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

Challenging

 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  marstonrecords.com. 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!