Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

Italian? Yes. Tenor? Yes. The Italian tenor? Well… Can we get back to you?

After Villazon went bust with that huge thud a couple of years ago (if you are still believing all those news of a comeback, then lemme tell you I have a sign contract with Callas to sing Norma in 2012, Tebaldi will be Adalgisa, Serafin will conduct and Domingo will be Overeso) the whole marketing world has been aching to find a new “TENOR!” that can be inflicted on the unsuspecting public. Well, SONY, after pretty much abandoning the classical market, except for reissuing some the glories of their catalog; has taken the plunge and is bringing us  a pretender to the throne with their version of “The Italian Tenor”.

The good news is that Grigolo actually has a more attractive voice, has plenty of musicality, seems to be serious about his technique and is a hell of a lot cuter (some might call him hotter) than his predecessor. The problem is that this recording does him no favors. Of the 15 tracks I heard from this recording (which you can listen on its entirety on the NPR website) 5 are from operas that he has done or could do right now (Duke, Nemorino, Rodolfo in Boheme and Rinuccio); 4 are from roles that I see him growing into (Fernando in Favorita, Renato in Ballo, Cavaradossi and Rodolfo in Luisa Miller) and 6 tracks are better described as WTF! tracks (Manrico, Le Villi, Manon Lescaut and Corsaro). So lemme get this right, in a 15 track album, over 60% of the material is stuff that we are not going to hear him in the house right now or stuff that he has no business singing AT ALL, and this is supposed to be the new ‘TENOR!!!!!”? Gimme a fucking break.

Now, I got in hot waters the other day with a fellow member of’s Cher publique when I defended grigolo after watching extended excepts of the Rigoletto movie they just did in Mantua. I defended the fact that he seems to be serious about this and that he is still young and still finding the limits of his own instrument. I still believe this and I do have to say that some of the singing that he displays in this recording can be qualified as beautiful, musical and expressive. But along with that, some of the singing in this same recording is painful, pushed, whinny and reckless.

Never have I seen such irresponsible programing in a solo recital. This guy is singing music that was composed for 3 very distinct types of tenor. The most successful tracks are, obviously,  the ones that fit his natural instrument. The omnipresent and much love and much recorded Una furtiva lagrima comes off quite well. Nemorino is a role that fits Mr. Grigolo beautifully and his singing of the aria is both restrained and expressive. Same for his version of Rinuccio’s aria; the singing is fearless, open throated and ultimately exiting. The items from Rigoletto (Ella mi fu rapita and Posente amor) are less successful because they stretch Mr Grigolo’s intrument a little bit right now. He gets through them honorably, if not with some effort. The high D that ends the Posente amor is quite good, thrilling even (interpolated high notes are the only form of ornamentation we get in this recording, a crime after Joseph Calleja’s recording of the same arias); but by this point we are beginning to tire of Mr. Grigolo’s ONE expressive device: he acquires this tremolo when the music requires emotion. This seems to be a one-stop device that he uses over and over and over and over and over…. After an hour, it got old.

Some tracks are successful because they are well known. I will admit that while I would not go see him as Puccini’s des Grieux, his Donna non vidi mai was good; but one thing is to sing the aria and another thing is to sing the role. The same can be said for his recording of E lucevan le stelle, not bad singing for the aria (after all, it is not that taxing in terms of voice and orchestration) and he even manages some very nice phrasing (that is one thing I liked about this recording in general,  he phrases very well). While we are at it, lets include the items from La Favorita, Luisa Miller and Ballo in maschera. They were all proficiently sung but every now and then you could hear he was pushing and trying hard in repertoire that he is truly not ready to tackle.  When he needed an expressive device, he had the tremolo in the lower register and he went off the voice and used this cupo that in my opinion achieved nothing but to make the voice sound hooty; but to each his own…

The true disaster of this recording, if you ask me, was his singing of dramatic tenor repertoire, which he has no business singing now or ever. Who the hell had the brilliant idea of telling a tenor who should be singing Mozart, Bellini, and Rossini (listen to the way he handles the Una furtiva cadenza and tell me he shouldn’t sing Rossini) that he should record repertoire for dramatic tenor? Who had the idea of telling a guy who should be singing Ferrando and Idamante that he should record Di quella pira? I know, I know, tenors all over the world program arias like these because they are beautiful, or exiting, or crowd pleasers,  but is it wise to record them? Before you come to me with the whole “well, there is no sin in recording rep you are not going to do, what’s the harm in that?” argument search for a documentary in wich Sutherland talks about how she had to fend off impresarios who were offering her Turandot and Abbigaile after she recorded Turandot. Her face and her snicker as she talks about it are very telling of how she felt about the impresarios.  Grigolo was completely out of his element in the Le villi, Corsaro and Trovatore arias; plain and simple. He should send  flowers and gift cards to the engineers at SONY for making him sound good in this repertoire; I have a feeling that his heartbeat was racing and his face was red as it could be after he finished recording these pieces . I wonder how much did they need to adjust the volume dials in post production to make sure that he sounded like he did in the Trovatore. Don’t get me wrong, he is never swallowed by the orchestra and his high C’ is never less than audible; so you KNOW there is a well paid engineer behind that one.

While we are on the Trovatore, special attention must be given to the solo artists who chimed in as Ruiz and Leonora. Their vile singing is the stuff you once heard in vanity projects from Mary Lynn and other mythic “opera” stars. Where did they get these people? Did they hang around America’s Got Talent auditions and snagged a couple of rejects? If you think I am being too harsh, go listen to the track yourself.

All being told, this recording was saved from being an complete and utter disaster by the rocket scientists at SONY who did one hell of an engineer job. Whomever this person is, you should get equal billing with Grigolo and the Conductor.  You more that deserve it.

I am going out on a limb and suggest that you skip this recording, listen to the tracks on NPR and buy the ones you like on iTunes, emusic or your favorite online store. I am sure in no time you will find a copy in your town’s used CD store if you are that passionate about it.


September 30, 2010 Posted by | Recording Review | 1 Comment

The art of the Coloratura…

I recently downloaded Diana Damrau’s new album, after seeing it on and waiting for iTunes to get their act together and offer a dowloadable version (I have some money to burn on my iTunes account). After her latest offering of mostly Mozart, I was eagerly anticipating this one, since it covers an area of the repertoire that Damrau is taking a claim to: the true and tested coloratura roles. I will have to say that I enjoyed the disc quite a lot, but I was also left with a sense of disappointment from her. In her desire to create a wonderful aural experience for the listener, I think she forgot her broad-stroke paint brush. What I mean is that she wanted to bring so many little details to her interpretations that I think she forgot that we, the listener, can (and should) add our own layers to what we are listening. Too many times sections are punched out and pulled appart that we do not get a sense Damrau can actually sing a legato line in which the music, and not her, take precedence.  I am going to go out on a limb and put some of the blame of this trend (no, Damrau is not the first one to do this on disk) squarely at the feet of Renee Fleming, whose bad habit of wanting to put her stamp on every little phrase she sings is apparently causing other artists to feel that is the way to go.

I do understand that a lot of this repertoire has been recorded, and sometimes quite good, but artists lucky enough to get a solo recording need to understand that we are going to buy their recordings, even if we own 30 other versions of an aria (or arias) already. Yes, there is a lot of competition, but by them distorting musical lines or exaggerating the punch line, the impression we get is not one of artistry but of a desperate act on their part, almost  like saying See? I got the joke here.. or See what can I do with this phrase, I bet [inset your favorite diva here]didn’t do this here. Artists, this is getting old and is actually turning us off your recordings and sending us right back at those artists you desperately want to make us forget. Time to trust the music and the text, kiddos; there is no need to all these nonsense show off that is ultimately not doing you any good; or in other words: Quit the fucking around and SING!

OK, now that all that is off my chest, lets do talk about the many good things this recording has to offer. For starters, the varied program (it is listed at the bottom if this review) . It offers Damrau an oportinity to give us a little bit of dreamy, a little bit of comedy, a little bit of resolve, an opportunity to hear what could have been and a whole lot of coloratura.

The disc opens with a effervescent Je Veux Vivre and continues with a Caro nome that doesn’t quite sparkles. I believe that Damrau’s personality might be too strong for some of these ingenue roles, even if her voice is perfect for them. While Juliette might seem just ideal, Her Gilda was a little too willing. Yes, she tried and in pure vocal terms she succeeds, but I was left with the feeling that this Gilda was not all that inexperienced, but remembering some heavy petting that might have occurred off stage. When the tracks reached Zerbinettas aria, I was looking forward mostly because it is not a piece that is usually  associated to heavier voiced coloraturas. I was hoping that Damrau being German would allow her do a lot with the text. Alas, I was left disappointed, not because she sang it poorly, but because the aria’s humor was delivered with a boxing glove rather than with a feather. In this aria more than in any other I wished Damrau would have taken a step back and allowed the music and the text to make the points rather than hear her deliver them in almost anal-retentive fashion.

The highlight of the disc, at least for me, was Anna Truelove’s aria from The Rakes Progress: Silently night…I go to him. In this aria Damraus does allow the music to flow naturally and by doing so she is highly effective in portraying Anne’s disappointment and eventual  resolution to go after the love she knows needs her. I will say that the other highlights of the recording come not far from the Stravinski, this time in the Oscar arias. Once again we get the effervescent way to sing, the smile and the joyeux de vivre that characterizes Damrau’s personality. She handles the staccatos in the  Volta la terra beautifully and the Saper vorreste is full of joy, teasing and (oh joy! finally!) some variations. How wonderful had it been had Damrau would have gone back to the time when coloratura sopranos made something of this aria by  way of ornamentation. Let’s hope that this is the beginning of a trend, since it has been too long since conductors have foolishly dominated the discussion on what proper Verdi style is.

The disc ends with a bang, with 3 numbers that are as famous and loved by coloraturas as Großmächtige Prinzessin. The O Luce di quest’anima starts in an immensely beautiful way; Damrau backs off the pressure that she sometimes puts of her voice and just sings, such simplicity of delivery is not something she is known for, but for a couple of pages she just shines.  I must admit I was not prepared for what I heard. I was expecting more pulling and punching, but what I got was truly beautiful singing, simple delivery, perfect for this aria.  I wish she had kept it up for all the aria, but even with the few times she did, I would say that those who will download single tracks from this disk should seriously consider adding this one to their list. This propably was the best singing of the entire disc. Ophelia’s mad scene from Hamlet finds Damrau in excellent form both vocally and dramatically and the Glitter and be Gay is fabulous in its ferocious intensity, all the way to an F# in alt, even if it is a tad overacted for the dizzy blond the character is.

In summary, the disc is a success, even if i would not call it a home run. Fans of Damrau should be very happy to add this disc to their collections while people who are getting to know her will ne happy to find tracks to sample her singing. Let’s hope that in future releases Ms. Damrau will back off a little from the extreme effects and give us a disc that shows more singing at the level of the O luce di quest anima.

Click on the image to purchase the CD

Roméo et Juliette: Je Veux Vivre
Rigoletto: Gualtier Malde…Caro nome
Ariadne auf Naxos, Zerbinetta: Großmächtige Prinzessin…
Il Barbiere di Siviglia: Una Voce Poco fa
The Rakes Progress: Silently night…I go to him
Gianni Schicchi; O mio Babbino Caro
Un Ballo in Maschera: Volta la terrea
Un Ballo in Maschera: Saper Vorreste
Linda di Chamounix: O luce di quest amina
Hamlet: A vos jeux, mes amis…
Candide: Glitter and be Gay

January 25, 2010 Posted by | Recording Review | , | 2 Comments

Vivica + Vivaldi = Ecstasy

To listen to excerpts and/or buy click here

I finally got my copy of  the new recording of Vivaldi arias  with Vivica Genaux and Europa Galante under the baton of Fabio Biondy. The album is appropriately titled Pyrotechnics; and OMG, there is enough pyrotechnics delivered to fill a  4th  of July celebration.

The recording showcases Genaux’s ample gifts in a collection of 13 opera arias, some recorded for the first time, all revolving around the art or coloratura as a means of expression. Genaux delivers with such gusto, bravura and poise the recording is a joy to to listen to.  Is this artist capable of putting out a bad recording? Like Arlene Auger before her, it seems impossible. This recording is so fantastic, I am going to run out of adjectives quickly and fall into cliches, mostly because they work.

Now, before I fall over singing praises for this wonderful artist, I must talk about the other artists who also participate in the recording. Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante are just as impressive as Genaux. I loved the sound that Europa Galante makes!  In contrast to other conductor’s (and ensembles) thin, unsupported orchestral colors delivered in an earlier than thou attitude, Europa Galante’s sound is full, luscious, gorgeous. They sound like a full out orchestra; I would have never guessed I was listening to 15 players. They played with such care and love I am sure making this recording was not a chore for Genaux. These are artists of a high level and their contribution to the success of this recording should not be taken for granted. BRA – VI.

As a rule, I do not necessarily believe that music from the Baroque  and XIXth century should be performed with too much of a contrast, save for stylistic differences, like the approach to ornamentation. Romantic music did not spring fully formed in the XIXth century after all. Composers of earlier times did not make a distinction when casting their works. There was no early music scene during Handel’s,  Mozart’s or Vivaldi’s time. They used and cast the best available opera singers of the time. This doesn’t mean that I do not see a benefit in having specialists in this area of the repertoire, specially given the fact that many conductors who specialize in the music of the ottocento are completely incapable of realizing that music is so much more than what is written on the paper.  Vivica Genaux is the perfect example of an artist who can navigate both sides of the divide. She does not adopt a different sound for when she sings Rossini or Vivaldi. As singers of the past did, she uses her voice and adapts the style to her voice. I can only wish that we would get more artists like her, who can do both styles credibly without a need to go off the voice or adopt a mannered, unsupported or cutesy sound just because they are singing Bach, Handel, Vivaldi or Mozart.

The disc opens with Come in vano il mare irato, a bravura aria from Cantone in Utica. Right away the voice grabs you with its eveness and accuracy in passage work. Lemme tell you, the aria is a bitch. Passage work comes at you fast and furious; mercilessly exposing anything that could be wrong with any singer. Vivica more than singing it, conquers it by means of great articulation and expression alone. You can hear how hard she worked at the aria, you hear her gasping for air in some sections, a reminder that singing this aria is no easy feat. At the end, like an athlete winning a gold medal in the Olympics, Vivica throws her arms up in the air and you can almost hear her say I did it!

Now, don’t believe that the recording is all about fast and furious. There are also moments of introspection, like in Il labbro ti lusinga (Opera unknown), in which Vivica employs her beautiful voice to apparently turn down a lover who, despite the attempts to gain the character’s love, (s)he realizes it is impossible, and sings My eyes flatter you, my eyes promise love, but this ungrateful heart burns with another passion. Vivica sings it beautifully, expressing the characters pity towards the rejected one perfectly. What a way to get dumped. I already have my number and await in line…

Through the recording, several things are apparent to me, and while I have mentioned them here, I do want to summarize them. Vivica’s voice is incredibly even from top to bottom. I find it refreshing that we have mezzos like her singing with such evenness of tone. It is way too easy for mezzos to believe that they do not need to have both good high notes and low ones. Thankfully, artists like Vivica Genoux and Joice DiDonato sing with technical expertise to spare. Let’s hope the mezzos in waiting will listen to them and imitate the many wonderful qualities they have. Another thing that I absolutely love in this artist is how good her sung Italian is. I have gotten tired of listening to singers who can not sing in a foreign language without making unacceptable mistakes in their diction and their declamation. Just because a singer is American (or French, or Romanian, or German), it does not mean their recordings or performances have to be marred by accented delivery; Vivica is a testament to that. Her Italian singing through the disc is fantastic. She avoids the pitfalls of adding wrong accents on words by  singing note values rather than text (a mistake all too common in these, the latter days of the come scritto era). How refreshing to have a singer (not the only one mind you) who can use the text to inform the music making, rather than letting the note values in the page be a straitjacket that limits the expression. Truly I tell you, music making of the first order.

The disc moves along with expressions of rage, love and desperation, all carefully selected to display Vivica’s expressive voice and way with the text. I know that there are other mezzos who have recorded a Vivaldi album and more recently a castrato-inspired album as well. Not to make comparisons between artists, as I find both marvelous in their work; I find Vivica’s way with coloratura far more expressive and a lot less mechanical. To my ears, her phrasing a lot more natural, musical and ultimately pleasing . Other artists dazzle us with the speed of their coloratura in this repertoire, Vivica not only sings it just as fast and just as accurate, she adds the expression and thus triumphs in areas where other artists don’t. With other artists we are marveled at what they can do with the music, how fast can it be sung, how difficult the music is and accurate their articulation is. In this recording we marvel with Vivica at how expressive this music can be in the hands of a musician ready to make these arias something deeper than just pyrotechnics.  The recording triumphs because in spite of being called Pyrotechnics, it delivers both the pyrotechnics and the emotion in equal portions.

Lastly, I want to comment in something that is completely unrelated to the singing in this release: the picture on the cover. It is so refreshing to see an artist put a recording out with her picture, HER FACE, no photoshopping until you are completely unrecognizable and unrealistic. Whoever made that decision, thank you for taking a stand. Vivica is a beautiful woman and seeing her for the gorgeous woman that she is in the cover is a great thing for people all over the world who are succered into believing in unrealistic beauty standards.

December 13, 2009 Posted by | Recording Review | , , | 2 Comments