Di più non chiedo…

Where have all the wonderful lyrical tenors gone? When listening to historic recordings in between more recent ones, one is bound to notice that not only marginal things have changed over the years, but that there is a more basic difference.

I have picked the wonderful aria “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from Donizetti’s “L’Elisir D’Amore” as an example.

Back then, in the times around and before 1940,  a lyrical tenor was allowed to sound a lot less “manly” than it is appreciated in our time. The lyrical tenors at the time all had a tad of Max Raabe to them (who of course wouldn’t in seriousness sing “Una Furtiva Lagrima” on an opera stage — just to give an idea about what I am getting at.)

It is hard to describe the anatomical and technical terms without any ambivalence remaining or getting furious criticism, as there are different terms, and different definitions. I will choose a very basic one:

Basically, and nonnegotiably, a man has a chest voice.  An example of an almost pure chest voice: Recall before your mental ear soccer fans crooning the beginning of  “You’ll never walk alone”. That is chest voice.

Another register is the  head voice. Now this one is far more complicated to describe, as some say it is falsetto, or closely related to it, but it isn’t quite the same thing. Example for falsetto: Imagine a really bad party where a man gets drunk enough to perform a Britney Spears cover version in a karaoke contest. The head voice is closely related, but this is where the third thing comes in, the passaggio.

Remember the aforementioned soccer fans crooning? Notice how a quarter of the voices break at the last “you will neeever…”? This is the point where the passaggio or rather the lack of it is obvious; it’s the part in between chest voice and head voice, and the manner of blending the two.

A voice without a passaggio? Think of yodeling, this is it.

Now this passaggio is the most tricky part of it all, of course, as the different colours of the head and the chest voice have to blend as one — if the singer wishes it to be so.  How well you are able to blend those two gives life, uniqueness, and a personal colour to the voice. Of course, this also yields the variety to a singer’s expression in large parts. If you only have one tone of voice — not even good when speaking, even less in singing.

There are many good singers in the lyrical Fach at the moment, but all — apart from noticeable exceptions like Ian Bostridge — share one habit, and I haven’t quite determined yet why this is the case.

They all seem to be rather reluctant when it comes to letting their tone of voice switch too much away from the manly,  and chesty side of the voice.

Of course, the famous “high c”, or in Puritani, d even, is supposed to be rendered with the “proper” voice, which means, a large portion of the chest voice in it, or it “doesn’t count”.  So there are parts that are compulsory “to be sung in a very chesty way.” But there are others.

Famous, e.g.: Lohengrin, Gralserzählung, (around 1:30 in the video,) the line “alljährlich naht vom Himmel eine Taube” (every year from heaven descends a dove). Lohengrin is even a spinto role, which means, the voice is heavier by nature than that of a lyrical tenor.  Still, the quality of a Lohengrin will be crucially determined by how well he is able to sing the soft and heady “… eine Taube,” … to switch into heroic mood right after at “Es heißt, der Gral…” (It is said the grail… ). There are other similar parts, like the “… dann muss er von euch zieh’n.” (…then he will have to leave you) at vaguely 3:30.)

So why, if even spintos do it — all the time! — don’t the lyrical tenors enjoy playing with the colour of their voices more than they do? I seriously have no idea, why of all Fachs the audience apparently enjoys this chesty quality of the voice so much with lyric tenors.

By no means it would be appreciated if someone would deliver a rendition of “Una Furtiva Lagrima” like  Tagliavini’s nowadays. What would people say? A pop singer, a crooner, too effeminate, too lackadaisical… Of course, unnecessary to add, all of those are things that Tagliavini is not. But listen, ignoring the quality of the recording techniques at the time, if possible.

Ferrucio Tagliavini

Tito Schipa

John McCormack

Juan Diego Florez

In comparison with the ones listed above — Mr. Flórez sounds very manly indeed, doesn’t he? He does well, of course, he is a great singer, but, apart from the tempo that I find a bit too slow for him which isn’t helpful, he doesn’t really soften up the voice in the higher range, so this causes it to sound tight once in a while. (Only a shy remark).

It has to be noted that Flórez hasn’t got the heaviest voice of the singers linked above by far — Tagliavini sang spinto Fach later. Why does Florez sing the way he sings, in his Fach, and in this specific role? Nemorino is not a hero, he is a simple boy, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer. At Schipa’s version the aria enforces the tought in me, “D’awwww, what an idiot, but then — what a lovely, huggable idiot!” Florez’ version is nice, but I never more than superficially like his rendition of this specific aria.

What I would wish for even more than another picture of him like this one:

As he obviously hasn’t got concerns about the MET spreading promo pictures of him crossdressing for Le Comte Ory, how about if he would be less concerned about an altogether manly appearance when it comes to his voice?

Let’s face it — Lyrical tenors….

  • Ottavio: Very supportive, even if it comes to tending to partners with a post-rape-trauma
  • Captain Vere:  Ever doubtful, no great help when it gets down to the nitty-gritty
  • Tamino: “Zu Hilfe…” Needs the help of supportive ladies to rid him of monsters threatening his life

What are they — strong, manly, heroic even? They can be, for a rather short time mostly, but they also have so many more characteristics. The composers wrote the roles to fit exactly the lyric type of voice. So they wanted both sides in it, isn’t that obvious? The masculine side as well as the softer side; I wouldn’t exactly call it female. So, a good lyrical tenor shouldn’t suppress his uke side at all times, in my humble opinion. I am only talking of the stage persona, of course. 😉

Di più non chiedo…


Well, there is one more thing I would ask for: I really miss the hats they wore back then. I think Florez makes a good start with the nun’s habit concerning the “revival of hats in opera.”

Una Furtiva Lagrima

Una furtiva lagrima
negli occhi suoi spuntò:
Quelle festose giovani
invidiar sembrò.
Che più cercando io vo?
Che più cercando io vo?
M’ama! Sì, m’ama, lo vedo. Lo vedo.
Un solo istante i palpiti
del suo bel cor sentir!
I miei sospir, confondere
per poco a’ suoi sospir!
I palpiti, i palpiti sentir,
confondere i miei coi suoi sospir…
Cielo! Si può morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo.
Ah, cielo! Si può! Si, può morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo.
Si può morir! Si può morir d’amor.

A single furtive tear
from her eyes sprang:
As if of those playful youths
envious she appeared to become.
What more need I look for?
What more need I look for?
She loves me! Yes, she loves me, I see it. I see it.
Just for an instant the beating of
her beautiful heart I felt!
And my sighs became as one
fleetingly with her sighs!
Her heart beating, her heart beating to feel,
our sighs confounded as one…
Heavens! Yes I could, I could die!
More I can’t ask, I can’t ask.
Oh, heavens! Yes I could! Yes I could die!
More I can’t ask, I can’t ask.
Yes I could die! If I could die of love.


7 thoughts on “Di più non chiedo…

  1. I just discovered this site! It’s very exciting. I really enjoy your comments and comparisons.

    I am not a singer, just sing alto2 in a women’s chorus in Brooklyn. I am a female tenor; most contralto parts are just a bit too high, and I can sing the C below middle C very clearly.

    So I have been browsing utube for sing-along practice tracks. Currently battling with “Voi che sapete”‘ and “Che faro senza Euridice”, which contain that high F and use only my upper register. I printed out “Una furtiva lagrima” and will give it a go for the lower register.

    Thanks for the lovely examples and discussion!

  2. Oh, I am pleased to hear that 😉 Glad I could delight you!
    If it comes to very low alto arias — I have to skim my mommy-brain, and will surely come up with more, but for the moment — do you know this one? It is from Henry Purcell’s “Fairy Queen,”

    Here it is sung by a countertenor, with some sheet music underneath — don’t be irritated by the viola key.

    The piece is called “Entrance of Secresy” — she comes along with Mystery and Sleep — so this is “Secresy” personified singing this, and the lyrics are:

    One charming night
    Gives more delight
    Than a hundred lucky days:
    Night and I improve the taste,
    Make the pleasure longer last
    A thousand, thousand several ways.

  3. Wow! Thanks for this example. I would never have found it on my own.

    The contralto is singing just about a whole step (I think – switching back and forth, trying to remember the pitch of Do) lower than the countertenor. Is this just the tuning of the original instruments?

    Also, just idle curiosity: The sound is C minor but the notation is 2 flats, where in modern notation it would be 3 flats (I think). This means that every A flat must be marked as an accidental. Is this just a convenient way to avoid marking all the ascending A flats as accidental A naturals in modern notation? I figure you would know this!

    Maureen Forrester has a really amazing voice. I will have to find out more about her. I did find one nasty comment on a Jay blog about her pushing her mezzo voice down for this piece. Me, I am just grateful she recorded it! Although I have to admit I love the countertenor version also.

  4. I am actually so accustomed to it it didn’t strike me before… It is notated without the “last” flat, but I am not sure about the “why.”
    All wikipedia has to say is,
    “Baroque music written in minor keys often was written with a key signature with fewer flats than we now associate with their keys; for example, movements in C minor often had only two flats (because the A♭ would frequently have to be sharpened to A♮ in the ascending melodic minor scale, as would the B♭).”
    So no reason is given there either.

    The first notes of the melody there in the second example sound like h, f sharp d h d c sharp – *fishing out tuning fork I saved from my daughter — Yet, they play the notes given there in the sheet music, the pitch in which the ensemble is tuned is 415Hz .. so this makes it sound roughly a half note lower than it actually is.

    The first one — as far as I can hear that — are modern instruments, and they just play it at about 440Hz, so they take a version that is written in a minor, so the first notes would be a e c a c b —
    With that piece, and out of context.. I’d say you can transpose it even a note or two lower if it fits your voice better. Just, if you have baroque instruments, the keys have a specific sound, so you cannot simply set it a half note lower and the piece stays more or less the same — but I guess you didn’t intend to torture your instrumentalists with a-flat minor in the first place… 😀

    • I got out my trusty electronic rollup keyboard and checked it against iTunes – still correct. The second example, as you said, is about a half step lower than 440, so it sounds like B minor instead of C minor. Funny about the viola clef! There is a perfectly good tenor clef, looks the same but one line higher; I play the cello and it is a frequent visitor. Perhaps the countertenor is assigned to an “alto” clef, like the viola.

      The first example is stranger. It is in A minor, as you said, but just a tad sharp. I wonder why she bothered to transpose it at all. Modern C minor isn’t that much higher; she can do it easily. A minor is a bit lugubrious, especially for that subject.
      I have no intention of torturing anyone with my renditions. It’s just that chorus parts are really boring when sung alone, and most of the time I am concentrating on memorizing the words and chords sufficiently for the next rehearsal. The sound I am listening to is electronic keyboard in iTunes from our fearless leader, argh.
      Scales are also a drag so I don’t do them all the time. A nice sing-along of some impossible piece, sung by a celestial voice, is challenging, and gives an example of how a voice should sound. I can sing all these various versions, including the ones that are too high. Nobody would want to hear me do it, but I think it helps my voice, and it certainly is fun.
      The Wikipedia excerpt says pretty much what I conjectured — you pay going up or you pay going down (in melodic minor). Thanks for finding it.
      Sorry to natter on about this sort of thing, but you are the first person i have encountered in my 69 years who has any idea what I am nattering about!

  5. I also find the A minor which is not quite A-minor but a bit higher slightly strange. What I meant with torture is — there are keys that are quite hard to play on a baroque flute e.g; and keys sound very different too; back then keys are assigned with a meaning, and have been until Beethoven and even later.
    There is tons of literature on that subject — it derives from the time before the tempered tuning, but of course, just by the way instruments are built the keys sound differently. A baroque flûte traversière has d as its full length, so d, g, and a sound very pure and bright; e sounds like a “horn with a mute” as a man who makes them once described it to me. You can tell very well, e.g. by Solfeggi written for flute or voice by Johann Adolf Hasse which are an even greater pleasure to play than to listen to, mostly — They are great because he loves the different shades of sounds and characteristics of the key a piece of his is set in and likes to exaggerate it even. A great pleasure to play.
    It is like if you play open strings on a violin in between or have to because else the piece wouldn’t work — there is no way you can just do that in a different key, as there is a g,d,a,e string, but no c-string on a violin 😉
    This is a good example of a piece that takes the instrument almost to the max of what is possible soundwise for the time, and only works in the key of d-minor — especially around half of the piece it gets more and more obvious:

    If you google something like “keys and their meaning” you will get more than you like to know, most probably 😉
    Just an example:
    d-minor: Rousseau: serieux; Charpentier: grave et devot; Masson: grave, mêlé de gayeté;
    C-Major: Rousseau: grandeur; Charpentier: gay et guerier; bei Masson (no corresponding description);
    F-Major: Rousseau: pour les Piéces devotes ou chants d’Eglise; Charpentier: furieux et
    emporté; Masson: gay mêlé de gravité;

    Not only did people attach a meaning to the keys that was almost metaphysical — but this, and the pieces that were written complying with it also influenced the makers of the instruments again.

    • I found that 28-page paper on the meaning of keys. It sounds a little wacko, but I am thinking about it. His discussion of why certain instruments lead to preferences for certain keys, though, is right on.

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