27 Jun 2006
Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, vols. 1 and 2
Second only to soprano divas, history’s great tenors have received the most retrospective scrutiny.
Das Rheingold launches what is perhaps the single most ambitious project in opera, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.
This live performance of Laurent Pelly’s Glyndebourne staging of Humperdinck’s affectionately regarded fairy tale opera, was recorded at Glyndebourne Opera House in July and August 2010, and the handsomely produced disc set — the discs are presented in a hard-backed, glossy-leaved book and supplemented by numerous production photographs and an informative article by Julian Johnson — is certainly stylish and unquestionably recommendable.
Recorded at a live performance in 2012, this CD brings together an eclectic selection of turn-of-the-century orchestral songs and affirms the extraordinary versatility, musicianship and technical accomplishment of mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.
Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon features an assortment of songs by Ricky Ian Gordon interpreted by soprano Stacey Tappan, a longtime friend of the composer since their work on his opera Morning Star at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’
In generations past, an important singer’s first recording of Italian arias would almost invariably have included the music of Verdi.
With celebrations of the Verdi Bicentennial in full swing, there have been many grumblings about the precarious state of Verdi singing in the world’s major opera houses today.
In the thirty-five years immediately following its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914, Italo Montemezzi’s ‘Tragic Poem in Three Acts’ L’amore dei tre re was performed in New York on sixty-six occasions.
Few operas inspire the kind of competing affection and controversy that have surrounded Mozart’s Così fan tutte almost since its first performance in Vienna in 1790.
During his career in film, opera, and operetta, Richard Tauber (1891 - 1948) enjoyed the sort of global fame that eludes all but the tiniest handful of ‘serious’ singers today.
Known principally for its two concert show-pieces for the leading lady, the success of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur relies upon finding a soprano willing to take on, and able to pull off, the eponymous role.
It would be condescending and perhaps even offensive to suggest that singing traditional Spirituals is a rite a passage for artists of color, but the musical heritage of the United States has been greatly enriched by the performances and recordings of Spirituals by important artists such as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Jessye Norman, Barbara Hendricks, Florence Quivar, Kathleen Battle, Harolyn Blackwell, and Denyce Graves.
As a companion to their excellent Great Wagner Singers boxed set compiled and released in celebration of the Wagner Bicentennial, Deutsche Grammophon have also released Great Wagner Conductors, a selection of orchestral music conducted by five of the most iconic Wagnerian conductors of the Twentieth Century, extracted from Deutsche Grammophon’s extensive archives.
There could be no greater gift to the Wagnerian celebrating the Master’s Bicentennial than this compilation from Deutsche Grammophon, aptly entitled Great Wagner Singers.
What better way for Masonic brothers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emmanuel Shikaneder to disseminate Masonic virtues, than through the most popular musical entertainment of their age, a happy ending folktale that features a dragon, enchanting flutes and bells, mixed-up parentage, and a beautiful young princess in distress?
Since its first performance at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo during Venice’s 1643 Carnevale, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been one of the most important milestones in the genesis of modern opera despite its 250 years of unmerited obscurity.
Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.
Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation.
Few people who love opera in general and bel canto in particular have never heard the comment made by Lilli Lehmann, veteran of the inaugural Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—in Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, respectively, all of which she sang to great acclaim—pales in comparison with singing the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
Second only to soprano divas, history’s great tenors have received the most retrospective scrutiny.
Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era was produced in 1997 by Jan Schmidt-Garre as a television series of thirteen episodes broadcast on a variety of European networks. The series was packaged as four videos and then as two DVDs. Highlighted in Volume I of this latest incarnation are Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa, Richard Tauber, Leo Slezak, and Joseph Schmidt (the episode on Schmidt received mention at the Louvre’s 1998 “Classique en images” international film festival). The second DVD features segments on Lauritz Melchior, Helge Rosvænge, Jussi Björling, John McCormack, Georges Thill, Ivan Koslovsky and others, including a final episode on “The Singing Robot”—the record player. Timed fairly equally at just under 30 minutes, each episode has a similar format: following a “canned” introductory film of a nameless tenor in a recording studio (usually singing from L’Africaine), the viewer is taken back into the lives of these great singers. In the case of Caruso, we are introduced to New Yorkers who knew the tenor when they were young; to get a glimpse of Slezak’s past, we are transported into the mountains where dirndl and lederhosen-clad mountainfolk with beer steins recall how the tenor loved his free time there among them. Other episodes offer less-stereotypical portraits, but the pattern remains: an exploration of where these men lived and performed, interviews with people who knew them as friends or colleagues, and various commentaries on recordings of their voices. Although the soundtracks of recordings of the singers, particularly of lesser known voices like Schmidt’s, are worth the viewing time, the dissections of their vocal styles not only leave much to be desired but make one question the overall point of the exercise.
In general, the listening “analyses” in these episodes are so subjective that one is reminded of the childhood game of “Telephone” in which everyone supposedly hears the same phrase yet each repeats it back differently. It is absolutely true that recordings have become “primary source” research materials, and historians of both opera and recording science use them to trace issues like the technical influences singers of the past have had on present performance practices. Yet such commentary often slips into the realm of subjective interpretation. Clearly, there are objective judgments that one could make about listening to recordings; one might, for example, note that an artist’s approach to a particular phrase was technically correct or that a certain critical pitch was delivered sharp or flat. One can also compare the recordings of singers to trace the transmission of stylistic elements from an important voice teacher to his or her pupils. However, comments—all too frequent in these episodes—such as “He caresses the melody” are senseless and, in fact, detract from the worthwhile moments. What is even more puzzling is why the producer would include contradictory comments one right after the other. For instance, one commentator will applaud a certain singer’s ability to control volume; the very next person interviewed will bemoan said singer’s dynamic weaknesses. One can only expect differences of opinion in a format such as this, but it becomes difficult for the viewer to know precisely whom to believe.
Most interesting in the series are the interviews with other performers who share their memories of working with these great artists. Next come the portions dedicated to recording historian Jürgen Kesting; it is a revelation just to watch him as he listens to recorded excerpts. He provides a living example of audience interaction with recorded sound. By far the weakest portions of the series are those featuring Stefan Zucker; he may well be an expert in this repertory but his comments do anything but demonstrate this. For example, he comments that when Joseph Schmidt sang in the synagogue, he was performing in the florid style of the nineteenth-century opera house; to cap off this reference to Rossini and his colleagues, the video cuts to a cantor who is singing a traditional prayer. Although there a thread of logic here—that cantors and singers embellish vocal lines—it is so poorly stated that Zucker’s point goes far afield of its intended mark.
Perhaps the wisest remark is offered by John Steane, who seems to be commenting on the series title: Bel Canto. The term, he notes, is “so vague. I sometimes think that the term should be banned. It’s used without any definition. Its principle use is negative—we know what isn’t bel canto.” In fact, the series title, Belcanto: The Tenors of the 78 Era, demonstrates the lack of focus of the entire series: does it center on the singers and their careers? On recordings of their voices? On clips that document their cinematic activities? The latter—even if they are the only ones available—offer unflattering profiles of Slezak’s activities with the Ufa and Gigli’s appearances in Fascist-era movies; the former would hardly appreciate being remembered in a scene that shows him singing “Kleine Frau” while surrounded by a roomful of merry Nazi officers. While there are moments of wonderful music and interesting information in these episodes, one can not help but wonder why the producer did not simply let the singers’ eloquent voices speak for themselves.