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A 1906 recording of the soprano Adelina Patti (43), contained in a widely available anthology (44), shows plainly that this historic singer possessed at the age of 63 the freshest of voices, with an extensive range and a robustness even in low notes, not unlike other singers who feature in the collection. Overall, Patti's vocal manner is close to that of her contemporary Alessandro Moreschi (cf. note 8): a singer at the Pontifical Chapel, he was the last castrato and the only one for whom we have the evidence of recordings. Two centuries after Tosi's Opinioni, Moreschi still mixes in degrees the natural or 'chest' voice-production in the lower register (45) with the head voice in the higher part of the range. 'The angel of Rome', as this singer was deservedly called, Patti and all the singers of the same period pronounce open vowels with an unmistakable crispness, a quality neglected in operatic singing of the present day. In fact, female singers today alter their diction systematically, and beyond any genuine expressive needs, conforming obsequiously to the darker voice-colour of male singers, particularly baritones and basses. Among all the types of voice, tenors alone have maintained an adequate phonetic equivalence between the sung and the spoken word. Unfortunately, pronunciation is even more starkly deformed in the head register, of which it is female voices that make most use; the consequences are plain to all and displeasing to many: 'casta diva' is increasingly often sung 'costa düva', 'kyrie' 'korüe' and 'di primavera' 'do promovöre'... In the light of textual exegesis, this device shows itself to be philologically incorrect even in performing works of Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti, or other 19th-century Italian composers.

Singing studies in the present day aim at rendering the voice homogeneous, but endorse excesses which tend to sublimate the voice in an almost abstract way, making it alien to the basic nature of the vocal organs, which should always be guided by an awareness that their vital spark is the word. Many take the view that the brightness of an open 'è' or'ò' disturbs the uniformity of vocal production or of timbre, and, in pursuit of a smooth and 'noble' sound, they depart from correct pronunciation, and thus render the text incomprehensible. In singing, the text is sovereign. Think of pop music: pieces that are solely instrumental are very rare. With sporadic exceptions, the repertory is entirely made up of songs in which the voice, almost always solo, is the single unqualified protagonist. Even when the music is of a mediocre standard, the voice – however much it may depart from the parameters required in vocal studies – ensures a direct communication with the listener.

Until about fifty years ago, there was still no great difference between the vocal manners of a singer of 'cultivated' music and a fine performer of the popular or light repertory, so that switching from one genre to the other was not only possible but straightforward and common. The divide that has opened up between the opera singer and the public of today is an index of how greatly communication has been disturbed. The voice, assimilated to an instrument and deprived of its distinctive feature, the word, has lost its status of signifier; it is a confirmation of this that even among devotees of classical music the prevailing tendency is to prefer purely instrumental performance. This cultural situation, unthinkable until a few decades ago, at least in Italy, is a sound barometer of the condition of vocal music today. The choice on the part of the singer of what sort of vocal manner to adopt, with a view not only to beauty and volume but also to the comprehensibility of the text, is crucial to the quality of performance. In order effectively to restore an historically correct style of performance, it is desirable to bring out, with the help of correct diction and the resulting intelligibility of the words, the connection between the text and the setting created by the composer, thus contributing to interpretation that is semantically coherent, and respecting the integrity of the musical text.

In conclusion, exactness of pronunciation should be a fundamental requirement: "(Il maestro; n.d.r.) Faccia profferir distintamente allo Scolaro le vocali, acciò siano intese per quelle, che sono". ("Let him (the maestro (Ed.)) have the pupil put forth the vowels distinctly, so that they may be understood as what they are." (46)) Open vowels should be well distinguished from closed ones, just as single consonants should be from double; also to be observed are the requirements of the orthoepical phenomenon of syntactic reduplication ('Che fiero costume' and 'Tu mancavi a tormentarmi' are properly pronounced 'Cheffièro costùme' and 'Tummancàvi attormentàrmi').

Dopo che lo Scolaro si sarà impadronito francamente del Trillo e del Passaggio il Maestro gli dovrà far leggere, e pronunziare le parole senza quegli erroracci ridiculi d'Ortografia in cui molti tolgono a qualche vocabolo le sue doppie consonanti per regalarle ad un altro, che le ha semplici.

Corretta la pronunzia procuri, che profferisca le medesime parole in maniera, che senza affettazione alcuna siano così distintamente intese, che non se ne perda sillaba, poiché se non si sentono, chi canta priva gli ascoltanti d'una gran parte di quel diletto, che il Canto riceve dalla loro forza: Se non si sentono, quel Cantore esclude la verità dell'artificio: E se finalmente non si sentono non si distingue la voce umana da quella d'un Cornetto, o d'un Haut-bois. Questo difetto, benché massimo in oggi è poco men che comune con notabile pregiudizio de' Professori e della Professione; e pur non dovrebbero, che le parole son quelle, che li fanno prevalere a sonatori, quando sieno d'uguale intendimento. Il Maestro moderno sappia servirsi dell'avviso, perché la correzione non è stata mai tanto necessario come adesso.

(Once the scholar has thoroughly mastered the trill and the passaggio, the maestro's next task is to have him read and pronounce words without those gross and ridiculous errors of orthography by which many people take away from one word its double consonant and bestow it on another word whose consonants are single.

The pronunciation once corrected, let him ensure that he brings forth those same words in such a way that, without any affectation, they are so distinctly grasped that not a syllable is lost, for if they are not heard the singer deprives the listeners of much of that charm which singing acquires from their force; if they are not heard, the singer leaves out the truthfulness of the artifice; and finally, if they are not heard, the human voice is not distinguished from the sound of a cornet or an oboe. This defect, for all its gravity, is today little short of commonplace, much to the disadvantage of the profession and those who practise it; and yet it should not be so, for it is precisely the words which enable a singer to outshine an instrumentalist, when they are of equal accomplishment.

Let the modern maestro take heed of the advice, since this rectification has never been as necessary as it is today.) (47)

The rules and warnings commended by Tosi might appear superfluous, but deep-rooted habits of study have led many singers into a misunderstanding; certain among them regard the pair 'low voice' and 'dark sound' as equivalent (and the latter is even held to be synonymous, in a quite arbitrary way, with 'beautiful'); on the contrary, the fashioning of the dark timbre has rendered almost all voices, and especially female voices, unnatural.

As has already been explained at length, the importance of study for the sake of blending the chest and the head registers, while concealing the transition from one to the other, is evident. Given that "La voce di testa è facile al moto, possiede le corde superiori più che le inferiori, ha il trillo pronto, ma è soggetta a perdersi per non aver forza, che la regga" ("The head voice is mobile, involves the higher more than the lower notes, finds the trill simple, but is liable to be lost for lack of force to support it" (48)), it is necessary to unite it with the chest voice, thus forming a special intermediate register to function as a 'medium' between the two and hide the so-called 'step' ('gradino'). Male voices should, when singing high notes, use head sounds too. This technique increases the possibilities of expression and of sweetness of voice, and allows the polished performance of passages demanding agility: "Tutta la bellezza del Passaggio consiste nell'esser perfettamente intonato, battuto, granito, eguale, rotto e veloce" ("The whole beauty of the passaggio consists in its being perfectly pitched, crisp, articulated, even, separated and swift" (49)). In an analogous way, female voices, especially sopranos, when singing middle and low notes, should blend the head sound gradually with the chest sound, in such a way as to strengthen the often rather inconsistent medium-low part of the voice.

Observing a few simple recommendations culled from the most authoritative texts of the past is not to be thought of as an arid reinstatement of obsolete and outmoded formulae; a reconstruction absolutely identical with the singing of the past is in any case unrealisable. The ancient rules are by now disconnected from the present ones, so much so that they turn out paradoxically to be new. It is to be hoped that their revived use, reestablishing the natural and healthy approach to phonetics, may rectify many errors and abuses that have led to a decline in singing and an estrangement of the public. "E finalmente faranno sentir le Arie, più gustose e meno simili: Più naturali, e più cantabili." ("And at last they will make the Arias be heard, more tasteful and less uniform; More natural, and more singable." (50))

ANTONELLA NIGRO (Translation by David Mitchell) (<<<Previous)

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(43) Adelina Patti (1843 - 1919) sang a number of times for Rossini and was enthusiastically appreciated by the Maestro, particularly for the virtuosity she showed in the art of belcanto.

(44) CD La Scala edition, EMI Classics 0777 7 64860 2 4.

(45) P. F. TOSI, op. cit., p. 40-42. According to Tosi, this register reaches as far as D4. In addition, the following assertions taken from the Opinioni give one to understand that in castratos (as is still the case today in children) the chest register reached higher than in female voices. "La giurisdizione della voce naturale, o di petto, termina ordinariamente sul quarto spazio, o sulla quinta riga, (in chiave di soprano; n.d.r.) ed ivi principia il dominio del falsetto si nello ascendere alle note alte, che nel ritornare alla voce naturale ove consiste la difficoltà dell'unione; Consideri dunque il Maestro di qual peso sia la correzione di quel difetto, che porta seco la rovina dello Scolaro se la trascura". ("The jurisdiction of the natural, or chest, voice, normally ends at the fourth space, or the fifth line (of the soprano clef (Ed.)), and there begins the dominion of the falsetto, alike in ascending to high notes and in returning to the natural voice, which is where the difficulty of unifying them lies; Let the Maestro consider, then, of what moment is the correction of that defect, whose neglect entails the ruin of the scholar.")

(46) P. F. TOSI, op. cit., p. 43.

(47) P. F. TOSI, op. cit., pp. 64, 65.

(48) P. F. TOSI, op. cit., p. 43.

(49) P. F. TOSI, op. cit., p. 64.

(50) P. F. TOSI, op. cit., p. 93.