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The Soprano Assoluta and its place in the world of Opera today

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Hello everyone. it's your neighborhood Baritone, BaritoneAssoluto here and I've got a great deal to talk about. Today's topic might be something a few of us may know and a lot of us may not understand just in-depth what truly is the cause of said topic. Today's topic I will be examining will be the Soprano Assoluta voice also known as the Soprano Sfogato and its place in the world of Opera today. I'm going to start this conversation off with a video from a youtuber by the name of Primohomme. He released three videos on the "in-between" Soprano voices: Assoluta, Falcon, and the Dugazon (which is just a Mezzo-Soprano Soubrette). I started the video within 00:22 seconds of the video so we can skip the filler.

Historically, this term was given to the past "divas" of Opera's yesteryear such as Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran, Giulia Grisi, Adelina Patti, and Henriette Sontag. More commonly, the term has been used to describe the Greek-American Soprano of the 20th century, Maria Callas. Here's a brief history behind the usage of the name and how it was applied
inoperasofit's day:

assoluta's heyday was the first four of five decades of the nineteenth century, the period which coincides with the flourishing of Romanticism all over Europe, and she represented the artistic emancipation from the neo-Aristotelian proprieties of character: consistency, suitability to station, trueness to type, appropriateness of behavior, and so forth, along with the Romantic interest in human heroism, the defiance of the gods, the extremes of human character, of situtation and behavior, and a total unpredictability." (Source: The Assoluta Voice in opera: 1797-1847, by Geoffrey S. Riggs)

Here's a few characteristics of the assoluta/Soprano Sfogato voice:

It possesses a dark timbre with a rich and strong low register, as well as the high notes of a soprano and occasionally a coloratura soprano. Those voices are typically strong, dramatic and agile, supported by an excellent bel canto technique and an ability to sing in the soprano tessitura as well as in the contralto tessitura with great ease.
The common requirements for the roles associated with this voice type are:

  • widely varied tessitura throughout the role, extended segments lying well into the low mezzo or contralto tessitura and segments lying in high soprano tessitura
  • a range extending down to at least low B and at least up to high B with at least one whole tone required at either end
  • fioratura (coloratura) singing in the most intricate bel canto style
  • florid singing combined with heroic weight
  • a heavy or dense sound in the lower range
  • vocal power over energetic orchestral accompaniment.

With that being said, the Assoluta voice is more than rare in the Opera world today. We have been forced to accept the notion that only canaries can sing Lucia di Lammermoor, Roberto Deveraux and that only dramatic/
spintos can sing Aid, Leonora from Destino and Trovatore, Medea, and Norma. In the days of the Assoluta, you were REQUIRED to sing Norma, Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Medea, Tosca, Kundry, Aida, Norma, Gioconda, Countess, Armida, Armina, Elisabetta, Leonora (destino and Trovatore), Mimi. We must eliminate that notion once again and bring back the good old singing... where those singers gave it their all and didn't regret it.

The Assoluta of today is nowhere to be found (and please don't say
Devia or Gruberova because those two queens are horrible.) Angela Meade is the only one who is close to an actual dramatic coloratura soprano but she doesn't have that extra "it" to be an Assoluta (unless she retrains her entire instrument like they did back in the 19th and 18th centuries.)

Please discuss guys, I'm always ready! Once again this is your neighborhood Baritone, BaritoneAssoluta speaking and saying "Out"!
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I would caution against the assumption that nineteenth century singers were normally equally competent in the entire repertoire they sang. Certainly, there were lighter and heavier voices, just as now, and the major difference was that in those pre-Wagner, pre-verismo days, thorough bel canto schooling was expected of all front-rank singers; specialization hadn't yet divided singers into the "fachs" some of us are so fond of distinguishing.
you're probably expecting some major disagreement from me, but you are criticizing technical trends which arouse out of the fach system, not the fach system itself. with that in mind, your criticism is valid. several examples I think of are:
1) failure to teach heavier voices to sing some degree of coloratura. among healthily-produced big voices, everyone from Kirsten Flagstad to Dolora Zajick to Tito Gobbi believes that vocal flexibility is important in keeping the voice fresh.
2) teaching lighter voices that they don't need to support the bottom 2/3 of their range (except for tenors, in which case it's all types of tenors and the bottom 4/5 of the range lmao).
3) (especially in Wagner), the notion that big voices do not need to sing with legato (hell, we basically expect lyric singers to sing legato anymore. after dramatic voices, some of the biggest offenders are those girly lil coloraturas, and it seems like we've given up on the concept of male voices singing legato altogether apart from Hvorostovsky).
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some counter-examples:
1) Brigitte Fassbaender: a large dramatic mezzo with ample agilty (chest register is a tad bang-y, but a wonderful performance overall)

2) Kirsten Flagstad: a huge Wagnerian voice capable of singing with elegant legato (ia slower, more tragedian legato for sure, but still a solid legato)

3) Elvira de Hidalgo: a lyric coloratura with strong support down through to the chest register

Someone forgot to tell her that...............
lmao! I was just about to post that XD
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Oh yeah... that. Cecilia Bartoli that she needs to stick to the earlier operas of Paisiello, Scarlatti, Caccini, and Vivaldi. She shouldn't EVER touch Bellini (especially Norma or La Sonnambula where she "thinks" just because of her idol, Maria Malibran did them, that she is DESTINED to follow "past greatness"). Bartoli is suited for stuff that isn't heavy or sits in one place. She's the complete opposite of an assoluta and is a Dugazon... a much lower tessitura-filled Soubrette voice, suited for the great trouser roles.

Same could be said for Caballe or Sutherland when they touched it as well. Caballe thinks that by singing PPP (even though they WEREN'T written in the score), they make her interpretation more "personal" and actually good. I can't even consider Caballe an Assoluta but she's a nice lyric soprano who made her make doing things that released Hell's gates upon the world of Opera ever since then.

Sutherland? No question or no comment on that one. You guys could probably do a better job of ripping her to shreds then myself.
first off, Caballe is a spinto, not a lyric. she has wonderful recordings of heavier roles like Armida, Forza del Destino, Turandot, even some Wagner. the voice was large, powerful and capable of hefty dramatic weight when called for

as for Norma, I mostly agree, except that....I actually prefer Sutherland's interpretation of both of the arias, the cabaletta and trio. this is ironic, because she is ill suited for the role overall. other than that, Callas is THE Norma (especially the duet. omfg.......).
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I knew it, didn't take long till the bashing started and here we go again.:mad:
what are you talking about? I don't see any bashing
I don't think we need worry about the occasional critical remark. When assolutas are in view, others must come up short. :)
I concur

About Caballe - she was versatile. She had substantial lyric, spinto and coloratura capabilities. Must we assign her a fach?
since we are discussing appropriate choice of repertoire (just as you have done below), yes (at the very least, the concept if going to come up).

After all, we're not creating potential cast lists for an opera company. Personally, I find her most agreeable in her earlier (1960s) years, and in the more lyric parts of her repertoire. Dramatic force, though often effective, came at the expense of vocal beauty and function, more so as her career wore on, when she became self-indulgent and abused her pianissimo, glottal attacks and register breaks. Her combination of gifts made her basically well-suited to Norma - more so than Sutherland, who certainly had plenty of voice (except for a few chest tones) but was characteristically marmoreal and mealy-mouthed, and Bartoli, who verges on the grotesque. Bartoli and colleagues turn the opera into a 1960s Italian soap, "Adultery in Druidsville," stripping it of its classical nobility (and, if that cover photo is any hint, of other things as well... All it lacks is Vittorio Grigolo staring down her cleavage.)
some of the really heavy rep was too much for her, but her Verdi and even some of her lighter Wagner are just fine. I don't take issue with her singing some coloratura, provided it was taken slowly (as in her recording of Armida's aria, which is phenomenal), but in other performances, her coloratura was distractedly messy.
There seems to be developing a fashion for saying "whatever."
Whatever can it mean? :rolleyes:
what I mean is, I'm not going to sit here arguing about the validity of voice classification....on a thread about voice classification (and yes, I like do like to put things in more intellectually nuanced categories. it's just how my mind works lol).
How is ramming versatile singers into narrow fachs intellectually nuanced? How is stating categorically that "Caballe is a spinto, not a lyric" intellectually nuanced? I believe that nuance is the one characteristic most conspicuously absent from such statements, and that nuance is the habit of thought I am nigh-unto-desperately pleading for when we talk about voices.

When I was a college student I was justly proud of my ability to make fine discriminations intellectually, and to break down reality into nice clean categories. Then, at a certain point, I realized that those categories I thought reality consisted of were inventions of my own mind, tools I needed to help me find my way, but which became hindrances to further understanding if I held on to them once they'd served their purpose. That realization was liberating. Now, I am far more interested in discovering what realities lie outside conventional categories than in seeing how much of the world I can stuff into them.

There are some singers who fit rather neatly into the conventional "fach" classifications. There is no question that Birgit Nilsson was correctly described as a hochdramatische sopran, simply because she was a great Brunnhilde and Elektra, and because that was virtually the only kind of singing she truly excelled at. Besides, it's a narrow and easily defined category with few inhabitants. Some things are sufficiently lacking in nuance to be talked about so categorically. But in those cases there tends to be little controversy and the discussion is quickly over. Anything more nuanced than that, and we'd best crawl out of our classificatory boxes and learn to qualify our statements. Debates over whether someone is "really" a strong lyric soprano or a lyrico-spinto soprano are only going to make the visitors from other galaxies wonder why they bothered coming all this way to study us.

But - I know - "What-EVVAAH!" :tiphat:
How is it "ramming a singer into a narrow fach" when I clearly listed examples of lyric, coloratura and spinto rep she performed well? You seem to be under the impression that my concept of fach is far more rigid and narrow than it actually is (fach is a singer's home base, not necessarily their entire rep. I could give you an insanely long list of well-performed arias by singers of a different fach. hell, when I posted my list of top 5 Bel Raggios, all 5 singers were different fachs singing the same thing :p )

Honestly, you make it sound like I'm some stern Prussian Frau trying to march singers into a rigid, military school. That isn't and has never been the point XD
I'd like to propose some new contestants for the assoluta fach :)

1) Marisa Galvany

2) Leyla Gencer

3) Alexandrina Pendatchanska(her technique isn't quite to my liking, but in terms of sheer vocal capabilities, I'd say she is a contender)

4) Shirley Verrett
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Galvany is a monochromatic singer. She has basically one quality of expression: maniacal. Lucia as Lady Macbeth. Her coloratura is hit or miss, OK when she can ride her powerful vibrato but terrible in the Norma excerpt. She has no trill. Can you imagine that voice as Amina? More like Santuzza, regardless of the role. Far from "assoluta," if the term actually means more than high, low, and loud.
I'll settle for "unrealized assoluta potential" (she had the sheer vocal mechanism)

Gencer was a strong artist but not exactly a paragon of musical poise and style. Versatile yes, but that clip's attempt to portray her as all those different types, from lyric coloratura to contralto, is absurd. Still, despite a certain roughness, a better candidate for "assoluta" than Galvany.
admittedly, I thought the video was a little silly as well, but it captured the versatility at least.

There's an unidentified mezzo in the Pendatchanska clip. It's mostly a lot of loud coloratura singing anyway. I think this is more revealing:

Well, it isn't bel canto, is it? Such uneven tonal emission, and a weird, wild, bumpy ride, musically speaking. She does have a trill. I think her Lucia is stylistically saner and technically better, though the approach to high notes is sometimes crude and the phrasing not very imaginative or finely drawn:

She has another one of these voices, so common nowadays, that I couldn't necessarily pick out in a lineup.
she is about as bel canto as Gheorghiu is Turandot. no argument there :lol:

Well. Now for the real deal. You only have to listen to Shirley Verrett for a few moments to hear that she completely outclasses the others in every way. I'd also say she's the only true falcon in the group, with a range encompassing securely both soprano and mezzo. She had the voice, technique, musicianship and sense of style to sing virtually anything, beautifully and memorably.

I'd just like to add this, a performance worthy to stand beside assoluta Rosa Ponselle's "O nume tutelar" as an exemplar of the fine art of singing:

glad we agree there. easily one of the finest singers of the 20th century
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Well, nobody's perfect - certainly not Callas, after her voice started to go. Verrett did after all begin as a mezzo (I believe) and conquered soprano territory like no other mezzo I can think of, and Callas didn't have the body and solidity down low to do the same in the mezzo repertoire, despite some successful late recordings of mezzo arias. I'd say Callas deserves the "assoluta" title more than any other singer of the postwar period by dint of combining vocal range, flexibility, and dramatic power and versatility, but that Verrett comes closer to her than anyone else, and even surpasses Callas in the consistent beauty of her tone.
^this, except I actually prefer Verrett to Callas. Verrett's tone was pleasant, easy, relaxed, natural. Whenever Callas sung, all I could hear was pain. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In many instances it worked wonderfully, especially if one was in a blood-and-guts sort of mood from the start, but I have a general preference for smoothness and ease above emotion.
Verrett comes as close as anyone. Her voice was simply one of the most beautiful ever. I always felt cheated when she sang soprano as her lower register was so amazingly beautiful. She was one of the greatest Arsaces ever but was also a killer Norma. I even heard her sing a high D very well in the trio of Act II of Norma. Not denying Callas' fabulousness, but Verrett's voice to my ears was much more beautiful.
^pretty much this

I would like to mention another singer who I believe deserves some mention. Dimitrova, who was equally adept as Turandot, Norma, and Amneris. She had an astonishingly huge voice, distinctive in sound, solid from killer high C's to chest voice, and more than adequate at coloratura.She was one of the great Amneris's of her generation. Some don't like her voice, but I find it thrilling.
an amazing singer. I would have mentioned her myself; however, she lacked the light coloratura and more tender/lyrical component to be an assoluta.
Might I suggest that the three singers who I would say came closest to the Soprano Assoluta defintion were fleeting phenomena in three great careers. Ponselle in her 20's when she was still secure up top and Horne as she was transitioning into mezzo parts and was engaged to sing Lucretia Borga in Carnegie Hall. Lastly, Farrell in her thirties. All three at that time in their careers HAD IT ALL. Top to bottom with coloratura to boot. Capable of incredible lyrical singing but possessing huge voices. What do you say??? All three had voices that migrated south as they matured.
even in her glorious Immolation Scene, Horne still lacks the security above the staff and never displays ease of coloratura at the top of the range like an assoluta.
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There's an unidentified mezzo in the Pendatchanska clip. It's mostly a lot of loud coloratura singing anyway. I think this is more revealing:
there are recordings where she sounds more like a mezzo, but in other ones (especially earlier), the voice has zero mezzo in it.
That is one healthy Mimi! Tuberculosis? Nah.

Horne's voice always had too much steel in it for my taste - I think she was perfect for castrato parts - but as soprano or mezzo she was an extraordinary singer.
^seconded. I like voices which have more roundness, opulence and some level of spin in the top reaches (not just mezzos or sopranos either. I want this from the basses and baritones I listen to as well).
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I think she did a phenomenal job. I don't get the higher than thou comments on Youtube and here about her performance as Norma.

I think people are just outraged that a mezzo would dare attempt a role that people have traditionally deemed to be reserved for a Soprano voice. Yet, it wasn't written for one. Frankly, I think it's either jealous, hate, or outright ignorance, or worse, all of these things combined.

Not pointing any finger.
the problem with Bartoli's Norma is not that she is a mezzo (Verrett is among my favorite Normas, and my favorite two are Callas and Marisa Galvany, both of whom have chest voices like mezzos), it's that the voice doesn't have the weight necessary to do the role justice
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It's odd that in this post you assure us that you "respect everyone's opinion," when in the previous post you state, without giving any reason (except for citing some unnamed critic in Edinburgh), that my comment on Bartoli's Norma recording "lacks weight." Would it surprise you that I find that somewhat insulting? Perhaps I'm one of those "people here" to whom you attribute a "false sense of entitlement," and you feel that this entitles you to be less than polite to me.

I have been here for over two years and I do not notice any contributors to the opera forum exhibiting a sense of "entitlement." Though we have disagreements I think we are generally quite civil in expressing them. Seeing that you're new here, I wonder why you already feel the need to remind current members that their opinions are theirs alone. In my experience, we rarely need to go on the defensive unless others perceive us going on the offensive first.

Welcome to the forum. Let's look forward to discussions vigorous and fruitful - and respectful.
my experience is similar, which is NOT something I can safely say about the opera groups I've joined on facebook (which have some of the craziest, most histrionic and defensive people I've ever spoken with. talking to some of them felt like trying to give a lecture on nuclear physics to a teenage couple having an argument)
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