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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Gianfranco Cecchele: A Great and Under-Publicized Tenor

Gianfranco Cecchele ws born in 1938 in Padua, Italy. Even as a child he showed a precocious interest in opera and operatic singing. His interest was steadfast, and by 1963, when he was 25 years old, he decided to give it a try, and took some voice lessons. His teachers were impressed with his vocal potential, and in the same year he won a singing contest organized by the Teatro Nuovo in Milan. His debut followed quickly, and in the following year he debuted at the Teatro Bellini in Catania, in a relatively obscure work, a one-act pastoral poem by Giuseppe Mulè entitled La Zolfara. However, possessed of a heroic voice, he quickly (within the same year, actually) moved on to La Scala to sing no less than the leading role in Wagner's Rienzi! Next—and this is all in 1964—on to Rome and Aida. Clearly, this young tenor with a stentorian voice was making a quick and powerful impression on audiences and critics alike. In rapid succession he accumulated a repertoire that included, in addition to Rienzi and Rhadames, Don Carlo, Turridu, Don Alvaro and Calaf. In the following year he appeared at the Paris Opera, with Maria Callas, in Norma. It is hard to imagine a more rapid rise in a very demanding repertoire, and that of course was a double-edged sword. He was, after all, only in his 20's! He reputation spread throughout Europe and he gave 241 performances between 1964 and 1969. Of course, the inevitable happened, and toward the end of the period, around '67 and '68, he seriously strained his voice, causing vocal inflammation. Too many big roles too quickly. He had to quit singing entirely at that point, at least for a while, to undergo a long and painful recuperation from swollen and seriously strained vocal musculature. He temporarily dropped off the map, so to speak, and not much was heard of him. After a few years, however, he was re-establishing himself, and adding some less demanding roles to his repertoire and singing less often, having learned the lesson that many tenors do. Had he displayed that wisdom earlier on, there would likely not have been an interruption in his career. Also, the fact that he sang very largely in Italy made him an opera singer who, while enormously popular there, was not much known in America. This is also the case with two other fine Italian tenors, Mario Filippeschi and Salvatore Fisichella. (Giuseppe Giacomini, also less well known here than he should have been, was nevertheless very active outside Italy.)

Listening to a bit of Cecchele erases all doubts about the greatness of the voice and his abilities as a singer and actor. One of his signature roles, from the beginning, had been Calaf, and here is a superb rendition of "Non Piangere, Liu"

Isn't that wonderful! The clarity of the voice, along with the richness and fullness, is positively thrilling. This is a great voice, no doubt about it. And, not coincidentally, Cecchele was a handsome man, and restrained in his acting. This is a 1968 TV video, when he would have been 30. I do not have sufficient information to know if this was during the period of recuperation from his vocal troubles or not; judging from the relative ease of the production, I would assume he was learning how to take it a little easier...there does not appear to be any stress in evidence here.

Here is an aria recorded in 1981, when he would have been 43, stable and in complete control of his voice: "La mia letizia infondere," from Verdi's I Lombardi:

Absolutely superb! The quality of the voice is beautiful and well controlled; the top is entirely intact and completely in line with all the registers; that was a B natural near the end, and it was perfect and, most importantly, not overstressed or unduly elongated. In a word, it was exemplary, both vocally and stylistically.

Finally the big tenor aria from Turandot, "Nessun Dorma," from a 1981 filmed production:

I find it impossible to fault this singing; this rendition of "Nessun Dorma" will stand with that of any other tenor, and seriously exceeds the efforts of many, some of them much more famous. Cecchele was, simply put,  a superb tenor.

There are reasons, as I pointed out earlier, why Cecchele was not well known in the United States. Certainly the most important is that he was, it seems, perfectly happy to sing in Italy. Not everyone, after all, wants to spend half their career lives on airplanes. There is also the fact that there was something of a lock-out on some Italian tenors in the United States during the 70's and 80's. That is one of the reasons another great dramatic tenor, Giuseppe Giacomini, was seen so seldom here. But that, as they say, is a discussion for another time.


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for doing this! I have only recently found out about Cecchele myself, and I agree---he was really, really good! It's hard to find any informaiton about him, so I guess what you said him being a lock-out in Ameica is true! Thanks for this this!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Actually, I don't know that the "lock-out" idea (which is probably an exaggerated way of saying it) applies so much to Cecchele, because in his particular case I think it was more a case of personal predilection (or lack of the same) that accounts for him not being present in America. I think he was just happy in Italy! Thanks again for the comment!

JD Hobbes said...

I agree with your assessment of "Nessun Dorma." Our loss was Italy's gain, I suppose. But, as you say, why live in an airplane between here and there?

Like Candide, he made his garden at home.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes. I always appreciate your comments. And I agree. I can see where there might have been a time when it made a great difference to an Italian or French singer to come to America, perhaps to earn some large salaries, but that day is gone. One can live very well indeed in Italy now, and the prospect of a large group of good regional houses, relatively close together, could be very nice. In the same way, France's greatest tenor, Georges Thill, made virtually his entire career in one city! He was a mainstay of the Paris Opera, and was himself Parisian to the core. He was perfectly happy there. Thanks again for the comment!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Interesting article although it's on a singer which I didn't expect.

Hmm..the two Puccini arias were well-delivered, there's nothing wrong with them.

Cecchele has a dark and rich voice filled with power and robustness. If he's endowed with these qualities, there shouldn't be anything wrong with him but nevertheless, something still seems missing.

When I close my eyes and listen to this version of ''Nessun Dorma'', it sounds good enough, the power is there, the voice is beautiful and the emotion is there. There's nothing wrong with it but I don't remember much of it 5 minutes after the aria is over.

When you listen to other versions of the same aria sung by great singers throughout the decades from Caruso to Carreras, each version sounds different though the words and the notes don't change. Domingo's version is very different from Corelli's version. However, how different is Cecchele's? It's very different but it doesn't seem to stand out much. That's the thing Cecchele's missing, the individual touch.

The power, the beauty, the conviction, they're all there but there isn't enough of it to leave a lasting impression. Perhaps this explains why he was more popular in Italy than in America.

I heard that in America, people want to hear great singers sing. They see these singers as personages. However in Italy, people want to hear these operas sung the right way. They see these singers as interpreters. Cecchele can sing the staple operas well enough in the style the Italians have always sung and enjoyed but it's another story if his name is to stay in the memories of the audience after leaving the theater. Unless he's proven himself to the audience that he can be counted upon to produce consistently good opera performances without fail, that is.

As a sidenote, I remember reading somewhere that the Met used to hire a string of tenors as covers for great established names such as Domingo, Carreras, Pavarotti etc. I know Moldoveanu was one of them. I think Cecchele was another. Some of the directors of the Board thought that these tenors were all the same person. I guess that's because there wasn't anything which differentiated one tenor from another other than the name.

I hope you'll find this comment interesting even though it's rambling. I guess I've got to work on my writing style. It seems to bore people more often these days. Grammar's also not really good. I'm out of practice. Pardon me for that.

Edmund St. Austell said...


Actually, Darren, your English is excellent, and your comment is in fact very interesting. I understand what you are saying, it's just that not being Italian myself, I am not sure how the typical Italian opera-goer views the question of individuality of style. Considering the wild excitement some singers seem to elicit in Italy, and elsewhere, I'm tempted to think that it is largely a question of individual temperament. It's that kind of thing we mean when we talk about "star quality." Some people have it, and it is almost impossible to define, or to understand why it cannot be taught, or why some people have it and others don't. The question you raise is very relevant, and I think is based on that observation of star quality. If only it could be bottled and sold:-) Thanks for another thought-provoking comment, I always appreciate them!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Thank you Edmund.

However,actually,what I meant was that the reason why Cecchele wasn't as popular in the States as he was in Italy is because of the different attitudes of the typical opera-goers in these countries.

If I remember correctly, in America, there were tenors like Cecchele at the Met, tenors who could be relied on to give a competent performance of the operas from the core repertory, such as John Alexander.

It's said that there were some operas which John Alexander could sing better than greater names but he never attained stardom because he never left a mark in any of them. Perhaps that's why Cecchele wasn't popular in the States. He could give a competent performance but it didn't leave a lasting impression in American audiences.

I heard that in the States, people go to the opera house to hear stars sing. Even if an up-and-coming opera cast is perfectly capable of giving an adequate opera performance,it's not going to attract box office sales unless there's a star name in it. When I mean star, he or she's already ''famous''. If I remember correctly, nowadays, most opera singers currently singing in America actually made their name outside America before coming back to perform as stars. Am I wrong in saying so? I heard that was the case for James McCracken and Thomas Stewart.

However, in Italy, anybody's okay so long as they can sing the operas from the staple repertory well enough. Even if they are stars, anybody who makes mistakes would get boos and catcalls. (Even Cornell Macneil, one of the best Verdi singers in the Met got booed for one of his Verdi performances) Perhaps Cecchele became a star name there because of his reliability in delivering consistently good performances.

Perhaps you might not be from Italy so you can't comment on the mindset of the Italian opera-goer. Maybe we have to wait for Signor Fiurezi-Maragioglio for that.

Did I get the mentality and mindset of the American opera-goer correct? I think you're one of them so you might be able to understand what I mean.

By the way, do you listen to Rossini or bel canto? I'm not referring to the staple operas like Lucia or Cenerentola or Barbiere. I'm referring to those operas off the beaten track like the trilogy of Tudor queen operas Sills revived, Armida, Ermione and all that. I look forward to hearing your opinion on style in singing Rossini and bel canto.

Yours sincerely

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, it is true that by and large opera is a star system here. Which begs the question of what makes a star. Probably largely a matter of marketing. Tough question, I honestly don't know the answer to that one!

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the article; this is another great singer, who was totally unknown to me. Definitely a rare and gorgeous voice. It is very clear, there are no unpleasant sounds in his timbre; it seems to me that his voice can be compared to Corelli’s. Judging by the video, he was an excellent Calaf and a good actor in general.
As for the subject of fame, star qualities and promotion , it seems to me that promotion is the most important thing). There are many great artists , who deserved much more fame than they had. Restrained manner may be another reason of lack of fame . Artists with huge temperament often become very popular even if their performances are less profound than those of .more restrained artists.
Anyway, Cecchele had everything to become an international star.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend. As usual, you are spot-on in your analysis. I agree totally with you--a good agent, with a genuine gift for career development, can do wonders. Also, the kind of things you and I--and a significant number of others--tend to respect most; i.e., a kind of dignified restraint that permits us a deeper look into the psychological composition of the character, is seen by many as boring, with the result that they prefer rug-chewing melodrama and playing to the gallery. Thanks for a superb comment.

DanPloy said...

Edmund, once again thank-you for drawing my attention to a tenor I knew nothing about at all; for some reason he has completely disappeared beneath my radar.

I don't think I know enough about singing to comment properly but I do tend agree with Mr. Seacliffe that I found something missing from his singing.

Perhaps the first Turandot aria shows my problem (and it probably is my problem) off best. I find the singing rather emotionless, rather studied. The top note at the end seems slightly divorced from the rest of the voice as if he was concentrating on the beauty of the tone, (and it is beautiful), rather than the text.

I had to turn to one of my favourite versions of the aria to try to explain what I thought was missing:

I don't think I can put it better than saying Cecchele has no 'sob' in his voice. I don't understand Italian but without knowing the aria I think I could guess what Cortis was singing about, (as a general idea of course), but I don't think I could do that with Cecchele.

He still deserved more recognition though, and thanks again Edmund.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Dan, for a characteristically thorough and thought-provoking comment. You have given me ideas to ponder.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of Bing Crosby and the "crooners"? It seems to me that they were the beginning of the enormous modern divide between "opera" and "pop/rock" singers. I apologise if this is the wrong place to ask this but I could not think of any other place to do it.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Actually, that's a very interesting question, because it was Crosby, along with some others, basically crooning baritones, who put the pop tenor phenomenon to rest--singers like Gene Austin and Allan Jones. Tenor crooners were never to appear again. I can remember back in the early 50's, there were singers with classical approaches to music (Mario Lanza being the most notable...and remember Helen Traubel on TV?) but it was the appearance of Elvis the King who did the job forever. Post-Elvis, the fragmentation of American singing was complete. The pop music phenomenon was permanently established as Rock. Those with classical interests went their own way. This is not all bad. To take our main interest here, which is opera, I think it safe to say that opera is in much better shape today than it ever was in America. Those with classical tastes have clustered: the "pop" audience for opera is gone, and the level of aesthetic taste has risen at the Met and elsewhere. Male altos have returned, big time, and 18th century opera is being performed again, and so forth. But I'm writing another article here.....not the right place! You comment is an interesting one, for sure.

Verdiwagnerite said...

Like many other of your readers - here is a name I had not heard before! Most interesting and the discussion is fascinating! What makes one singer's star shine more brightly than another's? How much of a part does luck play and being in the right place at the right time?
I don't know about Cecchele but maybe he didn't want to leave his home to work in the US. Not everyone is as ambitious as, say Pavarotti or Domingo. I had to mention the two rather large elephants in the room, sorry!

I can't help wondering if the management at the Met might have been reluctant to try some other equally fine tenors because it knew it could easily fill the house when Pavarotti or Domingo were singing but maybe not with lesser known singers? Oh, and didn't they charge more for tickets when the "stars" were singing? I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Of course it should also be noted that in the 70's and 80's there was an "embarras de richesses" of fine tenors including Corelli, Bergonzi, Carreras, Gedda etc. What am I thinking - you know them all, Edmund!

No one would have to twist my arm to live in Italy with the operatic tradition, the art galleries, architecture and the food!

Edmund St. Austell said...

You make extremely good points, Kate. I think the "embarrassment of riches" is a very potent one, and one I did not think to mention. Thank you for that! That is certainly a very major part of it. The presence of Corelli in the US is the major reason Giacomini did not sing here much. I have heard that the Met offered him the chance to do the big dramatic roles that Corelli could not do because of scheduling, etc., but Giacomini did not--to his credit--like the sound of being an substitute for Corelli! That would be like the time someone referred to Gigli as Caruso Two. Gigli replied, "I would rather be Gigli One than Caruso Two. And how right he was! Basically, I think you have hit the nail on the head: We had Corelli, Pavarotti, Domingo, all starts, all big draws, and Cecchele seemed happy in Italy, where he was busy being "Ceccele One," and not "Pavarotti Two."(I should mention, incidentally, that Pavarotti was not nearly as popular in Italy as he was here. In fact, he was flat-out disliked by many.) I think all those factors, taken together, pretty much explain it. Excellent comment! Thank you, Kate.

Verdiwagnerite said...

Thanks for your great response, Edmund. I find this topic endlessly fascinating. Gigli's comment is priceless, too. Good on him! It must have been hard to carve out a niche after Caruso.

Let's not forget that important element (besides the voice, of course) - a singer's ego, fragile or otherwise. Not to be underestimated.

I had heard before what you said about Giacomini not wanting to play second fiddle to Corelli. Also to Domingo with Otello, I believe?

Keep up the great posts, Edmund.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend!

Verdiwagnerite said...

Edmund, another fine voice (tenor) of the same vintage but much different origin -Zurab Sotkilava - I heard his voice for the first time yesterday.
Another great voice to come out of Eastern Europe (Georgia, I believe?) I believe, also that like many others he started off thinking he was a baritone.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you! You have me there....I don't know him, but be assured I will check him out! Thanks again.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Edmund, Zurab Solitkiva might be a good tenor but this tenor I've got to recommend was once known as the Russian Corelli. Gioacchino really enjoyed his singing very much..I'm sure you'll get the same sensation from his singing as he was able to derive.
(Watch as Anzhaparidze pulls the stops out in this duet)

Can you help me get this across to Kate on my behalf? Thanks


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Darren, I'll listen to it shortly.

Klootchman said...

I came to Edmund's post through an internet search for Cecchele. Thank you all for your thoughtful contributions.

CDs of I Vespri Siciliani with Cecchele and Martina Arroyo are on their way. From eBay, there are more as I write.

I hope no-one minds that inclusion. I have never heard I Vespri Siciliani performed live in North America where I live. I've heard it on the CBC, and Sirius satellite radio.

Why is I Vespri Siciliani so rarely performed here? Or is that a subject for another day?


Edmund St. Austell said...

How very nice to hear from you, Ann! Welcome to Great Opera Singers. I Vespri Siciliani was originally done in French, and debuted at the Paris in the mid-19th century, somewhere around 1850. It never managed to grip the Parisian public, however, and was soon abandoned (at the Paris Opera) for a French version of Il Trovatore, which was more successful. Thereafter, the opera was almost always performed in Italian, in Italy and elsewhere, but it slowly faded from the repertoire. It is, like The Duke of Alba, a very 19th century piece, and it just never got hold of the opera going public. It is seldom performed today.

Klootchman said...

Thank you Edmund,

I've been an opera aficianado since before I was born. Raised on CBC Radio "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera" which, I heard on CBC, is the longest-running continuous broadcast in the world. It was broadcast before the CBC was the CBC. Please do fact-check me on this!

I'm listening to I Vespri Siciliani as I write. I must say, eBay has been very good to me. I purchased the EJS Golden Age of Opera I Vespri Siciliani vinyl, and the DVD of another rarely-performed personal favourite, Nabucco. I saw Nabucco live at the Met in November last year.

Not until I played the DVD did I realize, much to my delight, that the DVD is of the performance with the encore of Va, pensierio.

Thank you for sharing your operatic journeys with us.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article, Gianfranco is my uncle and (unfortunately) I've never had the opportunity to see him perform. The examples of his work you've linked to are excellent and has renewed my enthusiasm to see him perform live.

robert stone said...

The version of Cecchele singing in Cavalleria Rusticana with Karajan conducting is my personal favourite and can also be found on YouTube, in colour and with good audio. To me, he fits my image of Turridu perfectly!

Unknown said...

He has become a favorite of mine! Thank you for posting this article about.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment; I appreciate it!

Teacher Alejandro said...

Thanks for all this information. I "discovered" for me and my family this Gianfranco Cecchele, and he bacame instantly one of my "all time favorite tenors", together with Gigli, Caruso, Björling, Di'Steffano, Schipa, Fleta, Wünderlich, Ramón Vargas, Rolando Villazón,and of course Corelli.
Thanks again.

adw3rd said...

It says quite a lot that he was chosen to sing opposite arguable the greatest Turandot, vocally, of all time, and with the incredible contribution of Petre, making perhaps the greatest over all performance we will probably ever witness. What a thrill to have discovered this performance, and this Tenor. Now to go listen to that Karajan Cav performance!

Jeffrey Roberts said...

I enjoyed the Cecchele article. An underrated singer. I especially enjoy the Karajan Cavelleria Rusticana film. That SHOULD have been a star making performance! But he had a good career and is worthy of our attention.