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Saturday, December 27, 2014

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!



Monday, December 22, 2014

Mabel Garrison, Brilliant Coloratura Soprano


Mabel Garrison was born in Baltimore in1886. She finished her undergraduate work in 1903 and went on to study singing at Peabody Conservatory. She studied with George Siemonn and then studied further with Oscar Saenger and Herbert Witherspoon in New York. She made her debut in 1912 with the Aborn Opera Company as Philine in Mignon. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut on February 15, 1914 in concert, singing arias from operas by Verdi and Mozart. Her first role at the Met was Frasquita in Bizet's Carmen. Other roles included Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore, Bertha in Euryanthe, Biancofiore in Francesca da Rimini, Crobyle in Thaïs, the Dew Fairy in Hansel and Gretel, Gilda in Rigoletto, Lady Harriet in Martha, Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera,the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute,Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and Urbain in Les Huguenots.. Her last performance at the Met was as the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor  1921.  First, here is the Garrison voice in its prime, in the Doll Song from Hoffman:


In 1921 Garrison made guest appearances at the Berlin State Opera and made a world concert tour that same year She was a member of the Chicago Opera Company during the 1925-26 season. Garrison had a great and well -trained coloratura voice, as she demonstrated in both opera and concert and in several recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company.

Like others of her era, she made “popular recordings” that were always good for a few extra dollars; many, very often.  Here is a superb recording of “Dixie:”

This is a very good place to thank Mr.Douglas Curran for posting these Garrison videos on his Youtube channel (Curzon Road) one of the very best classical music channels on Youtube; in fact, one of the finest channels of any kind.  I believe that every Mabel Garrison video on the web is from Mr. Curran,  a friend and brilliant record collector.  Thank you, my friend!

Mabel Garrison died in New York City on August 20, 1963

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Great Frieda Hempel Hempel, (1885-1955) was born in Leipzig and began her studies as a very young woman,  first at the Conservatory in Leipzig, and then, shortly thereafter, at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin.  Her young voice was rather extraordinary because of its great range.  The sharp differences between coloratura and regular soprano repertoire were not so much observed in her day, when she was viewed simply as a soprano with an unusually high top register.  Her earliest roles were fairly standard coloratura repertoire, such as Rosina, Gilda, and Queen of the Night. However, even at the very tender age of 20, she sang, during her debut years around 1905, roles such as Violetta, Leonora and Woglinde.  It was this ability to sing high coloratura roles along with what today are considered heavier soprano roles that characterized her career path from the very beginning.  She sang at the Royal Court Opera in Berlin between 1907 and 1912, where she added the roles of Lucia and Marguerite de Valois to her repertoire.

Her international career began during that same approximate period.  In Covent Garden,  (amazingly by today's standards) she sang both Eva and Elsa.  By 1912 she had sung at the Metropolitan Opera, where she stayed for a good while, basically making the Met her artistic home during the peak of her career.  Again, her repertoire was very wide, extending  from the great coloratura roles of the day all the way down to Rosenkavalier and Ballo in Maschera!  Such a thing would be unheard of today, but her era was a different story altogether.  There were operas to be sung and singers to sing them, and that pretty much described the situation. Beginning around 1920, when she would only have been 35, she left the Met and started to concertize in earnest,  essentially developing  a second career, in which she was also very successful. 


I think it makes most sense to first hear Frieda Hempel in an extremely demanding coloratura aria, because it was her astonishing upper register that perhaps dominated  the largest part of her early repertoire.  I would simply ask you to remember that this great artist also sang Wagner!  Here is the famous Queen of the Night aria.  This particular recording, from 1911, is fairly rare, and you will smile, I think, at two things—the first is the cute illustration on the video, and the second is the gratuitous F above high C that she tosses in at 1:03, as though the aria were not high enough already!  This recording is positively delightful:



Now how about that!  I find myself smiling from ear to ear. A first-rate coloratura, endowed with what, to my way of thinking, is a real coloratura sound, in the class of Galli-Curci and Lily Pons.  There have been much heftier soprano sounds, driven to great heights by superb technique, but at that point aesthetic problems arise, I think. This I would characterize as Golden Age bel canto.  Now here is something that is just plain fun!


Kentucky Babe."



Irresistible!  Everybody was doing the same thing back then.  The economic potential of making records had become apparent to all, and opera singers were the most popular and respected  singers, generally speaking, of that period.  The temptation was enormous.  With all the American homes with pianos in the parlors, all the sheet music sales, and all the people buying Victrolas; well, it was inevitable.  Louise Homer, Amelia Galli-Curci, Alma Gluck, Enrico Caruso, John McCormack—they were all making "popular" recordings, usually abounding  in covered vowels and nearly incomprehensible foreign accents, but never was a particular time and a particular moment in American cultural history.  Frankly, I love it!



Sunday, December 14, 2014

John Charles Thomas

John Charles Thomas, The Great American Baritone

John Charles Thomas was born in 1891 in Meyersdale, Pa., the son of a Methodist minister.  After study for a medical a career, he won a scholarship to the Peabody Institute in Baltimore in 1910.  In 1912 Thomas left the Peabody and toured with a musical troupe, and starred in many musicals, including “Her Soldier Boy”, Maytime, “Naughty Marietta,” and “Apple Blossoms.”  His opera career began in 1925 as Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida.  He went on to sing in San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia.  He would remain at the Met until 1933 , singing opposite great sopranos of the day, such as Rosa Ponselle.  Thomas sang a very wide variety of songs:

Here is Thomas in opera, "O du mein holder Abenderstarn:

Here is “The Last Time I saw Paris”

And here is the”Green Eyed Dragon”

And let's not forget Gilbert and Sullivan!


Friday, December 12, 2014

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, December 7, 2014

Nunzio Todisco


I need first to express my sincere gratitude and acknowledge my indebtedness to my Neapolitan friend Mr. Gaetano De Rosa for the photos and biographical information I have used in the preparation of this article.  Mr. De Rosa’s Youtube channel Caruso1873, which I highly recommend, is a wonderful archive of Neapolitan music. I thank you!]
 have only over time come to appreciate just how popular opera really is.  It is almost certainly the most popular and widespread of the classical musical forms, and there is no sign of decline. Quite the contrary, in fact. Such widespread popularity  makes possible the accommodation of a great variety of tastes, styles, traditions, and voice types, all of which have their audience.  This has been the case for centuries, and the particular enthusiasms for bel canto, or for verismo, or—more recently—for neoclassical 18th century opera—often become armed camps making special claims for the forms their adherents most love.  There are, correspondingly, many different voice types and acting schools that soon provide the stars and the darlings for each of the different kinds of operatic art.  Elegant, even tiny-voiced singers, so beloved of some bel canto enthusiasts, are poles apart from the giant stentorian voices which are so popular with Wagnerian enthusiasts, and so it goes.  Many singers, many styles, many fans. point this out because Nunzio Todisco is a very particular kind of singer, with a nearly unique voice, performing in an old, well-known and, for many, a much appreciated tradition.  We all need to respect the enthusiasms of others, because we are all opera lovers.  “Opera” itself is a plural word, the plural of “opus.”  It means many works, and accompanying those many works—singing, acting, dancing, instrumental music, costumes, stagecraft—are many styles of singing and acting.  Add to this the enthusiasms of different cultures and their various traditions, and we have a phenomenon that absolutely prohibits claims of exclusivity.


Nunzio Todisco was born in 1942 in Torre del Greco.  A seaman by profession, he traveled the world with different shipping companies.  A good Neapolitan, he always had a love of music and singing, and would sing whenever he had the opportunity, either in singing contests or for  family members or shipboard passengers. He was a born favorite with audiences because of his extraordinary voice, which has to be one of the most powerful instruments ever!  He also had a natural melodramatic and audience-pleasing way of presenting himself, which is sure-fire in Italy!  He was in all ways a “big” personality, with a very big voice. of his extraordinary voice eventually reached soprano Maria Grazia Marchini, who determined to meet him and encourage him to participate in the 1971 Spoleto Festival.  Justifying her faith, Todisco joined the singing competition, and won the contest!  By so doing, he  joined the ranks of such previous winners as Mario Del Monaco and Franco Corelli.  He attracted critical attention, and early critics compared him to Caruso, another Neapolitan, because of the extreme power of his voice, and the nearly wide-open vocal production, with such great carrying power.


The move was steadily upward from that point on. In 1978 he performed in Norma in San Francisco and in La Gioconda in Barcelona.  This was followed by Pagliacci at La Scala in 1981 and a Carmen on French television in 1982.  He has performed in many outdoor concerts, for which he is a natural, with a voice and style that can reach out to large audiences, even outdoors.  One thinks of Roman amphitheaters!  A passionate Neapolitan, he has performed and recorded many Neapolitan songs, much like his compatriot Francesco Albanese, a tenor of a very different kind.


I think the best way to introduce Todisco to an audience who many not know him, since his career was almost exclusively in Italy, is to show him singing for a very large audience (a prime venue for him) at a Gigli Memorial Concert, performing not an operatic piece but the old Neapolitan classic “O Sole Mio.”  It shows all the most important features of Todisco’s extraordinary voice, his singing, and his highly melodramatic stage manner, so beloved by many.  Also note a very enthusiastic reception by a huge crowd.  This is typical.  He had very many fans:


"My own sunshine is right here in front of you!"  Yes, it certainly is!
Does anyone else find themselves smiling, ear to ear?  I sure am.  As are several players in the first violin section, who seem to be getting into the spirit of it allJ  That is my invariable reaction when I hear something this powerful, honest, this uninhibited and overwhelming.  What a voice!  That has to be one of the biggest operatic voices ever, backed by a stage presence that is just as powerful.

One of the things I like so much about Todisco is his absolute honesty.  He is what he is, and he makes no pretenses or apologies.  Powerful, wide-open, even bombastic (not unlike Franco Bonisolli, in some ways), he  can make the rafters ring like few if any others.  Such a personality is infectious.


It is important to point out, however, that Todisco was a serious artist.  One need only reflect upon his many awards and the first class opera theaters he sang in.  It is the use to which he put his big personality and voice that counts.  He always did the big verismo roles, which is what his voice was suited for.  Here is an admirable “Cielo e Mar,” from La Gioconda”



That is great singing.  True, it is his own style and vocal sensibility, but he has that right.  As I said, he is honest.  He is what he is; this is how he sings, this is how he feels and sees the role and the music.  Because of that absolute honesty, it works. Not every singer is the same.  It would be a dull  opera world if they were! It is Todisco’s Enzo Grimaldo.  Period.  Audiences were very fond of him.