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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Licia Albanese: Vocal Melodrama

Italian-American soprano Licia Albanese was born in Bari, Italy, in 1913. An energetic and talented child, she had the good fortune to have as her teacher the great verismo soprano Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi. In 1934, when Albanese was only 21, she substituted for an ailing soprano, singing Cio-Cio-San, a part that would become her signature role over the years. The idea of a 21 year old taking on that part is somewhat daunting, but Albanese's vocal stamina (and longevity!) was legendary. I heard her sing at age 67 at a gala fundraiser, and she was extraordinary.

Like so many Italian singers of her day who were destined for a major career, progress came quickly. Italy's system of regional theaters has always presented wonderful opportunities for young singers to be heard fairly early on in their careers, and Albanese was no exception. By 1935 she had made her debut at La Scala (in Gianni Schicchi) and she was on her way. She was excellently suited, by voice, training, looks and temperament, for the Verdi/Puccini verismo roles, and she quickly became an international presence, especially in Bohème, Traviata, and Butterfly.

Albanese's Metropolitan opera debut was in 1940, somewhat predictably in Madama Butterfly. She was to perform this signature role at the Met over 70 times. It was a great success, and she was to make the Met her artistic home for the next 26 seasons, in a variety of roles. She also quickly made America her patriotic home, acquiring American citizenship in 1945. In 1946 she did a series of radio performances with Arturo Toscanini. Albanese did not limit herself exclusively to the Met, being an artistic presence also at San Francisco. She did, however, tend to limit herself to her adopted land, and while she sang overseas occasionally, she was essentially an American soprano from that point on. In later years she became very active as a fundraiser for the arts, and for her Licia Albanese Foundation, established to help aspiring singers. Like other great Italian American singers before her, most specifically Amelita Galli Curci and Enrico Caruso, she was enormously popular here, and made very significant contributions to the arts in America.

It is necessary, at the very beginning to address Licia Albanese's voice and singing style, in order to avoid instant analysis or judgments. I do not believe it is possible to describe her singing by comparison to any other soprano, except possibly her teacher, Baldassarre-Tedeschi. (I recently posted two Baldassare-Tedeschi videos on my Youtube channel. You can find a link in the righthand sidebar of this page.) I find it more helpful to compare her to male singers, specifically Giuseppe Di Stefano and (brace yourself!) Feodor Chaliapin. Quirky as that may sound, there is a reason: all are extraordinary singing actors, and they place their voices in the service of the melodrama which characterizes their repertoire. It is fruitless to compare Licia Albanese to great lyric sopranos whose fine and flute-like voices soar with abandon; she will seem thick and over-heavy in the middle of her voice and short on top. The darkness in her voice will at times seem like a bark. No, she uses her voice to serve the part she sings. Like Di Stefano, she enunciates extremely clearly; it sometimes seems as though she is speaking to you. Most importantly, she uses her voice as Chaliapin used his, to vocally portray a character, usually in the grip of great emotion, distress or outright despair. People in those situations do not trill prettily. In terms of style, Albanese, like Callas, shows great conviction in her portrayals, and conviction is the absolute bedrock of great style. Here is the "Un bel dì" from her signature role, Cio-Cio-San:

Do you see what I mean? What strikes me immediately is the characterization in the voice. Like Giuseppe Di Stefano, she sang, to a large extent, as she spoke. The enunciation is extraordinary. I sometimes forget she is singing, and think she is speaking to me. The voice is dark and highly dramatic. She is a singing actress, and this is not an exercise in pure vocalism—it is simply a part of the whole picture. One thing she had was power in abundance. I can testify from having heard her in person that it was an astonishingly big voice for so tiny a person. Yes, the voice is showing signs of wear here, at 40, but one must remember that she started singing at 21, and almost the entirely of her repertoire was verismo, with all the attendant demands made on the voice. You will hear "prettier" Bb's than she manages here, more cleanly produced, but you will seldom hear a more moving, better articulated or more realistically convincing version of this famous aria.

Here is Albanese in another Puccini aria, "In Quelle Trine Morbide," from Manon Lescaut:

This is a much more traditional bit of singing, and excellent in every way. The dramatic intensity is there, as it always is, and the vocal line is clear and well connected stylistically to the music. It is perhaps more lyrical than the Butterfly selection, and soars where "Un bel dì" cries. That, however, derives from characterization more than anything else.

Here, finally, is Licia Albanese at her absolute best; as Violetta in La Traviata. This great scene, "Addio del Passato," shows all her strengths. The recitation at the beginning is so clear and painfully felt that it easily brings tears. The articulation is so precise that it almost seems possible to understand even if one doesn't speak Italian! Finally, the singing soars, and Albanese's dramatic voice is displayed to full advantage:

Say what one will, I personally would lay down my hard-earned money any place, any time, to hear something like that!


JD Hobbes said...

Yes, she was one of the best.
My speakers aren't very clear. At 3:33 in "Un Bel Di" does she jump directly to the high note without any grace or "skip" note?

DanPloy said...

A wonderful choice again Edmund.

There is a great CD of excerpts from a live Turandot with Martinelli and Eva Turner (1937). It is just the same tracks twice from two different nights, one with Mafalda Favero as Liu and one with Licia Albanese.

It is very interesting to hear the comparison, but for me, as you say, Licia somehow is more inside the role and prepared, as was Martinelli, to make unpleasant noises for the sake of the drama, if you know what I mean.

What a night that must have been. I was born too late.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes; I always look forward to your comment, you are such a faithful reader! Much appreciated, I assure you! Yes, the note is there. She sings it very softly, and the orchestra is starting to blare. Also, this is a 1953 Saturday radio broadcast, and who knows how the stage miking was set up,especially back in 1953 when they were in the old house. A turn of the head, or a lowering of the head, could get you out of mike range. I remember how singers used to map out the stage before the Saturday broadcasts, checking the location of every mike. They were well aware of where to aim their heads for the high note!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much. Yes, those were the days. It's a bit of a diffent ball game now. You have noticed the difference perfectly; that was the Albanese magic. She WAS the character, and when that happens, every single person in the audience feels it. And the contrary is also true. I've seen great voices fall flat because the audience "just didn't believe it." They didn't feel anything. That never happened with Licia!

Anonymous said...

I don't think it would ever have occured to me to compare her to Chaliapin! However, I see what you are driving at. An unusual idea, certainly, but in terms of melodrama, I see your point. I really enjoy your blog.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Johanna. Yes, as I mentioned in the article, I realize it might sound quirky. But yes, it's specifically the use of the voice as an acting tool that I was referring to. The great French essayist La Rochefoucauld once said that the person who has passion ALWAYS convinces better than even the most intelligent person who does not. And in opera that is SO true! Thanks for your comment. Always appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great article. I totally agree with your comparison of her to Chaliapin:); (Chaliapin was perhaps the first (and maybe the only) basso, who sang some songs written for female singers. He wrote that it was the most interesting task for him as an actor. They say that he made audience forget that bassos don’t sing female songs. )

Expressiveness of her singing is extraordinary. It seems to me that some people in the audience wept when she sang “Un bel di…” I can only add that she also had a very pleasant voice. In spite of signss of wear and verismo repertoire, her voice flows freely. It’s not a flute-like soprano, typical for bel canto, but it’s not heavy either. Her Violetta is excellent. Thanks for the video.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my dear friend. I always enjoy reading your comments, and I learn a lot! That is a real piece of Chaliapin singing some songs for women. I had no idea. Of course, that says a lot about Chaliapin. I can't imagine any song in the world that he couldn't sing beautifully. And yes, Albanese had the ability to move people greatly with her singing. You are right that it was not too heavy, as evidenced by the fact that she virtually owned La Traviata here in the US for a number of years. If her voice had been too heavy, she could never have managed the first act. Thanks again for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Chaliapin sang a well-known folk song "Помню я еще молодушкой была", it is about a middle-aged peasant woman who recalls her love to a military man. She met him only once, when she was young. So it was a very brave decision of Chaliapin's to perform the song, because its lyrics are very 'feminine'.


Edmund St. Austell said...

That is interesting. In English, because there are so few gender markers, it is sometimes possible for a man to sing a woman's song without it being apparent that it is a woman's voice. But in Russian it's almost impossible to get past any reference to yourself or any personal use of the past tense without revealing your gender. It must seem very unnatural for a man to use those words:-)

Edmund St. Austell said...

For n.a. In my first response to your comment, I wrote an incomprehensible sentence about "that is a real piece of Chaliapin singing...." I meant to say "that is a really interesting piece of information about Chaliapin singing......

Sorry about that....the mind clouds over on some days:-)

Anonymous said...

In English, because there are so few gender markers, it is sometimes possible for a man to sing a woman's song without it being apparent that it is a woman's voice. But in Russian it's almost impossible to get past any reference to yourself or any personal use of the past tense without revealing your gender. It must seem very unnatural for a man to use those words:-)/

Yes, exactly/ Sometimes singers change a couple of pronouns, but in this song it's impossible. The word молодушка means 'a young woman', 'a girl'.
So Chaliapin sang "When I was a young girl...":) But no-one laughed, as people recalled.


JD Hobbes said...

Regarding your exchange with n.a., I have to add that Chaliapin had such an incredible pathos in his voice. The "Death of Don Quixote" that can be found on YouTube is an amazing example. I am not sure how he accomplished it. His voice seems to be on the edge of being flat and distorted, and yet he is still on pitch. Very effective.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you. If I had to, I would describe the Chaliapin magic in two words: utter conviction. It spread mysteriously to every listener. Albanese had the same magic in her singing. Say what one will about the voice--and there is a natural legato there that serves the music very well--she had conviction, and conviction equals style. She connects at the level of pure emotion. So did Chaliapin.

Verdiwagnerite said...

Fascinating,as always. Time and time again I am reminded of the sheer variety of wonderful voices (mostly) from the past that I know very little about. I second DanPloy - I was born too late and for me, on the wrong side of the world - to have witnessed many of these great singers.
Loved the "Un bel di" - brava, very expressive!

Gerhard Santos said...

This is really wonderful, thank you Sir Edmund for sharing this with us!!! It's really a great privilege to me to read your very interesting article this morning. I'm very glad for visit again your wonderful blog.
Have a Beautiful Thursday morning and *GOD BLESS*