Giuseppe Verdi


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Giacomo Puccini

SATURDEE OPRY LINKS 70: All Kinds of Tenors

                  Richard Leech                                               Fritz Wunderlich                                       Miguel Fleta

Saturdee Opry Links Overture!
Don Giovanni, by Mozart.

"Who's the greatest tenor?" is an endless and futile (silly, really) game played by all manner of crazed operaphiles (redundant.) There are very great tenors who are head and shoulders above all others, but in the end, posing this question is like asking to name the grandest tree, the prettiest flower, etc. Do you prefer a heroic tenor with enormous power, or a lyric tenor with great beauty of tone? There are all kinds of tenors, which, coincidentally, happens to be the topic of today's Saturdee Opry Links. Here is young Luciano Pavarotti, who, of course, had tremendous (push-button) power, and masterful command of all aspects of singing, whether delicate or full-throated. He was 29 here, approaching his best years. The voice is brassier, more clarion, not yet having manifested the dark quality it later acquired. He couldn't read a note of music, by the way. How in hell he memorized entire operas, I have no idea. That's one definition of "genius." Here is "Che Gelida Manina," from Puccini's "La Boheme," which became one of his signature roles.
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.

Mozart requires such specific singing that there is actually a category called the "Mozart tenor" that is apart from all other categories. Yes, lots of tenors who are not Mozart tenors sing Mozart, and that's well and good, but there are those particularly suited to Mozart opera: light-voiced, flexible. Poor old, or poor young, Fritz Wunderlich died at 36 after falling down a flight of stairs. His voice was flexible, lyrical, but also had power. He was inclining toward singing Verdi and other heavier opera at the time of his death, when he was considered a great Mozart tenor. 
Here he is with Tamino's aria (you will recognize it) from "The Magic Flute."
Role : Tamino, a young prince of Egypt
Setting : A magical forest
Synopsis : When the Three Ladies come by and take Papageno away, they give Prince Tamino a portrait of Princess Pamina. He is captured by her beauty.

Just to show you how subjective taste is, I'm ambivalent about the great contemporary tenor---all the rage in the opera world---Jonas Kaufmann. I believe he is a spinto, which is a lyric tenor able to punch through on the power-notes. He is a tremendous singer, highly intelligent, duly lauded. He has sung many of the most difficult heroic tenor roles, including those of Wagner, and although he is trying to sing less (in order to spend time watching his kids grow up), he is at his peak at 47. But there is something in his tone, and manner or singing, that puts me off. He has a baritonal quality, for starters, and my guess is that he is actually a "baritenor" (a baritone with tenor range.) So every time I hear him, I feel like I am hearing a baritone. And there is a kind of thickness in his singing, deliberately invoked---the "covered voice"---that I sometimes find unattractive. I'm possibly a minority of one, in this regard. Not incidentally, he is a good fit for heldentenor, which a heroic tenor voice with a dark tone endemic mostly to Wagner. Here he is with "Nessun Dorma," from Puccini's "Turandot."
Role: Calaf, the "Unknown Prince", son of Timur
Setting: The gardens before the walls of Peking
Synopsis: A herald has just announced that no one will sleep in the city of Peking until the Calaf's name is known to the Princess. Calaf, who knows that he has agreed to be killed if Turandot learns his name before the morning, is not worried. He is sure that he will be the only one to reveal his name to the Princess and he will only do that once morning has come and the Princess has consented to be his wife.

Pavarotti had a dark timbre, for a tenor, yet he seems light and bright compared with Kaufmann.

A "tenor di grazia" is a light voice, also known as "leggero tenor," and the male equivalent of the coloratura. You listen to Tito Schipa, and even though he was one of the great "tenor di grazias," you wonder, where at least a little punch, a little power? This is practically. . .crooning! How did this guy make it in opera? Not only did he make it, but he is revered, even now. Pavarotti, whose voice dwarfed Schipa's in power, worshiped the man's singing. Why? He was a superb stylist, a master of the flowing melodic line, never sacrificing enunciation for effect. There's more to it, but that will have to do. Here is Schipa with the old Neopolitan heartbreaker, "Core 'n' Grato," ("Ungrateful Heart"), a song usually invoked in concert in order for the tenor to "knock 'em dead." Note Schipa's delicacy. 
Pavarotti in awe of Schipa: 
About Schipa:

For contrast, here is a "knock 'em dead" treatment by Mario Del Monaco:

Juan Diego Florez was gifted with one of the prettiest leggero tenor voices of our time, and made his substantial career in bel canto repertory best suited to that voice type. But this Peruvian leggero is turning into a pumpkin at midnight, as so often happens to lighter-voiced tenors as they age---that is, he is acquiring power and moving on to weightier roles. Here he is with the lark, "Au Mont Ida," from the Offenbach operetta, "La Belle Helene." Yes, SOL has posted this in the past, and will do so again. Not only is this little aria just spiffy, but Florez gets a chance not only to showcase his prodigious coloratura skill, but big notes that, in my uninformed opinion, makes him effectively a spinto. Have fun. (Sorry, I can never find a translation of this. In essence, the character is telling the comedic story of a beauty contest.) 

Just to show how much Florez's voice is expanding, here is a recent recording of the aria, "Pourquoi me Reveiller," from Massenet's "Werther."
About the aria, translation:

Miguel Fleta is all-but-forgotten today. Once upon a time, he created the role of "Calaf" in Puccini's "Turandot." At 26, he debuted at the Met, where he was a sensation, and went on to perform "Rigoletto," "Pagliacci," "Tosca," "La Bohème," "Andrea Chénier," and more over three seasons. Somewhere between a spinto and dramatic tenor, he was gifted with enormous skill, great power, subtle artistry. (Listen to the diminuendo in this aria!) A tempestuous fellow---imagine that, a tempestuous tenor!---he eventually lied to the Met about having to serve in the Spanish military (he actually just had another singing engagement), and that was the end of his career in the USA. He over-sang, he over-drank, he over-ate, he over-womanized, he got involved in Spanish politics (on the wrong side), and basically blew out his voice and career, dying at only 41. But once upon a time. . .
Role: Mario Cavaradossi, Tosca's lover, a young painter and a political liberal.
Setting: The ramparts of a fortress
Synopsis: Cavaradossi trades his last possession, a ring, to get a guard to take a letter to the imprisoned Tosca. As he writes the letter, he sings of his love for Tosca and for life.

Our "all kinds of tenors" continues with an American tenor making his SOL debut, Richard Leech. Now long past his prime, Leech was once a biggie, somewhat because of his biggie notes. The guy had massive, audience-thrilling top notes. (I saw him once, and I actually had to plug my ears, never mind how beautiful the sound was.) A great admirer of someone else with massive, audience-thrilling top notes, Mario Lanza, Leech actually made a kind of side-career out of doing the occasional Lanza tribute concert (with full approval of Lanza's daughter, Ellisa Bregman.) Here he is doing meat-and-potatoes Verdi in 1988, with restraint and dignity. No roof-rattling here, just a gleaming, elastic tone and lovely adherence to line.
Role: The Duke of Mantua
Setting: A room in the Duke's palace
Synopsis: Discovering that someone has abducted Gilda after he seduced her, the Duke sings of his unhappiness that someone has taken his "beloved" away.

When you think of great tenors, you don't think of French singers much. Georges Thill was certainly the most admired French operatic tenor. He began with light roles and eventually moved to verismo, even Wagner. No, his is not the weightiest of voices. It was always marked by elasticity and a kind of bright, ringing lyricism, but he had the "big note," at least judging by this recording of "Che Gelida Manina" from Puccini's "Boheme." (Yes, we posted Pavarotti with it earlier, but this was too good to pass up. Plus it's in French! Puccini in French? Gilding the romantic lily.) It's curious how his upper register is almost too light---operetta-light---yet he is able to burst through when need be. This "Che Gelida Manina" varies from crooning to a "La speranza" so potent as to be startling. 3:37.) 
About Thill:

Speaking of French tenors. . .Leopold Simoneau was a Mozart tenor, pure and simple. No big notes, no pretense of same---unless one understands that big notes need not be big. The near falsetto of this done-to-death Bizet aria (God, even that poseur, David Byrne sang it---and flat, at that) is right up Simoneau's alley. This is sung with surpassing sensitivity, delicacy. As his obit said, "Mr. Simoneau was the epitome of the French tenor, meaning that he had a light voice, beautiful diction and a mastery of musical nuance."
Read more here:
Here is "Je crois entendre encore" from "The Pearl Fishers."
Role: Nadir, a fisherman
Setting: A wild and rocky shore on the coast of Ceylon in ancient times
Synopsis: In the past, Nadir had fallen in love with a beautiful Brahman priestess named Léïla at a Brahman temple. Now, a veiled priestess has come to his village and he recognizes her as Léïla. He sings of his love for her which has not been diminished by the time they have spent apart.

FINAL BOW: The critic Martin Bernheimer once dismissed this voice as a "bleat." Arturo Toscanini called it the greatest natural tenor voice he'd ever heard. Go figure, eh? The caprices of subjectivity. The reality is that no matter what this guy sang (almost), it moved people. The reality is that Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras, and countless others were inspired by him, and revere his memory. Here he is, in crooning mode, with the beloved Tosti trifle, "A Vucchella." Freddie Cocozza. Also known as. . .

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