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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

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!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Andrés Huc Santana


Fr. Cornelius Mattei

Andrés Huc Santana

                There have been at least two substantial 20th century Franco-Argentinian singers; one who was the master, indeed the shaper of the tango, Carlos Gardel, probably born of a single mother who emigrated from Toulouse to the river Platte estuary, whether in Montevideo, Uruguay or Buenos Aires, it is not known.  But the great  “morocho del tango” is not the subject of our piece today, but rather Andrés Huc Santana, he who became a star basso in France and Brussels in the 1940’s and 50’s.  

To start, let us hear Santana in Song.  Here is the old but always popular  “Le Cor”:

Very beautifully and masterfully done!

Having  begun his operatic career with a small role in “Louise,” Santana and his young wife left Paris for Marseille where, patronized by countess Lily Pastré, he was hired by Paul Bastide for the Théatre Municipal, making his debut in 1941 as Phanuel in Massenet’s “Hèrodiade.”

In 1943 he returned to the capital, where he auditioned for Jacques Rouché, singing “Le Cor” as we have heard it here, making his debut as Sparafucile and also singing Ramphis and the Commendatore.  His next important step was becoming a star bass at Monte Carlo, where Gunbourg entrusted Boris, Don Giovanni, the four Hoffman villains, Gounod and Boito demons to him, thus setting him on his true way. 

At approximately  6’ 7” he certainly had the imposing physique!

Here is his Faust:

In addition to some of the previous roles…he sang Bazile in “Le Barbier” at the Comique…he also performed the Berlioz “Mephisto” and built a following as a bass protagonist at the Opéra, where he was to remain until the mid-1960’s in a variety of roles, memorably as both Philippe and the Grand Inquisitor in the Margherita Wallman production of “Don Carlos.”

In Brussels for seven consecutive seasons, he wrote his own ticket, appearing in so-called Chaliapin roles, even essaying both Galitzkiy and Khan Konchak in the same performances of “Prince Igor.”  At Aix-en-Provence he appeared memorably in Rameau’s  ”Platée.”  In Argentina, as may be imagined, he sang at the Teatro Colón.  He was heard to advantage in the French theaters outside Paris, memorably at Toulon and other venues in the south, so avid for opera in those days, as well as in Italy, Tunis and Algeria.

American students attending the AIMS program in Graz, Austria, have fond memories of him there in the 1970’s.  He was also prominent on the juries of the international vocal competitions.  Still teaching in retirement, he passed away on January 21, 1982 in Paris.

A final offering:  Le Pas d’armes du roi Jean”


                                     Father Cornelius Mattei



Friday, August 7, 2015

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!