Great voices are treasures - and should be guarded
Last Saturday night the New York Philharmonic was bringing culture to the commercial airwaves on NBC-TV's well-meaning ''Live From 8H.''Skip to next paragraph
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This time around, the stereo simulcast did not boast ''Mr. Opera,'' Luciano Pavarotti - something of a coup in itself - but rather, Pavarotti's ''rival,'' Placido Domingo, who is attempting to make himself as much of a celebrity superstar as Mr. Pavarotti has indisputably become. Unfortunately, Mr. Domingo was in very poor voice.
Was the problem nervousness? Perhaps. But all singers are subject to this and have been trained to work around it. When Mr. Pavarotti sang the landmark live solo recital telecast (with piano only - a grueling thing for opera singers used to sets, costumes, and an orchestra), nerves were subtly evident, though they did not affect the ability of the voice to pour out freely and generously.
No, the problem runs deeper. It is one that is affecting just about every important youngish singer in the opera world today - the placing of fame and fortune ahead of vocal self-awareness and self-preservation. In other words, many of our most important (or soon-to-be-important) singers are sacrificing vocal seasoning and longevity for short-term profit.
And let there be no doubt - the number of important rising or just-arrived singers in serious trouble swamps the small gathering of singers who have been wise and cautious. This season has already found Jose Carreras, Pavarotti, and Domingo all in diminished form. And the list is not limited to tenors. Katia Ricciarelli, Montserrat Caballe, Renata Scotto, and mezzo Tatiana Troyanos are all showing disturbing signs of the effects of repertoire too heavy for their voices. And these are the singers opera managements around the world are relying on to fill casts and rosters.
It may be unrealistic to expect that one day a few houses, a few managers, a few conductors, and a few singers will wake up and realize that ethics demands a retrenching to save future generations of singers. There are singers around who are sticking to their guns, but they are few, and important opera houses want singers who will draw - i.e., recording stars. The wise, who ironically tend to be ignored by the recording companies, are used infrequently. (There is a program at the Met these days designed to ensure that young singers progress naturally, and don't skip a rung in the ladder of technical progression.)
Of course one can turn around and cite singers who have husbanded their resources wisely, and are singing at least as well as or better than ever: Marilyn Horne, Joan Sutherland, Leonie Rysanek, Matteo Manuguerra, all come instantly to mind. Not too long ago, Carlo Bergonzi was feted with a 25th anniversary ''gala'' at the Met, and a few weeks later offered his views on Verdi's ''Il Corsaro'' in a study of the fine art of Italian style.
At the Met it was instructive to hear Bergonzi open the evening with the Act II aria for Alfredo in ''La Traviata,'' for which he received a handsome ovation. True, the top is no longer reliable, but everything else is, and the style with which it is all seamed together allows one to overlook all but the most obvious miscalculations. Mr. Pavarotti then took the stage (''Un Ballo in Maschera,'' second act), sounding considerably less imposing or mellifluous than either Mr. Bergonzi or his usual self, and cracking at the end of the big duet. Mr. Bergonzi returned in Act III of ''Tosca,'' offering a sublime ''E lucevan le stelle'' - impeccably controlled, profoundly poetic, wistful yet agonized, everything this aria should be and so rarely is. His ovation went on for a good 21/2 minutes.
''Il Corsaro'' showed off more of the same - a few problems, yet overall a handsome demonstration of the principles of Italian bel canto singing and interpretation. Bergonzi suffused the arias and scenes with a patrician command of even tone (except, of course, on some top notes), of attention to words, and projection of mood and feeling, on a carefully controlled outpouring of vocal tone (except for those occasional upper blemishes).