I have been a lover of bel canto opera for many years - and entranced by the pyrotechnics and vocal vaulting of the sopranos in Donizetti and Bellini, I wrote off the mezzos as mere supporting roles to their higher register colleagues.
I was a bad man.
This recital disc of Marilyn Horne is one of the most perfect performances of any opera arias that I have ever heard, and it just gets better and better each time I play it.
It starts with a few short pieces that showcase Horne's ability to sing as soprano or as mezzo (Semiramide, and then her version of the closing of Cenerentola which shows the technique of a real artist in its ornamentation), followed by the Mura Felice from 'La Donna Del Lago', the octave leaps of the slow section demonstrating the yearning love of Malcolm in a way that other mezzos fail to convey, and the soprano's closing aria and cabaletta from the same opera is in very safe hands in the chicanes.
Then we come to the biggies: one aria and an extended scene from "L'Assedio di Corinto", which take up nearly half the disc. You may never have heard of it (I hadn't, and it looks like it is recorded rarely based on the Amazon listings), but it is amazing. We are a million miles from the comic operas of Barbiere or Gazza Ladra, but Rossini here meets the challenge with a prayer from a doomed heroine that looks toward Verdi, and then Marilyn back in the breeches (in fact in a tenor role) for the long, long scene. These pieces are so incredible they are worth the price of admission alone. (This recording gets a rosette in the penguin guide, by the way).
This album is such a treasury of vocal excellence and artistry I feel humble before it. Lock the doors, turn up the volume, and enjoy it.
Marilyn Horne was - and of course she is still very much with us, but retired - a vocal phenomenon. Starting as a soprano, she gradually discovered and developed a booming, voluminous lower register which she was able to exploit without losing her extraordinary agility in coloratura/ OK; the two registers were perhaps never quite wholly integrated but the vocal thrills she provides more than compensate for occasional grinding change of gear and passing intonation issues. Some listeners cannot appreciate her stentorian manner in the murky depths of her voice - over two and a half octaves here, from low E, where she sounds like a tenor, to a soprano's high B - but she is also capable of great delicacy and has legion followers who appreciate her, and I am certainly one.
This anthology of Rossini arias is a compilation from three recording sessions in 1964, 1965 and 1972 with three different orchestras all conducted by Henry Lewis, her first husband. The second half of the recital is an excerpt from "L'assedio di Corinto" where Horne sings the extended scena for mezzo breeches role Neocle, having just sung an aria for the soprano, Pamira. She does this party trick with two excerpts from "La donna del lago", too ,displaying no strain at all in encompassing their respective tessituras - and talking of party tricks which would be vulgar were they not mesmerisingly beautiful, she holds a D for thirteen seconds on "ai voti miei" and an A flat for twelve on "Elena", then trills - amazing steadiness and breath and control. I doubt that there has ever been an artist quite like her since Colbran.
on 27 February 2011
This CD comes from two different Decca LP records that are highly desired.
One LP is where the Mezzo scene from Siege of Corinth takes the whole side, and the Soprano aria takes half of the second side (recorded in 1972), the other source for this CD comes from an album of two records dedicated to the artistry of the Gracia sisters (Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot) recorded in Geneve in 1965.
No doubts that Horne is the prominent Mezzo bel-canto of the sixties and that her collaboration with Sutherland gave a tremendous push and fame to the Bel Canto repertoire, and not to forget that the Bel Canto trend was push-started by Callas (Lucia, Puritani, Sonambula, Norma, Turco in Italy, Anna Bolena, and more) - all are roles that brought back the Bel canto to life again.
From the pure vocal point of view, the CD here is a "master-class" for those who consider taking the Mezzo-Bel-canto roles and incorporate them into their repertoire, and that consideration should encompass the topic of breath-control, of stamina, of being able to press-on when the score gets tougher and more demanding as the area out of "Siege of Corinth" enfolds - the voice for this Rossini area should be trained to be as steady as a rock and well sustaining the shifting of gear (think of this role difficulties in par with the role dealt to Turandot "in questo regio" that tackle the voice to its limits, although in another context).
However, one should be aware that not all of Horne wide "diapason" falls under one piece of cloth; there are transients breaking join-point in her voice that are quite obvious; the amalgamation between the "added" lower register, almost one full octave which is supported by chest-voice and at times resembles a tenor voice - aka, entrance of Arsace into the scene in Semiramide, "Eccomi alfine in Babilonia", an entrance sung with a pushed chest-voice that might fool you into thinking that the notes are sung by a tenor...(Decca Semiramide complete with Sutherland, 1965-66).
The rest of Horne voice, which is more than one octave on top;
that "original octave" was already there when Horne started her singing carrier as a soprano, this register has a characteristic on some middle tone of being a bit flat, metallic at times, and forced).
The stitch between her two registers (some two or three notes) is cleverly "pressured-down" on those notes into the chest-voice.
True, it is a feast for a singer to be able to move such a huge voice up and down and in quick successions, but at certain moments one can hear the spots where there is place for more pitch accuracy; specially so when going up or down the ladder between the two registers.
This is more audible in the 1965 Geneva recordings than in the 1972 recording (and one might want to argue the point that somehow Horne was not in her best element when recording the 1965 pieces. Yet the 1972 recording shows her more in control of her voice and more attuned to the demands than the previous years recording).
Never the less this is a nice 'document' of what a female lower-voice contributes to the Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti repertoire.
As things stands right now on the operatic scene, possibly, only two Mezzo singers comes to mind as showing themselves capable to this or that degree of tackling the Mezzo Bel-Canto repertoire (and not all of it!)
One of them is Elina Garanca (a light toned mezzo - not unlike Teresa Berganza but with less charm and warmth to the voice...And judging from Garanca "bel-canto' CD - the voice is smoother than Horne's voice on the top and has a bit more range on top than Horne's voice - yet there is no volcanic explosion top to bottom as that exhibited by Horne, there is much less stamina, less drama and less reach at the lower register where Garanca's notes are flattened and sound like they have reached the limit of the vocal capabilities where there is a severe limit to the volume of sound that can be developed there.
Garaca's voice as a whole runs out of gas much sooner than Hornes on the top register and on the bottom, for sure where it does not exhibit a huge tone and neither a huge reserves of breath.
And mind you, the vocal range (and transposition key) used by Garanca could be easily sung by any Bel Canto Soprano without much ado...
One can only speculate that this range would be nicely covered by Callas even at her later carrier stage and condition of the voice, but Callas (and for that matter, M.Caballe), would bring much more authority, drama and substance than what we hear with Garanca.
The other mezzo to consider (and to prefer to Garanca), is the more matured, with an amazingly even-voice and a great range; that singer is Jennifer Larmore.
Jennifer Larmore (to my mind) is mistakenly categorized as a Mezzo-Soprano.
In the real-world of operatic voices she should be considered as a rare breed of ALTO with coloratura and with an extended top range;
The voice has an Alto timber, it is very even and it is obvious immediately that it is cut of the same cloth (contrary to Horne's voice). It is amazing how this voice can shift gear and stay on the notes and in perfect pitch all across the diapason. And mind you - the voice does not miss a thrill, a coloratura ornamentation or Bel-Canto property, that is: the intervals between notes are clean without hang-over and the reach into the note is straight into the pitch and not taken from under the pitch only to fight upwards to get into the pitch (the way it is with some singers from the Slavic/Russian school - aka Netrebko...)
In Larmore CD "Callme Mister" which encompass all male roles sung by Mezzo-Sopranos, and other travesty roles, the voice is there as a willing instrument (unlike the somewhat rebellious instrument held by Horne or Callas where the listener gets the feeling that the singer places great effort to produce the sound...)
on that Larmore CD (Callme Mister) there arias of Rossini, Bellini, Meyerbeer and Gluck that takes Larmore into a direct head-on confrontation with various recordings by Horne.
The outcome is amazing; this Alto-coloratura voice of Jennifer Larmore encompasses a true wide range of notes which are sung with great ease and master-dome top to bottom without the need to push a lower note into the chest-voice (there is no chest-voice as such since the voice can get as low as needed and with the right impact and power.
Mind you; Larmore included on her "Callme Mister" CD the very rarely recorded Tchaikovsky Maid of Orleans (Jean-Dark) aria. It is enigmatic why this aria in the original Russian language was not recorded by The likes of Garanca, Netrebko, kasarova, and other Russian singers (though Regina Resnik magnificently recorded it - and in the Russian language in the sixties, a recording that will bring chills to your spine...!). Well, Larmore has this aria on her CD and although it is sung in French - it is still a very moving experience a dramatic to hear her sing it!
Another Mezzo that might one day surprise us all is the Russian Vesselina Kasarova, though Mme Kasarova has to go quite a way in taming her Russian culture of voice, her pronunciations, and train herself more in the Bel-Canto straight to the pitch and the Bel Canto breath-control (Kasarova, potentially has an impressive Contralto hue to her extended big lower register).
There are quite few recordings with Cecilla Bartoli that encompass the Vivaldi, handle, Rossini and their contemporary. Great singing from Bartoli they are and important source for discovering the Bel Canto wider repertoire.
However: Cecilia Bartoli has a smaller voice, one that is not directly associated with the big scale operatic roles taken by Horne. Bartoli's voice is more at home with the domain of concert arias, and though it has a greater flexibilities and pitch accuracy than that exhibited by Horne, that limpidness of the voice and the astounding Bartili's coloratura scales is achieved by a very tight control on the output; meaning, she shifts her voice by forehand closing it down reducing it into the mezzo-voce out-pour or sometimes even into the sotto-voce output range.
This said, no one should dismiss Bartoli's artistry and huge contribution to the Bel-Canto repertoire and almost all of her recordings should be seriously studied by those intended in tackling sooner or later the Bel-Canto singing technique.
In the meantime, this CD by Horne is a guide, a bearing torch, a must for all students of the Bel Canto art.