Site Moving

June 22, 2010

The site and all its contents are moving. There will be no new posts until after the move to the redesigned home.


The History of the Tenor

June 12, 2010

The above is the title of a web site devoted to tenors and their recorded legacy. It contains material compiled by the late operaphile Sydney Rhys Barker (1928 – 2005). The site, still under construction, was assembled by Mr Barker’s son Sidney. The material on the site spans most of the 20th century – 1900 to 1990.  This is the description of its purpose given by the younger Barker:

My father, Sydney Rhys Barker was an opera lover from the age of 8. Opera was his great love and he collected records his entire life.

In the late 1980’s someone asked him to put together a cassette tape of highlights from some of his favorite singers.

My father spent the next 2 years recording what was to become “The History of the Tenor”.

He produced twenty-eight 90 minute tapes for a total of 42 hours of narration with clips from his substantial record collection and had access to several others through friends and opera lovers he had known since he was a boy.

These tapes were handed over to me by my mother after my fathers death in 2005 and it seems to me that these treasures should be available to those who shared in this great hobby of his.

It is my hope to try to make all of these sound clips available to anyone who wishes to hear them, it is information he collected over 45 years – of which I have little idea.

But I thank all and everyone who may have contributed in advance on his behalf.

These are the sole opinions of my father and I can only assume that they are as comprehensive a collection as can be made.

Opera was not something I inherited from him, but I do know if he did something – he did it with great enthusiasm, integrity and passion.

Anyone interested in opera in general and tenors in particular will gain great pleasure browsing through the vocal  archives assembled by both Barkers. While there are some errors here and there (eg, Chaliapin is listed as a tenor, La Juive is translated as The Jew rather than The Jewess, Di Stefano’s recording of Federico’s Lament from L’Arlesiana is the 1944 version with piano rather than the 1947 recording with orchestra), there’s nothing serious enough to distract you from the site’s cornucopia of audio.

Highly recommended. Worth perusing.

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Giuseppe Taddei

June 4, 2010

The renowned Italian baritone Giuseppe Taddei died June 2 just short of his 94th birthday. Taddei made most of his career in Italy and Vienna. He didn’t sing at the Met until 1985 when at age 69 he debuted at the New York house in the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff. There are a number of reasons why so celebrated a singer as was Taddei stayed away from the Met for so long.

First Rudolph Bing, the Met’s General Manager during Taddei’s prime, wanted the baritone to audition before being offered a contract. The well established singer felt this beneath his dignity and there was no deal. Second Bing made another offer for a fee that was well below the baritone’s accustomed recompense. But most important was the profusion of great American baritones that were at the Met during Taddei’s heyday – Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, and Sherrill Milnes allowed Bing to be cavalier in his treatment of yet another star baritone.

When Taddei finally did appear he still had much of his voice left and he scored a great success in Verdi’s valedictory opera. He returned to the house in 1988 for Dulcamara in L’Elisir D’Amore, but at age 72 there was little more for him to do.

Taddei sang a lot of Verdi. He had a big beefy voice that though secure enough at its top was at its best in its mid range which is why he eschewed the interpolated high notes typically inserted into Verdi’s baritone arias. He phrased with insight and feeling that made his characterizations memorable. Here are three of Verdi’s most important baritone arias sung by Taddei at his zenith: Cortigiani vil razza dannata from RigolettoEri tu from Un Ballo in Maschera, and the  Credo from Otello. All three interpretations show Taddei’s ability to catch the passion and emotion written into these great pieces. Finally, here is Nemico della patria from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier.

Giuseppe Taddei was a great artist who fortunately left a rich recorded legacy. RIP

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The Tenor of the Century – Almost

June 1, 2010

This article was written in 1997 more than a decade before the tenor’s death (Kurtzman NA: The Tenor of the Century – Almost. Lubbock Magazine (October):52-53, 1997). I’ve added a few sound files that I obviously couldn’t have put in the original version.

Of all the words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.

In his memoirs, 5000 Nights at the Opera, Rudolph Bing wrote that the most beautiful sound he heard during his observation season at the Metropolitan Opera, prior to becoming its general manager in 1950, was the diminuendo with which Giuseppe Di Stefano took on the high C near the end of the tenor’s cavatina in Gounod’s Faust. (His statement is almost always misquoted to include every sound he heard in whole his life.) On December 9, 1955, I heard the tenor duplicate the feat at the same venue. I was as impressed as Bing had been. Unfortunately, this season proved to be the last good one left to the 34-year-old singer whose tenure at the operatic summit was as spectacular as it was brief.

Born in Sicily in 1921, his family moved to Milan when he was six. When he was a teenager, he discovered that he had an operatic voice and began vocal lessons. World War II inter­rupted his training; he was drafted. As everyone knows, the Italian Army thinks much more of singing than fighting, so Di Stefano was kept away from the front and allowed to sing. Things got much more parlous after the collapse of Mussolini’s regime when the Germans occupied the northern half of the peninsula. Di Stefano fled to Switzerland where he was interned. His con­finement was generous, however. He gave some public perfor­mances and made his first recordings, which demonstrated a beautiful voice not yet fully under control, but which showed extraordinary promise.

At the conclusion of the war, he returned to Italy where he resumed vocal studies. But not for long; he was a natural and there was no holding him back. He made his operatic debut in 1946, the following year he was at La Scala, and the year after that, he appeared at the Met for the first time. From 1948 to 1952, he appeared at the Met in more than 100 performances. After 1952, the recovery of the post-war Italian economy raised the tenor’s fees in that country’s state-subsidized opera houses to more than the Met could pay. Di Stefano accepted engagements in his home country that conflicted with his obligations to the New York house. Bing, whose managerial style was akin to that of Attila the Hun, fired him. Di Stefano brought legal action and eventually forced the Met to take him back for the season of 1955-56, which was when I heard him onstage. He was not reengaged until 1963-64 when his voice was gone and then, only for a single performance. Bing had brought him back just to embarrass him.

After his operatic career petered out in the early ‘60s, Di Stefano appeared in operettas and then, in recitals almost up until the present day, seemingly oblivious of his vocal decay. He partnered Maria Callas on a disastrous concert tour in 1972-73. He still lives in Milan with a young wife and old memories.

During the decade of 1946 to 1956, Di Stefano performed onstage and on recordings with a beauty of tone and an intensity unique in this century. His lifestyle was as intense as his performing – it made the behavior of the wildest player on the Dallas Cowboys seem more sedate than that of a house-bound Baptist preacher. Like Oscar Wilde, he could resist anything except temptation.

In a recent interview, he blamed the rapid deteriora­tion of his voice on an allergy to rugs he installed in his Milan apartment in the mid ‘50s. This is denial on an operatic scale. His voice was ruined by its owner, who forced it far beyond its natural limits and who stubbornly used a vocal method which tore the voice to pieces. He had a dramatic temperament, but a lyric instrument. He insisted on singing parts that were too heavy for him. His technique, which in some respects was ex­traordinarily good, spread his tone and negotiated the transition of vocal placement that occurs in the tenor range around F above middle C in the worst possible way.

But while the voice lasted, it was unlike anything heard this century. Its sound was beautiful beyond compare and Di Stefano could manipulate it with nuanced expression of seem­ingly endless subtlety. His diction in both Italian and French was perfect. Every syllable he sang was suffused with meaning. He shaded the music so that the listener seemed to sense the meaning of what he sang without understanding a single word of Italian or French. He could also make a seamless transition from the very loudest to the softest sound without losing support of the tone, and he could do it over his entire vocal range. The diminuendo on the Faust high C (salut demeure) is an outstanding example of this ability. This effect has never been duplicated. Though he often forced his singing, he didn’t have to. His voice carried with ease through the cavernous space that was the old Met.

Music is about emotion. Opera is about the most basic of emotions. Di Stefano was the most passionate singer who ever made records. Love, hate, jealousy, despair, longing – all were communicated in his singing with the most telling urgency. When he sang something well, every other tenor’s version sounded tepid.  Consider the end of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The tenor has spent much of the opera trying to find out the name of his wife’s lover. In the opera’s famous play-within-a-play, he portrays a jealous husband caught up in the same pre­dicament as in real life. In a jealous frenzy, the tenor stabs his wife who is playing his unfaithful wife onstage. In her dying gasp, she calls out her lover’s name, who in turn rushes up from the audience to help her.

“Ah, sei tu (Ah, it’s you),” he cries, whereupon he kills the lover with the same knife he used on his wife, leading to the last line of the opera – La commedia e finite. (Pagiacci finale) Di Stefano, who never should have sung the role of Canio in this opera because it’s too heavy, deliv­ers the line with blood­curdling ferocity and satisfaction. Listen to any other tenor say the words and you’ll think he’s calling out bingo numbers. Similarly, Di Stefano’s rendition of the work’s most famous number, Vesti Ia giubba, is miles ahead of anyone else’s, in­cluding that of Caruso. His breath control is Olympian, allowing him to convey all the pathos in a piece that is often made into a caricature. This performance, with Maria Callas as the female lead, is still in the catalog as part of EMI’s complete re­cording of the opera.

Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca was one of the tenor’s finest roles. I heard him sing it at the Met on January 13, 1956 – Friday the 13th, which turned out to be one of the luckiest days in the house’s history. Tito Gobbi made his Met debut that thy as Scarpia; he had no equal in the role. Tosca was the incomparable Zinka Milanov. Even the bit parts were extravagantly cast that night. For ex­ample, the Sacristan was sung by the world’s greatest basso buffo, Fernando Corena. But it is Di Stefano’s perfor­mance that remains most vivid in my memory across the abyss of more than four decades. E lucevan le stelle, the tenor’s familiar third act aria, was sung just the way Di Stefano sings it on the famous complete recording – again with Gobbi and with Maria Callas in the title role. This recording is also still in print, so you can hear the miracle he makes of the phrase Le belle forme disciogliea dai  veli (Oh, vanished forever is that dream of love).

In November of 1956, Di Stefano recorded 22 mostly Neapolitan songs. These were among the last recordings he made that are worth listening to. The popular songs of Naples are the world’s longest-running pop tunes. They deal mainly with the Neapolitan man’s three chief preoc­cupations: the sun, women, and his re­gion. The most famous of these little gems, O sole mio, is a paean to the south­ern Italian sun. Luciano Pavarotti has recently taken to performing it in a rather clownish version. Di Stefano’s rendition is a passionate love affair. After hearing it, you’ll pick up the phone and call Alitalia. Marechiare describes the beau­tiful bay for which the song is named. This bay is said to be so intoxicating that when the moon shines on it even the fish make love. Core ‘Ngrato, the most pas­sionate of these songs in which passion is as plentiful as gasoline at an arsonists con­vention, relates how the singer’s former lover has left his heart a piece of ground meat. You do not have to understand a word of the Neapolitan dialect to feel the despair that Di Stefäno communicates. If you would really understand the meaning of suspension of disbelief, listen to these songs sung by a performing genius.

Unfortunately, the complete collec­tion of 22 songs is not available on CD. Twelve of them, however, can be found on a disc entitled Giuseppe Di Stefano, Voce ‘e notte on Replay Music RMCD 4032. The label is obviously not a house­hold name, so you’ll have to hunt to find the disc. But try – it’s worth it. Also, stay away from the Neapolitan songs the tenor recorded a few years later.

Recently, both Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti were interviewed during the intermission of the broadcast of the opening night performance at the Met. They were asked which tenors had influenced them. They both named the same two—Enrico Caruso and Giuseppe Di Stefano. The recently published biogra­phy of Jussi Björling written by his wife describes how taken that great tenor was by Di Stefano’s singing, how Björling said that if Di Stefano kept going the way he had started, he would leave everyone behind. Bing said that Di Stefano’s career should have been one that people talked about in the same breath as Caruso’s. Alas, it wasn’t to be, but what was, was sensational enough.

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La Traviata in a Philadelphia Market

May 30, 2010

Earlier this month I linked to the opera company of Valencia performing excerpts from La Traviata in the central market. Well, it’s spreading. Here’s the Opera Company of Philadelphia singing the brindisi from the same opera in a local market.


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Armida Not Live in HD

May 20, 2010

Tiepolo: Rinaldo and Armida in the Garden

I was out of the country when Rossini’s rarity Armida was telecast live from the Met May 1. Accordingly, I went to the repeat broadcast. Never before performed at the Met Rossini wrote the piece in 1817 for Naples’ San Carlo as a vehicle for his future wife Isabella Colbran. Renée Fleming was the reason for its appearance in New York. While anything by Rossini is of interest to any opera lover, Armida is Rossini a notch or two below his best.

The story is pretty weak even by the standards of early 19th century Italian opera. The sorceress Armida loves the warrior Rinaldo. He runs away with her to her magic island. They have a good time together. Two of Rinaldo’s colleagues find there way to the Island. They shame him into returning to his duties as as a soldier. Armida vows vengeance and the opera end. This takes about three hours, more than four with the Met’s gargantuan intermissions. The story was based on Torquato Tasso’s then well known poem Gerusalemme Liberata.

While typical of its period Armida is also a bit  ahead of it. It’s through written with the recitatives and numbers skillfully linked so that the transitions are almost unnoticed. But vocal pyrotechnics are the only reason for producing it. Ms Fleming’s voice is still a beautiful instrument, but as she declared during the first intermission it’s best suited for Mozart and Strauss. She doesn’t have the coloratura skills of Joan Sutherland or the vocal thrust and bite of Maria Callas which is needed for Armida’s intense vocal outbursts. The best singing and the loveliest music of the performance were the duets for Armida and Rinaldo.

Fleming’s lack of fire was particularly noticeable in the opera’s conclusion when Armida chooses vengeance over love. If you want to hear how this should be sung listen to Callas’s performance recorded live in Florence in 1952. The sound’s not good, but you can still hear how the part should be sung.

The opera is famous for its six tenor parts. The Met had five. Barry Banks sang both Gernando in the first act and Carlo in the third. Bruce Ford had been engaged to sing Goffredo, who appears only in the first act, but he was a no show and Charles Osborn sang the part. What the original tenor lineup was is not known to me. Kobie van Rensburg was Ubaldo, and Yeghishe Manucharyan was Eustazio.

The lead tenor part, Rinaldo, was sung by Lawrence Brownlee. Brownlee has an airy voice that is produced virtually entirely from the throat. Though he managed the difficult part well enough and had the high notes it demands, his voice is not particularly attractive. There’s a shift of gears as he goes from mid range to high.

Charles Osborn’s voice has coarsened since I last heard him several years ago. His top is no longer as free and easy as it was. Barry Banks has a solid voice and technique though subtly is not part of his singing. Rensburg has a frail voice in contrast to his tall stature. he was the only tenor clearly taller than Ms Fleming. Mr Manucharyan didn’t have a lot to do. Bass Keith Miller showed that it was possible to sing while walking on the backs of furies.

This production was Mary Zimmerman’s third shot at bel canto. While it wasn’t as embarrassing as her two earlier productions it still didn’t hit the mark. Just because the story is a fable doesn’t mean you have to give it a camp staging. It seems clear that she doesn’t have a feel for opera.

The furies (devils with horns and tails) that were wriggling around the stage at the beginning of the second act were pretty silly. This was followed by a long ballet that featured devils in drag, they wore tutus. The ballerinas placed fruit on their heads. I was immediately transported back to my youth and visions of Carmen Miranda.  The ballet, though well performed, hardly seemed appropriate for an erotic liaison in a pleasure palace. Then there were the fiery dragons specified in the libretto – there weren’t any. Armida may have chosen vengeance, but she struck a pose rather than destroying her pleasure palace. And there were the signs telling us what was happening. Ms Zimmerman used the device to general disdain in La Sonnambula. It wasn’t any better here.

Gary Halvorson’s closeups weren’t kind to Armida’s nymphs. What were all those chubby middle aged women doing in a pleasure palace? But they sang well enough. Riccardo Frizza managed to keep things moving sufficient to abort slumber. Richard Hudson’s sets and costumes were bright and cheery in keeping with the general lack of seriousness that characterized this staging.

Armida deserves an occasional production, but only when the right soprano (or mezzo-soprano) is available. Ms Fleming is a fine artist, but this role is not the best showcase for her talent.

La vita è inferno all’infelice…O tu che seno agli angeli

May 8, 2010

Verdi’s apotheosis to misery and self pity is one of opera’s greatest arias. The recitative which starts the scena is better than most composers’ best arias. The aria itself is sublime. It requires an extraordinary tenor to bring it off. For no reason other than I like it so much here are three performances of it by three of the most celebrated tenors of the mid 20th century – Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Richard Tucker.

Mario Del Monaco

The piece requires a spinto voice. Del Monaco was way beyond a spinto; he was a true dramatic tenor. His performance recorded in New Orleans in 1953 shows that he could sing softly when he wanted; he has  been unjustly accused of being incapable of anything less than forte. But there’s no way to deny that loud wasn’t his greatest strength. He was overqualified for anything less than Otello. Del Monaco Forza

Giuseppe Di Stefano

Giuseppe Di Stefano had the most beautiful lyric tenor of his era and perhaps of any, but of course he wanted to sing parts beyond his strength. Forza is an opera he should not have attempted, but this recording made in Vienna in 1960 shows the tenor in exceptional voice even though he was several years into the vocal decline that prematurely ended his career; he adds the unique touches and moving phrases that made his singing unlike anyone else’s. He also doesn’t blast his way through the passagio. His tone is focused and doesn’t spread. This may have been his last really good outing. Di Stefano Forza

Richard Tucker

Richard Tucker, clearly the only American tenor to rank with the greatest international stars, had the ideal voice for Alvaro. Recorded in New York in 1956 this is the gold standard for this aria. The tone is pure and burnished. Tucker’s vocal reserve seems limitless. The delivery is passionate. This is as good as it gets. His continuous presence at the Met for 30 years was enough to make the period a golden age. Tucker Forza

Both the Italian and English texts are below. Alvaro is deep into codependency. He’s in a slough of despair. He’s not happy. But Verdi’s genius elevates the solipsism to great art.

La vita è inferno all’infelice.
Invano morte desio!
Oh, rimembranza! Oh, notte
Ch’ogni ben mi rapisti!
Sarò infelice eternanmente, è scritto.
Della natal sua terra il padre volle
Spezzar l’estranio giogo,
E coll’unirsi
All’ultima dell’Incas la corona
Cingere confidò.
Fu vana impresa.
In un carcere nacqui;
M’educava il deserto;
Sol vivo perchè ignota
È mia regale stirpe!
I miei parenti
Sognaro un trono, e li destò la scure!
Oh, quando fine avran
Le mie sventure!

O tu che seno agli angeli
Eternamente pura,
Salisti bella, incolume
Dalla mortal jattura,
Non iscordar di volgere
Lo sguardo a me tapino,
Che senza nome ed esule,
In odio del destino,
Chiedo anelando,
Ahi misero,
La morte d’incontrar.
Leonora mia, soccorrimi,
Pietà del mio penar!
Pietà di me!

Life is a hell to the unfortunate. In vain
do I long for death. Seville! Leonora!
Oh, memories! Oh, night
that robbed me of all joy!
I shall be unhappy forever – so it is written.
My father wished to shatter the foreign yoke
on his native land, and by uniting himself
with the last of the Incas, thought to assume
the crown. The attempt was in vain!
I was born in prison, educated
in the desert; I live only because my royal birth
is known to none! My parents
dreamed of a throne; the axe awakened them!
Oh, when will my misfortunes end?

Oh, you who have ascended, forever pure,
to the bosom of the angels,
lovely and untouched
by mortal sorrow,
do not forget
to look down on me, unhappy wretch,
who, nameless and exiled,
the prey of fate,
longingly seeks to encounter death,
unfortunate that I am!
Leonora, help me,
have pity on my anguish.
Help me, have pity on me!

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