Saturday, February 20, 2010

In Praise of Tradition - part 4

('The greatest opera recording ever.' Otello and Iago vow revenge at the end of Act II of Verdi's Otello.)

Caruso and Ruffo in their primes. The year was 1915, World War I was raging on two fronts, and the 120-year-long Golden Age of Italian Opera finally was winding down with Puccini's lush fourth-chords. The tabloid supremacy of opera singers, once the world's biggest celebrities, were suddenly challenged by a newly emergent artform that synthesized all the arts even more seemlessly than opera did: the movies. But even at that historical period, Enrico Caruso and Titta Ruffo were names as well known as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.

That fantastic newfangled invention, the gramophone, could spread music like wildfire. Until 1900, if you wanted to hear music in your home you had to make it yourself. Yet suddenly homes around the world were filled with the strains of Caruso, Paderewski, Fritz Kreisler, Al Jolson and Irving Berlin.

Instrumentalists had a hard time with playing into a horn, but what amazes even today is the fidelity with which the microphone captured great voices. It's nearly impossible to understand the appeal of a Paderewski (or at least was until the digital piano roll recreations) but the appeal of Caruso and Ruffo and Ponselle and all their contemporaries registers just as clearly today as they ever did. It's unfair to repeat the old mantra that 'opera singers get worse with every generation.' But I don't think it's unfair to say that there are certain things opera singers do worse today. Nobody sings Verdi like this anymore...perhaps nobody ever will and maybe if they did, the greatness of opera would have an easier time being explained to the public.

(Rosa Ponselle sings 'Un Bel Di Vedremo' in 1919. The great opera conductor Tulio Serafin once said he only heard three 'miracles' of opera: Caruso, Ruffo, and Ponselle.)

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