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Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Great Neapolitan Tenor Francesco Albanese


Francesco Albanese was born in Torre del Greco, Naples, and was a popular lyric tenor, known not only for his work in opera, but as one of the greatest singers of Neapolitan song.  His life and career were almost entirely in Italy, although he did sing in London, Portugal and South America.  As a result, his work was largely within the Italian repertoire,  but that of course is a very large part of opera!   He did not, to the best of my knowledge, ever sing in the United States.  We have an unfortunate tendency in the US to think that Italian singers who never sang here were  unsuccessful or unimpressive.  That is a silly kind of chauvinism, of course; nothing could be further from the truth.  He in fact had a very good career, and is greatly respected today.

His first studies were in Rome, with Francesco Salfi, and it was there that he made his debut, at the Teatro dell'Opera, in Gluck's Alceste  His early repertoire was to become his characteristic repertoire, which is leggiero, or light lyric roles, such as Almaviva, Fenton, Rinuccio, Ottavio, Ramiro, Ernesto (Don Pasquale), Armida, Alfredo and Nemorino.

He recorded both Ifigenia in Tauride, (1957) and La Traviata (early 50's )  opposite Maria Callas.

It was not only in opera that Albanese had a good career.  For lovers of Neapolitan music, Albanese is commonly considered one of the greatest of all singers of Neapolitan songs, which have a remarkable history all their own.  As I always hasten to point out, whenever I speak of Neapolitan songs, there is a great misconception about what they are.  It seems, for example, that nearly every operatic tenor and baritone on earth feels obliged to sing these songs, whether or not they know anything about Naples, its language, literature, or musical history.  As a result of this, many of the songs are done poorly.  In fact, the Neapolitan song has a style all its own,  because these songs have a long history and in their earliest iterations, they were art songs, much more restrained and dignified in tone than they now often appear in the hands of many singers. Further, they were, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a principle means of instructing a large and unlettered populace in Neapolitan cultural and literary history--they served as a kind of instruction in napolitanità ; which is to say in what it meant to be Neapolitan.  Therefore, a great familiarity with Naples, its music, its political history,  its language and its literature is required to do them well.  Several names come immediately to mind, including Fernando de Lucia—still the all-time favorite tenor of many Neapolitans—modern singers Roberto Murolo and Aurelio Fierro, and of course Francesco Albanese.

I think it's possible to get a good idea of just what a fine singer Albanese was by listening to him sing one of the most popular of all Neapolitan songs, Dicitencello Vuje.  When I posted this on Youtube, I included the lyrics, and translated them from Neapolitan into English.  It makes it possible to follow the song carefully.

Isn't that just absolutely wonderful!  That is what a Neapolitan song is supposed to sound like.  The first thing you will notice is that it is completely devoid of shouting, moaning, groaning, glycerin tears or schlock.  It is in fact as well constructed, singable and  dignified as many a Schubert Lied, making allowance for the theme of romance expressed in a Latin way and in a Latin language.  Of course, these tonal differences will be expressed in ways particular to both cultures, but that says nothing about the quality of the artistry, just the intrinsic nature of the different cultures, languages, and peoples.  You can hear the same differences in political or scientific discussions or speeches.  On the same Youtube page where this song appears, you can find, in the right hand sidebar, the same song "sung" by the Three Tenors.  I don't recommend it:-)

As for opera, here is "Parigi, o Cara....," from La Traviata, with Maria Callas:

Notice the restraint and the elegance of his singing.  This is classy singing, there is no doubt about it, and very much against stereotype.  I would contend that this is exactly the quality I find in the Neapolitan songs he sings, and one of the major reasons he sings them so authentically and beautifully.  A first class tenor, and a credit to Italian music!


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pol Plançon, French Basse Chantante

Pol Plançon was born in Fumay, France, in 1851.  Because so large a part of his life and career was in the 19th century, during the 80's and 90's, he is properly seen as an exemplar of 19th century singing, and most especially of 19th century French singing, with its many refinements.

Plançon's teachers were the famous tenor Gilbert Duprez and Giovanni Sbriglia, who also numbered among his students the de Reszke brothers, Jean and Édouward.  His debut was in 1877, in Lyon, in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots.  His rise was quite rapid, and in short order he was singing in Paris, both at the Théâtre de la Gaîté Lyrique (1880) and the Paris Opera, where his debut (1883) was Faust, an opera that was to become one of his most frequently performed, as Mephistopheles quicklybecame a signature role for him.  He would spend 10 years at the Paris Opera,  where he participated in several premieres,  including Le Cid, and Saint-Saëns's Ascanio.  He also sang at Covent Garden, to general acclaim, during the early 1890's.  He continued to add new roles to his repertoire, including Massenet's La Navarraise, Lalo's Le roi d'Ys, and Massenet's Hérodiade.  Plançon did not neglect the standard repertoire, and during the peak of his career he could be seen in  Aida, Fidelio, Die Meistersinger, Mefistofele, The Damnation of Faust, and Martha.  He only avoided those roles that required anything approaching  roughness or—especially—buffoonery, as he was, above all else, debonair and elegant—the ultimate bel canto singer, with extraordinary vocal and aesthetic refinements at his command, including a perfect trill, and a remarkable ability to sing fioratura and rapid cadenzas.  These abilities and refinements are almost never seen in basses.  Plançon's Metropolitan Opera debut was 1893, in Gounod's Philémon and Baucis.  He sang at the Met until 1908, in over 600 performances.  He retired from the stage in 1908 and returned to Paris, where he gave lessons.  He died at age 63, in 1914.

The first recording I have chosen is a truly extraordinary record of bel canto bass singing.  It shows the essential Plançon gifts:  Absolutely immaculate French, with every syllable perfectly clearly pronounced; smooth and elegant vocalism, supporting a musically perfect style, and, from the middle of the recording to the end, what I believe are unique examples of rapid cadenzas and fioratura executed by a bass.  If you do not know Plançon, and this is the first example  of his singing you have heard, keep an open mind!  Those among us who have been raised in the verismo era of giant-voiced, roof-shaking Russian basses are in for a surprise at this example of an elegant French bel canto artist singing 108 years ago! :

Now isn't that something!  You can see, right away, why he is the darling of bel canto lovers.  This is one of the important examples of 19th century bel canto singing, recorded in 1904, when Plançon would have been 53 years old. His was not a huge or even large voice, yet he could be heard perfectly well (as most bel canto artists could be) even in large theaters such as the Met, which even back then was a large house.  It isn't size that accounts for carrying power, it is, and always has been, focus.  And of that he had enough.

This next recording is a gem, and my own personal favorite of Plançon's recorded arias.  It is not easy to think of this voice as a Verdi bass, and yet his performance of this aria from Verdi's Don Carlos is so good, and so sensitively done, that it is absolutely heart-rending.  Don Carlos, known in Italian as Don Carlo, was originally written in French, and Verdi intended it to be a big 5-act French opera.  This aria, which we know today from the later Italian version as "Ella giammai m'amò,"  ("She never loved me") has to be one of the saddest things ever written, and when it is sung by a consummate artist like Plançon, as opposed to being sung in the many window-shattering renditions by huge basses, one actually feels the excruciating painfulness of the lyrics:

Not much I can add to that!  Sigh..................

Finally, a non-operatic selection.  The season now being fairly close to hand, here is his delicate and beautiful rendition of O Holy Night:

Pol Plançon, clearly one of a kind!