The Guilty Magpie?

The story of La Gazza Ladra turns on a series of crazy coincidences and a handful of situations that are supposed to be realistic.

Magpie with possibly shiny object

The coincidences: that a serving-girl who is suspected of stealing silverware should happen to sell some non-stolen silverware to an itinerant peddler...and that it should happen to match the pieces (a fork and a spoon) that went missing from her employer...and that each should happen to be monogrammed with the same initials (her father is Fernando Villabella, her boss is Fabrizio Vinogradito)...and that she should feel unable to explain because her father is under sentence of death for deserting the army. All because dad wanted to stop by to see his girl and went ballistic when his commanding officer said “no.”

Too much, right? But audiences at the time loved improbable events conspiring to produce intense situations. For this kind of drama, coincidences are a feature, not a bug. Popular novels of similar vintage are even fuller of them - including many still respected and even beloved today. If you make a chart of the chance encounters that shape David Copperfield or Middlemarch, it will look maze-like and - in the absence of the prose - pretty ridiculous.

The situations we are supposed to consider realistic are three:

  • That death sentences could be imposed for such things as going AWOL from the army or stealing some silverware. All too real; life was cheap, especially the lives of commoners. England’s “Bloody Code” at the start of the 19th century had about 220 crimes punishable by execution, among them “grand larceny,” which was defined as anything worth more than twelve pence, at the time about 5% of a skilled worker’s weekly pay.

  • That a small-town mayor might propose commutation of a sentence in exchange for sexual favors. No problem with believing that one in our Me-Too era; it’s still going on.

  • That magpies are drawn to shiny objects and inclined to carry them off, thus exposing innocent serving-maids to the gallows and whole villages to convulsions of scandal and grief.  This one is a little problematic.

Magpie examining hex nut (but will he pick it up?)

European folklore - not just in this opera and the popular play on which it was based - has long held that the common magpie (pica pica) carries bright trinkets to its nest. An Exeter University study in 2014 concluded that this is myth; in 64 trials with items like screws and bits of tin foil placed near clumps of nuts, only two birds took the bait, and both discarded the inedible objects immediately. Some of them even reduced their nut consumption because the alien objects apparently made them nervous.

On the other hand, the study may have been imperfect (it seems that “married” magpies like regularity in their feeding habits, and it’s possible that singletons forage more variously). And there are undeniable photographs that at least seem to show the traditional behavior - though none with anything nearly as big as a table fork.

So in this case we may have to suspend disbelief in order to take Rossini’s opera half-seriously. Please note, however, that according to Ballou’s Monthly Magazine (Boston, August 1875), a servant girl at a country manor near Lambeth was “taken into custody, on suspicion of stealing” a spoon and a pair of sugar-tongs, only to be released when they were found (along with a milk-pot!!) in a bird’s nest in the garden. The culpable party in this case was a raven (corvus corax), but I think we can accept a bit of poetic license, and need not retitle the opera Il Corvo Ladro.

Will's Record of the Week

Yankee Diva

Lillian Nordica (born Norton, in Farmington, Maine, 1857) was a superstar, and by all rights we should have a long and satisfying series of records to show why. But instead of joining the crowd at Victor (where just such a series was being made by her colleagues like Sembrich, Caruso, Gadski, Scotti, Melba, Tetrazzini, Plançon, Calvé) she chose to be the big fish in a smaller pond over at Columbia Records, whose American technicians and equipment were simply not at the same level. They caught up, but too late; Nordica’s disks were cut between 1906 and 1911, and their dim, fuzzy, distant sound compares very poorly to what other companies were already achieving with big-voiced Wagnerians like her.

Nordica - Dupont publicity portrait

Nordica as celebrity endorser

Not that there was anybody quite like her; every singer who wants a glimpse of opera in its late heyday should read Yankee Diva and get to know this hard-working, plain-speaking, clear-thinking (except about men), long-lasting, high-earning prima donna. She seems to have been the first non-German soprano to sing all three Brünnhildes plus Isolde. She added Kundry as soon as Parsifal escaped from Bayreuth’s exclusivity clause; her repertory also included Gilda, Philine in Mignon, La Gioconda, Lucia, Aida, Violetta, Carmen, and dozens more. Isolde was her biggest success; London, Berlin, Munich, Paris, and New York all heard it. She was still singing it at fifty-five and might have gone on, but a year later she died in harness - rescued from a shipwreck in the course of a Far East concert tour, but unable to fight off the pneumonia she contracted while the vessel was stranded for days on a coral reef. 

Nordica’s concert repertory too was wide and varied, and this item from it is probably a better introduction to her than the grand arias she tried to record (score here - it’s a little-known setting of a well-known Goethe lyric that soprano recitalists would do well to revive). 

Nothing here particularly alerts us that we are hearing one of the world’s favorite Wagnerians, unless just the steady flow of ringing tone. Nordica at 52 had no hint of a “wobble,” and neither did any other middle-aged-plus soprano we can hear on early records. That’s a pretty long list (Calvé, Melba, Albani, Patti, Lilli Lehmann, Brambilla, De Frate….) and they all serve to remind us that the wide, slow vibrato we call “wobble” is not a result of the aging process, but of bad technique compounded over time. Meanwhile: clarity in the etching of “little notes,” smooth connection up and down the range, expert trills. Classic virtues, in other words. And interpretation? Well, there is basic shapeliness of phrase, but I wouldn’t argue if someone said the overall effect is rather generic. 

The problems with Nordica’s records, beyond their sound quality, are three. First, a big soprano voice with narrow vibrato suffers more than most from the loss of overtones in primitive recordings. Second, something the aging process does eventually bring to almost all sopranos is a diminution of freedom or power, or both, in the highest notes. Nordica still had power and steadiness up top, but the sound is effortful and not exactly pretty. Her most famous record is an astonishing showpiece from Erkel’s Hunyadi László, constantly and virtuosically active over a range from low A to high C, and many moments in it are fantastic - but even allowing for the overtone cut, few people can find the highest notes enjoyable. I wish she had decided to transpose it a semitone lower as she did with “Je suis Titania.”  

The third problem is more limiting in the end: she often comes across as preoccupied, inhibited, hesitant (even to the point of seeming as though she wants to start over and then realizes she can’t). It’s a valuable lesson about the sheer novelty of the experience for first-generation recording artists. Some took to it; others found it intolerably unnatural to sing for a machine in expectation of playback and judgment. “At present,” she wrote to Hermann Klein (the critic and García pupil who had recruited her for Columbia), “I am terribly discouraged about them. There is not one which I or my family think fit to put before the public.” 

Nordica eventually approved publication of 11 out of the 36 records she made. Three more survived as test pressings, plus a few “alternate takes” and an intriguing trial record in which she sings Grieg’s “Jeg elsker dig” at different distances from the recording horn. (Unfortunately most of the records seem to have been made from the greater distance, if not farther.) Lost forever are items we would love to have heard, “Dich teure Halle,” “Erlkönig,” “Waldesgespräch,” “Ich grolle nicht,” “Un bel dì” among them. 

Nordica with President Taft, Groundbreaking ceremony for Panama-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco 1911

But Nordica’s voice had been recorded before, though she may not have known at the time. She can be heard - barely - on 19 live-from-the-Met cylinders recorded by the house librarian Lionel Mapleson in 1901-03. Their sound quality ranges from “very dim” to what one would normally call “unlistenable.” If one listens nevertheless, these fragments catch her in action as Valentine (Les Huguenots), Isolde, and the three Brünnhildes, and eventually reveal a very different profile: a bold, generous, impulsive singer who seems to delight in flooding the house with her big, solid tones - just what you’d think from the photo of her singing the Star-Spangled Banner in the open air to an audience of 200,000. She revels in the leaps and long high notes of the Walküre battle-cry (adding an extra one after the second verse). Valentine’s two-octave chromatic scale from high C holds no terrors for her. She finishes Götterdämmerung with plenty of juice for the top A, Bb, B, easy lyric purity for the address to the Rhinemaidens, no hint of fatigue, and a jubilant rhythmic verve from “Grane, mein Ross” to the end.  

Unfortunately, you have to listen many, many times to piece together this picture; nobody has time for that unless motivated by a strong interest in knowing as much as possible about the singer. This is one I find worth knowing. If you imagine the sound of her Columbias together with the energy (and maybe the high notes) of her Maplesons - that’s quite a singer. For all who want to try their own patience, here is a sample. To help a little (help is needed!) I’ve spliced together a continuous stretch of music from what Mapleson captured in bits on two different evenings. The score is here (recording starts during second system of the first page). 

If you’re still with us after that, click here for some Verdi and a performance-style mystery for which Nordica provides a clue.

Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples, and click here for some pointers on how to listen.

Will's Record of the Week

How Not to Lose Your Voice

Schlusnus as Wolfram

Schlusnus as Wolfram

Heinrich Schlusnus was a late starter for those days - already 27 by the time he made his debut in 1915 at the Herald in Lohengrin in Hamburg - but he was ready, and by 1917 he was at the Berlin State Opera as Wolfram in Tannhäuser, with Rigoletto, the Count di Luna, Germont, and Renato in Ballo under his belt in the meantime. He was still singing Germont and Rigoletto onstage almost up to his death in 1952. In between he made so many records (516 commercial ones, according to German Wikipedia, plus uncounted broadcasts in his later years) that it’s easy to forget about the first ones, still made in the pre-microphone era. This is one from his second session, the big aria from Il trovatore recorded just a year after his Berlin debut. 

One of the most interesting things about studying the history of singing is finding out which present-day assumptions were age-old truths and which ones weren’t. In the second category comes the idea that singers should start in lighter roles and progress to heavier ones. That almost never happened a century ago; most singers found their repertory early and stayed in it for life, as Schlusnus did. I’m glad they didn’t tell him to “wait” for the great Verdi roles, because this is about as good as it gets in Trovatore. 

And is Verdi dangerous for a young voice? Not if the technique is right. Schlusnus channels his strong, focused sound into perfect legato and never pushes it in the Verdi aria, and his voice never lost the clean definition, pristine surface, and easy vault into the top range heard here. Proof of method? One of Mahler’s Wayfarer songs recorded 33 years later.  


Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples! 

April 23, 2018

Close Enough to Perfect

There is no such thing as perfection in singing, and no limit on how much better something might conceivably be, so let's start by trying to name a fault in this 1922 recording from Massenet's Grisélidis by Louis Cazette. Maybe you could say that the top B-flat at the end of the middle section is a little pinched (but it'll do!). Or, if you follow the score, you could point out that its detailed dynamics are not always followed scrupulously.  

Louis Cazette as the Chevalier Des Grieux   

Louis Cazette as the Chevalier Des Grieux


I can't imagine anybody being in the mood to insist on objections while under the spell of the singing, though. Beautiful tone from softest to loudest, classically chiseled and poetic French pronunciation, utter poise in handling the "passaggio" area of the tenor voice in every imaginable shade of color and dynamic - and all of this is put at the service of a rare ability to create atmosphere through word and tone. (This version of the Griseldis legend is too complicated to explain here, but the aria is sung by the heroine's lost shepherd-boy lover, or rather a vision of him conjured up by the devil to tempt her into infidelity. You'd think it would work.)

Why don't we hear more about Cazette? He was born in 1887, joined the army as a young man, and though he had already begun serious vocal study, quickly returned to uniform to serve in the First World War. So his debut was delayed to 1919. Then in 1922, during a performance of Don Giovanni at the Opéra-Comique, he was accidentally nicked by a colleague's rapier-point, contracted tetanus, and died within days. All we have to remember him by is a painfully short list of ten 78-rpm records.  

The point about those sometimes-ignored markings in the score, meanwhile, raises the question of whether it is a good idea for a composer to micro-manage the musicality of the interpreter. Cazette's singing is superbly nuanced and varied - but he's following his own expressive path to the details, not translating a diagram. Not counting slurs, Massenet provides 81 dynamics, verbal instructions, or articulation markings within three pages. In the entire third act of Tristan Wagner gives his tenor four crescendos, two dynamic signs, and two accent marks. Food for thought. 


Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples! 

April 16, 2018

Verismo when it was new

Giraldoni as Scarpia  

Giraldoni as Scarpia

Eugenio Giraldoni (1871-1924) was a singer who had a lot to live up to within his family, as his father Leone (1824-1897) had been the lead baritone at the premieres of Simon Boccanegra and Un ballo in maschera, among others. The son took on most of the father’s famous roles, and in his own turn he was chosen to be the first Scarpia in Tosca. His few recordings don't include any of Scarpia’s music, but we can tell he must have been formidable in it from another of his “creations,” Lazaro in La figlia di Jorio, a setting of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s “pastoral tragedy” by Alberto Franchetti (1860-1942). 

The record is Lazaro’s horrifying speech to his son Aligi, sung by Giovanni Zenatello. (Sample line: "if I need a knife-handle and decide to make it from your shinbone, well and good!" And did you think Scarpia was sadistic?) 

What Giraldoni shows is a prime example of the raw declamation, the sheer vocal power and thrust, that came to the fore with what we now call “verismo” - the hot-blooded, passionate works that signaled the last great creative flowering of Italian opera. (You can follow the score here.) 


It’s exciting to hear how fiercely Giraldoni can throw his voice at this without making it protest or buckle under the pressure. A severe listener from his father’s generation, however, might have heard it and asked “but can he sing?” Meaning: to the detractors of the verismo school, all this shouting and emoting put at risk Italy’s heritage of vocal mastery and refinement. It’s a fair point in a way, but it doesn’t apply to Giraldoni. This massive, granite-like voice was under total control, as he shows in Iago’s dream narrative from Otello. Smooth legato, balanced dynamics and registration, crystal clear pitch and diction, and the control and imagination to imitate Cassio with a thinned-out “character tenor” sound, yet without losing core tone or descending to caricature. Dad would have been proud, I hope.   


Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples! 

April 9, 2018

Passion and discipline

Besanzoni as Carmen

Besanzoni as Carmen

Gabriella Besanzoni was born in Rome in 1890, made her debut in 1910 in L’amico Fritz in Spoleto, and quickly went on to appear at every leading Italian theater. She also sang briefly at the Met and Chicago in 1919-1921, but South America became her real artistic home - season after season in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro well into the 1930s. It’s probably because those were not record-industry centers that we have so few souvenirs of her voice - just six solos made during her New York stint, a complete Carmen from a decade later that is now a forgotten period-piece because it’s in Italian, and one impassioned aria from a 1945 São Paulo broadcast.  

“Voce di donna” (La gioconda) shows why we wish we had more. Every step of the scale from low Bb to high G is tested for beauty, integration, power, and malleability; none disappoints. Also tested is the ability to negotiate the register break smoothly while supplying strength on either side of it, and Besanzoni’s handling of low E-flat and its neighbors is a real lesson here. 

Another lesson is the way she lets the size of her voice (obviously ample) unfold gradually over the course of the piece. Nothing is weak or unsupported early on, but she waits for the climax to let it blossom to full forte. The top G is a glory, and at the very end she expands the chest voice to hall-filling fullness - but never to the point of losing her control over it. (Notice the slight diminuendo with which she rounds off the final note: elegance without any loss of sonority or distracting change of timbre.)  

Yet another: Besanzoni can sound like the passionate, expressive Verismo-era singer she is while still maintaining all the classic virtues - no “h” sounds breaking the legato, all attacks clean and directly on pitch, smoothly drawn portamentos, no “push” in the vibrato. You don’t have to choose between expression and discipline. 

I wish we could hear her florid Rossini roles! She sang four of them, at a time when all but Il Barbiere were rarities, so she must have had an affinity for coloratura. The tiny flickers of agility in her Carmen sound ideal in their combination of clarity and smoothness. But no room was found for Rossini in her too-short list of records. 


Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples! 

April 2, 2018


Tetrazzini in  Les pêcheurs de perles

Tetrazzini in Les pêcheurs de perles

Luisa Tetrazzini was born in 1871, made her debut at 19 in her native Florence, and sang with the world’s elite on elite stages for a quarter-century, with celebrity concert tours for almost two more decades after that.  Her records come in the category of “difficult” for many today: Tetrazzini’s hearty embrace of her own virtuosity and her devil-may-care attitude towards certain niceties have a tendency to strike modern listeners as comic. She does certain things better than almost anyone else, but barely bothers to try with others, and one senses that joie de vivre outweighed careful practicing and critical self-assessment in her artistic makeup. But there must have been careful practicing and then some in her formative years. 

Leila’s hymn to Brahma from Les pêcheurs de perles can serve as a good starting-point for the curious. The opening section is not what most of us would call “musical” - there is practically no dynamic shading, no shaping beyond the rise and fall of the composed notes, no particular effort to sound prayerful, no attempt to moderate the brassy timbre of the chest register. But complaints about the surface detail should not make one miss the virtue of the underlying structure, which is solid and built to last. Every single note, high, low, or middle, long or short, is strong. Not pushed, certainly not strained, just strong - firm, centered, confident, even, balanced, connected to the previous and the next. First Law of the Opera Jungle: make sure they hear you out there. And if we imagine the voice ringing out in theatrical space with all the overtones that the old recording process cut off (see listening to ancient voices), we can start to grasp why Tetrazzini filled the house in both the aural and the box office sense. 

Then comes the faster portion and you notice that she could operate with the same security and power while etching florid lines with chiselled clarity. (By now, maybe, your ears have adjusted enough to start liking the voice itself?) And then near the end….well, just listen through to the end even if you don’t love the start. There’s a reward.  

“Challenging” applies in two senses here. It is a bit of a challenge to get past the questionable aspects of Tetrazzini’s taste and find enjoyment in her records. But it’s also an extremely worthwhile challenge for any soprano just to see if she can emulate the consistency and athletic firmness, note by note, in a song like this. 


Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples! 

March 26, 2018

Belcantists making fun of themselves

Elisa Petri - Fonotipia advertisement


Ever since the age of florid singing started to fade, a sure bet for laughs in opera has been comic coloratura. It’s automatically funny to see someone, especially an older someone, preening over fashions that have gone out of fashion; it’s part of the way we channel social anxiety over being up-to-date ourselves. If you’re playing farce nowadays, simply emitting a few “opera-sounding” notes is a guaranteed laugh-button. If you’re already in an opera, then mugging your way through fancy figurations is the right shtik. 

The scene in “The Daughter of the Regiment” where the fusty old Marquise tries to domesticate the tomboy Marie (with a coloratura singing-lesson, how else?) is a familiar example. Sometimes the whole role of Dandini in La cenerentola gets played in this spirit.

Here’s a 1906 example of the spirit, enjoyable mostly because the comedians make sure to show that they can actually do the thing being parodied. This too is a comic singing-lesson, from Le maître de chapelle by Paër. The titular maître is trying to make an Italian prima donna out of a French cook, I think, but never mind. Ferruccio Corradetti (1867-1939) and Elisa Petri (1869-1929) are having a good time with it, with lots of improvised dialogue from Corradetti in the classic basso buffo style. 


Ferruccio Corradetti - Signed publicity photo


It’s only slightly funny but it’s definitely fun, all the more so if you follow along with the score to see how loosely they are following theirs. And the singing is impressive in its easy confidence and juicy tone. At the very end, Corradetti as the teacher calls out “open, open!” and Petri obediently converts her well-rounded note to an exaggerated verismo squall - switching gears to parody Santuzza instead of Semiramide. So they were up-to-date after all!  

Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples!


March 19, 2018

A Different Drum-Major

Plançon in Ascanio (Saint-Saëns), 1893

Pol Plançon (1851-1914) was one of the top basses in the most lucrative cities on the international opera circuit - Paris, London, and New York - for about a quarter-century. He sang Verdi, Wagner, and the whole French repertory, and specialized in the Mephistos of Gounod, Boito, and Berlioz. His reputation, then and ever since (thanks to his late-career recordings), was for elegance above all. 

Practically any of the 68 individual items he recorded could sustain that reputation. One of his favorite showpieces was the Drum Major’s aria from Le caïd, an 1849 comedy by Ambroise Thomas that stayed in the Opéra-Comique’s repertory until 1911. Plançon often sang the aria on the Metropolitan’s Sunday concerts, and made five recordings of it. All five are fantastic, and the fifth, made in 1907, has been reissued many times. It has the best overall sound quality, but the singer, unsurprisingly for a deep bass at 56, was starting to require a cautious approach to top E. Here instead is the third version, made in 1903, in more primitive sound but with just a shade more élan in the final pages.

Plançon really demonstrates just about every recognized way of getting from one note to another in the Bel Canto tradition. Slow portamento, smooth ordinary legato, firm marcato, articulation by slurred pairs, completely separated staccato notes, quick scales (ascending or descending), rising or falling arpeggios, rapid turns around a single note, a perfect trill - it’s all there, a textbook in four minutes, plus diction and character. OK, the music is a little lightweight, and we could wish he had chosen a Mozart concert aria or Assur’s mad scene from Semiramide instead….but still.  

For those curious about agility: the 16th-note runs near the end go at a tempo of MM=120, accelerating to about 132 as Plançon steps on the gas in the coda. Manuel García jr., writing in 1847, said that 132 was the required pace for a professional-level soprano (and that the most virtuosic singers could reach 152!). Plançon is one of the few basses on record to get all the way up to “soprano speed” - but he had plenty of competitors who could handle 120 with no problem.  


Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples! 


March 12, 2018

From the Italian version of Martha

Battistini as Rigoletto in Moscow, 1906

The charms of Martha have faded, but Flotow’s sentimental comedy was once a repertory staple worldwide. That meant, of course, that translations were prepared for every opera-loving country, and when starry Italians were about to sing it, Flotow made it his business to add some new arias. This is one of the latter, sung by the starriest Italian baritone of them all, Mattia Battistini (1856-1928). 

Battistini had some faults, especially in his later years (we can hear him only from the age of 46 to 68). But this disc, cut in 1906 when he was fifty, mainly shows his virtues, and they were the classic ones. Above all, sheer line: a tone that keeps spinning - no gaps, no falters, no fuzzy notes or lackluster ones. It’s not so much the details that make the effect here - it’s the absence of negative details, the cumulative impact of uninterrupted quality. 

It is a baritone of distinctly tenorish quality - perhaps startlingly so in the recitative, where there is no hint of the darkened vowel sounds that later became popular for lower male voices. Even in the context of Battistini’s time, this was definitely a voice happier at the top of the range than the bottom. But there is plenty of power in the area around middle C that is not quite high enough for most tenors to sound powerful. And once the aria proper starts, the magic begins: soft notes like velvet, loud ones like silver and seemingly effortless. And it just keeps coming, eventually with hypnotic effect through sheer continuity and generosity of tone. The burst of virtuosity in the final cadenza is an unexpected bonus. A copy of the music can be downloaded here, in case anyone would like to follow along or any lyric baritones would like a fresh audition aria.  


Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples!


March 5, 2018

Mme. de Reszke

Jean de Reszke, Amherst Webber, and Madame de Reszke

This week’s record is the only known sample of a voice from which we wish we had dozens. On 22 April 1905, a visit was made to the Paris studios of the Fonotipia company by Jean de Reszke, by far the most celebrated tenor in the world, who had just two years earlier retired from the stage, and Mme. de Reszke, née Marie de Goulaine, Comtesse de Mailly-Nesle by a previous marriage. The tenor recorded an aria each by Gounod and Massenet and ordered their immediate destruction upon hearing the test pressings. He also sat as piano accompanist for his wife in songs by Lalo and Gounod along with two excerpts from the latter’s Sapho. 

Being a noblewoman, Marie de Reszke had never sung professionally, and her records may not have been put on sale. Only the Gounod song has ever been found (though with a properly printed label that suggests at least the intent of normal publication). It preserves one of the smoothest, steadiest, most polished mezzo-soprano voices ever recorded. One can only guess whether she also had the power and range of a true operatic instrument, but she had perfect legato, exquisite blending of the registers (passing easily from chest to head in smooth portamento), eloquent and unaffected pronunciation of Alphonse Lamartine’s verses (or rather the first stanza of them), simple but unerring phrase-direction. Just what you want to hear, and just the thing to give interest to such a slender morceau as “Au rossignol.” 

Her vibrato is narrow and rapid - faster than that of anyone singing today, though only on the high side of average for her time. It may take a little getting used to; a lot has changed, in both technique and taste, since the time of Romantic opera. But it is 100% consistent and regular. And the singer’s poise and concentration are remarkable for someone completely unused to recording. She creates a real atmosphere. 


Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples!

February 26, 2018

The barcarolle from L’étoile du nord

Rosalia Chalia, undated publicity photograph

Rosalia Chalia (1863-1948) sang with the Met, but not much - just two roles, Santuzza in 1899 and Aida in 1902. She never appeared in the great houses of Europe. Most of her stage life was spent on the lively American touring circuit - season after season across the United States and in Caracas, Mexico City, San Juan, and Havana, the city of her birth. 

For some reason (and we should be thankful) Chalia agreed to do something no comparably important soprano was doing at the time: she went into the recording studios and sang songs and arias by the dozens, first for Bettini in 1899, then for Victor and Zon-o-phone in 1900 and 1901. These are the most primitive of primitive recordings; only later did Calvé, Melba, Sembrich, Eames, Tetrazzini and the other divas of the day venture to immortalize their voices.

It seems Chalia couldn’t compete with those ladies at the Met - but wow, she could sing! The aria from L’étoile du nord (or La stella del nord, as it is called on the label) is not something we would expect today from a Santuzza or an Aida: crystal clear runs, arpeggios, and chromatics at a virtuoso pace; effortless register shifts; echo effects with astonishing accuracy of intonation and attack. This was before the days of splicing or editing - you had to get it all right in one take, however many tries that took. It took Chalia exactly two tries to nail this one.



A fantastic CD of Chalia’s recordings is available from Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples!

February 19, 2018

Almaviva’s serenade from Il barbiere di Siviglia

Andrea Maggi in Il conte rosso by Giuseppe Giacosa

Andrea Maggi is a name unknown to opera buffs - for the perfectly good reason that he wasn’t an opera singer. He was a well-known stage actor who lived from 1850 to 1914, but with a reputation as a musicista dilettante di molto valore - a very good amateur musician. I’ll say! Among the descriptions of his singing is an account of how he performed the entrance aria and death scene of Verdi’s Otello between the acts of plays in which he appeared.

In 1904 Maggi made a few recordings for the Zonophone company by the primitive acoustical recording process. Here is one of them: Almaviva’s serenade from Il barbiere di Siviglia. It could serve as a model. The voice is sunny and bright but substantial, and youthful-sounding at age fifty-four. The skill at passing from chest voice to head voice is anything but “amateurish.” The ornamentation is bold, and the rhythm alternates lyricism with an impetuosity that is perfect for the character of the Count.


Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never used, or heard anyone using, a microphone - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples!

Listening to Ancient Voices

Billy Whitlock recording a song

Everybody has seen the pictures: In front of the singer, what appears to be the wrong end of a megaphone; behind, an upright piano on a platform, or a motley group of instruments that looks like about ten percent of an orchestra stuffed into a large broom-closet. The miracle of recording, in its earliest phases, was a cramped and somewhat undignified affair.

Only three or four minutes could be recorded at a time, so pieces had to be chosen carefully, or abbreviated, or rushed. Whatever wasn’t directly in front of the horn had to be very loud to be captured at all; they shaved the felts on the pianos to make them more strident, built special violins out of metal so their sound could “cut,” replaced cellos with trombones, etc.

On the other hand the singer close to the horn could not be too loud, or the result would be captured as blasting noise, so they had to think constantly about turning to the side for the most powerful notes. The pianist had to bang, or the band had to blare, but the soloist had to learn to ignore this so as not to shout in response. Nothing could be edited, so each “take” had to be accepted or rejected in its entirety.

Tenor Jacques Urlus recording for Edison

And even if, against all odds, the singer managed to perform with confidence and expression, only a restricted portion of the sound audible in natural space would be registered by the machine. This was the world of “acoustical” recording, and it lasted up to 1925. In effect, about a quarter century; although Edison invented recording in 1877, the commercial industry didn’t blossom until about 1899-1901.  

But that quarter-century contains all we have from Caruso, Tetrazzini, Sembrich, Calvé, De Lucia, Battistini, and many other stars of the day. It also contains all we have of singers who worked directly with Verdi, Wagner, Gounod, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and a long list of their fellow composers. Most important of all: it preserves two whole generations of singers who never heard a microphone singer, never saw a “talking” movie, never imagined the human voice used any other way than with its own natural projection.

What we call “classical” music is basically the only remaining form of public vocal activity, spoken or sung, that we try to accomplish naturally. Back then, singers and actors in all styles, along with preachers, professors, generals, and politicians did their own versions of the same thing. So opera at the beginning of the 21st century has a lot to learn from the people who learned how to sing in the 19th or early 20th.

Before we can learn from the singers, though, we have to learn how to hear them - because it’s hard, at first, to focus on the details when the overall sound-picture is so strange. Here’s a clip that can help jump-start the process, stitched together in alternating phrases from Rosa Ponselle’s recordings of “O patria mia” in 1923 (acoustic) and 1926 (electric). Same singer, same music, same conductor, same recording studio, in digital transfers by the same amazing restoration specialist (Ward Marston - have a look at


What’s the difference? Mainly, overtones - both those of the voice itself, and those of ambient sound and bass-register orchestral notes in the room. The flexible material inside a microphone could be set quivering with far less physical force, and therefore could respond to quieter and more distant soundwaves - more like the human ear. At first Ponselle almost sounds like two different singers. But if you listen even a few times you can start to hear the similarities outweighing the differences, and in that way you can install a kind of mental translation software to help with the voices that made only acoustical recordings.

Here’s a fragment with one of those voices: Giuseppe Campanari (1855-1927) singing a few seconds from the Toreador Song in 1898, 1905 and 1909 (in Italian). This gives an idea of how much progress was made even within the pre-microphone period. In general, the earlier the record, the more mental translation we have to apply to imagine the lost frequencies.


Enrico Caruso - Outdoor singing, self-powered

Getting familiar with enough examples like these does the trick for almost all listeners who are operatically inclined in the first place. It just takes a little time and curiosity. The constant mental note to be taken when hearing “acoustics,” remembering Ponselle’s Aida: probably a bigger voice than you might first think; probably richer and sweeter, probably less “pointed” or seemingly “nasal.” Meanwhile the basic facts of the singing - vibrato, registration, legato, phrasing, etc. - are faithfully reported even when the timbre or color of the voice is not. And even when the singer may have been performing in a somewhat compromised fashion under the circumstances.

Making the effort is really worthwhile, especially for singers themselves. We'll hear sounds made by people whose only possible concept was sound that could function acoustically - and that is what we still try to create when we sing opera without mikes in real life. No soft note that wasn’t rich in overtones and body was useful. Strength had to be distributed all through the range, not just its upper part. Notes had to be physically bound to one another without gaps or dropouts of energy to make what we call legato lines.

Enrico Caruso - self-caricature, recording studio

And as a bonus, we get some echo of the musical flavor of opera in its late heyday. A lot of things were done differently! Some of those differences would not win favor today - or at least, not with everyone. But knowing about them is food for thought and possible inspiration. A great many of the “rules and regs” we follow today were invented well after Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, and Strauss had departed the scene. There’s every reason to hold those rules up to occasional scrutiny, and to ask what purpose they serve.  

Teatro Nuovo presents a selected acoustical recording every Tuesday as “Will’s Record of the Week,” with brief notes by our Artistic Director to give some context. Check them out here and enjoy!

About Giuditta Pasta

If we could travel through time to hear just one singer, it would be very hard not to choose her.

The future muse of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini was born in 1797 to an Italian mother from a musical family and a German Jewish soldier who had translated his surname from Schwarz to Negri when he settled in Lombardy as a pharmacist. Giuditta Angiola Maria Costanza Negri sang from childhood and made her debut at just 17 (marrying the tenor Giuseppe Pasta in the same year), but her path to stardom was difficult and, at least for those days, slow. She found jobs but not attention for several seasons, withdrew briefly for further studies to tame her apparently unruly voice, and suddenly, in the winter of 1821-22, took Paris by storm with her passionate interpretation of Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello and found herself the most sought-after prima donna in Europe.

Writers vied with each other to describe the details of her voice, its range, its peculiarities, her expressive ornamentation, her skill in blending the registers and the colorings she obtained thereby. But behind all of this one grasps that there was something beyond description, a kind of genius of drama and expression that left everyone awestruck. It was the genius that made all the details matter - or not matter. The English chronicler Henry Fothergill Chorley spoke of audiences “held in thrall, without being able to analyse what made up the spell, so soon as she opened her lips.” Stendhal (Henri Beyle) wrote of notes with “a kind of resonant and magnetic vibration, which, through some still unexplained combination of physical phenomena, exercises an instantaneous and hypnotic effect upon the soul of the spectator.”  Richard Mackenzie Bacon said of a single word uttered in Medea:

It is impossible to convey the dignity with which Madame Pasta invested these two notes. She gave them with the whole power of her voice, at the same instant flung wide her arms above her head, and her whole figure seemed to dilate with a passionate majesty that can only be understood when seen.

Chopin did not even try to go into details - “I have never heard anything more sublime” - but told pupils some of his Nocturnes were based on her singing. Just about then (1831) Donizetti and Bellini were writing for her the roles that made the climax of Pasta’s career: Anna Bolena, Norma, and Amina in La sonnambula.

Pasta did not originate either Tancredi or Medea, but she made them both cornerstones of her repertory and carried them to triumph everywhere. Stendhal saw her over twenty times in the Rossini opera and said “the voice followed so closely the inspirations that breathed spontaneously from her heart, that it could never be called twice alike. With Madame Pasta, the same note in two different situations can hardly be called the same note.” And it was her thrilling dramatic performance that kept Medea in Corinto in the repertory when Mayr’s music was already a generation or more out of date. Henry Chorley saw it in London:

The air of quiet, concentrated vengeance seeming to fill every fibre of her frame, with which she stood alone, wrapped in her scarlet mantle, as the bridal procession of Jason and Creusa swept by, is never to be forgotten. Where, again, has ever been seen any exhibition of art grander than her Medea’s struggle with herself ere she consents to murder her children? --than her steps to and fro, as of one drunken with frenzy - torn with the agonies of natural pity, yet still resolved on her awful triumph?

Now, of course, we’re used to hearing opera from many periods, and we don’t need it to be “up to date” - so we are ready to appreciate Mayr’s masterwork again, and to search in it for the timeless dramatic life a genius like Pasta found there.  

But how, meanwhile, did the medium-high soprano for whom La sonnambula was written manage to sing the deep contralto role of Tancredi? By transposing it upwards, of course; it was still normal and expected, in Rossini’s day and for a good while afterwards, that roles would be fitted to the voices singing them. A good tailor can make expert alterations. Nowadays we prefer to hear the original concept, including its choice of tonalities and vocal range, and that is valid too, as long as we don’t mistake it for law. But to hear Pasta interpret the role? Whatever key she likes!

Giuditta Pasta,
by Gioacchino Giuseppe Serangeli  (1768–1852) 

Who was Tancredi?

Actually, there were several Tancredis. No, many Tancredis - it was a name passed down in the Hauteville family, a Norman clan that rose to its greatest power with the conquest of southern Italy in the eleventh century. The name was diffused everywhere in different forms; gin lovers know it today as Tanqueray.  

One of the Hautevilles, a Tancredi who lived from 1075 to 1112, participated in the First Crusade and became Prince of Galilee, and subsequently entered literature by being inserted into Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered (Gerusalemme liberata). His adventures there seem mostly to be inventions of Tasso; one of them became a sort of proto-opera when Monteverdi set it to music as Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.

The hero of Voltaire’s Tancrède and Rossini’s opera seems to be the same figure, to judge by the date given for the action of the play (1105) - but here we pass almost completely into the realm of fiction; none of the situations or (other) people in the play seem to be based on known history. But he became real to operagoers; Rossini was the seventh known composer to base an opera on Voltaire’s tragedy.

He also became a prototype: the exile, the dispossessed, the outsider, longing for belonging, seeking a rightful place, focused above all on desire for union with a woman, and finding his way to her barred. Conrad L. Osborne calls it, rightly, “the redundant narrative” of opera’s greatest century. Edgardo, Gualtiero, Gennaro; Ernani, Manrico, Don Carlo; Siegmund, Werther, Otello, and with variations and twists, dozens of others - Tancredi is a father-figure to them all.

Tancred of Hauteville,

by Merry-Joseph Blondel  (1781–1853) 

What happened to the conductor?


Italian opera houses didn’t generally have a stand-up conductor until the 1860s or later. Even La traviata and Il trovatore were premiered without one! The leadership was shared between the first violinist, usually listed as Primo violino e capo d’orchestra or Violino principale e direttore dell’orchestra and a Maestro concertatore or Maestro al cembalo, who sat at a keyboard (whether he played it or not, and how much if so, depended on the style of the music and the needs of the ensemble). "Concertare" means putting things together; the maestro concertatore was the person who had rehearsed the singers - usually a composer, and if the opera was new, always the composer. The first violinist, meanwhile, was basically responsible for the orchestra, and the two of them shared the job of coordinating the vocal and instrumental elements in performance. 

Teatro Nuovo is reviving this style because we want an ensemble of players and singers listening and reacting to each other every exciting minute - and we want to put each singer in the driver’s seat for his or her aria. In a way, the stand-up conductor is an intrusion on this process. It became a necessary function later, when orchestration became much more complex. But if Rossini didn’t need it, why should we? The older concept emphasizes more leading and less directing. Leading is something you do from within a team, with your hands on the music like everyone else. Let’s see if our team can make it work!

The first operatic pop tune?

Opera became Italy’s pop music in the 19th century as a rising middle class democratized the audience. Singable, memorable melodies became a sine qua non for successful composers, and everybody everywhere knew the best tunes. The standard was set by Tancredi’s “Di tanti palpiti.” 

The catchy simplicity of the opening phrases hit the spot. There is also virtuosic coloratura, but that comes later; anybody could sing the tune. At least fifty different sheet-music editions appeared, and almost as many sets of variations for piano, harp, flute, clarinet, and every other instrument played by amateurs at home. Wagner made the chorus of tailors sing it as they arrive for the festival in Die Meistersinger (tailors, because Italian arias are cut-to-fit from standard patterns, right? get it? Poor Wagner! Humor was not his key gift.) 

Frontispiece of an arrangement of “Di tanti palpiti,” circa 1820

Legend has it that Rossini composed the aria in the time it took to cook a pot of rice, after the original Tancredi (Adelaide Malanotte) had objected that his first attempt to write her entrance aria was insufficient. For years it was called the aria del riso. It makes a better story than the true one: “Di tanti palpiti” was the first attempt - it was the one Malanotte didn’t like - and so a more ambitious aria, “Dolci d’amor parole,” with a spectacular violin obbligato and an offstage echoing voice, was cooked up to replace it. Both are delicious; Teatro Nuovo’s audiences can compare them when the second aria is featured in Tancredi rifatto.

Another legend is impossible to verify. One of the catchiest lines is “Mi rivedrai; ti rivedrò” - “You will see me again, I will see you again.” According to endlessly repeated accounts, humming this bit of melody became a coded way to threaten a witness who was about to testify against a powerful criminal. It seems judges eventually had to ban even the wordless tune in court.