Saluting the Contralto
Sir Thomas Beecham quipped that the imposing sound of Dame Clara Butt could be heard on the other side of the English Channel (https://youtu.be/ZvbsOiENM34 ) She is heard here in the drinking song from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Alright, she is indisputably an acquired taste – one that I have.
Richard Strauss joked with the orchestra during the dress rehearsal of the premiere of Elektra: “Lauter! Lauter! Ich kann die Stimme von Frau Schumann-Heink noch hören!“
And then Gilbert and Sullivan wrote cartoonish battleax parts like Buttercup and Katisha for the contraltos of their day. Here’s D’Oily Carte stalwart Bertha Lewis in the HMS Pinafore Little Buttercup ditty: https://youtu.be/if8TGnc6cAo
Whatever happened to the great tradition of contralto singing that goes back to Handel’s London female stars and then culminates with Rossini’s prima donnas? Should we blame Verdi and Wagner for largely ignoring the maternal, deep velvet quality of the contralto voice?
Thank goodness for Meyerbeer in France, who contributed the part of Fidès to the canon. Listen to Ernestine Schumann Heink tear fiercely into the air O, Prêtres de Baal in Le prophète with its two octaves mine field: https://youtu.be/qDH5BLiomBE
Maybe Gounod’s Siebel in Faust should always be sung by a contralto, certainly as sung here by Karin Branzel: https://youtu.be/eTqGQCkV6KQ?list=PLAsXkNcwABnbGrOk70JfmlQy5EaymhmlA)
Russia? All those nannies in the operas of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky are written for contraltos. Here’s a spectacular Bolshoi star, Varvara Gargarina in a 1948 recording of the Princess‘ aria from Dargomishky‘s The Mermaid.
Listen to Lili Chookasian’s in the Verdi Requiem and celebrate what a good contralto can accomplish. For my money, no mezzo-soprano I can think of, maybe Marilyn Horne excepted, can begin to bring to the Liber Scriptus the take no prisoners sound that Chookasian summons:
Many contraltos have voiced (no pun intended) complaints about how their voice teachers gently coaxed (pushed in some instances) their voices upwards to conquer the mezzo-soprano repertory. But, in fact, a great contralto in her prime – take Sigrid Onégin’s O don fatale – can sing the living daylights out of Eboli,(https://youtu.be/LyGUYF4idpc), high B’s and all.
Ewa Podleś has recorded and sung Rosina’s and Cenerentola’s arias time and again with flawless flexibility and an easy top voice. Here she is in Una voce poco fa (https://youtu.be/vYfvO3z998Y)
But range is not the issue. Tessitura is. Color is. Contraltos can reach the soprano High B and even top C without breaking a sweat, but they do not like to live up there. Look at the music of Rossini’s Arbace or his Isabella, written for the great Marietta Marcolini, and you will see that 90% of the notes lie between the C below the treble staff and the C in the middle of it. Occasional ascents to the top of the contralto’s high middle voice abound, but home sweet home lies between C and C.
Perhaps the problem with the absence of contraltos lies with the way music began to be orchestrated by Verdi in Italy and Herr Wagner auf Deutschland in mid-19th century. Whereas Rossini accompanies the busy vocal line with a small pit orchestra – rarely over forty – that strums along as the singer pirouettes her way into vocal heights, Verdi and Wagner augment the number of men in the pit and begin to have the orchestra double the vocal line. The only way that the agile contraltos of the Bel Canto era could keep up with these changes was by singing higher into an area where their voices, now at the top of their range could begin to cut through the mass of sound that separated them from the audience. And thus the mezzo-soprano came of age.
We learn to be happy with our lot in life. If all the contralto singing we can get these days is from superb artists who choose to specialize in the Bach and Handel repertory, then so be it. Bring us more Nathalie Stutzmann and may she sing to us like this (https://youtu.be/DB44ehylkbk ) for a long time.
And then, let us not ever forget how those legendary recordings of Marian Anderson (https://youtu.be/xPGEiWAPm1M) and Kathleen Ferrier (https://youtu.be/1Npe-EabNBY)bring listening and spiritual comfort to all of us contralto-deprived ears.
Rafael de Acha