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Riccardo Stracciari (1875-1955), the Italian baritone who came nearest to having everything: brilliance, depth, power, range, agility, legato, style, emotion, vocal longevity. Rosa Ponselle said his voice was like "a shower of diamonds."

"Il balen":

"Eri tu":

"Largo al factotum":

Ponselle again: "Now that's a baritone!"
Sorry but when I hear clips like this I just wonder what all the fuss is about. It may be the ancient recording but this guy doesn't compare - let alone surpass - some of the modern singers. He may have been considered great in his day but when I hear him I just ask, "But why?"
 

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In brief, there are specific things to listen for in evaluating a singer's vocal accomplishment. Whether one can hear those things is another matter. It's useful to have sung oneself, or to have worked with singers. Here are the things I look for:

1. Ease of vocal emission. Does the sound seem to spin out freely, or is there a sense of forcing or unnecessary effort?
2. Consistency of vocal emission. Does the sound seem to be produced with similar ease and quality at all times, or do changes in pitch, volume, and velocity cause distortions in these aspects?
3. Evenness of scale. Is there consistency in the timbre and production of the voice throughout its range, or are there distinct differences in quality or abrupt shifts in sound as the voice moves up and down its range?
4. Freedom and consistency of vibrato. Does the vibrato have a quick, even pulsation, fairly consistent despite changes in pitch and volume, or is it irregular, slow, quavery, or excessively wide (obscuring the pitch of the sung note)? Anomalies in the vibrato are due to muscular interference, wear, or fatigue.
5. Control of dynamics (volume). Can the voice move freely among dynamic levels, swelling and diminishing the tone at will without compromising evenness of production? This is a hallmark and test of a fine technique, and a requisite of expressive singing.
6. Flexibility or agility. Can the voice move quickly and freely from note to note? Voices vary naturally in this respect; a lack of agility may or may not indicate poor technique, but it is certainly a disadvantage.

These are the basic elements of vocal technique, all of them quite perceptible. They are objectively present in voices and are not, for the most part, matters of personal taste. The only partial exception is the vibrato; vibratos naturally vary considerably from singer to singer, and a vibrato which strikes a particular listener as unattractively wide or prominent may or may not indicate a technical deficiency. Wide vibratos have never been prized, however, for the reason that they tend to obscure pitch, if for no other.

Beyond technical considerations are musical and stylistic ones - but that's an immense subject.

Bringing this back to Stracciari in particular, he was a great singer in that he was virtually flawless by all the above technical criteria. I would submit that he was also a fine musician with excellent style in the repertoire he sang. If you would care to compare him directly with other baritones, I'll refer you to my post of 3/4/15 under the thread "Which singer best represents each fach?", where I compare nine other baritones of various generations from Battistini to Milnes, using the aria "Eri tu" from Un Ballo in Maschera as a test piece.

http://www.talkclassical.com/36837-singer-best-represents-each.html?highlight=stracciari

That was an exercise I found enjoyable and enlightening.

(As a postscript, I want to say that I do see the OP as asking for our personal tastes and not necessarily objective proofs of anything. Stracciari is a favorite of mine who I think is as fine a baritone as I've ever heard, but there have been others; among Italian baritones I also love Battistini, a great representative of the bel canto school of the 19th century, and Pasquale Amato, who unfortunately burned out too soon, apparently trying to compete with the powerhouse Titta Ruffo.)
the only thing is that as a paying customer for opera I don't ask these sort of technical questions. The main question I ask is do I like his voice? Would I want to sit and listen to it all evening? Now it may be the aged technology but would I want to hear Stracciari's Figaro more than (say) Bruscantini's and the answer is 'No'. As I say it's difficult to judge with ancient recordings but I've always found myself very puzzled when people come up with the view these people were incomparable. I've no doubt they were great in their day in the same way (say) Emil Zatopek was a great runner in his day. But Zatopek's times have been surpassed.
 

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I don't think it gets us anywhere to throw generalizations about. I haven't talked about "these people." I've talked about a particular singer I think is superb, and I've said why, in some detail now.

I don't generally "ask technical questions" either when I hear singers. I merely hear their technical skill, of which I consider myself a pretty good judge. You asked, listening to Stracciari, "but why?" I did my darnedest to tell you why. If you don't hear the things I hear, you might keep listening - or, if you don't want to hear or learn, not listen. That's your prerogative. Enjoy whatever you want to enjoy. I don't care. But I'm not interested in arguments which are not arguments for or about anything except your inability to see what I'm talking about.

I could take you, bar by bar, through a Stracciari performance of "Largo al factotum" (he made several recordings) such as this one:
and show you the points of vocal superiority to this one by Bruscantini:
It would still be perfectly legitimate for you to prefer Bruscantini (a fine singer, certainly) on grounds of timbre preference or interpretation. Obviously the recorded sound is superior, if that is an issue for you.

As for your comparison of singers with athletes breaking the records of their predecessors, music is not athletics. It should be obvious that not everything improves with time. You might as well say that Mozart was a great composer in his time, but that Mozart's times have been surpassed. I'll remind you of that next time you put down Wagner.
The comparison with Zatopek was, of course, not dealing with a creative artist. Singers are not creative artists. I would certainly not used the comparison in dealing with composers as it does not apply. In any case it is an incomplete analogy not to be pushed to its limit.
It's not that I don't know what you are talking about, as I thought I'd made clear that is not the issue. I've had musical training and I understand (most of) the technical stuff. I also have a wife who has taught singing! But what I am talking about is preferences of the listener. Our problems seem the same, friend. You don't appear to get what I am talking about! Our priorities are different! But let's agree to differ on that! :) Happy listening!
 

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Sorry, but I do not agree that "our problems are the same."

You began this conversation by saying you didn't know why I thought Stracciari was a great singer. You said "Sorry but when I hear clips like this I just wonder what all the fuss is about. It may be the ancient recording but this guy doesn't compare - let alone surpass - some of the modern singers. He may have been considered great in his day but when I hear him I just ask, "But why?"

Thinking you might really want to know "why," I proceed to tell you what I think are the criteria of a great singer and why I think Stracciari meets them. You then say "I don't ask these sorts of technical questions. The main question I ask is do I like his voice?...As I say it's difficult to judge with ancient recordings but I've always found myself very puzzled when people come up with the view these people were incomparable."

I try to elaborate a bit on my previous explanation, still harboring some illusion that you actually want to understand why Stracciari is considered a great singer. But all you can say is "what I am talking about is preferences of the listener."

Well. I may be a little slow, but I think I'm getting it now. Obviously you don't really care why some singers are considered great, and your question wasn't a real question. So why did you ask it and put me to the trouble of answering it, when what you really wanted to say is that you're not impressed by Stracciari or other singers on those old recordings, and that all that matters to you is what you like, just because you like it - so take that, all you bloody connoisseurs of singing who think you know so much!

Then, having admitted that knowledge of singing is not your concern, you make a completely insupportable claim of - guess what? knowledge of singing! - by posing an analogy purporting to show that modern singers must have surpassed their predecessors. Why have they? Because athletes have!

And now you are saying that "our problems seem the same"? No. They don't. I do not have the same problem as you, whatever the heck that is. My problem is being asked to explain something to someone who doesn't give a fig for the explanation, but just wants to flaunt his personal tastes in the faces of people who actually have some ideas on the subject.

Next time, just say "personally, I prefer Bruscantini." I will try to remember not to ask you why.
I'm sorry you appear to consider someone disagreeing with you amounts to disrespect. It's not like that at all. Just I have my opinion. I said in the beginning that personally I prefer Bruscantini by what comes out of the speakers. You don't seem to have accepted that point and launched into why you thought Stracciari was wonderful. Fine! I've no problem with that. But when I say that these technical issues are not the chief thing I look for you appear to get offended and think it's disrespectful. Sorry! But we think differently! As I said before I just wanted to agree to differ but you can't seem to accept that. Sorry!
 

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Callas and Gobbi for me. Whenever I'm listening to another baritone or soprano I feel something is missing. With tenors I don't have problems, even though I Di Stefano is my absolute favorite.
Callas and Gobbi were both Incomperably as vocal actors. However the actual sound of their voices have certainly been surpassed by others. Why no singer could ever 'ruin' things for me as everyone has something different to bring to the table. Mind you, Gobbi's credo takes some beating!

 

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If you really mean this, then I can only think you are listening to the wrong singers.

Great singers 'create' as do all great musicians - their interpretations are creative (and in both 'big C' and 'little c' terms of creativity) and the greatest singers have changed the repertoire, the critical reception of aspects of the repertoire, understanding of specific pieces etc etc etc
Yes I agree. The context I made the comparison was that of composers. but singers can be said to 'create' a part.
 

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The late John Steane highlighted the debate between old and new. Some people are "genuinely at a loss to understand how anyone with standards, anyone who is aware (say) of Boninsegna and Battistini, Mizio and Lauri-Volpi, can tolerate, let along praise (say) Pavarotti and Caballi." Others are also at a loss: "when they hear distinguished modern singers they sound perfectly acceptable to them; when they listen to famous old 'us, they sound ghastly!"
Stein says of the debate "it Is probably as old as civilisation. It certainly goes back to Francesco Tosi who complained that, 'Italy hears no more exquisite voices as in times past.' That was in 1723!"
 

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P

I second this enthusiastically. Callas really spoils it for her successors in her roles. I used to go to the opera eagerly to see and hear whether other singers sang her roles as well as she. Of course, none approached her in those roles. I would rather forgo "her" operas than go and be disappointed yet again.
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Sorry but I think this is a bit OTT. Yes I admire Callas as a great artist and have some of her recordings. But do they spoil other singers for me in those roles? The answer is an unequivocal No. Yes her Mimi and Butterfly are very interesting and her Aida dramatic. But does that mean I can't appreciate the likes of Freni, Tebaldi (who had more naturally beautiful voices) et al? It seems a shame to narrow one's field of appreciation down like this. Let's enjoy every great singer we are privileged to hear.
Yes I believe Callas' Tosca maybe reigns supreme. But does that prevent me from appreciating other great singers in that role? Of course not. Do I enjoy Callas' Rosina? Yes! Does it ruin listening to de los Angeles delightful performance for me? No! Why? Because no artist, however great, has it all. There are always new things to hear from different (great) singers.
Am I disappointed when I see live opera and it's not Callas? No I'm not. Because however great she was we can't bring her back on stage. Although I enjoy looking back I also enjoy living in the present.
 

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I think I'm in the first camp, although I wouldn't like to say with 100% conviction that late Lauri-Volpi is always absolutely better than early Pavarotti! With slightly better chosen examples (though Steane presumably meant not the octagenarian Lauri-Volpi, but that tenor in his 1920s prime) it's true for me that early 20th century singers pretty much 'ruined' the standard operatic repertoire.
Second camp me. Just cannot see the fascination in these elderly recordings and dated sng g style. For me the great era of recorded singing came with the advent of LP is the 50s onwards through to the 70s.
 

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I often wonder with Callas if she hadn't have climbed and become the beautiful woman she was whether she would be the object of such adulation and worship with pictures constantly posted; or whether she would just be admired as a truly great opera singer.
 
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