Weekend Dead Soprano Bulletin

So, following up on my Maria Callas experience earlier this week, I made some use of that stupid free trial of Apple’s subscription service (I have also enjoyed the odd Patricia Petibon album and some Fauré, but I swear, I’m going to wean myself off this thing by the time the trial period ends) to listen to a few recordings of Renata Tebaldi. She sang a lot of Verdi, which is fine by me, but also Puccini and a lot of other verismo stuff that that I have little taste for.

510s0gE4UsL._SS280I found a collection of bits of opera recordings of hers from the 1950s – some Verdi, some Puccini, and some other things that I had never listened to, e.g. excerpts from Adriana Lecouvreur and La Wally both of which operas are I suspect not as much in fashion as they were a generation or two ago. Possibly there is a good reason for this. (Some things do remain in fashion, however. Between Tebaldi and my Sondra Radvanovsky Verdi CD, which would be worn out by now if CDs and/or digital files could wear out, I have certain sections of La Forza del Destino nearly committed to memory at this point. I think that Ms. Radvanovsky needs to record a few more recitals, yes?)

Tebaldi doesn’t have Callas’s take-no-prisoners approach to either music or drama. That said, this collection of excerpts does offer a sense of what die-hard fans of older recordings are talking about when they refer to the style or standard of opera performance of the 1950s and 60s. There is something about this that sounds different than very recent performances of this material, though I would be hard pressed to articulate precisely what.

Which raises another question – if there truly was some kind of golden age for certain types of opera so many decades ago, when did it end? Most of the singers associated with that time had retired by the 1970s – perhaps then. Or is this just a simple case of rolling nostalgia, and there are folks out there who talk up the performances of the 1980s?

31 thoughts on “Weekend Dead Soprano Bulletin

      1. I often wonder when (if ever) a better one will pop out of the woodwork. Hopefully before I’m 80. At least the work gets more attention these days and there have been a few interesting (though not better) productions since.

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      2. Speaking of which, we really need to start a campaign to get SOMEone to bring DR back as Vitellia! I listened to her Mozart concert from Sweden again! WOW!!!
        Maybe Salzburg will just revive that production…. (gazing wistfully into space and hearing non piu di fiori (the 4/4 section) racing through my head.)

        And speaking of Luca Pisaroni, I am totally missing his Count in Nozze on medici.tv this afternoon. AUGH!!! (I’ll catch in in archive.

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          1. We need a mezzo who can not only sing beautifully but also act like gangbusters and fling herself into the role with the same crazy intensity as DR and VK and Schade in ’03 – I know there has to be someone, since there’s currently no shortage of great mezzos, but I’m struggling trying to think who.

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            1. Let me know when you find her 😉 I have a vision of myself aged 95 going “back in my day, they knew how to sing/act Mozart opera seria properly… alas, it didn’t last long…”

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              1. Oh you kids, don’t you know ASvO still owns Sesto? [Confession: I actually believe this. Now waiting to get slapped in the head by a rabid Troyanos fan.]

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  1. Here’s my theory:

    The focus has been on lyric voices these days, which is one reason why the same material sounds different.

    Usually what I read from old schgool die-hards is that there’s a scarcity of good dramatic voices. There is this myth that back then singers just sang “everything” (though little Mozart and virtually no Baroque) and then, in their top years, graduated to “the big roles”. However a quick listen to their Mozart and the occasional Baroque they recorded makes it quite obvious that their voices were too heavy for that kind of thing from the getgo.

    These days it’s mostly the lyric voices that get the attention, because it’s those who sound best in Mozart and Baroque. Then these lyric singers are expected to graduate to dramatic stuff and their voices very often don’t develop to measure up to the power and volume en vogue in the ’50s. Whereas the young singers who happen to have dramatic voices can’t measure up to the standard in Mozart and Baroque and have to wait until they can sing Wagner and all, by which time many have fallen by the wayside as it’s hard to continue this lifestyle if you’re not successful.

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    1. This makes sense – a combination of changing musical tastes (more music from before 1800) interacting with the way human voices develop to produce this perception of a loss.

      I wonder if the prevalence of opera on DVD and video broadcasts is contributing to the problem? Since lyric voices tend to reach their full force younger than dramatic voices, and producers might prefer to have folks in their 30s rather than those in their 40s or 50s on camera? I’d hate for this to be the case, since I love being able to see as well as hear the action, but the cynical part of me suspects it.

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      1. I’m pretty sure the (perceived) need for younger faces/bodies on stage is a big part of it. If they hope to sell it with HD broadcasts, cinema relays and livestreaming they’re going to use eyecandy. Also singers are a lot more athletic when young and the productions can be more action oriented.

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        1. Not sure there’s real pressure for younger singers except perhaps in Mozart – which ought to be sung by young singers – but there’s tremendous pressure for singers to be slim and fit. The collective weight loss among the female members of the COC Ensemble Studio in the last few years must be several pachyderms worth. When this results in singers as gorgeous as Simone Osborne, Rihab Chaieb, Ambur Braid, Charlotte Burrage , Mireille Asselin etc I’m not complaining! The guys do still seem to get cut some slack. Haji may be one of the hottest tenor talents around but he’s more Pavarotti than paladin.

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    2. I don’t buy that there’s a shortage of “good dramatic voices”, except in so far as that’s always been true. There are never more than a handful of really good ones at any one time. Today we have Kaufmann, Skelton, Pape, Selig, Held, Reuter, Stemme, Goerke, Diener, to name but a few. It’s a pretty good place to be I think.

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    3. And,in just a slightly lighter Fach, there’s no shortage of talent either except maybe, just maybe, in the Verdi/Puccini tenor slot. But on that note (a high C of course) watch out for some up and comers. Michael Fabiano is the real deal and I expect great things of Andrew Haji.

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  2. I think the Golden Age myth has a several components:

    1. In any given period there are relatively few truly great voices and this is especially true of dramatic voices. The person who speaks of a Golden Age is almost always thinking of those one or two he/she heard at the Met/ROH/La Scala. A wednesday night in Chemnitz was never like that.

    2. People reminisce about performances they heard when they were young; when everything is fresher, more vibrant, more memorable.

    3. The objective records we have of the great singers like ,say, Hans Hotter, are mostly studio recordings made in short takes at the height of the singer’s career. When you hear Nilsson’s Starke Scheite on disc she hasn’t already been singing in a hot opera house for several hours.

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    1. re 3, or with other singers famously spliced in if it isn’t at the height of a singer’s career.

      And of course one of the wonders of digital technology is you can listen to a digital remaster on any half way decent pair of headphones and hear very clearly where singer X recorded a recit in one session, aria part A in another, part B in another, etc, so judging a singer by recordings alone was always a risky business.

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  3. And in another note of scepticism, in every human physical field where performance can be objectively measured performance standards have increased markedly. Today’s singers are bigger, more athletic, stronger, fitter and better fed than their predecessors. The medical care they receive is much better. It would be counter intuitive if they sang much worse.

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    1. I’ve often thought something similar – along the lines of what you said, and also that the pool of young potential singers is probably bigger, so it’s hard to imagine quality could be going down in any meaningful way.

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      1. iirc and from an American perspective:

        Repertoire in the major houses (for us that was the Met, LOC, SFO) was primarily Verdi/Puccini, Wagner, Mozart/Da Ponte, but that didn’t mean you had the casts for them. Handel was a curiosity for academia or smaller houses, unless Marilyn Horne or Jon Vickers said otherwise. Bel canto — you could probably do the ones that only needed one tenor, but only if he happened to be around and forget ending Barber with Cessa di piu resistere, because no. Basically that meant Barber, Norma, Lucia, L’Elisir.

        For the later 19th cent Italian/French rep (aka the bread & butter), there were pretty much four tenors worldwide, and Three of them were approaching the ends of their careers with no replacements in sight. The fourth one absconded to Vienna it seemed for good — this probably extended his career, actually — and all the others who were dubbed The Fourth Tenor ran aground on the rocks of accepting all the gigs the Three turned down.

        Wagner…had moments.

        In good shape: early 20th century German operas and Britten

        I recommend reading that James Levine interview in New York Magazine from 1987 (?), where he talks about the dilemma of producing operas knowing there was no reasonable way to cast them. He doesn’t name names, but given his pro-singer reputation he was surprisingly dispairing of the singers he had to work with.

        Nowadays we have great singers and good ones and pretty decent ones. Back then we had a few great ones, and a few decent ones, and a fair number of frankly godawful ones. That meant you might end up with a performance that, by today’s standards, would be surprisingly cringe-worthy. Or maybe only mostly so. Your star soprano wants to do Norma? Okay, everybody else under the bus.

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        1. Makes me wonder what was going on in the 70s with younger singers to produce the problem a decade or so later – maybe too many houses coasting on a few specific singers for too long without thinking about what would come next?

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          1. If I had to guess, I’d say it was partly that there weren’t that many younger singers in the pipeline. If true, that in turn would have been due partly to opera’s lowered public profile — you could find it in the general media mix a lot more easily in the 60’s, both on commercial television and on commercial classical stations like the old WQXR, but not so much in the 70’s — and partly to the fact that the phenomenon of the Young Artist Program had yet to hit its stride. Figure the Met’s Lindemann program wasn’t started until 1980.

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  4. Apropos of nothing: I love that this post generated at least two more-or-less unrelated sub-conversations!!

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