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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Francesco Merli

By Mr. Dan Ogilvie



Francesco Merli




In many paintings of the lamentation of Christ, amongst the bowed heads of the mourners, you may find a solitary grief stricken figure looking out at you, the viewer. The purpose of this solitary viewer is to turn the scene from a simple recording of an event into something the viewer can emphasise with. We can see the emotion on the face of this figure, and therefore we also can share in his grief. The figure is a ‘way in’ to the painting.


I often feel that the aria Nessun Dorma performs the same function in opera. How many of us, I wonder, have started to explore opera because of hearing a rendition of that song, perhaps by Luciano Pavarotti, Russell Watson, Al Martino or Mario Lanzo. I know, in my case, it was hearing Jussi Bjorling sing it that introduced to me, firstly further arias of his, but then full operas: he and his soaring version of that aria, was my ‘way in’ to opera.


I have always maintained affection for Turandot. In some ways I sort of collected Nessuns, from the plaintive but underpowered Miguel Fleta to the ridiculously long-held last note of Xiaojun Deng. But complete performances have always disappointed – I thought that this was, perhaps, an opera that has to be heard live – you have to be there to be wrapped up in its violent and rather unpleasant plot (the frustratingly brief extracts of Giovanni Martinelli or Daniele Barioni, live, perhaps endorse this). Even the complete recording of Jussi Bjorling failed to catch my imagination, even though there is some glorious singing to be found there.


So it was more for completeness that I bought the complete studio recording of Turandot with Francesco Merli, Gina Cigna and Magda Olivero. Let me tell you, once you have bought this recording, there is no need to buy any other. It is stunning, so much so (and I will honestly admit this) I have repeatedly played the Ping, Pang and Pong act, so well performed as it is, something I sometimes skip or use as an excuse to get a glass of wine.


This recording was not my first introduction to Francesco Merli, but it cemented for me what an astonishing tenor he was.


Here is the Signor Ascolta… Non Piangere Lui from that recording. Be prepared to have your breath taken away.



Merli’s voice is dark, even sonorous, but never unwieldy. Listen in the Non Piangere to him waiver his voice at the end of ‘questo’. Are we now in any doubt that this apparently heartless man loves Lui. And for such a dark baritonal voice the top notes ring out and are generously held, but not just because of playing to the crowd. Turandot is going to accept his challenge – he will make sure of that.


Perhaps Rosa Ponselle, slightly indirectly, should introduce my next extract:


‘You know, I don’t even remember Merli singing Gioconda at all… All I remember singing with him was L’amore dei tre re: that was unforgettable, even the rehearsals… Whew! I forgot myself around him, even in the rehearsals. I was a bad girl;…’


Unfortunately I cannot find that duet on-line, but here is Cielo e Mar from Gioconda, lest the rest of us should forget.



We are now in no doubt this voice is a true tenor voice. We can hear that agility again, he caresses the words; the phrasing is immaculate.


Why is Merli not mentioned in the same pantheon as Lauri-Volpi or Martinelli or Gigli? Well, he was unlucky with his roles at the Metropolitan (ill-health) and at Covent Garden (which is graveyard for many singers who do not fit the British sensibilities of the particular time) which restricted his fame to within Italy, with La Scala his base. But luckily there are quite a few recordings of his to be found.


Stella Roman has hailed Merli as the greatest Otello she ever appeared with, and as her partners included Vinay, Pertile and Martinelli, we should take note. It would be remiss of me to not include something from that work here.



Ms. Roman, you have a point. Tell me, gentle reader, are you not breathing a little quicker after listening to that – it is stunning piece of singing. And the words are sung, not shouted: the words are deeply felt; this is truly the singing of a broken man. Even in the last note of defiance do you hear him sharpen the note slightly, giving it an edge, a little bit of extra ferocity.


I always think, with the demanding repertoire that Merli sings, there has to be a sort of saving of resources for that last note. How many tenors have you seen hang around the back of the stage letting the chorus do all the work until running quickly to the front to deliver the final note of Di Quella Pira (let alone reprise it!). Merli has such surety in his voice and such technique he never feels the need to ‘save himself’. Listen to this aria from Guillaume Tell – those notes, given so freely, would shatter rock, let alone the odd chandelier or two.



Let me finish with an aria from La Forza del Destino that I believe encapsulates everything that is great about this singer. It is so easy for a singer such as this, with such weight of voice at his command, to go ‘over the top’, to ‘play to the gallery’. That can, of course, be exciting, and don’t think there isn’t a place for it. But Merli manages to be refined, yet at the same time exciting and emotional. He does not abuse the words and music, he heightens them. He is, truly, a great singer.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Great Jan Kiepura

Jan Kiepura was born on the 16th of May 1902 in Sosnowiec, a quite small industrial town in Poland.

Kiepura discovered his singing voice in his youth and started singing in a school choir. His parents did not encourage him, however, and sent him to Warsaw to study law at the University of Warsaw, to which he was admitted in 1921. He continued studying voice in private, however, determined to become a solo singer in any theater that would give him the chance.  He finally got a chance, in 1924, to perform in a comic operetta called “Halka”

Word began to spread about the law student with the extraordinary voice, and in only one year he was given the chance to sing Faust at the Wielki Theater in Warsaw, when the tenor Dobosz, who was scheduled to sing, did not appear.  Kiepura was a spectacular success that night, receiving a standing ovation for his performance.  Thus began a brilliant career.

Kiepura gained popularity singing in Rigoletto (Verdi), Halka (Moniuszko) and Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni) at the Warsawian Wielki Theater.

In 1926 Puccini's Tosca and Gianni Schicchi were added to his repertoire. Then came Tosca and Turandot as well as Straszny dwór by Moniuszko. Kiepura was becoming famous in Poland, but he very quickly determined to move on to Aivnna and Paris.  He also learned Italian and German, preparing himself for an international career.  He could sing convincingly in Italian, but he sang much more often in German, the language in which he gained his greatest popularity.

Here is a brilliant Nessun Dorma  (Sung in German)

By 1937 Kiepura had married Martha Eggerth, a singer and actress, with whom he appeared in many movies as well as in a production of 'The merry widow' on Broadway. The merry widow was such a success that the production toured throughout the U.S.A. as well as Western Europe, and was sung in four different languages. Kiepura acquired great fame in the '30s, shifting the emphasis from opera to the big screen. On January the 10th 1938 he debuted at the Metropolitan in New York as Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme. Kiepura also sang in Tosca, Bizet's Carmen, and Verdi's Rigoletto at the Metropolitan until 1942. The duke of Mantua (Rigoletto) was regarded as his best role.

Kiepura's voice was an outpouring of a rich, warm tone: powerful and generous singing forte, sweet and honeyed when singing piano. Equipped with such an instrument he managed to sing roles throughout virtually the entire tenor fach. He did, however, stay away from the most taxing and heavy roles such as Otello. Besides being successful as an operatic singer he was also a prolific singing movie star richness and spontaneity in his voice.His technique allowed him to sing concerts well into his sixties. Unfortunately a heart attack ended his life prematurely when he was still active as a singer. Jan Kiepura died on August 15th, 1966.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Irina Konstantinovna Arkhipova

Irina Konstantinovna Arkhipova was a Russian mezzo-soprano, and later contralto, opera singer. She sang leading roles first in Russia at the Sverdlovsk Opera and the Bolshoi Theater, and then throughout Europe and in the United States.
Born: January 2, 1925,  Moscow, Russia

Died: February 11, 2010, Moscow, Russia


She  studied at the Moscow Conservatory from 1954 to 1956 and sang with the Sverdlovak Opera where her roles included Marina in Boris Godunov, Eboli in Don Carlos Charlotte in Werther.  Her  first Bolshoi performance was as Carmen, one of her greatest roles.  The Bolshoi became her operatic home and she sang all her greatest roles there.
Here is a splendid rendition of Caccini's Ave Maria:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Radu Marian

Radu Marian

Born in 1977 in Romania, Marian is quite popular in a historical repertoire he has helped bring back to the modern classical music scene. He has been the recipient of many awards and singing prizes, especially in Eastern Europe and Russia. He is much respected, and is commonly featured at important music festivals throughout Europe.

Radu Marian is a true soprano, "soprano" being a vocal part, not a gender. Because of a medical condition, he never went through puberty, so his voice did not change. He was a boy soprano who became an adult soprano. The result is his clear, pure and high sound that makes his singing so very attractive and beautiful. Here is Radu Marian singing "Lascia ch'io pianga," Almirena's aria from Rinaldo: