(Ecco ridente in cielo-Il barbiere-Rossini)
Throughout his career, the artist was accompanied by the epithet of the “singing lion.” The description fittet his appearance, his imposing Herculean figure, his mighty head with the “Lion’s mane” - and, naturally his voice, which was of virtually incredible strength - a “lion’s voice” indeed, as Lauri-Volpi put it significantly. When his refulgent voice turned wan and pale, the reviews spoke of the “dying lion” and Ruffo himself said after he terminated his artistic career in 1936: “The lion is silent.” (Preiser)
Ruffo’s voice had something of a force of nature about it, something animalistic even. It was a singular phenomenon. His whole appearance was unique in the world of opera. Deep at heart Ruffo was, in fact, a naturalist and by no means a pure belcanto singer. His strength was the unbelievably rich volume in the highest range (which occasionally reached tenorial regions), the immediacy of tonal formation and thus an astonishing ability in “parlando” singing. This was offset by a certain huskiness in the lower range - a deficit that increased during the course of his career. As a singer Ruffo made full use of a “coloristic” palette. In his autobiography “La mia parabola” he outlined how he mixed light, dark and irridating colors.
I. Chest Voice: Some History
Since W.W. I women for the most part have been afraid of chest resonance, fearing it would ruin their voices. But in the 19th century women used it as a matter of course, a practice they inherited from the castratos. Most women on early recordings sing all notes from F at the bottom of the treble staff on down in chest voice. But they do not sing higher than that in chest voice. Voice teacher Giovanni Battista Lamperti dissuaded his pupil Marcella Sembrich from undertaking Aïda on the grounds that she lacked the requisite chest resonance. (Records attest to Sembrich’s having used chest resonance below G-flat, so presumably Lamperti must have felt her chest voice was too light for the part.) Lamperti did maintain it was unhealthy for the voice for women to carry chest resonance higher than F.
Nineteenth-century Italian opera composers seemingly took for granted that women would employ chest voice. (Consider Mascagni’s preference for Lina Bruna Rasa’s chest-voice-heavy Santuzza.) The majority of roles cannot be communicated adequately without chest color at one point or another. Women often find that unless they abstain from chest resonance, the music at certain moments causes them to use it. A challenge for women with modern vocal techniques is how to fulfill the chest requirement without hurting themselves.
In the last 160 years, while women have used chest voice less and less, men have used it more and more. For discussions of men, chest voice and head voice, see my “Last of a Breed: Giovanni Battista Rubini Ruled as the Paragon of Virtuoso Tenors, King of the High F’s” (Opera News, February 13, 1982) and “Seismic Shocker: Gilbert-Louis Duprez’s History-Making High C” (Opera News, January 1, 1983), also my “Different Kinds of High Notes and the Seismic Shock: Nineteenth-Century Tenors and the Meaning of ‘Falsetto’” (American Record Guide, March 1982). The Rubini and Duprez articles are reprinted in my The Origins of Modern Tenor Singing; see our full catalog.
II. Chest Voice: The Divas’ Dispute
Gavazzi and Gencer claim that not only did they themselves employ chest resonance but that the other divas—in particular, Olivero, Cigna, Adami Corradetti, Simionato and Barbieri—did as well. (Frazzoni made some seemingly inconsistent statements about whether or not she herself used it.) These latter deny having resonated in their chests. I asked Gavazzi to explain this. She claimed they employed chest unknowingly.
This kind of explanation is common among singers. Corelli and Hines cannot conceive of any tenor singing above the staff without routinely covering his tone. Yet Alfredo Kraus and I claim we do exactly that. Speaking on the radio program “Opera Fanatic,” Corelli and Hines insisted we cover automatically, without being aware of it—a view we reject.
Also speaking on “Opera Fanatic,” Kraus asserted that Chris Merritt sings his high notes in falsetto—a view he rejects.
Usually I favor giving the singer the benefit of the doubt: if he says he’s not covering, then he’s not.
The dispute over chest voice may be a special case, however. The anti-chest divas were raised in the belief that chest resonance is vocally unhealthy. They also were told it fractures continuity of musical line. Still, certain powerful emotions and coloristic demands sometimes flushed chest out of them. But they hate to admit it. Each diva views her vocal technique as having the sanctity of religion. Each is mortified if the world knows she sinned. Barbieri insisted she wouldn’t attend The Bavarian State Opera’s showing of Opera Fanatic if Gencer were there, on the grounds that Gencer had insulted her by saying in the film that she—Barbieri—used chest voice.
Why should opera lovers care about whether or not someone sings with chest voice? Because the affective consequences are very great. My viscera aren’t satisfied if chest isn’t used in certain passages, the phrase “un gel mi prende” (Norma), for example.
III. Vocal Technique
With the exception of Adami Corradetti, who at least from the 50s onward didn’t have a placement-based method, the divas in the film used a technique of resonation called “masque placement” (“placement” of the tone at the front of the face, anywhere between the forehead and the lower teeth). Masque placement prevailed in the period in which they sang.
For much of the19th century many singers placed their voices at the top of the head, at a point between but above the ears. Gemma Bellincioni, the first Santuzza, used this placement.
Today masque placement is being edged aside by mechanistic approaches, which do not involve placement at all. Instead, they require manipulation of the lips, mouth, tongue, soft palate, nostrils, jaw, position of the head or of the larynx.
With the exception of Adami Corradetti, who did not think about breathing, the divas used a breathing method involving pressing in at the diaphragm. Before, during and after the divas’ period a variety of other breathing techniques have been in use.
The divas all subscribe to the view that there is one god, one country and one singing technique—their own. (Olivero concurs that this is her stand.)
For more detailed information about these and six other fundamentally different kinds of vocal technique, see Opera Fanatic magazine, issue 2. (See our full catalog)
Musical Line vs. Dramatic ExpressionTwo Kinds of Diva
The divas divide into two groups. The first group strove not to vary tone color for dramatic expression but to maintain consistency of tone color for the sake of musical line. Half the divas in the film—Barbieri, Cerquetti, Cigna, Pobbe and Simionato—belong to this group (as do virtually all singers today). From their point of view, a change in tone color compromised musical line as much as a break in legato. That they didn’t vary tone color didn’t prevent them from being emotionally intense. They relied on good diction and musicianship to serve librettists and composers.
For the second group, varying tone color for dramatic expression was paramount. Adami Corradetti (as a performer but not as a teacher), Frazzoni, Gavazzi, Gencer and Olivero are in this group. To my ears, these performers succeeded in changing tone color without damaging the musical line and thereby heightened emotional impact. The singers in the first group acted with their faces and bodies. The singers in the second group also acted with their voices.
One can find counterexamples. Frazzoni and Gencer didn’t always come alive interpretively. Cerquetti sometimes inflected her tone, most notably on a live recording of Ballo. Cigna on some occasions colored hers as well.
IV. Intuition vs. Analysis
During the interviews it became clear that the divas respond to words and to the music’s emotions but don’t analyze its structure. They never think about clarifying a vocal line by showing through emphasis which notes are melody, which mere ornamentation. The notion of each piece containing a hierarchy of notes is foreign to them.
Unlike the majority of singers (Italians in particular), most of the divas in the film turned out to have studied instruments. Perhaps that contributed to their musical intuitions. Simionato had no such background, yet her musicianship was no less expressive.
Stefan Zucker about chest voice-discussion with Marcella Pobbe, Giulietta Simionato, Fedora Barbieri, Leyla Gencer, Carla Gavazzi.
In this obituary of Elena Souliotis, we mentioned her New York debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1969. Though she was to have sung there during the 1969-70 season, an industrial dispute caused the cancellation of many performances and she never did appear at the house. Her only New York appearances were in concert with the American Opera Society (Anna Bolena, Norma, and Nabucco) and a 1976 Carnegie Hall recital.
The career of the Greek soprano Elena Souliotis (sometimes spelt Suliotis), who has died aged 61, was a meteor that flashed across the operatic firmament only to be extinguished in less than 10 years.
In the 1960s, many commentators - probably unwisely - proclaimed her as the new Callas. The comparisons seemed at first a fair one, as her timbre and personality bore some resemblance to that of her legendary predecessor, but Souliotis squandered her resources in a reckless way, and all too soon her voice seriously deteriorated. She attempted, not very successfully, a second career in the mezzo range, but by the mid-1970s she was virtually at the end of her career.
Souliotis was born in Athens of a Greek mother and Russian father. She contracted meningitis at the age of two, which left her partly deaf. Her parents emigrated to Buenos Aires when she was five years old. She began her studies there, and then went to Milan to work with the distinguished teacher Mercedes Llopart. She made her debut at the San Carlo in Naples in 1964 as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. Her career developed very quickly.
She caused a sensation in 1966, when she made her debut at La Scala as the fiery Abigaille in Verdi's Nabucco. The same year she drew the same reaction at the Carnegie Hall, New York, as Donizetti's Anna Bolena, a role she later recorded. Hers was a talent to watch.
She first appeared in London, in a concert of Nabucco in 1968 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with Boris Christoff and Piero Cappuccilli, an occasion I remember with much pleasure for the seeming emergence of a very special talent. She undertook it again at Covent Garden in 1972, at the start of Colin Davis's regime as music director. Much as her performance was appreciated, the production proved ill-fated. By that time she had already made her impressive debut there as Lady Macbeth (1969), as she also did that year at the Metropolitan, New York. She recorded the work with a deal of success, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role.
Before that Met appearance, she had sung no less a role than Norma at a concert performance of Bellini's opera for the American Opera Society as early as 1967. She then took it all over Italy and recorded it for Decca, who had handed her an exclusive contract. As she was still in her mid-20s, Norma was undoubtedly a step too far for her at that stage in her career. However, a solo recital she recorded at about the same time disclosed her appreciable talent as a singing actor.
At the end of 1967, the arts department at the BBC televised a programme called Suliotis Sings, which caused something of a sensation, and not merely for musical reasons. Souliotis appeared in interview to have a magnetic personality, a sparky temperament, and not least an element of sexual frisson. But the conductor Edward Downes declared, during its course, that she was immature and ought to be careful in what she sang. Certainly some of her singing in that programme and at Covent Garden exposed the dangers of her all-in vocal production, which caused the premature end to her career. Her final appearances at Covent Garden in 1973, as Santuzza, presaged the end.
Souliotis's voice was a true spinto, capable of vocal expressivity combined with power and a deal of flexibility. Its owner used it with unstinting, fearless attack that was at once thrilling and a bit disconcerting for the listener. She obviously reacted willingly to the adoration of her following, and could easily excite every sense. Pressure at the top and bottom of her register was probably the main cause of her early disappearance from a scene she briefly brought to such extraordinary life.
She had a friendly extrovert personality and kept a menagerie of animals. Married, but divorced, she is survived by her daughter Barbara.
· Elena Souliotis, soprano, born May 28 1943; died December 4 2004
Friday December 10 2004)
"Ben io t'invenni", Verdi's Nabucco
The prologue's end
(José Bros as Gennaro, Kate Aldrich as Maffio Orsini)
The finale of first act "Ιnfelice,il veleno bevesti"
(with José Bros as Gennaro)
The duet of Lucrezia and Alfonso D'Este (Μichele Pertusi) "Α te bada"
The duet of Lucrezia and Gennaro "Ama tua madre,tenero"
Αria of Lucrezia "Come'è bello, quale incanto"
(Torino, 3 April 2008, Director Bruno Campanella)