Kashu-do (歌手道) and Once More With Feeling: The Rossini Tenor

So much to share and so little time to write these days!  I am sorry, dear readers for the lower frequency of posts.  I am in a very exciting phase since my gluten-free transition.  My voice is doing things I always hoped and it is my desire to share in more and more interesting ways.  You have accompanied me through this interesting journey with encouragement and I wish to share the fruits of those past three and a third years with you all.  But all in good time!  Before I begin with the main topic, I ask you to keep Susan Eichorn Young (SEY) and her husband Thomas in your prayers as they recover from the injuries sustained in that terrible car accident a month ago.  This blog continues to carry Susan’s blog title until she fully recovers and takes over her own blog!

Recently, I had the pleasure of working with a marvelous tenor who has the rare ability to sustain an unusually high tessitura without sacrificing richness of tone.  The last tenor I heard who could do this is the peerless Bel Canto tenor, Bruce Ford, who I interviewed here a while back.  Interestingly enough, this excellent singer covered Maestro Ford at one point.

In our times, it is easy to conceive of the Rossini tenor as a freak, an anomaly, simply because once cannot conceive of such a voice being natural.  Many prefer to think that the high tessituras found in the works of Rossini and the French composers of Grand Opera, (e.g. Meyerbeer, Halévy, Auber, etc) must have been sung with some version of falsetto in the high range.  When considering the amount of time singers took back then to develop their voices, I find it hard to believe that falsetto would have been a desirable option.  That a naturally higher voiced tenor was preferred in those days is conceivable and historical documents would support it.  The leading tenors of the time, Rubini, Nourit and Duprez were well-known for their well-developed high Cs and Ds and Duprez’s famous do di petto (chest voice high C) does not mean that Nourit (his co-lead tenor at the Paris opera) sang falsetto high notes.  There are degrees to the amount of chest content a tenor can employ in the highest notes.

In Italy, Rubini was considered the premiere Bel Canto tenor, championing the works of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini.  Another tenor, Domenico Donzelli, who influenced Duprez, was recognized as a baritonal tenor called tenore di forza (forceful tenor).  The development of the full-voiced (or chest-based) high C, which became the sine qua non of mid 19th-Century opera can be attributed to the personal developments of Donzelli and Duprez after him.  The story books are full of interesting myths about this period, which make for dramatic and entertaining reading (e.g. Nourit’s suicide right after hearing Duprez’s high C, etc–Nourit did commit suicide, but much later in Naples due to his deteriorating mental health combined with his vocal decline).   The vocal declines of both Donzelli and Duprez are attributed to the chest-based high C, which of course became the standard over the next 170 years.  In my personal experience, full-voiced high notes require slow and deliberate muscular training. If we cried like babies all our lives, we might develop such facility spontaneously, but that is for another blog post.  What is interesting is that some very hefty-voiced singers have sung this high repertoire with great success:

Kurt Baum who was well known for his Trovatore and Forza del Destino is heard here in Asil héréditaire (Italian version) from Rossini’s punishing role of Arnold in Guillaume Tell.

The full lyric tenor, Nicolai Gedda also executed this piece with aplomb in this French version studio recording:

Another excellent performance by a current tenor, Stuart Neill (Cavatina may be found separately here)

And finally, this beautiful rendition by Juan Diego Florez:

Even in our times, we have tenors of different weight singing this high lying repertoire.  Could Mr. Neill have specialized in Rossini?  Certainly.  But in the current market and with a voice of such substance, why would he? Gedda performed high Ds quite easily and routinely during his career. Rossini was not a specialization early in his long career as it is today, and it certainly was not as present in the repertory at the height of Kurt Baum’s career.

What is more significant in this discussion is that none of these singers resort to falsetto or even what we might refer to as falsettone (literally big falsetto, or what might be called reinforced falsetto).  The voices are of different weight (Gedda and Neill close in weight) but each singer is using his full voice throughout the range.  Mr. Florez having a lighter voice sounds considerably more at home in the punishing tessitura.  Could that be a deciding factor in suitability of repertoire?  It is a good enough reason, but perhaps not the sole reason.

I have a personal preference for Mr. Gedda and Mr. Neill in this repertoire.  The full lyric tenor has a hard task here but not so heavy as to make it in any way unpleasant to listen to.  Mr. Baum’s vocal weight is rare in a piece like this and very exciting to hear a voice of such weight capable of such ease in the stratosphere.  My preference for Mr. Gedda and Mr. Neill stems from the substance of their voices combined with the ease they exhibit in the high tessitura.  There is a thought that such substance could not yield the stamina necessary for such a tessitura.  But it is rewarded by the very demonstration of stamina.  That combination makes for exciting operatic experiences.

To go back to the young professional singer who graced my studio last week, he indeed reminded me of the combination of qualities I find fitting for this repertoire, both in terms of stylistic requirements and vocal excitement.

The quality I most appreciate in this repertoire, also exhibited by the vocal purity of Mr. Florez, is best exemplified in a clip that I have used on the blog before.  Oddly enough, not Rossini but the unusual tenor writing in Mozart’s Mitridate, as executed, unmatched, by the remarkable Bruce Ford:

The day I exhibit this kind of flexibility in my repertoire, I will have realized something substantial.

© 07/21/2011