The old days

I’ve said here before that opera singers these days — at least when they sing Italian opera — can’t compare to singers from the 1950s and before.

This is an old debate in the opera world, and you could finesse it — in very simple terms — by saying that singers now have more musicianship, and singers in the past had more passion. And, maybe, more voice.

 But wait — why am I talking about this here, apart from my wild love of Italian opera, which my frequent readers must be used to by now? There’s a larger reason. It’s about a spark, some sponaneity, a sense of electric immediacy that we’ve partly lost in classical music. One reason I like the music I’ve been calling alt-classical is that it brings that immediacy back. I might not be perverse enough to call the performances I’m about to discuss — which took place in the 1950s — alt-classical. But don’t think I wasn’t tempted. They’re like nothing we see today, and if we want the alt-classical immediacy (whatever term we might use for it) to spread through classical music, we can learn a lot from classical music’s past.

So. If you go to the website for Mario Del Monaco, you’ll see one version — and a titanic one — of how things used to be. Del Monaco was a huge-voiced Italian tenor, active in the ’50s and ’60s, and at the very least the most devastating Otello of his time (and, I’d think, more devastating than anyone since, Domingo included).

But he could be devastating in anything he did. Just click the “To Listen” tab on the left side of the home page (the site has been translated from another language, surely Italian), and listen to the two samples of Del Monaco that the site gives you. Start with the excerpt from Verdi’s Ernani (it’s an ensemble from the second act, which starts with a solo for Del Monaco, who sings the title role). In fact, I’ll give you a link to it right here. Why don’t you listen right now, while you’re reading this?

And now tell when you’ve ever heard a singer as virile as this one, or as fervent, or as thrilling. And listen to what he does with the words. When he comes to the end of his first solo, with the words “sono il banditto Ernani” — “I am the bandit Ernani” — doesn’t he just leap out of the speakers, or out of your headphones, flinging the words right at you? (And, more to the point, at the others on stage with him; this is a live performance, from Florence, in 1957). And aren’t you seared by the raging pride and fury that his character feels, forced to live as an outlaw — and doing damn well at it — even though he’s really a nobleman?

You could say that his voice is hard, though you might just as well say that it rings with the clarion strength of golden steel. You could say that he pushes his voice, but you’d be wrong. He sang successfully like this for years, suffering only when he got into a car accident. What he’s really doing is going all out.

And you can say he overdoes the passion, that he’s not dignified, or artistic, or polite. Or, God help us, classical. But then what do you think Ernani is about? For maybe half its length, the opera trembles on the edge between life and death, and the rest of the time seethes with pride and fury, and with wounded honor, or else swells with a mighty glow of compassion. You should be restrained when you sing this?

Now listen to the other excerpt on the site, marked “Alvaro,” after the name of the character who sings it. It’s the big tenor aria from Verdi’s La forza del destino. Here once more you get Del Monaco’s almost shocking virility, and his unsheathed passion. But you also get tenderness, which you might not have guessed was there, and a tremendous sense of sadness and loss. (This is from another Florence performance, this time from 1953. Del Monaco’s live performances outdo his recordings, by quite a lot.)

And when he’s finished, you’ll hear the start of an ovation. And I do mean an ovation, the kind you don’t hear much anymore, with people shouting and in fact even roaring, as if they’d lost control. The roaring is clearer, at least for me, through headphones than through my computer’s speakers. It’s cut off quickly on the website excerpt, but if you listen to the complete recording of the performance this comes from, you’ll hear that the ovation lasts for a full minute, which in ovation time is amazingly long (try timing the applause next time you’re at the Met). And in fact it only stops because the conductor starts the next scene.

Now name someone who sings like this today. Or even comes close.

Footnote: the entire Ernani performane is like this. All four of the leads — Del Monaco, Anita Cerquetti (the woman he loves), Boris Christoff (the old man who’s her guardian, and wants to marry her), and especially Ettore Bastianini (the hugely regal baritone king) — are titanic. And so is the conductor, Dmitri Mitropoulos, who presents the rare picture of one of the world’s top conductors (he’d been music director of the New York Philharmonic, where he specialized in things like an early, seminal concert performance of Wozzeck) conducting Verdi in an Italian opera house, and doing it with intense and idiomatic understanding.

Maybe later I’ll put some of Bastianini online, so you can hear how, like Del Monaco, he was an unstoppable force of nature. This Ernani, overall, is one of the most thrilling opera performances I’ve ever heard, marred only by an odd bit of microphone placement, which puts Bastianini off to the side in his biggest scene. It’s available on Emusic, and from Amazon as both a CD set and a download. Put it on your Christmas list!

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  1. Janis says

    “Now name someone who sings like this today. Or even comes close.”

    I can name several … but not in opera. :-) Some of the most thrilling voices I’ve ever heard are in pop or rock, and I’m talking operatic caliber. Even then, there really aren’t any recently. There is not a single voice in rock lately to compete with or even attempt to follow along the lines of Ann Wilson or Freddie.

    I wonder sometimes how much of it is due to opera being recorded nowdays. (Not sure though, since pop and rock are also recorded.) But, to carry the idea of a general lack of real verve in operatic voice forward … if I hear the SAME GODDAMNED RUN-UP TO A CADENZA ONE MORE TIME, I may become violent.

    You know the run-up I’m talking about. Every freaking opera singer in the universe does exactly the same formulaic ten-note run-up, like a long jumper doing that lope-lope-lope thing before sailing over the sandpit. I’m sick of it. Cadenzas are supposed to be where you are the MOST creative, not where you work the hardest to sound like everybody else. That was the best thing about hearing Aretha Franklin crush “Nessun Dorma.” It was beautiful, but it was different! FINALLY!!!!!!!

    There’s a German dude you should listen to who sings classical and some operatic stuff; he’s mostly a recitalist, though. His name’s Thomas Quasthoff, and he’s one of the few operatic voices I’ve ever heard lately who has a real handle on music, creativity, and who can actually sing outside of the box for real. I found a version of him doing “Old Man River” on YouTube, and I was cringing when I clicked in it, ready for someone overenuncuating and going, “Ooooooold Maaaaahn Reeeee-vair … ” in that clumsy cross-over way, and he just threw himself into it and sang it like it was meant to be sung, like he meant it.

    In the classical world, I think Quasthoff comes close. Interestingly, he studied voice with private lessons and wasn’t accepted into the local conservatoire. It may have prevented him from absorbing the belief that there’s only one way to sing since he grew up swinging between German lieder, blues, and rock fairly freely. You may want to check him out.

  2. says

    The good thing about this claim is that most of the people reading this (people between the ages of 20 and 70, perhaps) will never be able to prove you wrong. Most of us can only compare recordings, and only the most fortunate of us have had the chance to hear enough great singers in opera houses to be able to compare. Recording technology can only capture so much–especially the size of a voice and the ability of a singer to project dramatically as well as vocally to the back of an opera house.

    I agree with you. Del Monaco was one of the greatest singers of all time, and he had the great fortune to be able to work with other great singers of his time, as well as great opera conductors. I love Del Monaco’s “Niun me tema” from Otello, but, even though it’s in German, I find Wolfgang Windgassen’s Otello even better.

    This video is from 1966:

  3. Janis says

    BTW, this comment:

    “It’s about a spark, some spontaneity, a sense of electric immediacy that we’ve partly lost in classical music. One reason I like the music I’ve been calling alt-classical is that it brings that immediacy back.”

    — did more to sell me on the artistic and emotional importance of what you call alt-classical than any amount of the music theory that you talk about — triads, N-ads, whatever. I’m still not going to be a big fan of that stuff, but when you say that you enjoy it because you sit forward and aren’t entirely sure what you’re going to hear, that puts its appeal into terms that I can relate to.

  4. Robert Berger says

    Every generation of opera critics and fans is always longing for the alleged “golden age”.

    It’s the oldest cliche in the book.

    And I guarantee you; 40 or 50 years from now when we are all dead,opera lovers will be longing for the golden age of Pavarotti,Domingo,Fleming,Voigt,Gheorghiu,





    Even Rossini complained late in life that

    singing wasn’t what it had been when he was younger. But as heretical as it will sound to

    so many opera mavens,we’re going through a golden age now ! I’m far from being unfamiliar with the great voices of the past on recordings; no one could accuse me of that.

    But that doesn’t stop me from greatly admiring many of today’s singers, who as far as I am concerned, are equally great in their own way.

  5. janis says

    There are a lot of fabulous voices out there in opera, definitely — but there’s also a sense of things getting fossilized as well. I can’t recall where it is, but there’s a great article someplace about a fellow who went through and actually studied the various recorded versions of the cadenzas at the end of a given famous tenor aria, possibly “Una Furtiva Lagrima.” (HAH! Found it!)

    The number of variations on the cadenza did decrease with time, significantly. There were far more initially, and then people just settled on the Caruso cadenza that he picked because it showed his voice off better. Now, no matter what your voice is like, you’re almost expected to sing his cadenza, because it was the blockbuster recorded one.

    That’s definitely a loss. We’re in a golden age of training, no doubt. Luciano was the owner of an amazing, knee-weakeningly beautiful instrument. But there is a sense of having had a magnificent, superbly tuned Ferrari 24 and spending time driving it in straight lines only to show off its speed. There could have been a lot of moments of creativity and some swerves to and fro that don’t seem to have been part of the scope of a voice like that, which is definitely a loss.

    Opera nowdays is assumed to be there to show off the sheer beauty and power of a voice: vocal quality, power, accuracy, and precision. In those terms only, we are definitely in a golden age. But yes, interpretation and creativity have decamped to the popular sphere. Maria Callas was a so-so voice with a magnificent sense of artistry and interpretation. Today, if you want a great voice with good interp (and songwriting ability), you’d better start digging around in popular music because opera got sucked into the “banish all wrong notes” attitude that’s sucked the life out of classical music for the past century and a half.

    Now, I speak as a massive fan of Baroque music. :-) But I’m also concerned that the old opera I love is getting sucked into the same fossilized performance ethic. Caveat: I’m a HUGE fan of Andreas Scholl, and he adores pop music. But he skates very close to Pavarotti’s artistic ethos, where he owns an instrument so celestially beautiful that you can barely believe your ears … but he doesn’t do what he could do with it in terms of interp. And even though he loves pop music and pop singers, there’s a sense I get in him of not having a real seat-of-the-pants idea of how to sing like that. (I’d KILL to marry his voice to Michael Chance’s sense of style and flair.)

    I guess I’m saying we’re in a golden age of technical brilliance, but the creativity and risk-taking end of things seems to have attached itself to popular music. (For good and ill — the on-the-spot virtuosity of Baroque opera probably led to a few pretty amazing trainwrecks on stage.)

  6. says

    Thank you for mentioning Quasthoff. I even prefer Quasthoff’s “Winterreisse” to Fischer Dieskau’s, and that is saying a lot.

    One vocal type that is really coming into its own that very few people actually developed during the 1950s-1970s is the countertenor voice. Now we have scads of really great countertenors (well not scads, but a couple of handfulls), as well as a whole lot of repertoire that nobody even knew existed for most of the 20th century (and, for that matter, the 18th and 19th).

  7. Steve Soderberg says

    @Elaine Fine…

    And thank you for mentioning countertenors.

    It’s understandably difficult for many these days to mention the word “Messiah” without eyeballs knowingly crossed, but your mention reminded me of the first time I performed in an Augustana College (Rock Island) Messiah. I was a freshman & playing violin in the orchestra — I grew up as a boy soprano but my vocal range had shrunk to a tritone or less by then. There were two legends in that performance — both of them now mostly forgotten as far as I can tell. First, Henry Veld was conducting as always and, second, the alto that year was countertenor Russell Oberlin. I had never heard anything quite as ethereal as that sound before.

  8. Janis says

    Ooh, you mentioned Russell Oberlin. *sigh* I LOVE him … I sank more money into grabbing his entire recorded work than I care to admit.

    I’m a huge fan of the falsetto and natural male alto both; the amount of misinformation and ignorance being thrown around ubiquitously is one of the most flagrant symptoms of the total lack of information exchange between popular music and opera/classical. Pop/rock fans call people like Steve Perry falsettos, and classical voice fans will sing along with “Breakin’ Up Is Hard To Do” on the radio one octave down and in the next breath say, “Natural male altos no longer exist.”

    And there’s Oberlin right there proving everyone wrong, the forgotten voice … :-( I still have Lyrichord CDs to get …

  9. says

    (Hmm, an earlier comment of mine, about not being much of a Del Monaco fan, never posted. Oh, well. I don’t care much for Bastianini, either – a fine voice, but an extremely square and rigid interpreter.)

    A couple more points –

    Del Monaco is a lousy example of how things have gotten worse; voices like his don’t come along often in any generation. You must realize, also, that in the 1950s when he was in his prime, there were plenty of people going to the Met and shaking their heads over his singing because they’d heard Martinelli, Gigli, and even Caruso.

    A more interesting one is the back bench problem: why are there so few Gabriella Tuccis and Antoinetta Stellas, singers not quite of the first rank who could nonetheless sing strong, idiomatic Verdi performances day in and day out?

    Also, every age has its strengths and weaknesses. Remind again, Greg, of all those great Janacek and Handel performances major U.S. opera houses were giving in the 1950s?

    To your last point — I’ve said that many times.
    As for the ’50s — well, no. I went to the Met then, and followed opera closely in the ’60s and ’70s. Of course you’re always going to have curmudgeons who say the past was better. That was true in past centuries as well as now.

    But in recent past decades you just didn’t have the position on the past that many people take now — including, by the way, James Levine, at least in the ’80s, when he was pretty outspoken about this. That position is that we no longer have much adequate Verdi singing. Nobody said that in 1965. It just wasn’t part of the general opera conversation.

    Del Monaco — it’s his passion, not his voice alone. And many singers back then had it, maybe not to his degree, but they had it. As for Bastianini, fine, you don’t care for him. And you’re right. Not a subtle interpreter. Which you might not have to be for his Ernani role. If you want someone from the same period with voice to spare, singing the same music, try Giuseppe Taddei on the old Cetra recording. And, if you like, post a link to someone singing now, who has the same vocal power as Bastianini but sings the music with more subtlety. Thomas Hampson sings the role, and probably acts it very well, but vocal power? Not even close.

    You’re right about the backbenchers. The old Cetra recordings from the ’50s are a revelation there. We smiled at them back then — second-rate singing, rough and ready Italian style. You listen to them now (the Ernani is a good example), and you’d be thrilled to hear many of those performances today.