Ah, the high, lyric baritone voice. The voice that
Giuseppe Verdi almost single-handedly raised to international prominence
by writing so many juicy roles for it. The voice that George Bernard
Shaw so loved to hate. The voice that sends so many opera lovers today
into ecstatic fits of frenzy. This collection of 20 standard baritone
arias is taken from a variety of Naxos complete opera sets, and serves
as a companion album to O mio babbino caro, a similar collection
of soprano selections.
Naxos’s general practice has been to offer complete
operas featuring lesser-known singers (many of whom have since become
internationally prominent thanks to their Naxos exposure,) at budget
prices. (Ironically, it is Alan Titus, the best-known singer featured
here, who turns in the weakest performance.) All of the performances
on this disc are satisfactory, and some rank as very fine indeed.
As Rossini’s Figaro, Roberto Servile commands an even,
well-integrated voice with agile coloratura for the album title aria.
And while he cannot deliver patter with the same Gatling-gun speed as
many who have gone before him, he takes it at a tempo he can execute
well, while articulating the text sharply. He puts color and dynamics
to clever use of the comedy throughout. Appearing later as the Count
di Luna in Il trovatore, he displays rich tone and an easy legato
for Il balen. But a lack of power at the bottom distorts several
musical lines that need to be more firmly anchored. Several floated
high pianissimi communicate the Count’s burning desire, while the bright
middle voice suggests his jealousy and frustration.
Georg Tichy brings a deep, booming sound to Mozart’s
Papageno that fails to suggest the the birdcatcher’s boyish naïvete
that so distinguishes Ich Vogelfänger bin ich ja. And although
he sings throughout with clean line, his attempts to lighten his voice
in several phrases for contrast seem contrived and over-theatrical.
He is heard later to better effect as Germont pere in Verdi’s Traviata,
where he brings ample breath, smooth legato, and a warm top to the long
musical lines of Di Provenza il mar. But his determination to
sing throughout at a steady mezzo-forte saps his characterization of
variety and life.
Natale De Carolis’s full, mellow tones seem ideal for
Mozart’s Figaro. But the voice lacks playfulness, and De Carolis’s consistent
forte fails to evoke much of the humor in Mozart’s dynamics. (Mozart’s
comic roles are difficult to sing, because so much of the humor is already
there in the music. Too much "interpretation" by the singer
often veers a characterization to the Scylla of melodrama, while not
enough risks the Charybdis of monotony.) Figaro must show genuine anger
at the Count’s machinations in Se vuol ballare; but at the same
time, he must secretly enjoy the private charade he is indulging in
for his bride-to-be’s benefit. Nor does De Carolis capture much of the
bemused irony with which Figaro glorifies Cherubino’s future military
career in Non più andrai.
Suave legato, sophisticated coloration, and elegant
sound all make Bo Skovhus an aristocratic Don Giovanni in Deh! Vieni
alla funestra. But his phrasing becomes choppy for Finch’ han
dal vino, in which he seems to ride roughshod over a tempo just
slightly too fast for him. As a result, the Don’s confident hedonism
does not quite come off.
Although Andrea Martin’s airy, lyric baritone is a
tad weak and dry in the bottom range, his otherwise well-integrated
voice is perfect for Cosi fan tutte’s Guglielmo. Although the
laughter at the end of Non siate ritrosi is a bit overdone, Martin
still portrays an endearing lover who enjoys wooing a lady while hiding
the delicious secret irony of his disguise. And though this light, bright
voice is just the right jovial sound with which to commiserate with
his friend Ferrando (whose lover, Dorabella, has been the first of the
sisters to succumb to one of the newly-arrived "Albanians,")
it would be seriously taxed in repertory any heavier than this.
As Mozart’s Count Almaviva, Roberto Frontali perhaps
confronts the toughest assignment on this entire disc: Hai già
vinta la causa! reveals a thoroughly unlikable, shallow man who
must appear, for a moment at least, as sympathetic and misunderstood.
But Frontali has the clear articulation of text and the firmness of
line to portray the Count’s determination to have his own way, while
his elegant phrasing and sweetness of tone suggest his aristocratic
bearing and his simple awareness, sans arrogance, of his position. This
performance is one of the finest on the entire disc.
The biggest disappointment on this album is Alan Titus’s
Votre toast, from Bizet’s Carmen. Sung at a consistent,
phoned-in forte—some of the phrases are closer to being barked than
sung—the aria reveals little of Escamillo’s "matinee idol"
charisma. And what is a bullfighter without suave élan, ego,
or testosterone? Absent, too, is the arrogant glee some Escamillos reveal
in playing with ladies’ hearts and watching them succumb—even though
these ladies know their lover is merely toying with them.
Eduard Tumagian has many of the ingredients of a fine
Rigoletto: his Pari siamo! has dramatic involvement, incisive
thrust, and soaring lyrical line. He can snarl the venom of the jester’s
self-hatred and still retain the lyrical softness necessary to convince
the listener of his abiding love for his daughter Gilda. His Cortigiani,
vil razza dannata, however, comes off less well: the power of his
dramatic commitment sags in a few phrases when his usually-crisp diction
turns to mush and his inability to negotiate legato phrases smoothly
fails to arouse the listener’s pity for the jester. In the prologue
to Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci, Tumagian, as Tonio, finds sufficient
breath to make the long lines really sing (although he does take them
slightly faster than most baritones do.) He invests his tone with just
the right threat of restrained menace about to explode, but still retains
the earnest honesty needed to convince the listener that he and the
other players "are men of flesh and bone." One attribute expected
of any good Tonio is, of course, a thrilling penultimate high note;
Tumagian delivers in spades. On the other hand, Tumagian races through
what must be the fastest version of Alfio’s Il cavallo scalpita from
Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana ever recorded. Then, as Alfio’s
thoughts turn to his beloved wife Lola, the music turns dead, dead
slow, but later races again to the finale. The contrast is so over-dramatic
that it loses all dramatic punch and negates much of Tumagian’s fine
A growl just right for Iago is one important virtue
of Igor Morozov’s Era la notte from Verdi’s Otello. (Note
that this is the aria generally known as "Iago’s Dream," not
the aria usually referred to as "Iago’s Credo." It occurs
in the opera just before the Otello-Iago duet that concludes Act II.)
Dropping the vocal line is not often considered a virtue among singers,
but Morozov knows just how to do it deliberately, here, so as to leave
the text fraught with Machiavellian suggestion. Although his voice thins
markedly at the top, Morozov atones for this deficiency with ominous
whispers that epitomize Iago’s evil.
Silvano Carroli offers two excerpts from Puccini’s
Tosca, revealing a Baron Scarpia of snarly color but suave phrasing.
This Scarpia is educated, sophisticated, and worldly, motivated far
more by sadism—and an intellectual sadism, at that--than by lust. Carroli
makes many points through understatement: his Spasimi d’ira . . .
spasimi d’amore is sweetly sung, not barked; and his softspoken
Al tuo Mario, per tuo voler, non resta che un’ora di vita is
nothing short of chilling. Only occasional tones that tend toward dryness
mar this powerful performance.
Domenico Trimarchi’s gravelly lower register and tremulous
upper register seriously mar his Ehi paggio! . . . L’onore! Ladri!—the
so-called "honor monologue" from Verdi’s Falstaff. As
a result, the clever interplay between comic and serious elements throughout
the scene fails to materialize. In partial atonement, Trimarchi possesses
ultra-sharp diction and an almost uncanny sense of exactly what lines
to throw away so as to draw the listener in.
One major drawback of this disc is the helter-skelter
order in which the selections are programmed. No attempt has been made
to put selections by the same singer—or even selections by the same
composer or from the same time period—together. The result is a hodge-podge
that leaves one with a sense of never knowing what might possibly come
But all in all, this is a thoroughly listenable, satisfactory
disc. Nearly all of the performances are at least adequate, and a few
are near-great. It offers some interpretational depth I have never heard
before from far better-known singers, and brings new insight into imaginative
ways in which the lyric baritone voice can entertain—and challenge—listeners.