Staying Power

Forsell in 1928

John Forsell (1868-1941) was another “late starter” in his opera career - he had a detour into the Swedish army, rising to the rank of Lieutenant before requesting a discharge in 1897. He had been studying singing, and knew he had jobs waiting for him in civilian life; the year before, on leave, he had already made a successful debut as Rossini’s Figaro at the Royal Opera, where he would sing for another 41 seasons - doubling as Intendant in the last sixteen of them.

Figaro was one of his Met roles when he came briefly to New York; the others (all in 1909-1910) were Amfortas, Telramund, Tonio, Germont, and Prince Yeletsky. He spent most of his stage life with Verdi and Wagner, so one is naturally curious to hear how he dealt with Il barbiere, whose duet with Rosina he recorded around 1905 (in Swedish, of course).  

The first question: how will he match the ultra-fast, ultra-clear coloratura Anna Hellström unfolds in the opening pages? Well, he doesn’t - not quite - but he comes about as close as any Figaro known to recording, and far closer than most. Also: a first-rate trill, clean staccati, lively declamation and rhythm.


The record, abbreviated for primitive time-limits, is interesting in other ways as well. (Stockholm in 1905 was still used to the appoggiaturas sung in the composer’s day...and how can it be that they don’t feel any need for a “final high note” in Rossini?) Forsell, meanwhile, is very interesting to any student of singing, partly because we can hear how his voice held up during most of his long career. The very beginning was too early for the record industry, but here is a short mash-up taking him from his first sessions to a live broadcast shortly before his farewell. We hear him as Wolfram, Count di Luna, Amonasro, Wotan, Rigoletto, Elijah, and Count Almaviva.


Forsell as the Flying Dutchman

I admit I wish the Count would sing like this more often: vocal substance beats snarling and whispering any day as an assertion of authority. From early to late we can hear an absolute command of dynamic range, an unfailing legato, and a beautifully even vibrato that, while it slowed somewhat with age (which seems to be an inescapable law of nature), did not grow noticeably wider in pitch. This is a crucial point: a well-produced voice cannot acquire what we now call a “wobble.”  Only misused ones do that.

Forsell not only knew what he was doing but knew how to teach it; the third job of his mature years was a professorship at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, where his pupils included Joel Berglund, Aksel Schiøtz, Hjördis Schymberg, Set Svanholm, and a certain Jussi Björling.

The results of the trivia quiz are in!

Nobody named all seven songs we had in mind, but nevertheless the entries demonstrated that our readers know more than we do.  It turns out that the total number of songs recorded by both Sutherland and Fischer-Dieskau is not seven but eleven!!  Here is the complete list:

  • Adam:  Cantique de Noël 

  • Berlioz:  Le jeune pâtre Breton

  • Donizetti:  L'amor funesto

  • Gounod:  Sérénade

  • Hahn:  Si mes vers avaient des ailes

  • Haydn:  She never told her love

  • Kreutzer:  Das Mühlrad

  • Liszt:  Die Lorelei

  • Liszt:  Oh quand je dors

  • Mendelssohn:  Auf Flügeln des Gesanges

  • Meyerbeer:  Komm! 

The winner is Walter Winterfeldt, who named six of these and can claim six tickets to Teatro Nuovo events of his choice.  For those curious about the cross-language recordings:  the Adam was done by FiDi in French and Dame Joan in English; for the Meyerbeer, the baritone recorded Heine's original German text, while Sutherland used the French translation included in the first edition.  

Thanks to all who participated. We will have a new trivia contest soon, since it is obvious that we are likely to learn something from it!