Can a big voice be too much of a good thing?


From Opera News:

“Am I too loud?” Gerald Moore famously queried in the title of his “musical autobiography” of 1962; and even if you didn’t recognize the author as classical music’s supreme and beloved accompanist, you just knew that he wasn’t a singer. A singer, of course, would have asked, “Am I loud enough?” Moore himself might have seconded that observation, the likes of which pepper his memoir. He quotes, for instance, his colleague Harold Craxton saying, “The utmost the accompanist can expect in the way of gratitude from a singer after a concert is when he says, ‘You must have been good tonight; I did not notice you were there.'”

For a singer, though, not being noticed defeats the whole purpose of opening the mouth in song. Still, there are ways and ways of being noticed. Some of my most cherished moments in an opera house have been among the quietest — Montserrat Caballé’s magically spun “Arrigo! Ah, parli a un core”; Jon Vickers’s softly caressed opening to “Winterstürme.” Some have even been silent — Leonie Rysanek’s wrenchingly eloquent search among the returning pilgrims in Act III of Tannhäuser before announcing, with a soul-searing droop of her shoulders, “Er kehret nicht zurück.” But for sheer excitement it’s hard to compete with a healthy top C belted to the rafters — unless it’s two top Cs battling for supremacy.

That was the case, years ago, with my very first Turandot,at Detroit’s vast Masonic Temple, where the legendary pairing of Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli duked it out in the riddle scene, just as they’d been doing for years and would continue to do for a few more. Many are the stories of their running battle over who could keep the longer hold on that climactic C. La Nilsson (in her entertaining, if unreliable, memoir of that name) concedes that it was Corelli who most often emerged the victor but cites a fabled night in Boston, where the Met was touring, when she got even, hanging on to that C “until everything went black before my eyes,” and Corelli rushed from the stage in a fury. Rudolf Bing wooed his star tenor back for Act III with the clever suggestion that for the final act’s climactic kiss, Corelli substitute a bite. Whether he actually followed through has been much debated (both singers — he via his biographer René Seghers — claim he didn’t), but the Nilsson–Corelli vocal bouts were real enough to spark many a further anecdote — and, not incidentally, terrific box office. They thus became part of a long and distinguished opera tradition, one dating back at least as far as Handel’s dueling divas, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, whose rivalry culminated in an out-and-out hair-tearing baruffa during a London performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte in 1727.

But in the eighteenth century, volume for its own sake wasn’t considered a trait worth cultivating; grace, sweetness, velocity, evenness of scale, eloquence of delivery were far greater prizes. A century later, many of those values held, but with classicism ceding to Romanticism (and its burgeoning orchestral array) changes were inevitable. When French tenor Gilbert Duprez, a Rossinian tenore di grazia,recalibrated his technique and unleashed his astonishing cannonball of a high C dal petto — from the chest — he fired a shot heard round the opera world. Rossini and many other cognoscenti may have disapproved (the composer’s comparison of Duprez’s money note to “the squawk of a capon with its throat cut” quickly attained wide currency), but audiences went wild. Soon not only were his fellow tenors following suit — creating a new genre of singer, the tenore di forza — but sopranos and baritones, too, began adding fs to their hitherto single fortes. By 1841, the competition had escalated to the point where critic Henry Chorley, observing Pauline Viardot subduing her voice “so as to match [Rubini’s] musical whisper,” clearly considered such collegial courtesy rare enough to merit comment. Verdi and Wagner, finding their own voices in the decade that followed, were then and ever after often accused of pushing singers to lose theirs. And as the nineteenth century became the twentieth, Puccini and Richard Strauss were on hand to push them even further.

“Noises On”, Patrick Dillon, Opera News