Il barbiere di Siviglia (1954)


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(The Barber of Seville)

Pastori, Monti, Calabrese, Panerai, Cortis, Coda, Cadoni; Giulini; Enriquez, dir.; Chor. & Orch. of RAI. In Italian, no subtitles. (April 23, 1954). 133m. B&W.

One sometimes reads that tenors in the early 19th century sang their high notes in falsetto. The term “falsetto” was used in two different ways at the time. One of them referred to what we today think of as falsetto and what I call “parody falsetto.” This falsetto was adopted by bassi buffi to parody women. Cortis, the Bartolo in this Barbiere, uses parody falsetto on the words “sul tamburo” and “grazie un corno,” and Panerai uses it on his first high A, on the word “nodo” in the trio “Ah! Qual colpo inaspettato.”

“Falsetto” also referred to what we today call “head voice.” In practice, head voice (head resonance, really) often was and is mixed with chest resonance, to a greater or lesser extent. Singing “in the head” typically involves relatively less chest resonance than singing “in the chest.” Before the 1830s tenors emphasized head resonance, so their high notes did not resonate to any considerable degree in their chests. If their high notes tended to resonate in their chests to too great an extent, they did not allow them to do so. (For more on this subject see my “Different Kinds of High Notes and the Seismic Shock: Nineteenth-Century Tenors and the Meaning of ‘Falsetto,’ ” American Record Guide, March, 1982, and “Seismic Shocker: The High C From the Chest, Now Standard Practice Among Tenors, Was Popularized by the Frenchman Gilbert-Louis Duprez,” Opera News, January 1, 1983. This article is reprinted in The Origins of Modern Tenor Singing.

An escapade of the baritone Antonio Tamburini in Mercadante’s Elisa e Claudio, at Palermo, in 1826, illustrates that parody falsetto contrasted vividly with the head-resonance singing practiced by male opera singers at that time as a matter of routine rather than for special effect. The story has been told and re-told by several commentators; here is the vivid rendering of Francis Rogers’ Some Famous Singers of the 19th Century, long out of print:


The theatre was full of merrymakers, much more intent on making a noise themselves than on listening to music made by others. Tamburini’s first attempts to make himself heard were vain. Suddenly he ceased to use his natural voice and began to sing in a falsetto so shrill and clear that it surmounted the racket made by the roysterers. The crowd was delighted with the novelty and received the prima donna [Caterina Liparini] on her entrance with such an uproar of enthusiasm that she lost her nerve completely, rushed out of the back door of the theatre, and was seen no more that night. The manager was in despair–no prima donna, no opera! But Tamburini was equal to the occasion. Clothing himself in as much of the soprano’s costume as he could find and squeeze into, he returned to the stage, where he sang all her music in falsetto and played her part with mirth-provoking fervor. He played and sang both parts in a duet for soprano and bass. To cap the climax, in response to the demands of the audience, now quite hysterical with delight, he executed a spirited dance with the corps de ballet.


The other kind of falsetto–head resonance–was not used in this way or found amusing. Today many err in thinking tenors then produced their high notes in parody falsetto.

Monti sings his top notes with a head resonance that might strike some as parody falsetto although my ear and intuition tell me it isn’t. Apart from buffo effects, I can think of only a couple of instances where a tenor sings in parody falsetto. Pavarotti’s high F in the Puritani recording with Sutherland is an example. The quality of the F is beautiful in and of itself, yet the effect is bizarre because he sings it in the wrong kind of falsetto, parody falsetto. It is as if a different throat were uttering the note. (He also changes the notes following the F to avoid the slow, sustained descent.)

Parody falsetto was a favorite expressive device of many Eastern European cantors, who used it, often in prayer, to contrast with their chest-voice singing. Some of them–Yossele Rosenblatt is the best-known example–sometimes would sing part of a phrase in chest voice and part in parody falsetto or would use parody falsetto for echo effects, as on one of Rosenblatt’s most virtuosic recordings, “Der Neuer ‘Omar Rabbi Elosor.'” A cantor-turned-opera-singer, Hermann Jadlowker, appropriated this tradition of tonal contrast in his recording of “Meine Freunde” from Auber’s Fra Diavolo, in which the tenor quotes a woman without caricaturing her.

The Gran Scena opera company provided a limiting case in the use of parody falsetto: Men sang Aïda, Minnie, Turandot et al. in parody falsetto. The results were occasionally painful, sometimes hilarious and often expressive. (Gran Scena’s prima donna assoluta, Vera Galupe Borszkh, continues to give annual farewell recitals.)

Males who sing primarily in parody falsetto are countertenors. The late John Ferrante was a rare example of one who sang both as a tenor and a countertenor. He told me his head-resonance tenor fundamentally was different in voice production from his parody-falsetto countertenor.

Monti’s high notes sound like mezza voce no matter how loud he is singing. But head resonance also can be brilliant. Listen, for example, to the ringing tones of Escalaïs. The last century’s tenori di grazia, such as Schipa, Dino Borgioli, Valletti and Monti, none of whom had ring, didn’t sing especially high. Where Monti really does sing in mezza voce, the sound is beautiful, even on the high As in the Barbière opening scene. At full voice he is somewhat white on top. In an effort to give the recitatives a spoken quality, he becomes imprecise in pitch. His diction is clear and so are his rhythms.

But his florid singing is not always well articulated. A touch of aspiration would help. British and American critics damn aspiration, yet it can clarify music and occasionally even is indispensable. For example, in the quartet in La scala di seta the tenor has triplets against the other singers’ duplets. To define these triplets I aspirated them. (Aspiration can be a crutch, and I am not advocating it be used promiscuously.)

Who’s the missing link between Tetrazzini and Devia and Serra? Pastori, arguably, with her uncommonly extensive bell-like top. If you try counting the really high Italian coloraturas, you’ll come up with a surprisingly small list (unlike with the French or Germans). Pagliughi springs to mind, but her top doesn’t ring like Pastori’s. Carosio doesn’t seem to have flourished as high. Pastori has good descending scales but is breathy in the low middle.

Buffi traditionally looked like sight gags and Calabrese is no exception. He may be the skinniest Basilio ever–a trait he makes good use of by, as it were, becoming a spider. The Bartolo-Basilio duet has panache.

Giulini builds the crescendo during “La calunnia” into a Toscanini-like sweep. He gives “Freddo ed immobile” a nice lilt. —Stefan Zucker