The Vocal Art of Filatura

1.the act of forming into threads.
2.a reel for drawing off silk from cocoons.
3.the reeling of silk from cocoons.
4.an establishment for reeling silk.

The above definitions are those for filature in English. In singing the the related word, filatura (literally spinning), refers to bringing a vocal line down to a wisp of a sound, a thread, while retaining full vocal support, and then maintaining the sound. It is one of the hardest techniques to master, is the mark of a great artist (when done right and with taste), and is often absent in many of the greatest singers.

Though I haven’t used the term in previous posts, I have given examples of the technique by two of its greatest masters – Zinka Milanov and Giuseppe Di Stefano. Filatura and smorzando are sometimes used interchangeably, though the latter refers to the dying away of the sound which sometimes lead to filatura, but let’s not quibble.

Here are a few examples of the technique practiced by some of its most masterful exponents. The order of presentation is random. I just want to have one place where anyone interested in the technique can find examples.

Fernando De Lucia (1860 or 61-1925) is known as a bel canto master though he sang many verismo roles. Here he sings “Ton couer n’a pas compris” from Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs De Perles. The soprano is Josefina Huguet. You may be put off a little by De Lucia’s rapid vibrato. That sound didn’t seem to bother people 100 years ago as it does today. But the tenor’s vocal line is outstanding.

Big voiced tenors can sometimes master this technique. Miguel Fleta (1897 to1938) was particularly good at spinning a long, soft, and fully supported phrase. The first Calaf in Puccini’s final opera, he had a dark voice. His main flaw seems to have been his tendency to go from very soft to very loud with a resulting gruff sound. Here he is in Spirto gentile from Donizetti’s La Favorita. The filatura is outstanding, but the end of the aria is less so.

Not many tenors had a bigger voice than Franco Corelli. The late tenor tended to belt out most of what he sang, but he was capable of singing softly when he felt like it, at least at the start of his career. This recording of E lucevan le stelle was made at his Covent Garden debut in 1957. His ability to go without breathing for a vocal eternity supports Birgit Nilsson’s contention that he would hold onto notes until the onset of advanced cyanosis.

Even a bass, albeit a very great one, can bring his sound down to a wisp. Boris Christoff (1914-1993) was one of the most impressive singing actors of the 20th century. In this 1950 recording of Ella gemai m’amo from Don Carlo he uses filatura to add extraordinary dramatic tension to Verdi’s greatest bass aria. It’s such a tour de force that I’ve put it here with its orchestral introduction intact.

Alfred Piccaver (1884 to 1958) was a dual citizen of both the US and the UK. Because he made most of his career in Vienna he’s not as well known among his compatriots as his talent deserves. For an unknown reason he turned down an offer to appear at the Met. He was never given a second chance and thus did not appear at the great New York house. Deserto in terra from Donizetti’s Don Sebastiano shows the tenor at the top of his form.

No singer of recent memory used filatura as often or to greater effect than Montserrat Caballé. Her rendition of D’amor sull’ali rosee comes close to Milanov’s. This recording was made in performance in 1968.

Tito Schipa made a career out of filatura. His version of Federico’s lament is a virtual gold standard of this technique.

Finally, here’s Joseph Schmidt (1904-1942) singing Gluck, das mir verblieb from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. Perhaps it’s a little off topic, but Schmidt’s singing is so wonderful I can’t resist posting it. Schmidt had the most beautiful voice away from Italy that I ever heard. He also had the most complete technique. This is as good as it gets.

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