The mass extinction of great spinto and dramatic voices has been a reality for almost half a century. It is a subject of a fascinating academic research from Princeton University: to read it google “Where Have the Great Big Verdi Voices Gone?” The study proves that this decline is not a misperception colored by sentimental longing for a mythical past. I will summarize its findings at the end.
On YT “This is opera!” channel is conducting an entertaining campaign pitting the great voices mostly (but not only) of the past against the fake voices of the present and recent past. I’ll make a few comments about it at the end.
So is the revolution coming and we are going to burn down opera houses? That brings up the flip side of the issue. There is a public out there for the great works of Verdi and verismo and there are enough of them enjoying malnourished voices and willing to pay high ticket prices. As one frustrated commentator put it (in French), responding to criticism of the opera singers on this release: “si il y a seulement que les professionnels qui doivent écouter l'opéra il y aura très peu de monde au guichet pour payer la place!!! alors laissez nous,amateurs nous régaler avec cet opera” (“If professionals alone were to listen to opera, there would be very few people at the box-office to pay (for the performance)!!! Let us amateurs enjoy this opera”).
All four major roles in Attila require the ability to alternate between smooth lyricism and forceful, energetic heft in the rousing fast cabalettas, often with considerable agility. There aren't even singers around who can do justice to most of the work's roles, and since it was barely known before the Philips recording from 1973 there aren’t any Golden Age recordings. As is often the case, most of the principals in this production are strained to their limits and the conductor's heroic attempts to support them within a coherent rhythmic structure carry a price in terms of the ability to propel and express the (nationalistic) fervor of the score.
Attila is a bass role, and a heavy one. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, who has been singing mostly Mozart and bel canto, is not a real bass. He has been called a bass-baritone, though he himself prefers the term basso cantabile. Cantabile is often a euphemism for light. He is stretched by the demands of this role in terms of the range, power and agility. His tone is not "clean" as a result of the forcing and excessive covering to darken the tone. He often sounds on the verge of hoarseness and does become hoarse at Ezio's first entry, as well as a few times momentarily, in his act I aria "Mentre gonfiarsi l'anima parea", for some reason always mainly on F3's. The most extreme incidents of hoarseness were smoothed over somewhat by the sound engineers, but you can hear them in all their glory (for now) on YT - the complete performance on YT is identical to this release. The engineers, though, could not improve the fact that throughout that aria and cabaletta D'Arcangelo sounds in danger of losing his voice or cracking. The lower reaches of the role lack resonance and overtones and the role as a whole taxes his stamina. Verdi puts a long (half-note) Ab2 in the bass's fifth measure from his entrance (to let the singer realize the role’s demands in a quick glance of the score), and D'Arcangelo manages the note. However, he can barely finish the octave-and-a-half slow (and hence comfortable) descent to Ab2 (Ab2 on the word "re") in the finale to act I in his reaction to Leone's appearance ("spiriti, fermate"). This descent is supposed to express his submission to the gods as per the text but also his mental state. A baritone's range "starts" at A2 (it's a huge simplification, though) - if D'Arcangelo doesn't have a secure Ab2 he is not a bass or even a bass-baritone - he is a light baritone who darkens and thickens his sound artificially (Ildar Abdrazakov at least has that note, though not the resonance). This explains D'Arcangelo's usual monotonous, coarse delivery - he does not sing with his natural voice, his singing often lacks the elegance of style or a smooth legato. In the finale to act II it becomes clear that D'Arcangelo's lowest secure note is Bb2 (on the same word, "re" - "Tu doman salutata verrai dalle genti qual sposa del re"); also in the act III finale in “Tu, rea donna, già schiava, or mia sposa”, the Bb2's on "nna" and on "sa" - barely secure. As a light baritone, he is much more comfortable at the top of the role's range. He seems more preoccupied throughout the performance with the state of his vocal cords than with what happens on stage (and he should keep his hands off his face).
I was intrigued by this issue of D'Arcangelo's real range, and checked his "Confutatis" from the Verdi Requiem on two recordings, Dudamel blu-ray from LA 2013 and the Gergiev from 13 years earlier. It goes down to A2 in a pair with B2: B2-A2 (on "cinis"). In the Gergiev D'Arcangelo simply cheats and sings B2-B2 both times the pair appears. It is easy to cheat there because the difference between A and B is only half a tone, D'Arcangelo's B2's are barely audible and your brain tricks you into thinking you heard the expected B2-A2 (it's a famous piece), but this Gergiev Requiem is a joke anyway. In the Dudamel he manages the A2's, but barely (just marking, really, no resonance). So his low notes improved over the years as expected, but not enough - he has not morphed from a baritone into a bass. The Requiem, at any rate, requires much less stamina than a full operatic role. D'Arcangelo needs all his stamina to mark these A2's/Ab2's. Yet, he is no worse than most "basses" today.
Odabella belongs to a group of early Verdi insanely difficult female heroines (Abigaille, Giselda, Ernani's Elvira, Giovanna, Lady Macbeth and Amalia) who require extreme coloratura agility combined with pipes of steel. Verdi puts something in most of his scores that lets the singer know by glancing at the first page of his part what are the demands of the role more or less. In the case of Odabella he writes in the soprano’s first 7th and 8th measures a descending chromatic scale from C6 (soprano "high C") down to B4, so this is the range required (it actually later goes down to Bb4). The scale is in 32nd notes so this requires high agility, and he marks the opening measures "con energia", so dramatic power is required, hence a dramatic coloratura. María José Siri is taxed by the role’s demands and her agility is stretched to its limits; in fact, her voice is rather unwieldy, lacking even average flexibility - it moves up and down the staff awkwardly, and Verdi's writing for voices requires a lot of traveling up and down the staff. She does not reach comfortably to notes below the staff (below F4) – she just marks them (no use of chest voice). She also cannot sing real staccatos and her voice is poorly focused and wavering constantly - her intonation “dances” around the pitch in any passagework, so hardly a coloratura (of course no trill), and hardly dramatic if she does not have good low notes. She is no better in lyric parts: her act I romanza "Oh! Nel fuggente nuvolo" is bland, even though it does not pose challenges in terms of weight or agility - the tone is not focused and she is unable to find the piece's emotional center. Her lame delivery lacks the incisiveness so important in this charismatic role of a furious, vengeful Amazon. She does, however, possess a powerful voice with a rich timbre and a secure top. This is a prime example of the currently prevalent fake (Verdi) singing: a voice with no core, no chest register, poor intonation, unclear sound.
The young baritone Simone Piazzola gives the best performance of the cast as Ezio. He was already impressive as Rodrigo in the Don Carlo video from 2012 and as Paolo in the Boccanegra video from 2010. In addition to some bel canto roles, he already has some heavy Verdi roles in his repertoire and has performed them to great acclaim. His basic tone is beautiful and focused, rich, masculine and exciting, with an easy top. He can shade it endlessly for dramatic expression. His delivery is refined and noble. This singer develops, improves and increases the range of his dramatic expression with every passing year, which bodes very well for his future. Unfortunately, on this occasion, the conductor's deliberate tempi hamper the vehemence of his delivery and make him sound somewhat bland, but this is true to various degrees about every aspect of this disappointing performance.
Tenor Fabio Sartori has a lot of experience with the role of Foresto and he sang it in the opening of the 2018/9 La Scala season to great acclaim. His musical delivery as Foresto is respectable. His sound is loud and bright, a penetrating combination, yet he lacks the nobility or the virility of a warrior. You don't get the heft of a weightier voice, nor the open, generous sound or warmth of a lyric, nor the "brilliance", because he covers a lot (he also sings with the mouth half closed much of the time - his jaw rarely goes down). The voice is too bright for the role. When following how he "manufactures" his sound carefully I was constantly on my seat's edge because he rarely produces sounds that are not micromanaged or carefully processed, though he does it fluently and almost imperceptibly. There is barely a note that is a simple, natural, straightforward expression of his real voice. His sobbing mannerisms are grating and he is a major liability dramatically. The best singers in the role of Foresto were Nunzio Todisco, Gianfranco Cecchele and Veriano Luchetti. From today's singers, I don't know who can do better than Sartori in this role, alas.
The conducting in this performance is an example of the pressures a conductor has to face today. Caught between challenged singers, a demanding score and management who wants to stage popular works that nobody can sing the conductor's role has never been more complicated - he is expected not to lead the performance but to save it. The simple approach would be to slow down for singers in distress and hit the gas whenever possible - this solution has been good enough for most conductors. Conductor Michele Mariotti is more ambitious here and it seems he strove to come at a coherent musical approach for the entire work rather than deal with the challenges piecemeal. His conducting is alert and he has imaginative ways of supporting the singers (in addition to slowing down), like accenting staccato chords to propel the rhythm and energize a singer's delivery (one of his regular tricks). Unfortunately, this intelligent and nuanced approach backfires because it does not provide an aggressive, energetic thrust when needed and saps, instead, the energy out of the work. I think this performance could have worked much better even with the present cast if Mariotti had simply pushed the gas as often as possible.
Gianni Carluccio's unchanging ugly set looks like the basement of an old, abandoned warehouse. It is dark, grey and drab. Director Daniele Abbado offers absolutely no insights on the drama, doesn't clarify the libretto nor offers alternative takes. The costumes are mostly modern but nondescript - the Huns look like bums. This is not regie, this is cheap, lazy garbage. Between the drab staging and the expansive conducting, the experience of watching this performance was annoying when it wasn't plain boring (in case it is not already obvious from my review). I apologize for not opening the review with 5 paragraphs about the set, costumes, lighting and the deep meaning of the Stage Director’s intentions, as is customary in these sad times.
The Italian audience is suspiciously reserved mid-performance and you see the conductor pausing at the conclusion of arias and cabalettas and singers expecting to express eternal gratitude for a flood of applause that never arrives, the audience simply does not respond. D'Arcangelo gets the least applause at the curtain calls among the principals: Mariotti gets the biggest ovation, followed by Siri and then Sartori.
If you want a performance where all five major players (conductor and four principals) are up to snuff, there are only two options, both on video: The Muti/ Scala 1991 with Ramey, and the Santi/Verona 1985 with Nestereno. Everyone likes the Muti, Nesterenko raises some objections, I think mainly because visually and dramatically he doesn't come across as a warrior. However, the Santi/Verona is a mind-blowing video, it has grown on me over the years. I watched with dismay what those singers and conductor could do back then in 1985 after watching the miserable release under review. It would have been a much more pleasant task to write a rave review about the Santi, a performance based on the principle "if you've got it, flaunt it", and they all "got it." All the Verdi conductors that matured in the last 50 years are mere intellectuals in comparison with Santi's natural flow with the histrionics of an extroverted performance.
I rate this release one-star. Please ignore my five-star rating. I did it to reduce the chances that the site owner would “accidentally” mix this review with those of other releases (to increase the average rating).
A summary of conclusions of the article mentioned above “Where Have the Great Big Verdi Voices Gone?”:
1) Spintos and dramatics mature later, and therefore can’t start an opera career that will support them financially as soon as their lighter voiced counterparts, who tend to start in their 20s. Their voices don’t fit the lighter rep, so they don’t have a lot of opportunities for paid work until their voices are ready. That’s a long time to live without some financial stability, and most singers will not last long enough to get to that point, they’ll find another career. And if you are over 25 or so, you can’t start a career—you have to be in the pipeline by then.
2) Appearance is more critical to casting, and spintos and dramatics tend to have bigger bodies/aren’t as slim as lighter voiced singers and they tend to be older due to point #1. The factors that plague Broadway actors and other entertainers are seeping into opera—it's becoming more acceptable to place appearance above the ability to sing. If a singer isn’t slim and attractive, opera houses are increasingly not casting them because they don’t look the part.
3) Society, in general, does not support or have as many opportunities for unamplified singing—the venues that in the past that featured such singing have either disappeared or are reduced in number. Most singers use a microphone and singers starting out as young people don’t know what type of voice they have because they don’t have to be naturally loud.
4) Opera sets are increasingly more open so that they look good on video, and that impacts how the voice projects in the hall—it goes to the back and up into the hall, instead of out into the audience. Bigger voices don’t sound so big then, and that removes the advantage they do have in getting cast over their lighter voiced (and presumably more conventionally attractive) counterparts.
YT channel “This is opera!” is reviled by many opera professionals, but the owner knows his subject very well and has the ability to knock a ton of observations into a few minutes of funny (or nasty) clips. It takes a lifetime of immersion in opera to gain the insights you can glean from these clips. I recommend you start with “MOSQUITOS HAVE RUINED OPERA!” The channel’s owner attributes the decline in singing standards to poor voice training.
- Language: German
- Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese
- Region: All Regions
- Number of discs: 1
- Studio: Naxos Deutschland Musik & Video Vertriebs-GmbH / Poing
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- ASIN: B07PXD6C9W
Amazon Bestsellers Rank:
14,596 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
- #10320 in Movies (Movies & TV)