19: Nicolai Gedda Special
Saturdee Opry Links Overture!
Mozart, “La Clemenza di Tito.”
Saturdee Opry Links Extra!
Watch the magnificent L.A. Opera set for "La Clemenza di Tito" being built.
The late conductor Charles Mackerras said of Nicolai Gedda: "He was phenomenal.
(In a production of "Faust," by Gounod), he spoke English to me, Italian to
Mirella Freni, Finnish to Tom Krause who was singing Valentin, Russian to
Nicolai Ghiaurov who was Mephisto and French to all the resident musicians."
Here he is, late in his career, in that very production, singing the poignant, "Salut,
demeure chaste et pure." Aria begins at 1:30.
Setting: The garden of Marguerite in a German city, 16th century
Synopsis: Approaching Marguerite's house, Faust is struck by the purity of the
dwelling and the innocence of Marguerite inside. He then goes on to thank Nature
for creating the beautiful angelic creature that is Marguerite.
"My interest in vocal music," tenor Nicolai Gedda wrote in his memoir, "and my
joy in singing, has been with me all my life. I think I could even sing before I
could talk properly." Here he is with the shortest great aria ever written, or
the greatest short aria ever written. Huh? "Amor Ti Vieta," from "Fedora," by
Setting: a party at Fedora's house, Paris, France, late 19th century
Synopsis: Fedora has found out that Count Loris killed her fiance and swears to
avenge his death. As the first step in her plan to capture Loris, she goes to
Paris and attempts to get him to fall in love with her. Later, they are at a
party at Fedora's house and he tells her that he truly loves her.
Gedda might be the most recorded opera singer in history; he is certainly near
the top. He made more than 200 complete opera LP and CD recordings over a wide
variety of styles, including roles that may be considered among the most
challenging in the entire operatic repertoire. One such role was that of Arturo
in "I Puritani," by Bellini. In it, one is required to gracefully sustain
Bellini's legato (flowing, smooth) lines, as well as hit stupendous high notes.
In this case, a high F. Here is Gedda (with wonderful Beverly Sills) singing "Credeasi
Misera" from that opera. (Note, the aria is reprised after the duet portion, and
the F comes around 4:35.)
Setting: a terrace in a wooded park near Elvira's dwelling place, Plymouth,
England, during the English Civil War (1649)
Synopsis: Arturo declares he will be happy to die with Elvira. The more vengeful
Roundheads demand his execution. Arturo bids "addio" to Elvira one last time,
and asks his enemies to control their anger while in the presence of his beloved
Elvira, for she is weakened.
The soprano, Elisabeth Soderstrom, observed that wood is Sweden's greatest
import, "and then something else which I can't remember---then voices!" The most
famous certainly being Birgit Nilsson and Gedda. Gedda did much to introduce the
enormous number of Swedish art songs to the world, in concert and on record.
Here he is with "Jeg elsker dig," ("I Love You"), words by Hans Christian
Andersen, music by Edvard Grieg. "Icy Finns," maybe, but not the Swedes.
Gedda passed away two years ago at 92. Over a quarter-century, he sang 367
performances with the Metropolitan Opera, from his debut in the title role of
Gounod’s “Faust” in 1957 to his final performance, as Alfredo in Verdi’s “La
Traviata,” in 1983. His vocal accomplishments are simply Herculean, and he sang
well---and I do mean well---into his 70's. His lyric tenor is quite unusual,
really, hailed by critics for its "fluid lightness," yet it had might, like a
spinto. Margalit Fox wrote in Gedda's NYT obituary that his voice "shimmered
like silver but was no less warm for that." Here is that warmth in
evidence---and the tenor's pianissimo---in the tender "En Fermant les Yeux,"
from "Manon," by Jules Massanet. "When I close my eyes. . ."
Setting: Apartment of Chevalier Des Grieux, Paris, France, 18th century
Synopsis: In order to cheer Manon up, Des Grieux relates to her a dream that he
has had. He has dreamed that someday he will own a house surrounded by beautiful
flowers and singing birds. However, he realizes that his dream was still drear
because it lacks one thing : Manon.
Why today's focus on Gedda? Because there are so many great singers who never
acquire the fame of Pavarotti, Domingo, Caruso, et al. Gedda was just as
accomplished, indeed enormously successful, yet outside of opera fans, he is
really unknown. That's why! A one-time bank clerk who earned extra dough by
singing at weddings (!), Gedda's upbringing was pretty damned awful. His mother
was an unwed teenage waitress, Clary Linnea Lindstrom, and his Russian-Swedish
father unemployed (read: bum.) They tried to turn their baby over to an
orphanage, but the father's sister, one Olga Gadda, essentially stole him. Like
something out of. . .an opera! When
she later tried to formally adopt the boy, along with her new husband, Nikolai Ustinoff, the orphanage deemed them too poor. So Gedda the bastard was raised by
bastard parents, as it were. A happy ending? Not exactly. As Gedda wrote in his
memoir, his foster father beat him with “a narrow Cossack belt that had once
belonged to his uniform" at the slightest infraction. Is it any stretch to think
that music was not a refuge? The family moved to Leipzig, where the boy began
his training, but then fled the Nazis, returning to Stockholm. Until his early
twenties, Gedda slept in a tiny alcove in the kitchen of the family's tiny
apartment. He made his operatic debut at 26 in Adolphe Adam's "Le Postillon de
Lonjumeau," and never looked back. Here is a jaunty aria from that opera, "Mes
amis, écoutez l'histoire" from Adolphe Adam's 1836 opera "Le postillon de
Lonjumeau." Yes, that is a high D at around 3:40.
Shortly after his opera debut, Gedda sang for Walter Legge, an influential
classical record producer at EMI. Legge promptly sent telegrams to the conductor
Herbert von Karajan and Antonio Ghiringhelli (who oversaw La Scala.) “Just heard
the greatest Mozart singer in my life,” his wires read. “His name is Nicolai
Gedda.” And here, accordingly, is Gedda with a little Mozart. "Il Mio Tessoro,"
from "Don Giovanni." What, by the way, constitutes a "Mozart singer?" From Wiki:
In Mozart singing, the most important element is the instrumental approach of
the vocal sound which implies: flawless and slender emission of sound, perfect
intonation, legato, diction and phrasing, capability to cope with the dynamic
requirements of the score, beauty of timbre, secure line of singing through
perfect support and absolute breath control, musical intelligence, body
discipline, elegance, nobility, agility and, most importantly, ability for
dramatic expressiveness within the narrow borders imposed by the strict
Mozartian style." In other words, you gotta sing it good.
Setting: A cemetery
Synopsis: Sure that Don Giovanni was the person who killed his fiancee's father,
Don Ottavio swears that he will make sure Donna Anna gets her revenge on Don
For some reason, I tend to especially like Gedda with French repertory, or at
least Massenet. Perhaps it's something about the delicacy and impassioned
expression of Massenet's melodies, which remind me a bit of Puccini. Not that
you care, or should. But this gives me an excuse to post Gedda singing "Pourquoi
me reveiller" from "Werther," by Massenet, live on stage in 1961.
Setting: the Magistrate's house at Christmas, Frankfurt, Germany, 1780
Synopsis: Werther has come back to see Charlotte, his love who is married to
another man. She shows him some of the books that they used to read together.
One book in particular, a collection of Ossain's verses, sparks Werther to ask
spring to cease its gentle caresses upon him, for sadness and grief is now his
I don't know if Gedda's tessitura (comfort zone) included an aria this high, but
he sure sang it comfortably. This is the almost weird, haunting "Je crois
entendre encore," from "The Pearl Fishers," by Bizet. Many sing this, and sing
it splendidly, but few sing it as comfortably as Gedda did. You can often hear
the tenor straining, pushing, or making adjustments because of the upper
register demands, mostly sung quietly. Not Nicolai. Close your eyes. "I think I
still hear. . ."
Setting: A wild and rocky shore on the coast of Ceylon in ancient times
Synopsis: In the past, Nadir had fallen in love with a beautiful Brahman
priestess named Léïla at a Brahman temple. Now, a veiled priestess has come to
his village and he recognizes her as Léïla. He sings of his love for her which
has not been diminished by the time they have spent apart.
Here is the first aria I ever got to know, on this recording by Nicolai Gedda of
Puccini's "La Boheme," when I was ten. Its charm has never worn thin, and
neither has Gedda's performance. This is a "Mozart tenor?" I think not. He could
sing anything. Thanks, Nick. "Che Gelida Manina." "How cold your little hand is.
Setting: Christmas Eve in a room in an attic
Synopsis: After both of their candles go out, Rodolfo and a young woman who has
come to his room in order to relight her candle are in the darkness together.
Pretending to look for her key which she had lost in the room, Rodolfo instead
finds her hand and sings to her of his dreams and ambitions. He also tells her
that he has fallen in love with her.
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