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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ezio Pinza: One Of The Greatest Singing Basses

Italian-American Bass Ezio Pinza was born in Rome in 1892, and grew up in Ravenna. Like so many famous artists, he was born in poverty. Such individuals often strive to succeed in sports or show business, largely because their poverty frees them from ordinary middle-class expectations, and, to put it simply, they can afford to take the chance. He showed musical promise early on, and was able to take some lessons at Bologna's Martini Conservatory. His operatic debut was in Norma in 1914.

His operatic career began in earnest after WWI, when he made his La Scala debut, in 1919, under Arturo Toscanini. From the very beginning, his voice was uncommonly smooth and beautiful, a great asset for a singing bass, especially one with matinee idol looks, which Pinza possessed in abundance. His lack of formal education meant that he was not a particularly well-schooled musician. He was not able to read music, for example, but he had a very sharp ear, and could memorize music accurately, even to the point of being able to hear—and absorb—stylistic nuances. His musical instincts were superb. The result of this was that he began his musical career to considerable acclaim, coming across to audiences and critics alike as a very good-looking and sophisticated singer and actor, with a brilliant and beautiful voice. His career soared as a result, and by 1926 he had been invited to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Engagements at Covent Garden and Salzburg soon followed. He was particularly successful in the Italian repertoire, including Bellini, Verdi and Donizetti.

Like other Italians before him, he felt most at home in America, where he was an idol of the huge Italian-American audience that had so warmly embraced Caruso, Galli-Curci, Martinelli, and so many others. He was a favorite at the Met, where he sang for 22 years. In 1948 he switched gears, so to speak, and embarked upon a successful Broadway career, becoming a popular and well known matinee idol, largely through the success he enjoyed in South Pacific and, later, Fanny. It was in South Pacific, however, that he first became known by America's popular music audience, and it brought him great fame. He was frequently heard and seen on radio, TV and in the movies, and found acceptance as an essentially popular singer. His was one of the broader and more successful American singing careers.

Here is the quintessential Pinza in one of his most popular operas, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, singing "Non Piu Andrai."

Notice the extreme smoothness of the voice. The wonderful thing about Pinza (inter alia!) is that he was first and foremost a singer. He put the "singing" in "singing bass." Many, less endowed vocally, will sometimes bark their way through even lyric arias like this. Pinza never did that. He was always the consummate singer and musician.

In the Italian repertoire, Pinza was very much at home, and the opportunity to display his elegant and musical singing was never greater than in operas such as Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. Here is the beautifully dramatic "Il Lacerato Spirito."

It is hard to imagine this aria better sung. It displays Pinza's operatic gifts perfectly. It is all there: the musicality, the stylistics, and—always—the flawless technique and beautiful, flowing voice.

Finally, we absolutely must conclude with the song that made Pinza a household name in America. Here is an old kinescope recording of Pinza and Mary Martin in "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific. As will become apparent from the old video, he was in fact an excellent actor. The voice is wonderful, and the thick Italian accent is completely irrelevant, because it is a foreign character part. In fact, it adds to the charm. This is the Pinza most Americans knew and loved:

There is nothing I can add to that!


JD Hobbes said...

Yes, you are right. Non piu andrai was probably the first thing I heard by Pinza, and it still remains a favorite.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment, Mr. Hobbes. Happy New Year, and thanks for being such a faithful reader of the blog. Much appreciaed! Yes, the "Non piu andrai" is an aria made in heaven for Ezio Pinza. It lies perfectly for his voice, and his smoothness of vocal production is really shown off to advantage. One of his best roles! Thanks again, Edmund

DanPloy said...

Happy New Year, Edmund.

Ah, my favourite bass, by a mile.

Is this the greatest performance of any 'aria' in all opera?

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ah, yes...."La Forza..." with Ponselle. It is certainly spectacularly beautiful, and shows off the low part of Pinza's voice very well, as did "O Isis and Osiris" from the Magic Flute.

Thanks for comment, and let me wish you and yours a happy New Year!

Verdiwagnerite said...

An excellent introduction for me to yet another wonderful voice, this time from the past.
It's an interesting point that you make about some people with a particular talent who are born quite poor. They do quite literally have nothing to lose. The reverse today of course is the "stars" who can't handle the meteoric rise and go off the rails.

Back to the music, Pinza was obviously a very versatile performer able to move from opera to musicals, apparently successfully. Many opera singers sound too "operatic" when singing musical songs but he sounds just right. Also excellent legato singing in the 2 arias.

Thank you again.


Verdiwagnerite said...

P.S Edmund

I should have said (DanPloy's youtube link reminded me) how good a voice Pinza had for the great Verdi bass roles.

And I do get confused with the differences between a bass and a bass baritone.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank YOU, Kate, for an excellent comment. And you nail it when you refer the excellent legato singing. That was a big part of the Pinza magic--not so common in a bass!

thanks again, and Happy New Year to you!

Anonymous said...

To Verdiwagnerite:

- Bass range is about E2 to E4
- Bass-Baritone range is about F2 to F4

Basically, they can do similar roles, but in Verdi's or Wagner operas, a bass-barítone will sound a bit forced, simply because is a bit easier to give a "loud sound" to higher notes, since the pitch of those notes usually helps. In the lower notes of Verdi or Wagner Operas, the bass-barítone will struggle with the orchestra.
Off course, this is a bit of a personal opinion.

P.S. A bit sorry for my english, which is a bit rusty.

Source: Google searchs which I can't remember the link(s)

Jing said...

Happy New Year, Edmund! A very nice article on a beloved singer. I believe he was another of those artists whose popular music careers inspired many to explore opera. His Don Giovanni aria recordings got me first interested in that opera, and, through that, Mozart's Da Ponte operas. And, as you show us, of course, his Emile de Becque set a standard not yet surpassed. It is amusing to me that over the years, starting with the film version, and then in many stage revivals of South Pacific - the men cast as Emile have either been basically non-serious singers, or opera stars pretending not to be serious singers. (that is, to be or not to be Ezio Pinza) And, what amuses me even more, for those trying to sing the role seriously, it is impossible not to sing it with an Italian accent, even though Emile is French. Take it from one who has attempted it and failed rather laughably. No matter how earnestly hard one tries to sing "Some Enchanted Evening" with a French, or even Middle-American default accent - it still comes across as an Italian not trying very hard not to be. Ah, forgive me, Edmund, for wandering so far into yesteryear. It must be the season. All the best for a great new year of Great Opera Singers.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ha, ha! Thank you, my dear friend, and a Happy 2012 to you! Yes, these numbers are getting a little worrying. I can remember when dates like this seemed like something out of a science fiction movie:-)

Re: Some Enchanted Evening--yes, I have been sitting here thinking of how that would sound with Yves Montand or Maurice Chevalier singing it, and the mind boggles. I see what you mean! That song belongs to Pinza forever. And even in the film version with Giorgio Tozzi/Rossano Brazzi, it's still all-Italian! When it comes to singing in America, we have always been pretty much a colony of Italy!

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year, Edmund, and thanks for the article. I heard about him , but I didn’t know that he was such an idol in the USA. Definitely, he was a great bass and he deserved his enormous fame. The voice is gorgeous. He reminds me of Mark Reizen a bit. It’s hard to believe that he could not read the music, his singing is very musical and elegant. His acting looks absolutely natural, which is not common for opera singers. Usually their acting is broader, because they got used to stage and theatrical gestures. Besides, he had charm. It’s clear that he was a brilliant artist.
Was there any rivalry between Pinza and other “idols” like Lawrence Tibbett?


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, my dear friend, and Happy New Year to you! Enjoy the remainder of the New Year Holidy. Yes, Pinza was very popular, and while I am sure there were professional rivalries, as there always are, there was nothing outstanding that I know about. He and Tibbett got along quite well, as far as I know. Pinza was quite a "бабник," I think the word is, but then a lot of singers and entertainers are:-) I don't think he got into much trouble with it, except maybe with Jeanette Macdonald, who claimed that he actually backed her into a corner once with his advances. I don't think she cared much for him:-)

Thanks again!

JD Hobbes said...

Yes, for what it is worth, in the biography of Jeanette MacDonald, "Hollywood Divas" (p. 266), MacDonald reported that Pinza was a "noted Don Juan on- and off-stage, and that he "virtually panted with lust" at one of their encounters. She glared at him and said, "Oh, cut it out." Ha.

Thanks again for your article.

Edmund St. Austell said...

:-) :-) :-) :-)

G. Fiurezi Maragioglio said...

Fine appreciation of the great Pinza's talent. I have always felt sorry for Ezio Flagello, having to share the same name. Among basses, there are not many competitors for Flagello: only Siepi. Clabassi was superb too, such rich dark voice, but only Siepi had the charm to match Flagello.

Felice anno nuovo Edmund e grazie ancora a fare questo bel sito d'educazione della cultura lirica con uno sguardo di tutti paesi e né tradizione. Ben salute Gioacchino

Edmund St. Austell said...

And a happy new year to you also! I hope the new year is one of contentment and prosperity for you. Congratulations on your new opera site, Operaticpantheon, which is very well done, and most informative. I urge readers to check it out if they have not already done so! Ora che ho risvegliato dal torpore del troppo mangiare, posso tornare al lavoro e cominciare a leggere di più dei tuoi articoli!! Edmund

George Polyzoides said...

You are welcome to investigate the Pinza material available on my website

Just access the menu entry under Artist Profiles

G. Fiurezi Maragioglio said...

Grazie Edmund. Come sempre, sei molto gentile. Grazie ancor per quest articolo. Aspetto felicemente per la prossimsa!
Ben salute.

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year, Edmund, and thank you for opening the year in your blog with the great Ezio Pinza.

When we talk about his greatness, it has to do entirely with his voice and stage activities. His personality is another matter altogether.

Pinza the great basso versus Pinza the man - this presents a great irony. He was blessed with one of the finest and most beautiful basso cantante, lush, velvety, aristocratic-sounding, yet also pliable and flexible to adapt to the character in hand. He also projected a formidable, noble presence on stage. Off-stage, however, he was a pretty corrupt character and a notorious womanizer (by the way, he came from a plebian background and lacked formal education). His affair with the great conductor Bruno Walter's younger daughter Gretel led to a gruesome tragedy, in which Gretel Walter's jealous husband murdered her and then killed himself.

Pinza and the great Rosa Ponselle appeared together frequently on stage and made a number of wonderful recordings of Verdi's music that are still considered today to be paragons of vocalism, style and dramatic projection. Offstage and outside the recording studio, it was a totally different picture. Ponselle abhorred Pinza. In an interview (cited in James A. Drake, "Rosa Ponselle: A Centenary Biography"), Ponselle recalled Pinza's attempt to molest her backstage in graphic details:

"During Don Giovanni, I used to stand in the wings and listen to Rethberg sing 'Mi tradi'...while I was standing there, I was so taken up with her singing that I didn't realize that Pinza had come up behind me. Soon I felt his hand around my waist, making its way up to my breasts. He started whispering in my ear how we would be so wonderful together - the same thing he told every woman he met on the street. I grabbed his arm and pushed him away. I had to clench my teeth so that my voice wouldn't carry. 'Porco!' I said."

Ponselle concluded, "On the stage he could look and act like a king, but offstage he was a pig"

Pinza's problematic personality notwithstanding, there is no denying of his great voice and wonderful artistry. For me, his Figaro (in Mozart's opera) still remained unrivaled to this day (many have declared their allegiance to Cesare Siepi in this role, but IMHO Siepi's voice is not in the same class as that of Pinza). He projected the many facets of this character with such deftness, panache, humor, fun and many unforgettable touches, on top of his magnificent voice. His Don Giovanni is also another justly famous and memorable portrayal. Don Giovanni was apparently his favorite role, for he sang it numerous times on stage (inlcuding the New York Metropolitan Opera). It could be most likely that he felt this role was the closest to his own offstage personality.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Tim, for a thoroughly scholarly comment that deserves to be an article on the subject! You raise a very interesting and delicate point, and that is the art of the artist versus the personality of the artist. This problem arises all the time in literary criticism. How important is the art as a "Ding an Sich" and is it in any way related to the biography of the author. It is a contentious issue, as you can imagine. There are other singers--we need not mention any names--who have been, by normal standards, dreadful people. I once asked a renowned literary critic if a book written by two men, living in two distinct historical periods, happened by extraordinary circumstance to be identical, were the same book. He replied simply "they have to be." I thought it was a flip answer at the time, but I can see he was right. To come back to music, a brilliant aria, sung by a saintly man and sung identically by a moral degenerate, simply has to be the same aria. Otherwise, the musical art per se has no objective integrity, and we are indulging our own tendency to biographism.

The Balch said...

Dear Mr. St. Austell,

I really enjoyed this article. I'm doing my best to cultivate an appreciation of voice types other than my own, and your discussions of basses, sopranos, etc. are incredibly helpful.

For better or for worse, I don't know a lot about classical music yet, so most of the clips you share with us and analyze are new to me. Having seen the clip from South Pacific, I have to agree that he was not only a great singer, but a great actor as well.

What really blows me away is that one doesn't have to see him on film to know how good his acting is. The two opera excerpts you linked to are equally masterful performances, but they also show off his dramatic versatility.

And what a lovely instrument he has! I haven't seen a lot of Verdi, but unfortunately what little I know hasn't struck me on first hearing as being "beautiful;" and yet, how else can I describe that performance? Heartrending. It's nice to be reminded that elegant and lyrical singing isn't solely the province of higher voices.

It is unfortunate that he was not, as far as the public knows, a nicer person. Nothing can excuse a lack of basic consideration for other human beings. And yet, I can't help but wonder what it must have been like--to go from having less than nothing, to having everything before the age of 30.

Most of all, Mr. St. Austell, I'd like to thank you for responding personally to every one of our comments and questions, and with such promptness. I thoroughly enjoy each and every one of your posts (that being said, I would love to see an article on Léopold Simoneau. Just food for thought!)

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for an interesting and very well written comment! Always appreciated. Funny you should mention Simoneau--a tenor for whom I have a lot of respect. Several people have asked if I plan to do a piece on him, and in fact I do, very soon. My list is quite short at the moment, being the first of the year and all, so I see no reason not to move right on to Simoneau. Stay tuned:-) Thanks again.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Happy New Year. I hope you and your family have been well.

Thanks for writing back about Nash. I found your comments very informative and highly interesting.

I've been listening to Pinza but I still find it difficult to appreciate his singing on record. The recording companies seem to have been unable to pick up his voice well..The voice sounded much more beautiful in the videos you recommended than in the songs I am listening.

The three songs were very well sung, especially the last one from South Pacific. That, I'm afraid, was the best of the three. It was best able to portray the beauty and richness of his voice. I never liked 'Il Lacerato Spirito' much so I can't comment but the 'Non Piu Andrai' though good, is up against quite some competition.

I remember that you once told me you were born before the War. May I ask if you ever had any opportunity to see him live or get to talk to people who did? I heard that Pinza was noted for his acting as well as his singing.

Pinza was associated with two other Italian basses, Nazzareno de Angelis and Tancredi Pasero. I usually see the three of them being discussed together as the greatest Italian basses of the interwar period. May I ask you for your opinion on this? I'm finding something really challenging to listen to in opera but I'm exhausting the possibilities I have at my hands.

Sorry for the inconvenience and many thanks for taking your time and effort in reading this.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Darren. How nice of you to write. A Happy New Year to you and yours! I'm sorry to say that I did not have a chance to hear Pinza in person, although I heard and saw him on TV and radio.

You posit a tough question, when speaking of Pasero, Nazzareno de Angelis and Pinza. What a field of giants! They are of course all superb singers. De Angelis was perhaps the most drmatic and stentorian of the lot...his Wotan's Farewell, for example, is quite stirring and I would say puts him on a par with great Wotans in other countries. There is a dark, declamatory nature to his voice that works a little bit to the detriment of his legato, in my opinion. Pasero, on the other hand, sings like a bel canto baritone with a heavy bottom. I had to think of Mattia Battistini listening to his "Ella giammai m'amo," for example. He had a remarkable rapid-fire vibrato, very much like the bel canto singers of old. I would have to say that Pinza was the smoothest and most elegant of the three. There is an uncompicated ease about his singing which is very attractive indeed, although it would have to be said that he would not fare as well in the big heavy roles as de Angelis did.

About the best I can do, my friend! I'll be in touch with you by email before much longer.

G. Fiurezi Maragioglio said...

When you mention Nazzareno de Angelis, you strike my attention immediately.

Think of de Angelis as Zinka Milanov and Pinza as Maria Callas.

De Angelis was foremost the leading Mefistofele in Italy in his day, and he was also good at roles like the Inquisitor in Don Carlo. Although I am too young to have heard him, my father did, many times, and I met him once, as a old man in Rome, a few years before he died. His speaking voice was a commanding as his stage voice.

Although he sometimes attempted bel canto roles, he was not a bel canto stylist at ALL.

Pasero was the true basso nobile, with everything that included.

Pinza, by contrast, did not have such a splendid top as de Angelis, or such authority, but he was far better at bel canto, and probably a more sensitive singer.

Perhaps I should say, though I think it is already clear, that de Angelis is my favourite!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Yes, you're right. I was listening to Pinza. In the dramatic roles like Fiesco, Filippo and Mefistofele (Boito's), his voice was silky smooth, beautiful and rich but it lacks a punch. Nevertheless, he's still unsurprisingly the best bass the Met had during the inter-war period for the Italian repertory considering the retirement of Chaliapin.

Hmm, perhaps de Angelis is the opposite of Pinza. De Angelis has a dark cavernous declamatory voice. He's better for those formidable cornerstones of the heavyweight dramatic bass repertoire, Filippo, Mefistofele, Fiesco etc but I don't know how he'll fare for the lighter roles. However, I think de Angelis' recording work was mostly inclined to the heavier bass roles.

As for Pasero, hmm..maybe I'll listen to him again based on what you've told me. I've trouble appreciating his singing. However, if he could reign as the leading Italian bass at La Scala for decades, there must be some reason for it.

I think Pinza was best in the bel canto opera roles like the basses from Sonnambula and Puritani. I really liked his renditions of the arias of these roles but it's a pity that wasn't enough to undo the damage the other arias did to my opinion of him. He's also outstanding in the buffo roles and lighter bass-baritone roles like Don Giovanni and Figaro. Was he a bass or a bass baritone? I saw records he made of Escamillo, Don Carlos (from Forza) etc online.

The light music showed Pinza as his best but I can barely understand what he's singing even after repeated hearings. His Italian accent is so thick!!!

Edmund St. Austell said...


Some enchanted evening
You may see a stranger,
you may see a stranger
Across a crowded room
And somehow you know,
You know even then
That somewhere you'll see her
Again and again.

Some enchanted evening
Someone may be laughin',
You may hear her laughin'
Across a crowded room
And night after night,
As strange as it seems
The sound of her laughter
Will sing in your dreams.

Who can explain it?
Who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons,
Wise men never try.

Some enchanted evening
When you find your true love,
When you feel her call you
Across a crowded room,
Then fly to her side,
And make her your own
Or all through your life you
May dream all alone.

Once you have found her,
Never let her go.
Once you have found her,
Never let her go!

DanPloy said...

Did you ask for suggestions for singers to discuss? Well even if you didn't may I suggest a couple:

Francesco Merli.
Jose Cura.
Claudia Muzio
Tito Ruffo
Hipolito Lazaro
Emma Calve
Bernardo de Muro.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Excellent list! (With one exception:-) But that still leaves plenty! I'll be happy to add them to the list. I thought when I started this blog that I would run out of singers in a year, but guess what:-) :-) Which is actually a good sign, because it's testimony to how many great singers there are out there, and how popular opera remains today. That' cause for celebration!

Gerhard Santos said...

MOLTO BELLO!!! Thank you my Friend for sharing this Valuable Biographical information.

Anonymous said...

Dear Edmund. Thanks so much for your website. I really appreciate in. The Italian-focused pages are marvelous because even though I like Italian opera and music it can be really intimidating for non-Italians like myself.

It's not that I don't like Italian experts but a lot give off vibes that by not being Italians we are inferior. You never do!

Thanks again, you're a true gem Edmund.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much! That is very kind of you, and I appreciate it.

Historic Opera said...

Thanks for this interesting post, and blog which I have only just found. One point I think worth mentioning regarding Pinza's relationship with Gretel Walter is that it was a four year long relationship. This was no casual affair, and Gretel was estranged from her (clearly unstable) husband. The relationship according to the most recent biography of Walter, had BW's blessing and he never held Pinza responsible for Gretel's murder. Indeed, it was more of a shared tragedy that brought them closer together. Certainly he continued to work with Pinza at the Met in the 1940s.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for a well informed and pertinent comment, which I greatly appreciate!

Welcome to Great Opera Singers. I hope you will drop in when you can; you are always welcome!

Chris Stockslager said...

Has anyone read Pinza's autobiography? I picked the first edition of it up at a bookshop about three years ago for 16 dollars(!!!), and thoroughly enjoyed it. Pinza seems like most European men of his era: well-meaning, oodles upon oodles of charm, and though never explicitly stated, I can easily see how he may have been a letch. That being said, I don't think he was a bad person, he was just incredibly lusty and rude about it.

sturge said...

I was suprised to find out via the Met Archives Database that Pinza sang several Landgraf's in Tannhauser and King Markes in Tristan there...perhaps King Henry in Lohengrin as well. However, starting in the late twenties he specialized in only Italian roles so none of his Wagner got broadcast or recorded. Thankfully Siepi's wonderful Gurnemanz has been preserved. I recently got a 1964 Rome Italian sung Meistersinger with Serafin conducting and a stellar group (Taddei, Capecchi, Limarilli, Pobbe, Christoff...) that ranks with the greatest German recordings and, in many aspects, surpasses them. It contains some small cuts, but fewer than MET performances from that period. I was surprised how much was NOT cut. Other exceptional recordings of German opera in Italian to look out for are a Flying Dutchman with Molenari-Pradelli, a Wozzeck and Salome with Sanzogno conducting (he studied with Scherchen), and a Tristan with Previtali conducting. It's not commonly known that Martinelli sang a Tristan in German in Chicago opposite Flagstad. She was stunned by how well he did with the role and encouraged him to pursue it. There is a picture of him in costume. He's one of the few Tristans I've seen who actually look the part. Melchior got the best reviews of his career when he sang a staged fourth act of Otello at a MET gala but never sang the complete role there.