A plea for correct opera casting and three recordings that didn't
It's hardly a secret that casting an opera these days is problematic: Too often pivotal roles demand voices that do not exist today. So compromises have to be made.Skip to next paragraph
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The same holds true in the recording studio. One might think that with the technology of microphones, sound enhancement, and so forth, small voices could be made to sound large. However, microphones do not lie. A small voice sounds like a small voice. An essentially lightweight voice cannot be disguised to sound ''larger'' by merely being closer to a microphone.
In the three operas in question here, the title role requires a very specific type of voice that still exists today. However, the recording companies do not seem to feel some of these singers are marketable commodities. So they have been denied the chance to record in favor of some star singer, even when that star lacks the fundamental requirement of the particular role.
A case in point is a recent ''Tosca'' (Angel digital DSBX-3919). Renata Scotto sings Puccini's heroine; Placido Domingo is the Cavaradossi; and Renato Bruson, the Scarpia. James Levine leads the Philharmonia Orchestra. Miss Scotto is a fine Puccini singer; in ''Boheme'' or ''Butterfly,'' she has proved incomparable. But Tosca's wide range of emotion demands a large voice capable of an unusually wide range of dynamic shifts from the very quiet pianissimo to the full-throated forte.
On this recording, Miss Scotto's penetrating, lyric soprano reveals the effects of constantly singing in heftier repertoire. Her slender voice was never meant to tackle such dramatic soprano roles as Norma, Gioconda, and Lady Macbeth. Miss Scotto can no longer swell from a pianissimo to a full-throated forte without a severe wobble disrupting the vocal gesture. The overall feeling here is one of good intentions executed with a now-virtually unmanageable instrument. Considering she is one the day's finest lyric singing-actresses, this career shift has been a lamentable decision.
Mr. Domingo is in strident voice here. Mr. Bruson's lightweight baritone is incapable of communicating the overpowering menace and sinister essence of Scarpia. James Levine magnficently conducts a grandiose, electrifying account of Puccini's opulent, thrustful score. It is a grand irony of this set that the conducting should be outstanding while the casting is not at all right. The sound throughout the set is all one could ask it to be. A footnote of interest: the Jailer is sung by noted violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman - and very well sung, too.
Ponchielli's ''La Gioconda'' was once relatively easy to cast. It is a grand spectacle opera that pits revenge, passion, and filial duty against the backdrop of a bloody, dictatorial Venice. The title role requires a voice of size, beauty , and stamina. Monsterrat Caballe has been branching out - none too successfully - from her bel canto roots to the full-fledged dramatic soprano roles, and Gioconda might seem ideal for her. But her performance here (London digital LDR- 73005) finds the voice underweight for the musical demands. There are many handsome moments; Miss Caballe often sings with beauty and some grace; but as the voice needs power, it assumes a stridency that disfigures the line and cumulative impact.
Luciano Pavarotti does not possess the vocal weight to sing Enzo. Yet here he manages to fill the music with ardor and fervency. Agnes Baltsa, another lightweight singer, convinces yet again in a role she would have trouble sustaining in an opera house. Nevertheless, few mezzos today - even those with the requisite vocal equipment - can project the varied moods and emotions with the acumen Miss Baltsa consistently manifests in her work.