Saturday 15 May 2021

The 'impossible' tenor high F (above high C) in Bellini's The Puritans


I first heard this aria sung, as above, by Luciano Pavarotti - and this is, for me, the greatest performance overall. But the role was clearly Not written for a tenor of Pavarotti's type - with such a full, ringing and loud voice. (This is indeed known from multiple other sources of evidence.) 

Therefore, despite that Pavarotti sings every other note with his usual, perfectly even and glorious tone, he cannot reach the high F without switching to a falsetto (head-voice) voice production which marks a qualitative break in tonal quality. The run-in to this note is from 4:25. He does the high F beautifully - yet it sounds like someone else is singing that particular note. 

Pavarotti had probably the best high C of any full-voiced Italianate tenor - and what is more he possessed equally fine high C-sharp and even D - as may be heard in this aria; yet there are extremely few tenors of his type that can manage these notes using the same mode of vocal production as the high C. 

But the high F is three semitone above D - and that is a long way when singers are being judged by exact standards - and way beyond what any big-voiced tenor could produce in his normal vocal tone. 

You can hear this from a compilation of recordings of this notorious note - which is, I think, by far the highest note in the mainstream operatic tenor repertoire - since it is very seldom any tenor is required to go above high C at most - and that only once or twice per opera. 

Ignore the drivel in the comments! - What you can hear is that any tenor who has the kind of loud, ringing tone of a Pavarotti - someone like Gedda - must change to a qualitatively different tone for the high F. 

This is because all tenors have a 'break' in the voice, above which the tone must become falsetto; this break can be raised by training - but it is because of this that full-voiced tenors will sometimes 'crack' on high notes. This is like a yodel, and for the same reason - the voice suddenly, but uncontrolled because accidentally, flips into falsetto. 

(Yodeling is a controlled flipping back and forth between falsetto and the ordinary voice.) 

So, is the high F 'impossible'? 

There are tenors who, instead of having an abrupt break, gradually introduce more and more falsetto - their voice gradually and evenly changes from normal to falsetto as the notes get higher. (I have a friend with a naturally deep and sweet-toned voice, who does this spontaneously - and who has been able successfully to sing bass, baritone and tenor roles in Gilbert and Sullivan!) For such tenors, this high F may have more, or less, falsetto according to how high the break occurs. Some tenors have a very high break, and therefore the high F has less falsetto. 

However, these tenors invariably have a 'lighter', quieter and less ringing kind of tenor voice than the likes of Pavarotti and Gedda (or other greats of Italian Opera such as Caruso or Gigli) - they are, in essence, a different kind of voice (leggiero or tenore de grazia are some of the terms) - and such tenors are nowadays most often seen in Rossini, because only lighter voices can manage rapid coloratura (decorative passages of many quick notes). Luigi Alva was of this type.    

It seems certain that Bellini was writing for a just this type of leggiero, ligh-voliced singer, who used falsetto-flavoured production for the high notes. However, the tenor plays a man in nearly all operas, what is more the hero; and so he needs to sound masculine in vocal quality. 

This need for a heroic quality can be a problem for most high-voiced tenors, including who can best manage the high F with the minimum of falsetto. For perfection, the tenor should be able to integrate the high F with the whole of the rest of his voice - so that there is a completely-seamless transition in vocal quality. 

An example of musically-desirable seamless integration is Bruce Brewer (from 4:20):

; Brewer sounds too-much like a female contralto - and not at all heroic!

So there is a problem. In a purist and strictly musical sense the tenor role in The Puritans must be a trade-off between heroic qualities in the voice, including the capacity to produce thrilling - rather than merely sweet - top notes; and the ability to sing the highest notes without a break in the voice. And, realistically, this can only be done by sacrificing the high F! - i.e. by singing it in (more or less) the different falsetto tone, as done by Pavarotti and Gedda. 

Or else there ill be a 'compromise' between heroic qualities and the vocal production. To my ear, an example of a good compromise is William Matteuzzi (who is also included in the compilation video above). Start at 3:20 - but the high F comes shortly after 4:25.

Matteuzzi - who I only recently discovered - was a very remarkable singer in many ways, although he never made it 'to the top' for whatever reason (e.g. he seems to be a poor actor and to lack charisma, in the YouTube examples I have found). 

His voice is light but it has that thrilling, masculine 'ring' (sometimes termed squillo) which is so valued by opera-goers - especially in the hero tenor roles. And this includes his highest notes which, although they are flavoured with falsetto production, have a genuinely heroic and exciting quality. 

His high F is very nearly, albeit not quite, tonally-integrated with the rest of his range - but as soon as he steps down one, then two, notes down from the F (E-flat, D-flat), his full 'normal' thrilling tone returns - and the effect of this passage of three notes is excellent. 

In the end, I would be forced to say that Bellini made a mistake by including the high F in this role - because it is actually impossible to sing in a wholly-satisfactory way. But it has certainly led to a lot of enjoyable fun and games for tenors trying to cope with it - one way or another.   


R.J.Cavazos said...

I wonder if Caruso ever gave it a try? His D's were sublime but I don't recall ever hearing it (I am an operaholic) and did a web search just in case to no avail. Would be tough on this one to go between Gedda and Pavorotti--depends on the day they tried I suppose.

Anonymous said...

This is all beyond my level of operatic knowledge, but fascinating!

If you will indulge my rank ignorance...

Is historic pitch a factor? Was an 1830s high F lower than a modern one?

And, as "It seems certain that Bellini was writing for a just this type of leggiero, light-voiced singer, who used falsetto-flavoured production for the high notes", how did that fit in the voice production and style of that time and place? What sort of impression would such a tenor make among the other singers in I Puritani? Are there attempts to reconstruct 'period style', as there are for both earlier vocal music and 19th-c. instrumental music?

Who are the earliest singers recorded? The earliest I know is Alessandro Moreschi (born 1858), only recorded in his 40s, but presumably representing a style learnt in the 1860s. But that is still three generations after Giovanni Battista Rubini...

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DDF - I'm sorry but I don't have expertise in this area - it is merely that I have a long-term interest in the tenor voice. And also its relationship to the countertenor range; and the types of vocal production.

But the historical factor is very important, with pitches varying by time and place. But even allowing for that - it's extraordinary to think how differently The Puritans would have sounded with Rubini ( instead of Pavarotti - assuming Rubini sounded something like like Bruce Brewer. I think it would nowadays be almost impossible to cast a Rubini type of tenor for this type of opera in a major opera house - except perhaps as an 'historical performance'.

I've heard recordings of reasonable quality from about 1900 - e.g. of Caruso - and I've also listened carefully to the records of Moreschi, which are fascinating as evidence of an entirely different vocal quality (castrato). But I don't have much breadth of knowledge on this.

Rocío Matamoros said...

Thank you for all your writing over the years, Bruce, which I've followed with interest.

Regarding pitch standards, A440 as a universal standard is not yet half a century old. Even national standards only date back to 1835 (the year I Puritani's premiere), when there was an attempt in France to establish A335, although it took some decades to win acceptance. We can only be sure of earlier, local pitch standards from 1711, when the first tuning forks were manufactured.

Prior to this, musicians noted variations of as much as a perfect 4th across a single town. Instrumentalists seeking a more brilliant sound pushed pitch standards up; organ tuning causes damage to pipes over time, which can only be remedied by raising the pitch. Against these two causes of upward trends was the countervailing force of singers' complaints that their voices were being strained (such complaints were recorded as far back as the early 17th century).

At the Paris Opera, an 1822 tuning fork gives A432, while an 1855 gives A449. I Puritani was premiered at the Paris Théâtre-Italien in 1835, and it is unlikely that musicians or singers would at this stage have accepted significant pitch differences in different venues across the same city, so we can assume a pitch of A432, A449 or something within this range. Some Italian performances over the following decades were likely to have a pitch standard at the high end of this range, since a 19th-century tuning fork that belonged to La Scala gives A451.

So we cannot assume that the pitch standards known to Bellini would have been any significant help to Rubini and his successors in singing the high F, and it is quite likely that they would have made matters worse at various venues.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Rocio - Thanks for that. I had figured that the gap between high C and high F was so great that variations in concert pitch would not be able to explain it.

The main factor in the note's difficulty is that audiences so much enjoyed tenor high notes sung 'from the chest' that the older idea of a tenor 'floating'-out a sweet, falsetto-flavoured top note lost its appeal.

I can appreciate both sides of the debate - but I am forced to agree that there are few things more exciting than a really good top note from a tenor like Pavarotti, Corelli, Di Stefano, Kraus, Bjorling, Volpi (to name just a few great exponents)- sung in in full, resonant voice.

Rocío Matamoros said...

I agree entirely, Bruce, and I learnt much from your article.

Obviously I'm in favour of musicological excavations like this, but I don't argue that they should have any binding force on performers. The ideal situation is that performers should have a good idea of what the composer would have heard and expected (even those weren't necessarily the same thing), and they can then make an informed decision on whether they want to replicate some aspects of this, or whether they want to do something different.

Having listened to all the recordings you recommended, I can see how it's impossible to have the best of both worlds (manly timbre and a convincing high F). For modern listeners, the manly timbre is likely to be more important than it (evidently) was for Bellini.

To take an example from instrumental music, Beethoven gave very clear instructions for the first movement of the "Moonlight" Sonata: the sustaining pedal was to be held down throughout the movement. The effect on the piano of his time was not as blurred as it would be on a modern grand, but it was still noticeably blurred. Still, even if the right amount of blurring could be replicated, listeners can't simply forget how the pedal is normally used. Today, the sound created when the pedal stays down through changes of harmony is associated with children who've just discovered the effect. When Beethoven wrote the sonata (1801), the sustaining pedal was still passing from the status of a dispensable novelty effect to the status of an integral and artistically-worthy feature of pianism. What performers actually do with this information is still up to them: one option is subtly changing the pedal a little later than usual when each new harmony enters; another is to conclude that the composer's intention only made sense at the time, and would already have sounded strange by the later years of Beethoven's career, so the instruction should simply be ignored today; another, in the case of recordings, would be to choose a more resonant performing space than normal.