Giuseppe Verdi


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Giacomo Puccini

Saturdee Opry Links # 103: Gedda Special 2

Saturdee Opry Links' big tribute to Nicolai Gedda is here, for your flagrant disregard and enthusiastic ambivalence. One of the greatest tenors, he rose from a terrible upbringing to become fluent in about six languages, sing in every genre and style, and tap dance naked whenever the moon was new. (Just testing to see if you are reading. That's actually me, not Gedda.) Overture! Ten carefully agonized-over selections! Two encores! And the second encore even has the word, "encore," in the title! I know, I know, you are shrinking away, knowing full well it is all too good for you, and while I appreciate your humility, it really is not necessary. Just think of opera as a different sort of kick in the pants than you might be used to:
Saturdee Opry Links Overture!
The astonishing prelude to "Tannhauser," by Wagner.

                           Nicolai Gedda                                                      Rehearsing with Callas. Maybe it was something she ate.                                       As Lohengrin, 1966

Bright and brisk, as per the weather today, here is "Vainement, ma bien-aimee," from Edouard Lalo’s "Le roi d’Ys," as sung by the incomparable tenor, Nicolai Gedda. Is it heroic? Is it charming? Is it "merely" lyrical? This, the most frequently recorded selection from the lesser-known opera, finds Mylio, a young warrior, trying to convince Rozenn, his bride-to-be, to leave the protection of her handmaidens (who, in accordance with local custom, refuse to allow him entrance to her living quarters) and join him in the wedding procession. In other words: "Let's get this thing over with, baby!" (Note: the aria is preceded by a short introductory recitativ of about one minute.)
RECITATIVE: Since these jealous guardians will not be moved to mercy, ah, let me tell you of my anguish and my torment!
In vain, my beloved, do I seem to despair: next to your closed door I am determined to stay!
Suns may be extinguished, nights replace days, but without blaming you and without complaining, I shall stay here for ever!
I know that you have a kind heart, and the hour will soon come when the hand which now pushes me away will reach out towards mine!
Do not delay too long in allowing yourself to be won over by your tender feelings;
If Rozenn does not appear soon soon, I, alas, shall die!
Part of Nicolai Gedda's NYT 2017 obit reads, "The fluid lightness of Mr. Gedda’s voice made him especially well suited to the French repertoire." True enough, as is well exemplified by the gorgeous, almost ethereal "dream" aria from Massenet's 1882 opera, "Manon." Often referred to as "Le Rêve" ("The Dream"), this is the lovely "En fermant les yeux," or "When I close my eyes." No one floats it like Gedda did.
Setting: Apartment of Chevalier Des Grieux, Paris, France, 18th century
Synopsis: In order to cheer Manon up, Des Grieux relates to her a dream that he has had. He has dreamed that someday he will own a house surrounded by beautiful flowers and singing birds. However, he realizes that his dream was still drear because it lacks one thing : Manon.
Nicolai Gedda had one hell of a troubled upbringing in his native Sweden. The illegitimate child of a teenaged waitress, he was abandoned at birth, only to be retrieved from authorities six days later by his biological father's older sister. Deciding to raise the boy, she married a Russian-born singer, Michail Ustinoff---but Swedish authorities deemed the couple too poor to adopt. Hence Gedda was illegitimate twice over! And home life was distinctly lacking a Ward Cleaver: at the slightest perceived infraction (Gedda wrote in his autobiography), his foster father would beat him into tears with “a narrow Cossack belt that had once belonged to his uniform.” It perhaps was a relief to Gedda when he learned that these were not his actual parents, while in his late teens. Yet Ustinoff also did the boy some good, seeing to it that he became fluent in Russian and Swedish--- and later German, when Ustinoff became the choirmaster of a Russian Orthodox Church in Leipzig. Most significant, Ustinoff secured voice lessons for the child, who was singing and playing piano like a champ by age. . .five! In 1934, after the rise of Hitler, the family returned to Stockholm, where Gedda grew up, sleeping in a tiny alcove off the kitchen of their tiny apartment. A dull life as a bank clerk was thwarted when a customer introduced the young man to one Carl Martin Ohman, who had been a mentor of the renowned Swedish tenor, Jussi Björling. What a break! And so began Gedda's formal training, first with Ohman, later at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Young Nick was quickly propelled to the operatic fore, making his debut at 26 as the coachman, Chapelou, in the comic opera, “Le Postillon de Lonjumeau,” by the French composer Adolphe Adam (with the Royal Swedish Opera.) His performance---notably the aria “Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire,” with its crazy high D (the highest commonly sung note for tenors)--- brought the house down. The rest is melody. Here is that effervescent aria, recorded years later, at the peak of Gedda's international success. Prepare to lose socks at that high D.
Gedda's NYT obit:
Gedda sang everything, and I mean everything: from ethereal Faure to whimsical Debussy, from heavy Richard Strauss to light Johann Strauss, from Poulenc to Bach to Auber to Puccini to Wagner to Irish folk songs, and much more. French repertory, Italian repertory, Russian repertory, German repertory---there was nothing he could not sing, and sing superbly. He was especially celebrated for the role of the poet, Lenksy (a distant relative), in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, but not to worry, I won't subject you to such melancholia today. He was a kind of tenorial superman, with 367 appearances at the Metropolitan Opera alone, still singing with excellence well into his seventies. Plus he had one hell of a bitchen widow's peak! Here is the great Gedda with the emotional and musical roller coaster that is the beautiful, compelling "Ella mi fu rapita" from Verdi's "Rigoletto."
The notorious, womanizing Duke of Mantua discovers that his latest conquest, Gilda, has been kidnapped. Apparently smitten with the realization that he might actually love this woman, the Duke sings of his despair and anguish that someone has taken his "beloved" away.
A friend very generously sent me a huge boxed set of Nicolai Gedda recordings, and it is one of those things that, once you start hearing, you don't want to stop. Well, at least I don't. He was a lyric tenor---one of the best "light and bright" Mozart tenors ever---yet could also command great emotional power in Italian grand opera, steely nobility in Wagner, and understated purity in Bach. Amazing, really. After Mario Lanza, who my grandmother used listen to when I was knee-high to a Nehi bottle, Gedda was the first operatic tenor I ever heard. My old man used to wear out a copy of "Highlights from 'La Boheme'" starring Gedda and Mirella Freni, which sounded to my ten-year-old psyche mostly like a lot of very upset people. It took many listens, most uncomprehending, before the beauty and poetry sunk in. Here is Gedda's rendition of the greatest of love arias, "Che Gelida Manina," from "Boheme." "Son un poeta. . .che cosa faccio? Scrivo! E come vivo? Vivo!" ("I'm a poet. What do I do? I write! And how do I live? I live!") No wonder I came to identify with Rodolfo, the perpetually broke freelance writer and poet. When I grew a goatee in my twenties, my much-amused father took to referring to me as "Rodolfo." Har.
Setting: Christmas Eve in a room in an attic Synopsis: After both of their candles go out, Rodolfo and a young woman who has come to his room in order to relight her candle are in the darkness together. Pretending to look for her key which she had lost in the room, Rodolfo instead finds her hand and sings to her of his dreams and ambitions. He also tells her that he has fallen in love with her.
AND here is the tremendous studio recording of the aria that much perplexed my fledgling kid-brain. . .
Having a little trouble Gedda-ing a grip this a.m., but am staunchly persevering. Seeing as St. Nicolai has served SOL well, here at the start of the hollandaise season, might as well make it an all-Gedda affair. Here is a selection that I present with apologies to operatic appreciator novices who might prefer selected arias. It is part of a scene from Act 3 of "La Boheme," a short excerpt that is so alive, so graceful with gorgeous, natural, interweaving and complementary melodies, it's as if Puccini could not NOT write beauty here. I've been listening to it almost all my life, and in almost every instance, the geese bump. (Even better: the full act.) So here is that little bit of "Boheme," with Gedda (Rodolfo) Mirella Freni (Mimi), Mariella Adani (Musetta), Mario Sereni (Marcello.)
To follow along, here is the libretto: (Search for "Dunque e" and start there.)

For those who are still curious, here is most of the entire Act 3, with English subtitles. Keep handkerchief handy.
Luciano Pavarotti, Fiamma Izzo d'Amico, Roberto Servile, Madelyn Renée Monti.
Young Gedda once auditioned for one Walter Legge, a classical record producer at EMI. After the audition, Legge immediately sent telegrams to legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan, and to Antonio Ghiringhelli, who oversaw La Scala. Legge did not mince words: “Just heard the greatest Mozart singer in my life. His name is Nicolai Gedda.” (Yes, this gave Nicolai a Legge up!) Understand, please, that many a fine singer has vocal gifts that force specialization in genre or period. There are many, for example, who sing primarily Mozart and music of that era, because of their lighter, lyric voices (the type that best fit Mozart operas.) Gedda was one of those who transcended genre. Here is an example of the tenor at his Mozart best, "Dalla sua Pace," from "Don Giovanni."
"On her peace of mind depends mine, too."
Setting: The countryside near the palace of Don Giovanni
Synopsis: After Donna Anna asks Don Ottavio, her fiance, to take revenge of Don Giovanni for killing her father, she leaves, at which point Don Ottavio express his love and worry for her.
Told you Gedda sang Irish songs. Here is the heartbreaking, "Down By the Salley Gardens," set by Benjamin Britten. What? A heartbreaking Irish song? Whoever heard of such a thing?
But back to bright and brisk, where we started. Got to program one or two chestnuts in every SOL, right? Here are Nicolai Gedda and glamorous Anna Moffo, raising a glass, as Alfredo and Violetta always do, in Verdi's "La Traviata." Follow the bouncing ball. "Let us drink from goblets of joy!"
Setting: A late-night party at the house of Violetta Valery
Synopsis: Alfredo is convinced by Gastone and Violetta to show off his voice. He sings (as this title suggests) a drinking song.
The SOL tribute to Nicolai Gedda will end where it started, in French repertory---with a tremendous reading of the heroic "Ah, fuyez douce image," from "Manon," by Massenet. "Ah! Vanish sweet memory too dear to my heart!" Now there's a sentiment with which we all can identify, I expect.
Setting: The reception room in St. Sulpice church, France, 18th century
Synopsis: After entering the seminary in order to forget about Manon, Des Grieux finds that he is unable to forget his love for her. He prays to God to remove this shadow from his heart.
Saturdee Opry Links Encore!
For those who found the Nicolai Gedda "final bow" a bit too close to home. . .Mi cantar hecho de fantasia. . .
Saturdee Opry Links Second Encore!
Gedda on stage in Moscow at age 55. Singing that haunting, eerie aria from Bizet's "Pearl Fishers," as only he could.
Synopsis : In the past, Nadir had fallen in love with a beautiful Brahman priestess named Léďla at a Brahman temple. Now, a veiled priestess has come to his village and he recognizes her as Léďla. He sings of his love for her which has not been diminished by the time they have spent apart.

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