Monday, November 4, 2013


The regular release of operatic recitals on CD is long dead. But three tenors -- oh, I'm sorry -- two tenors and someone who says he's a baritone now, have recent releases: Jonas Kaufmann, currently the male Anna Netrebko, a super star; Klaus Florian Vogt, a German lyric tenor who is singing Wagnerian roles and was quite wonderful in his two Metropolitan Opera performances as Lohengrin in 2006; and Placido Domingo who in The Widder's opinion wasn't much of a tenor but was acclaimed by the multitudes as a great tenor who is now pretending to be a baritone and is getting acclaim for that too.

I used to think no one who had ever heard a great tenor, Corelli, Tucker, Bergonzi, Aragall, Del Monaco before his auto accident could confuse Domingo with one of them, and I thought those who heard the younger Atlantov, Cossuta, Giacomini on a good night, all Domingo's generation, couldn't really think of him as someone equal to them, likewise the younger Neil Shicoff (and there are those who felt that Merighi, Martinucci, Bartolini were easily as good if not better) .

Domingo started as a lyric tenor with no volume and no high notes, so there was no comparing his sound to Pavarotti. And though, when audible, Domingo in his prime had a rich, chocolate mid range, the sound was nothing compared to the younger Carreras. Came the day Domingo decided he would massacre Wagner with horribly pronounced German and bland, unenterprising interpretations -- and these too were acclaimed. Those who had seen Jon Vickers or James King could scarcely believe it. Though he did build his tenor for volume without losing his voice, and turn the high B flat from a crack into a hit or miss reality, that meant Domingo had more vocal smarts than many singers, his vocal equipment was still modest and he was a bore. And as time went on he transposed down further and further, more and more often. Yet what love from the well-washed and wealthy! The moronic reviewers who had no idea of what a good tenor or a good anything is, poured out their love, and recording wallets opened up. So if he wants to say he's a baritone, why, I guess he's a baritone.

But perhaps we should start with the least known of these three in America, Klaus Florian Vogt. He suddenly appeared just as Lohengrin does, in two performances of that opera, unheralded. He was unknown at the Met. He was wonderful. Aryan looking and good on stage, he has a light but beautifully projected tone that had a genuine radiance about it. He was commanding when need be and more audible than one would have supposed in act two, but act three was full of  "old fashioned" tenderness, sweetness and pathos. He reminded me of those wonderful Lohengrin records in Italian made around the turn of the 20th century by Vignas and De Lucia (both get complete collections from Ward Marston's superb label), tender, caressing accents, breathtaking piani and wonderful float. This was another world from the generalized, businesslike Domingo, or the well intended and good looking but gruff sounding Peter Hoffman, or a younger Siegfried Jerusalem who had a lovely sound in the middle but lacked the projection and the float of Vogt. Vogt had a huge success with a shocked audience, but hasn't been back. He is very busy in Germany, though, and has sung major Wagner roles all over the place, including Bayreuth. He can be seen to good effect on DVD's of Lohengrin and Parsifal.

His voice, curiously, resembles what Jonas Kaufmann described as his young voice, a voice Kaufmann didn't want and worked to change. Vogt is a high set, very German tenor, nothing of the baritone coloration we've come to expect in Wagner, and a high, bright production throughout the range. He can sing the lower tessitura (range) that Wagner often uses for his tenors, but the sound remains high and even "piping". The annotator here mentions the great Karl Erb, a similarly high, bright tenor. I'm sometimes reminded of the great Julius Patzak, who, over a very long career, sang a wide range of roles, many heavier than one would have supposed right for his voice.

Vogt's CD, available for about seven months on Sony, but only as an import, mikes him rather closely, never a great idea for an opera singer. One doesn't get a strong sense of how his voice expands and fills a space, and the somewhat "white" quality of the tone is too apparent if one listens to the whole thing at one sitting.

But individual selections are often beautiful. The tone with its heady sweetness is ideal for Lohengrin, his farewell to the Swan and parting gifts given to Elsa should her brother return, is filled with pathos. His enunciation is ideally clear, and not dependent on vowel manipulations; and by singing on the breath, not forcing, he is able to make a sudden soft tone (a subito piano). Parsifal's two big moments, Amfortas die Wunde!, and Nur eine Waffe taugt, are firmly sung. In the highly chromatic first, his intonation is superb, he sings tricky intervals clearly and cleanly without swooping, and his rhythm is dead on. The aria's climax is "Erlöser rette mich", often blasted, but Vogt sings it as the words suggest it is, a prayer. He executes the diminuendos as written from loud to soft (almost no one does) on "Erlöser" and "rette mich", makes a plausible crescendo (as written) on "als schuld beflekten Händen" but then, as almost no one does, sings the pianpiano marked (pp) until the final cry for The Redeemer. Fundamentally, after Parisfal's first realization, this is an intense and private prayer by someone who is still a boy, and that's how Vogt does it. It's wonderful. Nur eine Waffe taugt is a benediction; Vogt gives it a tender reading, with really beautiful words, absolutely clear intervals, enough contrast between louder and softer dynamics, if not the thrust that one might want.

Vogt made an earlier Wagner CD, which has not circulated at all in America, and there he sings more of the lyrical music. To balance this CD he sings some heavier music, such as a nicely managed but slightly thin sounding Allmächt'ger Vater from Rienzi. But he and Camilla Nyland sing a soft, tender, inward and sweet "O sink hernieder", part of the long act two duet from Tristan und Isolde. They sing the intervals in tune and he floats his line (higher at times than hers) really magically. This would be a small house Tristan and it's perhaps a role he won't do, but a recording with these qualities would be rewarding. He also sings the dying Siegfried's farewell to Brunnnilde: Brunnhilde! Heil'ge Braut, again a role it would be hard to imagine him doing, but this short segment is very beautifully done (and quite wonderfully accompanied by Jonathan Nott and The Bamberger Symphoniker).

Vogt and Nyland reunite for the end of act one of Die Walkuere. A Finn, she, like Vogt, has a lyric voice but sings some heavier roles. As far as I know she has sung with the San Francisco Opera, alone in North America. Vogt starts with Ein Schwert Verhiess mir der Vater.  Siegmund is  a very low lying role; the cliche that "any Verdi baritone could sing it" is true enough. Jon Vickers, though he had a bright sound, was really at ease in this tessitura and had a massive romantic sound and manner that was thrilling. James King who had begun as a baritone but had an easier top than Vickers, was also wonderful, if less unique. The famous Siegmund in the 1950's, Ramon Vinay, had started as a baritone and returned to being one, and Ludwig Suthaus, a great singer of the role, had the ripe easy lower range needed, as did the somewhat gruff sounding but moving Jess Thomas. The über Siegmund of course was Lauritz Melchior who began as a baritone, but is in a class of his own.

But of course, tenors have sung the role often. Wolfgang Windgassen who the conductor Hans Knappertsbusch dismissed as a "cravat-tenor" (an operetta singer) was famous in the role, Peter Hoffmann sang it, famously, in the Bayreuth Ring produced by the late Patrice Chereau, Siegfried Jerusalem sang it carefully (there is even an exciting video with him and an older but still wild and woolly and really thrilling Leonie Rysanek) and so on.

Still, when Jonas Kaufmann sang the role in the Machine production at the Met (the machine didn't kill him but just made him look foolish), he didn't have the impact the role needs in that big house. It's very hard to imagine Vogt doing the role live in a big house (though I believe he has sung it).

He doesn't seem to have problems with the lower writing and as the line gets a bit higher for the notorious climax on the name, Wälse, (G flat and G natural where the tenor break supposedly happens), he has no trouble. The youthful tonal quality is appealing. I love hearing the words pronounced so clearly and lovingly. Still, a weightier tone and darker color can work better in this music. But it is novel and rewarding to hear this sung with no sense of forcing or artificial weighting of the tone and the songfulness he brings to the end, "Nächtiges Dunkel deckte mein Aug'", is really lovely. Nyland (this finale starts with "Du bist der Lenz") has a pleasant not quite steady voice and knows the style. Their soft and tender give and take is persuasive (and rare). When he pulls the sword from the tree. he sings cleanly and honestly without forcing but to be fair, without quite the needed impact either. This is an interesting way to sing a lot of this music by a total professional; I'd be interested in hearing that earlier CD. But I'm willing to bet we never see him again at the Met.

Jonas Kaufmann began, he has said, with a voice he hated, "like Peter Schreier". Schreier had a small, bright, rather white tone but made a distinguished career in Bach, in Mozart roles and in some large character roles (he is a wonderful Mime in the Janowski Ring, available cheap from Sony). He is also a conductor. Kaufmann took the risk of changing his entire technique to build a darker, fuller, larger tone, that would make him a candidate for leading roles. He did this while married (to a singer) and raising children, so he obviously had both courage and a lot of faith in himself.

He used the technique pioneered by an American, Douglas Stanley who was very influential across Europe, but especially in Germany. Kaufmann changed his voice with the very last living student who had actually worked directly with Stanley. Stanley's method was controversial and still enrages pedagogues who insist that it ruins more voices than it helps (Hildegard Behrens was taught the Stanley method by Jerome Lo Monaco, who had also worked with Stanley himself, her badly tuned shrieking speaks for itself -- it certainly doesn't sing. But her motives were the same as Kaufmann's. She started as a light lyric and wanted to sing the big roles; she praised Lo Monaco for teaching her to use her chest voice, among other things. But Nelson Eddy was also a Stanley apostle and kept a very nice tone).

(Stanley gives Eddy a lesson)

Stanley's main idea was to throw out the old notions of "placement" and "making the sound" and instead concentrated on giving the singer a maximum control of his/her larynx. By lowering the larynx, freeing jaw and tongue and breathing correctly, Stanley argued, any voice would become larger, darker and the singer's stamina would increase. Stanley's disciples modified his teaching somewhat, training their students to judge in preparing a role when to use the lowered larynx and when to let the larynx ride higher, using (slightly) some of the "old fashioned" ideas of "head tone", sensation based singing, which reflects changes in the vocal folds (feeling a "buzz" above the bridge of the nose, or at the top of the scalp).

Ideally, then, a Stanley trained singer could go back and forth; Kaufmann could sing with far more force and thrust than he had with his conventional training, but still sing softly and sweetly when he wished, and there was no danger to his top. Actually, Stanley doesn't effect the extremes of the voice much. Even those who the method very likely harms, such as Behrens, keep high notes and can belch out low ones however long they sing. If there is going to be wear on the tone it is in the middle where the voice can stiffen or even fall back on the throat (both happened to Behrens after a few years as an international singer), and tuning can suffer especially throughout the middle (true of Behrens) and as time goes on over the entire range (Behrens' high shrieks though they thrilled certain sexually ambiguous male Asians for some reason were usually very sharp, but after a while her middle would either stiffen into sharpness or sag into a horrifying flatness).

For a lot of people, including idiot Wagner fetishes, screaming is part of the thrill -- the singers scream for hours, then they scream in adulation. Such fans are fools of course, Leider, Flagstad and Melchior were not screamers, and the last two, both using rather conventional methods, lasted a very long time. But then again, no one would ever have heard of Hildegard Behrens outside the German circuit if she had not dropped her jaw, mangled her larynx and shrieked like a banshee. Oh, she acted too. She raised her shoulders and popped her eyes. Isn't that acting?

So far Kaufmann is holding up. He and Anna Netrebko (a coarse, hard Tatyana in the Met's recent Onegin, breathing hard and screaming flat now and then) have been marketed the same way. But it came easier to Netrebko who out of the box had a very attractive and at times, beautifully full tone. It took Kaufmann longer. They are the same age but for no reason I am going to bet on his holding up longer.

Verdi, one might expect, would expose him much more than Wagner. But in fact, the best performances I have seen him give at the Met have been in three non Wagnerian roles, Cavaradossi where his high A sharps on "Vittoria!" really flashed out into the house, thrilling the audience; a phenomenally well acted and sung Don Jose; and his Faust, which if not ideal, contained some very impressive singing. However much vocal manipulating he is doing, he has held on to a basically lovely and quite distinctive timbre; he has an easy top and he sings within his means. He had a lot more volume in Zurich and Munich than he has at the Met but in the huge house he does not force. I didn't think the Siegmund special, the Parsifal was a very shrewd piece of singing, carefully judged and very effective when need be. For today's audience it helps that he's great looking and by operatic standards a persuasive actor. 

On the Verdi album he has very good Italian, not only pronouncing well, but with what Italians call intenzione, using the color and emphasis within the word to convey meaning and emotion. His tone is firm and arresting, if not always strictly speaking glamorous in the sense of Tucker or Corelli. He makes a wide range of dynamic and coloristic choices, some of them self conscious but many of them provide an expressive impact, which has gotten far too rare even from Italians. That easy, thrusting top is also right in this style and imparts a sense of excitement to what he does.

O tu che in seno agli'angeli from La Forza del Destino is a heart felt, exceptionally accomplished performance of a killer aria -- it's been a very long time since one has heard this combination of vocal skill and emotional readiness. Though the mikes come in for a close up and he ignores the written portamenti, he certainly manages a glamorous Celeste Aida, with a very impressive breath span, The tricky rise to the high B flat on "ergete un tro(no)" is thrilling and he carries the phrase over, making a very long diminuendo holding the piano f into the start of the reprise, and he ends the aria as written with a morendo (dying away) of the high B flat attacked very softly. The vowels on the two earlier B flats are opened more than is usual for him, very exciting, but that final "o" on "sol" is very covered, I believe I saw the poster at Opera-L, Gualtier Malde, use the term cupo piano to describe Angela Meade doing something similar, so if you read that, here's an example! 

The Barcarole from Un Ballo in Maschera is somewhat throaty ("ingolata" is what Italians say) and without much charm, but Riccardo/Gustavo's long scena, Forse la soglia attinse... ma se m'e forza perditi is given with passion, with relatively open vowels and much sweet soft singing. The final scene of act three of Il Trovatore is given complete, with Erika Grimaldi throwing in Leonora's lines. "Ah, si, ben mio" is fast. It's marked adagio and this isn't one, and for one of the only times in the album Kaufmann muscles his way through, sounding decidedly like a German, a little rough and the tone throaty. He scoops intervals and grunts his way through "dal ferro ostil trafitto ch'io resti fra le vittime..." in a manner better suited to Tiefland. He also smears the implied coloratura writing earlier, not firmly establishing the sixteenth notes on "il braccio avro piu forte" for example. He does manage the two trills (first one is better) but ignores the demi-staccati, a feature of this aria (for example ("la mor - te a me" -- or later, "so - lo in ciel" -- these form grupetti that add contrast to the slow melody and are part of Verdi's emotional rhetoric). The fast sixteenth notes in Di quella pira are smeared, his voice isn't responsive enough to do them, and he ignores the marcato signs that are all over the aria, "madre infelice" for example. The descent from the first unwritten high C is very clumsy, the second unwritten high C sounds throaty and although he hangs on, it's not easy.

The great Luisa Miller scena starts unpromisingly, the grand recitative, "oh fede negar potessi" is too fast and Kaufmann's sound seems backward, but the aria goes well. The tempo seems right (marked andante, the solid conductor is Pier Giorgio Morandi) and though his tone is slightly rough, he does catch the nostalgia and grief in Rodolfo's remembrance of happier times, and while the closed "o's" aren't ideal ("lo squardo innamorato") the whole has a convincing shape and the play of soft and softer singing finds some honey in his tone. The Otello arias are done well too. Though I thought "Dio, mi potevi" too considered sounding, there is a deeply committed and beautifully sung " niun mi tema". 

The fans on line think Kaufmann will sing EVERYTHING. I don't know how well he would do some of these Verdi roles, or whether he'd have the volume in the biggest houses for some of the Wagner roles. But the recent Wagner CD was a very successful record artistically. This Verdi compilation is somewhat more rough and ready with singing that occasionally shows strain or contrivance. Sadly, it does seem as though he is imitating Domingo now and again.

And that brings us to Domingo the baritone. But this has gone on long enough and I have already bashed the tenor. Caruso when once asked what made a great tenor, said, "luck and good health". Domingo has had both to a remarkable degree; at an advanced age for anyone, let alone an opera singer (he is in his seventies, though the exact birth date has been debated) he still can make a sound. It's not a baritone sound, and it's not rich and beautiful, but we live in a time with no impressive baritones in the big Italian roles. The days are long gone when Taddei, Gobbi, Guelfi, Bastianini, Panerai emerged into the world after World War 2, and Americans like Warren, Merrill and somewhat later, the younger Cornell Macneil were active, more or less at the same time, and the Germans had the glorious sounding Josef Metternich, Russians had the improbably beautiful sounding Pavel Lisitsian, the Estonians had Georg Ots and the Romanians had Nicolai Herlea. A second generation of Italians emerged with Cappuccilli and the French born Italian, Managuerra (both dead), Bruson and Nucci (though old, still singing now and then). The people trotting out on the world stages today range from lovely lyrics who force unmercifully to bellowers with no real vocal quality and no interpretive or stylistic affinity for the roles they sing.

In that world Domingo seems less like an egomaniac unable to let go, and more sensible. Though none of the singing here matches the better let alone the best versions put on record since the cylinder (do people know of let alone care about Amato, Ruffo, the miracle Battistini, de Luca, Giraldoni, Stracciari, Ancona?), none of it is disgraceful. More arresting is the realization that Domingo really understands how this music should go. Whether he can give voice to that insight memorably has to be put to one side, but from vivid recitative, beautifully and meaningfully pronounced, to arias that have at least the right musical shape and emotion, he really does more than his rivals today. He belonged to the last generation that really felt this music and identified with the style; and he has survived as a demonstrator of what can be done for the bland and clueless who are hired everywhere. I for one think there are very impressive people out there who just aren't hired at the big houses or promoted; I've heard some very impressive Americans, struggling in their forties. But if one simply takes the familiar names, Domingo has an old man's triumph -- maybe more symbolically than in actual sound -- but then again, most of the others sing badly despite their relative youth.

One of the great Verdi baritones, Pasquale Amato