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Montag, 5. März 2012

Giuseppe de Luca (2)

Giuseppe de Luca as Malatesta in Don Pasquale

As it is always more fun not just to listen to a recording, but also read a bit about the singer, I would like to quote the chapter in full length about de Luca from the Book “Legendary Voices” written by Nigel Douglas, London 1992. It may point your attention to a fine singer, from whom you will hear more in this blog in the future. Or is it too long to read for a blog? I myself read it with pleasure… Before it starts here again is the download link for the Golden Jubilee Concert from Nov., 1947:

De Luca Golden Jubilee Concert 7.XI.47

1.  Mi Parto (Bottegari) 4:05
2.  Non lo diro col labbro (Händel) 3:33
3.  Maledetto sia I'aspetto (Monteverdi) 1:02
4.  Sussurate intorno a Clori Zeffiretto (Pasquini) 4:19
5.  Nozze: Aprite un po gli occhi 4:35
6.  Damnazione: Song of the Flea 3:09
7.  Damnazione: Su queste Rose 6:10
8.  Damnazione: Serenade of the Gnomes 2:22
9.  Remarks by Frances Alda 6:41
10. Remarks by Luca 2:01
11. Non mascondere il Segreto (Alfano) 2:54
12. Serenata: Canti di Staparede (Tocchi) 2:23
13. Bergerette (Recli) 1:44
14. C'era una volta (Bizelli) 2:18
15. C'era una volta 2 (Bizelli) 2:06
16. Nel giardino (Santoliquido) 1:45
17. Dodici (Filastocca) 3:46
18. Di Provenza (Traviata) 5:03
19. Encores: Ninna Nanna 3:22
20. Dolce Madonna 2:21
21. Marietta 2:24
22. Serenata gelata 2:51

Giuseppe de Luca

“Oh! the baritones of my generation,” de Luca used to sigh in his old age, “Ruffo, Amato, Sammarco, Stracciari - what I wouldn't have given to have a voice as strong as theirs!” Then, with a happy chuckle - 'But of course, with them around I had to learn to sing.' The extent to which he succeeded in doing so was never more effectively underlined than on 7 November 1947, when he celebrated fifty years as a professional singer with a recital in New York's Town Hall and, in the words of one of the critics, 'reminded us all what used to be meant by bel canto'.

De Luca was born on Christmas Day 1876, and he was the eldest child of a blacksmith. There was not much money around, and in the normal course of events he would have found himself at an early age helping his father in the forge. His mother though was endowed with a pleasant singing voice, and recognized that her son had talent in the same direction. His father understandably reckoned that getting down to a proper job of work made better sense than messing around with music, but luckily the maternal will prevailed, and at the age of eight de Luca was enrolled in the Schola Cantorum dei Fratelli Carissimi, a school which trained young choristers for the many Roman churches. There he was given a thorough musical grounding, especially in the invaluable skill of sight-reading, and he evidently prospered to a high degree because he was sent to the top of the tree - the choir of St Peter's Cathedral, His voice broke early; by the time he was fifteen it had settled into being an attractive light baritone, and he was anxious to move on to the Accademia di Santa Cecilia. Thanks to a handy friendship with a doorman in one of Rome's opera houses, the Teatro Costanzi, he was able to slip in there regularly without the formality of buying a ticket, and he was hopelessly bitten by the operatic bug. The only problem was that his parents could not afford the fees at the Santa Cecilia, and there was no scholarship available. He was offered one in Naples however, but hardly had he arrived in that city when he received a telegram telling him that a private patron had materialized who would pay for him at the Santa Cecilia. So back to Rome he went, where he presented himself to the auditioning panel armed with an impressive array of operatic arias. He felt slightly deflated when it turned out that all the panel wanted to hear was a few scales and one or two random operatic phrases, but that was enough to secure his admittance, and he had the good fortune to be assigned to Maestro Vinceslao Persichini, teacher of the legendary Mattia Battistini, and a great believer in the gradual development of young voices.

It is a natural law that every vocal student's regular diet is the repertoire of the previous generation. When de Luca joined the Santa Cecilia OTELLO was still a novelty, FALSTAFF had not been written, Puccini had not progressed beyond LE VILLI and EDGAR, and vensmo was scarcely in its cradle. The style in which he was grounded was that of the earlier masters, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, with the emphasis on elegance, ease and flexibility, and though he was soon to become a sought-after exponent, and indeed creator, of many twentieth century roles, he never deserted the virtues of a nineteenth century technique. To use an expression which crops up frequently in the singing business, he sang on his income not his capital; or, in the plainest of words, even when tackling dramatic roles he always sang, and never shouted.

De Luca was still seven weeks short of his twenty-first birthday when Persichini judged him ready to make his debut. This took place in the provincial city of Piacenza, in the role of Valentm in FAUST, and though it was no earth-shattering event it was enough to secure his promotion to the far more important Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa. There he met Caruso. They were cast together in the Leoncavallo version of LA BOHEME and in LES PECHEURS DE PERLES, and it was the beginning of a regular stage partnership and of a friendship which lasted until the very end of Caruso's life. Caruso was nearly four years older than de Luca, and already able to afford a lifestyle which amazed his younger colleague. He earned 5000 lire to de Luca's 750, and though they both lived in the same pensione Caruso could afford a two-room apartment, while de Luca had to make do with one cramped little bedroom. Caruso though was ever the soul of generosity. Neither he nor de Luca cared for the cooking in the pensione, and whenever he hired a carriage to go and eat in the Ristorante Righi up in the hills, Caruso would take de Luca along with him. After performances their preferred eating place was Peppo's in the fashionable Galleria, where patrons of the theatre would recognize them, and the owner would beg them to sing. Such treats as Caruso's 'Flower Song' from CARMEN, or Caruso and de Luca in the duet from LES PECHEURS DE PERLES would be served up free of charge, the sort of behaviour which, within a year or two, would have landed them in the deepest of water with agents and managements. I only hope that the other diners had some inkling of how privileged they were.
De Luca's was a career which developed smoothly. Unlike Caruso he had nothing about him which could be called spec­tacular, but he had the wit and the patience to keep working away at every aspect of his job. He was a very small man, but this did not stop him becoming one of the finest operatic actors of his generation - 'an artist of protean versatility', as the magazine Musical America was to describe him. Vocally, as we have seen, his natural gifts were far outshone by those of several competitors, but by being skilfully nurtured they grew while others' waned. By the time he was twenty-five he had achieved sufficient prominence to be engaged by Milan's Teatro Lirico for the world premiere of Cilea's ADRIANA LECOUVREUR, alongside Caruso once again and with Toscanini conducting. The following year de Luca crossed the Atlantic for the first time when he, Caruso and Toscanini were all engaged for a season in the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aircs - a season in which he produced early evidence of his versatility, as one of his roles - Beckmesser in DIE ME1STERSINGER - was not usually associated with an Italian 'belcantist'. On board the liner Caruso taught de Luca to play poker, something he later regretted because on a subsequent Atlantic crossing dc Luca won so consistently that neither Caruso nor anyone else would continue playing with him - a unique occurrence, I believe, of de Luca having a problem with his colleagues. Back in Europe he was chosen in 1904 to create the role of Sharpless in MADAMA BUTTERFLY at La Scala. When the premiere turned out to be one of opera's most notorious catastrophes he was as mystified as everyone else involved in it, and to the end of his life he continued to regard his selection for the role as one of the highest honours to come his way.
As early as 1903 (Emilio says: it was Dec. 1902 actually) de Luca followed his friend Caruso into the recording studio. This was not his first experience of the new­fangled process however, because many years later he revealed that at the age of eighteen, when his family was in dire straits following the death of his father, he had entered into a very dubious recording contract with the owner of a Bar Automatico in Rome. This was a kind of primeval juke box, which enabled the customer, after the insertion of a small coin, to listen to a musical cylinder over a pair of earphones. De Luca recorded no less than forty of these cylinders at two lire a time, and they were then attributed to a dazzling galaxy of the world's greatest baritones. I wonder whether this youthful subterfuge may have crossed his mind when, 23 years later at the Metropolitan Opera, he created the role of opera's number one confidence trickster, Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, who was happy to sweep any peccadillo under the convenient carpet of 'extenuating circumstances'.

To turn, though, to de Luca's legitimate recording career, the earliest offerings on CD date from 1907, when he was thirty years old, and a regular member of La Scala. They are to be found on Nimbus's Prima Voce NI 7815, and consist of three Verdi arias, 'O! de' verd' anni miei' from ERNANI, 'II balen' from IL TROVATORE and 'Di Provenza' from LA TRAVIATA. The accompaniment is piano only - for a recording company to afford an orchestra in those days the singer had to be a gilt-edged bestseller - but the voice comes over on this reissue in splendidly clear and 'forward' shape. The style, not surprisingly, is remi­niscent of Battistini, the Verdian cantilena evenly and smoothly unfurled, and any vocal decorations lightly and elegantly incorpo­rated into the musical line. As with many recordings of this period I sense a determination never to drop below at least mezzo forte, as if the machinery might not respond to anything less imposing, and in general there is a slight feeling of anonymity about the performances. Especially in the 'Di Provenza' (an abbreviated version) de Luca has not yet quite become de Luca, but this is particularly understandable in a young baritone; where tenors so often have the problem of having to sound twenty-five when they are twice that age, baritones are frequently faced with the reverse situation. They are called upon to portray the worldly-wise older man while themselves still young and inexperienced, and as the dignified figure of Germont pere de Luca was probably at his best some twenty years after he made this recording. Indeed, it was no less than thirty-three years later that his Germont pro­vided the audience of the Metropolitan Opera with one of those evenings which become part of a house's mythology. In 1935 Gatti-Casazza, the Met's General Manager, retired and went back to Italy, and de Luca, after twenty years as a favourite member of the company, decided to do the same. Four years later Gatti's successor, Edward Johnson, suggested that de Luca might return for a few performances. In Europe war had broken out and travel was difficult, but on 9 January 1940 Johnson received a telegram from de Luca saying that the Government had given him permis­sion to leave Italy, and that he hoped to arrive on the liner Conte di Savoia at the end of the month. He did, and on 7 February he was billed to make his come-back in LA TRAVIATA. It was a perfectly chosen role, not only because Germont does not appear until well into Act II, thus giving ample time for a build-up of tension and expectancy in the audience, but also because, when he does appear, it is during a passage of recitative which can be conveniently interrupted by applause. When de Luca stepped out of the wings that evening though, short, rotund and dignified, it was more than mere applause that interrupted the proceedings, it was a spontaneous explosion of enthusiasm and affection. BARITONE'S OVATION STOPS PROGRESS OF TRAVIATA ran one of the newspaper headlines the following day, and it was not to be one of those occasions when, after a frenzied welcome, the audience finds itself wondering what all the fuss has been about - as the critic of the New York Times put it 'the first five notes made the pulses beat because of the art and beauty of the song.' Also in the audience was the young Robert Merrill, destined to make his own Met debut in the same role nearly six years later, and as he was subsequently to write of dc Luca in his memoirs 'the quality of the legato, the nobility of the concept and the dignity of his presence were unforgettable.'

Another of de Luca's most significant roles is represented on the Nimbus CD, with Figaro's ebullient 'Largo al factotum' from IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, recorded in 1917. This had been the part selected for de Luca's Met debut two years previously, when press and public had immediately taken him to their hearts not only for the skill and polish of his singing but also for the wit and vivacity of his stagecraft and the general attractiveness of his personality. By emphasizing the seriousness of de Luca's approach to his art I may have given the impression of a very earnest sort of person, but this could not be further from the truth. He was a delightfully merry little man, his conversation always punctuated by chuckles and snatches of song and, whenever one spots him in old photographs - strolling down the street with a bunch of colleagues or relaxing with his family - while the rest of them assume that formal air which went with the stiff white collars and the walking sticks, de Luca invariably breaks the pattern with a wide and puckish grin. Like many singers of the day he was a keen smoker, and he is occasionally to be seen in pictures puffing away at a cigarette held vertically in the bowl of a funny little pipe. Lucky Strikes were his favourite brand, and he used to endorse them in advertisements with the slogan 'They satisfy my taste in flavour and never irritate my throat.' As a performer he was equally at home with drama or comedy. One of the New York critics wrote of de Luca's Gianni Schicchi: 'Among operatic baritones of the day he remains the farceur par excellence, and this is the quality that bubbles through his "Largo al factotum".' He has graduated by now to an orchestral accom­paniment, the vocal personality is fully fledged, the machine-gun patter is not merely faultless but filled with subtle little inflexions as it scampers along, and the whole thing is characterized by a genial, bustling self-importance. De Luca coined a nice phrase to describe his conception of Figaro as a fellow who is always plotting and planning - 'His head,' he said, 'is always rubbing its hands.'

This role was one of his visiting cards all over the world, and late in his career it at last enabled him to win over the one house which strangely enough had always resisted his charms -Covent Garden. During several seasons there before the First World War he failed to make any inroads into the immense popularity with the London public of Scotti and Sammarco. He was usually cast in slightly secondary roles, often in the shadow of some great prima donna, though it is true to say that even his Rigoletto failed to turn the tide. As Covent Garden's post-war management was predominantly interested in all things German and Viennese it appeared unlikely that de Luca would be given another chance to break down this bastion of indifference, but in 1935 it was suddenly announced, with no prior warning, that he would appear for one performance only as the Barber of Seville. To judge from the number of opera-goers I met in my young days who were still talking about this performance twenty years later, it was clearly something very special. Musical London was there en masse, and at fifty-nine de Luca must have felt that the Covent Garden public had at last made amends for its lack of interest in him when young.

There is another 1917 recording on this Nimbus disc, a jaunty little song entitled 'Pastorale', in which de Luca positively juggles with the beauty of his voice, revelling in the fun of being a singer. We have several examples too of the nobility of his style in his serious repertoire - a deeply moving account of the death of Rodrigo from DON CARLOS in which, interestingly, he totally abjures the changes of colouring on individual words and phrases which were to become a stylistic hallmark of Tito Gobbi's, and simply uses an unaffectedly mellifluous delivery of Verdi's poignant phrases to express the pathos of the scene; an account of Riccardo's 'Ah, per sempre' and its preceding recita­tive from I PURITANI which could stand as an object lesson in how to express emotion with restraint; and an aria entitled 'De 1'art splendcur immortelle' from BENVENUTO CELLINI (not the Berlioz version, but one by an obscure composer named Diaz), which displays almost more convincingly than any other what a sumptuous instrument de Luca's voice had become by the time he reached middle age. We are also offered several of his many duet recordings - in the buffo vein 'Venti scudi' from L'ELISIR D'AMORE with Caruso, in melodramatic mood 'Enzo Grimaldo' from LA GIOCONDA and in beautifully characterized tragi­comedy 'Ah, Mimi' from LA BOHEME, the last two both with Beniammo Gigli. In almost all of his tenor/baritone duets, and in ensembles such as the RIGOLETTO Quartet and the Sextet from LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR {many of which are available on CD in the various Caruso and Gigli reissues) I find de Luca excessively self-effacing. Whether the recording producers relied on his famed good nature to get away with placing him slightly behind his superstar partners I do not know, but that is how the performances tend to sound, which is a pity as he was a worthy partner for anyone. From three tracks, all with chorus, recorded in 1930, we are given resounding proof of the extraordinarily robust condition of de Luca's voice in his mid-fifties. With the misplaced exultation of the wicked di Luna ('Per me ora fatale' from 1L TROVATORE), the evil machinations of the spy Barnaba ('Ah! Pescator' from LA GIOCONDA), and the carefree abandon of the dashing Rafacle ('Aprila, Bella, la fenestrella' from I GIOIELLI DELLA MADONNA) he leaves all memories of 'an attractive light baritone' far behind him - this has become one of the great Italian operatic voices, with an upper register of quite exceptional beauty and carrying power.

Beauty and carrying power are qualities without which no baritone can become a great Rigoletto, and of this, one of de Luca's most celebrated interpretations, we have three examples on the Nimbus disc - the duets 'Ah! veglia, o donna' and 'Piangi, fanciulla', both with Amelita Galli-Curci at her childlike best, and the great scena from Act II, 'Povero Rigoletto . . . Cortigiani, vil razza dannata'. In the duets de Luca, totally unconcerned by the punishing tessitura, lets his voice flow in an unbroken stream of legato tone, tender, paternal and grieving. In the solo scene, surely the greatest showpiece of all for an Italian baritone, he gives a masterly performance. Through all the shifting moods - sarcasm, fury, heart-break, servility - he never ceases to sing and to sing beautifully. Sometimes, as in 'Miei signori pcrdono, pietate' it is a pathetic beauty; at other times, as in 'D'una tal vittoria, che? . . . adesso non ridete?' ('At a victory like that, eh? . . . now you're not laughing?'}, it is a terrible beauty; but always, even when expressing extremes of emotion, for de Luca the 'canto' had to remain 'bello'.

The last, but to me not the least of the delights on this Nimbus disc is a ditty called 'Marietta' (Emilio says: It is featured in the Golden Jubilee Concert and in the Concert from January 1947). It is in English, and although de Luca's English is always intelligible, which could not be said of Caruso's, it is sufficiently idiosyncratic to have a charm all of its own. The opening couplet 'Marietta, won't you come and play with me? Marietta, you're as cute as you can be' gives an idea of the literary level of the poem, and the jaunty little melody with its town band accompaniment fits it like a glove. It was one of de Luca's favourite party pieces which he sang whenever remotely possible, and I have no doubt that by the time he reached the inevitable line 'Marietta, won' you say you'll murry me?' there were plenty of ladies in the audience who would have been only too happy to jump up and shout 'Yes please!'
Another outstandingly successful CD portrait of de Luca, exclu­sively in opera this time, is provided by Lebendige Vergangenheit 89036. (This is an excellent Viennese label, and the rather daunting name simply means 'Living Past'.) Four of the fourteen tracks are duplications with Nimbus ('Largo al factotum', 'Ah! per sempre', 'II balen' and 'De Part splendeur immortelle'), but the remainder, all recorded between 1917 and 1924, are without exception valuable additions. We have several more examples of de Luca's authoritative gravitas. As Rossini's Guillaume (or rather Guglielmo) Tell, bidding his son stand motionless for the fateful shooting of the apple (though I do think it is a trifle tactless to encourage him with the words 'Think of your mother who awaits you in Heaven'), as the goat-herd Hoel carrying the unconscious Dinorah in his arms, as King Alfonso of Castile renouncing his beloved in LA FAVORITA, and as the young soldier Valentin (his debut role) committing his sister to the care of the Almighty, de Luca is ever moving and ever dignified. We have his Rodrigo again from DON CARLOS, this time including the extended solo 'Per me giunto' immediately before the actual death scene, and a sensuously phrased account of the one really distinguished passage from Massenet's HERODIADE, the aria 'Vision fugitive'. His 'Eri tu' from UN BALLO IN MASCHERA, though wonderfully vocalized, strikes me as too dispassionate and insufficiently venomous, though there is emotion aplenty in yet another RIGOLETTO duet with Galli-Curci. This is the final scene of the opera, and it finds both singers at the peak of their form though for some reason it was never published. Lucky Vic­tor Company if it could afford to keep a recording of this quality gathering dust! We have one fascinating sample of de Luca as a Mozart singer, with a bitingly characterized rendering of Figaro's 'Se vuol ballare' - this was a role which he sang to great effect during his first two seasons at the Met, but which inexplicably never came his way there again - and finally he and that spirited soprano Lucrezia Bori romp through one of my favourite buffo duets, Pronta io son' from DON PASQUALE.

When de Luca returned to Italy after his Met appearances of 1940 he went on appearing in many of the leading Italian opera houses, but when the Germans occupied Rome he refused to budge from his own home. 'I was not,' he explained later, 'in a good humour'; and he took no trouble to disguise his gratifi­cation when an allied bomb flattened the house of his next-door neighbour, Mussolini's propaganda chief Virginio Gayda, with its owner inside it - miraculously without even breaking de Luca's windows. He told his wife that he had lost his appetite for singing, but to use his own words once again 'She tell me "You always in the garden, with the dog and read the book. What is the life?"' So when the war was over, after participating in one or two con­certs for allied troops, he decided to return to New York, and he and his wife took ship. It was not the Conte di Savoia this time, but a US Liberty ship, with the elderly star sleeping like a GI in an upper bunk for eighteen nights with no change of sheets and (worst of all for him) basic army rations. Safely back in the States he tried out his voice by singing Rigoletto with the Connecticut Opera Company in Hartford, and followed it up with a recital in the New York Town Hall. It was his first for twenty-nine years, and the audience would have been an autograph hunter's paradise. Jeritza, Alda, Rethberg, Martinelli, all the old-timers were there, but the oldest of them all was the one on stage. Needless to say he was greeted yet again with a tremendous ovation, of which he said to a reporter afterwards 'They didn't even know can I still sing. They saying "How do you do, my dear friend?"' The answer to this question was that their dear friend was doing very nicely - as the critic of the New York World-Telegram put it 'De Luca is with us again, as spellbinding as ever, as sparkling and alive and sensitive an interpreter as he had ever been before.'

After such a welcome Mr. and Mrs. de Luca decided to settle once again in New York. He sang a final Barber in the Newark Opera Playhouse - he was sixty-nine, and was described in the press as being 'spry as a cricket' - and shortly before his seven­tieth birthday came the farewell recital to which I referred at the beginning of the chapter. He took a teaching post at the Juilliard School, made a few more recordings and occasionally contributed a song or two at charity concerts. In the autumn of 1950 he was due to become head of vocal studies at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, but during the summer he was taken ill. His first wife had died in the influenza outbreak of 1918 (his second wife was her sister), and he had had a mausoleum built for her with a place in it for himself. It was to this that he referred with almost his last words to his doctor, 'I think you send me to my little white house in Rome.' He died on 4 August 1950 and in accordance with his wishes he was indeed sent to his little white house.

For a brief sketch of de Luca in his old age I would like to turn again to the memoirs of Robert Merrill. 'Now over sev­enty,' Merrill wrote, 'resting on his laurels and counting his lire, de Luca was an adorable man with sparkling eyes and a gay and open face. With his fringe of white hair round his shiny pate, he looked like a sweet and jolly Benedictine monk.' Anyone, I think, who is familiar with de Luca's recordings is likely to share this feeling of affection. There is nothing flashy about them - they are characterized by human warmth and artistic sincerity. I feel that if I had been lucky enough to hear the great Italian baritones of that time I would have revered Battistini, and I would have been astounded by Titta Ruffo - but I would have loved Giuseppe de Luca.

(Nigel Douglas)

1 Kommentar:

  1. WONDERFUL PHOTO! Good article – thanks for an interesting and well-written piece. Thank you and *GOD BLESS*