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José Soler: Among the Last Heroic Tenors

by Stefan Zucker

Heard on Pagliacci plus Guglielmo Tell Highlights in the prototypical heroic-tenor role of Arnoldo, in Tell, José Soler was one of the last of the breed. Heroic-tenor roles have more high notes than parts written for dramatic tenor and call for a leaner, more focused sound. Since Caruso and Del Monaco the world has thought of dramatic tenors as having thick, heavy voices and sounding like baritones. But baritonal tenors typically cannot undertake parts such as Arnoldo, with its 19 high Cs and two C-sharps, not to mention interpolated high notes mandated by the style. (In the trio “O libertade o morte” Soler sings a high C-sharp, without apparent effort.) In the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, such roles were sung by heroic tenors. Meyerbeer and his contemporaries wrote a number of roles for this voice type. Along with the works themselves, tenors suited to them have become extinct. They sounded like lyric tenors but with ultra-brilliant, penetrating high notes and sometimes, as is the case with Soler, weak lower-middle and bottom ones. Such tenors are ill suited to verismo repertory, where it’s the middle that counts, as well as to most Verdi. Although Soler sang Manrico, it’s hard to imagine he was successful in Acts II and IV, which lie in the middle.

By Soler’s time the heroic-tenor repertory wasn’t performed, with the exception of an occasional Tell  or Gli Ugonotti, so he had no choice but to appear in Aïda and other operas associated with dramatic rather than heroic tenors. He wasn’t the only one with a foot in each camp, however. Francesco Tamagno, who genuinely seems to have fallen between the categories, in addition to creating Verdi’s Otello, sang Tell and Ugonotti. Jean De Reszke and Caruso, who also sang lyric and dramatic parts, assayed Ugonotti. Leo Slezak and Helge Rosvaenge sang wide-ranging repertories that encompassed Otello and Tell. Giovanni Martinelli, who sang lyric and dramatic parts, also performed Tell  and Ugonotti. Giacomo Lauri Volpi, more suited to Tell  and Ugonotti, each of which he performed, also sang some performances of Otello. Corelli, who started out in the dramatic repertory, for a time aspired to the heroic; he sang Ugonotti  but abandoned the idea of performing Tell, which has more high notes. De Reszke, Caruso, Corelli and possibly Martinelli transposed, simplified or omitted some of the higher-flying sections in Ugonotti. Still, these singers are reminders that the demarcation lines of all vocal categories are elastic.

Some Wagner tenors are heroic; others are dramatic. Melchior, who began as a baritone, became a dramatic tenor. He maintained that:

A baritone quality points the way to the dramatic or heroic Wagnerian tenor, the so-called Schwererheld [sic] [a heavy hero]—Siegfried, Tristan, Tannhäuser. [I]f you begin as a high have only to make the middle high of the voice a little lighter. . . . [that is to say] the baritone’s three top notes, E, F, and G, must be filed down to match his lower notes. . . .Then he must add three top notes, A, B, and C. [See Shirlee Emmons’s Tristanissimo: The Authorized Biography of Heroic Tenor Lauritz Melchior, Schirmer Books, 1990, pp. 51, 14 and 43.]

So great was Melchior’s influence that for more than a generation Wagner tenors were measured against him. But some of his predecessors and contemporaries were heroic tenors. Some examples are Giuseppe Borgatti, Karl Burrian, Ivan Ershov, Nikander Khanaev, Ernst Kraus, Ettore Parmeggiani, Johannes Sembach, Jacques Urlus (sometimes) and Walter Widdop.

Melchior spoke of himself as a heroic tenor and Emmons calls him that, no doubt translating from the German Heldentenor. But in fact he was a dramatic tenor who sang the Heldentenor repertory. Whether Wagner’s original tenors were dramatic tenors or heroic tenors, no one today can say.

Soler’s vowels are bright. Like others in the heroic-tenor category, his voice has ring or ping—what Italians call “squillo.” Some dramatic tenors have squillo, Del Monaco for example. Squillo gives a tone elemental excitement. Most singers merely have resonance, which in and of itself is never exciting. Tones without squillo cannot pierce or punch. They may exude sorrow but not violent rage. For me, singers lacking squillo never can be entirely satisfying as, say, Verdi’s Otello, a dramatic-tenor part, or as Arnoldo. The full-bodied tones of Carreras and Domingo may please, but they cannot thrill. To thrill, such singers have to rely on the use to which they put their tones, on musical interpretation or vocal acting.

Sung tones come in three categories: closed, open and covered. In spoken French, for example, there are two “ah” sounds: the “ah” in “jamais” is closed, that in “théâtre” open. Covering involves darkening the tone and modifying vowels almost as if some were schwas, like the “uh” sounds in “America.” Open speaking and covered speaking sound artificial. But used judiciously open singing and covered singing can enhance expression.

Unlike Léonce-Antoine Escalaïs, a turn-of-the-century heroic tenor, Soler doesn’t cover his tones. Instead he uses closed tones. (For more on the subject of closed, open and covered tones see the booklet to #D504, Non ti scordar di me. In that DVD Gigli demonstrates all three kinds.)

Like many singers from early in the 20th century, Soler sings the vowel “oo” with an umlaut, as “ü.” This practice more or less died out before W.W. II.

He sings with a vocal technique that came into vogue in the second half of the 19th century, involving placing the voice far forward in the face, in the area singers refer to as the “masque.” Unlike Del Monaco and Corelli, neither of whom used masque placement, he doesn’t obtain squillo by singing with his larynx kept low.

Soler, born in Catalonia, in 1904, appeared in Spain in the late 30s and early 40s and in Italy after the war. His records are extremely rare apart from a 1953 Andrea Chénier, with Tebaldi. He died in 1999.