speak of are precise discriptive words that tell the essential story of her vocal prowess. Thanks, as always, for your comment!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great article . ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’ is a very difficult aria (I’m not a singer, but it seems to me that such slow arias require a perfect control of a voice and huge breath)
Yes, there are no words to describe this sound. Brilliant singing. Her thrills are beautiful. I agree with JD Hobbes, there is nothing shrill in it, the voice is ‘velvety’ and noble. What I especially like in her singing is ‘spirituality’, every note is meaningful and and sounds inspired. It’s the main quality of truly great singers.
It’s sad that Corelly refused to sing with Leontyne Price - it’s hard to imagine a more powerful and beautiful duet. I envy people who could hear them in the theater:). As I remember, Galina Vishnevskaya wrote, that she was stunned by Price’s singing, and she didn’t hear a better performance of Aida in her life.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend. Excellent comment! I agree with all you say. Yes, she and Corelli were a mighty duo. He actually did come back and continue to sing with her. Vishnevskaya's praise means something, because she was a great Aida herself!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Excellent make a clever but legitimate distinction between a purely vocal or musical Aida, and a powerfully convincing portrayal of the character. Bravo!

Verdiwagnerite said...

I have always loved the solidity and rich beauty of her voice, especially in the Verdi heroine roles. I have a cd of her singing an all Verdi program and it's wonderful. Her soaring voice suits the music perfectly. And didn't Verdi write some absolutely ravishing music for his sopranos?
I have in mind "Prima che d'altri vivere" from the final scene of Il Trovatore but there are many others, too.

Rajoun Mwangi said...

I think Ms. Price is the best ever!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much. I am sure many will agree with you!

Unknown said...

It was Aida with Price and Vickers that cemented my love of opera, Verdi and Leontyne; the Trovatore of Price & Domingo is Pricefull; I cherish hearing her in recital in Philly and then 2 hours later, she was backstage smiling, talking with and signing for all her devoted fans. Amazing!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, she was a great artist and a fine person. One of the all-time greats; I doubt if there has been a better Aida.