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Friday, June 28, 2013

The Great Marcella Sembrich

Marcella Sembrich  (1858 – 1935) was the stage name of the Polish coloratura soprano, Prakseda Marcelina Kochańska. She was born  in Wisniewczyk, then part of Austria, and now part of Ukraine. She first studied violin and piano with her father, and later she entered the Lemberg Conservatory and studied piano with her future husband Wilhelm Stengel . She was able to enter the Vienna Conservatory in 1875. It was soon discovered that her voice was exceptional, and she dedicated herself exclusively to voice from then on.  She made her operatic debut at the relatively tender age of 19 in Athens, as Elvira in I Puritani, in 1877.  She was engaged shortly thereafter by the Vienna Opera, but due to pregnancy she broke the contract. Later, after the birth of her first son, she had to wait for another opportunity and was finally hired as a guest artist at the Dresden Royal Opera House in September, 1878, as Lucia. Her success was immediate and she was dubbed the "Polish Patti." She remained in Dresden for two years, but decided to act boldly—in order to make up for lost time—and broke her Dresden contract and began concertizing on her own, in order to raise money.  She managed to get to London, and after a successful audition was accepted at Covent Garden, where she was quick to sign a contract with them. She created quite a sensation in her 1880 debut there in Lucia.

 Emboldened by her success, she broke her London contract two years early and came to the United States in 1883 to make her Met debut, also as Lucia.  From there it was on to St. Petersburg, and eventually back to the Met in 1898, where she finally settled.  She remained there until 1909, having given over 400 performances.  She concertized for years, finally retiring after WWI.  From then on, she dedicated herself to teaching, in important conservatories.  She was very successful as a teacher, and had significant influence. Among her students were the great Alma Gluck, Hulda Lashanska,  a successful concert singer, coloratura soprano (and novelist!) Queena Mario, and dramatic soprano Dusolina Giannini, who had a very successful international career.  Also among her students was radio vocalist and concertizer Conrad Thibault, who studied with her at Curtis, and who told the distinguished musical biographer James A. Drake,  in an interview in 1976, that “she was always very attentive and generous to her students, and talked to them personally about the [singing teachers Francesco and Giovanni Lamperti ] and their methods.”  Drake goes on to say, interestingly, that  “He (Thibault) added that at least in his experience with her, she never demonstrated vocalises or otherwise sang even so much as a single tone.”  *    She was also a fundraiser for Polish causes, following WWI. 

Since Lucia played so large a part in her earlier career, serving as a frequent debut opera, it seems appropriate to begin there.  I apologize for the scratchiness of the recording.  I cannot find a better recording than the one I posted some years ago, and I was not able to clean up the scratching on the transfer without taking some quality from the voice.  Here is the 1906 recording of “Ardon gl’incensi”: 

What most impresses me about this singing is the clarity, purity, precise intonation, and general absence of affectation, either stylistic or vocal. It is, as a result, what can honestly be classified as elegant singing, not always the case with divas of the era.  She was often compared to Patti, especially in her youth, and one can see why:  We note the same  clarity and purity of the voice, including the  floating, haunting tones. Like Patti, Sembrich  sings perfectly on the breath, which is how she is able to  portamento up and down so smoothly and seamlessly, and also trill easily. There is considerable vocal fluidity to be noted in the singing of both these great divas from the distant past.
Another favorite opera for Sembrich was I Puritani.  Here is the lovely “Qui la Voce sua Soave” from 1907:

Lovely!  This is really very accomplished singing for the period.  At the beginning of the aria, the same “straight,” restrained and haunting melodic line is apparent.  One can notice a slight development of weight in the lower register, compared to the Lucia recording of the previous year, but it is slight and still well integrated with the rather remarkable top register.  Later in the aria, the great flexibility so characteristic of her voice is on display:  the rapid and well executed cadenzas, with a brilliant, in-line C sharp inserted, stand out for their precision.  It was common during this time for sopranos to attempt cadenzas they could not really articulate at speed, with the result that they were in effect glissandi, often musically inappropriate.  Not the case here, as it was not the case with Patti.   Sembrich’s intonation and articulation are both precise, and this is most admirable.

Finally, a 1912 recording of a song from Leo Fall’s 1907 Musical Comedy Die Dollarprinzessin (“The Dollar Princess”):

Sembrich was 54 years when this was recorded.  What we finally have here is a wonderful recording, first of all because the recording itself, as an artifact, has been cleaned up to such a degree that it gives us a very real look at her singing!  The digital transfer was done by my friend Doug at Curzon Road, one of the best classical music sites on the web.  He is extremely skilled at creating audio files from old recordings, and this is so important.  I feel I can very nearly hear the voice of this singer from long ago with a clarity resembling what one might hear in the opera house.  Several things become apparent; first, the purity of intonation and articulation of which we have spoken is not an aural illusion from faded 107-year-old records!  It is very real, and absolutely characteristic of the voice and training.  Second, the vocal registers remain superbly well integrated; there are no “register scoops” and there is no inappropriate “huskiness” in the lower register at all.  The purity of the high soprano voice remains spotless even at age 54.  This is a diva who deserves her reputation!  A fine, elegant, articulate, vocally and stylistically immaculate first lady of the lyric stage!
*  My thanks to Mr. Drake for sharing this information on Sembrich's teaching with me!



Friday, June 14, 2013

Jackie Evancho: The Phenomenon

Jackie Evancho:  The Phenomenon


I had to think long and hard to decide how such an article as this, on a 13 year old child, could be framed.  The problem is knottier than I had imagined.  Jackie is a child—a talented one, to be sure, but a girl. She is extremely famous, and almost unbelievably successful.  Does that make her fair game for reviewing?  Some writers and critics have begun to review her work, and I find that to be inappropriate.  I could not and would not do such a thing myself.  I rejoice In her fame and fortune, but I strongly feel she should be left alone to be a little girl  a while longer.  Her day will come.  It’s not even clear what path she will  follow.  Opera?  I doubt it, personally, but I could be wrong.  Theater?  Broadway?  Pop? She just did her first movie, with Robert Redford.  Will she be an actress?  Do you see the problem?  What, exactly, is one reviewing?  I say let’s let her be a little girl while she can!  Later.  Later.


I first heard of Jackie in 2009, when her mother wrote to me and sent me a recording of Jackie, then age 9, singing “O Mio Babbino Caro.”  I get a lot of mail of this kind, and I always take it seriously and give it my close attention.  It was immediately apparent that this was an extraordinary voice for a then 9-year old girl.  I remember telling Mrs. Evancho that I was most impressed with the voice, but I doubted the wisdom of letting Jackie sing high Bb’s.  A nine-year-old voice is a VERY delicate thing. Pre-pubertal girls and boys have to be treated with the greatest imaginable care.  I also said that unless my ears deceived me, or unless puberty played a game on us, we were looking at a potential contralto or mezzo here one day.  I recommended the aria be transposed a third down.  I’m happy to say that when Jackie appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” she did sing this aria down a third (minor third, if I recall), and the rest, as they say, is history.  The sound this produced was phenomenal, and it’s that phenomenon, that sound I wish to direct myself to, in a purely analytical way, simply to see if I can touch on something meaningful.  I would only add that I was most impressed with Mrs. Evancho, a careful, caring mother, who explored all the reasonable means at her disposal to get Jackie heard.  She wrote to many people, I was only one of many, and gathered advice.  A careful, sensible procedure.  Jackie was, and remains, in good hands!

 Most of you may have heard it, but the Jackie story really begins with her “America’s Got Talent”  appearance.  Here is a video, viewed by over sixteen million people, of that magic moment:


Piers Morgan’s comment, after the aria, “Are you sure you’re not 30,” pretty much sums it up!  That is, of course, what it’s all about.  There is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance here.  That teeny, beautiful, 10 year old creature opens her mouth and out comes a near contralto sound.  And this to an audience who had no idea what was coming.  This “Jackie” sound is a result of having developed, early on, what in the voice training business is called a “cupola,”  which is to say a large “hood” in the mouth which results from what is basically a big yawn, creating a kind of echo chamber—an imprecise term, but I’m sure you see the effect I am describing.  It is the quintessential operatic sound.  It is the opposite of that which is open and piercing.  It could also be called “cover,” which in an adult voice is the result of a lowered larynx.  In adults, we are used to it.  Not in 10 year old little girls.  That, simple as it is, is a huge part of the Jackie vocal phenomenon at that age.  It was the ultimate attention-getter.  (And, not coincidentally, one of the benefits of singing in Italian!)

 Let’s change a few factors:  a little more age, go to English, raise the tessitura just a bit:

Very winning!  That doesn’t change.  Suddenly not very operatic, however.  The cover has been lifted slightly—English will do that!  The voice is, correspondingly, “whiter.”  No problem at all, but a slightly different category starts to come to mind (and ear):  “cross-over.”  And this is, in fact, a word used often when describing much of Jackie’s singing.

We need to hear Jackie today.  This is a fairly recent video, and it shows what may—repeat may—be a sign of things to come.  This video is five minutes long, and you may not wish to hear it all, but a couple of minutes will speak adequately to what we are trying to evaluate here, and that is simply a description of the phenomenon:

This is pretty straight-forward pop, with a slight cross-over quality on top.  :  whiter voice, much less covered, but remarkably pure.  That is perhaps  the most remarkable thing about Jackie’s voice:  from the beginning, there has not been a single hint of harshness, shrillness, edginess, or faulty intonation.  This makes the matter of the seeming “contralto” sound of age 10 irrelevant.  What we have, consistently, over the period of 3 years, is amazing purity of intonation and quality!  Where the voice will go is not for me to say.  On a guess, I’d say crossover/pop.  If this were the 1930’s, I’d say movie singer.  Whether today’s movie market—I’m thinking of Chloe Moretz in Kickass and Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, inter alia-- will support Deanna Durbin-like singing children is anybody’s guess!  There are trailers on Youtube of “The Company You Keep,” in which Jackie has a part.  The movie is pretty grim.  Jackie’s part is small but important, and she does a good job. Redford was impressed with her.

There are of course other factors in the Jackie phenomenon.  One of the most important is that she is extremely beautiful.  NOT an inconsiderable factor!  Also, she is obviously a very nice kid, being very well raised by her parents.  This shines through in everything she does.  All this makes one mightly little package!  Let’s wish her very well.  She has some tough years to navigate, but given how well she’s handled the last three, and how well her parents have done keeping her centered, my instincts tell me she’ll do just fine! 

Comments on this particular article can only be accepted if they are written in the spirit of the article itself, which is to say celebratory, not critical.   This is not a review; I will never review the work of children who are currently performing.  Edmund StAustell




Sunday, June 9, 2013

Gianni Raimondi: The Star of La Scala in the Golden Age

It is both a pleasure and an honor  for me to welcome the return today of our distinguished guest writer Gioacchino Fiurezi Maragioglio, Italian industrialist from Naples, opera critic and historian. Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio was an intimate friend of the great Italian tenor Giacomo Lauri Volpi, and is a life-time subscriber to the Teatro San Carlo, one of the world's historically great opera houses. Mr. Fiurezi Maragioglio's knowledge of Italian opera and opera singers —past and present—is simply vast, and I do not believe that there is anyone among my acquaintances whose knowledge exceeds his own, and there are precious few who could match it. I know that I certainly could not. I am very pleased today to be  able to feature his article on the great Italian tenor Gianni Raimondi!
Gianni Raimondi: The Star of La Scala in the Golden Age

                                                                       By Gioacchino Fiurezi Maragioglio

Gianni Raimondi represents the best version of the operatic singer. In addition to vocal endowments of exceptional quality, Raimondi also possessed the correct technique, a fine musical sensitivity and was a performer of great integrity; respected and lauded by both  public and  management. He had incredible staying power, serving as a leading tenor at, among others, the Teatro alla Scala, for more than twenty years, and remaining just as potent and relevant a performer in the last years as in the first. Raimondi’s abilities enthralled even a young Luciano Pavarotti, who would watch his idol for hours in the hope of mastering his exemplary technique.

Though not especially large, Raimondi’s instrument had the resonance and pure tone of a fine bell. It was a sharp voice, poking through the orchestra and becoming mellifluous as it carried all through the theater. It was also a very beautiful voice, and, as mentioned,  one harnessed with impeccable technique.

The following recording shows Raimondi at 38, in his vocal prime, having been singing for about thirteen years, and touring in South America with company no less illustrious than Leyla Gencer!  Here is A te, o cara, from the Teatro Colón, 1961:

Such singing of the role of Arturo is rarely equalled. To have such color and authority in the treble register is uncommon enough, let alone to sing a C-sharp of such quality and power! But Raimondi does not content himself simply with a clarion top note: his legato is perfect, the voice so smooth and evenly blended, produced without any hint of strain. His articulation, though not as accurate as modern-day interpreters, is nevertheless good, and elegantly executed. His diction is clean and unaffected except for inflections appropriate to the context. In a few words, this is bel canto singing. Indeed, a measure of his ability and success as a bel canto performer was such that he spanned two generations of the revival: beginning in the early `50s he was a frequent partner of Callas, while by the `70s, he was appearing alongside Caballé.

His is all the more remarkable given that his repertoire was centred not with Bellini or Donizetti, but rather upon the heavier works of High and Late Romanticism—Verdi and Puccini. While remembered fondly for Arturo, it was Mario Cavaradossi which was usually considered his signature role. Thus: Recondita armonia, 1965, at Geneva.

The same qualities are once again demonstrated: beautiful tone with a healthy bloom, clear and unaffected diction, perfectly moderated breath control and extreme technical mastery. Note not only the magnificent high B-flat sustained effortlessly, but also his adroit handling of the music afterwards, particularly the tricky passage “sei tu,” which has a habit of choking many tenors. In the video, we can also note his stage deportment; Raimondi stands upright, with noble posture and without undue extraneous movements, more a knight that a lover, without the same romantic qualities, as, for example, Franco Corelli, a formidable competitor!

In 1961, when the Night of the Seven Stars (Les Huguenots) returned to La Scala, led by Joan Sutherland as the Queen and having in Giulietta Simionato a genuine soprano-falcon, Raimondi was a natural choice for Raul; who better to traverse such a long, long role laden with a high tessitura and numerous florid passages? Elements conspired to suggest Franco Corelli, who got the role and led Gli Ugonotti to tremendous success. This is not at all about slighting Corelli’s talent and masterful performance; simply, it regards the fact that there can be only one Raul, and the casting of Corelli prevented Raimondi from performing it. There is a balance to everything: in hearing Corelli’s stupendous performance, audiences were denied the opportunity to hear Raimondi.

Nevertheless, some suggest that Raimondi got his own back four years later, when he assumed the role of Arnoldo in Guglielmo Tell, which Corelli had planned to perform but found to be too high and uncomfortable. Raimondi, once again partnered with Gencer, performed the role at Teatro di San Carlo in 1965, and then repeated the following year in 1966, at the Teatro Còlon, from which this recording comes.

Ultimately, despite the ease with which he sings the formidable romanza O muto asil del pianto—brilliant, squillo-drenched high notes and perfect stability, and the passionate audience response, Raimondi untimely found Arnoldo too taxing to keep in his active repertoire.

Throughout his career, Raimondi was conservative with regards to the roles he performed. This is not to suggest his repertoire was small and light: in his vocal maturity, begining around 1970, he sang many heavy and demanding roles: Arrigo, Pollione, Riccardo, Rodolfo (Luisa Miller),  and Enzo Grimaldo among them. Nevertheless, he had an acute sense of what was right for his voice, and he consistently refused the persistent offers of many opera houses to sing Manrico and Alvaro. He also displayed an affinity for early Verdi, starring in an acclaimed production of I Masnadieri, with Ilva Ligabue and Boris Christoff, at the Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma in 1972, all the while maintaining his most cherished roles of il Duca, Pinkerton, Cavaradossi and Alfredo.

It is with Pinkerton I would like to leave you: the love duet of the first act, captured live with Renata Tebaldi in 1958. Despite the power and size of Tebaldi’s voice, Raimondi is never less than audible, never abandoning his refined phrasing and immaculate vocalism to strain for volume as others sometimes do. I would like to further point out this performance occurred in August, at the Arena Flegrea. That is, during very hot weather in a very large outdoor venue!

The performance is of course, as the fashion in those times, capped with a clarion high C!

This, then, is Gianni Raimondi: titan of the old lirica italiana. Though he did sing to great acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera in 1965 with Mirella Freni in La Bohème, and of course toured in South America and other European countries such as Germany, he nevertheless spent the majority of his career in Italy, in the Italian way. A few performances of Faust were his only excursions beyond Italian music. A sharp encounter with Hebert von Karajan which led the gracious Raimondi to simply describe him as una brutta persona speaks volumes of his character and person. No endless rants and public disgrace; merely a succinct comment on the abysmal way von Karajan could sometimes treat singers that disagreed with him. Raimondi’s near analogue of a tenor, Alfredo Kraus, had similar experiences with the great German conductor, and indeed many parallels can be drawn between the two: both were considered to have the best technique of tenors of their generation, and both demonstrated an unwavering commitment to performance at consistently high standards, night after night, live in the opera house.

Like Kraus, another aristocrat of the lirica without pretension or falseness, Raimondi simply performed as the best version of himself, a shining model to his adoring public and other singers, and one that I feel is particularly relevant to the circumstances of today.