Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tre Gioconde: Compare and contrast

This will be a quickie today. I took a break from work at my best and did a youtube search on Renata Scotto. I am delighted that the Suor Angelica is back up. Also her "Suicidio!" from the (in)famous 1979 San Francisco Gioconda, to which I believe I referred in my Pavarotti tribute.

There may be those who detest this. There will be just as many who find it brilliant. I must confess that I am impartial. I remember watching this on television when I was a wee thing :-) and found it riveting. Sure, she's hammy. That's what Italian opera is all about. Those who downplay that miss the point. I remember my teacher John Wustman saying to me when I was in graduate school that if you were going to perform this music you needed a little "trash in your veins."

Scotto's dramatic performance is dictated by her vocal limitations in this repertoire. She could not give a balls-to-the-wall Zinka-style performance. But oh, what she gives us instead: a contemplative Gioconda, one who is actually weighing the possibility of suicide, dreading death yet longing for it. I find her coups de théâtre stunning: the dropped crucifix on the last syllable of the word "cammin," her well-timed collapses, her winged flight on "volevan l'ore." And does she not look extraordinary: the costume, the hair, the svelte figure? On all counts this is a brilliant performance. I wish it would be reissued on DVD. At least the audio version has been released on Gala.

Without further ado, here it is:

Now, this is probably unfair, but I also came across a performance within the past year at the Liceu featuring Deborah Voigt. Now admittedly, this is clearly not her rep. But she is much too naturalistic in her acting to be a convincing Gioconda. This music demands an over-the-top approach. I don't get any nuance from her performance. The voice is bigger but she has fewer colors at her disposal. Her stab at the high B is, to my ear, less effective than Scotto's, even if our Renatina wobbles a bit here (it is, all things considered, however, a relatively wobble-free performance from her). Well, now that I've clearly stated my opinion on the matter, I present Exhibit B:
When I take a look at Eva Marton's performance (which I will not post but which is linked here for those curious) I would be hard-pressed to say which singer is less effective. Marton handles certain chesty passages a little better than Voigt, but on the whole, she barely registers. At least her performance is a touch more idiomatic, but I never found her voice in any way an ingratiating, engaging instrument.
Finally, a heartbreaking clip of La Divina in London. In the 1973-4 season she undertook an ill-advised (but even more poorly conceived) comeback tour with Giuseppe di Stefano, who was in almost equally bad vocal estate at that time. Much of the repertoire she had never performed onstage before, and they were accompanied at most performances by a pianist whose name I cannot remember (why does Robert Sutherland stick in my mind?) EMI recorded those concerts hoping to do an audio release, but alas, Maria's voice was in such perilous condition that nothing was usable. I have a friend who was in the audience when she performed in Boston, however, and he said that she was mesmerizing. That was a night when di Stefano was indisposed, so Callas sang accompanied by Vasso Devetzi, the perhaps Mephistophelian figure who took over Callas' life and fortunes at the end. As for this London performance, so what if her voice is in tatters? Of course I'd rather that it were as healthy as in her Cetra recording, which is one of her most unfettered performances, at least in the recording studio.

It must be said, however, that she manages the aria pretty damn well here, even if it is transposed down, even if the registers are completely unknit by this point, even if the pianist is of no help to her whatsoever. In the words of the immortal Vera Galupe-Borszkh, she "gave too much," here, there and everywhere. But if she hadn't, and if Scotto hadn't, we would have been so much poorer. You see what we would have had instead as a benchmark [sic].

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Florence, We Hardly Knew Ye

One of my readers wrote in to me about Florence Quartararo. Evidently he heard her sing in the forties in San Francisco.

He was kind enough to do a search there for her Met performances on the Met Archives and this is what emerged.

There were two quotes from Howard Taubman writing of her in the Times.

This at her Met debut, as Micaela:
The young lady [Miss Quartararo] sang with astonishing assurance. She may be the find of the season...She has a voice of size, range and true lyric quality. It is produced with a smoothness and accuracy that make you wonder how it happened that this voice has been so well placed. One gathered that she had not had much formal vocal schooling. Perhaps it is better so.

As for Micaela's music, Miss Quartararo sang it with affecting simplicity. It is deceptive. It looks easy, and it does not overpower as does the music of Carmen. But it takes sensitivity and quality as a singer. Miss Quartararo, who is also good to look at, seems to have what it takes.
And on her Desdemona, one of only two she sang at the Met:

Florence Quartararo, one of the most promising additions to the Metropolitan last season, got a major role last night and made the most of it. Singing Desdemona in Verdi's Otello in place of Stella Roman, who was ill, Miss Quartararo gave a performance that would have been a credit to an outstanding veteran.

This was the first time that the San Francisco girl had sung Desdemona on any stage. She had done no more than two or three other roles at the Metropolitan. But aside from a somewhat unsteady start in the first act and an understandable unfamiliarity with the action, she made Desdemona convincing. And the measure of her achievement was that she did it, for the most part, by the appeal of her singing.

It was a performance that reminded old-timers of another American girl who appeared on this stage more than twenty-five years ago, also a novice in opera but with enchantment in her throat. That was Rosa Ponselle.

Miss Quartararo's voice is perfectly suited for Desdemona, and she used it last night with a sure instinct for the molding of the musical phrase, She had at her command a finely controlled range of tone from the delicately soft to the ringingly full. And in the last act, her handling of the "Willow Song" and the Ave Maria made you forget the soprano on the operatic stage and left you only with the heartbreak of the poor, bewildered Desdemona.

Miss Quartararo will sing this role even better as she gets used to it. There were several occasions last night when she almost made the wrong vocal entrance. Her costumes, obviously designed for a soprano of much ampler proportions were a persistent nuisance to her as she tried to move about the stage. But she had the voice, the feeling, the temperament and the figure for Desdemona.

What else did she sing there? A couple Donna Elviras and Countesses, a Pamina (at a student performance!), five or six Neddas, a pair of Violettas (those would have been fascinating to hear), and five Flower Maiden performances, and nearly a third of them out of town. Not a whole lot on which to hang a legend. And yet... we know how she sounded. And that, my friends, is the cruelty-free measure of what truly becomes a legend most!

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...But Life Got In the Way...

I've been away from here for much too long! It seems like I'm only writing about an entry a week these days, though my goal is to do it twice a week.

Things have been kinda crazy though. I sang a recital at the Donnell Library a week ago today. I shared it with my friend Marianne Labriola. I had a great time. I did a Schubert group and a Rodgers & Hart set. That last was a gesture in a new direction for me.

For the Schubert, I did four his late settings of Seidl poems, some of my favorites among his songs: "Der Wanderer an den Mond", "Am Fenster", "Im Freien", and "Die Taubenpost". Each one of them speaks so deeply to me. The first, Schubert's perpetual wanderer addressing the moon, wishing that, like the moon, he could feel that the world and the sky was his home and not that he was a stranger everywhere he went. The second is about the joy of someone who has cut himself off from the world to pursue a contemplative life. The third is the poet gazing down through the night, as if from the sky, at places that are dearest to his heart. And the last one is about a symbolic dove that carries sighs as if they were letters, all in the name of longing. So it's clear why all of those might be dear to my heart.

The Rodgers & Hart was important to me for an altogether different reason. I have written before of my interest in putting together a cabaret program (the theme of which is becoming clearer to me) and this was my first chance to sing some standards in public. I was nervous, and yet with Bill Lewis at the piano and many of my dearest friends in the office, it was not as scary as it could have been.

I sang "Glad To Be Unhappy," "I Wish I Were In Love Again," "My Funny Valentine," and "With a Song In My Heart," which is practically an aria anyway. I ended up singing the second one in my baritone range; I just couldn't make it work singing it up an octave. It's just as well. It took a lot of the pressure.

I had wanted to do "I'll Tell the Man In the Street" from I Married an Angel, but evidently it's a rarity. How was I supposed to know? I grew up with Barbra Streisand's recording on her first album and there are also okay versions by Kristen Chenoweth and Mary Cleere Haran, but other than Nelson Eddy of the original cast, I found out there aren't too many other recordings. I thought about doing it a cappella, but there will be time to suss out the music eventually.
Of the songs I did sing, I thought the last two were the best. I almost lost it when I sang "My Funny Valentine," because I flashed so clearly on all the men that I have loved in my life. And there was one day when NN called me from work on Valentine's Day to ask if I knew the words, which of course I did. In my mind's eye, not only did I see him, but I saw them all. And two of them were in the audience. So even if it weren't for the beauty of the words, I also had a personal association with the song. Anyway, whenever someone sings the meaning of the words, really sings them, the music takes flight. And I could feel it happen here, just as it did in the last two Schubert.

And "With a Song In My Heart"... well, how can you not love it? I tried not to take a page from Jessye's version, but it does have an operatic sensibility that one can't ignore. Interestingly, I was just listening to an early recording of the song by a cabaret singer called Hutch (Leslie Hutchinson), who was evidently the Prince of Wales' favorite singer! Anyway, Hutch is very much a cabaret singer who sells the song with almost no voice at all. Shades of Mabel Mercer, who I am finally learning to appreciate, even love.

The other thing that happened last week is that I was, quite unexpectedly, elected Vice President of the Lotte Lehmann Foundation at our board meeting on Wednesday. I am completely dedicated to the Foundation and its various aims, primarily perpetuating the name of Lotte Lehmann as well as furthering her legacy by bringing art song into the limelight. We now have a composition competition in partnership with ASCAP as well as a vocal competition (for which I judged the finals this past winter). So I'm proud of that.

Giannina Arangi-Lombardi
I have so many singers I've been listening to recently that I absolutely must write about: Delia Reinhardt, Judy Raskin, Povla Frijsh and Félia Litvinne, the last two of whom both proved to be completely different from what I expected, though in completely different ways. Plus Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, whom I've always loved, but now I've heard her Aida and now I'm a raving maniac (for her singing, of course).

So I hope to do entries on each of them very soon.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Two Incomparable German Chick Singers, #1

I am taking a break from watching Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage (the six-part television series; it's a bit intense for viewing straight through) to post on two singers that move me deeply. Both of them are relatively new acquaintances of mine. I have known of them for years, but had never adequately explored their recordings. Thankfully in recent months I have rectified that situation.

A few months ago I was working in the kitchen, happily listening to a completely different recording (a matchless Pergolesi Stabat Mater with Maureen Lehane and Judith Raskin, who is another all-time favorite of mine and about whom I will compose an entry very soon. Let me just say in passing that she is the singer that she leaves in the dust these twittery, faceless American lyric sopranos of the past twenty-odd years).

At any rate, to get back on track, at the very satisfying conclusion of the Pergolesi, out of the blue I was struck, almost between the eyes, by this lush, creamy, magisterial voice singing "Vissi d'arte". I had to check to see who it was because I had no idea. Meta Seinemeyer. Ah, yes, a name that I knew and yet one with whose singing I had only a passing acquaintance. I had ripped a CD of her singing that I had borrowed from my friend David, with whom I almost always agree in matters aesthetic.

With Frieder Weissmann

Of course one of the the first things comes to mind to anyone who has heard the name Seinemeyer is that she died of leukemia at the tragically early age of thirty-three. She was romantically involved with the conductor Frieder Weissmann, who married her on her deathbed. So most of my knowledge of Seinemeyer was the tragic soap opera aspect of her life.

How lucky I was that I was able to get to know her through her recordings as well. They are not all that readily available. There is a Haenssler recording of selected recordings as well as a Preiser issue of her complete recordings. Here is another soprano who deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the very greatest sopranos and yet who today has been nearly forgotten.

She was born in Berlin in 1895 and began her career there at the Charlottenburg Opera. Her career was centered in Dresden, where she sang the Duchess of Parma in the premiere of Busoni's Doktor Faust, as well as a host of Wagner, Verdi and Puccini roles. Her career extended to the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, to the United States, where she sang with the Manhattan Opera House, Oscar Hammerstein's New York company that for a time (1906-1910) was a serious artistic and financial rival to the Metropolitan. She also sang at the Wiener Staatsoper and, in some of the last performances of her career, at Covent Garden. It was immediately upon her return to Dresden that she became ill. She was only to sing five more performances there until her death, a mere ten weeks after singing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, her final performance. (These details are available on the extremely informative website devoted to Seinemeyer.)
I strongly recommend that any lovers of great singing immediately search out this extraordinary singer. I could hardly choose which single recording to offer, but I chose Butterfly's entrance for the unspeakably beautiful B-flat she sings at the words 'ove s'accoglie'. As all my readers know by now, I never make pronouncements like this, but that may be one of the most perfect notes I have ever heard in my life. Hearing it knocks the wind out of me.

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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Delicate Clusters of Sound

I have had enough of death and mourning. I need a chuckle. Maybe even a belly laugh.

I have a thing for REALLY bad singers. Some think that I listen to them merely to laugh at them. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Well, okay, there's an cube or two of truth in it, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.

About two years ago, I was toying with the idea of writing a book about some of my favorite bad singers. It still may turn into an article. Or sit on the back burner for a few more years and turn into something horrible and tasty and the same time.

At that time, I began a list about what was particularly treasurable about these singers. I think at the time I was laughing at them a lot more than I am now.

My list focused on the elements of humor, grotesquerie, shock, and horror that one experiences upon hearing such performances. But that is so obvious. There is something else at work here, and while I don't pretend to have completely cracked this nut, yet I have a few ideas.

Of course it is a bit of a relief to see someone else making a bigger fool of themselves than we ever possibly could, no matter how embarassing and humiliating we think our last audition or performance was. We could never possibly make the same shocking gaffes, singing the wrong notes, making up the rhythms, forgetting the words, or just plain getting lost.

Yet I don't think these artists are even aware just how bad they really are. And it is their sheer obliviousness that makes them all the more treasurable. They just sing for the joy of it and if it makes people happy, then they have done a service, and done it lovingly.

In fact, these singers often have a much wider range of vocal expression than one normally encounters. And it is precisely because of their vocal limitations that they are able to wield their instruments in a wilder way than we would ever find appropriate.

So we gasp and hoot and shriek and holler at their vocal flights of fancy, but I think that somewhere down deep we are envious of their fearlessness. Imagine what it would feel like not to stand up there and give it one's all , not giving a damn what anybody else thought. I can't fully appreciate their vision, but I can admire them for sharing this mysterious inner world with me.

In fact, these "fools" may have stumbled into another universe, a place where judgment is suspended, and where sincerity, kindness, unflinching honesty and clarity of vision are the order of the day.

Just exactly which artists am I referring to? I'm sure everyone has their favorites, but I include the following in my all-time favorites list:

Wing (also see below)
Olive Middleton
Sylvia Sawyer

Mrs. Miller
Mari Lyn (see below)
The Shaggs
Natalia de Andrade
Congress-Woman Malinda Parker Jackson


Wing embodies all the traits enumerated above. She emigrated to New Zealand from Taiwan in the nineties; as such she can't really embody the "American Dream" but she certainly has fulfilled the Immigrant's Dream. And all of this because she performed karaoke selections in hospitals and nursing homes and her audiences loved her so much that they encouraged her to put out a recording. Wing offered these recordings for sale on the internet and, a true beneficiary of the information age, she suddenly found herself with a worldwide fan base, which increased exponentially with her guest appearance on South Park two years ago.

I love almost everything she does, whether that be fumbling her way through The Lonely Goatherd, squeaking her way through Dancing Queen, not quite mastering the extreme vocal range of The Phantom of the Opera. It was her rendition of the Carpenters' "Sing" that made me completely fall in love with her, though. Who else better exemplifies the dictum "Don't worry if it's not good enough for anyone else to hear"? Learn more about her by perusing some articles posted on her website. And watch her delectable performance of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and prepare to be enchanted.

Mari Lyn

There are countless marvelous operatic counter-divas out there (how else should one refer to them?) Of course Florence Foster Jenkins is the most famous, but other favorites are Sylvia Sawyer (who actually recorded Azucena and Amneris for Capitol Records!), Olive Middleton, Tryphosa Bates-Batchellor (whose unique work can be sampled on the magical collection entitled The Muse Surmounted, which features the work of those singers just mentioned plus many others). I think my very, very favorite, however, has to be Mari Lyn, who hosted a cable TV show called The Golden Treasury of Song in the early- to mid-eighties (as best I can surmise). She wore a different wig every week and presented well-thought out and invariably intriguingly vocalized programs. She had the charisma of a limp dishrag and yet she tackled everything from Lakme to Norma without fear. And every so often, a flash of temperament would course through her not-delicate frame, and I would find myself folling on the floor in paroxysms of delight. Watch these clips on her website and see if you aren't on the floor yourself.

My favorite Mari Lyn moments are her unforgettable scat rendition of "Summertime," her southern belle impersonation in the program entitled The South Anti-Bellum Era [sic], her narration and dramatic rendering of Violetta's letter scene from Traviata, and the entire program entitled Hosanna by Ebentide, in which she shares with us her favorite hymns, including "Casta diva" (for is this not a hymn to the Moon Goddess?) She also regales us with some of her own personal religious stylings, and receives a "surprise" visit from two wacky Italians representing the Della Robbia Foundation who present her with a plaque honoring her as the Greatest Operatic Soprano of the Year. And who could forget her famous "Una voce poco fa" from the priceless Art of the Coloratura episode? Below find her rendition of "Sweet Hour of Prayer" (along with a vital, life-altering sermonette):

And while I could go on and on all night, I will end by posting a few more soundclips to supplement what I have already posted here. Click on the links to hear:

―the deranged passion of Natalia de Andrade's Santuzza as well as
―her cascades of laughter in the Manon Gavotte.
―Congress-Woman Malinda Parker Jackson cautioning against the destruction wrought by "Cousin Mosquito"
―Mrs. Miller duetting with herself in the country fave "There Goes My Everything."
―The Shaggs, quite possibly the idiot savants of music, and probably the most tragic of the figures celebrated here, in their own composition "Philosophy of the World".

In admiration and gratitude to these artists, I conclude my traversal of the underside of singing.

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Friday, September 7, 2007

Another great one passes

Of course the title of this entry speaks of the most famous singer of all to have died in recent months.

There are very few singers about whom I have as much ambivalence as I do Pavarotti. But that is because I abhor the commercialization of our art. I prefer to live in that rarefied sphere where money and commerce never appear. (That was not intended to be a rhyme!)

And yet Pavarotti turned opera (or "opera", if you will) into a stadium event. His handkerchief and enormous personality invaded more homes than any other singer's in recent memory. Did he turn more people on to opera, or did he simply coarsen and cheapen the taste of the general public so they believed that three tenors screeching "vincerò" in quasi-unison was what Opera all about? Was it his commercialization and commodification of our profession that opened the door for such abominations as Andrea Bocelli, Charlotte Church, Russell Watson and Katherine Jenkins? (And on that subject, I don't care if Gergiev and Abbado conduct recordings by Bocelli, that does not alchemize him into a singer.)

But you see, this is the problem with Pavarotti: that we forget (or perhaps it is only I who forget) that in his early years, he was a truly great singer. He was called the King of the High C's for a reason. Yes, it was pure hype dreamed up by Herbert Breslin or Decca's publicity hounds (or whomever) but neither Domingo or Carreras were ever in any danger of being touted for their exceptional high notes.

No, Pavarotti at his best was a superhumanly gifted singer. He was also a showman who knew how to kowtow to an audience and to appeal to the lowest common denominator. But just for once, especially on the occasion of his demise, can I not simply look the other way, or turn my ear the other way and just exult in the sheer brilliance of his singing.

He was an astute technician. One had only to watch him sing to realize the profound concentration at work whenever he opened his mouth (to sing, at least, if not always to talk).
He did not have the most beautiful tenor voice per se. To my ear the basic sound was rather resiny and the legato became gummier the heavier the repertoire he assumed. (Otello, Ernani? PLEASE!) But when he was singing the repertoire he was intended by nature to sing (Rodolfo, Tonio, Edgardo, the Duke, Riccardo, Nemorino [though here his 'ingratiating' personality really grated on me]) he was matchless. Certainly among singers in his generation he was possessed of a unique technical aplomb, acuity and self-awareness. Even when he moved beyond the completely healthy spectrum of roles and began singing Cavaradossi and Calaf, he managed by virtue of his technical grounding to convey a reasonable facsimile of those roles.

I have two reminiscences of Pavarotti. The first was the single time I heard him sing live. Ballo in Chicago. It was Scotto I went to hear; it was mere chance that he was singing Riccardo. These were the last performances that Scotto and Pavarotti were to give together. Earlier that season, in Gioconda in San Francisco, each singer was assuming their part for the first time ever. I don't remember the particulars, but somehow Pavarotti upstaged Scotto in the final curtain call or some such, and she was captured on camera having a hissy diva fit to end all hissy diva fits. She swore that, after the already-scheduled Ballo in Chicago, that their paths would never cross again. (You know, those Italians and Greeks [you know who you are]: they're so hot-blooded and grudge-holding. You cross them once and you cease to exist.) So in the second act love duet, their supposed ardor looked much more like repugnance. I will never forget the way that Scotto, singing the words, "Ebben, sì, t'amo" [All right, I confess it: I love you] looked away from him as from a particularly unsavory odor.

Another time, numerous years later, by a chance set of happy accidents, I was in Busseto, Italy, my first time abroad, playing for Carlo Bergonzi's master class at the so-called Bel Canto Institute. Some day I will have more to say about that experience. For the time being, it was, in a word, extraordinary.) One day at lunch (this event took place in Bergonzi's hotel I due Foscari, where three times a day we were fed the most magnificent food), there were excited whispers that Pavarotti was going to be stopping by that afternoon. Sure enough, shortly before the obligatory afternoon siesta, the great man showed up, his current squeeze (Madelyn Renée: anybody remember her?) in tow. He did not stay long, merely looked genial, paid his respects to Bergonzi and Maestro Mantovani, an elderly master teacher who had worked at La Scala and with Pavarotti, and who was working with students, said a few encouraging words to the students and left. Even in those few moments, even to someone who was not at all kindly disposed toward him (how could he have treated poor Renatina so badly?), the sheer charismatic force of his personality swept all before it. It was not so much that he was large of figure (though of course he was), but that he exuded a magnetism that beguiled as it blinded.

I do have a number of Pavarotti recordings, though again, his presence on them is mostly coincidental (I have pirates of the Scala Kleiber-led Bohème with Cotrubaş, the Met Bohème with Scotto that was the first Live from the Met telecast, the infamous San Francisco Gioconda with Scotto, as well as their valedictory joint appearance in the Chicago Ballo, in addition to some of his choicest studio recordings).

I have had much occasion these past few months to memorialize those supreme artists who have gone on to their greater reward. In many cases, I found myself with new-found (or newly-rediscovered) appreciation for what made them special.

The same is true here. Please listen to this live recording of O soave fanciulla featuring the young Mirella Freni to hear what I mean. Apart from the nearly flawless technique, there is a clearly-perceivable interplay between him and the gorgeous Mirella.

This is how he should be remembered, and how I want to remember him. Let us send him out in style. And with a huge debt of thanks for having at times transcended his own commercialism to give us what we really needed. And what he really needed: the adulation of his public.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Rose Ader: Liù piange

Here is another great soprano. If you were to demand the name of the most beautiful voice I have ever heard, I might choose Rose Ader (1890-1955). Here is another singer about whom very little is known. I know her because of my friend the amazing Mike Richter, whose site on singers and singing, which changes every week, has published a special page on her life and artistry.

Not much of substance is known about the Austrian soprano. For twelve seasons, her career was centered in Hamburg. It was there in 1921 that she sang the first performance of Puccini's Suor Angelica in Germany. She emigrated with her family to Austria in 1933, went from there to Italy where they remained until after the war, at which time she emigrated to Argentina, where she ended her days.
There are very few recordings extant. Mike has posted all of these on his Rose Ader page. Only two recordings, of the Mimì arias, were ever published. There remain some Parlophone test pressings, including one of "Un bel dì" that simply must be heard.

Mind you, Ader appears, at least on the basis of these few recordings, not to have been the most scrupulous of musicians. She drags the beat incessantly and several of her entrances are not even close to being in tempo. But have you ever heard creamier high notes? Or the end of the aria handled with such aplomb? I don't think I have.

Puccini wrote the role of Liù with her in mind. In fact, she and Puccini were lovers. I found for sale online an autograph letter from Puccini to Ader, which the seller translates thus:

"Mia cara Rose, it hurts me to hurt you! But I must do it for your own good - it doesn't matter if I suffer - you have a future and with me you have no luck. I can do nothing or little for you... Frankly it would be better to finish it - to remain friends and send news of one another once in a while. You know that I want only good things for you and desire all the good fortune in the world for you. You are used to a life that's bright - beautiful - and staying with me, what life would you lead? Think about it seriously - it gives me much pain to think you are not happy. I received your two letters [what I wouldn't give to know what she wrote there!] and I did not want to write you right away - I am working and feeling well enough - My poets have not given me the third act [of Turandot]! Liù weeps and in writing the music I think of you, my poor and sweet and good Rose! Affectionately, your Giacomo."

As the seller of this autograph points out, Ader may very well have inspired Puccini as he composed the music to what was purportedly his favorite heroine (the masochistic ends to which she subjects herself tells us much about Puccini's treatment of women in general), Ader was denied the opportunity to create the role of Liù, a distinction which went to Maria Zamboni instead. If one knows Zamboni's recording of "Signore, ascolta" then one knows what an idiosyncratic , histrionic and rather unlovely Liù she made.

More later on other exquisite Liùs. But for now, enjoy the voice of this woman whom, in spite of her artistry and voice, is remembered today only as the most cursory footnote in music history.

Clearly she deserves better than that!

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The great unknown

For some time now I have been putting off my post on the greatest singer you've never heard of.

Now it is her turn in the spotlight.

Florence Quartararo. I had never heard of her before, but a number of years ago I was listening to the fourth volume of that monumental EMI collection, The Record of Singing. There were a number of singers of whom I had never heard before that completely blew me away. The Swedish baritone Hugo Hasslo was one of them. Another was the American soprano Florence Quartararo. Her clip was a version of Handel's "Care selve" that stood alongside Alma Gluck's transcendent recording. (Oh, if you don't know that, you should do yourself a favor and listen to it. Follow this link and cursor down to "Come my beloved" which you can play on Real Audio.)

But back to our Florence. I wanted to find out whatever I could about her, but I discovered very little of substance. I did note that she partnered Ramon Vinay in a pair of recordings: the first act Micaëla/José duet and the Act One scene between Tosca and Cavaradossi. I traced these to a Preiser reissue (Four Great Met Tenors) and put it on my wishlist and never got around to ordering it until I had a few extra dollars burning a hole in my pocket last summer and finally got myself a copy.

Her Puccini was as good as her Handel, and for the Bizet she adopted a naive tonal color quite different than for Tosca. The Tosca is so vividly characterized that it came as a shock when I found that she never even sang the role onstage. Nevertheless, this was a great, great singer. And still I knew almost nothing about her.

After hearing these duets, I was eager, not to say desperate, for more. A further search yielded a recording on Guild of a live Nedda from the Met, again with Vinay, with an accompanying disc of further recordings, including the studio duets with Vinay, three solo sides she cut, also for RCA, and a great number of live radio broadcasts. I ordered a copy from (an excellent and fairly reasonably-priced option when does not have the desired item, which in this case, it did not) and it arrived less than a week later (that's the other thing; if the item is in stock, it ships lickety split from the UK).

Okay, so here's some of the poop on L'amica Flo, all of it culled from other sources (most of them reviews of the Guild recording, plus a posting on Opera-L):

“Soprano Florence Quartararo had about the shortest career of any major historical singer. Born to Italian parents in America, Quartararo was discovered through a quirk of fate at the age of 23, and never studied singing formally. Quartararo’s first public appearance was singing on the Bing Crosby radio show under the assumed name of ‘Florence Alba,’ but had reverted to her true name by the time she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1947. In 1951, Quartararo retired from singing forever when she married Italian bass Italo Tajo and never returned. At the Met, she had given only 37 performances in nine roles.

“Quartararo made four 78 sides for RCA Victor in 1947 - Handel’s Care selve, ‘La mamma morta’ from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, and two duets with tenor Ramón Vinay. This is likely all we might have of her artistry if she had not been sought out by researcher Richard Caniell, who had seen her perform at the Met in the 1940s and interviewed Quartararo in 1982. At this time, Quartararo turned over her personal collection of recordings to Caniell, who initially issued them on three cassettes. Since then these recordings have emerged on CD reissues, helping re-establish a reputation for Quartararo as one of the great voices of the twentieth century.”

“My singer discovery of the year is the American soprano of Italian parentage Florence Quartararo... She is a must hear for all lovers of great operatic singing... This is lyric soprano singing of the very highest order. The voice soars with clarity whilst words, expression, legato and colouration combine to give superb characterisation. Florence Quartararo was invited by Toscanini to sing Desdemona in his broadcast Otello. Many critics believe the recording from that broadcast to be one of the all time greats. Unfortunately for opera lovers, the Met management refused to release Quartararo for the detailed rehearsals that Toscanini demanded and the great maestro turned to his favourite Herva Nelli for the role. I believe that if Quartararo had sung the Desdemona on that recording she would not have been allowed to leave the stage forever when she did, after a mere four years at the Met, and the history of recorded opera on LP would have been very different than that which we inherit now on CD. On the evidence of the recordings on this second CD of the Guild issue Quartararo’s is a voice to set alongside the all time greats of the 20th century.”

“Quartararo’s career was short, far too short. She had married the bass Italo Tajo, who then decided, on the birth of a daughter , that one singer in the family was enough. Thus a promising soprano, who had sung 37 performances of nine roles at the Met, vanished from the scene. (And the marriage?) Those four 78s would have formed Quartararo’s total discography had not Richard Caniell of the Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society met her in 1982 and subsequently issued private recordings on three cassettes. Some of those occupy the second disc in this set. Over 40 remain, but a further selection is promised.”

“I am not arrogating when I think that Quartararo’s career would probably have been extremely successful had it not been curtailed so soon. Her Nedda, Italianate in sound, has its own intensity, if one kept more in check than Vinay’s. At 25, she sings with a voice in full bloom. The opera’s final moments are here verismo at its most vivid and violent.”

“The most interesting--and significant--aspect of this release is the (re)discovery of soprano Florence (referred to at the time as ‘Fiorenza’) Quartararo. The California-born soprano sang at the Met for only four seasons--37 times in nine roles--and made a few commercial recordings, then dropped out of sight. In fact, she married the bass Italo Tajo, who believed ‘one singer in the family was enough.’ Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini greatly admired her. She died in 1994 at age 72. Most of the arias and scenes on this CD were recorded live. The voice is a stunning, good-sized, burnished soprano, dark in hue (not unlike Ponselle’s, just to offer a signpost), with a full, rich top, almost a real trill, agility (as witnessed in the cabaletta from the first act of Trovatore), and a fast vibrato that adds intensity. She inflects well and has ideas of her own and plenty of temperament. Very occasionally she’ll begin a phrase just under pitch, but she corrects it immediately.”
“Richard Caniell of IPRMS (Immortal Performances Recorded Music Society, British Columbia) restored the Quartararo recordings, most of which came from her personal collection. (The Pagliacci has also been issued on Naxos.) He became friends with Quartararo and they had many conversations. Below is a quote from his liner notes for the Quartararo collection.

[here Caniell quotes Quartararo herself] “[The] birth [of my daughter] gave me the courage to break from my career... The biggest thrill of my life was when I had my child, something totally yours. What greater fulfillment could there be than a child? It deepened my life.”

“There was, perhaps, one other experience that gave me something of that same thing - standing on the Met stage, giving oneself and the audience receiving it. There was a tremendous sense of achievement.”

“If ever I have a moment of regret for not continuing on the stage, it is the feeling of something unfinished, like something that wanted to complete itself.... It was like a great book, the end of which I had left unread. But then, you know, one’s career has a build, a momentum. By the time my child was old enough for me to consider other possibilities, the momentum had been lost. Still, it may have been brief but it was wonderfully fulfilling, rewarding in ways for which I have no language.”
I would love to give seven or eight examples of Quartararo’s artistry, but I will limit myself here to a single one: Her “Tacea la notte” from Trovatore. I have nothing to add to the descriptions of her voice quoted above. Except to say that her agility is flawless, breathtaking, and she spins a line like nobody’s business. Of course I am flabbergasted that Italo Tajo made her quit singing. As if he were the superior talent in that family! Thank goodness we have some artifacts of her legacy. What I wouldn’t have given for that Desdemona recording with Toscanini. I am not one of those who detests Herva Nelli, Toscanini's soprano of choice for his recordings of Otello, Ballo, Falstaff, Aida, and the Requiem (she is sometimes referred to among her detractors as “Helluva Nervi”) but surely no one would place her on Quartararo’s level.

Which is to say among the greatest singers that ever lived.

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She WAS a great singer, after all

I followed my own advice from my last posting and sought out some more Rose Bampton. In fact, that very afternoon, I went to Academy Records and chanced upon a live recording of her Marschallin. It's from the Teatro Colon, October 8, 1947, with Erich Kleiber conducting.
The sound sucks. But it's an interesting performance.

Elsa does Carmen
Elsa Cavelti is the Octavian. She's a Swiss mezzo, not terribly well-known, most celebrated for her 1951 recording of Das Lied von der Erde with Otto Klemperer. She makes a surprising good Octavian. She does not strain at all in the high reaches and has a wonderful vocal characterization.
The Sophie is the hitherto unknown to me Olga Chelavine. She is more than serviceable, if not quite ethereal enough. According to one source I found, she was born in Russia, and according to another, she was born and died in Buenos Aires. So yeah, Olga = Russian, Chelavine = Argentinian. Whichever nationality and wherever she was born, she's not bad at all. She's the Papagena on a live Beecham Zauberflöte. Her repertoire included Wellgunde, Yniold, Sophie in Werther: that kind of stuff. The end of the final duet, she is painfully flat, but I have heard live performances in which better singers do it worse! I also heard the execrable Christine Schäfer at the Deutsche Oper sing the most charmless Sophie I have ever heard. It didn't matter if her high B was in tune or not at the end, since I wasn't able to actually hear it. I did hear two phrases from her over the course of the evening, both in the second act, and neither one good). So I'll take a flat high B at the end over miscast charmlessness.
Emmanuel List is the Ochs, and since I really can't stand the character's music, I generally don't listen to much of his role. But he's certainly a familiar name and he sounds like the Viennese bumpkin he should.
Good as they are, it is Rose who is the revelation. She soars in the trio and she dedicates herself with great delicacy and individuality to the Marschallin's music. As with all great Marschallins, it is through the words in particular that she creates a memorable characterization. In fact, I shed a few tears upon hearing her sing "Heut' oder morgen". It was a cry from the soul, which was quickly put back in check. Her top is brilliant; she sings the pianissimo "Ros'n" at the end of the first act beautifully and her B at the climax of the trio is radiant.
A curious footnote: as she sings that pianissimo, she is nearly drowned out by a ringing sound that sounds for all the life of me like a pager or a cell phone. Surely the Argentinians were not carrying around such devices in 1947. I'm curious what the sound actually was.
I began listening to her Daphne as well, also from the Colon, though a year later. The sound is better, but here Bampton sounds rather throaty and metallic in her midrange, though the top is even more brilliant. I must listen to the rest of this before I render a final judgment.
For now, here is her monologue from the first act of Rosenkavalier. I hope you agree that this performance alone places her firmly in the great echelon of singers. Now when I think of her, I will remember her Marschallin first, the chicken blood second, if at all.

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