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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Random Thoughts on Tenors

When I was 13 years old, in the space of something like two weeks I went from being a boy soprano (actually more of a contralto) to a baritone—with plenty of voice-cracking along the way. That played havoc with my Bar Mitzvah lessons, where I was learning to “chant” the portion of the Saturday morning service that follows the weekly Torah reading. Thankfully my voice changed completely by the time I had to sing in front of the congregation, so they managed to miss out on all the mid-phrase key changes.

As a result, I’ve never quite understood the tenor mindset. Oh yes, there is definitely such a thing. My best friend in high school, Mark Hein, was a lyric tenor who actually sang an opera aria (“Vesta la Giubba”) in our senior-year choir concert. He and I also made up half of a barbershop quartet known as The Men of a Chord. Yes, definitely a terrible name—even worse than Homer Simpson’s The B-Sharps. At least we never sang anything as insipid as “Baby on Board,” although we never won a Grammy, either!

Anyway, Mark and his voice-mates were always grandstanding—singing louder than the rest of us in the choir, pushing to the forefront of the stage both literally and musically, and generally making nuisances of themselves. But they did it in such an endearing way that the rest of us dismissed it with, “Oh, they’re just tenors.”

Back when Mozart was composing operas, tenors were generally cast in minor, supporting roles. Think about “Nozze” or “Don Giovanni” or even “Cosi.” All the dominant males in those operas are baritones. Even most of the comic roles are filled by low voices, generally basses (hooray!). The idea of the romantic, heroic tenor didn’t fully come about until Donizetti’s time, and Verdi was really the one to develop that agenda.

The first truly artistic tenor was Frenchman Adolphe Nourrit. His claim to fame involved the various major roles he created at the Paris Opera, starring in various productions by Meyerbeer, Halevy, Auber, etc. He was the first Robert in “Robert le Diable” and the first Raoul in “Les Huguenots,” among others. He even scored a writing credit in Halevy’s “La Juive,” supposedly penning the lyrics for “Rachel, quand du seigneur” that was reportedly Caruso’s favorite aria. Nourrit was such a force at the Paris Opera that Halevy chose to make Eleazar a tenor rather than a baritone to ensure his participation.

The opera world is rife with famous tenors, well-known because they bring such vocal pyrotechnics to the stage. The high male voice catches everyone’s ear, perhaps because it’s such an unusual instrument. Regrettably, recordings of any decent quality go back only as far as the 1920s, so we have a somewhat skewed idea of historical rankings. The scratchy reproduction of Caruso’s voice barely does it justice, but it’s all we have to remember him by.

In our day, The Three Tenors dominate opera recordings. The pop-like concerts they performed together (except perhaps the first one, which was more seriously operatic) hardly do the world of opera or their own careers justice. But a quick review of the complete opera recordings on which they performed tells an altogether different tale.

In examples from my own opera collection, Pavarotti and Domingo are reasonably well-represented, with Carreras less so. At last count the totals are Domingo 19 operas, Pavarotti 18 operas, and Carreras nine operas. As with his overall career, Domingo shows a much more adventurous recorded repertoire. Placido sings in such rarely performed pieces as Massenet’s “Le Cid,” Mascagni’s “Iris,” Puccini’s “Le Villi,” and “Il Guarany” by Gomes.

Carreras has likewise recorded some less-popular operas, including the aforementioned “La Juive,” plus Donizetti’s “Poliuto,” Giordano’s “Fedora,” and Verdi’s “Il Corsaro.” The only “obscurity” I own on which Pavarotti sings is Mascagni’s “L’amico Fritz.”

In the same way that hardliners argue over whether toilet paper should be mounted “over” or “under” (I’m sure you know what I mean …), it seems that lovers of Pavarotti’s voice cannot abide listening to Domingo, and vice versa. Conflicted discussions abound in the Blogosphere on one man’s voice versus the other—particularly where they share the same repertoire—but I cannot so blithely concur. Because my own CD collection has been built with breadth rather than depth in mind (single examples of a lot of different operas as opposed to multiple versions of far fewer operas), I have only two instances where each of the Big Two shares a role. One example is “La Traviata.” In the London version, Pavarotti is joined by Joan Sutherland and Della Jones and (in my opinion) is the superior choice. The Domingo version is on RCA with Martina Arroyo, Sherrill Milnes and Ruggero Raimondi. The other example is “Aida.” The Pavarotti version is on London (naturally), where he is joined by Chiara, Dimitrova and Nucci. The (much better) Domingo recording on Sony includes a dynamic cast of Millo, Zajick—whom I’m tempted to name as this generation’s quintessential Amneris—Ramey and Morris.

In his prime, I’d argue strenuously that no one tops Pavarotti for voice, interpretation and overall dominance. He’s my choice when it comes to romantic “late Italian” roles composed by Verdi and Puccini. I like Domingo for drama, perhaps because his darker tenor voice sounds better to me in those situations. He also handles French libretti far better than does Luciano.

Of the previous generation of tenors, I love listening to Carlo Bergonzi sing the romantic roles in such operas as “Lucia,” “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Luisa Miller,” while Richard Tucker clearly shines in the dramatic roles portrayed in “Traviata” and “Forza.” I defy anyone to name a better French tenor in the past 30 years than Alain Vanzo, whose recordings of Gounod’s “Sapho,” Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable” and Offenbach’s “Perichole” make it sound as if those operas were written with his exact voice in mind. And in the bel canto repertoire, Bruce Ford is a force to be reckoned with.

There are a few tenors whose voices I don’t especially like. They include Franco Corelli, whom I find much too strident and shrill, especially in his upper register, and Alfredo Kraus who, at least in the recordings I own, always sounds like he’s having trouble staying on pitch. Then there are a few operas in my collection that make me want to hear more of a particular tenor because of the way they interpreted that particular role. In this category I single out Rockwell Blake in Boieldieu’s “La Dame Blanche” and Ernesto Palacio in Donizetti’s “L’esule di Roma.”

Tenors are weird but, because there are so few great ones, I guess they’re entitled to act that way. Just ask one!

Comments:
whoah, whoah, whoah! You can't just knock Corelli like that without getting a response! :)

He was, no question, not a "technique singer" - but jesus, just listen to the man! So much emotion, so much passion! He was a great artist, even if his voice was not a Caruso or Bergonzi.

I agree with your diagnoses of Pav and Dom - different voices for different rep. Overall, I'm a Domingo fan as the best singer out of all three, but I'm not a zealot or anything. I'm curious to know what you think about Mario Lanza? IMHO, a great singer, and a great loss to the operatic stage when he decided to "go pop." I would even go so far as to call him the tenor with the best technique of the latter half of the century.

Re Caruso recordings - I'm a bit of an audiophile, and I have a great collection of Caruso. It's true that the recording quality is an issue, but I think his outstanding singing shines through. For comparison... here is a recording of Jerome Hines singing into an Edison Wax Cylinder. Compare to his sound on modern equipment, and you can have an idea of how much tone is lost in the old recording process. Now listen to Caruso again. What is amazing about Caruso is how flawlessly he sings, and the Wax Cylinder is not a forgiving recording process. He sounds great despite the recording, smooth and full of tone from bottom to top.

I love your writing - will be reading more!
 
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