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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fernando de Lucia: A Unique Window Onto 19th Century Vocalism

Fernando De Lucia's generally accepted date of birth is 1860, in Naples. He studied voice at the Naples Music Conservatory and made his operatic debut at the Teatro de San Carlo, as Faust, at the age of 25. His climb through the small houses in Italy and early engagements abroad (Spain and South America) follow the by-now familiar path of so many Italian singers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the beginning, he sang the lyric tenor repertoire for which his voice seemed particularly suited; operas such La Sonnambula, The Barber of Seville, and La Traviata. He sang in the tradition of bel canto tenors before him, and his vocalism per se was not all that different from the vocalism of other bel canto tenors of the time They all sang in a way that incorporates, virtually in their totality, the principles of singing laid down by Manuel García in his famous study, L'Art du Chant.

De Lucia's career straddled the cusp of a major divide in operatic history. Clearly trained in bel canto, he found, mid-career, that new operas, of the so-called verismo school, were starting to attract a lot of public attention. De Lucia had already, by his early thirties, become a famous tenor in Italy, and was sought out by composers. He created the role of Fritz in Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz in 1891, and, the following year, was part of the original cast of Mascagni's I Rantzau, an opera that never really got off the ground. He soon got on board with Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, and his Canio was much applauded. He went on, in coming years, to do Rigoletto, Tosca , and Cavallería. I mention these because it is clear that, even though trained in bel canto singing, and with a very flexible voice capable of near-coloratura singing, he managed to take advantage of the new verismo , and make quite a good impression in those roles. I seriously doubt if he changed his singing style one bit to do the bigger operas, relying almost certainly on a new set of mannerisms, more melodramatic in nature.

Happily for us today, De Lucia made a huge number of recordings at a very early time, and, whatever roles he may have sung in public, and whatever "school" of operatic theater was uppermost at any given time, the fact is that it is by his recordings he is known, and they reveal a singing style that is fascinating, and provides a nearly unique window on a lost era of singing; lost because even though much of bel canto has survived, and is still appreciated, this cannot be said of its highly individualized excesses. That much is gone forever.

So,to the core of the matter. Here is 1904 recording of "Ecco ridente in cielo." Almaviva was one of the roles for which De Lucia was famous, and the following is one of the most extraordinary recordings of tenor singing ever made. The fioratura is so remarkable that it almost defies belief. Be sure to listen to the video until the very end, as it is toward the end that De Lucia presents his amazing vocal display:

Isn't that amazing? It is made possible by a vocal production that creates an extremely rapid vibrato. A very good coloratura soprano once explained to me that the trick, with that kind of fioratura, is to synchronize the notes of the coloratura passage with the vibrato of the voice, so that the voice rides on the crest of the cadenza, as it were, through the agency of the vibrato. It certainly works here. I know of no contemporary tenor who could do this, although there probably are some. As pure vocal display, which was much prized in the 19th century, (as it still is by many today) this was both acceptable and praiseworthy. It must be remembered that De Lucia's reputation was great in his day. It was an honest gesture on his part to make these recordings. I for one greatly enjoy listening to them, and I know from my correspondence that I am far from alone.

Here is De Lucia singing the very difficult "Siciliana," from Cavalleria Rusticana, in a 1902 recording:

What I find interesting here is that Cavalleria is one of the warhorses of the verismo reprtoire, along with I Pagliacci, and De Lucia, based on the clear evidence of these recordings, approached the arias in vocally consistent ways. The rapid-fire vibrato is there, the elongated phrases, the diminuendos, the portamenti, and so on. It would seem that he relied on acting ability, and a dark shading of the voice, which he seemed able to do effectively, to carry off these intense dramatic roles. It was art, and not barrel-chested belting, that did the job. Most interesting.

Finally, a Neapolitan song. He was a lifelong son of Naples, and was greatly admired there. He knew many of the composers around Naples in his day, and it is very likely that at least some of the songs were written either for De Lucia, or at least with him in mind. I choose the following, the famous "Fenesta ca lucive," because it is a very dark, sad and brooding song, and I think reinforces the idea that his mastery of color and mood may be the major factor in his ability to have been so successful in verismo operas. To help understand, here is the first verse, in essence:

No light in the window?
Is my love sick.?
I asked her sister, and no!
My girl is dead! And Buried!
She slept alone too long...and cried so much.
Now she sleeps with the dead!

Not much I can add to that!

I cannot think of another tenor quite like Fernando de Lucia. Everything about his singing bespeaks a bygone era. He was unique, and his vocalism was extraordinary; very much sui generis, to be sure, but clearly founded in very early bel canto. Through his many recordings, all of very early date, we have the opportunity to visit 19th century Italian singing as if we were actually there! This is a very rare privilege!


JD Hobbes said...

This is an interesting posting and shows the fact that he was different from other tenors and was, as you say, on the cusp of a different era. In the "ecco ridente" piece above he reminds me almost of John McCormack, except for the very rapid vibrato. Later, in the "fenesta" he sounds more like other tenors we know. Of course, the mood of that piece is more sombre. At any rate, he was certainly not the heavy, strenuous Caruso or later, Pavarotti. Some thought of his singing as "ornamental" or "effeminate," or "affected," but he certainly was popular, talented and a good representative of an earlier style of bel canto singing as he understood and interpreted it. The ability to be so flexible is a very positive thing, in my opinion. I am always amazed to read about such persons and how widely they traveled in a time when travel was very difficult and often dangerous.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for the comment. Always appreciated! The trips to South America occur very often at this time, it seems. I'm not entirely sure why, although I do know that there was a considerable Italian community in Buenos Aires around the turn of the century. I remember reading in a published collection of Caruso's letters where he speaks on one occasion of the enormous turnout to hear him in Mexico. It might also be the case that we overestimate the difficulties, espeically of boat travel, which, if one had the money, could be a very luxurious week on the water. It would also be a lot easier on the physique than modern-day air travel, when artists sometimes try to sing one night in Milan and another in London. That can have devastating effects on one's ability to perform well.

corax said...

as usual you have figured out exactly what makes these performances tick. thanks for sharing these remarkable recordings, but also your astute apercus on them.

hobbes is also spot-on in the comparison to mccormack. and yes, except for the speed of the vibrato.

i wonder whether/when this style of singing will come back into fashion for men?

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment, my friend. You ask an interesting question about the possible return of this style. Sadly, I doubt it. Much as I love listening to it, it does not suggest itself as a style suitable for the lyric stage. My guess is that its best chance for return is through the male alto, and 18th century opera. That revival is well underway, and is meeting with significant success.

Edmund St. Austell said...

The above comment is in reply to Corax, and this to Avvocato Orsini: Thank you for your very well informed comment. I had not thought of that but of course you are quite right. That is also the time of the big Italian immigration into the United States. Makes perfect sense. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the article. De Lucia is called a ‘historic’ singer, but somehow he sounds more fresh than many modern singers, I mean his emotionality. His technique is extraordinary. To my taste this is the way a lyric tenor must sing. His vibrato doesn’t seem too fast when he sings Rossini; in other songs it also adds emotionality. It seems that now opera lovers almost forgot that singing must be effortless and even the most skillful modern performers sound a bit strenuous in comparison to de Lucia.
On Russian opera forums they call Rockwell Blake one of the best Rossinian tenors who could sing all those impossible friorituras. Florez is another one. Both are very skillful singers, but after de Lucia their voices seem ‘dry’, especially Blake’s. Florez has a beautiful timbre and great agility /effortlessness. And yet his voice is not ‘liquid’ enough, and it makes it sound a bit more ‘strenuous’ than that of de Lucia. I don’t know what is the difference between their techniques , but there is some difference, though both sing bel canto .


Edmund St. Austell said...

You make very good points, especially about the sense of strenuous effort that seems always present in today's singers. You are right that it is totally absent in De Lucia. And yet most of the time, he creates the effects that a more strenously produced voice creates, except that he does it through color, carefully managed. Excellent observations, thank you very much!

JD Hobbes said...

With regard to my comment above about ship travel in those days, you are right about the luxury of travel in some ways. The food, entertainment, and trappings of travel could be elegant for the wealthy, but what we consider "comfort" was quite different. Metal hulls of ships would heat in hot climates and make the temperatures suffocating in the absence of air conditioning. Spaces below decks were not overly large, and hygiene facilities were "quaint." One very big feature is that those ships did not have the huge horizontal stabilizers that modern ships, e.g. Queen Mary, have, and that would make for rough riding in high seas. But it was worth it for the wealthy to forego comfort for status.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Good comment. Informative and interesting. Yes, I remember that when Caruso was once negotiating a contract with the Met, he said he wold continue to sing for the same salary, but that he wanted one change. He wanted his boat travel tickets to be advanced from "first class" to "delux," which exactly conformes to your observations.

Nate said...

Yes, Buenos Aires was an important Italian opera hub in those days. In addition to the Spanish coloratura, Maria Barrientos, both Tetrazzini and Galli-Curci had enormous success in South America during their early career. The latter rode on donkey from town to town. With regard to de Lucia, what can I add that has not already been said? He is unique to our ears, if not his contemporaries. Even such great lyric tenors as Bonci, Anselmi, Schipa, and Gigli, all of whom also tackled heavier roles, do not sound quite the same in their choice of ornaments or tonal coloration as de Lucia. Not that one is better than the other, but they have different styles. It's a similar story when listening to the recordings of Battistini, Plancon, and Sembrich. There are other baritones, basses, and leggiero sopranos who are wonderful, but these singers are true reflections of nineteenth-century bel canto art as no others are. While history may, on occasion appear cyclical, I doubt the art of singing is; however, as you note, we are fortunate at least to have all of these beautiful recordings showcasing de Lucia's remarkable gifts to cherish.

Nate said...

I find it interesting that Mascagni's I Rantzau never became a success, considering de Lucia and Melba were in the debut performance and both singers were in their absolute prime. I guess certain operas cannot be rescued even by the greatest singers.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Nate, for characteristically astute and penetrating comments. I agree that there is something special about De Lucia. There are people who don't like his singing, and that is their choice, but trying to bring contemporary critical standards to bear on someone who was born during the first year of the American Civil War is, imho, a bit silly. The point is that a lot of people in and around Naples during his lifetime thought he was great. He had a very successful career. Composers sought him out to create important roles in their brand new operas; famous Neapolitan composers write for him--he made at least 400 records, and this at a time when the technology was primitive and the audience uncertain or unknown. He sang everywhere. Everything about his life and career spell success and acceptance. That has to be a very important consideration. The fact is, I think, that some people just don't like bel canto, or "artificiality" as they would put it, in favor of high drama, robust singing, and realistic portrayal. My problem is that I don't see anything at all realistic in opera. People talk to each other in real life. They sing in opera. It's like the literary school of "Naturalism" that fourished about the same time. There was nothing natural about it--it was highly stereotyped negativism, chosing the ugliest and most dreadful situations imaginable. It was fueled, in fact, by disillusionment in general following the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. From the lowest of the angels to the highest of the primates, but THAT, as they say, is another story:-) Thanks for an excellent comment, Nate.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, Rantzau seems to have been an absolutely dismal failure; one of those shows that opens and almost immediately closes and is never revived. I have to admit that I do not know it at all.

leeannghajar said...

Dear Mr. Anstell,

Perhaps you and your readers might have interest in a relatively new website: (Mario Lanza, Tenor) from experts Derek McGovern and including work from pre-eminent Lanza biographer, Armando Cesari.

The site explores Lanza's music, his life, his films, his context, and offers photos, videos, audio files, and a multitude of other resources about this incredible tenor.

Please do visit. Your comments, of course, would be quite welcomed.

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

Fernando de Lucia, the greatest musical son of Napoli! This is a wonderful homage to him Edmund, and you really have understood well both the legend and the person of Fernando de Lucia!

The Mascagni opera «I Rantzau» was mentioned. I heard a concert staging years ago, and it was lovely music. It was not a bad opera, but it failed because the competition of those times was too hard for Mascagni: for the example, another opera, «L'amico Fritz», beautiful opera, but totally outclassed by «Traviata» «La Bohème» «Barbiere della Siviglia» and other established operas. After Verdi, there was a huge vacuum in Italian opera, a vacuum which would never be filled.

It is hard to understand, but you see, for most of the XIX century, he was always creating new operas, and he was a giant personality of Italian arts and Italian culture in newly unified Italy.

Puccini could never fill this void, and niether could other composers, which I think is ultimately responsible for the stagnation of opera in the XX century.

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you so much, my friend, for an astute and penetrating comment. Yes, you go right to the core of the matter. It was all starting to change after Verdi, who, toward the end of life, was making an honest effort to try to write in the "new way," with operas such as Falstaff, which are more "through-composed," with a decreasing emphasis on arias and set pieces for which he was so famous. But that is not what we remember Verdi for, of course. He encapsulated grand Italian opera as no one else did, but like all things, it came to an end. It was never the same after Verdi, either in Italy or anywhere else. But at least we have it to treasure forever. Thanks for a fine comment!

The Balch said...

Hi Mr. St. Austell,

I've been following your blog for some time now. Thank you for being willing to share your thoughts and feelings with us.

I'm an aspiring singer in my early 20's, but I have hard time enjoying the work of many modern performers. The more I learn about the voice, the more I'm drawn to older artists, and your posts have led me to some wonderful discoveries.

I'm writing primarily because I would love to hear your thoughts on a couple of singers that intrigue me, namely 1.) Luigi Alva, and 2.) Léopold Simoneau. I find their voices thrilling, and I use them as a model for my own approach, but I don't have much experience.

Also, what's your opinion of Joseph Calleja? I recently read an article on NPR's website that referred to him as "the young tenor with the old-school sound." One of the most striking aspects of his instrument is the fast, shimmery vibrato--something you have discussed in several entries on early 20th-century singers. Calleja even talks about spending hours listening to and attempting to emulate precisely the kinds of recordings you talk about.

Anyway, I know I'm probably asking a lot. I would appreciate any insights you would be willing to share. Thanks!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for your comment and for your question. It is an easy one to answer: You simply COULD NOT DO BETTER than to listen to the three singers you mention! As a young man in your 20's, you are showing great insight and proving that you get it, as far as protecting your voice and putting it into a position to grow is concerned. Of the three, the two most important would be Simoneau and Calleja. (Alva was so light that he repertoire was restricted) Listen to Calleja sing Il Lamento di Federico, if you have not already done so. Note the extreme care he takes to pro-nou-nce each word, the bright color, the squillo, or ring, the ease with which he takes the high B at the end (something I cannot approve of artistically, but vocally it is excellent!) Yes, these are perfect tenors to study...the voice will grow on its own; if you were to start forcing it or pushing it, trying to make it louder, bigger, etc., exactly the opposite would happen. It would get soggy, the ring would start to go, and you could end up with a non-commercial sound. You have chosen the appropriate models; you're a bright young man.

Gerhard Santos said...

Thank you Sir Edmund for sharing this Very Interesting article. I Love your Wonderful Collections from Great Opera Singers., Thanks and Have a Beautiful week!!! *GOD BLESS*

Gerhard Santos said...

Thank you Sir Edmund for sharing this Very Interesting Article. I love your Wonderful collections from Great Opera Singers. Thanks and Have a Beautiful week. *GOD BLESS*