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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Philippe Jaroussky: Coloratura Alto

One of most gifted new stars of the Early Music revival, which is now becoming an ever more important part of the international opera scene in general, is Philippe Jaroussky, a brilliant young French alto whose remarkably beautiful and flexible voice, coupled with both a precious and precocious musicality, is attracting an ever wider and more enthusiastic audience.

Born in 1978, Jaroussky began his musical studies with the violin and won admission to the Versailles Conservatory, where he soon switched his area of focus to voice, via a short stint of piano study. He received a diploma from the Conservatoire de Paris, having worked there with the Early Music faculty.

The first musical selection, "Pianti, sospiri," from a Vivaldi cantata for voice and continuo, shows the essential Jaroussky: young, vigorous, extremely musical, and absolutely brilliant in his execution of the very demanding fioratura in this piece. I wish to call to attention something that might sound like a strange thing to focus upon, and that is the very obvious delight that these young players and singers bring to their music. This is one of the things that is most attractive about ancient music, and that is the unalloyed pleasure and enthusiasm that accompanies pure music. This is a superb example of ars gratia artis—art for its own sake, art as its own reward. For the musically and aesthetically sensitive music and theater lover, this is the perfect antidote to the vulgar and dreary self importance of verismo, which has come to annoy so many. This is pure music, almost pure magic. Its appeal is instantaneous to those for whom the best music, the ideal music, is something that can be classified as a "sting quartet in Ab," as opposed to "The Mountain King Surveys the Wondrous Beauty of His Realm." The typical post-Wagnerian program music, for me at least, has always been just one step short of a film score. [There is, however, a great exception here—program music is often the ideal format for interactive programs created by music educators to introduce young people to classical music. The utility of such music there is extremely important.] But enough. Back to the 18th century. There is a short spoken introduction to this section, but the radio button moves forward quickly, so you should be able to move it rapidly to the beginning of the musical selection, which starts at 1:25. Also, there are several selections on the video—the first is perfectly adequate on its own:

Aren't they adorable! It's hard to say who is having the most fun; Jaroussky, the harpsichordist or the cellist. It's hard not to fall in love with everyone in the ensemble. This is unalloyed pleasure and musical happiness and it is greatly affecting. I'm well aware that all these young people are "precious and expensive" conservatory types (Jaroussky has spent a large part of his life in conservatories), where not only musical sophistication but even virtuosity are taken for granted, which makes musical execution like this possible. They are so far advanced that they can pretty much forget technique and self-consciousness and relax into the rapturous expression of musical art. That is certainly part of the charm, but it goes beyond that. One can see it easily in another famous alto, Cecilia Bartoli, who has basically chosen to dedicate her life to Baroque music, even musical scholarship, to the dismay of some opera fans who resent the fact that they seem to have lost a breast-beating Amneris in favor of an entire album dedicated to Antonio Salieri or to the many concerts showcasing Vivaldi's music, an area in which she has established herself as a respectable scholar, even to the point of having discovered some of the Prete Rosso's previously undiscovered manuscripts. This is a new breed of independent young singer indeed, and I applaud them.

Finally, here is Jaroussky doing an operatic selection, "Se in ogni guardo," from Vivaldi's Orlando Finto Pazzo (Orlando Feigning Madness). This is the kind of music in which the 18th century castrati excelled, and with which they made splendid livings, attracting huge audiences. My own feeling is that the great bulk of them could not compete with today's altos such as Jaroussky or David Daniels. The pen is mightier than the sword, and technique mightier than the knife! Again, the music starts at 1:35, and the first piece is adequate:

That is so spectacular! I will say, however, that Jaroussky's hopping and bouncing around, while it is amusing to watch, is not the best idea. Great singers have characteristically stood absolutely still when they sing in concert; their entire attention concentrated on the diaphragm and the throat. He is very young, though, and he may well learn to hold it down, lest he take flight on gossamer wing, up, up and away:)

Let's all wish this brilliant young man a continuing career. No one can say what is going to happen, but the signs of stress are everywhere apparent in the operatic repertoire we have all become accustomed to in the last 50 years. The history of elegant singing during the Baroque represents a distinguished past, and if past is indeed prelude to the future, then we have reason to rejoice.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dame Eva Turner: One of the 20th Century's Greatest Voices

Dame Eva Turner is likely to be the greatest opera singer England ever produced. Her dramatic soprano voice was, at the height of her career, without peer. Opera enthusiasts will of course argue about so hallowed a position as "the best" whatever, but I do feel perfectly comfortable saying that hers was one of the greatest voices of the 20th century. Many concede first place to her among all the sopranos who ever dared tackle Turandot, and I would heartily concur. I do not believe she was the very first to sing the role, but she did sing it the same year it was first produced—1926—and immediately claimed it as her own. There are of course other great Turandots whom others will champion, Birgit Nilsson being the leading contender.

Dame Eva was born near Manchester in 1892, and died in 1990, a month or so before her 97th birthday. She sang small roles to begin with, but by 1924 her ringing and powerful voice had attracted the attention of no less a conductor than Arturo Toscanini, who engaged her for La Scala's production of the Ring Cycle, in which she sang the roles of Sieglinde and Freia. She went on to sing in all the major opera houses, performing leading roles in Lohengrin,, Die Meistersinger, Tannhäuser, Siegfried, Die Walküre, Tosca and Aida, all roles in which her dramatic voice served her well. But let us go immediately to her recording of "In Questa Reggia," Turandot's big aria: It is 5minutes, but I urge you to hear it to the end, to hear the incredible high C's: [You may need to turn your speakers up a bit, as London Records were among the worst for miking singers. It's a good recording but the volume needs a boost]:

Isn't that something! It is easy enough to see why she is considered by many to be the greatest Turandot, and the recording also makes clear why hers was one of the great voices of the 20th century!

Her talents were also well displayed in Tosca, as this superb recording of "Vissi d'arte" will show:

Her mastery of the Italian language and style are notable. Many voices which are well suited to Wagner (Nilsson again comes to mind) fare less well in the Italian repertoire, but from her earliest youth, Dame Eva showed a rather remarkable propensity for the Italian way of singing, and a particular affinity for the music of Puccini, essentially a contemporary. This is uncommon for an English-speaking singer. However, one of the things that is sometimes overlooked when Dame Eva is the topic of discussion is her personality, which is decidedly grand, broad and highly romantic. This is not just an offhand idea of mine, it can be demonstrated. Because she lived to such an extraordinary age, there are films and tapes of her available. Happily, there is a wonderful interview on Youtube that will show exactly what I am referring to. Plácido Domingo is also on the tape, and you will need to listen to him sing a brief excerpt from a Zarzuela piece, while seated at the piano, but this is a pleasant enough task! Depending on how quickly the video loads for you, you might be able to move a bit ahead. It is at approximately 4:44 that Dame Eva talks for a moment about her opinion of Domingo. Just watch her and listen to her for a minute, for a rare insight into the grandeur of an age long gone, of which Dame Eva (95 at the time of this video) was the last survivor. She has both Domingo and the interviewer by her, but she sees only the audience, and it is that connection that says it all:

See what I mean? And we do need to recall that the great energy and enthusiasm displayed here were from a little woman who was not far from 100 years of age. Imagine her at thirty five or forty!

With that personality and that broad, melodramatic sense of grandeur fueling her amazing voice, all the elements were indeed in place, from the very beginning of her career, to create one of the world's great opera singers.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ferruccio Tagliavini: The Heavenly Voice

It would be an impossible task to say of any one person that he or she possessed, in their prime, the most beautiful voice in the world, but if such a thing were possible, I for one would put my money on the great Italian tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini. I will not even pretend to be objective about Tagliavini, such is my love of his voice, so brace yourself for an onslaught of hyperbole.
Born in 1913, he made his debut in 1938, at the age of 25, as Rodolfo, in La Bohème. He very quickly rose to prominence, and sang in all the major opera houses of Europe and the United States. His voice was a wonder; exceptionally beautiful and hailed by all, especially in the lighter repertoire in which he excelled. Within this repertoire he had few rivals, except of course the great Gigli, another prime candidate for the "most beautiful voice award," or perhaps Tito Schipa, a brilliant lyric tenor. This is one of those cases where a little bit of sound is worth many, many words. The following aria is real tenor warhorse, and you have doubtless heard it sung by many tenors, but I ask you to consider for a moment if you have ever heard it more beautifully sung:

It is simply wonderful. Every aspiring young lyric tenor should be made to listen to this. The legato is amazing—the music flows in one long stream from the beginning of the aria to the end. His mastery of swelling a note starting from a gentle piano is one of the great secrets of his vocal style, and it is one to which the Italians are particularly sensitive, and to which they always respond with enthusiasm.

The next selection is a real treasure. I had the misfortune, in my youth, to hear this aria for the first time sung by Mario del Monaco. Talk about a bull in a china shop! For those who are used to hearing "E la solita storia del pastore" sung by huge tenor voices determined to blow windows out of the theater, I daresay this could be a real eye-opener, primarily because it shows what this aria—one of the loveliest ever written—can sound like in the hands of a musical master who understands what "beautiful singing" is all about:

I do not believe that I have ever heard it done better, or more convincingly. He naturally refuses to sing the interpolated high B natural at the end which many tenors feel they have to do to get a big hand. It's an atrocious interpolation, and a sign of artistic and stylistic insensitivity on the part of singer who feels he "has to do it." He doesn't.

The thing about Tagliavini's kind of singing is that it does in fact carry. I heard him in concert back in the 70's, in New York, in a large hall filled with people. His Italian diction was excellent—as was Gigli's and Schipa's—and I could not only hear every word, but understand it. Even his dialect songs were understandable. Schipa once said that all you have to do is to get the words up to the lips, and if the sound is properly produced, they will fall off the lips right into the ears of the listeners. And he was right. Would that many singers today could learn this valuable lesson! A great deal was lost when verismo, with its attendant vulgarities, became the "tónica del momento." Really good dramatic tenors, like Giuseppe Giacomini, could manage it, and turn in exceptional performances in the theater, but few tenors, as I have pointed out recently, were in Giacomini's class as far as musicianship and absolute mastery of a tricky technique are concerned.

Here is Tagliavini in what may have been his signature role, Nemorino, singing the very famous and much loved aria "Una furtiva lagrima."

What can I possibly say? It is perfection. No one ever did it better. Take the three arias presented above, distill them into one session, intelligently commented upon, and you have the ultimate master class in tenor singing, which could be presented anywhere in the world.

I know that no one is perfect, and some balance is needed. I cannot think of any reasonable criticism that can be made of Tagliavini in his appropriate repertoire. Unfortunately, however, for reasons I do not know, he started, later in his career, to take on some bigger roles, and the inevitable happened—he strained and thickened his voice. Bel canto was in decline, as far as public popularity was concerned, and perhaps he was seduced by the rise of the spinto tenor and the dramatic tenor, and the great public acclaim laid upon them. If so, it is sad, because his voice, musicianship, and style all worked together to make his singing some of the most beautiful ever heard on the operatic stage.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dame Nellie Melba: The Enigma

There is no early opera singer I can think of who deserves a clear-headed and objective study more than Dame Nellie Melba, but it seems impossible The mere mention of her name can even today, 148 years after her birth, create unpleasant arguments among opera lovers. The animus toward her remains colossal. However, before embarking on any kind of discussion of this problematic singer, I think it is important to hear at least two of her recordings. They are all short, because of the primitive state of the technology then. Some are even done on cylinders. Melba was renowned for her Gilda, so it makes sense to start with a 1904 recording of "Caro Nome"  You'll need to turn up the volume on this recording:

Here we come face to face with the first of the difficulties of evaluating the art of a singer on the basis of a 108 year old recording. What comes through, tonally, is a mixture. There are moments of genuine beauty, especially when she trills. She necessarily covers just a bit (you cannot trill on a wide-open sound), and that additional cover places the tiniest cupola on the voice which erases the edge that such open phonation often produces. In those moments, one can sense what may have been—ten years earlier—a lovely floating sound in the opera house; angelic and pure. In fact, she was commonly praised in her day for that very kind of pure, sweet, angelic sound. The record also revels, if we are going to be honest, a sometimes wide open production above the passagio that starts to resemble a blaring horn, or worse, a screech. It pops up out of the vocal line like a jack-in-the-box, and can ruin the musical phrase within which it is contained. Here is her very first recording, also in 1904. It is a portion of the "Mad Scene" from Lucia.  Again, turn the volume up:

You will of course have noticed the lack of a very high note at the end, which is by now obligatory. Once someone does it, it becomes tradition; sadly, for some sopranos. In any case, Melba, free from almost any traditions, owing to the earliness of her career, did not sing it. This aria, it must be said, is much better sung than "Caro Nome." Within this ancient recording, the sound that seems to possess some of the qualities for which she was famous is more in evidence. This singing,however, at least as evidenced in these old recordings, does not in my judgment rise to the level of singing attained by Galli-Curci, but then Melba comes from an earlier period. Melba is actually from the generation prior to Caruso! I think this is important to remember. We are really dealing with a historical artifact here. Whence, therefore, the undying animus?

When controversy surrounds an opera singer, it usually revolves around technique (Giuseppe Giacomini), eccentric acting (Anna Netrebko),  erratic behavior (Franco Bonisolli) or selling out to popular stereotype (Luciano Pavarotti). In the case of Nellie Melba, I have to admit that I have always wondered at the visceral dislike that still exists among many opera fans for a singer born in 1861, (shortly after the beginning of the American Civil War!) who spent a great part of her career in the Victorian world of the late 19th century. The "Caro Nome" and "Mad Scene" fragments were recorded when she was already 43 years old. One would think that it would be possible by now to view so ancient a career with a kind of disinterested objectivity. Not so. A casual glance at the Youtube video postings of Melba's old records is a clear indication of the fact that there are very few civil disagreements about Dame Nellie Melba. This has been going on for years. I remember it clearly fifty years ago, when, if anything, it was worse.

I talk a great deal about the archetypal, because in opera especially, the themes—both musical and dramatic—are so very broad. Sometimes this infects the singers, whose melodramatic portrayals, emotionally felt and presented, are fortified by the approving applause and shouts of the audiences, year after year. Some people begin to act, in their everyday lives, in the same kind of way. This quickly conduces to what might be called the "prima donna" syndrome. For some reason that I can recognize but not explain, the Latin and even middle-European "prima donna," as a type, can often elicit the occasional smile—there is something vaguely amusing about it all, and in a strange kind of way, the "prima donnas" themselves seem to know it. There is a kind of Latin grandiosity, for example, that is understood by both audience and performer to be a bit of a schtick, by turns annoying or funny, but entirely tolerable. But curiously, this does not work at all well in the Anglo-Saxon world, where mistrust and dislike of such behavior is intense. Melba is a case in point. There was a crudeness to her prima donna antics that was not in any way funny; on the contrary, it was mean-spirited and self-obsessed; a dead-eyed and humorless arrogance coupled with a chilling disregard for others. There was no misty-eyed love of the art that carried her to silly but somehow grand Olympian heights of rapture and artistic ecstasy. No "Vissi d'arte " here—more like "d'amour propre." She came from humble beginnings in Australia, whose level of culture at the time was not what it would one day be. The same could be said of the United States at the time. In fact, Melba's humorless grandiosity reminds me of some notable Americans born in the 19th century who also fell prey to this strange, unsophisticated, grand sense of self importance. I think of Frank Lloyd Wright and Douglas MacArthur; two extraordinarily self important and unpleasant individuals who treated others badly and asserted their superiority to one and all. Both, to be fair, were prodigiously talented men. And Melba was a world-class singing phenomenon. Perhaps there is a New-World naïveté in all these individuals, who became fatally entranced by the increasingly tawdry glamour of a rapidly decaying European aristocracy. Melba, who gave command performances before crowned heads of Europe, who had an early and scandalous affair with Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, and who paraded herself endlessly in aristocratic gatherings, had in fact fallen in love with all the mannered affectations of European aristocracy, which she wore like an ill-fitting dress. On her, the gold turned quickly to brass.

I know this is a one-sided picture so far. No one can be so simply and negatively described. To her credit, she did admirable work entertaining soldiers and raising money during the First World War. She endowed conservatories and supported and encouraged some younger singers (although usually younger sopranos who showed promise of becoming "the new Melba.") Also, it was not the public who disliked her—quite the contrary: she had a tremendous following, and praise and adulation was showered on her, especially in Australia. The animus of which I have spoken turns out, upon reflection, to be held largely by other performers, both those who worked with her and had to suffer her (perceived) insults and slights, and the generations of performers who followed, and saw in her—as an archetype—all the forces arrayed against them and their own hopes. That being the case, perhaps we should not take the negativism all that seriously.