The term mezzo-soprano comes from the Italian, meaning half-soprano.
It is the middle category of the female voice, some referring
to it as the coloratura contralto That latter term implies a flexibility
and lightness that is certainly not a requirement in the majority
of heavier and darker dramatic mezzo-soprano voices, particularly
those intended by Verdi. In the Italian repertoire some mezzos
only differ from the lyrico-spinto soprano in that a few notes
are lacking at the top of the tessitura, with the voice merely
having a recognisably and somewhat darker timbre. In recent years
Shirley Verrett (b. 1930) and Grace Bumbry (b. 1937) have fitted
that description. Both essayed soprano roles such as Tosca in
addition to their original fach of the Verdi lyric-dramatic roles
such as Eboli (Don Carlos), Amneris (Aida), Azucena
(Il Trovatore) and Ulrica (Ballo in Maschera).
They did not do so without exposing imperfections at the top of
the voice. Other, lighter and flexible mezzo voices have been
able to move between their adopted fach into the lighter soprano
roles: Cecilia Bartoli, Susan Graham and Frederica von Stade being
typical examples. However, one cannot imagine Marilyn Horne, with
her significantly heavier, darker, albeit very flexible mezzo
taking on Mozart soprano roles as Bartoli has done, although Horne
sang bel canto soprano parts in her early career. Examples
of her flexibility from this period can be heard on recordings
from the mid-1960s of items by Rossini and Donizetti (Decca 421
891-2). There she encompasses Isabella’s aria Crude sorte!
from L’Italiana in Algeri alongside Semiramide’s Bel
raggio and Marie’s Deciso e dunque from La figlia
del regimento, the latter two sung by Joan Sutherland
on the complete recordings. In terms of tonal range the ordinary,
as distinct from the coloratura soprano, will have a two octave
range rising from middle C, whilst the mezzo range is two octaves
from A with an occasional high B flat. Some darker and heavier
voices go a little lower towards the contralto’s F below middle
C. Such a voice-type is really needed for Ulrica in Ballo in
Maschera and Quickly in Falstaff. Along the continuum
are the roles such as Carmen, Dalila (tr.6) and Mignon through
Rossini’s coloratura Rosina (Barber of Seville) and heavier
Tancredi to Mozart’s Cherubino. These can also be sung by a soprano
with sufficient colour to convey the character’s maleness.
On the international
operatic stage, and on mainstream recordings, the dramatic mezzo
roles of Verdi were dominated for much of the LP era, and before,
by a distinguished line of Italian mezzos. The first in that line
was Ebe Stignani (1904-74) who sang Amneris on Gigli’s 1944 recording
of Aida and Adalgisa to Callas’s Norma at Covent
Garden in 1952 and on the recording made the following year (review).
Next came Giuiletta Simionato (1910-1997), and then Fedora Barbieri
(1920-2003) followed by the redoubtable Fiorenza Cossotto (b.
1935), after which the mould seemed lost. The recording industry
endeavoured to fill the gap with the likes of Marilyn Horne (Decca
417 137-2) and Brigitte Fassbänder (DG 423 858-2) as Azucena and
Christa Ludwig as Ulrica (Decca 410 210-2) - roles they were not
familiar with on stage. Karajan cast the tangy light mezzo Agnes
Baltsa as his Don Giovanni Elvira, and Amneris (review)
and others followed (article and discography).
Into this milieu
Dolora Zajick arrived on the operatic stage, the great Birgit
Nilsson saying of her: “Zajick’s voice is the only one existing
today without any competition in the world.” Several record
companies received her like a gift from heaven; her discography
of complete opera recordings is detailed on her website.
Zajick’s voice is not a million miles different from that of
Marilyn Horne of the early 1980s when she was singing the dramatic
Rossini mezzo roles at Pesaro. It is notable that she did this
without recourse to a heavy rasping chest register as can be
heard in her singing of Arsace’s aria from Semiramide (tr.4).
In the live situation she gave her all, never holding back.
The effect was often viscerally thrilling, as when I heard her
as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana in 2005. But the
downside of this approach is evident in some of these extracts
when the excessive dramatic heft relies on a thick-toned or
throaty emission (tr.5). Compare this with her account of Eboli’s
O don fatale with its declamatory nature and the whole
having that exciting vitality I have already referred to (tr.7).
I was less convinced of her Azucena (tr.8) whilst finding her
Lady Macbeth interesting if not without vocal mannerisms (trs.11-12).
Her Mon coeur from Samson and Dalila is well controlled
and expressive (tr.6) whilst the Gluck (tr.10) needs a more
yearning touch whilst being vocally impressive.
What is unusual
on recital discs, particularly when discs of mezzos are so comparatively
rare on the ground, are the extracts from two operatic rarities
from Russian opera (trs.1-2). In these episodes Zajick is at
her most persuasive vocally. I would have liked her to have
included Marina’s aria from the Polish scene of Boris Godunov.
However, market forces were doubtless paramount in this diverse
collection from 1999, now re-issued under Telarc’s policy. I
am very happy to add this disc to the few devoted to this voice
type in my collection. This is a reflection on availability
not on my taste. The recording is clear and the booklet has
notes on each aria as well as the words with English translation.
Zajick’s website biography
only goes up to 2003-04 and, like the booklet, does not give
her date of birth.
Robert J Farr