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Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Great Jacques Urlus

Jacques Urlus was born in 1867 near Aachen, and grew up in Tilburg, in The Netherlands. As was—and is— so often the case with great artists, entertainers and sports figures, his family was poor, so much so that they could not afford to give him any musical training. The result of this is that Urlus was essentially self-taught, and a mighty job he did of it, for he was to become an extraordinary technician, with a near-flawless vocal technique that made it possible for him to sing Mozart, Wagner (with which he was particularly associated), and Lieder. In a word, like Franz Völker and Leo Slezak, he could sing anything he put his mind to. Essentially, it is always the same voice, and it always works well! More on this subject in a moment.

His debut was at the Amsterdam Opera House, in 1894, in a small part. After singing around Amsterdam for a while, he had the chance to go to Hannover, Germany, where he appeared in Lohengrin, to considerable acclaim. He sang for Cosima Wagner, but was not at that time given any opportunities at Bayreuth. So, it was back to The Netherlands, where he continued singing where he could. His next big move was in 1900, to Leipzig, which became his artistic base for many years. Debuts from farther afield soon came, and he went on to perform in Berlin, Vienna, Frankfurt and other houses in Germany and Austria. He also appeared at Covent Garden at this time. Finally, in 1911, he did get the chance to go to Bayreuth, where he sang Siegmund , which was well received.

It was on to the Met the next year, and Urlus was now established, having sung in all the major Northern opera houses. I do not know that he ever sang publicly in any language except German, or, I assume, Dutch in some of the performances in The Netherlands.  After the Met engagement, it was back to Germany, where he essentially spent the rest of his career.

Urlus is a good example of what I talk about often in these pages, and that is the unsatisfying vagueness of our current terminology for voice types. He was a great tenor. To me that sums it up. We are so besotted with ever-finer vocal definitions, that they lose meaning after while: Heldentenor, heroic tenor (the same thing) dramatic tenor (the same thing), spinto tenor, leggiero tenor, lyric tenor, etc. ad infinitum. They are all in fact tenors, men with high singing voices. We burden our vocabulary with endless definitions, to almost no avail. Most of these definitions, when you stop and think about it, describe the color, size, intensity and flexibility of the voice. It does not invent a new category every time one tenor sounds different from another. Let's look more closely at Urlus, a good example of what I am talking about. Commonly called a "Heldentenor," a term I somewhat uneasy with in his case, here is his rendition of a popular Mozart aria, Tamino's "Dies Bildness ist bezaubernd Schön"

It is beautiful, and reminds me of what a well-known New York opera coach once told me: "Everybody likes to hear these great Mozart arias, but they don't want to hear a church tenor singing them." Indeed. Urlus' voice sounds different here, of course, from that of Fritz Wunderlich, Jussi Björling, or Alfredo Kraus, but so what? They are different people, each with his own voice. If it resembles anyone else's rendition, it would be Franz Völker's. Both were eminently successful singing Mozart. And Wagner!

Let's hear Urlus move now to Verdi, and to what is commonly considered a "big" and "dramatic" aria, "Celeste Aida."  Urlus sings it with exactly the same voice with which he sang the Tamino aria:

I would say this is exceptionally well done; that it is, in fact, great tenor singing, without question. The line, the purity of the vocal production, the style, and the dynamics, even with the "as written" ending.  It is elegant and consummate singing, by any standard and in any historical period.  What I am not sure I hear is "Heldentenor."  If Lauritz Melchior is a "Heldentenor," then Jacques Urlus may not be. That is as simply as I can put it. They are both tenors, and they both sound very good in very different kinds of roles.

Finally, 2 short Wagner arias, from Lohengrin, recorded in 1907 and 1911. ("In Fernem Land," when Urlus was 40 years old, and "Mein lieber Schwan," four years later. I invite you to compare the voice, in all its aspects, to the two pieces we have already heard.

And there you have it. Superb singing on all fronts: Mozart, Verdi and Wagner, and we have not even touched the lighter song repertoire, at which he also excelled. One voice, finely tuned and universally applicable. The fact that he always sang in German or Dutch, of course, helps make this happen. If he were to sing in Italian, Spanish, or French, it would be possible to talk about his particular aptitude for one or the other language, but that only adds another element to the real differences between tenor singing voices, and that is the aptness to the language of birth—another matter altogether, unrelated to voice types. Jacques Urlus was a great tenor; remarkably consistent and almost infinitely adaptable.*

*For those who wish to listen to more of Urlus, please permit me to recommend strongly the Youtube channel of Mr. Tim Shu, at dantitustimshu, one of the very best sites currently available on the web, where you can find many Urlus videos, all with erudite and reliable commentary.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Léopold Simoneau: The Art of Elegant Lyricism

Léopold Simoneau was born in St. Flavien, Québec. After beginning studies in Québec City and Montreal, he went to New York to study with the well-known American tenor and teacher Paul Althouse. His first important debut was in 1949 at the Opéra Comique in Paris, in Gounod's Mireille. His lovely, elegant singing was an instant hit with the French, and in the next two years he went on to debuts at the Paris Opera, Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence, Edinburgh, Salzburg, Vienna and Milan. He was quickly establishing a reputation not only as a brilliant Mozartean tenor, but as a near-perfect exponent of the elegant style of older opera in general, including Gluck's Orfeo, Delibes' Lakmé, and Rameau's Les Indes galantes. In the US, he sang at the Chicago Lyric from 1954 to 1961, and one season at the Met, as don Ottavio, in the 1960's. New York was not a fertile artistic field for elegant tenor singing in the Franch style at that time, being heavily invested in Italian verismo opera. Simoneau's superb lyric craftsmanship won him many honors in Canada, and he was, during his entire career, greatly respected for his musicianship and sense of high style.

His sense of style and finely tuned singing technique is something easily appreciated from hearing it, as opposed to someone talking about it! Here is the lovely "Un'aura amorosa," from Mozart's Così Fan Tutte:

Isn't that lovely! The legato line is perfect, and the smoothness of his singing is truly astonishing. This little aria is much trickier artistically that it might seem. The back and forth movement over the passagio can be treacherous, and it is not at all easy to maintain a smooth legato in the process. This is exemplary Mozart singing, and in fact Simoneau was praised throughout his career as one of the very greatest of Mozart singers.

It was not only in Mozart, of course, that he excelled. As a French-speaking tenor, the transition to operas such as Bizet's Pearl Fishers was natural. Here is the famous and beautiful aria "Je crois entendre encore:"

That is supremely beautiful, and vocally matches even the most famous tenors of all time (and I think every professional tenor has recorded it!) and is, I must say, far more convincing stylistically and linguistically that the versions of many well-known tenors. Simoneau is squarely within his favored repertoire!

Finally, an unusual piece. The music itself is very well known (Orpheus' heart-breakingly beautiful "che farò senza Euridice") but it is almost always sung by a contralto or mezzo-soprano. In France, however the piece was mounted as a French 18th-century style opera, with Orpheus sung by a tenor. This may sound a bit unusual to those who have heard only the contralto version, because dramatically the tenor best represents the role and the music as a male heart-broken lover who has lost his beloved, and the dramatic inflections which Simoneau makes place the piece slightly outside the more concert-like lilting, legato versions of female singers. I think it's a small matter, because the piece gains much in the (appropriate, I think) drama of its presentation. See what you think:

I find this very moving, and I think it works perfectly well.

Simoneau's career was one of very high musical and stylistic quality , and his recordings still bear eloquent testimony to that fact!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ezio Pinza: One Of The Greatest Singing Basses

Italian-American Bass Ezio Pinza was born in Rome in 1892, and grew up in Ravenna. Like so many famous artists, he was born in poverty. Such individuals often strive to succeed in sports or show business, largely because their poverty frees them from ordinary middle-class expectations, and, to put it simply, they can afford to take the chance. He showed musical promise early on, and was able to take some lessons at Bologna's Martini Conservatory. His operatic debut was in Norma in 1914.

His operatic career began in earnest after WWI, when he made his La Scala debut, in 1919, under Arturo Toscanini. From the very beginning, his voice was uncommonly smooth and beautiful, a great asset for a singing bass, especially one with matinee idol looks, which Pinza possessed in abundance. His lack of formal education meant that he was not a particularly well-schooled musician. He was not able to read music, for example, but he had a very sharp ear, and could memorize music accurately, even to the point of being able to hear—and absorb—stylistic nuances. His musical instincts were superb. The result of this was that he began his musical career to considerable acclaim, coming across to audiences and critics alike as a very good-looking and sophisticated singer and actor, with a brilliant and beautiful voice. His career soared as a result, and by 1926 he had been invited to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Engagements at Covent Garden and Salzburg soon followed. He was particularly successful in the Italian repertoire, including Bellini, Verdi and Donizetti.

Like other Italians before him, he felt most at home in America, where he was an idol of the huge Italian-American audience that had so warmly embraced Caruso, Galli-Curci, Martinelli, and so many others. He was a favorite at the Met, where he sang for 22 years. In 1948 he switched gears, so to speak, and embarked upon a successful Broadway career, becoming a popular and well known matinee idol, largely through the success he enjoyed in South Pacific and, later, Fanny. It was in South Pacific, however, that he first became known by America's popular music audience, and it brought him great fame. He was frequently heard and seen on radio, TV and in the movies, and found acceptance as an essentially popular singer. His was one of the broader and more successful American singing careers.

Here is the quintessential Pinza in one of his most popular operas, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, singing "Non Piu Andrai."

Notice the extreme smoothness of the voice. The wonderful thing about Pinza (inter alia!) is that he was first and foremost a singer. He put the "singing" in "singing bass." Many, less endowed vocally, will sometimes bark their way through even lyric arias like this. Pinza never did that. He was always the consummate singer and musician.

In the Italian repertoire, Pinza was very much at home, and the opportunity to display his elegant and musical singing was never greater than in operas such as Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. Here is the beautifully dramatic "Il Lacerato Spirito."

It is hard to imagine this aria better sung. It displays Pinza's operatic gifts perfectly. It is all there: the musicality, the stylistics, and—always—the flawless technique and beautiful, flowing voice.

Finally, we absolutely must conclude with the song that made Pinza a household name in America. Here is an old kinescope recording of Pinza and Mary Martin in "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific. As will become apparent from the old video, he was in fact an excellent actor. The voice is wonderful, and the thick Italian accent is completely irrelevant, because it is a foreign character part. In fact, it adds to the charm. This is the Pinza most Americans knew and loved:

There is nothing I can add to that!