It may cause some surprise to learn that the Operatic Tenor, the present-day superstar of the Operatic world was in fact the latecomer into the operatic scene. Up until the beginning of the 19th century, the principal male operatic hero, was a Castrato. A breed that demands a place in operatic history on their own. This is not the place to discuss at length the wonders and attributes of these astonishing male soprano and contralto singers. But even here their existence must be acknowledged. For they represented the age of Bel Canto. An age when the singer reign supreme.
What were they like? That has been a question asked down through the years, and we, who can never hear them, can only read and wonder. Henry Pleasance summed them up in his book ‘The Great Singers’. They practiced in an age when one looked not so much to the composer of the librettist as a source of suspense and tension, as to the singer, and he, a soloist, had to make do without the harmonic vocabulary and the articular orchestra of 19th Century Opera. He was on his own.
He had to develop his own devices and techniques and he employed them to a large extent improvisational whether in the theater, at court, in church or in the salon. The mere aria or cantata provided a melodic skeleton or a framework, to be completed by the singer from his own repertoire of ornaments, embellishments, graces, roulades, trills, portamenti, arpeggios, rubato, octave skips, melodic deviations, alterations, and variations and so on. Little wonder then, that the great castrati represent a constant source of wonder, to those of us interested in the vocal art.
The last of them was Giovanni Battista Velluti 1781 – 1861 and one illustration will perhaps tell us what they were about. We meet him in 1813 at the rehearsal of Rossini’s new opera or a leano impermira in Milan.
Stendo tells us the story. Velutti was then, in the full bloom of his youth and vigour, at the very height of his genius, and incidentally, one of the handsomest men of his century and he made shameless abuse of his prodigious gifts. Rossini had never actually heard of this outstanding singer on the stage, nonetheless he sat straight away and composed the main cavatina which was to belong to the Ro.
At the first rehearsal with the orchestra Velluti sang the aria straight through and Rosinni was dazzled with admiration. At the second rehearsal Velluti began to embroider the melody and Rossini finding the result most eqisite and performance and in keeping with his own intention as composer, approved. But at the third rehearsal, the original pattern of the melody had almost entirely disappeared beneath a marvellous filigree work of embroidery and arabesque.
At last, it donned the great day of the premier. The cavatina itself and in fact Velutti’s whole performance created a furore. But Rossini found himself confronted with his superable difficulties in trying to identify, what Velutti was supposed to be singing, (his own music in fact) had grown completely unrecognisable. For all that however, Velutti’s performance was a thing of unparalleled beauty and enjoyed popularity with the audience, which after all, can never be blamed for applauding something which it so whole heartedly enjoys.
The young composer’s vanity was deeply wounded, his opera was a failure and all the applause had gone to Velutti, his soprano. Rossini was always quick to size up a situation and instantly drew the inevitable conclusions. In future, he would write down his own ornamentation and insist that the singers use it and nothing else.
The age of Bel Canto was over.
Velutti was in fact, surrounded by many excellent tenors throughout his career and he lived to see tenors assume that supreme station among males in operatic hierarchy, that they have enjoyed and abused to this day.
And so, to our first great superstar tenor and he was to be the incomparable Giovanni Batista Rubini. Born in 1795, he was the first normal male to achieve international renowned and a huge popular following, corresponding to that hitherto reserved for prima donnas and tostrate and to command or commence a retrease. One might assume, that this new kind of Tenor, would be the forerunner of the dramatic or Ludo Cos Pinto Tenor that we know today.
Rubini was nothing of the kind, he was rather an ungelded castrato.
He had a port marked face, an awkward figure and showed neither taste nor care in dress. He was an indifferent actor or no actor at all. In that Opera, he walked through his parts, didn’t bother much with resisitives paid some attention to his duties and concerted numbers and awaited his moment, possibly just one aria in one entire Opera.
And then he sang. He was simply, all-singer.
Chorley noted happily in his book, 30 years musical record collections, that there never was an artist who seemed so thoroughly and intentionally to enjoy his own singing, a persuasion he added cogently which cannot fail to communicate itself to audiences. As a singer and nothing but a singer, he’s the only man of his class, deserves to be named in these pages. No-one in my experience so merely and exclusively a singer, as he was, so entirely enchanted our public so long as a shed of voice was left in him, no-one is more affectionately remembered.
In 1843, he toured with List and it was probably Rubini more than anyone who provided the famous lisht remark that he had learned to phrase on piano from listening to great singers.
Later in the same year, Rubini went to St Petersburg, where he was made Director of singing in the realm of Zarr Nicolas the 1st and a Colonal of the imperial music.
He returned to Italy about 1845 and retired to his birthplace Romano de Lombarde, near Bergamo to live out his life with one of the greatest of fortunes ever amast on the stage. There, he built a splendid palazzo preserved to this day as a Rubini Museum and there, on March 24th, 1854, he died, and with his last breath, the age of the singer supreme, the true age of Bel Canto, in fact, expired with him.
For now, the age of grand opera was about to dawn, and a new kind of Tenor would be required to meet its demands. The first of the new breed was Domenico Donzelli who’s dark baritonal tenor voice was a forerunner of all those baritone come tenors such as Deresci, Zenetello, Zeneli and Melta.
But the most important Tenor of this period was the first of the great French Tenors Adolf Nuri born in 1802. This wonderful singing actor was the father of all those great dramatic singing actors from Tamborli, Tamponini, Deresce, Silesak, Caruzo, Martinelli de Domingo of the present day. He was probably the most creative tenor of all time, the roles written specifically for him include the lead in Rossini’s was in Egypt, the siege of Compt, Ori and William Tell. Oberze Gustaffe 3rd and Romerdo, Dapocitti, Elevuis, Joivieve, Robert the Devil and the Guinot.
Indeed, until Verdi and Wagner came along, it could be said that Nuri virtually single handed had made a repertoire for the new dramatic Tenor. His reign at the Paris Opera lasted from 1826 to 1837 when his great rival and countryman Dupre and have to sing one of his Nuri’s roles Arnold in William Tell.
This was too much for Nuri who withdrew from the Opera and spent the remaining two years of his life touring the French Provinces and Italy. While the public and the critics argued the merits of the situation and of the two Tenors.
Nuri was disconsolate, feeling that the less sophisticated art of the acting singer had triumphed over his own more refined accomplishment as a singing actor.
He never felt quite at home away from Paris, although he was successful enough even in Italy. He developed symptoms of mental illness and early in the morning of the 8th of March 1939, he jumped to his death from the window of his 3rd floor apartment in Naples When his body was passing through Marsais on its way back to Paris, there was a funeral service in the church of Notre Dam du Mor on April 24th, 1839. The organist was one of Nuri’s many friends, Frederick Chopin.
Unusually, the next great Tenor was another Frenchman.
A great rival and countryman Jeuvere Deverre Dupres, part of whose operatic fame, was that he was the very first Tenor to sing the high C from the chest. He had been singing in Italy for 10 years.
Creating Egardo in Luicia de Lambomuir in Naples in 1835, when he made his sensational debut in the Paris Opera as Arnold in William Tell 1837. This stentorian high ‘C’ and his fine rasombre was shortened the life of his voice and deprived him of the great variety of nuance and vocal color that so distinguished Nuri’s singing of the same dramatic repertoire.
He seemed to have the urge, not uncommon amongst small Tenors, to compensate for his diminutive size by producing stentorian tones.
“What”! Screamed a ballet girl, when he appeared for the dress rehearsal of his first William Tell in Paris, that toad, impossible. Rossini did not admire his high ‘C’ and when he first heard it in his own home, expresses his opinion by looking to see if any of his precious Venetian glass has been shattered. In any event by 1849 he had sung himself out and although only 43, he retired.
He lived to be 89, remaining active as a successful teacher and unsuccessful composer.
Although the line of the great Italian dramatic tenors conveniently dated from Dunzelli, the first to display fully, the characteristics, now commonly associated with Italian dramatic Tenors was Enrico Tambourlick 1820 – 1889.
Between Donzelli and Tambourlick had come the Frenchman Nuride and Deprese with a new repertoire provided for them by Rossini, Baleve, Obere, Berliose and of course Maibir.
Tambourlick sang his French repertoire as well as Donzelli’s great roles of Otelo and Porlioni but he added to it a new kind of Italian Ro provided by Verde. Among the Verde roles were Monrico il Quavatore and the Duke in Rigoletto.
The title role in Irmani and the role of Don Ovaro in la fort da del Castino which he created in St Petersburgh in 1862. He also sang the title role in Guinos Faust and the role of Hugo in The Faust of Louispore.
This repertoire, which also included Don Italio in Don Giovanni suggests both a considerable versatility and the kind of voice midway between the lyric tenor and a heavy tonora robusto, that has been the glory of the greatest Tenors. Notably Deresci, De Lucia, Caruso, Jieudenere, Lauri-Volpi, Fleta and Bjorling.
These have all been singers who could bring virility as well as sweetness to lyric roles and leaving the vaemence of the most dramatic parts of lyrical singing. Tambourlick’s repertoire makes it evident that he was such a singer. His High ‘C’, and even a full voiced ‘C’ sharp interpolated in Rossini’s Otello was doubtless a decisive contribution to the high note scourge. PJ Hurst in his Age of Non Duresci, recorded a viable of Otello Tambourlick in the London season of 1877 and how the evenings triumph was due to the famous ‘C’ sharp ringing out with such extraordinary power and freshness, at an repetition passage towards a demanded and granted.
Tambourlick was then 57, suggesting that such ventures cost him less of his life’s blood and vocal resources, than they had cost Dupres. His voice showed signs of decay elsewhere, but at that age, it could hardly be counted against a high note alone. He belonged, apparently, to that lucky tribe, among whom, the high note, was the last to go. Lazaro, Martinelli, Zenatello, Lauri-Volpi are other typical examples. It was Tambourlick too, who added the high ‘C’ to Dequelapira in the Ultra Viltoire, with Verde’s permission, although he warned Tambourlick and all future Tenors, that they had better be good.
He was not without fault; he had a persistent vibrato and a tendency to sing out of time occasionally. It was Rossini who had correctly foreseen that Dupres’s high ‘C’ from the chest, would surely prompt someone to try the High ‘C’ sharp. Tambourlick it was, who first succeeded and again not to Rossini’s liking. When visiting Rossini’s home, he was requested to leave his ‘C’ sharpe in the vestibule, along with his hat and cloak.
Although born in Rome, he seems to have sung little in Italy. He made his debut in Naples but sang in Lisbon, Madrid and Barcelona, before arriving in London in 1850. The only Tenor of his time, capable of surviving against Mario. Thereafter he was regularly in London for the season. At other times, he was in St Petersburgh or Madrid, or touring in North or South America. He had an afinitive of Spain and Madrid at the close of his career. Building a new life as an arms manufacturer.
However celebrated Nurite, Deprese and Tambourlick may have been, they were not in fact, the true success to Rubini an international acclaim and esteem. That mantle fell upon the shoulders of Giovanni Martio Mario Cavalerie de Cania known then, and forever simply as Mario. For 30 years he was the world’s ranking Tenor. He created no roles of any historical account.
In the Mire Bier operas, which were among his best he probably surpassed Nurite and Duprese, in beauty of voice and elegance of person, but he lacked the dramatic force and ferver.
He sang Rubini’s roles with less eccentricity than Rubini, but without his art and invention. As Chorley observed, Rubini, in the modern Tenor Italian repertoire began, in roles destined for him by Donizetti and Bellini had been such an extraordinary virtuoso, the composers were tempted to write for him, what no-one but Rubini could sing.
As an Aristocrat, he entered music as an amateur and he was simply so good that the profession took hold of him.
He started straight at the top, his veer taking place in 1838 in Mire Biers Robert The Devil, at the Paris opera, then the world’s greatest opera house. At 28, he was a late beginner by the standards of that time or any other time.
At the top he stayed and although not a truly creative singer, he established certain criteria in matters of appearance, dress, and deportment, that were accepted as models by later Tenors, intelligent enough to acknowledge, the validity of any criteria other than vocal. He was probably the prototype of the romantic Tenor, more often imagined than seen. He married a celebrated Soprano Verio Gereze, and when they were joined by the great base and the bass baritone singers, Luigi Lablache and Antonio Tambourini, they formed an elitist group, known as The Great Quartet.
Their reign endured for roughly 25 years from 1835 to 1860, and the symbol of their identity and supremacy was Don Pasqualle written for them by Donizetti in 1843. They came to be known affectionately as the Olgarde and concentrated on the Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti repertoire in which they were unequaled in their day. Mario outlived Greze by 14 years and with his voice in decline, he outlived his prosperity too. A fortune had been dissipated and in circumstances towards the end, were so pitiable, that in London, a Concert was given for his benefit. He died in Rome on Dec 11th, 1883.
The retirement of Mario ushered in what has become known as, the last golden age of Opera. They may well have been the most golden of all. It certainly was the most diversified.
Henry Pleasance again. “The Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini repertorie was still sung, and it was sung well, although some of the old stand-bys stood no more. My ideas of bute had been admented by the prophet and lafrican. The tradition of Florence song had been nourished not by Italian composers curiously, but by the French. In the operas of Ghuno, Toma, Derelib and Masmait. Beze with Carmen had anticipated of the verisial Operas Italians by a generation. Verde’s already substantial contribution had been crowned by Aiada, Otello and Falstaff. Wagners production was complete and even were making their way into the repertoire around the world. And Richeos Strauss was in the offing. ”
The greatest Tenor of this last golden age was polish, Jean Diresci. Mario’s eire was every bit as handsome as Mario had been and more imposing of voice and presence. He sang a wider repertoire but of course there was a wider repertoire available to sing.
Rademensce, Don Hose, Ladodigamo, Loingrin, Volpe, Treastan and Ziegfrieds in addition to most of the roles Mario had sung. Deresci was, in addition to all else, very much a creature of his time, early dit in manor and song, a romantic figure, the ideal Romeo en Faust and he was the first Tenor of the French and Italian repertoire to sing the mature Wagner and in German. Some eminent critics thought that this extensive repertoire cost him ten years of vocal life, they could be right.
For within six years Treastan in 1895, at the age of 51, Jean Duresci was finished, and he could be guilty of a kind of petulant laziness. He confessed to Martinelli for example, that in his nineteen performances or Radimez en Iada at the Metropolitan, he had sung the main Tenor aria Zelest only four times because, it was too difficult for Marias to sing before I was properly warmed up. However there seems no doubt, that as an all-round finished artist, with a repertoire that no tenor had equaled before or since, he was unapproachable.
He sang far too often for vocal longevity. Take the months of November to February in 1896, as example, he sang twenty-five times, his roles including Romeo, Rongran, Treastan, Radimez, Faust, Rallo in Les Ugano, Degrause, Don Hose, Voltre and the master singers.
This averages a performance every three and half days. In the following season he went even beyond that, singing thirty-six times in 97 days, or a fraction over a performance every two and half days, including the lead in Ziegfried, Lecead,Rafrican and Verte.
A final tribute perhaps from one of his fellow artists at the Metropolitan, David Bisdam. Taking him, all in all, he was the finest artist of his generation A tower of strength to accompany and a vocal and physical adornment to the stage he elevated by his presence. Unfortunately for us, Deresci retired just before the advent of the recording process, although Colonal Mapleson, a former metropolitan manager and an enthusiastic supporter of the new invention, did try to capture a few scraps from actual performances, on cylinders situated high above the stage on the catwalk.
I have heard all of these cylinders at one time or another and they’re all mostly dreadful. The Deresci’s worst of all. So, it is impossible to gain from them, even an incline, of the style and production of the voice.
It is certain that Deresci made test records for the finitive pair company of ariad, Lucide and Rimmle and possibly also for the gramophone company.
He disliked these tests and was extremely disappointed in the results, refusing to pass any for publication. Despite numerous rumors throughout the years, there is supposed to be a test copy in a Paris bank vault, no-one has come up with either so far.
Of course, produced many other famous Tenors. Italo Camponini the earliest, could be argued to have been the link between Mario and Deresci.
Giongingare a great Spanish Tenor, idiolised in his own country and in South America.
Roberto Stanio a fine singer and actor and married to an equally famous Soprano Gemma Bellinsioni. The two forming a verismo partnership, famous in the annals of Italy.
Angelo Macini, Caruso’s idol, a wonderful singer, famous throughout Italy and Spain and idiolised in Russia. He settled in St Petersburgh and although approached to make records there, refused all offers, considering the new invention merely a toy.
What a loss.