While we have to use a mixture of imagination, texts, and creative research to reconstruct the singing practices of past centuries, early gramophone recordings give us a priceless peek into some truly splendid voices of the romantic period. Their ability to shine through the hissing and sputtering of the limited recording techniques that captured them is a testament to their power and beauty.
In fact, recordings didn’t benefit from microphones and amplifiers until 1925, which means the examples below were recorded acoustically, with the singers’ faces right up against the gramophone’s horn. As such, the more subtle sounds and higher frequencies were lost, meaning the singers’ actual voices probably had even more finesse and brilliance than these recorded mementos demonstrate. And since it took quite a bit of sound energy to vibrate the primitive recording diaphragm, singers with more powerful voices (most notably, Caruso) were the most successful recording artists of their day.
Now, I won’t pretend to be a connoisseur of 19th century singers or a collector of records (for the sake of convenience, you’ll find YouTube is my medium of choice), but they are fascinating topics, and in my explorations of them I am indebted to two books: a chapter called, “Some Remarkable Voices Preserved on Gramophone Recordings” from a Yehudi Menuhin guide called “Voice”, and the track listening recommendations in Matthew Boyden’s “The Rough Guide to Opera”.
Without further ado, here are five of the gramophone greats, and their must-hear recordings.
Lilli Lehmann (1848-1929)
Originally coached by Richard Wagner himself, Lilli Lehmann was a German operatic soprano who also achieved quite a bit of fame as a voice teacher. Lehmann was one of the first to emphasize that singing tone is found in the resonance of one’s own body, not by “throwing” or “projecting” it across an auditorium, and even wrote a book called “How to Sing”. You can read this full free version online.
Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma, 1907
In what is often called the ultimate bel canto aria, the high druid priestess, Norma, sings a hymn to the goddess, expressing the anguish she feels being caught between hatred for the Roman opposition and love for Pollione, her secret Roman lover.
Boyden records that “Tamagno wielded his large and ringing voice (like the striking of an anvil, according to Verdi) with shameless vulgarity”. His trumpet-like tenor voice was one of the first to be recorded. On a more endearing note: “He died leaving his large and valuable collection of butterflies to the composer Edgard Varese.”
Esultate from Verdi’s Otello, 1903
Here Tamagnano sings the opening of the opera, Otello, for which he created the title role. Otello has just sailed back to Cyprus after battling with the Turks and is announcing his victory to the cheering Cypriots.
Pol Plançon (1854-1914)
A French bass with a rich tone and exquisite legato who created roles for many composers, including Massanet, Gounod and Bizet. According to Khambata, “A trill that would be the envy of most coloratura sopranos and a velvet-like legato allied to superb musical taste make his recordings a must for all students of singing.”
You can hear Plancon’s lightning-fast coloratura in the following example, “L’air du tambour-major” which hails from a lesser-known comic opera by Ambroise Thomas called “Le caid,” a parody of Rossini’s hugely popular “l’Italiana in Algeri”.
Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)
A household name even to today, Caruso is not only the most famous tenor in history but also the first gramophone star to sell a million records (with this aria in 1907). During opera’s “golden age”, he worked closely with composers such as Mascagni, Puccini, and Leoncavallo, as well as the famed conductor Toscanini.
Caruso gets two recording mentions:
Una furtiva lagrima, 1904
In Act II of Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love”, the tenor Nemorino sings of “Una furtive lagrima” (a furtive tear), which, falling from his true love’s eyes, lets him know that the love potion he bought to win her over is finally working.
Spirito gentil (La favorita)
Also from Donizetti, in “La Favorita”, Fernand, about to marry Leonore, finds out that she has been the lover of the king who promised to wed them. He sings to her “gentle spirit”, of the ghosts of love past, and of the shame in losing what he believed to be love.
Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940)
Hugely popular in her day for her monumental vocal power, Tetrazzini, or the “Queen of Song”, was one of the highest paid singers of all time. According to Boyden, “Although famous for her acting inability – she was known to sit on a chair to sing her music and then leave – she was gifted with a voice of great beauty and delicacy.” Speaking of delicacies, there is also a delicious turkey dish which bears her namesake.
Sempre libera, from La Traviata, 1911
Violetta, the famed courtesan, sings “Free and aimless I frolic, from joy to joy, flowing along the surface of life’s path as I please” in response to the dashing young Alfredo’s advances. While the aria is a platform for her soaring and spirited coloratura, occasional dark and dissonant harmonies hint of the tragedy to come.
Spend some time this week with these greats. Next week we’ll be moving further into the 20th century, with a whole new list of (somewhat better quality!) recordings.