by Stefan Zucker
After declining for 150 years, vocal virtuosity is on the upswing. In particular, 25 years ago few tenors sang roulades or high Cs. The number who do is steadily burgeoning, though their singing sometimes lacks personality, passion and charm.
The differences between Nicola Monti on a Melodram recording of a Naples performance of La cenerentola in 1958 and Francisco Araiza on a CBS studio recording of the opera from 1980 are representative of the typical differences among tenors—I’m tempted to say singers—then and now. Monti is sunny and ingratiating, his mezza voce caressing. But he omits the trills, smudges the coloratura at conductor Mario Rossi’s fast clip and sounds uncomfortable upstairs. The technical demands are beyond him and his range is simply too short: had the more difficult and high-flying passages not been cut, he probably would have been unable to sing the part.
Araiza sings it uncut, hitting all the notes—except the trills, which he too avoids. He has marvelous agility and velocity, and the high Cs hold no terrors. But, however proficient, he is charmless and mechanical. I have found no evidence that anyone in Rossini’s day produced his tone like Araiza, with the locus of resonation far forward in the face.
Compared to such turn-of-the-century interpreters of Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia as Fernando De Lucia and Alessandro Bonci, Araiza is uninspired in his treatment of rhythm. Their singing abounds in rubato; his is comparatively four square.
Until recently, the music of every composer was interpreted in accordance with the performance practices not of the composer’s time but of the interpreter’s. De Lucia came of age musically around 1880, at the height of the Romantic era. His liberal use of rubato suggests Barbiere or, even more, La sonnambula had been composed then. His recordings, “Son geloso” in particular, challenge us to decide how literal one should be in construing Bellini’s tempos and rhythms. Did Bellini assume that a singer would use rubato so extensively? Did Bellini intend him to? Is De Lucia simply emphasizing romantic tendencies in Bellini’s music or is he adding something extraneous? Does the music benefit from his approach? Is he inspired or wayward? Where are the boundaries? De Lucia is inquiry stimulating. Bonci, no less sensitive to the music, is less extreme in his liberties—as is his successor Dino Borgioli.
Araiza is probably the best recent Belmonte, in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. At a 1984 performance at The Metropolitan Opera, he hit most of the notes dead on, with big, bright tones so well focused as to make intonation lapses more noticeable. In the notoriously florid “Ich baue ganz,” he was accurate in the stepwise passages, less so in the arpeggiated ones. He interpolated both a small cadenza before the repeat of the main theme and some ornamentation in the repeat itself—as well as a few extra breaths. He pronounced German well (unusual in an Hispanic singer) and acted energetically. But his singing was more impressive than beautiful. And he wasn’t very interesting: His dynamics were sometimes random, sometimes inert. He failed to emphasize melodic climaxes and to distinguish melody from ornamentation through volume or accentuations. He sang with little tenderness and was boring in tender passages. He hardly ever shaded his tone and managed to be vigorous yet dull.
To obtain precise articulation of florid passages Araiza aspirated. Many listeners—and some reviewers—find aspiration unendurable, yet musicologists and performers point to period writings suggesting that in the 17th and 18th centuries aspiration, or at least “detached” singing, was accepted practice. My own experience is that the clarity of articulation achievable with aspiration can prove useful in certain contexts. In special cases aspiration is highly desirable. For example, in the quartet in La scala di seta the tenor has triplets against the other singers’ duplets. I aspirated the triplets so as to differentiate the rhythm of my part from that of the others (Aspiration can be a crutch, and I am not advocating it be used promiscuously.) In Entführung, Araiza, for my taste, aspirated too heavily. [Araiza and I discuss aspiration in our radio interview, rebroadcast on this Website. The interview took place subsequent to the writing of this article.]
Singers sustain interest in many ways, interpretation and temperament among them. Luciano Pavarotti does so through charisma; Tito Schipa, through charisma, charm and musical sensitivity; Giuseppe Di Stefano, through passion and feeling for words; Enrico Caruso, through warmth and emotion. Araiza isn’t endowed with an extraordinary supply of these qualities. On a recording of lirico-spinto warhorses made in 1986, he relies instead on musical effects, such as contrasting soft singing with loud. His interpretations of the album’s two Puccini pieces, “Che gelida manina” and “E lucevan le stelle,” are satisfying, for in addition to alternating dynamics, he does sing with some tenderness and fervor. But in the aria from Eugene Onegin, one misses Dmitri Smirnoff’s plaintive quality, his wistful yearning. In the Arlesiana aria, Araiza lacks both bitter melancholy for the opening and desperation and slancio (surge, oomph) for the end—as well as vocal punch and core on the high As, where the voice is unassertive and veiled, particularly on dark vowels (ah, oh, oo). Perhaps the recording’s most underinterpreted selection is “Ah! fuyez, douce image” (Manon), where he sings as if he hadn’t considered the importance of the notes in relation to each other or thought about which leads ahead to which. In the middle voice he produces a strong round tone, but he doesn’t imbue the high B-flats with longing, pleading or desperation, nor is he able, in the alternative, to trumpet them forth; however, on higher notes, such as the Bohème aria’s C or the interpolated high D at the end of “Possente amor,” the voice takes on brilliance. Stylistically he is an anomaly: a latin singer with a German sound who achieves legato in the German manner since the 30s—almost without portamento. The music on the record, mostly from the late 19th century, was first performed by singers who used portamento generously.
Araiza is never tasteless. At his worst he is earthbound, offering conscientious observance of interpretation markings in the score without going beyond them. At his best he is an excellent singer who just misses striking sparks.
Since 1983 he gradually has undertaken more dramatic repertory although he has said it may force him to abandon high parts. Having already performed Rodolfo, Faust and Lohengrin, he is scheduled for Chénier and wants to do Alvaro, Carlo, Manrico and Max. He succeeded in florid repertory by virtue of technical prowess. In dramatic parts, however, his relatively bland vocal personality probably will tell against him. Further, he might produce a more heroic sound at the expense of vocal gleam. On a recent recording of Maria Stuarda, his tone is brassier but also thicker and coarser—the classic tradeoff.
Araiza has said that Neil Shicoff and Luis Lima are at the same point in their careers as he and are performing much of the same repertory. Of the three Shicoff has the prettiest middle voice but is the least expressive and musically secure, Lima has the greatest emotional intensity and Araiza the most proficiency. (Update: in La Juive at The Met, in 2003, Shicoff’s voice was untrue in pitch and coarse—but he finally found his soul. The tradeoff was worth it.)
This article, written in 1990, is reprinted from The International Dictionary of Opera and The St. James Opera Encyclopedia, with additions and minor changes.