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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Alfredo Kraus: The Personification of Elegance

Alfredo Kraus was born in 1927 in Spain's Canary Islands, and began his musical studies as a child, beginning piano at 4 years of age. He was a good and highly intelligent student of music, and developed disciplined habits at a young age which stayed with him throughout his life. He would, during his long career, be consistently praised for his extremely refined musicianship. A handsome man, in the debonair 1930's matinee-idol mold, he had an aristocratic bearing that bespoke the refinements of earlier centuries. All these qualities made it possible for him to have a superb career, and he did.

Kraus' debut was in 1956, at 29 years of age, in Cairo, portraying the Duke in Rigoletto, which was to become one of his signature roles, along with Werther, Nemorino, Arturo, and Faust. (His French was good, and he was very popular in the French repertoire.] In 1958 he debuted in Lisbon, and then, in quick succession, London, Milan, Chicago and New York, and then to world wide fame. There were no scandals in his life, no self-indulgent behavior, and no health crises. He was a model of stability, professionalism and artistic consistency, an extraordinary model for serious artists.

Kraus' voice was highly pitched. The territory around high C and even beyond, held no fears for him. Here he is (at age 59!) singing "Mes Amis," from La Fille du Regiment, a notorious aria whic contains—if you listen to it from the beginning—one B natural, two Bb's and an unbelievable five high C#'s! This aria is long. I recommend you move the radio button forward to 5:10 as soon as you can, and listen from there to the end, which is where the high C# fireworks take place.

Isn't that something! And at 59 years of age, almost unbelievable. He never lost that brilliant top. And the wildly enthusiastic reaction of the audience is a clear indication of the esteem in which he was held. The clarity, consistency and seeming ease of production of those extremely high notes are sure signs of a brilliant singer, very disciplined and in complete control of his voice.

The Duke in Rigoletto was a natural for a distinguished looking man with a high-pitched voice. It was his debut opera and remained a favorite with audiences:

Absolutely perfect bel canto technique, smooth as silk. This vocal production cannot be faulted in any way. It is very traditional, and perfectly adapted to singing tenor in opera. Curiously, given the eternal insistence from most voice teachers about low larynx and extreme diaphragmatic support, watching Kraus makes it clear that his larynx is often high, and much of his breathing is clavicular. It requires a very straight posture, which Kraus had. This may seem like heresy, in the era of belting, but in fact it is for some voices and styles of singing a time honored technique which Gigli also employed. Essentially, it is the way boy sopranos or coloratura sopranos sing. This is not to say he does not support, only that it is selective and integrated into a narrower, higher sound, less dependent on deep resonances.

Finally, the role which most consider Kraus to have owned: Werther. Here is one of the earlier arias in the opera, "O nature, pleine de grĂ¢ce!"

It is very, very nice to reflect upon the fact that bel canto singing, with its elegance, beauty, and stylistic refinements, did not in fact die. It lived in Kraus,and lives in others and—given the very large number of aficionados who considered his art to be perfection itself—it is not going to leave us. It will come back, because the thirst is there.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

John McCormack: The One and Only

I think it is fairly safe to say that John McCormack is the one great tenor who had a brilliant career singing almost exclusively in the English language. That simply does not happen. There have been excellent tenors who sang occasionally in English (Alfred Piccaver, Richard Crooks) and some whose English language work was extensive and in the great opera tenor mode (Mario Lanza), but McCormack is a special case. I can visualize the hands going up, saying "Wait a minute....McCormack sang huge numbers of sentimental Irish ballads, and operetta songs....that doesn't count!" And that is where I disagree. It does count, because McCormack never let down his vocal and stylistic seriousness for any song or arietta. He always approached anything he did with all the classical vocal training and artistic seriousness at his disposal—and that was a very considerable amount!

McCormack was born in Athlone, Ireland, the fourth of eleven children, in 1884. He received his early education from the Marist Brothers in Athlone. Certainly one of the formative events of his youth was winning the gold medal in the 1903 singing contest in Dublin, when he would have been a mere 19 years of age. This brought much attention his way, and friends saw to it that he got the money necessary to study in Italy, where he studied with Vincenzo Sabatini. He married Lily Foley in 1906 and the couple had two children, Cyril and Gwen. He debuted at Covent Garden (Cavalleria Rusticana) in 1907. Shortly thereafter, he went to America, where in 1911 he sang the tenor lead in Victor Herbert's Natoma, opposite Mary Garden, at the Met. His singing was noted, but the opera itself failed. His next move was to Australia, where Nellie Melba had engaged him as lead tenor for the Melba Grand Opera Season. Melba was notorious for not getting along with colleagues, but McCormack seems to have been a special case. Their professional relationship, at least, went reasonably well. McCormack's opera career was short, and tended to peak fairly early, probably when was in his late 20's. It was when he turned his attention to concertizing and making recordings that his fame skyrocketed. His detailed biography is everywhere available, and easy to consult.

One of the most engaging features of McCormack's early recording was the silvery tone of his voice, which was accentuated by the acoustical recording horn then in use. Here is a good example from 1915, which I posted several weeks ago—the American Civil War Song, "The Vacant Chair." This song also contains what I believe is the highest note McCormack ever recorded—a D natural above high C, at the very end of the piece:

Such an emotional song, and so well sung! This is the essential McCormack. The tone is bright and silvery, without ever becoming shrill, and the enunciation is absolutely perfect, and I mean every –single- word! This is not only excellent vocal technique in action, it is a mark of true respect and consideration for his audience, a lesson many other singers could profitably learn! (Another of whom this can be said is Mario Lanza. It is no accident he and McCormack were among the most successful of all classical singers singing in English.) This is also a fine example of something I mentioned at the very beginning, and that is the serious vocal technique and artistry that he brought to every song he sang. It elevates what could have been a sentimental pot-boiler into a beautiful song of real and painful regard for the dreadful cost of war, one delivered at the very most intimate and personal setting—the family dinner table.

It was in the area of Celtic music however—most specifically Irish—that his singing was simply nonpareil. There has never been, and there is unlikely ever to be, a better salesman for the sentimental beauty of Irish Music than John McCormack. Here is "The Barefoot Trail," from 1920:

Again, the sentiment, the beautiful singing and enunciation, and a certain magic that is very hard to define, but has something to do with "soul," to use a currently popular critical word. He had it all.

Some attention needs to be given to the operatic part of McCormack's life, which, even if secondary, was still significant. He was essentially, in his youth, an opera singer in the Italian mode. Here is his recording, in Italian, of Faust's big aria, "Salut, demeure...":

If you wish, you can read my comments below the picture on this particular post. I do note that, while he takes the aria down half a tone, he is not the only one to do so, and his singing of it is, in the main, quite admirable.

But it is the McCormack of the wonderful Irish and English repertoire than finds a permanent place in the hearts of so many. There have been many great Italian tenors, but there was only one John McCormack.