Did the wrong repertoire ruin a voice? The story of Katia Ricciarelli

May 25, 2009

My Blog has moved to www.albertcombrink.com

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 for yourself.

This is a young Ricciarelli in a duet from the “Stabat Mater” by Pergolesi, in 1979.

After that, in the 1980’s Karajan pushed Ricciarelli into heavier roles such as Verdi’s “Aida”. The sheer beauty of her voice brought something very touching to the role. In the quiet and tender moments she can be touching, moving, and even a great Aida. But under pressure to sing loud enough to be heard over the orchestra, or to manage Verdi’s large vocal range, there were problems. Wobbles crept in. Insecure pitch, and an uncomfortable “open-throat” quality also marred performances.

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:

Final Scene from Aida with Carrerras

As moving and human as her interpretation 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”. 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 intheir 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

Here is an extract of her Turandot compared with that of a real dramatic soprano: Birgit Nilsson. Nilsson perhaps had more steel in her voice than velvet, but in roles such as this one, steel is a prerequisite for vocal survival.

Turandot, as sung by Ricciarelli and Domingo and then the same aria by Nilsson with Corelli

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.

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.

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