February 24, 2013

Jordan vs. LeBron: Part 2 of the opera version

Last week, in a brazen and shameless ploy to pad the page-view stats for this site, I co-opted the current Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James debate by using it as a springboard to compare opera stars of the 1960's to those of today.

It's really not such a far-fetched transition, you know. Did you ever stop to consider how many prominent basketball coaches are of Italian descent? Jim Valvano, Dick Vitale, Rollie Massimino, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, and P. J. Carlissimo are just the ones that come to mind off the top of my head. And in football, we've got Vince Lombardi and Joe Paterno; Jo Pa, we're told, was a Puccini aficionado and listened to Turandot when off the field.

Versatile, those Italians: inventing music drama here, teaching a 2-3 zone defense there... Too bad they aren't much good at cooking. (Settle down; that's just a little joke.)

Anyway, we have unfinished business in the "Battle of the Opera Generations", namely: the male vocal artists. Having surveyed sopranos and mezzos last time, this week we turn to the "Guys Who Frequently Wear Tights" - tenors, baritones and basses.

Just like last time, we'll limit our menu of singers to a sampling of those on two Metropolitan Opera rosters fifty years apart, 1963 and 2013. And here we go! Let's start with the lover-boys.

Tenors, 1963                            Tenors, 2013
Luigi Alva                                  Roberto Alagna
Carlo Bergonzi                          Marcelo Alvarez
Franco Corelli                           Juan Diego Flórez
Nicolai Gedda                           Marcello Giordani
Flaviano Labò                           Jonas Kaufmann
Barry Morell                             Vittorio Grigolo
Jan Peerce                                  Matthew Polenzani
Richard Tucker                          Ramon Vargas
Jess Thomas                              Richard Leech
Jon Vickers                                Johan Botha
Tempting, though perhaps unwise, to match these artists by fach and repertoire for side-by-side comparisons. Even so, which '60's artist corresponds to Jonas Kaufmann? In vocal type and repertoire, probably Jon Vickers. Like Kaufmann, Vickers' sound was darker and more "baritonal" than a typical Italianate tenor, and he too sang both German roles (Wagner, Beethoven) and standard "star tenor" vehicles like Don Jose, and Cavaradossi. However, Kaufmann also puts me in mind of Corelli for female-scream-inducing good looks and sex appeal. Corelli's sound was also of a dark timbre with a similarly thrilling top register. However, Kaufmann sings with musicianship that leaves Corelli (at times rather slip-shod with accuracy) far behind. Vickers is a match for Kaufmann in over-all artistry. He was known for idiosyncratic interpretations that made him a bit controversial. One either loved or hated his singing. So: Corelli, for all his charisma, loses by a length and a half, but Kaufmann and Vickers? Photo finish, too close to call.

Flórez and Alva are another interesting pairing. Flórez has developed a huge following for his easy flair for comedy and a facile, flashy (if, at times, nasal) high register. Alva, to my ears, was no less a virtuoso in coloratura, an ideal Almaviva in Barber of Seville and an ideal Fenton in Falstaff; perhaps the best ever in the role. Elegant, assured, vocally secure. I prefer Alva, but there's that nasty nostalgic bias rearing its head again.

American tenor Richard Tucker
Speaking of valuable artists, it's hard to top the Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda, who could handle bel canto and dramatic roles with equal aplomb. He sang a great deal of Mozart, Massenet and  Donizetti at the Met, which is similar to Polenzani's current repertoire. Both impressive vocalists, I find an intrinsic sweetness in Gedda's timbre that somewhat lifts him above Polenzani. Let's do a couple of audio clips and see what you think. Here is Gedda in "Dalla sua pace" by Mozart, and for comparison here is Polenzani in the same aria. Both acquit themselves well, but it remains to be seen if Polenzani will prove as capable of handling heavier roles as Gedda did with honor.

Tucker and Giordani are also a comparable pairing: reliable and effective in Italianate roles of Verdi, Puccini, Leoncavallo and the like. In my opinion, neither will go down as an historically great or subtle musician, but to my ears Tucker sounds more passionate and engaged by his characters. I give him the edge. Giordani = milk chocolate. Tucker = milk chocolate.... with sea salt!

Wrapping up this category:
  • Bergonzi is superior to Alagna as home-made pizza is superior to Pizza Hut. And I've gotta tell you: Alagna's habit of singing with his eyes closed DRIVES ME CRAZY!
  • Morell and Leech were both sturdy "house tenors"; the kind the Met can't do without, but who will never hear their names chanted by adoring throngs. A draw. (I heard Morell live at the Met as Puccini's Lt. Pinkerton. He was fine.)
  • Jess Thomas and Johan Botha are another pairing in which I give the edge to 1963. They've both sung Walther von Stolzing, Fidelio and Radames at the Met. Thomas sang with far more freedom and poetry, and cut a more heroic figure on stage. Botha is a throwback to the era when an artist's appearance was considered irrelevant as a casting consideration.
  • Peerce and Vargas? Tough call. I hear limitations in each tenor. Peerce, though he had a gorgeous voice and was one of Toscanini's favorite artists, had a dry, pinched top. Vargas is not immune to occasional tightness on the top, but his overall tone is very pleasing if not quite as rich as Peerce's. Both could turn in stylish Rossini and Mozart as reliably as Edgardo, Rodolfo or the Duke of Mantua. It's a draw.
Enough! Though Kaufmann really beefs up the current squad of tenors, my respect for Thomas, Bergonzi, Tucker and Alva leads me to declare

The winner in the tenor category: 1963

As for those dudes who hardly ever get the girl:

Baritones, 1963                                  Baritones, 2013
Anselmo Colzani                                   Dwayne Croft
Tito Gobbi                                               Nathan Gunn
Frank Guarrera                                    Thomas Hampson
George London                                    Dmitri Hvorotovsky
Cornell MacNeal                                   Simon Keenlyside
Robert Merrill                                       Željko Lučić             
Mario Sereni                                          Mariusz Kwiecien
Theodore Uppmann                             Bryn Terfel

All righty then, what've we got here? Theodore Uppmann and Nathan Gunn both excel as Papageno, Billy Budd and Escamillo. Gunn has a wider repertoire, willingly performing in contemporary pieces, but he has the advantage of a different era; in 1963 the Met's repertoire was more conservative than the Tea Party.

Thomas Hampson continues the tradition of "Great American Baritones" which has included Lawrence Tibbett, John Charles Thomas, Leonard Warren, Cornell MacNeil (BING! 1963), Robert Merrill (BING! 1963) Sherrill Milnes and others. Dwayne Croft joins Hampson as an American baritone, and he's a valuable artist; however, he does not belong in the line of succession listed above. As vocally secure and musical as he is, his singing lacks the gravitas to match Merrill or MacNeil. They were historically great Tonios in Pagliacci; Croft is a Silvio. He has no Rigoletto performances to his credit; he's more of a Sharpless in Butterfly.

There is no baritone on the current roster with the acting chops of Tito Gobbi, a real actor's actor as Falstaff and Scarpia. Hvorotovsky is historically great in Russian roles like Onegin.

George London and Bryn Terfel correspond in some respects; both have been noted for compelling performances as Don Giovanni, Scarpia and Wotan. That's some impressive range! London made a great Boris Gudonov, a role Terfel has not tackled to date, whereas London would not have made a comic figure such as Leporello, which Terfel has recently added. A total draw.

I cannot claim any obvious superiority on one side or another with Colzani and Lučić, Guarrera and Keenlyside, Sereni and Kwiecien. All are more than competent; in all cases, their careers are best described as "distinguished" rather than "immortal".

This category is the murkiest in which to find a clear advantage. There is not really a weak sister amongst the 2013 baritones, but the older generation boasts four genuine immortals in Gobbi, MacNeil, Merrill and London. I don't see Hampson being viewed in the same way fifty years from now. So, by a whisker,

The winner in the baritone category: 1963

I'm going to dispense with a dissection of the bass category for this reason: great basses are found in every generation in equal profusion. Perhaps the most natural voice type in men, there are immortal basses aplenty in every era. When we can mention Cesare Siepi, Jerome Hines, Otto Edelman, Fernando Corena (greatest buffo!) and Ezio Flagello in 1963 but then counter with Ferruccio Furlanetto, Rene Pape, Samuel Ramey, Eric Owens (young but very great) and Hans-Peter Koenig in 2013, we can just sit back, relax and bask in the knowledge that we will never lack for truly great bassos. It's a draw.

SO: two columns and hundreds of words later, what have I proved, exactly?


Look, this has been the shallowest survey of famous singers in the history of music. My suspicion that my obvious preference for the 1963 roster is tainted by nostalgia remains even after all the rationalizations I've duly submitted.

Bottom line: I'm old. My oldness informs my biases. I like Jordan over LeBron, too. Oh, and don't get me started about the state of pop music today! Now there's a rant just begging to be ranted!

1 comment:

  1. Erm, it was quite instructive but the funniest part was definitively this:

    ''However, Kaufmann also puts me in mind of Corelli for female-scream-inducing good looks and sex appeal. Corelli's sound was also of a dark timbre with a similarly thrilling top register. However, Kaufmann sings with musicianship that leaves Corelli (at times rather slip-shod with accuracy) far behind.''

    Is it some kind of elaborate joke? Kaufmann never had (and would never have) Corelli's ''thrilling top register''. Their voices sound nothing alike: Corelli's powerful voice had a wide vocal and dynamic range while Kaufmann's voice is badly projected, badly produced and monochrome to boot. You praise Kaufmann's supposed musicianship but you conveniently ignore that he is unable to sing piano (these gargled sounds are not pianissimos in the slightest..) and that it intonation is faulty most of the time. I don't even mention his self consciousness which prevents him for interpreting any of his roles.

    Fortunately, many Corelli recordings (live and studio) are available to a wide audience. I wonder of you could confirm me with a straight face that Kaufmann is better than Corelli in any of the roles they shared. Was he a better Manrico than Corelli? Or a better Mario? Or God forbid, a better Maurizio?

    As for Kaufmann's supposed ''good looks and sex appeal'', I leave such matter to the photoshop studios which are very busy with him at the moment (there is a good reason for this surely...).