From the Italian version of Martha
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
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.
February 26, 2018
The barcarolle from L’étoile du nord
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.
February 19, 2018
Almaviva’s serenade from Il barbiere di Siviglia
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.