Sunday 16 September 2012

Am I too loud - Melba and Wagner

Melba as Marguerite in 1896
Melba as Marguerite
in 1896

Listening to Dame Nellie Melba’s records we hear a voice which is rather white, but could be described as silvery. With a bit of imagination we can, perhaps, appreciate that live she might have sounded like a description of her voice written in 1931 by the veteran American critic W.J. Henderson; remembering her Metropolitan debut when "the voice was in the plenitude of its glory" he said her voice "has been called silvery, but what does that signify? There is one quality which it had which may be comprehended even by those who did not hear her: it had splendour. The tones glowed with a star-like brilliance. They flamed with a white heat." At the time of her European debuts, she impressed critics with her rare beauty of tone and finish of technique. She is most associated today with roles such as Ophelie (Hamlet) and Marguerite (Faust). (Listen to her on Youtube as Gounod's Juliet)

So what are we to make of the surprising fact that she included Elsa (Lohengrin) and Elisabeth (Tannhauser) in her repertoire, both sung in Italian? Bernard Shaw wasn't an admirer of her Wagner, but her success in these roles was sufficient for her to try singing Brünnhilde (Siegfried) at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1896. Though she had been encouraged to learn the role by her colleague Jean de Reske, who sang Siegfried, this was a notorious failure and she did not attempt any more Wagner, in fact she had to rest her voice for some weeks before singing again.

But what is puzzling today is that she attempted it at all. In all of Melba’s studio recordings and in the live recordings of her 1926 Covent Garden farewell (when she was in her mid 60’s) she retains the same apparently light silvery tone, notable for its clarity and bell-like purity. Though I have heard Brünnhilde sung by a number of different voice types, I cannot even begin to imagine what Melba must have sounded like as Brünnhilde and at first sight, you wonder whether she could have been audible at all.

But before we dismiss this out of hand, we must consider the changes that have happened in the musical world since Wagner’s operas were premiered.

Melba was born in 1861; Wagner’s Ring Cycle was premiered at the Bayreuth Festival in 1876, when Melba was 15. So Melba grew up in a world where the performance tradition of Wagner’s music was new. In the mid 19th century the increase in the size of opera houses and concert halls meant that there was an increased emphasis on singers’ power at the expense of agility and less emphasis on coloratura. Wagner did not really invent the dramatic soprano, but he accelerated a trend that was already happening; though it must be borne in mind that his own performances, with the famous Bayreuth covered pit, must have put less pressure on the singers than subsequent Ring cycles in opera houses where the pits were open.

So our first point must be that to many singers of Melba’s generation, Wagner sopranos were a new, perhaps rare, breed and the notion of a singer of other dramatic roles singing Brünnhilde might not have been as laughable then as it is today.

And Melba did undertake dramatic roles; she was not just a canary, after all Tosca was in her repertoire. But the recording process of the time was not kind to soprano voices; Caruso’s success was partly due to the fact that the primitive recording technology loved his voice. By comparison his soprano colleagues sound pale and wan. Not only must we take much on trust when listening to these early sopranos, but the recording process just does not really give us an accurate picture of how large the voice might be.

Partly this is down to the recording technology. It is worth bearing in mind Dame Eva Turner’s anecdote about her early Aida recordings where, in the triumph scene, she had to be placed behind the whole chorus and orchestra as otherwise her voice was just too powerful for the recording equipment. Listening to this recording today, you get very little feeling for the hugeness of Turner’s voice; power and passion yes, but it is harnessed to a securely focussed voice. We know from later recordings and from live experience that Turner’s voice was large and we must bear in mind that she was originally engaged by Toscanini for Ring performances at La Scala. Even though the 1920’s recording techniques had improved since Melba’s pre-war recordings, we do not completely feel the size of Turner’s voice.

But another issue that we also bear in mind something I touched on above, the focus of the voice. If you listen to many early 20th century singers, something that many have in common is focus, a laser like clarity and purity. This focus is a stylistic issue, post 2nd world war singers are less likely to have it and other styles of vocal production are more common. But a focussed voice can carry great power and still sound deceptive on record; our ears are more attuned to hearing loudness in terms of the greater amplitude of the spread voices of the modern age.

Consider a singer like Kirsten Flagstad who sang for the first 18 years of her career only in Scandinavia and sang everything from opera to operetta and musical comedy. Her training gave her a secure, focussed voice which retained its clarity when she started singing Wagner. One wonders what the recording technology of Melba’s day would have made of Flagstad’s voice.

Isabel Baillie is, perhaps, the English singer most associated with purity, clarity and focus. But she too had her Wagner moment, singing Act 2 of Tristan and Isolde in a broadcast. Famously, Sir Hamilton Harty heard the broadcast and informed her that he would no longer work with her if she persisted in sing Wagner. Again, it is a surprise to us that she attempted it at all, even though the producer of the broadcast was looking to prove a theory about Isolde being a role for a lyric soprano. The tenor on that broadcast was Walter Widdop. Widdop was a Wagner tenor with an international reputation but he ran this career in parallel with singing Handelian oratorio. His Messiah was probably rather heavier and slower than we would consider nowadays, but I suspect that few contemporary Siegmunds posses the sort of clear, focussed voices that would enable them to do a similar feat.

Similarly Lilian Nordica, the dramatic soprano who had expected to sing Brünnhilde in 1896 in New York when Melba took her place, was a renowned dramatic soprano, the first non-German to sing all three Brünnhildes and Isolde. In fact, it was hearing Nordica sing Elsa that caused Melba to add the role to her repertoire. But Nordica continued to programme a wide repertoire of roles ranging from Valentine (in Les Huguenots) to Violetta and even the Queen of the Night (a role she dropped towards the end of her career).

But before we get all romantic about how voice production has changed and how wonderful these old voices were, we must consider the final change that has happened to the musical world. Simply, orchestras have got louder, much louder.

During the first half of the 20th orchestral power increased significantly; strings have replaced metal with gut and the bores of brass instruments have increased, with a commensurate increase in power. At the forefront of this revolution was Arturo Toscanini as these instrumental changes were allied to his campaigns to increase technical skill, discipline and professionalism within the orchestra.

So, in the end, we must probably decide that the past is another country, they do things differently there. We can never, securely re-capture the sound that Melba made when she sang Brünnhilde at the Metropolitan Opera; too much has changed in nearly a century.

I realise that these musings are a very personal view. Undertaking generalisations is always a risky business; there are probably discs out there which could be made to contradict me. But I think that too little consideration is given to the way that singers of the past produced their voices. So, in an age when we are starting to explore Wagner on period instruments, it is worth bearing in mind that without a radical change in the way singers vocalise, these explorations will only bear limited fruit.

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