They Could Do That

December 18, 2018

Edoardo Garbin (1865-1943) was a Paduan tenor with a long and busy career, successful enough to be counted definitely as a leading artist of his generation, but not quite starry enough to be a reference-point in Italian tenor history like Rubini, Mario, Tamagno, De Lucia, Caruso, Martinelli, Gigli.  His name turns up nowadays mostly for having been the first Fenton in Falstaff, but that doesn’t seem to have mattered much at the time, since he made 66 recordings for three different companies without touching the opera, even though he continued to sing it for twenty years. If you read around a little farther you find that he did the same honors for the role of Milio in Zazà, from which he did record a couple of arias. The main course served in his records is the Puccini-and-verismo repertory that kept him busy on stage, with a side-helping of translated Manon and Lohengrin and a few appetizers from his older rep - Forza, Aida, Favorita, Guglielmo Tell.  

Garbin - undated publicity photo

Already, though, the list of operas looks strange to our eyes: what Fenton sings those heavy roles?  He also did Almaviva and Tonio in La figlia del reggimento, so it’s not as though Fenton was an aberration on the “light” side. What we eventually realize, studying his career and those of his contemporaries, is that our division of lighter and heavier roles barely existed at the time.

Yes, it was there at the extremes - there were plenty of tenors who took on Otello and left Don Pasquale alone, and vice versa - but the overlap was far greater than we make it nowadays. We can hear about eighty Italian tenors born from the 1840s to the 1870s, and practically every one, from the heaviest to the lightest, shared a broad middle ground of roles like Edgardo, the Duke of Mantua, Gennaro in Lucrezia Borgia, and the Fausts of Gounod and Boito. Garbin, the first Fenton, sang all of those - and so did Tamagno, the first Otello. They also shared Don Alvaro in La forza del destino - it was the opera of Garbin’s debut, and the only one Verdi heard him sing before accepting him for the Falstaff cast.  

So this alone should make us curious about what kind of voice Garbin had and how he handled it. And the records give us some interesting answers. Many of them have been reissued on vinyl or CD, but here’s one that hasn’t been.


The surprise here is the high C near the end, and not just because it isn’t written in the score. What’s impressive is that it is very long, very evenly sustained, very soft, and yet doesn’t sound at all like “falsetto.” I put that word in quotes because there is such confusing variety in its historical use. For the moment, let’s just say it sounds like Garbin is using some of the muscular actions we associate with “chest voice,” but his muscles are conditioned to do that with an extremely fine coordination that allows him to sing pianissimo right to the top of his range.

Several weeks back in this series we talked about Jacques Urlus singing loud notes that sounded “heady” and here we are hearing a soft note that sounds “chesty.” Those are two sides of one coin: the development of the vocal registers in a way that allows characteristics of each to come into play on the notes that could be sung in either. And that overlap, I think, goes some distance towards explaining the overlap of repertory that seems so strange to us. “Light” voices able to sing strongly and “heavy” voices able to sing gently can be effective in a lot of the same material, and with the further advantage of shining different lights on it.

Meanwhile, for those accustomed to thinking of things like the pianissimo B-flat in “Celeste Aida” as a rare marvel (I think we all grow up with that assumption), records like Garbin’s provide an important answer: yes, tenors could do that. Verdi wasn’t asking for something uncommon; it was standard operating procedure. It was probably already “on the way out” by the early recorded era, but it was still around, and far from rare. Here are a few examples:  The Aida ending itself by Giuseppe Lenghi-Cellini; Carlo Dani finishing the Pearlfishers aria with uncommon poise on a long breath; Leo Slezak blending perfectly with Grete Forst in William Tell; Dmitri Smirnov fading away to a whisper in The Sorochinski Fair; Andrei Labinsky doing the same in Dubrovski (notice how his technique is free enough to let him finish the note with an effortless diphthong just before the release).

When tenors today decide to try such notes softly, it usually sounds looser-knit and headier - more like what most people call “falsetto” (for instance Francesco Meli in the recent Muti Aida broadcast from Salzburg). That too can have beauty, but it carries a different expressive quality. A few within living memory have been able to do something closer to what is heard here (Nicolai Gedda and Franco Corelli, with their very different voices, could both do it). I think the general shift is probably a by-product of a near-century’s experience with the microphone, which has changed our communal perception of so many aspects of voice - and of how to train voices even when they don’t intend to sing with mikes. We have some figuring-out to do to if we would like to restore what used to be an important component of tenor singing.

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.