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.''

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).

The performance also featured the New York debut of a promising soprano, Sarah Reese - a sumptuous voice of tremendous potential - all under the auspices of the Long Island Opera Society.

Vocal longevity used to be the accepted result of proper long-term training (though there have always been tragic exceptions along the way). As an example, a weightlifter cannot be expected to jump from a 50-pound press to a 250-pound press. On the other hand, a singer can actually get through the wrong repertoire for a while - but the results tend to show in the end.

Thus it is not surprising to find Bergonzi, nearing 60, still active. As with all the great singers of his generation and before, he has devoted himself to his art, and has not run around the world singing repertoire that would drive him consistently beyond the limits of his vocal endowment. He was trained in an era when a person was duty-bound to do the best with a God-given gift. It was a question of the ethics of singing and career-building, and it was ingrained.

And now, we have Miss Ricciarelli, temperamentally and vocally ideal for Rossini and certain Donizetti heroines, as well as a few of the lighter Puccini roles, singing instead Tosca and Turandot - roles once exclusively the province of, at the very least, full-fledged lyrico spinto (literally translated ''pushed lyric''), and more appropriately, dramatic sopranos. We have Miss Scotto, the ideal Puccini lyric soprano, singing roles meant only for dramatics. Now both sopranos are afflicted with wobbles and unmanageability of vocal lines. Mr. Carreras has taken the most beautiful lyric tenor voice of the past 25 years and pushed it into the full Italian dramatic repertoire - the tenor roles in ''Turandot'' (on records), ''Il Trovatore,'' ''La Gioconda,'' ''Tosca,'' and now , Halevy's ''La Juive,'' Caruso's last full role and most demanding.

Mr. Domingo now sings roles from Donizetti to Wagner, with the heftiest Verdi thrown in for good measure, all in a very creative fashion, vocally in terms of character creation. On the NBC telecast, he was ''remembering'' Caruso, and at every step of the way, the invited comparison was distressing, at best. But Mr. Domingo flies all over the world singing too frequently, and in roles generally not meant for his voice. But the hard fact is that at what should be his prime, he is having pronounced problems with his voice, and much of this has to be due to his superhuman schedule of extra-operatic commitments, such as TV dates (he's a regular on ''The Tonight Show,'' which means flying to Los Angeles between appearances at, say, the Met). He is also about to make a Hollywood movie (as did Pavarotti last summer).

Even Mr. Pavarotti, who was born to be the finest bel canto specialist of his day, has now lost the sheen and the fluency to fulfill that promise - sacrificed to the desire to sing the hefty repertoire his voice was not meant to tackle. But at least he always gives all he has to a performance, and has become a superstar both by dint of clever management and his own dynamic personality.

Who is responsible? Many groups: conductors, artists' managers, artists themselves. Many a fine lyric singer has been led down the garden path of dramatic roles to ruinous effect, Miss Ricciarelli and Mr. Carreras being the prime current examples. They understandably do not have the courage to say no. Opera and artists' managements should be there to prevent this, but too often they fear they will lose out if they do not acquiesce.

It is, however, only the very people involved in this crazy-wonderful art form who can invoke the moral obligation to stem this catastrophic trend. It is time for them all - and the record companies (or, more accurately, conglomerates) as well - to put power and lucre aside and put artistic integrity to the fore. Then, and only then, can the potentially great voices be nurtured in a consistent, benevolent environment. When they flower, they will then have the sort of long, prosperous careers that will reap remuneration and acclaim rather than forcing it upon them before their times.

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