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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Giuseppe Anselmi: The Triumph of Elegance

Sicilian tenor Giuseppe Anselmi was born in 1876, and achieved a great reputation throughout Europe in the early years of the twentieth century.  He was also quite popular in St. Petersburg, at the Mariinski, and he also  sang in Warsaw.  Unlike some other singers of his era, he never came to the United States, possibly because Caruso had debuted here in 1903, and was, virtually from the beginning, a very popular tenor, actually one of the first superstars of opera.  That was a matter of small consequence, however, because Anselmi was an entirely different kind of tenor, one more characteristic of the 19th than the twentieth century.  He was at least something of  a bel canto tenor, in the same approximate school as Alessandro Bonci. 

He had a very good career in Europe, and the basis of his fame was the elegance of his singing.  His predilection for bel canto—while not reflected so much in his repertoire choice –made possible some very refined singing, and opened the door for older works.  He sang the bigger Italian roles quite consistently (Canio, Turridu,Cavaradossi,Il Duca, for example),  so while some might loosely call him a "bel canto" tenor, that did not rule out for him the heavier Italian roles.  The divisions between voice types and roles barely existed at that time, and singers often sang a very wide repertoire.  Anselmi sang Ottavio and Almaviva as well as Canio and Turridu, and would also sing Handel and Richard Strauss. He even recorded one song in Russian. 

Anselmi's reputation for elegance came not only from his bel canto training and his linguistic abilities; he was an excellent musician, having studied both piano and violin at the Naples Conservatory as a young man.  His debut was in Genoa, in 1900, when he was very young indeed, and he quickly became popular.  His next move, the following year, was to Covent Garden, and subsequent debuts at San Carlo, La Scala, Monte Carlo came quickly.  From there, it was Brussels, Germany, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Poland and Spain; everywhere a success. While he did not travel to North America, he did travel to South America, and  sang at the Colón in Buenos Aires.  He was not in very robust health, it seems, and by 1910, he was waning, and, sadly, died of tuberculosis in 1929, only 53 years of age.

While Anselmi sang a lot of the "bread and butter" Italian roles, he was no stranger to more modern and more refined music, witness this recording of R. Strauss' "Morgen":

I think you will agree that this is beautiful and musically elegant.  This is not a "trendy" or "occasional" thing that he was doing.  His singing reveals both an understanding of  and control over the style of the song.

Here is an example of bel canto training as reflected  in his handling of Loris' famous aria from Fedora.  We are used to hearing this done by some very robust tenors, but this is another approach to the song that works very well:

How about that!?  Talk about elegance and bel canto technique!  That is absolutely beautiful singing, and the stylistics and musicality are inspiring.  It is not hard to see why he was revered throughout Europe.  That kind of singing is close to being a lost art among tenors.

Here is an Anselmi rarity.  He recorded a soprano aria from Handel's Xerxes, "Va godendo," only recently posted.  This is a real treat:

 Just lovely!  We can say exactly the same thing about this aria that we can say about the first two selections:  purity, elegance, musicality, control of style, tone and phrasing.  All the arts of beautiful singing.  And as for recording a soprano aria from Handel, that just wasn't done by tenors in his day.  There are clearly resonances of a very much earlier time here.

Finally, and I present this because it is linguistically very  rare,  a recording of an Italian tenor singing in Russian.  I suspect, as I point out in the description I put on this video when I posted it,  that this is something he learned in St.Petersburg, where he was exceptionally popular:  (I wrote the first half of the description on this video in Russian, for my Russian audience, but scroll down a bit, I also posted it in English.):

An unusual tenor, a golden age, and arts now largely lost, but there is always the possibility of recovering the essence of the lost arts, if not the actual techniques.



Sunday, September 23, 2012

Juan Diego Florez: Revival Of The Tenore Contraltino

[Today I am pleased to offer to readers another in our series of guest commentaries, this one by Mr. Darren Seacliffe, from Singapore. Darren is by far the youngest guest writer we have had in what I consider to be an excellent series generally.  He is an undergraduate student in his early 20's pursuing a degree in a private university in Singapore.  His interest in opera spans a wide variety of genres, from Rossini to 20th century opera prior to 1945. His areas of greatest interest are Rossini, bel canto, Verdi, and German operetta.  I will only add that Mr. Seacliffe's knowledge of opera history—especially for one so young, is truly extraordinary!  Here is a blossoming music critic if ever I saw one, and that is a happy sign indeed, for all kinds of reasons! Edmund StAustell .]


There are two opera composers without whom Italian opera would be much different: Mozart and Rossini.  It was Rossini who elaborated upon and further developed the innovations which the great Mozart had previously made in Italian opera with respect to its musical structure and theatricality. Unlike Mozart, whose artistry has been given due recognition and whose works have been periodically revived following his death,  Rossini was originally dismissed as a composer of farcical comedies, and—even worse—his works eventually faded out of the repertoire into neglect and oblivion. It has only been in recent years that Rossini has been recognized as a great composer who built on Mozart's work by facilitating Italian opera's transition from baroque opera to the genre we see and recognize today, largely through the opera serie he composed for the virtuosi at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples; works which had earlier been dismissed as contributing little to the development of opera.

Much credit has to be given to the pioneering generation of Rossini tenors Rockwell Blake, Chris Merritt, Bruce Ford, William Matteuzzi and Ernesto Palacio (Juan Diego Florez' teacher,manager and mentor) for re-introducing these serious operas to the public after years of neglect and oblivion. Despite the retirement of most if not all of the tenors mentioned above, Rossini has not faded away. Many major opera houses continue to revive his comic and tragic masterpieces and there has been at least one major Rossini Opera Festival at Pesaro. One tenor deserves more credit for this than any other, and that is superstar Juan Diego Florez.

Juan Diego Florez was born in 1973 in Lima, Peru. He entered the Conservatorio Nacional de Música in Lima at the age of 17.  He studied under Andrés Santa María, with the original intention of singing popular and folk music.  However, a classical voice soon emerged. Even so, he had not found where his strength lay until a chance meeting with his great predecessor Ernesto Palacio, who mentored him in becoming a Rossini tenor. His professional debut took place in the Rossini Opera Festival of 1988 when he stood in for an ailing Bruce Ford in a historical revival of one of Rossini's latter operas, Matilde di Shabran. From there on, there was no turning back and he began to attain to greater and greater heights as the years went by. Many performances were especially noteworthy, including the Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, La Donna del Lago, Zelmira, and La Fille de Regiment.  

Just as Pavarotti was the first to excel at roles Bellini had originally composed for the great Rubini, Florez excelled, through his amazing technique, in singing the stratospheric coloratura Rossini had composed for the virtuosi of the Teatro San Carlo— Andrea Nozzari, Giovanni David and Adolphe Nourritt. However, this alone does not place him at the head of the many bel canto tenors we are blessed with today like Lawrence Brownlee, Antonio Siragusa, Colin Lee and Barry Banks. What makes Florez the undisputed best of these tenors is the additional factor of the light and fresh beauty of his voice. Here is a video of Florez singing an aria from Rossini's La Donna del Lago; one which clearly shows these qualities which he possesses in abundance. The aria has a long orchestral introduction.  I recommend you advance the radio button to 2:20 to start:

To my knowledge, Florez is one of the few Rossini tenors who not only has the technical skill to perform this aria without problems but is also able to perform the aria with the grace and lightness that the first Uberto—Giacomo David—might have brought to his performance. This is one achievement that cannot be underestimated, considering how previous Ubertos—Rockwell Blake and Dalmacio Gonzalez—were unable to bring the role to its fullest potential: Blake due to the raw nature of his voice and Gonzalez due to technical issues.

As mentioned, Florez's big break came in 1996, when he was asked to substitute for the ailing tenor Bruce Ford in a revival of Rossini's Matilde di Shabran at the Rossini Opera Festival, on 2 to 3 weeks' notice. Can you believe that he was able to give a performance of this quality, having had so little time to prepare a role that had not been performed in more than 100 years? He is truly extraordinary. Turn your volume up full for this performance, recorded at a certain distance from the stage:

Florez' star began to shine in the opera world from that moment on! Blessed with great talent and technical skill, all joined to a beautiful voice overflowing with freshness, he has consolidated his place as one of today's greatest bel canto tenors. Additionally, he maintains a high performance standard in his acting and conducts himself with exemplary professionalism.  Here you will see what I mean:

This performance took place just hours after Florez's wife gave birth in a New York hospital—a shining example of his professionalism!

Not only does Florez sing beautifully, but he has become an accomplished actor. Toward the beginning of his career, he had been criticized by some for his acting, but he showed his true professionalism by taking the negative press seriously and working hard on all aspects of his acting, to the point that he is now praised.  Given the hard work and professionalism he continues to show, Florez' future prospects seem bright indeed.  Some predecessors, such as Kunde and Lopardo, moved on into heavier roles as they got older, and one wonders what roles Florez might next attempt in the bel canto repertoire. Perhaps Roberto Devereux, Percy, Gennaro or even Edgardo? Before Pavarotti passed away, he acknowledged Florez as his successor. Not yet, certainly, but given the amount of progress he is making, I for one believe it is a distinct possibility.

-Darren Seacliffe


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ballet Break! Darcey Bussell

Dear Readers:  Today, unusually, I'd like to take a brief  break from the world of great opera singers, past and present, to celebrate one of ballet's greatest ballerinas, Darcey Bussell, the pride of Great Britain.  I know that many of you are also ballet fans, and I hope you enjoy this piece on Bussell, a great favorite of many ballet lovers, myself included!  Thank you!  Edmund StAustell


The great British ballerina Darcey Bussell, OBE, CBE, D.Litt., was born in London in 1969.  Elevated to the rank of Principal Dancer at the Royal Ballet at the tender age of 20 [the youngest ever at that time],  she quickly went on to become generally recognized as one of the greatest British ballerinas of all time; for many the greatest.

Bussell was trained originally at the Arts Educational School in London, a dance and theater school for children.  Moving on to the Royal Ballet's Lower School at 13, she passed her exams and was permitted to move on the Upper School at age 16.  By this time, she had begun to attract attention to herself.  Certain individual qualities were beginning to appear.  She was developing into a bold dancer, very much at home with classical technique, but with a certain strength and boldness of attack that was eventually going to attract the attention of choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan, who was to do more than anyone else to launch her career, and at a very high level at that.  He saw her strength and impulsiveness of attack as being, at least to his eye, almost more American than British.  This both impressed and pleased him.  She moved into the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet in 1987, and began to appear both in school productions and some productions with the London Royal.  It was then, at a crucial moment,  when she was still a student, that  MacMillan decided  he wanted her to take the leading role in The Prince of the Pagodas, which he was in the process of setting to Benjamin Britten's music  This was in spite of her relatively untested youth and her unusual physique.  While extremely beautiful, Darcey was very tall for a ballerina.  (Around 5'9'')  Many thought this would seriously limit her career at best, and ruin it at the worst.  But MacMillan was nothing if not daring.  He had already started to bring down the wrath of the ballet world upon himself for his insistence on modernizing his choreography in the direction of movies and method acting, a treacherously difficult thing to do in the hyper-conservative world of London ballet at that time.  Where some saw Bussell's thin, tall, almost lanky body as a drawback, MacMillan saw the promise in those seemingly endlessly long arms and legs.  And so, Darcey Bussell, 19, started working with him on Prince of the Pagodas. It was virtually unheard of for a girl to have a ballet composed on herself  at so tender an age, especially one destined to be presented by one of the world's major ballet companies.  It opened in 1989, to considerable acclaim for the girl ballerina.  As she left the stage, after the final applause, Anthony Dowell, then the acting manager of the company, took her aside and said he was promoting her to Principal Dancer of the London Royal Ballet.  Every girl's dream come true!  Thus began the career of one of the greatest dancers in the history of British ballet.

First, here is the Pas de Deux from Prince of the Pagodas, with Jonathan Cope, Darcey's main partner for many of her early years.  He was himself  tall, and, in a modern ballet, she spent correspondingly less time on point (where she soared well over six feet).  This helped with the height "problem" (which in fact never turned out to be a problem):

The lanky frame, thin arms and legs, in combination with the little girl apperance (she looks about 14 here) were in fact irresistible. And her technique, from this age on, was stunning. 

Another aspect of being a tall ballerina is that with the height  there comes a certain amount of weight, even for a thin person.  This in turn means that in addition to the aesthetic problem of being taller than many male dancers, she was not so easy to lift.  Irek Mukhamedov to the rescue!  Russian principle dancers are generally recognized for their strength and virility, from the very earliest days of Russian ballet, when the mighty and (by today's standards) fat Vasily Tikhomirov shepherded ballerinas of the day from step to step.  It was quite a sight:-) 

Mukhamedov, who admired Bussell, was one of her very best partners.  Even though she often towered over him when on point, there was something about his virile Russian masculinity that was a perfect match for Bussell's marked, almost demure femininity, witness this beautiful pas de deux from MacMillan's Winter Dreams:

Isn't that beautiful?  They worked so well together, and in the magic of their dancing all considerations of body type were obliterated.  What comes thorough is simply a masculine/feminine match that is breath-taking.

We really need to take just a moment, in a short video, to see Bussell's classical technique at work.  Here is an abbreviated version (very short) of the Variation and Coda from La Bayadère, Act I, Scene 3:

Those fouettes en tournant are just spectacular!  Absolutely perfectly executed to the great delight of the audience, as you heard.  Also very much in evidence is how beautiful a woman Darcey was (and remains!)  Just an amazing performer.

Darcey today?  Retired from ballet, but very much in evidence, at age 43.  Here is an extremely attractive jive from the British dance program Strictly Come Dancing, where she is now a judge: