Friday, January 21, 2011

On Tenors: Professional Opinion

In response to my post yesterday about how interpretations today maybe limited, taking the example of "La Donna E Mobile" and Caruso, which I amateurishly posted, a friend of mine Andrew Moravcsik sent me this very informative and educational email.   Andy is an opera critic who has reviewed Bayreuth Opera and writes for Newsweek International and other publications such as Opera magazine and Economist.  He is the authority on operas for me, although he has a day job teaching Political Science at Princeton University, and to many, is an authority on European Union.  But when Andy calls at the last minute inviting me to go to an opera production, I basically drop everything and go.

I thought that his email is too good to just sit in my inbox, so I share it.  Here is what Andy wrote me:

Hi Mari!

Glad to see my favorite electronic violinist is slumming in the land of Italian opera favorites. But why don't you consult with your opera expert before throwing these things up?

You have very much the right idea that modern singing is one-dimensional as compared to older opera singing: Sung from the chest, little variation in expressive and musical means. This is the tragedy of modern singing. But you do miss three big items intrinsic to any "Donna è mobile" comparison:

(1) You compare on rubato, and that is important. But there are many more relevant dimensions of vocal expression that we are losing, besides simply tempo. Among them are dynamics, vocal color, whether to sing in the head or the chest, characterization, artistic imagination, diction, rhythmic articulation, etc. The use of these other tools has declined just as much as use of rubato.

(2) You compare 8 modern ones, 1 quasi-professional of the 50s (Lanza), and Caruso. But the greatest competitors to Caruso lie in between. In a serious 20th century comparison, most people might include, alongside Caruso, Pavarotti (for sheer vocal splendor), Kraus (for style), Domingo (just because of who he is, even if he is misparted here). None of the others rate in historical perspective, though I rather like the version by Kaufmann I've heard. The more interesting tenors are those between 1910 and 1970.

(3) Another thing any serious opera person will note is that Caruso recorded the aria three times, in 1903, 1904 and 1908. These are rather different. (There is a whole debate about his evolving style.) So which one do you like and why? The same goes for many of these others: Kraus, I believe, recorded the entire opera more than once. Pavarotti has recordings of the aria spanning 40 years. In the latter case, I rather like the early ones, which are freer and more imaginative, then he settled into routine that was much criticized. (See the piece I wrote for NEWSWEEK on his death on my website here:

Now, on to Caruso. I appreciate, as you do, the use of rubato at the end of each line (not just the end of the stanzas), and find it interesting. But I believe it comes at a cost, both musical and dramatic. Remember that this is an aria by an aristocrat who is at once arrogant and indifferent to those around him, and who doesn't have a worry in the world. The opera's plot turns on the fact that the Duke does not care about morality or mortality, for nothing can ever happen to him. He's untouchable. The injustice of this, viewed from the perspective of Rigoletto, his lowly jester, drives the plot: Rigoletto first joins the Duke, then tries to beat him--of course unsuccessfully and, in the end, tragically. The aria is brilliantly written to convey this. Any interpretation must be done with a light touch, projecting this uncaring, light-hearted personality, obliviousness to surroundings, simple-minded interest in pleasure, even his exasperating arrogance, yet at the same time a certain underlying fierceness and danger. It is more difficult to do well than it might seem at first.

Back to Caruso: I find there are real problems in the 1908 version. It is heavy, both in terms of vocal color (the voice sounds too old and heavy for the part--and it is notable that, though this was less than 1/3 of the way through his recording career, Caruso never recorded this lyric aria again), and in terms of interpretation. The tempo changes work against him in places: for example, the ends of the phrases seem clumsy and heavy, and stopping in the middle of the line makes him seem like someone who thinks too much. I like the 1903 more, and the 1904 even more. Caruso's voice sounds more youthful, he mixes and varies head and chest well, the rubato more naturally employed, there is more rhythmic snap and characterization to it all, and he sounds less mannered. 1904 Caruso would be on my top 10. Obviously, compared to Rolando Villazon it sounds great. But I think there are even better ones out there.

One of my favorites is Beniamino Gigli 1934. ( but I do not like this transfer, the original is warmer of sound, so use the version attached above, which I think sounds more natural). This one, in my view, has it all. The tempo creates the right mood of insouciance. It is slower, relaxed. It passes your rubato test, but in a different way. His tempo is steady through the first part of the stanzas. He does not use rubato at the end of each line, and I think (see above) in this light aria, that is the more appropriate choice. (There is a debate about whether in the 19th century singers varied tempo more, what we have lost, etc.) You can almost see the strolling aristocrat, who cannot be bothered to notice anything except the little tune he is singing and the girl he is chasing. He uses a more conventionally placed, but perfectly judged ritard on the high note, followed by a snappy acceleration.

Gigli mixes and varies head and chest voice well--in a way that is varied, natural, musical, and in character. He starts mezzo-forte with mostly chest, a very focused tone, goes from full voice to an audaciously pure head voice (pp) on the high note (Caruso does this once, suddenly, but with an uncomfortable break, near the end of the 1903 recording, but this is much better), then back to mixed. Only on the last notes of the phrase does he open up the voice to forte, and only on the last notes of the entire aria, after the little cadenza, does he exploit his voice's full, golden richness, more chesty and darker than the start, at ff. Notice also that he starts the second verse in a slightly more head voice than the first (Caruso hints at this in 1904, as well).

There are, in addition, myriad rhythmic and stylistic details. The mordents are perfect, musically lovely, and dramatically suggesting aristocratic disdain. The diction is very clear, and there is a wonderfully teasing quality about it. In the first stanza, listen to how crisply the words "cento" "penSIEro, "pianto" are enunciated, and the way he snaps "mobile" halfway through the first stanza, tracking the violins exactly. (You think there is nothing at all in the thin accompaniment to this aria, until you hear an singer make use of it like this.)

All this is high art, very subtle, and yet the most amazing thing is that you do not notice any of it. Gigli is so personable, so innately musical, and so firmly embedded in a stylistic tradition, and yet so idiosyncratic, that it seems entirely natural. He adds all this without crushing what is the simplest and most unaffected of arias. In my opinion, it is sheer genius.

There are dozens of performances between 1910 and 1970 worth parsing in this way, though few quite as good as Gigli. But no time!

BTW, if you want to hear the greatest conducting of Rigoletto ever, which really makes a virtue of this mix of restraint and freedom within a proper style required to be truly great, listen to the celebrated live Act IV from Madison Square Garden under Toscanini.  Toscanini pushes the tempi, which is correct in Italian opera, and yet it feels open and natural. He understood the need to make each line breath, as if it were sung, and the need for rubato where appropriate. Listen, for example, to his handling of the Quartet, which comes right after "La donna e mobile." The first (allegro) section (from 4:45 to 6:11) is played with unmatched deftness and lightness, combined with irresistible flow and forward momentum. What he gets the orchestra to do between the two stanzas with the accelerando and rubato--for example, that sudden violin sfz articulation at 5:38!--is just magical. This section just sweeps you into the more famous andante that follows. Toscanini He underscores the contrast by not initially varying the tempo, giving the line a magical sense of stillness. As in Gigli's "Donna è mobile", he exploits the dramatic potential of an initially steady tempo. There is a slight increase in urgency when the other voices come in. Then at the end of the verse, a little accelerando and a big ritard on the tenor high note. In the tutti that follows, the slight tempo changes are all natural, not forced as in Caruso. Once in a century it sounds like that--despite being live in a basketball stadium.

You should hear my evening talk on "10 tenors of the 20th century" sometime. I do one aria each by, arguably, the 10 greatest tenors of the 20th century, arrayed to tell the story of the tenor aria from Monteverdi to Britten. I contrast Gigli and Pavarotti on "Donna e mobile" to show the decline of singing. People are blown away by how low we've sunk. You certainly got that right! I look forward to your other forays into opera!

Andy Moravcsik
Princeton University

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