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Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Great Tetrazzini

Luisa Tetrazzini was born in 1871, in Florence. She began to sing as a small child, and was trained at the Instituto Musicale in Florence. By the age of 19 she was ready to make her debut as Inez in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. She sang around Italy, and then went to Russia, where she scored a big success in St. Petersburg. She was kept busy as a young lady, learning her craft and drawing increasing attention to herself by virtue of her superb voice. She was not beautiful, as was Patti, but was rather fat from early on. Her divine voice, however, spared her from any undue or cruel criticism for her appearance. From the earliest days, she displayed a flexible and high coloratura, of the kind that was very much in vogue in the lyric theater of the day. She commanded an extraordinary trill, easily produced, and was comfortable with extensive fioratura. There was a thrilling sound to her voice that won her acclaim early on in her career. Her American debut was in San Francisco in 1905. By this time, she was well known for her lyric coloratura roles, especially Violetta, Gilda and Lucia; roles in which her great vocal endowments could be shown to advantage. She auditioned at the Met, but they seemingly were not impressed, which is somewhat curious, as she was already famous. One suspects that something unknown outside the Met may have been in play. It makes no sense otherwise. She did sing for the Manhattan Opera in 1908, but never warmed to the Met, because of their inexplicable attitude, and only sang one season there, in 1911-12. She was in such demand world-wide that the Met was inconsequential in any case. She is reputed to have made a very large amount of money. Unwise associations over time, however, led to a sad end, characterized by poverty. Most scandalous was her victimization at the hands of a dreadful male gold-digger, thirty years her junior, who married her late in her career, and stole most of her money. In spite of such reckless errors of judgment, however, she was by all accounts a lovely person, outgoing and friendly, even to the extent of letting aspiring singers live in her home, at her expense, at least during the good years. Her last days in poverty and sickness anger and bewilder many people even today. It is so wretchedly unfair. One wonders where the charity of fellow performers was. Yes, times were hard in late 30's, but Gigli, to take but one example, managed to raise a huge amount of money during this period by the many charity concerts he gave. Were people wary of her because of her poor judgment in getting involved with such a vile (although doubtless "charming") man as the one who wrecked her life? Why did no one come to her aid at the end when she was so obviously in need? The State of Italy, at least, provided her with an appropriate funeral. It's just all too sad.

Here is the great soprano in "Caro nome":

As the recording shows, the top part of her voice was quite extraordinary. Like virtually all sopranos of her age, she will scoop down into the lower registers, and that sound jolts us somewhat today, when all sopranos simply sing low notes very softly. It is possible that in Tetrazzini's time, when people actually paid more attention to the words, sopranos felt they needed the additional heft in the lower register, so that their voice, and the words they were singing, did not get lost in the orchestra. Another thing that is immediately apparent is the exceptional and easy nature of her trill. I don't think I have ever heard that many trills in "Caro nome" before. But she was just showing off one of her greatest natural endowments. Here is the famous "Ah non giunge," from La Sonnambula:

Certainly an attractive rendition, although one must be honest and point out certain tendencies that are perhaps not up to today's standard: There is sometimes a lack of adequate articulation on the cadenzas that comes dangerously close to a glide, although she was not alone in that during her day. She also sacrifices the lower parts of her voice to the top, which is certainly common (and smart) because that is what people are paying to hear. From an aesthetic point of view, however, she lays herself open to criticism for making the bottom and(especially) middle register of the voice rather open, white, and somewhat blaring. The top is excellent.
Here is a sentimental view of Tetrazzini—the only moving pictures I am aware of—listening to a Caruso recording late in life, and bursting into song along with it. Her girly and giggly abandon at the end is most charming, and just makes one upset yet again that she was treated so badly by others, and did not have the dignified and comfortable retirement she deserved.

Isn't that delightful? She seems a lovely person, and the fact that people speak of her so fondly even today, nearly 70 years after her death in 1940, is a fitting memorial to a magnificent artist, who literally gave it all.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Adelina Patti: An Enchanting Echo of a Distant Past

Ancient recordings provide a kind of evidence of the past that is at once fascinating and problematical. When written words alone are evidence of the past, our minds are free to construct a reality that is almost always fanciful, and one which bears at best a tenuous relationship to the real events or persons involved. In opera, the same forces are at work. The golden age, the locus amoenus, always rears its head and asks us to daydream about the bygone glory days of singing. It sometimes happens, however, that old recordings come to the rescue of sober assessment. There are not a few 19th century singers whose tenuous grip on what would today be called solid technique belie such fanciful idealizations of the past. Particularly in the case of sopranos, there is a lot of evidence of insufficiently supported top notes, inadequate cover, and perhaps most annoying of all, what I "register scoops." Some singers of that era had a clearly defined notion of different registers, but paid inadequate attention to smoothly blending them together. It can happen, therefore, that a modern listener can be carried aloft by floating high soprano tones, only to be jolted by a sudden unmediated drop into a husky, alto-like chest register, usually initiated by a crack in the voice. It can shatter what had been a lovely vocal image. It is all the more noteworthy then, and excites genuine admiration, when one looks at the soprano who may be the oldest recorded opera singer of note in the 19th century, the divine Adelina Patti, praised effusively by the great composers of her day, and celebrated everywhere as the acme of the opera singer's art.

Born 166 years ago (!) in 1843, Adelina Patti was the daughter of tenor Salvatore Patti. She was born in Spain, while her family was on tour there, but moved to New York as a child. She began singing when she was little more than a girl, making her debut at New York's Academy of Music at 16, as Lucia. I am not one who as a rule yearns for things past, but I have to admit I would give a lot to be able to go back in time and hear that! She was beautiful as a young woman, with what all contemporaries claim was a pure, sweet, lyric voice. Imagine a beautiful Lucia so near the age of her heroine! We have by now become accustomed to seeing very mature (and often rather large) women sing that role, and much is lost, dramatically . [In the 18th century, it would have been possible for a boy soprano to take the part, but, verismo and romanticism having done their work, that would now be so unseemly as to be impossible.]

At 18 years of age, she made her Covent Garden debut in La Sonnambula, and in 1862 sang for President and Mrs. Lincoln, upon the death of their son Willi. From there on, there was no holding her back. She was already a star, and she promptly soared to super-stardom. There are good bios of her on the web, as her life has been much studied, so we can proceed to hearing a recording.

It has not been easy to choose a decent recording. Most are from 1905 and 1906, when she was either 62 or 63 years old. She did make an Edison cylinder recording in 1895, but it is, sadly, little more than a few inchoate shrieks. In my opinion her best recording, and one that with only a little imagination can show what the glory of that singing must have been 30 years earlier, is the 1906 rendition of "Ah, non credea mirarti," from Bellini's La Sonnambula:

That is just stunning! Remember that she was 63 years old when this was made. The clarity and purity of the voice are most noteworthy, as are the floating, haunting tones that are almost hypnotic. The breath control is exquisite, and she sings perfectly on the breath, which is how she is able to float those tones and portamento up and down so smoothly and seamlessly, and also trill so well and so easily. The fluidity of the presentation makes me almost weep with desire to have heard that 16 year old Lucia! This is an excellent recording, and there is only one instance, toward the end, where she breaks the legato and pops out of line with a quick high note and exclamation that probably on stage would have been heard simply as dramatic, but it's the kind of thing a horn tends to resonate and amplify, and is a bit jolting. But that is a matter of no consequence.

Another recording that is interesting is the 1906 "Batti, batti, o bel Masetto," from Mozart's Don Giovanni:

She excels in the same areas indicated in the previous recording. The purity of tone, the (musically appropriate) simplicity of the phrasing, the easy fluidity of the voice, are all exceptional. The same small, distracting qualities are also there. Notice the "register scoop" into chest voice on the last note...also the turns on the top of phrases toward the end pop out of line. Not really a problem, because of the probably, again, of the recording horn being the villain. One other thing is worth mentioning—Patti was born a mere 57 years after Don Giovanni was premiered in 1787. That distance is small; it would be no more distant for Patti than would Rodgers and Hammerstein be for a girl born today. I rather suspect the singing and stylistic traditions would still be alive, easily transmittable, virtually unchanged, for any teacher in his or her 50's or 60's at the time of Patti's youth. I am ever on the lookout for hints about how the music of bygone eras was actually performed. This could be one of those hints, but I will make no more of it because it is largely speculative.

Of one thing there can be no doubt, however, and that is that Adelina Patti was indeed an astonishing vocal talent, and even the faulty recordings that survive are enough for an attentive listener to be able to see and appreciate the depth and breadth of that astonishing talent from so long ago.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Louise Homer: A Great Met Favorite for 30 Years

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 days 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:

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.