Search This Blog

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mabel Garrison, Brilliant Coloratura Soprano




 Mabel Garrison was born in Baltimore in1886. She finished her undergraduate work in 1903 and went on to study singing at Peabody Conservatory. She studied with George Siemonn and then studied further with Oscar Saenger and Herbert Witherspoon in New York. She made her debut in 1912 with the Aborn Opera Company as Philine in Mignon. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut on February 15, 1914 in concert, singing arias from operas by Verdi and Mozart. Her first role at the Met was Frasquita in Bizet's Carmen. Other roles included Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore, Bertha in Euryanthe, Biancofiore in Francesca da Rimini, Crobyle in Thaïs, the Dew Fairy in Hansel and Gretel, Gilda in Rigoletto, Lady Harriet in Martha, Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera,the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute,Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and Urbain in Les Huguenots.. Her last performance at the Met was as the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor  1921.  First, here is the Garrison voice in its prime, in the Doll Song from Hoffman:

In 1921 Garrison made guest appearances at the Berlin State Opera and made a world concert tour that same year She was a member of the Chicago Opera Company during the 1925-26 season. Garrison had a great and well -trained coloratura voice, as she demonstrated in both opera and concert and in several recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company.

 Like others of her era, she made “popular recordings” that were always good for a few extra dollars; many, very often.  Here is a superb recording of “Dixie:”

This is a very good place to thank Mr.Douglas Curran for posting these Garrison videos on his Youtube channel (Curzon Road) one of the very best classical music channels on Youtube; in fact, one of the finest channels of any kind.  I believe that every Mabel Garrison video on the web is from Mr. Curran,  a friend and brilliant record collector.  Thank you, my friend!

Mabel Garrison died in New York City on August 20, 1963









Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Great Marcella Sembrich



Marcella Sembrich  (1858 – 1935) was the stage name of the Polish coloratura soprano, Prakseda Marcelina Kochańska. She was born  in Wisniewczyk, then part of Austria, and now part of Ukraine. She first studied violin and piano with her father, and later she entered the Lemberg Conservatory and studied piano with her future husband Wilhelm Stengel . She was able to enter the Vienna Conservatory in 1875. It was soon discovered that her voice was exceptional, and she dedicated herself exclusively to voice from then on.  She made her operatic debut at the relatively tender age of 19 in Athens, as Elvira in I Puritani, in 1877.  She was engaged shortly thereafter by the Vienna Opera, but due to pregnancy she broke the contract. Later, after the birth of her first son, she had to wait for another opportunity and was finally hired as a guest artist at the Dresden Royal Opera House in September, 1878, as Lucia. Her success was immediate and she was dubbed the "Polish Patti." She remained in Dresden for two years, but decided to act boldly—in order to make up for lost time—and broke her Dresden contract and began concertizing on her own, in order to raise money.  She managed to get to London, and after a successful audition was accepted at Covent Garden, where she was quick to sign a contract with them. She created quite a sensation in her 1880 debut there in Lucia.  

 Emboldened by her success, she broke her London contract two years early and came to the United States in 1883 to make her Met debut, also as Lucia.  From there it was on to St. Petersburg, and eventually back to the Met in 1898, where she finally settled.  She remained there until 1909, having given over 400 performances.  She concertized for years, finally retiring after WWI.  From then on, she dedicated herself to teaching, in important conservatories.  She was very successful as a teacher, and had significant influence. Among her students were the great Alma Gluck, Hulda Lashanska,  a successful concert singer, coloratura soprano (and novelist!) Queena Mario, and dramatic soprano Dusolina Giannini, who had a very successful international career.  Also among her students was radio vocalist and concertizer Conrad Thibault, who studied with her at Curtis, and who told the distinguished musical biographer James A. Drake,  in an interview in 1976, that “she was always very attentive and generous to her students, and talked to them personally about the [singing teachers Francesco and Giovanni Lamperti ] and their methods.”  Drake goes on to say, interestingly, that  “He (Thibault) added that at least in his experience with her, she never demonstrated vocalises or otherwise sang even so much as a single tone.”  *    She was also a fundraiser for Polish causes, following WWI. 

Since Lucia played so large a part in her earlier career, serving as a frequent debut opera, it seems appropriate to begin there.  I apologize for the scratchiness of the recording.  I cannot find a better recording than the one I posted some years ago, and I was not able to clean up the scratching on the transfer without taking some quality from the voice.  Here is the 1906 recording of “Ardon gl’incensi”: 

What most impresses me about this singing is the clarity, purity, precise intonation, and general absence of affectation, either stylistic or vocal. It is, as a result, what can honestly be classified as elegant singing, not always the case with divas of the era.  She was often compared to Patti, especially in her youth, and one can see why:  We note the same  clarity and purity of the voice, including the  floating, haunting tones. Like Patti, Sembrich  sings perfectly on the breath, which is how she is able to  portamento up and down so smoothly and seamlessly, and also trill easily. There is considerable vocal fluidity to be noted in the singing of both these great divas from the distant past.
Another favorite opera for Sembrich was I Puritani.  Here is the lovely “Qui la Voce sua Soave” from 1907:

Lovely!  This is really very accomplished singing for the period.  At the beginning of the aria, the same “straight,” restrained and haunting melodic line is apparent.  One can notice a slight development of weight in the lower register, compared to the Lucia recording of the previous year, but it is slight and still well integrated with the rather remarkable top register.  Later in the aria, the great flexibility so characteristic of her voice is on display:  the rapid and well executed cadenzas, with a brilliant, in-line C sharp inserted, stand out for their precision.  It was common during this time for sopranos to attempt cadenzas they could not really articulate at speed, with the result that they were in effect glissandi, often musically inappropriate.  Not the case here, as it was not the case with Patti.   Sembrich’s intonation and articulation are both precise, and this is most admirable.

Finally, a 1912 recording of a song from Leo Fall’s 1907 Musical Comedy Die Dollarprinzessin (“The Dollar Princess”): 

Sembrich was 54 years when this was recorded.  What we finally have here is a wonderful recording, first of all because the recording itself, as an artifact, has been cleaned up to such a degree that it gives us a very real look at her singing!  The digital transfer was done by my friend Doug at Curzon Road, one of the best classical music sites on the web.  He is extremely skilled at creating audio files from old recordings, and this is so important.  I feel I can very nearly hear the voice of this singer from long ago with a clarity resembling what one might hear in the opera house.  Several things become apparent; first, the purity of intonation and articulation of which we have spoken is not an aural illusion from faded 107-year-old records!  It is very real, and absolutely characteristic of the voice and training.  Second, the vocal registers remain superbly well integrated; there are no “register scoops” and there is no inappropriate “huskiness” in the lower register at all.  The purity of the high soprano voice remains spotless even at age 54.  This is a diva who deserves her reputation!  A fine, elegant, articulate, vocally and stylistically immaculate first lady of the lyric stage!

*My thanks to Jim Drake for sharing this information with me.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

                                                          The Great French Tenor Alain Vanzo                


   Alain Vanzo (1928- 2002) was a French opera singer who attained international standing in the postwar era.  Along with such singers as Henri Legay and the Canadian Léopold Simoneau, he represented a traditional French lyric style during a period when larger Italian and German vocal styles had become popular. Vanzo was born in Monte Carlo, the son of a Mexican father and a French mother. He started singing at a young age in the church choir. At 18, he was singing popular songs with a small band, and began performing at the Théâtre du Châtelet, during the 1951-52 season, as a double for Luis Mariano in the operetta Le Chanteur de Mexico.  Later, in 1954, he won an important singing contest in Cannes.

Virtually from the beginning, Vanzo was blessed with a high lyric voice of uncommon beauty and range.  One can very easily get the idea of the young man’s singing voice from the following exceptional rendition of the famous tenor aria from I Puritani, a death trap for even great tenors.  Here is “A te o Cara”:

Vanzo was then immediately invited to sing at the Opéra-Comique and at the Palais Garnier, quickly establishing himself in the standard French lyric repertory, such as Nadir in Les pêcheurs de perles, Gérald in Lakmé, Faust, Roméo in Roméo et Juliette, Vincent in Mireille, des Grieux in Manon, etc. He also sang the Italian repertory, such as the Duke in Rigoletto, Alfredo in La Traviata, Rodolfo in La Bohème. He won great acclaim at the Palais Garnier in 1960, as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, opposite Joan Sutherland who was making her debut there. This was the beginning of an international career with appearances at many of the major opera houses in Europe, including the Royal Opera House in London, La Monnaie in Brussels, the Liceo in Barcelona, the Vienna State Opera. Vanzo also appeared in North America, on tour with the Paris Opera, singing Faust, and in South America at the Teatro Colón in Les contes d'Hoffmann. He sang at Carnegie Hall in New York, as Gennaro, in the famous 1965 concert version of Lucrezia Borgia, opposite Montserrat Caballé.   Here is a wonderful performance of the famous Pearl Fishers duet, with the remarkable baritone Gerard Bacquier:

It is generally only occasionally that one hears this great duet sung by truly great French singers. This can actually make a difference. In comparison to other accomplished singers, native speakers of the language of the opera can have an advantage in eloquence and precision of diction and presentation and the entire musical rendering can be changed as a result. It is hard to imagine two singers better suited for this music than Vanzo and Bacquier.

As the years went by, Vanzo extended his repertory to more dramatic roles, such as Arrigo in the original French version of I Vespri Siciliani, Adorno in Simon Boccanegra, Cavaradossi in Tosca, Robert in Robert le Diable, Raoul in Les Huguenots, Mylio in Le roi d'Ys, and became internationally renowned as one of best exponents of the role of Benvenuto Cellini and Werther. 

Vanzo never officially retired, singing well into his 60s, mostly in recital, and appearing frequently on French television. He left relatively few commercial recordings, the most famous being Lakmé, opposite Joan Sutherland, and conducted by Richard Bonynge. 

Vanzo also composed, writing songs and two major works, the operetta Pêcheur d'Etoile which premiered at Lille, in 1972, and the lyrical drama Les Chouans, which premiered at Avignon, in 1982.

Alain Vanzo died in Paris on January 27, 2002 of complications following a stroke. He was 73.    

Finally, I think it makes sense  to take a last look at Vanzo singing one of his signature roles,  and that is Werther:   “Why awaken me, oh sigh of Springtime.”  Although the quality of the video image is poor, the audio is acceptable:





Sunday, May 10, 2015

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!