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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Licia Albanese: Vocal Melodrama

Italian-American soprano Licia Albanese was born in Bari, Italy, in 1913. An energetic and talented child, she had the good fortune to have as her teacher the great verismo soprano Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi. In 1934, when Albanese was only 21, she substituted for an ailing soprano, singing Cio-Cio-San, a part that would become her signature role over the years. The idea of a 21 year old taking on that part is somewhat daunting, but Albanese's vocal stamina (and longevity!) was legendary. I heard her sing at age 67 at a gala fundraiser, and she was extraordinary.

Like so many Italian singers of her day who were destined for a major career, progress came quickly. Italy's system of regional theaters has always presented wonderful opportunities for young singers to be heard fairly early on in their careers, and Albanese was no exception. By 1935 she had made her debut at La Scala (in Gianni Schicchi) and she was on her way. She was excellently suited, by voice, training, looks and temperament, for the Verdi/Puccini verismo roles, and she quickly became an international presence, especially in Bohème, Traviata, and Butterfly.

Albanese's Metropolitan opera debut was in 1940, somewhat predictably in Madama Butterfly. She was to perform this signature role at the Met over 70 times. It was a great success, and she was to make the Met her artistic home for the next 26 seasons, in a variety of roles. She also quickly made America her patriotic home, acquiring American citizenship in 1945. In 1946 she did a series of radio performances with Arturo Toscanini. Albanese did not limit herself exclusively to the Met, being an artistic presence also at San Francisco. She did, however, tend to limit herself to her adopted land, and while she sang overseas occasionally, she was essentially an American soprano from that point on. In later years she became very active as a fundraiser for the arts, and for her Licia Albanese Foundation, established to help aspiring singers. Like other great Italian American singers before her, most specifically Amelita Galli Curci and Enrico Caruso, she was enormously popular here, and made very significant contributions to the arts in America.

It is necessary, at the very beginning to address Licia Albanese's voice and singing style, in order to avoid instant analysis or judgments. I do not believe it is possible to describe her singing by comparison to any other soprano, except possibly her teacher, Baldassarre-Tedeschi. (I recently posted two Baldassare-Tedeschi videos on my Youtube channel. You can find a link in the righthand sidebar of this page.) I find it more helpful to compare her to male singers, specifically Giuseppe Di Stefano and (brace yourself!) Feodor Chaliapin. Quirky as that may sound, there is a reason: all are extraordinary singing actors, and they place their voices in the service of the melodrama which characterizes their repertoire. It is fruitless to compare Licia Albanese to great lyric sopranos whose fine and flute-like voices soar with abandon; she will seem thick and over-heavy in the middle of her voice and short on top. The darkness in her voice will at times seem like a bark. No, she uses her voice to serve the part she sings. Like Di Stefano, she enunciates extremely clearly; it sometimes seems as though she is speaking to you. Most importantly, she uses her voice as Chaliapin used his, to vocally portray a character, usually in the grip of great emotion, distress or outright despair. People in those situations do not trill prettily. In terms of style, Albanese, like Callas, shows great conviction in her portrayals, and conviction is the absolute bedrock of great style. Here is the "Un bel dì" from her signature role, Cio-Cio-San:

Do you see what I mean? What strikes me immediately is the characterization in the voice. Like Giuseppe Di Stefano, she sang, to a large extent, as she spoke. The enunciation is extraordinary. I sometimes forget she is singing, and think she is speaking to me. The voice is dark and highly dramatic. She is a singing actress, and this is not an exercise in pure vocalism—it is simply a part of the whole picture. One thing she had was power in abundance. I can testify from having heard her in person that it was an astonishingly big voice for so tiny a person. Yes, the voice is showing signs of wear here, at 40, but one must remember that she started singing at 21, and almost the entirely of her repertoire was verismo, with all the attendant demands made on the voice. You will hear "prettier" Bb's than she manages here, more cleanly produced, but you will seldom hear a more moving, better articulated or more realistically convincing version of this famous aria.

Here is Albanese in another Puccini aria, "In Quelle Trine Morbide," from Manon Lescaut:

This is a much more traditional bit of singing, and excellent in every way. The dramatic intensity is there, as it always is, and the vocal line is clear and well connected stylistically to the music. It is perhaps more lyrical than the Butterfly selection, and soars where "Un bel dì" cries. That, however, derives from characterization more than anything else.

Here, finally, is Licia Albanese at her absolute best; as Violetta in La Traviata. This great scene, "Addio del Passato," shows all her strengths. The recitation at the beginning is so clear and painfully felt that it easily brings tears. The articulation is so precise that it almost seems possible to understand even if one doesn't speak Italian! Finally, the singing soars, and Albanese's dramatic voice is displayed to full advantage:

Say what one will, I personally would lay down my hard-earned money any place, any time, to hear something like that!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

José Carreras: A Voice of Extraordinary Beauty

José Carreras was born in Barcelona in 1946. Like so many before him, he came from a family of very modest means, and showed marked musical talent from the beginning. He seemed naturally inclined to sing as a child, and started even then trying to sound like great singers he had heard, most especially Mario Lanza. I know so many singers who have told me that Lanza, primarily through his movies, had been their first inspiration to try to sing opera. This was one of Lanza's less well known—but very important— contributions to opera and operatic singing. Even though he himself largely portrayed an opera singer, he inspired many who went on to actually become opera singers. Carreras was singing in public, most specifically on Spanish radio, as early as 8 years of age, which made it abundantly clear to his family that he was both serious and talented. His family at this point saw to it that he started to receive music lessons at Barcelona's Municipal Conservatory.

In 1970 he appeared as Flavio in Norma; a very small first role, but one which caught the attention of the great Monserrat Caballé, who heard gold in the young voice. In the same year, under her patronage, he sang opposite her as Gennaro in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia. Carreras proved his patroness to have been right! He was a great hit from the beginning, and his career skyrocketed. The golden voice was unmistakable, and international debuts followed in rapid succession: London, Italy, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Vienna; all within a period of 4 years. He was on his way to greatness, in operas such as Bohème, Butterfly, Traviata, Rigoletto, and Tosca. He also did Ballo—possibly a questionable choice, because it is a very big role for the tenor, well into the spinto repertoire, and at this stage Carreras' voice was what might be called a robust lyric. By his own admission, the very top of the tenor range was not at all easy for him, while the middle was especially beautiful. This may have led many to believe that he was really a spinto verging on dramatic, but that of course would only exacerbate the difficult top, since so much more energy was being put into the middle and upper-middle registers. In a word, it's a short path to becoming a Bb tenor.  However, that was not in evidence at the beginning of the career, when there seemed to be plenty of range to sing at least a good B natural, enough for virtually all the bread and butter Italian and French repertoire, where the arias containing a high C are often sung down a half tone. (Except perhaps in Italy, where a tenor can on occasion be booed for transposing a famous aria.) Recording contracts followed, and by the late 70's, José Carreras was internationally famous, and enjoying one of the great careers of the 20th century.

Here is the young Carreras, in 1973, singing one of his most popular early roles, the Duke of Mantua. The aria is beautifully sung generally, and the extraordinary beauty of Carreras' voice is very winning, and immediately makes his character sympathetic, even in the case of very flawed and unpleasant characters such as the Duke. Also, and importantly, the high B at the end is solid at this point in his career, and is clearly a bit hit with the audience.

That is truly superb! It is a world-class rendition, and a clear announcement to one and all that a new great tenor has arrived on the scene. This is what I would call the true Carreras voice. I am not alone in wishing that he had restricted himself to this kind of lyric repertoire as long as possible. But that was not the case. Like many, many tenors before, the lure of the big tragic, dramatic roles was calling, and Manrico, Chenier, Rhadames and Canio were on the way. By the late 70's and early 80's, the problem with the top of the voice was becoming self-evident. The attractive beauty of the voice, however, was such that his fame was still intact. Here is a Rhadames from 1979, six years later:

The coming trouble, as I say, is evident. The top notes in this aria are only Bb's. This is hardly more than the top of the range of many good baritones, yet notice the effort, and the change in quality from the middle to the top notes. They are not quite in line. He hops off the final Bb so quickly that the audience is confused and starts to applaud too early and has to clap again after the orchestra finishes. Almost all spinto and dramatic tenors take a big breath and hold on to that note as long as possible, ending with the orchestra if possible for the big applause cue, which seldom fails to bring a huge hand from the audience. Many conductors will help them by speeding up the tempo at the end. That just doesn't happen here—it is a weak and disappointing ending to the aria. Yes, I know that Verdi wrote a pianissimo note here, to end in a wistful, dreamy way as Rhadames dreams of his beloved Aida. But realistically that  doesn't happen in performance. The triumphal chord progression in the orchestra begs for triumphalism in the voice as well.

Toward the latter part of his career, Carreras began to shift his emphasis from opera to the concert stage, where he could choose songs and arias that favored the strongest part of his beautiful voice—the middle—and avoided the highest notes, which had become too difficult. He recorded West Side Story and South Pacific, and was fond of singing "Tonight," from West Side Story, with different sopranos, but I feel this was largely a failed effort. Simply the wrong choice. It is almost impossible for the classically trained foreign operatic tenor to transition to any kind of Broadway tunes, even one where the character being portrayed is a dialect character. The over-blown cover and vowel formation always make the young lover character sound too old to be taken seriously. And also, the best Broadway tenors—John Raitt is a good example—simply do not cover. It just isn't an acceptable English language sound in music any longer. That day (Victorian fin-de-siècle) is long gone. It sounds too foreign. Where Carreras did excel was in Neapolitan songs, something squarely within the Latin tenor fach. Here is an interesting video, introduced by considerable pre-song applause and an introduction by Carreras himself, in English, of "Core 'ngrato." Very beautiful, and well received, even though the Bb at the end, while acceptable, is strained and seems to be nearly out of his range at this point.

I think it is important to end by reiterating that Carreras was a great tenor. There just isn't any doubt about that. I don't mean to overplay the vocal problems. He knew from the beginning—and was honest about it—that the top was not easily produced. But just consider for a moment what he actually did during his career in spite of that! The voice was extraordinarily beautiful, and won him much attention and affection from his vast audience. He was a handsome man who acted well and convincingly, and he sang with great passion. His repertoire was huge, and he became very famous. He even struggled with—and conquered—leukemia and its debilitating effects and never—ever—lost the affection of his fans. To fuss unduely about the odd Bb or B natural is ultimately over-pedantic. This was a great singer, a great performer, and an admirable individual. He deserves all the attention he has received!