Commentary Magazine


Dead from Lincoln Center

Evidence that a massive expansion of the American opera public might be possible has been gathering since the beginning of the 20th century. The first great expansion took place with the popularity of acoustic recordings of opera excerpts shortly after 1900. This era, closely associated with the tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), brought the hit tunes of the great operatic composers into every home aspiring to culture. After 1925, with electrical recording, came the presentation of famous operas in essentially complete form. More importantly, the advent of radio brought live performances, free to anyone with the price of a cheap set, by the reigning opera stars of the day singing under commercial sponsorship; those listeners with the desire and the patience to sit through a whole afternoon were able, from the mid-1930’s on, to hear weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts featuring international casts.

After World War II, the LP made possible the recording of the entire known operatic repertory, and the exploration of sizable parts of the forgotten repertory; thanks to the LP’s low price and improved reproduction, listening in the home became a viable economic and artistic substitute for attendance at live performances. Television, too, seemed to promise much for the cause of opera, including even contemporary opera; the NBC Opera Theater, a project much beloved of RCA’s (and thus NBC’s) then-czar David Sarnoff, presented new works specially written for the screen. This particular promise, however, unfortunately petered out after the 1950’s with the increasingly total abdication by commercial television of any responsibility for the life of serious culture in the United States.

From the mid-1970’s on, the future of opera on the highest level for a mass audience clearly lay with public television and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Indeed, one of the great hopes of public television, advanced sincerely by some of its backers and cynically by others, was that opera “at its best” could thereby be made available to an American audience otherwise limited by low income, poor education, or geographical location away from the great cities. Because nothing but the best—or at least the most famous—was thought to be good enough for this projected new audience, PBS began to broadcast Metropolitan Opera productions, bathed and over-bathed in the kind of glitter associated with opera for the past century and more.

But watching long operas on television, after all, requires a rather greater attention span from the audience than anyone in television might reasonably expect. And so it was soon realized that even Met offerings, restricted as they were to presenting complete works, failed to capitalize sufficiently on the stars in their casts. Now was born the celebrity recital, in which short excerpts highlighting the vocal strengths of these stars could be sold as delivering not just the best of opera, but the best of the best.

The chief beneficiary of this process on public television during the past decade has undoubtedly been the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, born in Modena in 1935. Pavarotti’s career has risen spectacularly since the mid-1960’s. Every success (save for a film career) has been his: roles with every major opera company, widely publicized song recitals before huge audiences, and innumerable recordings for Decca/London, capped by triumphant appearances on public television, not just in opera but in recitals of varied material including Christmas carols and those staples of the popular tenor’s repertory, Italian folk songs. Through a combination of vocal strength, a teddy-bear personality on and off the stage, vastly astute commercial management, and real popular appeal, Pavarotti bids fair to join Caruso and Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957) in the ranks of the most commercially successful tenors of the Italian tradition.

One of Pavarotti’s closest associates on the stage has been the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland. Born in Sydney in 1926, she came to London in 1951, where she studied at the Royal College of Music and soon gained a contract with the Covent Garden opera company. Beginning without a specialty in any particular repertory, under the tutelage of the young Australian conductor and pianist Richard Bonynge (whom she married in 1954), Sutherland turned to florid 18th-century compositions and to the Italian and French dramatic coloratura repertory of the 19th century, and therein found her métier. After her 1959 Covent Garden appearance in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Sutherland embarked upon a conquest of the most brilliant and difficult works—always, however, excluding the great German operas of Wagner and Strauss—written for the female voice. From Handel through Bellini to Massenet, the singing of Sutherland in performance and on records (again, as with Pavarotti, for Decca/London) has made operatic history.

The first joint appearance of Sutherland and Pavarotti seems to have been in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Greater Miami Opera in March 1965. In the same year they sang together in Bellini’s La Sonnambula at Covent Garden, and then in these two operas, along with Verdi’s La Traviata, in the performances, promoted and directed by the soprano and her husband throughout Australia, of the Sutherland Williamson International Grand Opera Company. Since then they have often collaborated in the opera house, on records, and on television: not only do they work comfortably together as singers, but Pavarotti’s height and imposing stature make him a suitable partner for the tall and equally imposing Sutherland. All this is photographically documented, together with many pictures of them at work and en famille, in two large and glossy books published last year, The Joan Sutherland Album, compiled by Sutherland and her husband (along with a short tribute by Pavarotti)1 and in Martin Mayer’s Grandissimo Pavarotti2.

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And so it must have seemed natural for PBS—and the Met, its favorite (and almost sole) operatic presentor—to bring these two artists together this winter in a “gala” appearance, taped in the Metropolitan Opera on January 11, and televised across the nation on March 4. There was, not surprisingly, the usual discovery of an “anniversary” to celebrate. In this case, indeed, there were, according to the honeyed but frenetic patter of host Joanne Woodward, actually two: the 25th anniversaries of Sutherland’s debut at the Met and of Pavarotti’s operatic debut at a little theater in Italy.

Instead of simply singing single arias and duets, Sutherland and Pavarotti this time presented three fairly substantial staged excerpts, conducted by Richard Bonynge, from operas in which they have often collaborated: Lucia di Lammermoor, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and the same composer’s La Traviata. These passages, all imperishable moments of the high tragedy of doomed love central to grand opera, provide famous singers with every opportunity for the kind of vocal and theatrical acting that goes beyond the striking of rhetorical attitudes to the creation of personality: not the familiar personality of the singer, not the formulaic personality of a character out of literary history, but rather the amalgam which results from a great actor’s total penetration of, and immersion in, the character being portrayed.

Perhaps it is enough of a verdict on the Sutherland-Pavarotti performances of these stirring scenes to remark that the most distinguished feature of the telecast was the evidence provided of the enormous improvement recently made in the television transmission of music. Heard on reasonably good equipment rather than through a standard home television set, the sound now approaches in fullness and lack of distortion that available on the FM stereo simulcasts which often accompany the original, though not the repeat, television broadcasts.

The trouble, however, is that the basic sound of broadcast opera today, whether heard via television or radio, unfortunately resembles all too closely the slick electronic packaging of pop singers. This sound is the master confection of multitrack recording, constant and intrusive variations in the mixing of these tracks, and musical decisions made by engineers and directors sitting in a control truck, not by musicians satisfying their own ears as they go about the business of performing. All this fiddling at the controls produces an artificial and unmusical loudness and nearness, in place of the natural variation of balances which conductors must employ to suggest not only dramatic atmosphere but even musical structure itself. Thus the stars, when they are singing, always sound brash and close; when they are not singing, the orchestra—even when playing minor introductory accompaniment figures—is quite literally flung in the listener’s ears. The result is a spurious glossiness, with the aesthetic tension created and sustained by the sheer level of decibels rather than by artistic intelligence and the evocation of authentic emotion.

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Electronics aside, the Sutherland-Pavarotti telecast had precious little to contribute to the experience of great opera. There is, I suppose, plenty of virtuosity in their work, if by virtuosity one means accurate, dependable, forceful, and generally pleasant singing. But the fact is that when isolated, virtuosity in singing, as in all other branches of musical performance, all too easily becomes mere virtuosity, the cultivation of display for its own sake.

In the case of Sutherland’s performances as Lucia, as Gilda in Rigoletto, and as Violetta in Traviata, it was impossible to escape the impression that the singer brought no more to her work than a pretty, phenomenally agile—though essentially impersonal and, at least to my ears, often unfocused—voice and a generalized musicality. Of differentiation among the contrasting characters of the unstable and vulnerable Lucia, the ultimately heroic Gilda, and the febrile yet passionate Violetta, there was almost no trace either in voice or in stage deportment. As she sang in an all-purpose voice, there was an all-purpose look on her face, as if an expression of worried and matronly concern—rarely even rising to agitation—could be a substitute for the creation of tragic character. Nor was there anything authentic or moving in her rendering of the characteristic sound of the Italian vowels and consonants, so flavorful in themselves and so necessary, not just for conveying the story but for giving an appropriately Italianate ring to the singer’s voice and to the music.

Considered solely in terms of vocalism (but excepting, of course, the problem of poor diction), Sutherland’s voice retains, at sixty, much of its youthful bloom and ease in both melodic and ornamented passages;3 it is this bloom and ease which have been responsible for her position as the queen of 20th-century bel canto—of the virtuoso repertory of Handel, the pre-Verdi Italians, and the French composers of the second half of the 19th century.

It is often said that Sutherland, with the vital help of Bonynge, has resuscitated this repertory, which had languished in our time for lack of competent performers. This way of putting the matter, so assiduously fostered by publicists, does scant justice to Maria Callas (1923-1977), whose commanding performances of the operas of Bellini and Donizetti—in addition to many staples of the later repertory—awakened new dramatic and especially musical interest in once-familiar works. Indeed, the recorded evidence suggests that Sutherland’s mere virtuosity falls far short of Callas’s phenomenal musical and dramatic achievement. Like Sutherland, Callas made many recordings; her numerous commercial recordings compete with a seemingly endless stream of “pirate” versions taken from radio broadcasts. In the case of the three operas performed by Sutherland on the telecast with Pavarotti, the Callas recordings, whether commercial or “pirate,” are quite sufficient in every case—despite what must be called undeniable technical vocal flaws—to convey an unparalleled force of dramatic character in a voice of haunting and plangent quality.4 As a singing actress Callas is at her greatest—and Sutherland is at her weakest—in Lucia, where every note must suggest the heroine’s impending doom. To put it simply, Callas, here as elsewhere, uses her voice to create unforgettable character; Sutherland uses hers merely to convince the listener that she possesses a great voice.

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I am not sure that even this much can be said of Luciano Pavarotti. Like a tennis player who is used to getting all his first serves in, Pavarotti has always seemed to belt all his notes out with the confidence of a supreme professional. And though hardly a flattering verb, “belt” is, I am afraid, the right one to describe Pavarotti’s physically (though not emotionally) jaunty method of delivery. Always brilliant rather than warm and resonant, Pavarotti’s voice, unlike Sutherland’s, has lost its youthful bloom and ease;5 in place of these qualities, so estimable in an Italian tenor, Pavarotti today puts a kind of breathless determination, as if physical effort and concentration might just possibly serve to get the notes out in a winning way.

Of differentiated character in his vocal and dramatic portrayals, Pavarotti conveys surprisingly little more than Sutherland—surprisingly, that is, considering the distance which separates the libidinous Duke in Rigoletto from the tormented Edgardo in Lucia and the serious Alfredo in La Traviata. It is true that the great Italian tenors with whom Pavarotti is often compared, namely Caruso and his successor, Gigli, were not great actors either. But judging from the recorded evidence, they hardly needed to be.

Caruso, even in our digitalized age, remains the touchstone by which tenors in this music are judged. His discs, all made by the primitive acoustic process, have now been remarkably improved through a method of computer restoration.6 This technique removes the spurious resonances added to the recording by the wooden horn which, in lieu of a microphone, mechanically focused the sound onto the wax discs as they were being cut. The result of the reworking is astonishingly lifelike so far as the voice is concerned; even the weak accompanying instruments, always a problem in acoustic recording, are strengthened. Two excerpts from Act IV of Rigoletto—La donna è mobile and the quartet Bella figlia dell’amore—made in the first months of 1908, show Caruso in what can only be called juicy voice, with a rich middle and upper register and a brilliant and free top.7 There is in the quality of Caruso’s voice what can only be called joy in singing; there is also a marvelously Mediterranean joy in music and life.

This same joy colors Gigli’s art. Lighter in timbre than Caruso’s, and even warmer, his voice can perhaps best be described as the musical equivalent of Italian sunlight and the very best olive oil. Perhaps Gigli made some special use of these national elements of weather and food; unlike Pavarotti, who now seems to have lost the musical quality of his sound, Gigli kept his voice well into his fifties and sixties,8 singing with seemingly vast reserves of color and breath.

As heard in records from the prime of his career in the 1920’s, Gigli’s combination of finesse and ardor now seems overwhelming. In the opening of the Rigoletto quartet, sung coarsely and brazenly by Pavarotti, Gigli uses his undoubted vocal sensuality to flatter, not to taunt.9 Whereas Pavarotti was both strained and restrained in the closing scene of Lucia on the telecast, Gigli’s recording of this extended passage, made in 1927 with the excellent bass Ezio Pinza and the equally excellent Metropolitan Opera Chorus, is youthful and impulsive.10

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The decline of singing in our time is, I know, an old story. The situation was well put by the English music critic Alan Blyth in his introduction to Opera on Record, the indispensable book of annotated discographies he edited in 1979:

There can be no doubt that artists in the early part of the century took a more liberal view of the score in hand and justified such liberties by giving a more personal view of the music, enhanced by a greater care over, and love for, words. Their techniques in most cases being more secure, they could devote themselves more fully to thoughts about vocal interpretation. Today, singers are more musically respectable but, as a result, often more dull.

Because Blyth’s focus was on singing, one element in the present state of opera performance today was left out. The missing element is the role of the conductor. The very greatest singers can work—or at least they think they can—without a great conductor; for these superstars a conductor is, and must always be, nothing more than a facilitator, a gentle and complaisant traffic cop who keeps everyone and everything, often including the drama of the music, out of the superstar’s way. Therefore, conductors of decided opinions and forceful personality are rarely chosen as collaborators by celebrity singers. (In fairness, it must also be said that, for their part, great conductors rarely choose to work with superstar soloists.) However, there is more to being an opera conductor than keeping the orchestra down, following the singers, and taking tempos famous soloists are comfortable with. If the conductor’s conception of the opera being performed is not a gripping one, the audience in its turn will not be gripped by the opera, and instead will be captured, if it is captured at all, by the individual singers on stage. Delightful as this prospect may be for great singers, it is dismal for anyone hoping to witness the total art work that a great opera can be.

For Joan Sutherland, the ideal of a perfect conductor is her husband and musical guide, Richard Bonynge. As a singer she seems truly happy only when he is in the pit accompanying her. To judge by the number of recordings and performances Sutherland and Bonynge have done with Luciano Pavarotti, the tenor too is happy with Bonynge. Unfortunately, however valuable Bonynge is to Sutherland as a vocal coach and musical influence, he is, on the evidence of a career going back more than thirty years, an undistinguished and uninteresting conductor. Although Sutherland—and others—may be happy with this arrangement, the ultimate loser is the musical integrity of the operatic work being performed.

And so it turned out on the Sutherland-Pavarotti telecast. The orchestral playing in general, and pizzicato playing in particular, was ragged throughout, as if at crucial moments the musicians were not quite sure when to play. Tempos were bouncy rather than taut, and the relationship of the tempos to each other seemed more accidental and random than necessary. Loudness was substituted for drama, and lush, heavy tone for emotion. A listener coming to these works for the first time might be forgiven for thinking himself in a world of popular music, of overblown tunefulness and sweeping melodies going nowhere.

But once again, recorded evidence proves, if such proof be needed, that great conductors can make all the difference in opera. Tullio Serafin’s engrossing performances of Lucia with Callas, mentioned above, bring a kind of rhythmic weight and seriousness to Donizetti’s music that lifts the opera from the level of a star vehicle to the level of tragedy. Carlo Maria Giulini’s conducting, in the last act of the “pirate” La Traviata with Callas, despite its poor recorded quality, is incredibly delicate and poignant, sounding at times almost like an anticipation of Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande.

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Not surprisingly, the most purposeful conducting on records of two of the telecast operas has been done by Arturo Toscanini, undoubtedly the greatest of all Italian conductors, and perhaps the greatest conductor of the 20th century.11 It was Toscanini’s achievement to purge Rigoletto and La Traviata—and much other music besides—of the accumulated sentimentality foisted upon them by generations of weak-willed but opportunistic interpreters. Though he used many first-class singers—among them such native Americans as Leonard Warren, Jan Peerce, Nan Merriman, and Robert Merrill—the animating intelligence in these performances was the conductor’s own; the result, in terms of orchestral playing, is a firmness and certainty of execution not possible when the vagaries of singers rule the musical roost. Because Toscanini, as was his wont, kept the tempos strict and the prevailing texture of the orchestra lean, both Rigoletto and La Traviata emerge as masterworks of ennobling emotional directness. In listening to these records, it is difficult indeed not to feel that here is the ultimate justification for all the egotisms of famous conductors: at their best, they truly know how the music goes.

Today, more than thirty years after his death, Toscanini is as controversial as he was during his long life. He is currently the subject of an indignant and often unfair attack (though one containing much fascinating material about American musical life in the first half of the 20th century) by the music critic Joseph Horowitz.12 Curiously, this blistering attack is not aimed at Toscanini’s real or alleged musical shortcomings, though Horowitz’s taste does tend to run to less tense and more thoughtful Germanic music-making. Toscanini’s real crime, for Horowitz, lay in his celebrity appeal to a large and unsophisticated audience, an appeal he quite willingly accepted and even cannily encouraged. Horowitz, in his zeal to confront the very idea of the marketing of musical reputations, criticizes even such renowned associates of Toscanini as the violinist Jascha Heifetz and the pianist Vladimir Horowitz.

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Certainly it is tempting, as one looks at today’s crop of musical celebrities, to work backward as Joseph Horowitz does to the conclusion that any artist who becomes the object of ballyhoo must somehow be undeserving of respect. The taste left in the mouth by all the many “Live From Lincoln Center” concerts and their ilk is an unpleasant one; the constant selling of not-quite-first-rate artists as historically great figures, and as entrancing human beings into the bargain, is indeed hard to stomach.

But there is a world of difference between a Caruso, a Gigli, a Callas, or a Toscanini, on the one hand, and a Sutherland, a Pavarotti, an Itzhak Perlman, or a Zubin Mehta, on the other. However great our disgust at the musical antics and the electronic gimcrackery on television, there is nothing wrong with selling a truly great artist. Indeed, music needs celebrity performers, not just because they bring new audiences to art but also because, when they are the real thing, they permanently shape our ideas of how great music sounds.

It has been clear for many years that we are living on the inherited capital of the great music of the past. Despite the present critical vogue for performances of old music and despite the original-instrument boom, it is now becoming increasingly plain that we are also living on the capital of the great recorded performers of the past. For the time being, we are largely dependent upon these performers, both for a convincing account of the works themselves and for a true standard by which to measure musical life today. One hopes that soon we will once again have a few new celebrities worthy of being sold, and worthy even of being oversold. One hopes, too, that these new celebrities will be encouraged to use the immense possibilities of television to bring serious musical culture to the largest possible audience.

But whatever the future may hold, the recent Sutherland-Pavarotti telecast demonstrates once again that our current celebrities just do not measure up.

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Footnotes

1 Simon & Schuster, 191 pp., $19.95. Full biographical material on Sutherland may be found in Brian Adams, La Stupenda (Hutchinson of Australia, 1980).

2 Doubleday, 224 pp., f40.00. Mayer's book, though clearly an authorized effort of adulation, also includes much solid biographical material in addition to many pictures, and even some interesting comments on the art of singing.

3 Documentation of the state of Sutherland's voice at the beginning of her international career is currently available, in up-to-date remasterings of the three operas excerpted on the telecast. Her 1961 Lucia may be found on London 411622-1 LJ3; her 1962 Rigoletto is on London 42012; her 1963 La Traviata is on London JL 42010. Comparison of these recordings of a quarter-century ago with her most recent singing makes clear that, though her voice has suffered remarkably little from the passage of time, her ability to create dramatic character has grown scarcely if at all.

4 Callas's recordings of these operas, dating from a time before her final tragic vocal decline, are also available: her 1955 Berlin Lucia, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, is available in a “pirate” version on Replica 23; her commercial recordings of the same opera, dating from 1953 and 1959 and both conducted by Tullio Serafin, are available, respectively, on Seraphim IB 6032 and on the even more deeply characterized EMI/Angel AVB-34066 (remastered); her remastered 1955 Rigoletto, again conducted by Serafin, is available on EMI/Angel AVB-34069; her 1955 “pirate” La Traviata, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, is (or was) available on Paragon 78-157 F.

5 Pavarotti's recordings—all with Sutherland—of the three operas excerpted on the telecast are the 1971 Lucia, on London OSA-13103, the 1971 Rigoletto, on London OSA-13105, and the 1981 La Traviata, on London LDR-73002. The change over the years in Pavarotti's voice is easily demonstrated by comparing the youthful freshness of his singing in the famous aria La donna è mobile from Rigoletto and the subsequent introduction to the equally famous quartet Bella figlia dell'amore on the 1971 recording with the stentorian bleating of the same passages on the current telecast.

6 At the present time, Volumes 4 through 16 (with the exception of Volumes 9, 12, and 13) of The Complete Caruso, covering the years 1906 through 1919, are available from RCA.

7 The Complete Caruso, 1908-09, Volume 5, RCA ARMI-2767.

8 This remarkable vocal survival is documented in the many performances recorded between Gigli's fifty-seventh and sixty-fifth years. They have recently been available in an HMV Treasury album, EMI RLS 732.

9 The Rigoletto quartet, with the great singers Amelita Galli-Curci, Louise Homer (composer Samuel Barber's aunt!), and Giuseppe de Luca, in addition to Gigli, was recently available on Seraphim 60054, and also on Seraphim IC-6136, mentioned below in note 10.

10 This performance, along with numerous other gems, was available on LP as Seraphim IC-6136. It is still available on cassette tape as Seraphim 4XG-60054.

11 Toscanini's recording of the final act of Rigoletto, taken from a 1944 Red Cross benefit concert in Madison Square Garden, was available on RCA Victrola VIC-1314. My copy of his La Traviata, taken from an NBC broadcast in December 1946, is on RCA (Germany) 26.35008 DP.

12 Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music, Knopf, 492 pp., $30.00.

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