Di Stefano Sings Schubert’s Ständchen

June 6, 2010

Schubert and Giuseppe Di Stefano is not a common association. But here he is singing Schubert’s Ständchen (Serenade Di Stefano) in Spanish. It’s from the soundtrack of a Mexican movie made in 1953. Below are the Spanish lyrics he sings followed by the original German. After these is an English rendition. So what we have is a German song sung by an Italian in Spanish with an appended English version. Regardless of the linguistic farrago, Di Stefano sings the song beautifully. His voice is in pristine condition which means it’s beautiful beyond words.

Spanish

“A claror de triste luna faro de pesar
El rigor de mi fortuna quiero aumentar
Todo en paz con blando sueño duerme en derredor
Solo yo, mi duclce dueña. Velo con dolor
Dardo soy que busca errante lauras para ti
Pues quedé tu esclavo amante luego que te vi
Tu quizá gentil señora mientras peno yo
Soñarás que fiel te ador quien infiel nació
Mas te ví por la ventana, ya piedad logré
Tu que fuiste ayer Tirana premias hoy mi fe…”

German

“Leise flehen meine Lieder
Durch die Nacht zu dir
In dem stillen Hain hernieder
Liebster komm zu mir
Flüsternd schlanke Wipfel rauschen
In des Mondes Licht
In des Mondes Licht
Willst mein liebend Herz du lauschen
Warte Liebster nicht
Warte Liebster nicht

Hörst die Nachtigallen schlagen
Ach sie flehen dich
Mit der Töne süßen Klagen
Flehen sie für mich

Sie verstehn des Busens Sehnen
Kennen Liebesschmerz
Kennen Liebesschmerz
Rühren mit den Silbertönen
Jedes weiche Herz
Jedes weiche Herz

Lass auch dir das Herz bewegen
Liebster höre mich
Bebend harr ich dir entgegen
Komm beglücke mich
Komm beglücke mich
Beglücke mich”

English

“My songs quietly implore you
through the night;
down to the silent wood
my love, come to me!
The tree tops whisper
in the light of the moon;
Don’t be afraid, my love,
no-one will observe us.

Can you hear the nightingales?
Oh! They implore you,
their sweet lament
pleads with you on my behalf.

They understand the yearning I feel,
they know love’s torture,
with their silvery notes
they touch every soft heart.

Let them touch yours, too,
sweet love: hear my plea!
Trembling I await you,
come, bring me bliss!”

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Filatura – A Reader’s Response

June 27, 2008

The following is a reaction to my post on filatura. Its author, a very experienced operaphile, wishes to be anonymous. NK

Interesting essay on an arcane subject to be sure. The examples help
immensely.

I’m reminded by your essay and the examples given that filatura along
with all the other vocal techniques remain secondary to the beauty (or
lack thereof) of the singer’s god given vocal timbre and individual instinctive artistic expression.

Some of the greatest technical singers with a full arsenal of impressive
vocal skills will dazzle and amaze the listener with their flawless
musicality and beautiful flowing lines, Kraus or Schipa are prime
examples. (they are like the woodwind section of the orchestra)

A pleasurable as they are they somehow fail to move the listener at a
deeply emotional visceral level. When I listen to Schipa for example I
am impressed with the subtly of delivery and beautiful line he produces, but after a while I am ready to go to sleep. The same for Kraus. I’m in awe of the high notes, the flowing, effortless, beautiful vocal production; but pretty soon it’s snooze time.

The stentorian virtuoso singers Corelli, Del Monaco or even Tucker
dazzle the listener with their power and squillo (the brass section?).
But after the they hit the aria out of the park, they usually return to
earth for rest of the performance.

The soothing and caressing singers: Milanov, Caballe and even Christoph (the string section, like the cello, violin/viola and bass?) give gorgeous pleasure like rich French food.

We’ ll categorize Birgit (stentorian brass?), multi-purpose Joan
Sutherland (flute to cello to trumpet?), and the baritones at some other time because we have now come to the heart of the matter.

Continuing the vocal/orchestral analogy, we do have that special
instrumental category that is not really a part of the orchestral
palette. This instrument like the voice, has a unique musical timbre
that when combined with dynamics and subtle colorization produces a
variety of musical emotions that are hard to achieve elsewhere. I’m
referring to the piano.

In the hands of virtuosi like Kapell or Benedetti or Rubenstein more
than other equally skilled technical masters we experience music in a
heightened and intensified state of emotional reaction. How they achieve this is for others to explain (if they can?).

The same is true for singing. It’s what sets my big three apart from the
crowd.

1. Pippo
2. Schmidt
3. Björling

Pippo is the supreme example of this hard to define phenomenon which produces such a soulful emotional effect. His interpretations are so distinctive and involving. The Italian songs are a prime example. You hear things in his voice that stir and evoke feelings and images of sun
and atmosphere that raises these relatively mundane pieces to high art. You could say the same thing about Frank Sinatra.

One thing I hear in GDS that is virtually unique is his ability to use
subtle inflection in the middle of a phrase. The 3rd act of Boheme or the last act of Tosca. Di Stefano is the only singer who makes the connecting bits of dialogue more beautiful and affecting than even the big set pieces. The way he will purposely vary the pronunciation of
certain vowels such as the u in pura depending on the context is one of his distinctive interpretive touches. Its his vocal signature. He is the only singer I have ever heard who does this with such effect. I think this is what is really extraordinary about him, rather than whatever was meant when critics referred to his excellent diction.

It’s as if he somehow mysteriously combines a blend of modulating
dynamics inflective coloring, vocal techniques, a honeyed natural
timbre and expressive artistic interpretation to achieve effects that
heighten the impact and understanding of what he is feeling as he sings. This results in an almost miraculously beautiful sound that somehow transforms the listener with a wave of emotional rapport with the meaning of what is being sung. Frequently Schmidt and Björling would do this at a level approaching Di Stefano. But Di Stefano is unequaled.

He was truly special, one of a kind. Somehow I felt all of this when I
first heard him more than fifty years ago. I’m still having a hard time
explaining him, but I think you know what I mean.


Why Giuseppe Di Stefano Was Unique

April 2, 2008

Giuseppe Di Stefano occupies a special place on the list of the greatest tenors of the last century. I will try to show why with a few examples of his singing that show him at his best.

You will often hear singers and critics admit to admiring the “young” Di Stefano. When you do you are encountering someone who masks confusion and conflict by being patronizing. It’s a response to the tenor’s short period at his peak, barely a decade, in contrast to his long life. No one says they admire the “young” Callas though she was at the top for about the same time as GDS. Ten years of being as great as Di Stefano was is long enough to require no qualifier.

First start with the voice. In its prime it was the most beautiful Italian tenor I ever heard. To my ears even more lush and ravishing than Gigli’s. In his 1951 recording of Che gelida manina the voice was at its pinnacle. The tone is gorgeous. It is not spread or open as it later became. The high note is focused and thrilling. His modulation of the aria’s final word “dir” is one of those small touches that differentiate him from everyone else who has sung the piece. To the beauty of the voice add his ability to find meaning and make great effects in ways that no on else did and you have the combination that made Di Stefano unique.

The quartet (Dunque e proprio finita?) that ends the third act of La Boheme, recorded at the same time as the aria above, shows his distinctive ability to convey meaning and sing pianissimo with full vocal support. “…alla stagion dei fior” is unmatched by any other tenor who’s recorded the number. It’s pure genius.

Di Stefano also set the standard for Cavaradossi in Tosca. His rendition of “E lucevan le stelle” combines both tonal beauty and inimitable phrasing. It speaks for itself. No one has ever made as much of the line “Le belle forme discioglieia dai veli!” as he did.

Mario Del Monaco said Di Stefano was a dramatic tenor in temperament, though not in voice. It was this temperament that made him a great interpreter and which also compelled him to sing roles that his temperament demanded but which prematurely destroyed his voice. Canio in Pagliacci was a role he couldn’t avoid. Though he spent his vocal capital every time he sang the part, he was magnetic as Leoncavallo’s cuckolded clown. The famous aria that concludes the opera’s first act (Recitar!) was never sung with greater effect. While he shouldn’t have sung the spinto parts he added to his repertoire, he wouldn’t have been the artist he was had he been resistant to this temptation. Listen to the opera’s final few minutes – Suvvia cosi terribile. Canio has spent half of the evening trying to learn the name of Nedda’s lover When he does the explosion of his emotion is palpable; no other tenor manages this effect.

Don Alvaro in Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino was another role that put too much strain on his voice. Richard Tucker had the ideal voice for this part. But Di Stefano still managed to add something different to his impersonation of Alvaro. This performance of O tu che in seno agl’angeli from a September 1960 performance in Vienna shows the tenor in remarkably good form considering how far into his vocal decline he was by this time though he was still under forty . Even then he could occasionally come up with something hard to match.

Di Stefano’s diminuendo on the high C in Salut demeure is an extraordinary tour de force. This recording is from a 1950 performance in San Francisco. He was still capable of the effect at the end of 1955 which was when I heard him do it at the old Met. It shows how a singer who was so often criticized for bad vocal technique also possessed a technique that was matchless.

La Favorita was an opera that Di Stefano was made for. This 1949 performance of “Spirto gentil” had to be encored. It displays all of the tenors strengths – the great piano, emotional density, and the lush voice. Alas there is also some openness in the high notes. But so what.

Manon was the Opera in which he made his debut. “Le Reve” displays all his strengths. This performance is from 1948 just two years after his debut. It too was encored. How the 26 year old tenor had reached this level of artistry is unfathomable. Touched by God seems as good an explanation as any.

The world’s most enduring popular songs are those from Naples. Di Stefano sang these songs with the same passion and intensity that he gave to opera. In this repertoire nobody comes close. Everybody sings Core ‘ngrato. Di Stefano recorded the song many times. Here’s an especially good version from a 1950 concert.

It’s human to fully value what you had only after its gone. Pippo’s voice departed almost half a century before its owner left us, but now that both are gone I think that his place among the greatest singers will become clear. I’ve heard many great artists and it’s fruitless to rank them. But when it comes to magic Di Stefano stands alone.

Di Stefano, of course, should have the last word. Listen to the way the emotion changes in the song’s refrain. It defines his art. O sole mio

Addendum: After I posted this piece I received an email asking how I could have been so foolish as to leave out Di Stefano’s 1947 recording of Lamento di Federico. On short reflection I agree it was an egregious omission, so here it is. While I was at it I decided to add two Sicilian folk songs which Pippo sings with such simple beauty that your heart will skip a beat. They’re also from 1947. Cantu a Timuni and A la Barcillunisa.

Addendum 2: If you wanted to create the perfect tenor and you could do anything you could think of you’d make Jussi Björling – golden voice, wonderful technique, ringing high notes. The blue print for Björling existed before he did. But you couldn’t make Giuseppe Di Stefano until after you’d heard him. He was unique, sui generis, without precedent.

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Pippo’s Met Debut

March 5, 2008

“His musical merits have mostly to do with style, for the voice, though neither small nor ugly,is not an organ of great beauty.”

Virgil Thomson in the New York Herald Tribune reviewing GDS’s Met debut on February 25, 1948

How would you like to have this brilliant insight following you through all eternity?


Pavarotti and Presley

January 31, 2008

pavarotti.jpg

For some time after the death of Luciano Pavarotti I’ve been thinking about fame and reputation and how it often doesn’t conform to reality. The reaction to the great tenor’s death reminded me of the reactions to the deaths of Elvis Presley and Maria Callas both of which happened close together 30 years before Pavarotti’s demise. It seems very clear that Pavarotti will be granted the same legendary status accorded to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Queen of Opera.elvis.jpg

When Elvis died some wag commented, “Good career move.” Certainly it was. Can you imagine what Presley’s status would be if he were still sweating away in Las Vegas like Wayne Newton. I was never able to understand what the origin of Elvis’s sensational appeal to millions of crazed fans was. But I know very little about Rock ‘n’ Roll so my inability to see much merit in Presley’s performances could well be due to my ignorance.

Callas is a different story. I can appreciate her artistry but can also hear her failings. Her vocal technique was flawed from the start allowing her to get by with raw energy and dramatic intensity when she was young, but which became painful to listen to when she was older. Her career lasted about as long as Giuseppe Di Stefano’s did. But no one criticizes her for ruining her voice the way Di Stefano is chastised for destroying his. Di Stefano was, in my view, a far more interesting artist who had all the dramatic intensity conceded to Callas, but who also had one of the most beautiful voices ever recorded. No one ever suggested Callas had a beautiful voice. Callas was riveting on stage, but there was a hint that everything had been meticulously prepared in advance; the sense of spontaneity was dulled. But arguing about the reality of Presley’s and Callas’s talents vis-à-vis other comparable performers will change nothing. Their reputations have been sealed in cultural cement. This has hardened so securely that reality is irrelevant. In Callas’s case the masons were a handful of influential critics who have virtually made it a crime to place any other female singer anywhere near her. The deal is done I won’t say anything more – forget about Ponselle, Milanov, Sutherland, etc.

The same process is underway with Pavarotti. It will soon be operatic law that of 20th century tenors only Caruso was comparable. I heard Pavarotti many times in Chicago and New York in both recitals and staged performances. He was a great tenor; not many listeners would seriously dispute that. But I heard in performance three tenors who were clearly better – Jussi Björling, Richard Tucker, and Giuseppe Di Stefano. Placido Domingo in his prime was at least as good. Pavarotti had a great personality that audiences loved and which made his name known to just about everyone.

He had a lyric voice which he pushed into roles that were too big for him, Radames for example. His sound was beautiful but had a reedy quality to it. While his high notes were exceptional they did not have the ping that characterized Tucker or Björling at their best. His personality, however, clearly excelled either of the two other tenors. The one conceited and a shade pompous, the other reticent and with an alcohol problem.

If you made a list of the 10 best “Italian” tenors of the 20th century Pavarotti would clearly be on it. But I don’t think a critical listener would put him above all but Caruso. Listen to Björling here (Di quella pira) and here (Donna non vidi mai.mp3). Then listen to Tucker in his prime (Improvviso) and at the age of 59 (Va prononcer ma mort, rachel quand du seigneur). Finally listen to Di Stefano singing Salut demeure and Che gelida manina . The former with a diminuendo on the climactic high C the latter with a brilliant, and unforced, full voice high C. Was Pavarotti ever better than these three tenors? The just for kicks listen to Placido Domingo on just about the best evening (1972) of his life singing O paradis from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine.

None of this will make any difference. Planes didn’t fly over Björling’s funeral. Di Stefano will not get a state funeral when he finally succumbs to the combination of age and his head injury. Tucker got a funeral on the stage of the Met, but only opera lovers know his name now. Domingo is justly famous today for his combination of singing, conducting, and running half the music world. But a generation from now his fame will not be near that of Pavarotti. “Pavarotti” will be synonymous for tenorial brilliance. Even some real opera lovers will take leave of their judgment be swept along by a tide created by a smile, a handkerchief , a popular groundswell and of course a voice.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


Birgit Nilsson’s 3 Favorite Tenors

January 8, 2008

nilsson.jpgBirgit Nilsson’s autobiography was published in Swedish in 1995. It appeared in a German translation in 1997. Recently Northwestern University Press has published it in English. But it is the German translation that has appeared in English. Thus one wonders what has been gained in translation.

Operatic memoirs usually consist of I sang this here and that there with this singer there and that singer someplace else. La Nilsson – My Life in Opera has a lot of that kind of stuff in it, but the great Diva was famous for her wit and it shows through the layers of translation that stand between her writing and the reader.

First her three favorite tenors – as promised. “Of all the tenors with whom I have sung throughout my long career, there were three whose singing went directly to my heart: Benjiamino (sic) Gigli, Giuseppe di Stefano, and Erik Sjöberg. Unfortunately, his (Sjöberg’s) career did not unfold as one had hoped. His nerves were not made for the stressful and grueling profession, and he had only a short career.” If anybody knows anything about this Danish tenor please advise.

Of course the first two are hardly a surprise. About Gigli Nilsson says, “I have never been so deeply impressed by a singer. His voice was like a stream of molten gold. He could do anything he wanted with his voice: crescendo, diminuendo, and again crescendo, without noticeable register changes and always maintaining the same seductive sound.”

Nilsson had a number of interesting things to say about Di Stefano. He “had an especially beautiful voice. It was impossible not to be moved; he truly had the sound of tears in his voice without being oversentimental (sic). His wonderful piano – and his stirring voice – moved his audience almost beyond endurance. Pippo was a big kid with a lot of charm. He didn’t take the profession too seriously and he certainly didn’t carry discipline very far. He was a passionate gambler and spent most of his free time in the casino.”

When he was several days late for rehearsals of Turandot at La Scala, Nilsson was ready to explode with anger. “He came sauntering in as if he were right on schedule! And he had sung no more than 10 bars before all my wrath was forgotten. He sang in a way that made your heart ache. He had a charm that could melt stone. And so…I melted.”

Of her famous battles of the high Cs with Franco Corelli, she says he “most often walked off with the prize for holding the C longest, even if he claims otherwise.” She says of the infamous bout in Turandot which she won and which caused Corelli to leave the stage, “I noticed that Corelli always went to the apron of the stage for his high notes and slowly became blue in the face. This spurred me on and I sustained the high C we sang together until everything went black before my eyes. When my vision returned Corelli had disappeared.” They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

When I first got the book I looked in the index to see if Richard Tucker was mentioned, but didn’t find his name. Nevertheless he’s there. When discussing her appearances at the Verona arena she mentions the local tradition of the audience holding lit candles. “Someone told a conceited American tenor that the public lit the candles in his honor and I heard often about interviews in the states where he spoke of this unique honor.” The conceited tenor is none other than our Rubin Ticker. Not only did he believe this baloney he put it on the back of one of his LP albums. God gives voices to stable boys – especially if they’re tenors. Tucker was as conceited as he was great. Thus, he had a lot to be conceited about.

Conductors are not neglected either. She thought Herbert von Karajan a great conductor. As a person he comes across as a real jackass. She did not like his stage directions. “When he came onstage to demonstrate movement, his own became very strange. He strutted about like a cock in a hen house, his rear end stuck out and his head in the air.” His endless lighting rehearsals drove her mad.

The account of Leonard Bernstein addressing his image in a full length mirror prior to going to the podium is worth the book’s price all by itself. “Lenny, this is not mere narcissism, this is true love!”

The book’s a lot of fun. If you’re interested in Birgit Nilsson and the state of the opera world in the mid 20th century, get it.