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The Darkened Age of Soprano Singing

by Stefan Zucker

Soprano singing has changed in various ways during the last 70 years. Here’s one aspect, illustrated by Mirella Freni and Katia Ricciarelli from the 1970s onward. Their sounds were very different from those of most Italian sopranos prior to W.W. II. Those women for the most part didn’t sound mellow or creamy. (Claudia Muzio began to cover her tones as she aged, and Rosa Ponselle covered from the start, but they were exceptions, as were Iva Pacetti and Mafalda Favero, who rounded or darkened, along with such Germans as Tiana Lemnitz and Maria Ivogün.) Most pre-war Italian women didn’t round or darken their tones, as did Freni and Ricciarelli.

Freni-and-Ricciarelli-like sounds may fall kindly on the ear but the price is monotony. Unrelieved rounding or darkening limits expression and irons out tonal nuance.

Rounded or darkened sound is less youthful. To convey girlishness Freni herself sang Micaëla with an unrounded or undarkened sound, heard on a Carmen (available as a download or CD). But that was in 1959. Iris Adami Corradetti taught her pupil Ricciarelli to round or darken. But in recordings made in 1940 Adami Corradetti herself did little or no rounding or darkening. In her recordings from the 50s, however, she did. These singers presumably were trying to accommodate modern taste: rounding or darkening and to some extent covering are now expected worldwide. But undarkened, unrounded, uncovered sounds sustain interest better. Listen to Bianca Scacciati, Adelaide Saraceni, Maria Carena or Augusta Oltrabella, none of whom rounded, darkened or covered. If you’re not accustomed to them, you may find their top notes acerbic and even piercing. But the result is more characterful.

At the opposite pole from rounded or darkened singing is the voce infantile, a “white,” childlike sound, useful for expressing innocence and fragility. Toti Dal Monte, Lina Pagliughi and Maria Zamboni are three who always sang with the voce infantile, sometimes with a charming and playful result otherwise unobtainable. Tones sung with the voce infantile are open, and open tones sustain interest (whereas covered sounds in and of themselves do not). Even so, the use of the voce infantile for everything can limit expression. Consider the second and third acts of Dal Monte’s Butterfly, where the voce infantile becomes less appropriate as the tragedy deepens. Whether or not Dal Monte continued to sing with it out of interpretive choice is unclear.

Notwithstanding the expression-limiting effect of pervasive rounding or darkening, not to mention that of pervasive covering, and the expression-limiting effect of using only the voce infantile, singers still can be expressive through musicanship, vocal acting and fuoco sacro.