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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Alessandro Bonci: A Bel Canto Master

Alessandro Bonci was born in Cesena, in the Italian historical district of Romagna, in 1870. Apprenticed in youth to a shoemaker, he showed musical interest and talent, and was able to secure a music scholarship at the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro. His first studies were with Carlo Pedrotti, with whom the great Francesco Tamagno had also studied. Bonci's training was traditional bel canto, and it was this style of singing that characterized his artistic work throughout his career. He was part of the last generation of bel canto singers, and his career overlapped the verismo school of singing most notably represented by Caruso, who was rising as an international star during the latter part of Bonci's career.

Bonci's debut was in Parma in 1896, as Fenton in Falstaff. By he end of his first professional year, he had already been engaged by La Scala, where he debuted in I Puritani, an opera with which he quickly became identified. His rise was near meteoric. He went on very quickly to the major houses of Europe, including Covent Garden in 1900. His American debut was with the Manhattan Opera Company, where he found himself in a kind of direct competition with Enrico Caruso, who was singing at the Met. He went on to enjoy a major career in all the important houses, both here and abroad, until he retired in 1925, at the age of 55, dedicating himself to teaching and concertizing.

Without question, Bonci was an elegant and well schooled bel canto tenor. His early career was in the 19th century, and his singing exemplified the tastes of that period. As mentioned, he was particularly identified with the bel canto repertoire, especially the works of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. Here is the great tenor aria "A te, o cara, " from Bellini's I Puritani:

An absolutely elegant and lovely example of bel canto tenor singing! The purity of the voice, the stylistic finesse, the easy top—where he picks a high C right out of the air, on a diminished tone, and pulls it out in a long crescendo! Not many tenors can do that! Everything about this rendition has authenticity stamped upon it. There is no doubt in my mind that Bellini would have been very pleased, and would have been likely to say "Yes! That is exactly what I had in mind."

There is a most interesting video on Youtube that has an old piece of video footage; a short conversation by some New York Italian-Americans, in a Mr. Luigi Rossi's grocery store, talking at one point about Bonci, and how he compared—in their minds, at least—with Caruso. This speaks tomes about bel canto versus verismo in the "popular" mind. The conversation begins at 2:40 on the following video; it should be possible, if you have a fairly fast download, to move the radio button forward to that point:

Isn't that interesting? The audience for opera is clearly changing, and the refinements of the previous century are not much appreciated by these gentlemen, obviously, compared to the more "real" and down-to-earth presentation by Caruso. Granted, Caruso was a very great tenor, and enthusiasm for him is entirely understandable, but the important thing here is that to these men, Bonci seems to sound effete. Never mind that he was portraying the Duke of Mantua, a foppish nobleman of the Renaissance. Those considerations seem not to be important to them. In other words, opera is becoming a purely vocal art.

It would be interesting to put these observations to the test. It so happens that Bonci recorded "La Donna è Mobile":

Bellini in Verdi-land? Perhaps. In any case, it is an unusual opportunity to see and reflect upon the passing of bel canto in favor of verismo. The Caruso recording is easily found, and can be compared. Probably most know it. It is very much more declamatory (and loud) and the famous cadenza at the end is included, including the roof-raising B natural. It is not really possible—or prudent—to pronounce on the superiority or inferiority of one versus the other. They are just two different worlds. They don't blend, and one has very little to say to the other. Apples and oranges.

In any case, we should not judge Bonci by the standards of verismo any more than we should judge Caruso by the standards of bel canto. Here, finally, is Bonci in a piece that is absolutely appropriate, squarely in the bel canto repertoire, "Spirto gentil," from Donizetti's La Favorita:

A lovely and elegant rendition of a beautiful piece of music! There is so much about 19th century opera and its fashions that was right. I for one think it is well worth preserving. Bel canto is certainly not is still there, and we can name a long list of singers who adhere even today to its essential principles. The sensible thing to say, I suppose, is let's have both. There is plenty of room. Let's just not swamp the repertoire of one with singers who clearly belong to the other. That would solve a myriad of problems!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Emma Calvé: Opera's First Femme Fatale

Emma Calvé was born in 1858, in Aveyron. She spent her childhood in Spain, but moved to Paris with her mother after her parents separated. She began her vocal studies at this point. Her debut was in Brussels in 1881, in Faust, but she did not find much if any success at the beginning, and small roles over the next year or so were not much of a showcase. She returned to Paris and began to study with Mathilde Marchesi, a well-known mezzo soprano of the day who had herself studied with Manuel García, the famous teacher and codifier of bel canto singing techniques. She did not now have to wait long for success. After a tour of Italy, where she watched and studied famous and successful singers, she returned to Paris in 1891 to create the part of Suzel in Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz. She scored a success, and was asked to create the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. That turned out to be the magic moment. Italian melodrama, the staple of the newly emerging verismo, perfectly suited her intense temperament, renowned acting abilities, and artistic instincts. Her success was huge and she went on to repeat it in London. Santuzza was ever after considered one of her signature roles, another being Carmen. Both these roles presented Calvé with an opportunity to display all her skills, which were everywhere celebrated. She was, in fact, so fiery and melodramatic in her stage portrayals that some newspaper critics were offended by such earthy and passionate emotional displays from a woman on the pubic stage. It did not conform at all—especially in Victorian London—to upper middle class notions of female propriety, even (or perhaps particularly) in the theater.

Here is a recording made in 1907 of "Voi lo sapete, o mamma." It needs to be remembered that we are dealing here with a soprano from so long ago (she was born two years before the American Civil War began!) that even her earliest recordings capture only the voice of a middle aged woman. She was, for example, nearly 50 years old when this record was made:

An absolutely fascinating recording from one hundred and four years ago! It is immediately apparent that the intensity and melodrama, if you will, of her presentation is strictly musical and stylistic in its nature. There is no shouting, no grating, gasping sobs, or any other kind of artistic indiscretion that some sopranos (especially mezzo sopranos) allow to infiltrate this piece. Her vocal instincts were always musical; it was the dramatic conception of the music and—from virtually all accounts—her acting that was so special. Indeed, she uses a vocal technique (the famously dark and intense chest voice so common in Belle Époque singing), to make her dramatic points. Its discreet use turns out to be all that is necessary to convey the emotional intensity of the music here. She leaves the essentially soprano part of her voice free from such affectation.

Let us turn to the other role for which she was so famous—Carmen. So powerful, according to contemporary accounts, was her portrayal of Carmen that it was many years before any other soprano or mezzo soprano could claim to equal it. Some record collectors claim that CD re-recordings do not do justice to the subtlety or intensity of her voice and pronunciation because record companies have "muffled" the sound in an attempt to get rid of the scratches on the old records. To put that idea to the test, here is a 1908 recording, directly from the old record, of the "Seguidilla" from Carmen. I ask you to tolerate the scratches in favor of the "live" feeling of the recording, and again, I stress the musicality of the vocal drama:

I think the old recording does give a better idea of the vocal drama being played out here.

A word is in order about the classification of her voice. The term "mezzo-soprano" was not much used in Calve's era. She was most commonly called simply "soprano." The floods of classifications were to come later, largely invented by critics. I have written elsewhere on this subject, and I do not hesitate to reiterate my feeling that much of this is simply unnecessary. There are other ways to describe voices than to create a new category every time some singer sounds a bit different from another singing the same parts. I daresay the old SATB choral designations would work remarkably well if we talked more about color, flexibility and tone, and less about mezzo, lyric, dramatic, coloratura, spinto, leggiero, profundo, etc. etc. etc. But I digress:) Let's settle for soprano with an strong chest register in Calve's case.

Actually, there is, in addition to all the drama, a lot of traditional bel canto soprano to be tapped here, as can be amply demonstrated by this lovely recording of "Charmant oiseau," from Félicien David's La Perle du Brésil, 1908:

Emma Calvé was important in her day because she led the way for women as passionate, real flesh and blood characters on the stage. That she could do so within the aesthetic framework of traditionally beautiful singing makes her all the more remarkable.