Centennial of Ferruccio Tagliavini a reminder of what we're missing

Last week saw another important date in this exceptionally anniversary-filled year -- the centennial of Italian tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini (Aug. 14, 1913 - Jan. 29. 1995) -- and I just had to take note, however belatedly.

I know I get way too caught up in milestones (blame it on my handy-dandy Boosey & Hawkes music diary), but there's something useful about being reminded of great artists and events from the past, especially the ones that seem to have been largely forgotten.

The world did not really need to make a fuss over Verdi and Wagner just because both were born 200 years ago, since those composers are very much with us every year. Still, their bicentennials did provide an opportunity to reassess the men and their music, or simply a good excuse to add more Verdi and Wagner to programming.

Same for Britten, whose centennial this year has prompted an extra dose of attention, all the more welcome since, on these shores especially, we could always use more of his music. 

I wonder if the Baltimore Symphony's extensive and rewarding Wagnerian blasts last season would have happened, or Britten's epic "War Requiem" this fall would have scheduled, had the 2013 anniversaries not provided such a good peg.

Ah, but I digress. Back to Tagliavini.

My guess is that this remarkable singer is not terrifically appreciated by today's opera-goers, let alone by many voice students (or many voice teachers). More to the point, Tagliavini's style of singing -- the style in his prime years, at least -- is so out of fashion that he might strike some listeners as strange.

His sweet, velvety timbre is a sound you just do not hear much anymore. I don't know if singers are simply unable to produce and sustain such gentle tones, or simply don't try. Maybe it never occurs to them to sing this way. The public, after all, gets more excited by the full-throttle approach, so there is a risk, I suppose, in taking a much subtler route.

I sure would dearly love to encounter the melting quality of a Tagliavini-type tenor person (that type is usually classified as "tenore di grazia"). I find this sort of elegance thoroughly disarming, and I am convinced listeners would react favorably to such styling if given more exposure.

So that's why I want to acknowledge the Tagliavini centennial. He is an artist very much worth remembering and celebrating. If you do not know his work, spend a little while combing through YouTube, where you will find lots of examples. The rare 1948 Massenet song I chose is but a taste.

It's not that everything he did was golden. In his later years, the voice coarsened, the style became less reliable, as he took on heavy roles that were not ideally suited to him. But in his prime, judging by the recordings (my only exposure to him), he made an endearing contribution to the history of singing.  

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