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Friday, January 30, 2015

                                                    Giovanni Martinelli

       Giovanni Martinelli was certainly one of the best known and most admired Italian tenors of the 20th Century. He was very popular in America, and was a mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera for a remarkable 32 years, never easing off on his hard-core, bread and butter repertoire, which among other operas, included Aida, Trovatore, Otello, Turandot, La Juive, and Pagliacci. I would call his voice unique among great tenors. He sang with an open, white phonation that was very rare in the verismo world of dark-voiced, low-larynx singing so characteristic of post bel canto opera. That he did so successfully—especially considering the repertoire—is little short of miraculous. He never screamed, he never shouted. He sang the big dramatic roles with the same voice with which he sang lyric roles, and for him it worked. In a word, he always sounded like a tenor, no matter what he sang.

But if a picture tells a thousand words, a few Martinelli recordings tell the entire story of the Martinelli voice. I have tried to choose as many filmed excerpts as I could find, because he was a statuesque man of striking features, and one needs the entire impression: First, a famous Neapolitan song known to everyone:

 Beautifully sung, without question: This is the essential Martinelli voice. Now, with that impression still in mind, let us look at an early Vitaphone recording of "Vesti la Giubba." Canio was one of his most successful roles, with which he, like Caruso, was often associated" :

It is fascinating to reflect upon the fact that he uses exactly the same voice—his voice, always recognizable—to sing two such different kinds of music. And it works! It works even though it is counter-intuitive, considering the different repertoire. Caruso, ever associated with this role, has become imprinted on the mind as the essential Canio, but that need not be the case. The tenors who have sung Canio are countless, and Martinelli's works perfectly well. The essential thing about Martinelli's voice, always to be remembered, is that it is essentially sui generis: Always the same sound, always the same color, always Martinelli. That is one of the characteristics of "open" singing: The characteristics of the speaking voice are always more present than they are in the heavily covered voices of the big dramatic tenors. It is not always easy—at least initially—to distinguish the voices of, let us say, Vinay, Del Monaco, Giacomini, Corelli, or Domingo. Certainly there are differences, but one has to stop and listen for a moment. That never happens with Martinelli. He is always immediately recognizable, because the personal characteristics of his voice, of  Giovanni Martinelli's voice, are always up-front and eternally his. This can be a big advantage in opera, because the audience recognizes the voice of the artist, as well as the character, and it is somehow more intimate. The voices of some singers are like instruments, and often have only that much "personality" about them. Some prefer that, especially in grander, more archetypal operas, such as those of Wagner. Wagner's characters are often aspects of the unconscious, and "personality" is already determined by archetype. Not so, as a rule, in Latin opera.

Finally, here is a recording of his "Questa o Quella," from Rigoletto, which is very interesting, for several reasons:

 Did you notice how sympathetic the Duke sounds? He has a very distinct personality in this recording, and it is much more elegant than usual, because it is sung in a recognizable voice that has the characteristics of a more conversational speaking voice, presenting a view of women that, while it remains cynical, is nonetheless expressed in a curiously human way that is more reflective and world-weary than it is foppish, thereby adding another quality to the Duke's character that actually makes him a more interesting person.

Finally, here is another old Vitaphone clip showing Martinelli is a piece from Marta, one we might more readily associate with a lyric tenor like John McCormack:

To reiterate, it is always Martinelli; same voice, same tenor.  Always brilliant, always believable, be it the tragic Otello or the sentimental and heart-broken Lionel. 

One of the great tenors of all time!


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Louise Homer: A Great  Favorite!


                                                                Louise Homer
I must abandon all pretense to objectivity in this essay, for the very simple reason that I am a completely dedicated Louise Homer fan, and always have been.  I adore her.  Period.  But of course that makes a very short essay:-)  So, let us proceed!
 The contralto Louise Homer was one of the most popular of the Met regulars in the earliest years of the twentieth century. She was born Louise Dilworth Beatty in Pittsburg in 1871, and in 1895 married the composer Sidney Homer. Her 1898 European debut was in Vichy, in La Favorita, and in 1900 she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Amneris in Aida. She was an immediate favorite, and would go on to sing 42 roles in over 700 performances at the Met, which became her artistic home. Her voice was noteworthy for its power and beauty. She was a genuine contralto, and sang very convincingly in that range. Here is a recording I posted on Youtube a few years ago, which lets us hear her in the lovely and poignant "Voce di Donna," from Ponchielli's La Gioconda. You may have to turn up the sound a bit. This is a vinyl transfer of a 1912 recording, and I did not sufficiently power up the audio input. I will correct it shortly:

As you can see, hers was a very lovely, dark voice. She sang quite well technically, largely avoiding the annoying scoops and plunges into different vocal registers that were all too common, especially among sopranos, at that time. There is a charming and attractive Italian legato to her singing that made her a very credible fit with great Italian singers of the day, especially Enrico Caruso, who was a friend and colleague, and often paired with her. Here is a gem from Aida. You can gauge the power of her voice by noticing how well she holds up her end of the duet against the great tenor, whose voice was renowned for its power. The Bb's in the duet ask a lot of a contralto, but Homer handles them quite well. And this is without any electrical tricks, because they were both standing side by side, sharing a large recording horn:

She was quite something! Although she got rather heavy in later life (now there's a novelty for an opera singer!), it did not diminish her popularity one bit. There was something very personable about her, and she was a real American singer, grounded in American life and music. (She even recorded the National Anthem) Not only was she the wife of composer Sidney Homer, but she was the aunt of Samuel Barber, as well as a good friend of Alma Gluck, wife of Efrem Zimbalist. She was everywhere surrounded by the music and musicians of her day. She recorded many sentimental Victorian favorites and a fair amount of popular American church music, which spread her fame greatly. This is the era of the parlor piano, whose music rack contained anthology after anthology of songs known and loved by almost all Americans. Here is a wonderful duet, very evocative of that time. She teams with Alma Gluck in "Rock of Ages," one of the best known hymns of the day. They alternate the verses and join on refrains:

I am very emotionally attached to this period of early 20th century history.  So much that is great in American culture was already in place, and much more was to come.  I know there are many who have this period stamped on their emotional and historical memories.Ice cream socials, Sunday strolls in the park, with parasols, barbershop quartets, Easter Day parades down Fifth Avenue, and an innocent America—it all comes back, listening to this simple hymn sung by two great Metropolitan Opera voices. This has to be one of the most charming and instantly identifiable periods of American history, and Louise Homer was solidly within it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ettore Bastianini


                                                                      Ettore Bastianini

Ettore Bastianini was born in Siena, in 1922, and first began performing as a boy of fifteen in the local church choir. He had a deep voice, even as a boy, and sang in the bass section of the choir.  He sang not only for masses but also for more ambitious religious functions.  He was encouraged to start serious vocal training in 1939, when he was 17.  He continued singing bass, and after a year of study he started singing in contests and in 1942, when he was 20, won an important contest in Florence, which carried a scholarship with it as part of the prize.   The timing was unfortunate, however, because war loomed, and Ettore was drafted into the Air Force. Nevertheless, at war’s end, he was able to resume singing in Siena and Ravenna, and was able to take advantage of the scholarship he had won, and began singing at the Teatro Comunale in Florence. His voice was, from the beginning, better than good, and he attracted attention early on, and after only a year or so his name began appearing in many regional theaters.  In 1947, just two years out of the Air Force, he toured Egypt, singing the standard Italian repertoire, including Lucia and the Marriage of Figaro.  He was also, importantly, appearing in casts that were first rate. The repertoire soon increased to include Aida and Rigoletto.  He was still singing bass at this point.  In 1948 he made his La Scala debut as Teiresias in Oedipus Rex.  He did a broadcast recital on Italian radio in 1950, and shortly thereafter decided to study again and move upward vocally to sing baritone.  His initial attempts at singing baritone were somewhat halting, but he soon mastered it, and began to have major successes, including a Rigoletto in Siena.

Little by little, his fame as a baritone began to spread, and engagements became more prestigious.  Bastianini had a lot going for him; not only was his voice dark, powerful and beautiful, but he was himself a most handsome man, not unlike Corelli in that regard.

In 1953, Bastianini performed opposite Maria Callas in Lucia, and later that year he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in Traviata. By now, his fame was solid, and he was enjoying a wonderful career.  He began singing as a regular at the Met, began to accept important recording contracts, and to sing world-wide. These were golden years, and his performance schedule and repertoire expansion were enormous, far too extensive to recount here, but easily consulted, as he was so famous. We must jump those many and extraordinary years, however, to say that his career ended tragically.

His final performance at the Met was in December of 1965 and, while it was not generally known, he had been diagnosed as early as 1962 with a throat tumor.  While he managed to carry on with his career for three more years, he was growing weaker.  It began to show in some poor reviews that he had begun to receive in the press.  By 1965 it was simply too hard for him to go on, and the end came in January of 1967.  He was a mere 45 years of age. He was buried in his hometown, Siena.  A sad story, certainly, but the accomplishments during that short life were huge.  As I have mentioned, the voice was extraordinary.  I don’t think anyone ever heard a weak or poor Bastianini, at least not until the decline at the end.  I think a good place to start with this wonderful baritone is at the peak of his powers.  Here is spine-tingling “Eri Tu” from The Masked Ball:

Now how about that for a voice!  It’s not hard to hear the bass in the voice; he was clearly on the bass/baritone line.  He carries up so much weight that the voice can only honestly be called extraordinarily powerful and ringing for a baritone.  I suppose that this weight in the voice begs the question of how long he could have sung like that, a tutta forza.  However that is a meaningless hypothetical question. He lived for 45 years, and in that life-span the simple fact is that for almost his entire career, he was able to sing this way, and it was very thrilling, indeed.

Here is something that might be called “Bastianini the Bass”  This is “Deh, vieni alla finestra,” and I would have to say that he is pretty clearly singing bass at this point.  He sounds a little like Ezio Pinza, in fact:

Very strong singing, certainly.  One might argue, I suppose, about the stylistic accuracy of that much power on this aria.  It is a serenade, after all.  However, no matter.  He was Bastianini, and he was great!  That’s how he chose to use his extraordinary voice, and that is a personal and artistic decision.  Nothing for me to gainsay, that’s for certain!  But one thing is certain, and that is that there is no small amount of bass voice there!

I think it makes sense to dwell where the art is exceptional and characteristic.  In Ettore Bastianini’s case that is Verdi and high drama.  Here is "Il balen del suo sorriso," from Il Trovatore:

This is Bastianini the baritone without doubt.  There is also a fine legato line here that is most attractive.  This is a stylistic refinement that accompanies the power and drama, and helps fill out the picture considerably.  Something else is notable here, and that is something that often accompanies stylistic refinement—clarity of enunciation. His Italian is so clear and crisp that I swear it could be understood even by somebody who didn’t know Italian!  Really exemplary.

Finally, I don’t wish to leave the impression that Bastianini only sang “a tutta forza,” no matter the material.  In fact, he could sing in the classical style as well.  Here is Gluck’s “O del mio dolce ardor,” from Paride ed Elena:

Still intense and noble, but within the bounds of stylistic propriety, and very commanding.

Ettore Bastianini, the Great Baritone!

Sunday, January 11, 2015


 Mario del Monaco: Greatness and Controversy


Mario del Monaco was born in Florence in 1915, to a cultivated and affluent family who fostered his early musical education, seeing to it that he studied the violin as a youth. He loved singing, however, and quickly turned to voice as his principal musical enthusiasm. He had a good musical education, graduating from the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro. He made good early musical contacts there, including Renata Tebaldi, who was to become a good friend and future collaborator. Among his voice teachers was Arturo Melocchi, the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) teacher of the lowered larynx school of singing that produced some notable dramatic singers, such as del Monaco himself and the excellent Giuseppe Giacomini, about whom I have written previously. The method is particularly designed to produce powerful, steely and dramatic voices, often with extended range, especially in the singer's youth. The problem that sometimes arises is that voices thus trained can begin to show severe signs of strain fairly early on, sometimes resulting in a wide wobble in the voice. This is what eventually happened to Giacomini, although he had many good years on stage before it started.

Del Monaco had a lot going for him. He was very handsome, and remarkably virile in his appearance. He was made for the dramatic Italian repertoire, especially Verdi. He made an early debut in Milan, as Pinkerton, in 1940, and began paying his dues, singing primarily around Italy and also in London. He came to the Met in 1951 and had an enormous success there for the next 8 years, doing the big Italian roles for which he became famous: Otello, Andrea Chenier, Rhadames, Canio,and Manrico, among others. His voice was very powerful and dark, and very thrilling. He could incite near hysteria in an audience. He was a melodramatic actor, not at all subtle, but then this is opera we are talking about. It hardly mattered. His adoring and loving fans will declare to this day that he was the greatest dramatic tenor ever, and one of the greatest tenors of any vocal classification. He also has detractors. Their claim is that he was histrionic to a mid-19th century degree, that he was monochromatic, and could only sing a tutta forza, and that he was quirky to the point of being outright eccentric in the lack of discretion he showed in recording completely inappropriate material: bass arias, baritone arias, or silly popular songs like "Ghost riders in the sky." He had a significant presence in film and TV, and this material can be consulted fairly easily on Youtube. I will warn you that his videos on Youtube tend to occasion comments that seem to have been previously loaded onto a bathysphere in an attempt to plumb a new low. He can still, in a word, produce near-hysterical reactions in some.

I prefer always to look on the bright and positive side. Considering how many people would like to be great singers, and how many give it their all, and how few make it, a certain amount of respect is due those who actually do make it, and in addition have spectacular careers. They must be doing something right. He was in point of fact a great dramatic tenor capable of producing a visceral excitement which has become pretty rare these days. He was a giant among singers, and should be remembered as such. The eccentricities (and they are there, to be sure) are incidental

Here is a recording of a brilliant "Di Quella Pira," which he lip-synched (for reasons I will never figure out) to one of his own recordings playing over loud speakers in what seems to be an outdoor arena of some kind. One always needs to concentrate on the voice and the looks with Del Monaco, and overlook the bizarre: . Yes, he was, not unlike Bonisoli,  more than a bit of a character. But who cares, basically.

You've got to love the Italians! It looks like something out of a Fellini film. But isn't that an incredible voice! What a tenor! A king-sized personality, possibly with less than a typical amount of discretion. However, what matters is that the voice was simply great. No reasonable person can deny that.

Here is an old film clip of Vesti la Giubba, made many years ago, when Del Monaco was a young man.  One can see here what the fuss has always been about. The voice, the looks,  the excitement. It's all there!   From the beginning!

And here is another extraordinary recording, a signature piece for Del Monaco, “Nessun Dorma:”

Extraordinary Singing!!

Del Monaco was involved in a very bad automobile accident in the early 60's, and many claim that his voice began to suffer after the accident. This is hard to demonstrate, because those who sing as dramatically and as full-out as he did will see some natural decline in vocal powers with time. It cannot be determined. However, whether natural or caused by misfortune and injury, the voice darkened considerably later on. Here, finally, is a recording I posted on Youtube a couple of years ago which shows the near-heldentenor stentorian singing of the later years. This is "M'hai salvato," from Catalani's La Wally, which, while technically Italian music, is much influenced by German Romanticism, which Catalani admired. The opera contains a tenor aria, near the end, which is heldentenor-like in its vocal demands.

 Let us all agree: This was a great voice, and a great tenor. When that is said, nothing else need be said!


Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Great Ben Heppner                                       



Ben Heppner has been respected and applauded world-wide as one of the greatest heroic tenors to be seen and heard in many years. Born in British Columbia (Murrayville) in 1956, Heppner studied voice at the University of British Columbia and began to attract national attention primarily through contests, beginning with the Canadian Broadcasting Talent Festival in 1979. He went on to do a great deal of concertizing over the course of the next several years, and in 1988 won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, and also the Birgit Nilsson Prize. From that moment on, Heppner went quickly to an international career, largely in the Wagnerian repertoire. He rapidly became, in the opinion of many critics and his increasingly large audience, one of the world's greatest Heldentenors. He performed for years at  the Metropolitan Opera and throughout all the major houses of Europe, not only in Wagner, but also in the heavier Italian repertoire, such as Andrea Chenier and Otello. He has made a rather astonishingly large number of recordings, in French, Italian, and German. His recordings include leading parts and title roles in Fidelio, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Tristan und Isolde, Lohengrin, Otello and Berlioz's Aeneas.

To his credit, Heppner never slighted the French repertoire, and in fact the first recording he produced after signing an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammaphon was "Airs Français," which won a Juno Award. He has additionally, over the course of the last several years, been a marked presence at sporting events, including the Olympics. He was frequently heard singing the Canadian National Anthem, in which he always includes verses in French, and he has also recorded the Marseillaise. His attention to French music has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated in France.

First, the German repertoire, in which Heppner is everywhere accorded the status of a master. Here is Richard Strauss' very popular "Zueignung:"

There are very few within this repertoire who can match the power, color and even beauty of this extraordinary voice. It is easy enough, on Youtube, to hear Heppner sing many of the classics of the Wagnerian repertoire, such as "In Fernem Land," or Walter's "Prize Song." They are a bit too long to include here.

It is not only the Wagnerian repertoire, however, where Heppner shines. For a Heldentenor, he sings Italian quite well, and is vocally convincing in roles such as Andrea Chenier or Otello. Here is a very stirring rendition of the Italian Singer's aria from Der Rosenkavalier, "Di Rigori Armato il Seno." Strauss did not particularly like tenors, and he also had some feelings about Italian opera in general. This aria was intended to mock the excesses of Italian singing, but that kind of thing tends generally to backfire, because to a very large extent opera IS Italian music! It certainly backfired here, since this aria turned out to be one of the most popular pieces from Rosenkavalier, and just about every famous tenor in the world has recorded it! Although short, it is most difficult to sing, because it is has very high notes and florid phrases. It also, perhaps in spite of Strauss' intentions, happens to be extremely beautiful!

Now isn't that something! I think it safe to say that there are few Heldentenors now or ever who could do that. Heppner is unafraid of heights. He has even recorded "Di Quella Pira" in the original key. It can be easily found on Youtube.  Just look up Heppner, "Di Quella Pira."

Something else Heppner does amazingly well is sing in English, his native language, with absolutely none of the stress and strain, rolled "r" s, or muffled cover that for too many years marked (or marred) the attempts of English speakers trying to sing with trained voices in a comprehensible way. Here is the old and lovely "Roses of Picardy:"



Absolutely lovely! Sung in the modern manner, with enunciation as clear as that of any popular singer. Ben Heppner is a great tenor and a formidable artist, and richly deserves the fame he has come to enjoy over the course of the last twenty years.  He is now essentially semi-retired. He no longer sings  the Wagnerian works in deference to his age (he is now 58), but he continues to concertize and appear in those operas in which he is still comfortable, even modern pieces such as Moby Dick, which he helped create.  It has been an excellent career, and one of which he can deservedly be very proud.