Friday, March 05, 2010

Tenor Monsters

I thought I'd indulge myself by taking a break, via putting some flesh on the bones of some stray remarks I've recently made on the tiny handful of tenor roles that require everything, or practically everything.

For as much as I've looked into some of these monster scores, as well as from haphazardly assembling a set of varied reflections from certain singers and historical specialists, nine roles in particular seem to surface again and again that are thoroughly dramatic and also require a degree of suppleness above the ordinary.  In chronological order, they are


1818 Rossini: RICCIARDO E ZORAIDE (Agorante)

(requiring the ultimate in coloratura flexibility, and with a startlingly baritonal tessitura in much of the ensemble writing, alternating with moments of stratospheric passagework)

1819 Rossini: ERMIONE (Pirro)

(its length requires more stamina, but it has the same degree of incredible agility and stratospheric passagework, while its tessitura is more comfortable for most tenors)

1822 Rossini: ZELMIRA (Antenore)

(requiring even more stamina, but otherwise the same as Pirro)

1829 Rossini: GUILLAUME TELL (Arnold)

(the heaviest role written up to then, with variations in tessitura alternating from passaggio-heavy to baritonal, and some degree of flexibility if not equivalent to the first three, requiring unusual stamina for its sheer length)

1836 Meyerbeer: LES HUGUENOTS (Raoul)

(not quite as consistently heavy throughout and without the same variations in tessitura, but with a similar level of flexibility and sheer length)

1838 Donizetti: POLIUTO (Poliuto)

(alternates lyric and dramatic writing to an uncommon degree, with its heaviest scene even heavier than anything in Arnold or Raoul, its alternations in tessitura splitting the difference between Arnold and Raoul, somewhat less demanding flexibility than the previous two)

1840 Donizetti: LES MARTYRS (Polyeucte)

(in this POLIUTO revision, all the requirements of the original, plus variations in tessitura fully comparable to those in Arnold)

1849 Meyerbeer: LE PROPHETE (Jean)

(more than one scene here fully as dramatic throughout as Poliuto's/Polyeucte's heaviest sequence, requiring more flexibility also, but with practically no variations in tessitura at all)

1855 Verdi: VEPRES SICILIENNES (Henri)

(more flexibility needed than in Poliuto/Polyeucte but somewhat less than in PROPHETE, slightly heavier than Raoul, although still not as heavy as Jean, while just as heavy as Poliuto/Polyeucte in Henri's last two acts)


Looking over these, one can say that any one role here may be tougher than another, depending on which factor(s) one is spotlighting.  There seems to be little question, for instance, that Arnold marks a huge break with those roles preceding it in the sheer density of the scoring and the new-fangled heroic utterances in the vocal writing as a result.  At the same time, its somewhat less intricate agility means that it does defer somewhat to Antenore, for instance, in this regard (while the unusual length of both roles entails a similar level of stamina for both).

A similar trade-off is apparent in comparing, for instance, Arnold with Jean, arguably the two roles that come up the most often as the very hardest roles of all.  Jean is even heavier than Arnold for most of its writing, but Arnold's emotional intensity combined with its more varied tessitura can make its most challenging sequences of all seem slightly more daunting to some singers than anything in Jean, however more consistently heavy Jean may be as a whole.  I found it intriguing that one tenor, Rick Christman, one of the few on this planet who's sung both Arnold and Jean, told me that Arnold is actually (slightly) more challenging for him, while, on the other hand, bel canto historian Randy Mikelson feels that the level of the scoring is simply so heavy in PROPHETE as to put Jean in a class entirely by himself.  It would be interesting to know which one Gedda finds tougher.

It's not really possible to say -- 1, 2, 3 -- which is the most difficult role, which the second most difficult, and so on.  But perhaps, broad groupings are possible.  Tied at first place is probably


1829 Rossini: GUILLAUME TELL (Arnold)
1849 Meyerbeer: LE PROPHETE (Jean)


Then might be


1818 Rossini: RICCIARDO E ZORAIDE (Agorante)
1819 Rossini: ERMIONE (Pirro)
1822 Rossini: ZELMIRA (Antenore)
1840 Donizetti: LES MARTYRS (Polyeucte)


followed by


1838 Donizetti: POLIUTO (Poliuto)
1855 Verdi: VEPRES SICILIENNES (Henri)


with


1836 Meyerbeer: LES HUGUENOTS (Raoul)


at the end -- and Raoul is hardly easy!

There is a purpose of sorts behind these reflections: I'm wondering if anyone here has ever experienced, either as a singer or as a colleague or as a spectator or as a listener, any performances of any of these roles in which the tenor writing actually came off as (relatively) easy, perhaps seemingly easier than some other role not on this list in which the same singer seemed to have an apparent struggle instead.  I can already think of one such case myself, but since it involves a role that most seem agreed on as no heavier than lirico spinto, I'm hoping it doesn't upset too many applecarts: Marcello Giordani actually seemed to have smoother sailing when doing Arnold at Carnegie Hall with Eve Queler than he had doing Gualtiero in PIRATA at the Met.  But since Gualtiero has a slightly higher tessitura anyway, pure matters of vocal category may have as much to do with this as anything involved in overall difficulty as such.  (Also, bear in mind that it was very clear that Giordani's Arnold was sung with atypical containment for him; he wasn't necessarily cautious or understated, but he was unusually careful that night in minding his technical "p"s and "q"s, so to speak, in order to keep the line going smoothly and evenly to the end of the evening without tiring; the tone was well forward and there were very few lunges and percussive attacks were rare; the result was that he was even able to encore the cabaletta and still show no sign of fatigue in the last scene [where he admittedly has little to do]!  On the other hand, he seemed much more relaxed as Gualtiero but also a shade careless here and there, and there was marked fatigue by the end, whether or not as the direct result of less careful singing may be hard to say.)

Also, are there any supreme examples of total mastery of the music in any of these nine cited roles that still abides with anyone here as marking a peak in their experience unlikely to be challenged any time soon?  Thanks.

Geoffrey Riggs

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