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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Nicolai Gedda: An Epicure's Taste And A Great Favorite

Nicolai Gedda was born in Stockholm in 1925.  He was from early youth bilingual in Swedish and Russian, and went on to learn important world languages on his own.  He was, as a result, possessed of a great linguistic versatility during his career and sang convincingly in many languages.  Gedda is an extremely famous tenor and his biography is so easily consulted, that I need say only a few words by way of introduction.

After some introductory vocal study with Carl Martin Öhman, a  Wagnerian tenor from the 1920s, Gedda—as characteristically happens—drew almost immediate attention to himself.  His voice was large for a lyric tenor, and he always had an amazing and utterly reliable top, capable of singing above high C.  After understudying Giuseppe di Stefano at the Edinburgh Festival around 1951, he debuted with the royal Swedish Opera in Adam's Le Postillon de Lonjumeau, where he had ample opportunity to display his very high voice.  He attracted the attention of von Karajan in 1953, and his La Scala debut took place in 1953.   The role was Don Ottavio, and Gedda quickly became identified as an absolutely superb Mozart tenor.  After la Scala came the Paris Opera in 1954 and the Met in 1957.  By then, the career was international, and was to become one of the great careers in opera.  He was at the Met for 26 years, and performed 28 roles there, including all the famous "bread and butter roles."  People often mistakenly think of him primarily in terms of the French repertoire, but in fact his repertoire was very broad, including the big Italian roles and Russian roles as well.

I think the first thing that merits listening to is his "Il Mio Tesoro" from Mozart's Don Giovanni.  A well known New York opera coach once told me something that I have never forgotten:  "Everybody likes the big Mozart tenor arias, like "Il mio tesoro," but they don't want to hear them sung by a church tenor."  So very true!  This is where Gedda shone.  He sings this Mozart aria with the same verbal gusto he would use to sing arias from the standard Italian or French repertoire.  The result is one of the most viril renderings of the aria ever recorded, while remaining true to Mozart and to the essential stylistics and musicality of the piece:

That is an "Il mio tesoro" to be proud of!  The audience response at the end of this tape, which is a live Met performance, tells the story.  It is one of the most enthusiastic applaudings of the piece that I have ever heard.  I heard him in concert, in 1961, sing this aria, and I was stunned by the amount of voice he put into it.  His was a big voice, and he made it work beautifully in Mozart.  It was stunning.  I have never forgotten it!

This does not mean that Gedda always sang lyric arias with great vocal  energy—not at all.  Here is an exemplary "Je crois entendre encore:"

Isn't that just beautiful!  This is Gedda in a characteristic French mode that became something of a calling card for him.  It is perhaps because of singing like this, in French, that he developed the reputation of being something like a French tenor.  He was not, of course, but he did handle the language beautifully, and his elegance and sense of style—coupled with an innate musicality—contributed considerably to that notion.

Finally, an aria not commonly asociated with Gedda, but one which he sings very well indeed.  The great perennial favorite "A te, o cara," here recorded at La Scala, where he was quite popular.  He sings it beautifully, and it provides a good vehicle for his high voice, which—considering its size—was somewhat miraculous. (I can testify to the size of the voice!)  Notice that he sings it in the original key, so the high note is  a C#. Gedda was at home, however, in this stratospheric range:

And there you have it!  A great tenor, a great stylist, a very reliable, very high tenor voice, always under control.  For many people, and all things considered, this was a tenor for the ages!


JD Hobbes said...

I heard him sing in the 1960's at a college in Ohio. What you say is true. He was excellent!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes. Yes, he did a lot of concertizing. He was another of those great singers of the period that you could actually hear outside of major cities. In the 60's he would still have been at his peak. You heard him at a good time. I heard him rehearsing at the Cincinnati Conservatory back in 1957. That big, mellow voice just filled the entire auditorium.

corax said...

another great post. you were the one, many years ago now, who made me listen anew to gedda -- the early gedda. for a long time i only knew the recordings from the end of his life, and these do not show him to his best advantage. but the earlier career is just as you say. splendid.

Edmund St. Austell said...

How nice to hear from you again, my dear friend! Yes, I remember our earlier conversations about Gedda (my it really in the "many years ago now" category) and you point out the essential thing one needs to realize about Gedda. He did a vast amount of concertizing and recording toward the end of his career, and the decline, inevitably, began to show. The video today that shows him at his most wonderful early stage is the Pearl Fishers aria. That is just ravishing, and that is Gedda at the very beginning of his career. Just wonderful! Thanks again for the comment!

JD Hobbes said...

Well, you brought Gedda back to my memory, so I listened to his "Je crois entendre encore" several times. Then I listend to Gigli's version. I must say I still have to prefer Gigli's. It remains my favorite. There is a lyric sweetness--a honey-like quality to his voice--that transcends all.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Of the three videos, I feel that the best was still the ravishingly beautiful and elegant Serenade from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. Such beauty and refinement makes Gedda's version comparable to those made by his French contemporaries like Vanzo.

I feel that Gedda was strongest in the French and German lyric tenor repertoire. His elegant and beautiful singing stands him good stead in these operas such as Flotow's Martha, Gounod's Faust, etc. It's a pity he had to move into some operas his voice wasn't really suited for like Puritani in order to keep up his career. You couldn't do much if you could sing just French and German lyric operas alone back then.

For the I Puritani aria..I'm certain Gedda did do his best..the elegance and the smoothness are typical of him but he seems to have found it difficult to reach the high notes. His voice got really strained when he reached the top.

I'm sorry to say that I didn't like the Mozart aria. He sounded really crude and loud in it. I think he can certainly do much better than that.

I always believe that the aria should be sung in a gentle and sweet way, which is what great Don Ottavios like Dermota and or Alva, for instance, did. It's true that he becomes more emotional and touching if he raises the volume and adds on to the power but in the end, it just compromises the beauty of the song. Mozart isn't verismo..

Verdiwagnerite said...

Wonderful post, Edmund, about an incredibly versatile tenor. He sings the Pearl fishers aria with great control - so quietly. Is that "mezza voce"? I've heard the term used but not sure if it applies to the way Gedda sings this aria?

It might take me a couple of listens to get used to the robust style of "Il mio tesoro" but that's no hardship! I like the comment about Mozart tenors sounding (or not in this case) like choristers - that's so true!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, my friends. Kate, yes, a superb mezza-voce that works very well indeed. That recording was made when he first started singing in public. Helps explain why he made such a big impression so quickly! Mr. Hobbes--yes, probably true. You have chosen a tough standard when you compare him to Gigli, considered by (very) many to be the greatest tenor of all time! But still, it's fair to compare! Darren, I share your enthusiasm for his very lyric work in Pearl Fishers. It is superb indeed, and yes, he was most highly regarded for his French, German, and even Russian work. I cannot agree about Il mio tesoro. It is very easy to emasculate Mozart, and the tenency for much of the 20th century was to put some vigor back in the music. I would invite you to reflect on what great sopranos have done with "Or sai che l'onore" or, from Cosi Fan Tutte, "Come scoglio." Verismo is as much a dramatic or thematic concept as it is a musical one. It is possible to sing Mozart dramatically and still have it be Mozart. Remember the situation. Ottavio is off to get the Papal Nunzio, to bring some law and order onto the scene, and go after the murderer of the commendatore. This is highly dramatic stuff. I remember seeing a production in Germany where the Commendatore, at the Ball Scene, takes Don Giovanni's hand, and singing "Give me your hand, don Giovanni," the whole stage burst into flames. They had lowered a rear projection scrim prior to the opening of the curtain for that act. You couldn't see it until the rear projector came on, projecting flames. The audience went wild. It was a great production. This kind of thinking has informed most of 20th century Mozart. Most tenors, especially very good ones, do not like to sing Ottavio unless they can put some vigor into's possible to wimp out big time on a role like that. Mozart stood on the cusp of Romanticism. Had he lived a few more years, his music would have begun to resemble that of Beethoven. One wants to take care, imho, not to emasculate the inherent vigor of great music on the verge of evolution.

Anonymous said...

Gedda was a true bless. A bit underrated, he might surprise you when you look at his recordings through his long and top class career.
My favourite role of Gedda is interpreting Faust. He really excels at this particular role, in my opinion.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, his Faust was a classic, and a role with which he is often associated. I saw him sing Salut demeure in concert once, and remembering it brings a smile to my face. I remember how he nailed the high C and came out with a fantastic note, but his face turned bright red as he held it. This is man who put a LOT of voice and effort into his singing. No half measures from the great Gedda! Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article and for the excellent recordings. I saw his biography (in Russian) in a bookshop ; he wrote that some people thought that at the beginning of his career his voice sounded ‘effeminate’, and he worked a lot to make his sound more ‘masculine’. Judging by “je crois entendre encore” , he sounded beautifully in those years, though less virile than in “Il mio tesoro’ recording. I wanted to ask “Is that "mezza voce"?, but Kate already had done it :) Beautiful mezza-voce and the voice in general. His high notes are extraordinary. As I understand, Gedda had all the qualities tenors can dream about. Besides, he is an intellectual and a brilliant stylist.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Oh, yes. Well done! Great commment, you hit all the essential issues, and you are exactly right. Those are the essential ingredients for a great tenor career! Thank you!

Darren Seacliffe said... theory, the lyric tenor singing Don Ottavio should be more dramatic when he sings the aria 'Il mio tesoro' but I still believe that the elegance of the song should not be compromised for dramatic effect.

That's an interesting comment, Edmund. Are there any examples of these Don Ottavios which infuse vigour into their performances?

Well, everybody has their individual tastes and preferences. I've been so used to hearing wimps sing the role that my impression of Don Ottavio ends up becoming a wimp. I feel that can be justified.

As for the wimpish approach, Don Ottavio was assuring Donna Anna that he'll get the Papal Nuncio to rein in Don Giovanni, rather than promising her. After all, in the end, he didn't bring the Papal Nuncio along when he came to Don Giovanni's place after he descended into Hell. Besides, why should he wait till the last moment to bring in the Papal Nuncio if he could have done so earlier? He could have called him after the Ball or after the Commendatore was murdered.

Hmm..I believe that if Mozart had not died early, he probably would have gone on into Romanticism too but I don't think he could have captured as much imagination in his Romantic works as Beethoven did. Don't forget that one of the reasons why Beethoven was able to come up with such powerful Romantic works was because of the emotional and personal problems he was having during this period.

For Gedda's Russian work, I've no right to be critical, myself, since I'm not a Russian, but I feel that something escapes me when I listen to Western performances of Russian operas, even if some of the singers actually do speak the language.

I've talked with a number of people, who tell me that there is a certain Russianness in Russian operas which only a native Russian opera singer can bring out of the opera. I'm told that that is where the appeal of the operas lies.

Perhaps this is the reason why Gergiev's recordings of the staple Russian operas at the Kirov, like Mazeppa and War and Peace, were better received than recordings or performances made in the West.

DanPloy said...

Whilst admiring the technical competency of Gedda and the beauty of tone, I have never warmed to him in the way I have to other tenors. I don't think I can explain why, but I will try.

Let me pick a comparison, Tagliavini:

One thing to note is that Tagliavini's version is 40 seconds longer, a remarkable 20%. But the thing that I cannot describe is that somehow Gedda is óutside' the character. I believe Tagliavini is troubled, I believe his character. Small interruptions in the tone, (I guess away from what was written), provide the subtle outlet for his emotions.

Gedda's version does not inhabit the character in the same way. It is not emotionless, but the emotion comes from the beauty of the singing which is not entireless appropriate, there should also be regret in the singing and beauty alone cannot convey that.

oh night enchantress
divine rapture
delightful thought
mad intoxication, sweet dream

Sorry for the ramble.

There is such a fine line between madness and genius:

Edmund St. Austell said...

A most interesting comment, Dan, very thought provoking. You touch on that magic quality that is sometimes described as "star" quality, which is somehow related to conviction. I can't describe what it is, but I too feel it when it is there. Tagliavini is a good example...audiences absolutely loved him--and people still do admire his recordings--even though he had a small voice, barely operatic. Somehow, he got it..he inhabited that magic land where beauty dwells. Very mysterious. Others had it too...people like Callas and Di Stefano. Many of the greats, and it isn't just a question of's something else. Fascinating observation! Thank you.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Back up to Darren: I cannot really dispute your points, as they are to a large extent aesthetic choices (and perfectly reasonable ones!) and it is common to disagree on such matters. Certainly the majority of performances reflect your preferred aesthetic, it's just that I hear something else trying to break out in the music. It is also worth remembering that Mozart had to work with castrati a lot, whom he is known to have disliked. He may have felt only a modest commitment to their characters within his plots. That much is hard to say. Anyway, your points are rock-solid, even if I take a slightly different appraoch. No problems there:-) Thanks again...your comments are always well thought out and highly informative.

G Fiurezi Maragioglio said...

I awaited keenly the article about Nicolai Gedda, Edmund, and you have not disappointed.

Absolutely, there is no doubt that Gedda's vocal matter is of superior quality, particularly with acuti, although lacking squillo.

It is a big statement, I know, and perhaps pointless, but it seems to me with Gedda we see at least a small part of what the great Nourrit could have been like. Certainly Gedda could sing even higher: I remember his HIGH F from Puritani.

It almost seems appropriate to call Gedda a dramatic tenor, in the pre-romantic sense of the word. Obviously his attempts at Don Alvaro were not successful, and his Arrigo in I Vespri Siciliani often failed to ride the orchestra: is not a spinto or "romantic" dramatic tenor. But in the pre-romantic composers, I really think he gives us what that old type of "dramatic" tenor used to be, before the do di petto of Gilbert Duprez.

I think, however, comparison of Gedda to Nourrit makes it clear just what a great, great tenor Gedda was.

Edmund St. Austell said...

What a wonderful, incisive comment! There is nothing I can add to that; I can only learn! Thank you so much for your great contributions to this blog, my friend. Your knowledge of opera singers and operatic history is stunning, and so very much appreciated!

The Balch said...

I don't think I really appreciated "Je crois entendre encore" until now. His mezzavoce is really lovely.

Has anyone here read his autobiography? He seems very articulate in interviews. If it's well-written, I would imagine one could get all kinds of useful information from it.

His command of language is mind-boggling. I heard a recording of him singing in the Messiah, with Otto Klemperer conducting. Not only is the tempo agonizingly slow, but his English accent is better than most of my family members!

I'm really surprised that he studied with a Wagnerian. His timbre is certainly robust, but how in the world did he develop such an expansive range, and such impressive agility?

I have all sorts of other questions that I'm not sure I want to bother the rest of your readers with. Is there a way for me to correspond with you directly?

Edmund St. Austell said...

My email address is

Not sure I could answer your questions, but I'd be happy to render an opinion, at least:-)

Anonymous said...

Off topic: Are you planning to write about Veriano Luchetti and Ferrucio Tagliavani? Two fantastic italian tenors who never got the credit they deserved.
In case someone doesn't know them

A live performance of Veriano Luchetti

Edmund St. Austell said...

I have a piece on Tagliavini. Just go the upper left hand corner of the main page, in the search bar, and type in Ferruccio Tagliavini: The Heavenly Voice.

Re Luchetti---not yet, stay tuned!

Gerhard Santos said...

GREAT POST! Such a very useful article. Very interesting to read this article.I would like to thank you for the efforts you had made for writing this awesome article. Thank you and Good night! * GOD BLESS*

Mark Giugovaz said...

WOW! I had a bad experience with Gedda in I Vespri Siciliani at the Met years ago. It must have been an off-night in such a hard and heavy role. He was screaming his head off by the end of the night. But that wasn't his natural repertoire, and judging by those records you've presented in those roles that most suited him he didn't have much competition. Really liking this blog. It is unique, there's a lot of opera trash written by people who don't know anything about it. Thanks Mark