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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Neil Shicoff: A Great Americn Tenor

Neil Shicoff was born in  Brooklyn in 1949, the son of New York cantor Sidney Shicoff.  He was precocious, and took advantage, from a young age, of the opportunity to take lessons from his father, and was also both willing and (certainly) able to take  advantage of such opportunities as presented themselves around New York and elsewhere to sing small parts, even prior to acquiring conservatory training .  He sang, for example, with Tony Amato’s opera company in New York, and also in the Santa Fe Opera.  Later, he formalized his training at the Juilliard School.  His first opportunity to sing in a major opera venue came in 1975, when he appeared at the Cincinnati Summer Opera, singing the title role in Verdi’s Ernani under James Levine.  It was clear from this point on that this was a major talent; an extraordinary, Italianate tenor voice, uncommonly possessed of an intense squillo and passionate Mediterranean inflexion that was perfectly suited to the French/Italian repertoire. 

The following year, in 1976, Shicoff made his debut at the Met as Rinuccio in Gianni Schicci, also conducted by Maestro Levine.  The success was considerable, and this debut performance was followed in rapid succession by Werther, Rosenkavalier, Boheme and Rigoletto.  His singing was praised for its stylistic authenticity and his musicianship for its precision and careful preparation.  The progress of the career was steady until a tricky period in the 1980’s, when problems not uncommon to even the most greatly talented of artists caused a detour for several years.  Shicoff decided to leave America for a while and work abroad, where he sang in all the great opera houses of Europe and built for himself a significant European reputation, which endures to this day.  He returned to the US in 1997, with a return engagement at the Met of Eugene Onegin, which was very successful.

It is from that year, 1997, that our first recording comes, one I just recently posted on Youtube.  Here is Neil Shicoff, with soprano Galina Gorchakova, in “O Dolci Mani,” from Tosca.  I believe you will immediately hear the squillo and Italianate inflexion of which I have spoken.  It is quite rare for an American tenor:

That certainly speaks tomes about the extraordinary voice and singing of Neil Schicoff!  To say that this is an Italianate voice is gross understatement!  This is a great opera voice, without doubt.  It is of course not the case that he only sings in Italian.   Shicoff’s singing of the French repertoire is every bit as spectacular, and in fact some roles, such as Werther, are among his most famous.  Here is “Pourquoi Me Reveiller”:  (You might need to overlook the plastic fish-tackle box on stage, and the questionable acting of the soprano, who seems from time to time to be slipping into ecstasies of romantic passion while he reads what is in fact a declaration of suicidal despair.)

I honestly believe that it is simply impossible to fault this in any way:  the voice, the style, the passion, the inflexions…..simply stunning!  This is great singing!

Finally, one of the most heart-breakingly authentic, well-acted and well-sung renditions of Eleazar’s great aria, “Rachel, quand du seigneur,” that you are likely ever to hear:

What can I possbly add?  This is a great American tenor, in whom all opera-loving Americans can take pride!





Sunday, May 5, 2013

Lawrence Brownlee: A Great Bel Canto Tenor

This is another blog in which I am going to have to excuse myself at the beginning for not being able to be objective, such is my admiration for Lawrence Brownlee.  So, be advised!

I cannot tell you how often people have expressed to me their genuine and heartfelt desire that bel canto would come back.  I think many of us feel that we more or less burned out on verismo in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.  Giant-voiced dramatic tenors, for example—Corelli, Del Monaco, Giacomini,  are great—we all love them—but, the general feeling is, it would be nice to mix a few Giglis and Schipas in there too!  Never too much of a problem with the female voices, as they seem infinitely adaptable, but tenors are another matter.  Thus the general feelings run.  However, the more one thinks about it, the less clear it all becomes.  I don’t think most people want verismo to go away—that’s not the point—they just want it accompanied by a nice mix of old good fashioned elegant singing characteristic of opera from long ago.  Enter  Sutherland, Pavarotti, Richard Bonynge, Marilyn Horne and Bellini, some years back, and things began to change.  All of a sudden, singers who were not themselves, by any means, delicate little mini-voiced “bel canto” singers per se began to bring back the high romanticism of the early 19th century and all of sudden the landscape began to change.  This was followed, fairly quickly, by a truly unexpected phenomenon: the return, after 200 years, of the very high voiced male singer. While we were mercifully spared the return of the castrati, we did get male altos and sopranos who sing every bit as well, and, I suspect, far better than most of their 18th  century progenitors (aesthetically speaking, I don’t think the unfortunate castrati, poor devils,  did much actual progeneratingJ.)  Now we have a landscape that is totally different, and I Pagliacci,, Cavalleria Rusticana, Aida and Andrea Chenier have very little choice except to share the stage with L’italiana in Algeri, La Cenerentola, Il Viaggio a Reims, Armida, and many others of that kind and period.  Not to mention the even older 18th century works where the male altos and sopranos now get a chance to shine.  So it’s all back, in force!  I, for one, rejoice.  Let us have it all—from Aida to Europa Riconosciuta and everything in between!

Into this new operatic world came Lawrence Brownlee!  His is a genuinely American story. Born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1972, he came up through the American university system, largely Indiana University at Bloomington.  From there it was on to young artists’ programs at Seattle and Wolf Trap, and, in 2002, his professional debut in the Barber of Seville at the Virginia Opera.  His rise, in a heavily bel canto repertoire, was fairly quick, and by 2007 he had made a Metropolitan Opera debut in a then-new production of the Barber. 

Brownlee’s voice is so spectacularly good (and high!) that he soon found himself singing around the world, from Madrid to Tokyo to Milan!  From the famous Barber which launched him at the Met, he soon added L’italiana in Algeri, La fille du rĂ©giment, and others.  Brownlee is a currently popular and performing artist, and we need not say much here of his life, other than to say that outside opera he is a prolific concertizer.

Lawrence Brownlee’s is one of those voices that speaks for itself.  He is as good as any leggiero tenor in the world, and better than most.  Here is a superb “A te, o cara”:

It is hard, verging on impossible, to imagine this classic bel canto tenor aria being sung better!  I have no problem whatsoever comparing this to the greatest renditions ever recorded, including that of Giacomo Lauri Volpi, one of my own personal favorites and easily one of the greatest tenors of all time.  Brownlee is that good!  The smoothness of the voice, purity of the legato, and the easy range—I assume you noticed this was in the original key and that is a genuine C#!—is almost beyond belief.  He is also extremely musical.  This is tenor singing of an extraordinarily high degree.

Here is the tenor tour-de-force “Ah! Mes Amis!” from The Daughter of the Regiment:  Brace yourself for 9 high C's, the last one of which brings down the house!

I find it increasingly difficult to to analyse anything so perfectly done.  Nine high C’s, the final one of which is beyond spectacular!  I suppose the thing that is most remarkable to me is the fact that this is a real tenor.  There is no forcing of the top here at all.  This is his natural range, and the repertoire, impossible for most, is completely appropriate for him.  Few tenors can sing this easily in this range.  Even in the day when this music written, few if any tenors were expected to sing  full voice on such high notes.  It was common to sing them in falsetto.  How the composers’ jaws would have dropped if they could have heard Brownlee or other great bel canto tenors we have today such as Juan Diego Florez, who is equally spectacular in this repertoire.  Opera lovers have been yearning for decades to have singers like this, and now we have them!  And Brownlee is one of the very best….perhaps the very best.  I won’t get into that discussion, because it is hopeless, but the question, at least, is legitimately raised.

Finally, an aria outside the leggiero bel canto repertoire, at least of the kind we have seen, and from what is most commonly considered  the more nearly standard lyric repertoire— the famous aria from the Pearl Fishers, “Je crois entendre encore”:

What is immediately apparent is the stylistic switch that Brownlee accomplishes.  Even his deportment as he stands and sings is different; more restrained, more elegantly presentational, in the older school of concertizing.  It is immediately elegant; the French is excellent, the tessiture high but restrained, and the style is post high romantic and more modern.  It all works very well, and it is worth noting that even with the above restraints, he still sings the aria in a higher key than most tenors do.  That is a near-sfocato high C at the end, of the Di Stefano kind, which puts the aria in a rarer mode than that in which it is most commonly presented. 

There is no question about it.  This is a great tenor, all the way around, and one in which America can be justifiably proud!