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Subject: Re: Robert Merrill - A Verdi Baritone?
From: Max Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Max Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sat, 31 Mar 2012 22:52:25 -0700

text/plain (46 lines)

On Mar 31, 2012, at 8:49 PM, James Camner wrote:

> What is a "true Verdi baritone"?  Has anyone hopped a time machine to sample
> Felice Varesi as Rigoletto?
> Was it Victor Maurel of the apparently light thin voice? Battistini, elegant
> and not booming? Giuseppe De Luca, a singer of far more skill and style than
> Merrill or Warren or Bastianini? Schlusnus? Galeffi? Ruffo? Amato? Gobbi?
> Bruson? Tibbett? Stracciari? Of all the baritones in Verdi I've seen live,
> I'd give the palm to Bruson, but was he a "true Verdi baritone"?
> If someone has figured out what is a "true" Verdi soprano, baritone, tenor
> or bass, please post it and explain why you think so, something that isn't
> opinion, but fact based on the scores and not on the singers you grew up
> with and cheered, it would be a great service to those benighted folks like
> myself who don't have the answers.

I think there are vocal qualities implied by the scores.  The scores don't make the actual timbre explicit, but from the character of the music and its expression, I think it's fair to assume that the sound of the voice should be dark enough in quality to both contrast with the lead tenor in these operas and also to carry the often complex and sometimes dark character assigned to these roles.  At the same time, many of these roles spend a great deal of time in the upper fifth of the voice and also require the singer to sustain broad cantilena passages in that range.

So you get the apparent contradiction of the dark voice that is comfortable in the high range and add the ability to sustain long phrases.

Size of the voice is most clearly implied by the orchestration, which is occasionally heavy and with brass in the same octaves.  This says the voice must be a reasonably big one and also that it should have some brightness of timbre.  The shape of the musical line indicates that, even in passages of greatest dramatic outburst, these roles should always be sung and not shouted.

That adds up to dark and bright (yin and yang), big voice, long breath, comfortably sustained in the high tessitura, able to project dramatic outbursts while maintaining a singing tone.

Before getting into interpretive artistry, that says to me that the central requirements would have been met by most of the above singers:  Merrill, Warren, Bruson, Bastianini, Schlusnus, Ruffo, Amato, Stracciari, Tibbett, Lisitsian and, while not everybody loves them, I'd add MacNeil, Milnes, Cappuccilli, Nucci, Chernov, and Wixell.  De Luca and Battistini would both seem to be on the high and even lighter side, but both have such credible credentials in wide ranges of Verdi roles that they have to belong there.   Gobbi didn't have the ease of sustained cantilena in the high register that some of these guys did, but he managed it and had interpretive and musical artistry (more on that below) that more than made up, as well as an incredibly solid "sit" to the middle voice.   Hvorostovsky is also, I think, on the edge because of the relative softness of the timbre of his voice, but he's worked his way into legitimacy as a Verdi baritone.  For my ear, Hampson still has not and Fischer-Dieskau never did.  Keenlyside, however, is getting there.

The nature of the many of the characters in these Verdi baritone roles implies acting ability, with the voice as well as the persona.  The baritone characters are not only multi-faceted, they tend to have more inner conflicts and causes for bitterness and unhappiness than their tenor colleagues, which is why they're often busy inflicting pain on the tenor and soprano characters in these operas.  That speaks possibly to a level of complexity and intellect on the part of the interpreter and we certainly got these with Gobbi, de Luca, Warren, Bruson, Tibbett and now Keenlyside.  I should include Hampson and Fischer-Dieskau in that latter category, but somehow I find that both of those singers (and it's probably not fair to pair them that way), for all their sensitivity and intelligence and ability to paint with words, just don't seem to connect properly with the shape and flow of this music.  At least the way I hear it.  

However, it's not so simple.  The music for these characters is so beautifully crafted by Verdi that if a singer lacks the actual understanding and ability to modulate vocal color that would be ideal, if the sound of the voice meets all of the requirements and the singer is able to sing the words clearly and well, the music will often convey the complexity of character even if the singer doesn't consciously do so.  I think this allows a singer like Merrill or MacNeil (who actually became an interesting interpreter when his purely vocal luxuriance started to desert him) to make a greater dramatic effect in Verdi's music than they might, in fact, deserve to do or be able to achieve in other music.

Max Paley

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