Grace Bumbry & Christa Ludwig

Grace Bumbry & Christa Ludwig
Grace Bumbry

            Wikipedia mentions in passing that Grace Bumbry is comparable to Shirley Verrett in her transition from mezzo-soprano to soprano repertoire. While I was approaching Verrett from the assumption that she was a soprano, I approached Bumbry from the perspective that she was a mezzo-soprano. Incidentally, my conclusion for both singers was that though they were successful in both voice types, they were both definitely sopranos. My two full-length selections for Bumbry were a 1967 Amneris in Verdi’s Aïda and a 1974 Salome in the title role. My findings reflected even more extremely my insights on both Verrett and Ponselle.
            What I noticed almost immediately in Bumbry’s portrayal of Amneris was the extensive use of chest voice. The rich, throaty sound seemed quite natural and was thrilling as Amneris first comes onstage, accosting Radames and Aïda and questioning any secret liaison in “Quale insolita gioia nel tuo sguardo” and “Vieni, o diletta, appressati.” Similar to Ponselle and Verrett there was a very small zone above the chest voice range with a darker character, but the chest voice usage was more extensive (or at least apparent) than with those other two artists. I actually found this vocality to be quite effective because it provided a sort of molten yet unnaturally steely feel to the jealous, passionate, yet ultimately levelheaded character of Amneris.

            At the beginning of Aïda’s second act, of course, Amneris takes center stage as she confronts Aïda and ultimately seeks vengeance. I continued to be impressed with Bumbry’s portrayal, especially against the Aïda of Leontyne Price. The dichotomy between Bumbry’s vibrant, knife-like upper range and the haughty lower range were quite fitting in this section. It was in the third and fourth acts, however, where I began to see some issues. Amneris does little in the third act but even there, and especially as she moved into her big moments in the fourth act in her aria “L'aborrita rivale a me sfuggia” and duet with Radamès “Gia i Sacerdoti adunasi” the voice began to sound a little frayed and strained. It was not anything crippling to the performance but there was clearly wear, of course in a role that does require prolonged, big singing. What I was led to wonder is whether having the voice pushed into chest range so often and at such volumes put unnecessary strain on the instrument. Interestingly, reviews seem to support this. Admittedly some in her later years, Times and New York Times reviews describe her performances in mezzo-soprano roles such as Eboli in Don Carlo(s), Leonora in La forza del destino, Amneris herself in Aïda, and in concert repertoire as somewhat unreliable, often a bit brash and unrefined, and sometimes a bit worn. They usually did describe the performances as full of energy and the voice as lush, merely suffering from an overenthusiastic production curtailed neither for the sake of vocal health nor elegance.

When I started listening to Bumbry as Salome, certainly not a high or light soprano role, but one nonetheless, the difference was shocking. What I heard was, to me, an unmistakably soprano voice. Given the nature of Strauss’ music, giving exact musical numbers is more difficult. Suffice to say that Salome is almost constantly onstage, and onstage in the beginning of the opera for quite some time. Throughout the entirety of this first bout Bumbry’s voice soared with a steely squillando vibrancy that somehow felt appropriate in Strauss even though it might be more readily associated with Verdi. The chest voice technique appeared, but only rarely and it is, of course, something that sopranos do use. After the brief respite Salome enjoys in the middle of the opera Bumbry returned strong as before and finished out the opera without any of the strain apparent in her Amneris. Here too, reviews agree with what I heard. I did not find a review of her as Salome, but reviews of her in the title role of Tosca at Covent Garden suggest that her fiery stage presence combined with this vibrant, effusive singing to create a powerful portrayal. One review of a concert mentioned issues she had at the very height of her range, something that was apparent a handful of times throughout Salome, but the issues were covered well and never glaring or catastrophic.

            Bumbry’s career spanned extensive repertoire, perhaps of those I have studied so far second only to Maria Callas. In addition to her many successes as a mezzo-soprano she took on Verdi, Wagner, and Strauss soprano leads. Indeed, Robert M. Jacobson’s Opera People seems to suggest that, like Shirley Verrett, Bumbry was satisfied with her transition to soprano repertoire and felt she had mastered that voice type. While I was perhaps not as blown away personally by Bumbry as I was by Verrett and while the reviews present perhaps a more mixed picture of her performances, I am even more certain that Bumbry was definitely a soprano than either Verrett or Ponselle. The accuracy of my hypothesis that chest voice singing and the generally low tessitura of mezzo-soprano roles were damaging to the voice (even if only on a given night) is perhaps impossible to determine. What is certain is that it is impressive that in a TV broadcast that somehow composited both parts, Bumbry sang both Amneris and Aïda in the same duet and that she returned to the Wiener Staatsoper stage at the age of 76 in 2013 to sing in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades.

Christa Ludwig

            After, again and again, finding that women who have performed in both the soprano and mezzo-soprano repertories seemed like they were truly sopranos, perhaps who undertook mezzo-soprano roles before their dramatic voices reached maturity, it was refreshing to look at Christa Ludwig who, in my opinion, was decidedly a mezzo-soprano. I compared Ludwig as Octavian in a 1969 Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera against a performance with her in the role of the Feldmarschallin that same year at the Salzburger Festspiele. Incidentally and wonderfully for consistency, both were under the baton of Karl Böhm.

            As Octavian Ludwig’s voice was, expectably, squarely of a mezzo-soprano quality. What I had not realized, even having seen Der Rosenkavalier live, is the extent to which Octavian is onstage. Ludwig’s voice did not seem to possess the smoky, sultry color that often characterizes the most acclaimed Carmens or even many of the temptresses of the Italian repertoire. Instead it felt like a warm, almost mellow kind of chocolate. In the first act this fit perfectly well with the maturing but naïve character of Octavian. Intriguingly, Ludwig used a great deal of character voicing throughout the opera. This is of course not surprising given the repertoire and character, but even so the extent was somewhat unexpected. Using nasality to make the voice mocking, using different shades to express moments of beauty and moments of boyishness, and so forth, featured prominently, especially in the middle of the opera.
Ludwig’s own perspective on Octavian is interesting. In her memoir In My Own Voice, she discusses that she never liked playing trouser roles and particularly disliked the role of Octavian. His naïveté, though in my opinion an inherent and not cosmically bad part of the opera, disturbed her. She also found distasteful the many unprepared high notes, necessity of suppressing feminine traits, and fact that, in her opinion, a large part of the opera’s appeal is the unusual gender composition. In some ways, this perhaps does not surprise me. While the characterization (granted, gleaned only from audio) of Octavian was convincing and worked, Ludwig’s Marschallin felt more natural to me.

Speaking of the Marschallin, Ludwig mentions that role in her memoir as well, in its own section, describing it as “particularly dear” to her. She particularly seems to appreciate the Marschallin’s philosophy (or perhaps Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s philosophy) about life and time, in particular because she sang the role at around the same age as the age of the character. In her aggravation with trouser roles, her description of this “womanly philosophy,” and her acknowledgement that her darker mezzo-soprano voice lends a more womanly and motherly rather than aristocratic and refined shading to the character, it is clear that Ludwig greatly values her womanhood. (Certainly there is absolutely nothing wrong with such values, but it is intriguing that they were so strong as to steer her away from roles that might be in conflict with those values.) She mentions in addition to delineating these different sorts of Marschallins that she sometimes struggled with the very top of the range, particularly in the Act III trio.
While I was perfectly content with Ludwig’s Octavian, as mentioned I found her Marschallin somehow more natural, despite her voice being less naturally or less “correctly” cast in that role. As she suggests in her memoir, the first act monologue is gorgeous and lush, produced with the same chocolaty tone I described previously but allowed to flow more freely. Incidentally, I did not hear the range difficulty in the Act III trio, which means that Ludwig’s strategy of beginning “very gently, but with a heavier sound” actually did achieve the effect of “very high and… pianissimo” that she felt was appropriate for the piece but that she could not entirely produce. Perhaps in this regard she reflects the adage “you are your own harshest critic.” It was certainly interesting to hear the trio with a lighter soprano voice and two mezzo-soprano voices. I think it worked well and gives a different but viable interpretation. I confess, however, that from a basic orchestration point the shading of mezzo-soprano, heavier soprano, and lighter soprano is perhaps ideal. Still, one moment, even one so beautiful as that trio, does not make a role, and even there the uniqueness of the situation combined with Ludwig’s lush voice created a compelling Marschallin.
Opera People mentions Ludwig’s temptation to sing Wagnerian and Strauss soprano leads such as Leonore in Fidelio, Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, and even Isolde in Tristan und Isolde and Brünnhilde in Der Ring des Nibelungen, but apparently mentor (and acclaimed singer) Zinka Milanov and Ludwig’s own mother dissuaded her. In her memoir she reproduces a letter written to Herbert von Karajan detailing how strenuous and crippling a run-through singing Brünnhilde could be for her voice. Indeed, unlike Shirley Verrett or Grace Bumbry who both ultimately felt they were sopranos all along or had finally found their calling, Ludwig consistently describes herself as a mezzo-soprano throughout her memoir. Undoubtedly she performed big, particularly German, mezzo-soprano roles well. For a few soprano roles, particularly those carefully selected and close to her heart like the Marschallin, she was equally shining. If she was tempted by the Wagnerian and Strauss heroines – who could blame her with such a powerful, encompassing instrument?


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