Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Pushing the boat out.......

I am once again reminded why I call myself a bel canto bear. I have never made any secret of the fact that Norma is my favorite opera in all the world, but recently I've been listening to a lot of Donizetti. In addition to the perfectly delightful L'Elisir d'Amore, there are the more dramatic operas, including those those that are erroneously called the Tudor Trilogy: Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux. (For the record, there is no evidence that Donizetti conceived of these three operas as a trilogy, so I call them them a nilogy.) 

I bring up bel canto operas because it seems that this extremely difficult repertoire is where singers try to expand their reach. A few years ago there were lots of big-name sopranos who thought they could sing Anna Bolena, but couldn't.  Then the same thing happened with Norma.  On the other hand, I can recall hearing people  in Verdi operas singing much better than expected, and upon further investigation learning they'd sung many bel canto roles. "Of course he sang that so beautifully--look what he's done before!" I can also recall hearing singers I'd considered OK as Verdi singers shine in glorious ways that were totally unexpected when they assayed bel canto roles. Much as I would like to have one very famous soprano as an ally in this blog, I have written herein that she was OK in Verdi but amazing as Norma and Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. I would also include one whom we might call the world's reigning Amneris and Azucena, upon hearing her as Adalgisa. I was amazed--a new way in which she was fabulous! I can not fail to give credit to a tenor who in recent years has left the lighter bel canto and Mozart roles to attack the heavier bel canto and Mozart roles such as Idomeneo, and to and also another associated with lighter roles who was amazing as Idomeneo. It was a surprise to learn that another singer, whose performances in lighter repertoire at the Met were beyond reproach, heavenly, was also absolutely stunning in larger repertoire at opera houses that were not the size of football fields. 

Let's face it. When it is a struggle to resist metaphors that include having to change my pants, we're talking hot stuff.  

On the other hand. Well. There is a particular sound I detect when a singer, even a singer I admire, is singing something that doesn't fit. The vibrato becomes faster and the timbre takes on a quality I might call brittle. Instead of listening and watching and being involved in the story, one becomes involved in the secondary story of whether the singer can get through the role or make that one difficult passage that is coming up. I don't like that experience, and I resent it when opera productions put me in that situation. Yes, the singer might perform the role beautifully, and with the finest of artistic and dramatic qualities, but to me there is more. Recall in my early days I only thought about beauty of singing, and it came with maturity that I considered other factors that might, on occasion, forgive a less beautiful tone. But really. We always knew Maria Callas, queen of the Less Beautiful Tone, would make it to the end of the opera, but we aren't always so confident with some singers we hear today.

Where do you draw the line? In today's world we have great singers who rely on beauty of sound alone--and that's OK--and singing actors who rely on stage presence to forgive shortcomings in vocal sound. I suppose it's always been that way. I once interviewed a stage director for these pages, and asked a question about the apparent trend toward acting or concept at the expense of vocal technique, and she stated that a singer who is worried about technique is not going to be able to act very well. If you're worried about the next high note, you can't throw yourself into the director's vision. 

My opinion is this:  Start with a beautiful sound. Always start with a beautiful sound. Whether the acting and characterization skills are there to begin with, are gained concurrently, or come afterward, it is still the beautiful sound that is required. That includes vocal technique and artistic production. One singer who is now known for big, Germanic repertoire, told me that every repertoire requires the presence of voice, the line, the breath that are all part of bel canto technique.  It always comes back to bel canto.  As well it should.


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