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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Geraldine Farrar: Hollywood Glamour Comes To Opera

Geraldine Farrar was born in Melrose, Massachusetts in 1882. She began studying music when she was a small child and was on the concert stage by the time she was a teenager. Her operatic debut was in Berlin in 1901, at the relatively tender age of 19. The opera was Faust, and she is reported to have created a sensation. From youth, she was beautiful, with strong acting as well as musical instincts. In the Victorian age of somewhat regal prima donnas, with only the slightest concern for acting and often with a seeming lack of concern about their appearance, Farrar was a potent force, both on stage and in the movies.

Her earliest roles seem to have been chosen to accentuate these characteristics. She appeared in Thomas' Mignon and Massenet's Manon, as well as Juliette in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. Hints of scandalous affairs began to surface almost immediately, and were to become a staple of her career, as she quickly either cultivated or naturally fell into what might be called show business glitz, with all that it implies. By the 20's she would be one of the "modern women"  of that period. She even had young female admirers known as "Gerry-flappers." Her most notorious affair was probably her long-standing affair with Arturo Toscanini, something that finally, if the stories are true—drove Toscanini from the Met when she demanded marriage. She was a mighty strong-minded woman.

All this is not to say that she was without more traditional artistic talents –not at all. In fact, she became an absolute staple at the Metropolitan for almost her entire career, until her retirement in 1922. She sang nearly 500 performances during that period, creating title roles in Mascagni's Amica, Puccini's Suor Angelica, and Giordano's Madame Sans-Gêne. Also, she was the Met's first Cho-Cho-San, in 1907.

Farrar also appeared in many silent movies, including Joan the Woman (1917), in which she portrayed Joan of Arc, and, in 1915, Cecil B. DeMille's adaptation of the opera Carmen. During her career, she made many recordings with RCA Victor.

Before listening to Farrar sing "Un bel dì," it is necessary to point out that she was among the first singing actors at the Met. She did not hesitate to use her voice to support characterization. Therefore, if she needed to portray something ugly and frightening, she did not hesitate to let those qualities be shown in her voice. She was not at all wed to pure lyricism at all costs. Here, in Cho-Cho-San's famous aria, in which she dreams of her husband's return, she deliberately creates the sound of the voice of a 15-year old girl. This will be immediately apparent at the beginning of the recording. It is important to remember what she was doing:

Very few well-known sopranos, then or now, would have the courage or the conviction to attempt this. The result is that we often must contend with hefty 40 year old sopranos singing Cho-Cho-San a tutta forza. Personally, I find Farrar's version very moving. It drives home, in the most direct way, the absolute tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes, as a child, with her own child, is about to have a child's first love betrayed. It's all just too terrible. This is the triumph of acting and characterization over all other considerations!

Here is a recording made in Farrar's youth, when she was only 27 years old. It is easy to see what kind of voice she had—very much in the ingénue category, very lovely and light, perfect for the kinds of heroines she was portraying at that stage of her life. This is the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann, with baritone Antonio Scotti, in 1909:

Mignon, Manon, Marguerite, Juliette—a perfect voice and repertoire choice joined to her youthful beauty.

Finally, Here is the "Jewel Song" from Faust, the opera in which Farrar first attracted international attention to herself as a 19-year old girl. This recording is from 1913, when she was 31, probably at her vocal peak, and shows a voice in full maturity—a rich and ringing operatic sound but with a somewhat forced B natural at the end. She never had a particularly high voice, and she was known to take on a huge schedule, which began to take its toll. She retired in 1922, when she was only 40, and it would seem to be the case that she had abused her voice with too much singing. Also, she always used the voice she had, as mentioned, in support of her acting, and that may have had some effect.

And now, an extra treat:  thanks to one of our faithful readers, my dear Russian friend Natalie, here is a Youtube video of Farrar's Carmen in Cecil B. DeMille's film!

Farrar in a nutshell: Self knowledge, a mighty will of her own, an adroit use of natural gifts, and a first-class career!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Beverly Sills: A Great American Soprano

Beverly Sills, (Belle Miriam Silverman) was born in 1929 in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were Ukrainian immigrants, and as a child Sills was exposed to many languages at home, including French, Yiddish, and Russian, along with her native English. This exposure gave her a very natural facility with foreign languages, which was helpful in her later career.

Sills was precocious in the extreme as a child. Starting by winning a child beauty contest at the age of 3, she began performing on the radio at the age of 4 as "Bubbles" Silverman. She started taking lessons with Estelle Liebling, and by 1937, when she was 8 years old, she had appeared in a film, released the following year, which fortunately is preserved and viewable on Youtube. Because it tells us so very much about her, I think that here is a good place to see it. The film is called "Uncle Sol Solves It," and it is far more than a vaudeville shtick because of the difficulty of the piece, and the serious way Sills sings. Notice the extraordinary presence and charm of this little girl!  Also, watch the video to the very end and notice Uncle Sol's final advice to her:

Now how adorable is that!? The amazing thing is that she handles the fioratura quite well! Also, she has been taught, or naturally understands, what the great bel canto tenor Fernando de Lucía once told his student Georges Thill: "...per cantare bene, bisogna aprire la bocca!!" Which little Bubbles did! It's not hard to see why they called her "Bubbles," is it:-) Also, one other thing needs to be noticed. Did you notice Uncle Sol's advice at the end? Stay right here and study in this country., no matter how hanxious your hancestors are to do otherwise:-) .....we have great teachers here. That was one of the first things I noticed. It is important, because this was the grateful and patriotic attitude of so many at that time. The culture these Jewish immigrants, largely from Russia and Eastern Europe, brought to this country was enormous, beyond measure. You can see it in Sill's life-long attitude and work, and also in the attitudes of Jan Peerce, Roberta Peters, and many others. What they went on to contribute—and still do—is a story in itself, one of which every American can be proud, and for which all should be grateful.

Liebling encouraged little Beverly to appear on radio talent shows, which she did, and won a series of them, bringing increasing attention to herself. By age 16, she had joined a Gilbert and Sullivan touring company and began accumulating practical stage experience. Two years later, at 18, she made her operatic stage debut as the Spanish gypsy Frasquita in Bizet's Carmen with the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company. By 1953, when she was 24, she appeared with the San Francisco opera as Helen of Troy in Boito's Mefistofele, and also sang Elivra in Don Giovanni with them the same year. From this moment on, her career virtually exploded. She went on, over the course of her career, to sing very many roles, in virtually all the major houses. Although she sang a repertoire from Handel, Mozart and Puccini, to Massenet and Verdi, she was known for her performances in coloratura soprano roles. Favorite operas were Lucia, La Fille du Régiment, Manon, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, The Barber of Seville, Roberto Devereux, La Traviata, and I Puritani.

Sills' life was music, from beginning to end: it never stops. The honors and accolades were extraordinary, as was her public relations work on behalf of music and charity, her administrative work at New York City Opera, and The Metropolitan. It is a vast biography, much too long to discuss here, but very easily consulted. Also, she has written an autobiography She was, without question, one of the most famous and respected figures in mid-twentieth century American cultural life.

Let us turn to Sills the artist. Here she is in her preferred repertoire, singing "Come per me sereno" from Bellini's La Sonnambula. It is a real coloratura tour-de-force. The trills, fioratura, and (very) high notes are simply stunning. It is a video of a certain length (nine minutes). If you have not the time to listen to it all now, skip the recitative. You don't want to miss any fireworks:

There simply can be no doubt about that technique. It is extraordinary, by any standard. The principles of bel canto singing have been thoroughly internalized, to the point where they simply come to define the singing. Few other sopranos of the twentieth century could match those trills. Sutherland could, but after that one starts to run down the list. Just amazing. And the speed of the coloratura is dazzling. This is a woman who was almost born singing, and was well taught from childhood. I would be so bold as to say that her technique was second to none.

Finally, from an American opera, the "Willow Song" from The Ballad of Baby Doe, by Douglas Moore. Sills distinguished herself in this opera, and was Moore's personal favorite in the title role (watch her, around 2:50, pick a D natural above high C out of the air!)

To a very great soprano, from a grateful American public—Thank you, Bubbles!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Gianfranco Cecchele: A Great and Under-Publicized Tenor

Gianfranco Cecchele ws born in 1938 in Padua, Italy. Even as a child he showed a precocious interest in opera and operatic singing. His interest was steadfast, and by 1963, when he was 25 years old, he decided to give it a try, and took some voice lessons. His teachers were impressed with his vocal potential, and in the same year he won a singing contest organized by the Teatro Nuovo in Milan. His debut followed quickly, and in the following year he debuted at the Teatro Bellini in Catania, in a relatively obscure work, a one-act pastoral poem by Giuseppe Mulè entitled La Zolfara. However, possessed of a heroic voice, he quickly (within the same year, actually) moved on to La Scala to sing no less than the leading role in Wagner's Rienzi! Next—and this is all in 1964—on to Rome and Aida. Clearly, this young tenor with a stentorian voice was making a quick and powerful impression on audiences and critics alike. In rapid succession he accumulated a repertoire that included, in addition to Rienzi and Rhadames, Don Carlo, Turridu, Don Alvaro and Calaf. In the following year he appeared at the Paris Opera, with Maria Callas, in Norma. It is hard to imagine a more rapid rise in a very demanding repertoire, and that of course was a double-edged sword. He was, after all, only in his 20's! He reputation spread throughout Europe and he gave 241 performances between 1964 and 1969. Of course, the inevitable happened, and toward the end of the period, around '67 and '68, he seriously strained his voice, causing vocal inflammation. Too many big roles too quickly. He had to quit singing entirely at that point, at least for a while, to undergo a long and painful recuperation from swollen and seriously strained vocal musculature. He temporarily dropped off the map, so to speak, and not much was heard of him. After a few years, however, he was re-establishing himself, and adding some less demanding roles to his repertoire and singing less often, having learned the lesson that many tenors do. Had he displayed that wisdom earlier on, there would likely not have been an interruption in his career. Also, the fact that he sang very largely in Italy made him an opera singer who, while enormously popular there, was not much known in America. This is also the case with two other fine Italian tenors, Mario Filippeschi and Salvatore Fisichella. (Giuseppe Giacomini, also less well known here than he should have been, was nevertheless very active outside Italy.)

Listening to a bit of Cecchele erases all doubts about the greatness of the voice and his abilities as a singer and actor. One of his signature roles, from the beginning, had been Calaf, and here is a superb rendition of "Non Piangere, Liu"

Isn't that wonderful! The clarity of the voice, along with the richness and fullness, is positively thrilling. This is a great voice, no doubt about it. And, not coincidentally, Cecchele was a handsome man, and restrained in his acting. This is a 1968 TV video, when he would have been 30. I do not have sufficient information to know if this was during the period of recuperation from his vocal troubles or not; judging from the relative ease of the production, I would assume he was learning how to take it a little easier...there does not appear to be any stress in evidence here.

Here is an aria recorded in 1981, when he would have been 43, stable and in complete control of his voice: "La mia letizia infondere," from Verdi's I Lombardi:

Absolutely superb! The quality of the voice is beautiful and well controlled; the top is entirely intact and completely in line with all the registers; that was a B natural near the end, and it was perfect and, most importantly, not overstressed or unduly elongated. In a word, it was exemplary, both vocally and stylistically.

Finally the big tenor aria from Turandot, "Nessun Dorma," from a 1981 filmed production:

I find it impossible to fault this singing; this rendition of "Nessun Dorma" will stand with that of any other tenor, and seriously exceeds the efforts of many, some of them much more famous. Cecchele was, simply put,  a superb tenor.

There are reasons, as I pointed out earlier, why Cecchele was not well known in the United States. Certainly the most important is that he was, it seems, perfectly happy to sing in Italy. Not everyone, after all, wants to spend half their career lives on airplanes. There is also the fact that there was something of a lock-out on some Italian tenors in the United States during the 70's and 80's. That is one of the reasons another great dramatic tenor, Giuseppe Giacomini, was seen so seldom here. But that, as they say, is a discussion for another time.