Tuesday, September 4, 2007

She WAS a great singer, after all

I followed my own advice from my last posting and sought out some more Rose Bampton. In fact, that very afternoon, I went to Academy Records and chanced upon a live recording of her Marschallin. It's from the Teatro Colon, October 8, 1947, with Erich Kleiber conducting.
The sound sucks. But it's an interesting performance.

Elsa does Carmen
Elsa Cavelti is the Octavian. She's a Swiss mezzo, not terribly well-known, most celebrated for her 1951 recording of Das Lied von der Erde with Otto Klemperer. She makes a surprising good Octavian. She does not strain at all in the high reaches and has a wonderful vocal characterization.
The Sophie is the hitherto unknown to me Olga Chelavine. She is more than serviceable, if not quite ethereal enough. According to one source I found, she was born in Russia, and according to another, she was born and died in Buenos Aires. So yeah, Olga = Russian, Chelavine = Argentinian. Whichever nationality and wherever she was born, she's not bad at all. She's the Papagena on a live Beecham Zauberflöte. Her repertoire included Wellgunde, Yniold, Sophie in Werther: that kind of stuff. The end of the final duet, she is painfully flat, but I have heard live performances in which better singers do it worse! I also heard the execrable Christine Schäfer at the Deutsche Oper sing the most charmless Sophie I have ever heard. It didn't matter if her high B was in tune or not at the end, since I wasn't able to actually hear it. I did hear two phrases from her over the course of the evening, both in the second act, and neither one good). So I'll take a flat high B at the end over miscast charmlessness.
Emmanuel List is the Ochs, and since I really can't stand the character's music, I generally don't listen to much of his role. But he's certainly a familiar name and he sounds like the Viennese bumpkin he should.
Good as they are, it is Rose who is the revelation. She soars in the trio and she dedicates herself with great delicacy and individuality to the Marschallin's music. As with all great Marschallins, it is through the words in particular that she creates a memorable characterization. In fact, I shed a few tears upon hearing her sing "Heut' oder morgen". It was a cry from the soul, which was quickly put back in check. Her top is brilliant; she sings the pianissimo "Ros'n" at the end of the first act beautifully and her B at the climax of the trio is radiant.
A curious footnote: as she sings that pianissimo, she is nearly drowned out by a ringing sound that sounds for all the life of me like a pager or a cell phone. Surely the Argentinians were not carrying around such devices in 1947. I'm curious what the sound actually was.
I began listening to her Daphne as well, also from the Colon, though a year later. The sound is better, but here Bampton sounds rather throaty and metallic in her midrange, though the top is even more brilliant. I must listen to the rest of this before I render a final judgment.
For now, here is her monologue from the first act of Rosenkavalier. I hope you agree that this performance alone places her firmly in the great echelon of singers. Now when I think of her, I will remember her Marschallin first, the chicken blood second, if at all.

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Rose is a rose is a rose

I've been away from the blog for a while. I did want to say a word about the passing of Rose Bampton. There's not much factual that I can add to the marvelous obituary by Paul Driscoll on the Met's site, but I might add a few comments.

Bampton is another of those singers who apparently crossed from mezzo to soprano. Gwyneth Jones, Grace Bumbry, Stephanie Friede, Faith Esham, Martha Mödl and Shirley Verrett come immediately to mind. I think it's more common for singers to make the transition from soprano to mezzo, particularly as they enter the final stages of their careers (La Rysanek, Helga Dernesch, Felicity Palmer, Regina Resnik). Of course Christa Ludwig, an exceptional case in more ways than one, mixed and matched mezzo and soprano roles at the height of her career. (For those who do not know her Ariadne, the soprano role she sang least frequently, I highly recommend digging up a copy, either of the studio or the live performance, either complete or excerpted.)

Those singers that make the shift from mezzo to soprano before one's international career is in full swing probably found it easier to maintain career momentum. So often those who make this change are judged harshly, as if they didn't know their voices well enough in the first place. But it is perfectly natural for a full-voiced mezzo with a good top to make this transition. I know a lot of singers who have attempted to switch fachs only to find themselves suddenly considered "unhirable". Ah, the great imaginations of so many company administrators! Don't even get me started on that.

From Bampton's Met debut as Laura in Gioconda on November 28, 1932 (an event which coincided with her twenty-third birthday), the brilliance of her upper register was noted. I am too lazy to look up when she made her debut as a soprano (I do know that it was as Sieglinde) but she did so easily and with great success. She is the Leonore on Toscanini's broadcast Fidelio and there is a live recording of her Alceste from the Met that used to be available in this country on Naxos. One can also find a live recording from Buenos Aires of her Daphne with Erich Kleiber. I was delighted to find just now that there is also a recently released Lebendige Vergangenheit issue on Preiser records. This issue includes some of the recordings that I have on my VAI recording of Verdi and Wagner which is apparently no longer available.

I knew virtually nothing of Bampton's singing until I obtained this last recording. Evidently these recordings were made in the spring and summer of 1940 in New York and Philadelphia. They were released as part of a series of "World's Greatest Operas" with the singers unidentified. When I first heard them, I was quite favorably impressed. It's a well-equalized voice of good size and not a little beauty. In relistening to this recording yesterday I found the Wagner excerpts to be much more successful than the Verdi. One can appreciate her patrician musicianship and her lovely voice, but in many of these recordings, I found something lacking. Driscoll states in his obituary that "her voice, though an instrument of impressive size and quality, lacked the final measure of charisma that marks a great star" and I would probably agree.

There is reprinted in the liner notes a marvelous story. Evidently Bampton was a great admirer of Lotte Lehmann and they shared more than a few roles. When Melchior and Bampton sang Walküre together, Bampton found it hard to completely abandon herself in the highly erotic music of the end of the first act. In Bampton's words, Lehmann once said to her, "'I don't think you know the least thing about love.' I told her, 'Well, I certainly do, but I don't have to go around advertising that.' And she said, 'That's where you make a big mistake. Every experience that you have in life, you've got to use when you sing.' She broke down that barrier for me."

Of the recordings that I have heard, the one that best illustrates Bampton's greater sense of emotional freedom is her Liebestod from Tristan from those aforementioned 1940 recordings. She doesn't quite match Lehmann's insane ardor, but it is a beautiful performance nonetheless, and very well-sung at that, superior to Lehmann's from that standpoint only.

One amusing aside: I have no idea if this is true or not, but it always made me laugh. Even into old age, Bampton retained almost preternaturally unwrinkled skin. She made a elegant old lady, that's for sure. A friend told me that it was said that she retained her marvelous complexion by going overseas (was it Switzerland) every summer to have chicken blood injections. So whenever I would hear her name, that was what I would think of. In going back over the past few days, I'm happy to say that I'll remember her for more than just the purported injections.

I am looking forward to hearing more of her recordings. And the next post I write, I am absolutely going to introduce at least one of three favorite sopranos I have been meaning to write about for some time now: Florence Quartararo, Rose Ader and Meta Seinemeyer. But now I see that hours have passed since I began writing this and I must fly! (There he goes...)

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