, October 2004
"The history of the tenor voice in Italian opera (well, opera written by Italian composers) in the 19th century both starts and finishes with problems; problems which help to define the change and development of the voice type during that period.
At the beginning of the period Rossini wrote many of his tenor roles for voice types which modern tenors find tricky to duplicate. The more robust of Rossinis tenors tended to take their chest voice up to the top of the stave (F or G) and were not averse to throwing in the odd high note, but the general tessitura of these roles can lie uncomfortably high. Rossinis lighter tenors kept their chest voice in the same tessitura but were able to decorate the lines with stratospherically high notes and flexible passage-work facilitated by extending their chest voice into the head voice/falsetto range. By the end of the century, Verdi would write the title role in Otello for a tenor whose chest voice was so powerful and could be taken so high that it effectively re-defined what we expect from a tenor.
The title role in Rossinis Guillaume Tell was written for Adolphe Nourrit, a tenor with a robust voice who was not averse to taking his voice well above the stave, but using head voice/falsetto. But it was a later exponent of the role, Gilbert Duprez, who was to make the most dramatic effect, when he took his chest voice right up to top C. This extension of the chest register (with the corresponding diminution of the use of a falsetto extension) would help to define the changes to the tenor voice over the century.
For this recital, Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani, sings a range of roles by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi and Mascagni which illuminate the changes to the tenor voice. The real intention, of course, is to illuminate Giordanis versatility. Giordani has an attractive lyric spinto voice which enables him to be useful in a variety of roles, but he also has the ability to add a head voice/falsetto extension to his voice which enables him to essay the earlier 19th century tenor roles in a reasonably idiomatic manner.
He sings Arnold’s aria Asile héreditaire from ‘Guillaume Tell’ in decent, careful French, for which we must be very grateful. His Arnold is moving and exciting, but there are times when I would have liked more sense of line. Giordani is recorded rather closely and this does not always do the fullest justice to his voice. He is reasonably comfortable with the role’s high tessitura, but at the end of the aria, where Giordano follows modern tenors in singing the high-lying line in chest voice, he sounds disappointingly under-powered.
Giordani follows the Rossini aria with arias from two Donizetti operas written for the French stage ‘La Fille du Régiment’ and ‘La favorite’. Giordani seems to be most at home in the lighter role of Tonio in ‘La Fille du Régiment’ using a secure head voice to attractively throw in the more stratospheric decorative notes. By contrast, the role of Fernand in ‘La favorite’ was written for Gilbert Duprez. Duprez was an Italian-trained Frenchman so we can imagine that his vocal technique and voice placement were akin to Giordani’s.
With Bellini’s ‘Il pirata’ Giordani moves into Italian and immediately starts to sound far more at home. Though his French is quite creditable, it is rather careful and only in Italian do you feel that his is able to communicate with ease. Gualtiero in ‘Il Pirata’ was written for Rubini, a tenor who could extend his voice to top F (the F at the top of the soprano clef!). Rubini created a number of Bellini roles.
Whilst these operas have famously come to be associated in the 20th century with the re-discovery of the soprano voices necessary to perform them, it is perhaps illuminating to consider what happened to the tenor roles in two of the period’s most iconic operas ‘Norma’ and ‘Lucia di Lamermoor’. When coloratura sopranos started transposing the title role of Lucia down, so that they could insert more passages in a stratospheric tessitura, this had the effect (probably unintentional) of enabling the tenor part to continue to be sung in the later 19th century by tenors who had ceased to use a falsetto/head voice extension to their voice. As anyone knows, who has heard the opera in its original keys, the tenor part is just as difficult and quite as stratospheric as the soprano; one effect of the general downward transposition of the opera was to move the focus more onto the soprano. The survival of ‘Norma’ in the repertory was partly because Pollione was written, by Donizetti, for a tenor who did not add an upward extension to his voice. The resulting tenor part, with few notes above the stave, is one which could reasonably be sung unchanged throughout the 19th century.
In order for Bellini’s ‘Il Pirata’ to survive, changes had to be made. Rubini’s tenor part goes up to the notorious high F, but the version of the opera common in the 20th century enabled the role to be sung by a tenor for whom C was the highest note. In his two arias from the opera Giordani displays fine technique in restoring some of the higher lying passages and singing them in good style as inserted decoration rather than trying to simply show off individual high notes. In this, Giordani shows a decent appreciation of the style necessary to render these arias correctly.
Giordani now follows with two more unusual items. Bellini’s ‘Torna, vezzosa Fillide’ is an early chamber aria written whilst he was staging his first opera ‘Bianco e Fernando’ in Naples. It is a charming aria and its chamber scale enables Giordani to sing the complicated filigree of the tenor part with ease. This is followed by an aria from Pacini’s ‘La fidanzata corse’ (from 1842). Pacini was a popular composer in the earlier parts of the 19th century but in the 1830s he suffered a number of set-backs which prevented him from writing operas for more than five years. When he did return to opera composing, it was to find that he could not compete with the rising star of Verdi.
Rather oddly, instead of following on with his Verdi group, Giordani inserts the Flower song from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’. Dating from 1875 it is stylistically at odds with its surroundings in Giordano’s programme and receives a careful but creditable performance.
With Verdi we reach the beginnings of the modern tenor. Giordani seems most at ease in these earlier Verdi roles, where the tenor needs to preserve some agility. And he gives fine performances of Oronte’s ‘I Lombardi all prima crociata’ and Rodolfo’s ‘Quando le sere al placido’ from ‘Luisa Miller’.
But here we come to a drawback. A number of items in this recital are relatively short (the aria from ‘I Lombardi’ lasts just under 2.5 minutes). As the recital runs to just over 58 minutes, surely it would have been possible to include a selection of the surrounding context for the arias, with some recitative, dialogue etc. This would go a long way to displaying the aria in context. This lack is most felt in the second aria from ‘Il Trovatore’ where Giordani disposes of ‘Di quella pira’ in 2 minutes 12 seconds; even if he does give us the top C, this brevity does nothing for Verdi’s music.
Logically, I suppose, Giordani should finish with something from Verdi’s ‘Otello’, but this certainly would have not done justice to the many virtues of Giordani’s voice. Instead he finishes with a performance of ‘Mamma, quell vino e generoso’ from Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’. But I could not help wishing that he had included more of the earlier 19th century operas where he seemed most at home.
Giordani is well supported by the chorus and orchestra from the Bellini Theatre in Catania, ably conducted by Steven Mercurio. Mercurio’s speeds are almost always apposite and he draws fine playing fr