The Tortured Soul…

(Eugenio Montale — Il Lacerato Spirito….)

I’ve been looking at — and to a lesser extent listening to — a collection of old discs for voice and piano recorded between 1903 and 1908. The old gentleman who invited me to sample the secrets of his record collection has become, late in life, a guardian of the vocal relicts of that period. When he was young (forty years ago), the death knells of bel canto were already sounding. There were no discs in the golden age; and when the new invention allowed the surviving heroic voices to be captured in a can (the first wax cylinders really did look like tins of conserved tomatoes), the inadequacy of the novel technology didn’t allow for the embalming of more than their shadow. The voices emerged shrill, disembodied, excessively high in timbre. Deep voices were the most unrecognisable. Only an aficionado could today ‘reconstruct’ the prayer in L’Ebrea, ‘Se oppressi ognor…’, as it issued from the lips of the towering Navarrini (two metres tall), loaded with years and glory at the dawn of the century.

The stars of that period didn’t look kindly on the new invention; and they had reason. Confronted with the prospect of appearing to posterity so counterfeited, they thought, ‘Better to be forgotten than heard like that.’ But then someone began to waver, and others were actually caught in a scam. In 1903, at the premiere of L’Africana at the Metropolitan in New York, a person hidden in the wings managed to pick up as much as he could of Vasco da Gama’s landing, and of the inspirational arioso ‘O paradiso’ as performed by the tenor De Reszke, also freezing in the recording the backstage noises and the audience’s ovations. The disc was then printed faithfully and duplicated in multiple copies.

The copy I listened to is thought to be the only one still in existence, and it has inestimable antique value. Those who know that tune of Meyerbeer’s, with its innumerable difficulties, will still be able to get some sense of it; for others, the impression can be nothing more than a buzzing interrupted by vocal noises, ending with a harsh, declining B flat, wiped out by a wave of yelling and plaudits which sound like insults. Nothing else remains of Jean De Reszke; the old gentleman knows of no other recording of his voice.

Snatches from the aria ‘Io non son che une povera ancella’ (in Adriana Lecouvreur), performed by the superdiva Angelica Pandolfini, who created the part, and from the bold serenade ‘De’ vieni alla finestra’ (in Don Giovanni), sung by Victor Maurel, must date from a few years later. Through the deep corrosion of time, we can convince ourselves of Angelica’s prodigious achievement, but we remain astonished at the bizarre choices and vulgarity of the man who, in France, was the last-but-one surviving practitioner of Italian bel canto. The squeaks of ‘Home, Sweet Home’, performed by Adelina Patti, then in her sixties, do escape from the indecipherable; while from Tamagno’s voice at the death of Otello (a voice which sounds like a mosquito) a few shards of greatness sparkle.

I listened for quite a long time; but, more than by the sound of those now petrified voices, my curiosity was aroused by the secret which, I was sure, the old gentleman was keeping to himself. And before I took my leave, I didn’t find it difficult to get him to confess.

Passionately interested in the art of singing, unable — like Leoncavallo’s clown — to choose between the theatre and life, shy and hard to please, proud and desperately fearful, he had spent his best years trying in vain to attain a perfect performance of Jacopo Fiesco’s famous aria in Simon Boccanegra. Every day, from age 18 to age 50, in front of the mirror, his face covered with shaving cream, his shaving brush and razor put to one side, he had returned to it, threatening with his fist the closed doors of the marble palace opposite the cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa, and had thundered ‘A te l’estremo addio, palagio altero!’, before moderating his attack in ‘Il lacerato spirito del mesto genitore…’, and then descending to the final basso profundo rattle (F sharp below the stave) which completes his plea: ‘Prega Maria per me…’.

It isn’t a difficult aria, but it requires great maturity of voice, and when the old gentleman was young he didn’t consider his voice sufficiently ‘seasoned’. An unseasoned bass is an unripe fruit: inedible. The years passed swiftly. In innumerable houses, barracks, hotels, boarding houses, clinics, hospitals and rented rooms the vituperation resounded. The voice was still maturing, softening, losing the harshness of its ‘cavity’ (or its ‘trumpet’, if you will), but one day, all of a sudden, timbre and consistency failed. The old gentleman (then not so old) knew that he must seize the moment, grasp those few days of perfection to which he aspired, astound everyone with the celebrated tirade, and then withdraw into a dignified silence. One of his friends, a doctor who had decided to pause his brilliant career, often came to visit him and to attempt with him the duet from I Puritani, ’Suoni la tromba,’ but more often, solo, to provoke, with flickering eyelids and a finger on the piano, Sheriff Rance’s bitter, sneering confession, ‘Minnie dalla mia casa son partito…’, and explosive conclusion, ‘Or per un bacio tuo getto un tesoro!’, which unfortunately and inevitably brought complaints from neighbours in the building and from the concierge. The former doctor also delayed his debut for many years, waiting for his voice to season; then one fine day he lost patience, a frog in his throat sent him off his head, and the aspiring sheriff jumped from the window and managed to impale himself on the spikes of the railings in the garden below. He died instantly, without suffering.

The future collector of records took the hint, and persisted no longer in his efforts. By now his fiftieth year had elapsed, and the moment he had been waiting for had probably passed without anyone (and even less him) noticing it. It happened only occasionally, while he was shaving, that he would turn the clock back and intone, in a quavering voice, ‘Il lacerato spirito…’. At that very moment, the ghost of his doctor friend would appear next to him, and his voice died on his lips. In any case, for whom would he sing today? The art is in total decline.