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Subject: Re: Assoluta once again
From: "Brad S." <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Brad S.
Date:Tue, 25 Oct 2011 16:41:00 +0200

text/plain (126 lines)

I really enjoyed Takis's post, and it seems now we can all get down to having a real discussion, enlivened with some sportsmanlike sparring. (I actually really appreciated the clever "Eflatassoluta" dig.)

But we're still talking past each other on a lot of points, so there are some things to clarify:

I'll repeat that I don't own the term, but neither do the academics: It belongs to Italian operagoers and loggionisti, and perhaps also to critics like Celletti who influence local taste. It's a term that's evolved as their expectations and as the repertory itself has evolved. And how could it not? The word "assoluto" evokes a totality, an all-encompassing-ness, and according to one Italian music encyclopedia it's specifically defined as "un soprano in grado di cantare l'intero repertorio sopranile" (i.e. a soprano who's able to sing the whole of the soprano repertory).

One thing that often isn't appreciated when looking not only at vocal categories (spinto, sfogato, etc.) but also voice terminology in general is how much these bandied-about Italian terms owe to the nuances that are often lost in translation of the colloquial idioms of native speakers. Even that much-abused term, "do di petto" which is usually translated as "chest-voice high C" has, I'm convinced, very little to do with "chest voice", because to do something "di petto" is an idiomatic expression in Italian for doing something passionately, with vigor and conviction and guts. So it really has little if anything to do with technical issues of registration. Bergonzi himself told me that the idea of a high C in "chest voice" is patently absurd. I know that's a digression, but it's just one example of how unfamiliarity with Italian or Italians can create a lot of confusion among Anglophonic commentators.

And so it seems to be with the "assoluta," which when applied to sopranos isn't used by Italians describe singers of select "most difficult" roles, as Takis says; nor is it a "shrine banner" of fan-fetish exclusivity as he also suggests; rather, it implies a soprano whose abilities are INclusive of a totality, i.e. the whole gamut of the repertoire (as the Italians understand it), and not just the heftier i.e. "most difficult" roles.

Getting the linguistic implications is important, because it means we can't "go back to the original use of the term," because the totality of the repertory has changed since the term was coined! Yes, it may have been originally applied to sopranos like Colbran and Pasta and what we would now call mezzos like Malibran and Viardot, none of whom seem to have regularly gone up as high as Sutherland and Callas do in their interpolations (with the possible exception of Pasta). But then a couple of things happened: (1) The demands of soprano rep itself (com'è scritto) was expanded with the advent of late Verdi, Puccini, and verismo composers. (2) The standard performance practice of existing rep (NON com'è scritto) was expanded with the superstardom of songbird "nightingale" sopranos like Jenny Lind and Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani (the original Lucia), both of whom could and did sing up to high F in performance (which makes the oft-repeated claim that Donizetti didn't intend Lucia to be a high coloratura role very suspect, even from a philological point-of-view).

So for an assoluta to be an assoluta, she had to change and branch out with the times. During the early 1800's it was enough to be a dramatic coloratura, and by that standard, Takis is right that singers like Gruberova and Deutekom would be considered assolutas, encompassing roles like Norma, Lucrezia, and early Verdi, all of which require coloratura fireworks. But if we keep that standard, fixed to that point in time, then the term itself no longer makes sense, because the rep now includes a lot of dramatic roles that AREN'T coloraturas, and as far as I know Gruberova and Deutekom haven't touched late Verdi or Puccini. A modern-day "assoluta" would have to.

She would also have to move with the times in terms of audience expectation in bel-canto roles. "Com'è scritto" musicologists may not like it when the bel canto rep is sung with interpolations above a high C that aren't in the original manuscript. (Why don't they insist Elvino is sung in the original keys then?) But just try having an Amina at La Scala who doesn't above a high C and see if she's applauded. It may not be fair, it may not be right, but it's expected of any soprano on the international stage who dares to present those roles. It's not even the E-flat itself--I imagine a lot of sopranos could get away with transposing a lot of the music down a half-tone to a D, etc., and audiences probably wouldn't notice the difference. But in some form or another the "sopracuti" better be there, or else the Italians aren't gonna like it, much less deign to apply THEIR term "soprano assoluta" to the singer. This goes to show that these are LIVING linguistic terms that have very little to do with academic standards of philological correctness. The loggionisti WILL HAVE their sopracuti, or they'll hiss you off the stage. Audience high-note fetishism aside, roles like Lucia DO lie very high in terms of tessitura, even in the original manuscripts and shorn of interpolations. There's a difference between singing up to high C and having to hang out around there for extended passages. And that's why Lucia or Gilda--in any edition--aren't very comfortable sings for a good many "mere" dramatic coloraturas. Like or not, these kinds of roles (if not those very roles themselves) have to be in the wheelhouse of a modern-day assoluta.

In other words, the full range of soprano roles is different from what it was during the time of Colbran when "mezzo soprano" wasn't really in use as a category and a soprano like Colbran had to encompass the demands of roles that nowadays we'd associate with mezzos in order to be an "assoluta". The pendulum has swung in the other direction, and composers and audiences have come to demand of sopranos extremes of either upper extension (in the case of the "nightingale" roles) or of power (in the case of the "spianato" roles of late Verdi, Puccini, verismo, etc.) Sure, sopranos like Colbran still exist. Several of the singers you mentioned--Caballé, maybe Bumbry in her soprano days--probably fit the bill. They're very effective in roles like Santuzza and Lady Macbeth and even Norma that are often sung (or attempted) by mezzos. However, these days the term "soprano sfogato" is most often used by Italians to describe this type of chest-rich singing that's very dramatic and can be alternately florid or veristic, but that wouldn't touch the "songbird" rep. So these "sfogati" sopranos are versatile, and there's plenty of role overlap between them and the "assolutas," but they don't encompass the whole gamut of the rep that the term "assoluta" suggests.

I want to stress, these aren't MY criteria! I'm familiar with the Riggs book Takis mentions, but I'm not altogether comfortable with how he tries to redefine the term with his own, personal criteria. At least he's clear and upfront about it. I quote him: "As for the term  'assoluta' it has come to suggest something very specific--perhaps, too specific: the perfect soprano who is capable of taking on roles only within the soprano range.[...] In my use of the term assoluta by itself to suggest a distinct category, I am expanding these connotations even further beyond soprano limits, thus using assoluta both for a kind of singer and a kind of role. I have chosen this somewhat ad hoc term because, as we shall see, roles like Médée, Lady Macbeth, Norma, and so on, transcend traditional bounds of mezzo, dramatic, and coloratura."

I'm not comfortable with the way he sets the criteria for a term he didn't invent. We can come to some broad agreement on what the kind of soprano the term "assoluta" is meant to describe. What we'll never--and shouldn't--agree on are which singers belong there, because voices by their very nature are hard to pin down. Contrary to what Takis says, I have no problem with the fact that Caballé is included on many of your lists even though my understanding of the term excludes her. In fairness, I should qualify that not all Italians would exclude Caballé from the category. I know and have spoken to many musicians who would, but I'm also aware that there's a book, written by an Italian music-lover (who's actually a lawyer by profession) called "Montserrat Caballé: L'Ultimo Soprano Assoluto":“soprano-assoluto”

But I want to make clear that I have no axe to grind. My favorite Violetta is actually Caballé! I couldn't give a crap that she doesn't sing the high E-flat in "Sempre libera". Heck, my favorite soprano, period, is probably Caballé. Why would I have some kind of personalized agenda to exclude her? I AM trying to be as objective as I can be about this, because I have to select recordings for an hour-long broadcast on the subject for an Italian audience, and I was really worried that I wouldn't be able to come up with more than about 5 singers who the conoscenti would accept, which would've made it difficult to pad out the time. So I'm THRILLED that this thread has brought to light lots more names of sopranos like Siems and Easton who seem to fit the bill very nicely. 

I hope it's clear by now why I resent Takis's statement "Since none of us has actually done any research on this term..." I should also clarify that I agree with one of posters who suggested that assolutas aren't good models for current singers interested in rep choices that promote healthy vocalism. (Milanov's quote to the effect that the only way to sing everything is to sing it "badly" may not apply to assolutas, but it sure applies to the assoluta wannabes who vastly outnumber them.)

One final word: the actual term is "soprano assolutO" with an "o" and not with an "a", because the word "soprano" in Italian is, confusingly, a masculine noun used to refer to a female singer. (I suspect, but can't confirm, that the noun traces its masculine origins either to the time of the castrato, or else to the era of polyphony when only men could sing in the church choirs.) However, when the adjective is shorn of the noun, a singer can sometimes be referred to as an "assoluta" (the type itself, though rarely any single soprano, is often called "l'assoluta"). So to avoid confusion, I've followed the lead of a lot of English writers in calling the voice type "the soprano assolutA" with an "a" even though in strict Italian lexicology that's not correct.

Ciao for now!

--- On Mon, 10/24/11, Takis Pavl. <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

> From: Takis Pavl. <[log in to unmask]>
> Subject: Re: Assoluta once again
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Date: Monday, October 24, 2011, 11:18 AM

> Since none of us has actually done
> any research on this term, lets have a look at the work of
> someone who (hopefully) has, and surprisingly published an
> entire book about his favourite term!  
> It seems to have originated from the time when contraltos
> took over from castrati and sang florid bel canto roles.
> So no Puccini or even Verdi roles for the first assolutas.
> Also there is no mention of the Eflat anywhere since bel
> canto composers just didn't write that note in their scores.
> So the assoluta didn't need an Eflat, what she needed at
> first was the ability to sing florid contralto roles and
> rise up to a high C sometimes. We're talking about singers
> like Isabella Colbran, Maria
> Malibran, Pasta and others. By this original definition
> of assoluta, Cecilia Bartoli qualifies for the title more
> than any of the others mentioned so far, whether you like it
> or not. She has successfully sung and recorded even alto
> roles and has recenly successfully performed Norma, a role
> she is now recording in studio if I'm not mistaken, after
> her also successful recording of Sonnambula (if it's on the
> shelves and it sells as do her concerts, it's a
>  success guys, face it). 
> But moving on to the more recent use of the term, the most
> difficult, therefore defining assoluta roles according
> to this book are: (drums)
> Elisabetta (Roberto Devereux), Gemma di Vergy, Anna Bolena,
> Macbeth, Abigaille, Norma, Kundry (Parsifal), Venus
> (Tannhauser), Sapfo (by Gounod), Cassandre/Didon (Troyens),
> Ariane et Barbe Bleau (Dukas). 
> Since I doubt any soprano has tackled them all, you realise
> there are many sopranos who've sung more or less the
> same amount of defining assoluta roles. Caballe, Callas,
> Theodossiou, Negri, Bumbry, Ricciarelli, Galvany, Tinsley,
> Dimitrova, Deutekom, Amy Shuard etc.
> Now you want to add the Eflat as a defining criterion even
> though the aforementioned roles don't need it. Even
> so, every decade after Callas has had its Eflatassoluta so
> I really don't see that they are so very very rare as you
> say. I'm sure there are more but here's a quick list:
> 50s Callas, Gencer, (did Shuard have an Eflat?)
> 60s Gencer, Sutherland (though she never did the early
> Verdi roles), 
> 70s Deutekom, Sutherland, Galvany, Scotto, Tinsley
> 80s Deutekom, Negri, Sutherland, Tinsley, Stapp 
> 90s Theodossiou, Guleghina, Negri, Gruberova (like
> Sutherland never did early Verdi)
> 00s Theodossiou, Gruberova, Guleghina...
> You may not like them all but fact is, they are assolutas
> according to the book and even your Eflat rule, they have
> been applauded on major stages and some even made
> recordings that are still selling. 
> But everyone, including the writer of this book personally
> decides which roles and singers belong to this assoluta
> category. I say lets go back to the original use of the
> term, someone else also wants Eflats, others also want
> plenty of weight, another one thought Scotto was terrible
> on stage in these roles but then she had an Eflat and her
> recordings still sell...  
> Problem is, this term isn't as clear as the Falcon category
> where one just has to look at the roles Falcon sang and
> match them to the candidate. Therefore I insist, assoluta
> is a nice sticker for a party cap or a shrine banner for
> the people who adore Callas or Gencer but for any other
> occasion 'dramatic coloratura' will do.
> Takis

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