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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Recording of the Week: Hummel Piano Sonatas 2 and 5

May 30, 2010

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 – 1837) was one of the most celebrated musicians of his time. Born in what was then Hungary but is now Slovakia, Hummel was a child prodigy. He soon found his way to Vienna where he lived and studied with Mozart for two years. He also studied with Haydn and Salieri. He knew Beethoven and was considered at least his equal at the piano. He was one of the great piano virtuosos of any period. He also knew Schubert who dedicated his last three piano sonatas to Hummel. By the time they were published both musicians were dead so the dedication was changed to Schumann. Chopin was a great admirer of both Hummel’s compositions and playing. Hummel taught some of the greatest pianists of the mid 19th century – eg, Sigismond Thalberg.  He ended his life in Weimar where, along with Goethe, he was the cultural star of the city. In life he was world famous, in death oblivion.

What happened? Mostly it was Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert whose lives overlapped his. Their music and that of the great composers who followed overwhelmed Hummel who was thought to be old fashioned and inferior. Regardless of cause, Hummel’s posthumous lot was silence; he was a footnote to the classical age of music. His only composition that most musically literate people knew was the trumpet concerto which was apologetically performed as a virtuoso vehicle for a gaudy trumpet player. It’s likely that Hummel himself was intimidated by the greatness that surrounded him. He wrote no symphonies. I suspect Beethoven scared him away from the form.

Recently there has been a gradual resurgence in interest in Hummel’s music. The author of about 175 compositions, his best work is for piano – sonatas, chamber music, and concertos are prominent among his output. His writing for piano requires a skill that only the finest pianists possess. He started out as a Haydn/Mozart epigone. But by the time he was forty he had developed into a progenitor of romanticism in music.

His work, at its best, is tightly constructed and harmonically advanced. The two compositions that are on the featured disc show both Hummel’s development and his originality. His second sonata written in 1809 (Op 13) is very interesting. Its first movement sounds like he’d never heard a note of Beethoven. It’s well constructed, but it sounds as if written forty years earlier. The adagio that follows is from a different world. It has its’ own voice and quite lovely. The final movement, marked allegro con spirito, is a rousing display of vigor and virtuosity. Ian Hobson, the soloist on this recording, gets everything possible out of it.

The 5th sonata (Op 81) was written 10 years after the 2nd. In this great piece, likely his most adventurous work for solo piano, Hummel is deep within the romantic era. The first movement is more a fantasy than a sonata form movement. Its feel and weight are those of music written decades later. It’s worthy of comparison to Schubert and Schumann at their best. The second movement seems like Chopin though the great Pole was only nine years old when this work in F Sharp Minor appeared. Listen to the opening of this movement (Largo) and you’ll hear why everyone who listens to it thinks of Chopin. The final movement presents a technical challenge built around a folk-like dance theme. The sonata is a masterpiece that deserve frequent performance.

It’s clear that Hummel was a great composer. Though not in the front rank with Beethoven and Schubert, he was right behind. His music is just beginning to be rediscovered after languishing for more than a century and a half. I’ll return to his work in later posts.

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Brazil’s Income Tax

May 28, 2010

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton just gave a speech in which she said: The rich are not paying their fair share in any nation that is facing the kind of employment issues (the United States is), whether it’s individual, corporate, whatever the taxation forms are. Brazil has the highest tax-to-GDP rate in the Western Hemisphere and guess what — it’s growing like crazy. And the rich are getting richer, but they’re pulling people out of poverty … There is a certain formula there that used to work for us until we abandoned it, to our regret in my opinion.

Brazil’s income tax rates are presented below. As you can see they are lower than that of the US, Canada, and all of the countries in Western Europe. Corporate taxes are also lower in Brazil than in the US. Brazil does have a VAT which averages 17%.

Thus, Brazil has a tax regime which places a greater burden on the average worker than it does on the rich. If they are pulling themselves out of poverty, as the Secretary says, they are doing so with a low maximal income tax rate which is not what she implies. If we take her at her word Brazil should raise their maximal income tax rate. If the rich are getting richer in Brazil it might be because they are taxed less than in the US. Furthermore, if Brazil’s economy continues to grow its tax to GDP ratio will rapidly fall unless taxes are raised. But there’d be no reason to raise taxes with a rapidly growing economy which is benefiting all the people of the country.

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Is Kayexalate Safe and Effective?

May 25, 2010

Ion-Exchange Resins for the Treatment of Hyperkalemia: Are They Safe and Effective? is the title of a Clinical Commentary in this month’s Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. Kayexalate is the brand name of the commonly prescribed cation exchange resin sodium polystyrene sulfonate (SPS) used to treat hyperkalemia (high blood potassium).

The drug was first marketed in 1958 four years before the FDA required that makers of new drugs show that they were safe and efficacious. Since then it has been widely used and generally considered safe and efficacious. I have given it or watched it be given to thousands of patients and have never observed a complication attributed to its use. But recently the benign impression of the resin held by most physicians has been challenged.

Studies demonstrating the effectiveness of SPS in humans have not been as robust as would now be required were this drug under FDA review today. While it does seem to be effective in reducing potassium levels in hyperkalemic patients, it appears to take several days to do the job.

Soon after it was released doctors recognized that it could cause severe constipation and even life threatening intestinal impaction. Accordingly it was given with the over the counter osmotic laxative sorbitol. For decades everything seemed fine, “but by 2005, the FDA had received 35 adverse event reports of serious bowel injuries associated with both oral and rectal of the mixture (SPS and 70% sorbitol), many of them fatal.” [Quotation from above article, parenthesis added by me.] On the basis of animal work sorbitol was considered the culprit. The FDA soon recommended that the sorbitol concentration be reduced to 33% though 70% sorbitol is still marketed as an over the counter laxative.

Yet reports of bowel injury, some fatal following use of SPS and 33% sorbitol have been reported. The authors of this commentary conclude : “Clinicians must weigh uncontrolled studies showing benefit against uncontrolled studies showing harm. It would be wise to exhaust other alternative for managing hyperkalemia before turning to these largely unproven and potentially harmful therapies.

It’s hard to know what to make of these observations. Much of what doctors do is based on shaky evidence. While my experience with SPS is greater than most doctors, it’s small considering how many doses of the drug are administered yearly – 5 million. Prudence demands that we cast a jaundiced eye on SPS though controlled studies examining the safety  and effectiveness of the preparation will likely never be done.

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.