The almost godlike power of twentieth-century conductors may have prematurely ended some singing careers. Riccardo Muti pushed Cheryl Studer into singing everything from Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” to the complete opposite vocal spectrum of Wagner’s “Isolde”. And then when her voice wobbled its objections, he fired her. The power to hire and fire lay with the conductor, as did the ability to shape careers, and (in the case of Karajan) to exercise total control over a singer’s recorded legacy. Not that Karajan was the only culprit. Far from it. Nonetheless, his power to make and break careers was absolute and singers followed his advice if they wanted to work in the top European opera houses.
The story of how Karajan victimised soprano Katia Ricciarelli is well known. Ricciarelli had a beautiful voice, a real ability to express the text and a tender quality in her voice that I have always enjoyed. Hence the loss of what might have been is particularly poignant in her case. I have included a few links to YouTubed recordings of her so that you can hear and decide for yourself.
This is a young Ricciarelli in a duet from the “Stabat Mater” by Pergolesi, in 1979.
One of her many great portrayals of this period in her career is surely Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” from 1973. So touching and emotionally moving that one almost does not notice the perfect condition of the voice, how many colours she employs, how steady the sound and warm and unstrained throughout the full range.
After that, in the 1980’s Karajan pushed Ricciarelli into heavier roles, in particular Puccini’s “Turandot” since she had already accepted to sing at La Scala a range of roles of ever-increasing size, from early Verdis including “I due Foscari” through to pretty large ones such as “Un Ballo in Maschera” to eventually Verdi’s “Aida”.
Much as I love and admire this voice and the sheer artistry of this woman, one wonders why there was not a sense that once she reached Amelia that she was taking risks with her voice and had perhaps reached the largest shoe-size it was meant to fit.
The sheer beauty of her voice brought something uniquely touching to all her roles. In the quiet and tender moments she can be heartbreakingly moving, and yes, she can even be called a “great” Aida. But under pressure to sing loud enough to be heard over the orchestra, or to manage Verdi’s large vocal range, problems became evident. Wobbles crept in. Insecure pitch, and an uncomfortable “open-throat” quality also marred performances. The voice seemed to take huge risks in the chest register, trying to portray the drama of Verdi is a task for a specific voice.
Here Ricciarelli is recorded singing the final duet with Radames, arguably the most lyrical part of the role, and therefore the one part she sang in recital outside of the studio more often than any of the rest of Aida’s music:
The Final Scene from Aida with Carreras shows all that is great about this artist and the “dreamteam” the pair constituted in so many performances. The lyrical parts in both voices are breath-taking, but the large parts tax both voices – although to my ears Carreras pre-cancer was a phenomenon himself.
As moving and human as her interpretation on the Abbado recording is, this is what critics had to say: “It’s the vocal performances of the two leading ladies that are this jewel’s flaw. Katia Ricciarelli possessed a golden voice, good looks,and the ability to project the drama through the text. Her vocal technique on the other hand was less than masterful. One gets the sense that someone saw her potential, wanted to be the one who could claim discovery, and therefore she was put before the public prematurely, a kind of exploitation that became highly visible in the 1970’s and 80’s as star singers became older or retired with no one to replace them. There are many moments in this particular recording that Ricciarelli is reminiscent of Montserrat Caballe, though she is minus Caballe’s vocal freedom. Ricciarelli almost cruelly pushes her voice and many high notes come out as desperate, pressured squalls, especially when a fortissimo is required. On the positive side, in the middle and lower registers, Ricciarelli’s singing is tender and delicate, creating a believably vulnerable Aida, and her way of putting just the right emphasis on key words makes one ache for what might have been had this artist been allowed to develop in her own time.”
Even more hazardous was her portrayal of Puccini’s murderous ice-princess “Turandot” [Another role she shared with Caballe]. As with her Aida, there were revelations about the role. She brought to it a tender, human quality, and the quiet passages were often breathtaking in their lyricism and beauty. However, Turandot’s music is cruelly challenging to sing. Ricciarelli simply did not have a Turandot-sized voice. In the climaxes she sounds desperate and uncomfortable. Karajan defended his choice, saying that it was exactly that “cry of desperation” that would distinguish “his” Turandot from others. Critics disagreed: “Karajan’s tendency to cast light voices got the best of him: lyric soprano Katia Ricciarelli isn’t commanding enough on any level to be considered adequate in the title role. — David Patrick Stearns
A Youtube video-compilation of Ricciarelli’s Turandot compared with that of a real dramatic soprano, Birgit Nilsson was sadly removed from Youtube (and subsequently this post). Nilsson perhaps had more steel in her voice than velvet, but in roles such as this one, steel is a prerequisite for vocal survival.
Here is the famous “In questa reggia” sung in Karajan’s studio by Katia Ricciarelli. She has that instantly recognisable milky velvet in her voice from the start, but with the first ascent above the stage she hits flat notes and by the end of the aria the Top C’s are not on target. Her tenor, Placido Domingo, has his moments, but he is certainly singing at the maximum of his abilities too.
Here is Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli make a very different pairing. Her Turandot displays what critics were missing in Ricciarelli’s. Nilsson and Corelli, the dreamteam of their day, sing this music asif simply born to, it fits both like a glove. Not a hint of strain is noticeable. Not a fair comparison perhaps, but one that had to be made when faced with choice of soprano of the greatest conductor of the day who could have chosen any singer on the planet.
Many critics claim that Ricciarelli’s excursions into Turandot damaged her voice for ever. High notes became a problem, any attempt to sing loudly became uncomfortable both in sound and pitch. It is impossible to ascertain what might have been if she had not been pushed away from the more lyrical repertoire. I simply try to rejoice in what there is.
Later, Ricciarelli returned to the lyric role of Liu, the smaller role of the slavegirl in Turandot. She made a glorious Liu, but it might have been even better if she had stayed a lyric soprano throughout her career. Her Liu is touching, with this soprano how could it not be? But the voice alas, is that of two tiny vocal chords that had been put through the meatgrinder that is the role of Turandot.
Sadly, the 1990’s were not the glory-days for this voice one might have wished for, as the artistry was always flawless. Great expressive power and aspects of vocal control made for very moving moments. But to find the gold of recordings and performances of this period, one sadly has to dig too deep. This artist deserved a greater legacy.
The day of the fascist conductor’s autocratic rule is over. Instead, the opera world today appears to be dominated by directors. Directors choose singers for their looks rather than their vocal abilities and productions are visually driven to an extent we have not seen before. The microphone has made it possible for singers to have careers who might not have been able to hold an audience a few decades ago. Musicians deplore the onset of the Charlotte Church generation: small, badly trained voices, but attached to singers who are young and pretty enough to photograph well on a CD cover. With a bit of technological intervention one can use the audio equivalent of “photoshop” to earbrush any wayward notes back into tune.
Ricciarelli serves as a warning to young singers who allow agents, directors and conductors to push them into repertoire, too much, too big, too soon.
But I thank Katia Ricciarelli for the hours and hours of joy, goosebumps and tears. She really taught me what an expressive singer can do. And for that I will always love her.
Complete Pergolesi “Stabat Mater” LIVE 1979 –