Do Try This at Home
November 13, 2018
One thing that stands out on pre-microphone records is the love of long vocal notes, notes held out to six, eight, ten seconds or even more. Sometimes, I guess, held to show off - when Ernestine Schumann-Heink unfolds a 17-second messa di voce in the drinking song from Lucrezia Borgia, or when Selma Kurz trills for nearly half a minute in “Der Vogel im Walde,” the reason would have to be some version of “because she can.” But more often, maybe, they’re held out just to make time stand still. Wagner: “the basis of all musical expression is an equably sustained tone.” Sometimes there is magic in allowing the burden of drama and expression to be borne by the simple fact of a human throat pouring forth sound.
That’s what I hear in this week’s record by the fascinating Emma Calvé, who was born in 1858 and active in opera and concert from around 1880 to 1924. She was celebrated as a musical dramatist, never “just” a singer. As Ophélie in Hamlet (at La Scala, the Met, La Fenice, Covent Garden and the Paris Opera, among others) she moved many to compare her with the great stage actress Eleonora Duse. (George Bernard Shaw, not easy to please in the matter of operatic acting, endorsed the comparison.) She took part in the world premieres of Massenet’s Sapho and La Navarraise, Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, and quite a few less-remembered operas. For half a generation she was pretty much the world’s favorite Santuzza and Carmen.
Calvé was a big public persona as well, a favorite for interviewers, a participant in a few scandals, and so fabulously paid that by the age of 36 she was able to purchase the 12th-century castle of Cabrières (today a luxury hotel and tourist magnet). Her origins were humble, however, and she laid great stress throughout her career on an almost mystical sense of connection to “the people” and their folklore. She emphasized folk-songs in her concert repertory, often sung with minimal accompaniment or none at all.
One of those is “Ma Lisette,” the recording heard here, made in Camden NJ a little before her 50th birthday. She sings two of the many verses preserved in folk-song collections:
J'entends, ma Lisette, j'entends dans le bois,
Oh! j'entends dans le bois une voix qui m'appelle,
Oh! j'entends dans le bois une tant belle voix !
Ton cœur, ma Lisette, fait comme un vaisseau,
Oh! fait comme un vaisseau qui s’en va-t-à la nage,
Oh! fait comme un vaisseau qui va nageant sur l’eau.
The thing about long notes, of course, is that they have to be steady and beautiful to make the effect described above. They have to make us feel the way Faust yearned to feel about a passing moment: stay awhile! We can only imagine what Calvé’s fermatas would have sounded like with the full overtone spectrum that primitive recording couldn’t capture, but we don’t have to imagine anything to admire the absolute regularity of vibrato, or to enjoy the fine gradations of volume in the ones with diminuendo. We can also notice that singers who cultivate a quick, narrow vibrato (and don’t push) can reach their mature years without even the slightest hint of “wobble.” Worth imitation for that reason alone! Meanwhile, any singer who sets out to duplicate the length and serene steadiness heard here will find out a lot about breath control.
And if we wonder how this pure, ringing, high soprano could have been effective as Carmen and Santuzza, we can check out another folk-song, one of three “Coplas Andaluzas” recorded in 1920. The song itself seems to be undocumented elsewhere. Maybe she was remembering it from childhood - her family moved to Spain when Calvé was three, and she seems to be “remembering” a very peculiar version of the Spanish language. Try not to mind; she obviously didn’t! There may be some gibberish in the text but the concentrated expression is unmistakable, and so is the power and color of the low register. This time the final long note is a messa di voce on the D-flat two octaves below the one at the end of “Ma Lisette.”
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.