Though only the Mattinata
remains common currency, Leoncavallo
was a prolific writer of romanze
for voice and piano. As Mirella
Castiglioni’s notes tell us, during
his difficult Paris years they often
bought him his next meal. Songs by opera
composers have a way of sounding like
opera arias manqué, but
Leoncavallo instead follows the romanza
manner of Tosti, with results that
seem to me, in their pleasantly unoriginal
way, at least as good. He has an unfailing
stock of spontaneous melody and the
piano writing is satisfyingly full.
Several of the songs in Italian set
poems of his own – including Mattinata
– and the remainder are by very
minor poets. The French songs include
several texts by Armand Silvestre and
Alfred de Musset, names that will be
familiar to lovers of French mélodie.
Indeed, a group of these French songs
could very agreeably share half a programme
with some mélodies by
actual French composers.
So, given that they
are well worth singing, how to sing
them? Roberto Tenzi, though Swiss, comes
from the Canton Ticino, the Italian-speaking
part of Switzerland, and he has clearly
trained as a thorough-going Italian
tenor, with a bright, forwardly-produced
voice, squillante as the Italians
say ("ringing" is a fair translation),
with plenty of heft in the top notes
- and occasionally a sense of strain,
more noticeable through the loudspeakers
than on headphones for some reason.
Honeyed pianissimos are out – for better
or worse this style rejects the use
of the "head" voice but the
line is caressed with generous portamenti.
When singing French, only a very token
nod in the direction of French vowels
It’s one way to do
it, and excellently done from its own
of view. Since Leoncavallo was Italian
it may be the way he wanted. But I must
say I should like to hear the effect
of singing the French ones in the French
manner, with the piquant vowel sounds,
a gently reedy tone ("nasal",
some call it) and sweet "falsetto"
high notes, just as one would sing Hahn.
I should also like to hear the effect
of not trying to make it sound "like"
anything but "nobilitating"
it by treating it as great music - whether
you think it is or not - in other words
just singing it with sincerity, respect
and a sense of line. But all this is
rather academic until somebody makes
available alternative versions along
these lines for comparison, and as I
say, Tenzi’s way is certainly one of
the possible ones. Mind you, if the
Caruso recording of Mattinata with
Leoncavallo at the piano is anything
to go by, this music requires an agogic
freedom which nobody has approached
in the last fifty years, but how on
earth could you reproduce that if you
don’t have it in your blood, especially
in all the songs where there isn’t
a Caruso/Leoncavallo version to
copy? I tried out the Gigli version
of Mattinata and already it is
much straighter rhythmically; this may
be because there was an orchestral accompaniment.
However it is much lighter on its feet
than the present one and Gigli has an
ease of emission and a familiarity with
the words - as well as one or two bad
emoting habits: the famous sob/gulp
- which explain just why he was so special.
But I repeat, Tenzi will give pleasure
on his own terms.
The recording is not
new (it is licensed from Nuova Era)
and I found it a little overbearing.
In the end I listened with the volume
rather low, though turning down the
volume of a closely recorded singer
is not quite the same as listening to
him from a more comfortable distance.
I also found it rather disconcerting
that the piano emerges well to the left
and the voice well to the right. Strangely,
on headphones I didn’t find this left-right
separation, but I felt as if my head
was inside the piano and the singer
was right behind my shoulder. Pianists
who have had the experience of accompanying
a powerful operatic voice standing just
above his right ear because there is
only one copy of the music will know
how powerful they are up close, but
I don’t expect a disc to give me this
impression. In the end I enjoyed this
most on a smaller CD player.
In spite of my reservations,
on balance this is to be recommended
for the rare and worthwhile repertoire.
I should like to point out, in conclusion,
that, while discs of songs by Italian
composers of opera appear from time
to time - this same label offers another
by Tenzi dedicated to Mascagni and two
recitals of Verdi’s arie da camera
have come my way recently - those composers
who rejected the opera house, led by
Martucci, Sgambati and Bossi, while
not so prolific as in the instrumental
field, did make an interesting and often
successful attempt to write songs that
behave like lieder while still sounding
Italian. It would be nice to hear something