Karajan’s Fidelio

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Recorded October and December 1970, Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin

Producer: Michel Glotz, Balance Engineer: Wolfgang Gülch

The first time I ever saw Fidelio (and the first time I’d ever heard it) was back in 1974 when Scottish Opera brought the opera to Newcastle-upon-Tyne with Helga Dernesch as Leonore. Though all the singers were very good, Dernesch was in a class of her own. I well remember her entry into the Canon in Act I, which was like a shaft of sunlight coming through the gloom. This was around the same time she made this recording with Karajan and the effect is exactly the same here. Famously Dernesch started having problems with the top of her voice and took time out, returning as a mezzo, though there is precious little sign of any strain in her voice here. Throughout she is a gleaming, radiant presence and this is arguably the greatest recording she ever made.

She is not the only reason I treasure this recording. Karajan’s reading is bitingly dramatic and the whole cast one of the best ever assembled for the opera. Certainly I’m not sure anyone has ever equalled Vickers’ searing intensity as Florestan. Ridderbusch as Rocco and Kéléman are superb as Rocco and Pizarro and Van Dam luxury casting as Don Ferando, as is Helen Donath as Marzelline. Dialogue is kept to a minimum and superbly delivered by the singers (thankfully no separate cast of actors).

I’ve lived with this recording for around forty-five years and it’s still my favourite. When I was moving from LP to CD, I bowed to popular opinion and bought the Klemperer, but was profoundly disappointed, finding it less thrilling, less dramatic. It wasn’t long before I bought the Karajan again.

Callas sings Medea – Dallas, November 1958

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This is another of those Callas performances that has acquired legendary status and so first a few details to set it in context. In the weeks prior to her appearance in Dallas Callas had been in dispute with Bing over the scheduled programme for her next Metropolitan Opera season. Though they had agreed the operas (Macbeth and La Traviata) they had not agreed the schedule and it transpired that Rudolf Bing had programmed the two operas to alternate with each other. Callas argued that this would be too hard on her voice, as the requirements for each were so different, asking that all the performances for one should be over before she embarked on the other. Bing avered that he was giving her ample time to rest inbetween operas and that he wasn’t prepared to change the schedule. His complete lack of understanding of the different needs of the tw roles was further exemplified by his suggestion that they replace La Traviata with Lucia di Lammermoor, an opera even further away from the demands of Macbeth. The wrangling continued for some time until Bing very publicly “fired Callas”, issuing a statement to the press in which he was photographed tearing up her contract. This on the eve of her first performance of Medea in Dallas.

Callas was incensed, granting a press conference to give her side of the story in her dressing room as she prepared for the prima, in which, as can be heard on this recording, she sings with a security and power that had recently eluded her. It was as if she was determined to show Bing and New York just what they were missing. The result is a performance of incredible fire and attack and, along with live performances from Florence and La Scala in 1953, one of her greatest recorded performances of the opera.

Dallas was certainly in a high state of excitement and the audience as heard on this recording can be noisy, applauding the sets at the opening of each act and granting Callas an ovation on her entrance that almost stops the show completely. She had opened the season with a beautiful new production of La Traviata directed by Zeffirelli. For Medea a completely Greek team had been assembled. The opera was to be directed by the eminent theatre director, Alexis Minotis (husband of acclaimed classical actress Katina Paxinou) with designs by Yannis Tsarouchis. Minotis, who was famous for his productions of Greek tragedies, in which he sought to recapture the style of expression and gesture used in the time of Aeschylus, was startled one day in rehearsal to see Callas do a movement he and Paxinou had been discussing for future use. Callas was kneeling in a frenzy, beating the floor to summon the gods. Minotis asked her why she had done it. “I felt it would be the right thing to do for this moment in the drama,” she replied. How she felt this, Minotis could not explain but he felt that certain things just flowed in her blood. Certainly one gets a sense of the sheer physicality of the performance from photographs and snippets of film from this and subsequent productions of the opera Callas did with Minotis in London, Epidaurus and at La Scala.

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Nicola Rescigno, who prepared his own edition of the score, conducts a tautly dramatic performance, less classically inclined than Gui and Serafin, more akin to Bernstein at La Scala, and his cast is arguably the best ever assembled for a Callas Medea. Jon Vickers, who sang Giasone to her Medea not only here in Dallas, but in London, Epidaurus and at La Scala, easily outclasses the tenors in any of her other recordings and one senses the deep rapport that existed between them. Nicola Zaccaria is a firm, sonorous Creon and Elizabeth Carron, with her clear, bright soprano characterises well as Glauce. One also notes the presence of Judith Raskin, the soprano soloist in George Szell’s famous recording of Mahler’s 4th, as the First Handmaiden, making sure the performance gets off to a fine start. As Neris, the young Teresa Berganza (she was only 25 at the time) was making her US debut, singing her aria with a grave beauty. In later years, she related how Callas took her under her wing and how generous she was in making her acknowledge the applause after her aria. So much for the capricious, unreasonable prima donna, sacked by Rudolf Bing.

Callas herself is in blazing form, her entrance carrying with it a threat of menace that makes not only the people of Corinthrecoil in fear , but the listener too. However in her exchanges with Giasone (Ricordi il giorno tu la prima volta quando m’hai veduta?, which was always a special moment in Callas’s performances, wreathed in melting sounds) and in her plaintive singing of Dei tuoi figli we are made aware that it is love, not vengeance that brings Medea to Corinth.

As usual with Callas, her performance is cumulative and she will give  as much attention to a line of recitative as to the evident high spots. As John Steane says in The Grand Tradition,

She will seize the moment, say of noble or tragic decision, summoning all the dramatic force of what has gone before, evoking our knowledge of what the consequences are to be and focusing precisely upon the moment on which all depends.

He was talking generally, but a superb example of this is in the two Act II duets with Creon and Giasone. In the duet with Creon, when she sings Che mai vi posso far, se il duol mi frange il cor? Come mai rifiutar un giorno al mio dolor, un sol dì al mio dolor? you know that she is formulating a plan, and then subsequently the duet with Giasone is a masterstroke of dramatic timing. Having got Giasone to demonstrate his love for his children, she sings the aside Oh gioia! Ei li ama ancor! Or so che far dovrò! with suppressed joy, before she launches into Figli miei, miei tesor in the most beseeching tones imaginable.

The last act is a lesson of contrasts. Momentarily weakening in the scene with her children, her cries of O figli miei, io v’amo tanto lke those of a wounded soul are silenced by the triumphal viciousness of La uccida, o Numi, l’empio giubilo. From there to the end of the opera, she is a cauldron of evil and revenge, the like of which you will never hear from any other singer.

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The only alarming thing about this performance is that it is the last time we hear her sing with such power and confidence. There are still some wonderful performances to come, but nowhere does she display the kind of vocal security she does here, which makes it doubly fortunate that the performance has been preserved in sound.

Jon Vickers – Italian Opera Arias

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Now this is great singing.

In the 1993 notes that accompany this re-issue of the one recital record Jon Vickers ever made, Vickers says,

At the time of the Italian Arias recording the field of opera was a totally different world than today. One sought to prove oneself worthy of association with the opera houses, general administartors, conductors, producers and singers one admired – even was in awe of. There was a humbling consciousness of the great history of places like the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, La Scala, Bayreuth, Vienna and Salzburg. Emphasis was upon delving as deeply as possible into the psychological depths of the text illuminated by the genius of the composer’s music. To dare to indulge any particular personal ability was to invite derision from colleagues and thunderous disapproval by public and press alike as being in bad taste and imposing of oneself upon a great work of art.

To be honest, I’ve listened to plenty of live performances from those days when bad taste and personal indulgence brings the house down, but his statement does give you a snapshot into the way the man worked, of his seriousness and dedication to his art.

This recital disc was recorded at the same time as his first recording of Otello under Tullio Serafin, when his ony Wagnerian role was Siegmund, and you were more likely to hear him as Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera, Radames, Canio or Don Carlo. Later of course he want on to tackle Tristan and Parsifal, though he never sang Siegfried, and he dropped out of scheduled performances of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden, due to his religious scruples, saying he could not empathise with the character and that, in any case, the opera was blasphemous in character.

First impressions when listening to this disc are of the sheer size of the voice, and the power – a power that can be reined back to a merest pianissimo, then unleashed at will, like an organist pulling out all the stops. The other is intensity. Whether singing gently or loudly, there is a concentration and intensity that makes each short aria into a mini monodrama, and an ability to focus in on the meaning of each word and note. Nothing is taken for granted, nothing thrown away.

From a purely vocal point of view, it was still a very beautiful instrument back in 1961, and an aria like Cielo e mar is sung not only with golden tone, but with a true sense of wonder, and a way of pulling in and out of full voice that never destroys the long legato line.

Where many Italian tenors will add extraneous sobs and aspirates to indicate emotion, particularly in an aria like Federico’s Lament from L’Arlesiana, Vickers achieves an even deeper vein of emotion by never straying from the written notes, but simply (as if it was simple) intensifying his sound. In this he ressembles Callas, whom he revered so much having been Giasone to her Medea on many occasions.

One of the stand out tracks on this recital for me is Chénier’s Un di all’azzurro spazio delivered with mounting passion, but also somehow giving us a sense of the intellectual in the man. Canio suffers like no other, and yet he doesn’t have to break down in sobs at the end to make us feel it. His Otello developed into one of the towering creations of his, or any other, age, but even here, with the arias taken out of context, he conveys all the man’s pain and suffering.

Listening to this recital today at a distance of some years has been a peculiarly emotional experience. Jon Vickers was, and remains, unique, and we are unlikely to hear his ilk again.

Singers Who Changed My Life

This is an expanded version of something I wrote a few years ago. 

LETTERBOX COLLAGE OF SINGERS

Back in 2011,  John Steane, an expert on voices and an eminent critic, died at the age of 83. He had his favourites of course (who doesn’t?), but I learned a lot from JBS over the years, and I do miss his wonderfully constructive musical criticism. When he was still active at Gramophone Magazine, the editor asked him to write an article detailing the twelve singers who had changed his life, the one injunction being that one of them should still be active as a singer. For someone who knew his writing, his choices didn’t come as much of a surprise. I recently re-read this article and it got me to thinking of who mine would be. I’ve stuck to just ten, but  these are all singers, who have said something personal to me, the voices that have spoken to me down the years, from when I first started to enjoy opera and lieder as an impressionable teenager, up until now. 

 

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Callas as Norma

Anyone who knows me won’t be in the least surprised by my first choice.  I first heard the voice of Maria Callas on an LP reissue of her first recordings, originally issued on 78s. The Mad Scene from Bellini’s I Puritani was coupled with the Liebestod (in Italian) from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and excerpts from her early Cetra recordings of La Traviata and La Gioconda. This was a voice like none I’d ever heard. It was a large voice, with dazzling flexibility, a rarity in itself, but what struck me most was the way that voice penetrated your very soul. It was a voice bursting with emotion. I may not have appreciated then her amazing musicality, but I certainly recognised the work of a genius. Callas made you feel that the music sprang from her throat newly minted, that she meant every word, every note. More than that, it was the way the voice could change from the sweet innocent Elvra to the womanly Isolde, from the passion of the courtesan Violetta, to the almost primeval sounds of her Gioconda. It hardly seems believable now, given that Callas’s recordings have formed the backbone of EMI’s (now Warner’s) Italian opera catalogue for years, but most of them were unavailable at the time. I slowly built up my collection by scouring second hand shops and pouncing on any imported issues that made their way into specialist record shops.  As I slowly built up my collection, it was Callas who introduced me to the world of Italian opera. Nowadays I can be aware of some of the vocal failings, especially in the later recordings, but nobody has ever come within a mile of her fantastic musicality, and up until at least the mid 1950s, the voice was an amazingly responsive instrument. For evidence of her musical skills, no better example could exist than her Leonora in Il Trovatore, full of aristocratic phrasing and almost Mozartian delicacy. Though a little strained by some of the high lying passages on the  Karajan recording of 1956, she still phrases like a master violinist, her sense of line and rubato unparalleled, the trills and cadenzas beautifully bound into the musical fabric of the whole.

She was also an amazing vocal actor, and though she has a voice that is instantly recognisable, she continually changes the weight of that voice to suit the character she is portraying. The woman who sings Lady Macbeth and Medea with such demonic force is hardly recognisable from the one who sings such a virginal and innocent Gilda, and though she may use the same lightness of touch for Amina in La Sonnambula as she does for, say, Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, they are still two completely different voice characters, and she can make us see that happiness is quite a different thing for Amina from what it is for Rosina.

Callas is still my touchstone for all the roles she sang (I can almost hear her in my mind’s ear in some of the ones she didn’t), and, though I recognise that some have made prettier sounds, there will always be a moment, maybe a single word, where Callas’s unique colouration will suddenly do something to nail the character as no other singer does. I regret that Walter Legge, excellent producer though he was, did not have the foresight to record her in much of the repertoire for which she was famous, and though I treasure all her studio recordings, it is a great pity that she didn’t get to record some of her greatest stage creations, like Lady Macbeth, Anna Bolena, Armida, Imogene in Il Pirata, and perhaps even Alceste and Ifigenia. Legge wouldn’t even touch Medea and Callas only got to record the opera by exercising a get out in her contract with EMI, though EMI did eventually release the recording, which had been made for Ricordi. I might also regret that Legge was so chary of stereo and that Callas was not accorded the kind of good stereo sound Tebaldi was accorded in her early 1950s recordings.

There is no doubt that Callas’s glamour and tempestuous personal life has done much to maintain her popularity, but she has been dead for 40 years now, the dust has settled, and it is surely her musical gifts for which she should be remembered; for Callas was not only a great singer, she was also one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. The great conductor Victor De Sabata once said to Walter Legge, her recording producer, “If the public could understand, as we do, how deeply and utterly musical Callas is, they would be stunned.” I have known her recordings now for the best part of fifty years and I continue to be newly stunned each time I listen.

 

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Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin

My next choice might seem a little more surprising, a singer as far away from Callas as it would seem possible to be, though I often think of them as flip sides of the same coin. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is the singer who introduced me to Mozart, Richard Strauss and lieder. Her recordings of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and of the Vier letzte Lieder were my first exposure to these works, and have remained in my collection ever since. Hers was a voice shot  through with laughter, and she also made many great recordings of lighter works. Her album of Operetta Arias can lighten the spirits like no other. She and Callas admired each other enormously (their repertoires were very different of course), and though they only made one recording together (Puccini’s Turandot), they met often, as Schwarzkopf was the wife of Callas’s record producer, Walter Legge, on one occasion Schwarzkopf giving Callas an impromptu singing lesson in the middle of the restaurant at Biffi Scala. Schwarzkopf was a good person to ask. She rarely put a foot wrong, and it is this attention to detail, that some find gets in the way of the music. There can be a lack of spontaneity, it is true, and, where Callas is able to conceal the huge amount of work that goes into each of her musical recreations, Schwarzkopf can occasionally be accused of artifice. Her Liu in the above mentioned Turandot may not sound for one moment like a slave girl, but I love her singing of the role, so beautiful and so richly nuanced.  

Still, when it comes to opera, I treasure her most in Mozart (an incomparable Donna Elvira, Countess and Fiordiligi) and Strauss (an unbeatable Marschallin and Countess Madeleine) and (in recital) in Agathe’s arias from Weber’s Der Freischütz, though I also prize her delightfully high spirited Alice in Karajan’s recording of Verdi’s Falstaff. In Lieder some find her singing too detailed, and she is often accused of being mannered. Well, I’d aver that all great singers have their mannerisms. It’s one of the things that makes them instantly recognisable, and I prefer to think of them as idiosyncrasies. Warner recently reissued all her EMI recital records in their original programmes, and though it means each disc is rather short for CD, it shows the care that would go into creating these recitals, the same care that would go into her programming of material for her recital programmes. Each of them makes eminently satisfying listening.

I remember many years ago attending one of Schwarzkopf’s Master Classes at the Wigmore Hall with my singing teacher, the late Ian Adam, who adored her incidentally. She was a very hard task master, rarely letting a student sing more than a few bars before stopping them, and watching the classes was a peculiarly frustrating experience. It must have been even more so for the students. But that was the way she studied and rehearsed herself. She was actually severely self critical, as is shown in the book Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: A Career on Record, in which she listens to some of her recorded performances with John Steane. On many occasions she dismisses performances of her own that Steane admires, pointing out faults that none of us can hear. Though Schwarzkopf herself had refrained from singing at the classes, at one point she did sing out for just a few bars, in an attempt to show the student how to bring moonlight into the sound of their voice. Well, as Ian said, to me “You can’t teach that. Either you can do it, or you can’t.”

 

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Janet Baker as Vitellia

 

Unfortunately I never got to hear Callas or Schwarzkopf live, but I did hear  Dame Janet Baker quite a few times, though only in concert, never on the operatic stage, where she was equally at home. The first time was in a performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the Royal Festival Hall, whilst I was at college, a performance that has remained in my memory ever since. In a very different repertoire, she had an almost Callas like intensity and an ability to sing pianissimi  that somehow reached the furthest recesses of the hall. Dame Janet introduced me to the music of Monteverdi and Handel, Bach and of course Elgar’s Sea Pictures (memorably coupled to Jacqueline Du Pre’s seminal recording of the Cello Concerto). She was also a great Berlioz singer. I actually prefer her Barbirolli recording of Les Nuits d’Ete (and a live one under Giulini) to Crespin’s famous one, and I doubt her recording of the closing scenes of Les Troyens has ever been bettered. 

She recorded extensively for EMI, then Philips and, towards the end of her career, for such independents as Hyperion, Collins Classics and Virgin Classics, singing a vast range of repertoire that took her from the music of Monteverdi and Cavalli to Respighi, Britten and even Schoenberg, taking in Donizetti, Verdi, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner and Mahler along the way. Some of her greatest recordings are those she made with Sir John Barbirolli, with whom she had a great rapport, The Dream of Gerontius, Sea Pictures, Les Nuits d’Eté, Shéhérazade and, maybe the greatest of them all, the orchestral Lieder of Mahler, particularly her wonderfully sensitive and inward performance of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. She was also world renowned for her singing of the lower part in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which I twice heard her sing live. She recorded it in the studio with Haitink, and there are at least three live recordings knocking around. Best of all of these is a Bavarian Radio broadcast under Rafael Kubelik, in which her singing of the final song, has a quiet intensity , which is almost too much to bear. So palpable is her emotional commitment to the music that I save this performance for rare occasions. Like Callas’s shattering performance of Violetta at Covent Garden in 1958, it reduces me to a quivering wreck.

 

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Domingo as Otello

Placido Domingo’s was a voice I first heard on record in an early recital of arias, but I will never forget the thrill of first hearing him live at the Royal Opera House, in La Fanciulla del West, if memory serves me rightly. Domingo certainly had presence and a glamorous voice to go with it. A real singing actor, he seemed to improve as a performer every time I saw him. Incredibly, he is still singing today, though he has moved over to the baritone repertoire recently, taking on such roles as Simon Boccanegra and Rigoletto. True, it is remarkable that a singer, and a tenor at that, can continue to sing into his seventies, but, great stage performer though he is, I am not sure that his excursions into the baritone repertoire have been entirely successful, and I prefer to remember him in the great days of his tenor glory.

In his early days, beautiful though his singing was, he could be accused of a somewhat generalised attitude to characterisation, but, over the years, he became more and more of a committed performer. Some of his roles he recorded several times, and one can hear how he progressed. The voice always had a dark, burnished quality, and the very top of the voice was never as easy as some, but, paradoxically, it sounds freer to me in his middle period than when he was young. Still, he wasn’t ashamed to admit that his top Cs were hard won,  and I actually applauded his decision to omit the unwritten ones, in Il Trovatore at Covent Garden, rather than doing what so many do and attempting to trick the audience by transposing Di quella pira down.  His Otello is a towering achievement, and, for many years, there was no one around who could challenge his hegemony in the role. He made three recordings of the role at different stages of his career, and there are quite a lot of visual documents of his portrayal, including the controversial Zeffirelli film.

 

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Wunderlich as Tamino

 

Free, ringing top Cs were never a problem for Fritz Wunderlich, who had a voice of overwhelming heady beauty. He died just before his 36th birthday, at a time when his interpretative artistry would have been reaching its maturity, his final concert in Edinburgh being testament to that. However if you ever want to hear someone just revelling in the sheer joy of singing, then listen to his DG performance of Lara’s Granada. Admittedly it is in German and the splashy arrangement is pretty vulgar, but he sings with a freedom and passion that would be the envy of any Latin tenor. For me, Wunderlich’s singing always conveys a sheer joy in the act of singing itself. Though he died young, he made many recordings, and it is this sense of joy that I most prize.

Interpretively, his recordings of Lieder don’t probe as deeply as some no doubt, but he was still young when he made them and unfortunately hadn’t reached his interpretive maturity before he died. For instance, the Dichteriebe he sings at his final concert in Edinburgh is a great deal more interesting than the recording he made for DG a year or so earlier. He did leave us arguably the greatest Tamino on disc, on Böhm’s Die Zauberflöte, which for once has a truly heroic dimension, a superb rendition of the tenor songs in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (both in the studio under Klemperer and live under Krips), and of the tenor arias in Karajan’s recording of Die Schöpfung. Most of his Italian and French repertoire was sung in German, but still has a golden, Italianate warmth, and we do have at least one recording of him singing Verdi in Italian, a live performance of La Traviata from Munich with the young Teresa Stratas as Violetta. His early death was a tragedy beyond reckoning, as one wonders what he might have gone on to achieve. His Steersman on the Konwitschny recording of Der fliegende Holländer gives notice that he could have gone on to sing Lohengrin at least, and, in Verdi, what a wonderful Duke, Don Carlo or Riccardo he would have made.

 

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Vickers as Giasone with Callas as Medea

 

Staying with tenors for the moment, I turn to Jon Vickers, who had a voice and manner of startling individuality, and an intensity of performance that could almost be too painful to listen to. Though well known for his Tristan, his Siegmund, his Florestan and his Grimes, he first came to prominence singing in Italian opera. In 1958 he sang Giasone to Callas’s Medea in Dallas, and then also in London, at La Scala and at the ancient Greek theatre at Epidaurus. He had enormous respect for Callas and named her as one of the two people to have the most profound effect on opera in the post World War II period (the other being Wieland Wagner).  He was also Don Carlo in Covent Garden’s legendary Visconti production of Don Carlo, conducted by Giulini, which also had Gobbi and Christoff in the cast. With a voice of such power and penetration he naturally progressed to Wagner, singing towering performances of Tristan and Siegmund. His Otello suffered like no other and his Peter Grimes, mercifully preserved on film, is one of the greatest creations of all time. Like all the singers in this survey, his voice is instantly recognisable, his style somewhat idiosyncratic, but intensely musical. There is always something monumental about a Vickers performance. On disc, I find his Aeneas (in Berlioz’s Les Troyens), his Florestan, his Tristan and his Otello unequalled by any who have followed, and his Grimes, so totally different from Pears, utterly convincing.

 

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Teyte as Melisande

Next on my list are two more sopranos, one from well before my time and one who died only recently. I first heard the voice of Maggie Teyte in a performance of Duparc’s Chanson Triste and was totally captivated. Her performance of the song remains my yardstick to this day. Born in 1888, she was cast in the role of Mélisande by Debussy himself, replacing the creator of the role, Mary Garden.  She prepared the role by studying with Debussy, and is the only singer ever to be accompanied in public by the composer (in a performance of his song Beau soir). She married twice and went into semi-retirement after her second marriage in 1921. Like her first marriage, this ended in divorce and Teyte had some difficulty reviving her career afterwards. For some time she appeared in music hall and variety, which explains much of the lighter repertoire she sang and recorded. However the recordings of Debussy songs she made with Alfred Cortot in 1936 attracted a lot of attention, helping her to gain a reputation as one of the leading interpreters of French song, The voice remained pure, without a hint of excessive vibrato even into her sixties, and she made her final concert appearance at the Royal Festival Hall at the age of 68.

I would recommend any and all of her recordings of French song, as well as her wondrous rendering of ‘Tu n’es pas beau’ from La Périchole, which shows off to advantage her gloriously individual chest tones, and a twinkle in the eye. A private recording of her singing bits of Salome (to a piano accompaniment) show that she might even have been an ideal Salome, the silvery purity of the voice being close to Strauss’s ideal, and it is a great pity that plans for her to sing the role at Covent Garden never came to fruition.

 

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De Los Angeles as Manon

Truth to tell, I hadn’t much liked Victoria De Los Angeles when I first heard her (as a rather insecure and out of sorts Hoffmann Antonia) and I think it was probably her record of the Canteloube Chants d’Auvergne that first led me to investigate further. She had a particularly wide song repertoire, which took in early and late Spanish composers, as well as Lieder by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms and French song. One of her greatest quality was her charm and that quality the Italians refer to as morbidezza, meaning that, on the operatic stage, she was most at home playing gentler heroines. That Antonia was misleading and later I discovered she could be the perfect Marguerite (Faust), Butterfly, Rosina and Mimi displaying a golden voice allied to a winning personality. Best of all perhaps is her Manon in Massenet’s opera.  Where some make the character too knowing, De Los Angeles emphasises the childlike innocence and delight in pleasure that is at the heart of Manon’s downfall. She was also a superb Desdemona (in a live broadcast from the Met) and it’s a great pity she never got to record the role commercially.

Her Carmen on the Beecham recording has been much praised, but here I find her less convincing, though, as usual, her singing is unfailingly musical. I just can’t imagine De Los Angeles’s Carmen pulling a knife on a fellow worker. She is altogether far too ladylike. She is on record as saying that she based her Carmen on the Andalusian gypsies, who were known for their charm, a quality De Los Angeles had in abundance, but my Carmen is dangereuse est belle (Micaela’s description) and De Los Angeles, charming and adorable as she was, never sounds dangerous to me.

 

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Gobbi as Scarpia with Callas as Tosca

So far the list is rather top heavy with high voices, so I am happy to include as my next choice a baritone, colleague of Callas’s and one who encompassed many of her qualities. Like Callas, Tito Gobbi had an immediately recognisable voice and always sang with a wealth of colour and understanding. I can still remember the shattering effect of my first listen through Rigoletto, actually the first ever time I’d heard the opera. His cries of “Gilda” at the end of Act 2 after she has been abducted went straight to the heart. He may not have had the most beautiful baritone voice in the world, but, like Callas’s, it had a myriad of different colours. And like her, though always recognizably himself, he was always able to change his timbre to suit the role he was playing. 

We are fortunate indeed that, though they sang rarely on stage together (most famously in Zeffirelli’s renowned Covent Garden production of Tosca), they made many recordings together; two recordings of Tosca, Lucia di Lammermoor, Aida, Un Ballo in Maschera and Il Barbiere di Siviglia, their collaboration possibly reaching its apogee in Rigoletto, with its long series of duets for father and daughter. Again, like Callas, he could put more meaning into a line of recitative, even into a word, than bars of singing by less dramatically attuned singers. The way he utters the single word Amelia in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, when he discovers the identity of Riccardo’s midnight tryst, resonates in my mind’s ear even now. Some would aver that he didn’t have a true Verdi baritone voice, but, as I think now of the parade of Verdi roles he sang – Rigoletto, Amonasro, Posa, Simon Boccanegra, Renato, Iago, Germont, Falstaff, Nabucco – they all emerge as distinct and different characters. Of how many other singers can you say that? Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca might be his most famous creation (a repulsively reptilian character, who is both a gentleman and a thug) but it is in Verdi that his musical skill is most evident. What a tragedy that Walter Legge never had the foresight to record Macbeth with him and Callas as the murderous couple.

 

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David Daniels as Caesar with Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra

Looking back at this list of singers, I realise that they all have certain things in common; the individuality of their voices (you only have to hear a few notes to know who it is) and their ability to make the listener see as well as hear. This is no less true of countertenor, David Daniels, a singer still very much before the public today. Some years ago, I was more or less dragged to a concert of Vivaldi sung by Daniels and accompanied by Europa Galante conducted by Fabio Biondi. Till then, apart from the Four Seasons and the Gloria, I had had little enthusiasm for Vivaldi’s music and had a total antipathy for countertenors in general. Daniels changed all that. Here was a voice of surpassing beauty, coupled to a marvellously natural personality. It was a total conversion and Daniels has now opened the door on a whole world of music I had previously ignored, which shows it is never too late to expand one’s horizons. I have hardly missed any of his appearances in this country, and, like all the singers on this list, he has a gift for communication vouchsafed to just a few.

He has also expanded the repertoire for countertenors, embracing American song, Lieder, French song and even Broadway. Sometimes the experiments don’t quite work. For instance, though his singing is, as ever, unfailingly musical and filled with meaning, the countertenor voice, even one as mellifluous and beautiful as his, just doesn’t have the range of colour required for a piece like Les Nuits d’Eté, and though I appreciate and enjoy his excursions into nineteenth century and modern repertoire, it is for the music of the baroque, and especially Handel, that I turn to him. In his early days his coloratura singing was sensational, but I treasure most his deeply felt singing of some of Handel’s slower arias. In an aria like Scherza infida he holds the line beautifully and firmly, but evinces a pain that is almost palpable. No other singer I have come across quite makes the same effect in this music. I am guessing that he will be coming towards the end of his career now, and I count myself fortunate indeed to have been able to experience his singing live whilst he was in his prime. I saw him so many times, that I swear he actually spotted me in the audience on several occasions, and acknowledged my applause with a nod in my direction.

Of course, apart from these singers, there have been many memorable performances. I recall the excitement of the first time I heard a really world class singer, Helga Dernesch in Fidelio and as the Marschallin (still the best I’ve seen live on stage); Agnes Baltsa’s Carmen with the no less memorable Don Jose of Jose Carreras; ditto Baltsa’s thrilling Eboli; the superb Dejanira of Joyce Di Donato; Angela Gheorgiu’s first Violetta, and Ileana Cotrubas‘s Violetta too;  Roberto Alagna’s first Romeo (in the Gounod opera); Kiri Te Kanawa’s exquisitely, if placidly, sung Fiordiligi (with Baltsa again, as an adorably funny Dorabella); Renee Fleming in Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire; Margaret Price and Lucia Popp in concert. I also regret never seeing live the wonderful Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who was taken from us far too early and at the height of her artistic maturity, and whom I first remember in a Proms concert on TV, at which she was the radiant soloist in a performance of Elgar’s The Music Makers. These too will always stay in the memory, but I send my gratitude to the ten on my original list, for through them I have discovered a whole world of great music. They may not necessarily be the ten greatest singers of all time but they have enriched and enlightened and can truly be called singers who have changed my life.