José Carreras & Georges Thill
José Carreras & Georges Thill
Note: Finding recordings of and writings on Georges Thill was rather difficult in comparison with the previous singers I’ve studied. Rather than abandon the pursuit entirely, however, I decided to focus a bit more heavily on José Carreras by listening to three full operas and excerpts. For Thill I was limited to excerpted arias from a variety of sources and highlights of a Charpentier opera.
José Carreras’ career defies easy explanation because of the multiplicity of factors that defined both his technique and his repertoire throughout. It remains unclear if his progression from Bel Canto lyric repertoire all the way through spinto repertoire caused or was caused by a darkening depth in the voice even as it retained its fundamental characteristics. Many critics questioned the function conductors and fame played in role selection and a strong suspicion hangs in the air that the heavier roles damaged the voice. Finally, the extent to which Carreras’ leukemia around 1988 limited his career is unclear. I listened to a recording of Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra from 1975, a recording of La traviata live from Tokyo in 1973, a recording of Andrea Chénier released during Carreras’ illness but seemingly recorded before it (or at least before it was diagnosed), and outtakes primarily from the Three Tenors concerts. My findings suggest that illness took a toll on an already declining voice. Delineating the causes of that decline remains somewhat more difficult.
Of Rossini’s tenor roles, Leicester in Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra does not demand the proficiency with coloratura that, say, Almaviva does in Il barbiere di Siviglia. I do not know the opera well, but I could not shake the feeling that perhaps some coloratura sections had been cut for this recording, especially since Elisabetta has no dearth of coloratura. Intriguingly the recordings available (and there were a surprising number) of Carreras singing Bel Canto were in less popular roles. Though the few quicker passages did not seem the cleanest, with heavier glottal or aspirate onsets to set off the moving notes, this did not seem to be a huge impairment. It left me wondering, however, if Carreras really had the means to venture into roles requiring coloratura, and how many of these were cut for him. Otherwise, his performance was admirable if not quite polished. The high notes were there, the portrayal seemed dramatically appropriate, and the voice had the ringing cleanness of a young, virile tenor. On the one hand, there is something impressive about hearing a more substantial lyric voice tackle a role that sits high and has many “goal” high notes. Indeed, Carreras’ lyric voice, if in fact that is what it was, possessed an unusually dark timbre. On the other hand, it lacked the ease and fluidity that is expected of the greatest tenore di grazia. Though some online reviews of the CD suggest insecurity in the high notes, I did not hear any hint that Carreras struggled with them. I did, however, hear the possibility of an unhealthy approach. The sound was certainly thrilling, with a great deal of metallic ring, but I could not help but wonder if the production was close to a shout with just enough depth to make it pleasant and artistic, especially because it seemed very different from the rest of the voice. The sound was perhaps not as uncovered, or at least clearly so, as that of Giuseppe di Stefano, but it did seem to be somehow improperly shallow and forward (yet, somehow, not lacking depth of tone). This issue became more pronounced as the career went on, which is why I bring it up here. Particularly useful excerpts for this study were Leicester’s first entrance in Act I of the opera over several tracks, his Act II aria “Sposa amata,” and the finale of the opera. In all, Carreras handled the role well, if perhaps in a matter that was less stylistically elegant and free and with some potential issues in the top range due to a distinct tonal break that might have become increasingly unpleasant to observers and damaging to its producer.
While I almost hesitate to say so at risk of seeming to be jumping on a bandwagon, Carreras’ Alfredo in La traviata seemed to truly have him in his element, to stunning effect. It was here, however, that some of the surprising darkness in his tone became particularly apparent. From the opening of the opera in the Brindisi, the scuro side of the voice was particularly apparent. The net effect of this is a thrilling tone molten in its richness yet still bright. Seemingly this would be exactly the tone one would desire from a tenor. Even in the Act I aria ("Lunge da lei... De' miei bollenti spiriti" with “O mio rimorso” cut) the darkness is overwhelming. There is less disconnect between the high notes in parts than as Leicester, but the weight in the top seems misplaced. In Act II the effect becomes even more pronounced. It was in this La traviata where I began to become confused about Carreras; it was almost as though I was listening to some combination of Giuseppe di Stefano and Franco Corelli singing Alfredo. Perhaps it was like listening to the former try to sing the role after the fashion of the latter. Of the things to which I listened, Carreras was certainly at his best vocally and interpretively as Alfredo, and it was easy to see why people regard him so highly after hearing this relatively early recording. The voice is deeply rich in a way many lyric tenor voices are not without seeming heavy the way we might expect a spinto voice to be. Though in some places into the passaggio I wondered if too much weight (and yet somehow sometimes a seeming disconnect between the even darker tone below and the higher tone above) and over-darkening was being employed, I was left with the sense that the role was well within Carreras’ abilities and that he was offering a beautiful portrayal. Entering into this from the perspective of not really liking Carreras, this convinced me, so to speak.
It was intriguing, then, to look at Andrea Chénier, recorded in studio, almost ten years later. Opera People was a great resource for last week’s singers. This week it provides an interesting historical perspective, suggesting, “While Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore and Rodolfo in La bohéme are ideal, he has his eyes on Andrea Chénier and the mighty Verdi heroes… José Carreras is a meteor that we hope will burn brightly for decades to come.” Sadly, that reality did not come to pass. The book also makes the comparison between Carreras and di Stefano and details Herbert von Karajan’s role in pushing the tenor into heavier repertoire. Carreras’ performance as Andrea Chénier further confuses the matter of his voice. Where he sounded richly dark in the middle and lower range but secure if a bit disconnected in the top as Leicester and richly dark with a unified sound throughout the voice, if perhaps at the expense of too much weight in the passaggio as Alfredo, Chénier seems to have shed most of the richness from the voice, leaving a metallic, very forward, almost “thrown” sound. Of course "Un dì all'azzurro spazio" and "Come un bel dì di maggio" are benchmarks for performance in the role, though it requires beefy singing throughout. The width of Carreras’ vibrato certainly has increased by this point in the career, and though he sometimes shaded the top notes with more weight, there did at times seem to be a thinness in quality perhaps reminiscence of di Stefano’s over-opened singing through the passaggio. Carreras’ sound possessed some additional sort of raggedness, however. The opera’s finale in particular offers a useful study of the tenor’s approach to the higher range of the voice, showing his tendency to hook into the high notes with great thrust, perhaps to the detriment of the instrument.
Reviews available seemed to all fall around the late-80s to early-90s period and offered useful supplemental observations. The earliest reviews Carreras as Don Alvaro in 1983, noting as I did his seemingly unusually dark timbre for a lyric tenor and praising his tone while criticizing a less melodic and over-emotional performance. A 1984 review of a video of Turandot continues to describe the voice as lovely but suggests the role is straining at times. The next review in 1996 offers perhaps the most insight, especially comparing pre-illness and post-illness changes, describing, “Mr. Carreras seemed vocally pretty much back to where he was before his bout with leukemia. The big, serviceable, rough-edged delivery is intact, but there has been no retreat toward the golden sound that promised so much at the beginning of his career.” A 1996 review of a song recital calls the voice, “in a sad state after pushing the voice beyond its essentially lyrical resources,” and finally a review of a Three Tenors concert the same year describes the voice as, “wasted” and “leathery.” I certainly agree from listening to Three Tenors recordings that at this point Carreras’ voice was far gone, and the listening I have done, along with reviews, suggest leukemia was not the sole cause.
In Rossini, in light Verdi (as much as there is such a thing), and in Giordano Carreras presented a different side of himself at each turn, with each side interpretively successful. That said, he exhibited many signs of vocal-decline risk throughout. Perhaps the Rossini was a bit beyond a true lyric or even dark, rich, slightly larger lyric tenor voice, but it showed the lyricism of the instrument even while revealing the unnatural timbre. Alfredo seemed by far most appropriate, but even there it was unclear whether the richness Carreras possessed was natural or a result of some over-darkening. It also revealed Carreras’ approach to high notes, which seemed to oscillate between disconnected and over-opened and muscled up from below, and with a sudden burst of energy in either case rather than a smooth onset. Finally, Andrea Chénier was still enjoyable to hear, but the darkness seemed gone from the voice, replaced with a metallic, somewhat wildly forced sound that was at times rough. What caused what and which, if any, of these elements described in this paragraph led to Carreras’ decline is uncertain. Perhaps none of these auditory qualities actually made any difference and they are all merely results of the simple acoustic difficulty of contending with orchestras too large for the instrument. Even into the Three Tenors concerts Carreras certainly managed better than many tenors can claim. It’s clear, however, that far from being “a meteor that we hope will burn brightly for decades to come” Carreras’ “golden sound that promised so much at the beginning of his career” dissipated rapidly only a little more than a decade after his rise to prominence, aided by disease that we are nonetheless thankful he overcame.
Georges Thill unfortunately did not record many, or any, operas in full and his output is much less available through publicly available resources. Writings about his career are equally elusive. Still, I patched together an interesting portrait of the artist through highlights of Gustave Charpentier’s Louise, a compilation entitled Airs d’opéra Français, and other excerpts in my personal collection and on YouTube.
Thill’s appreciation for French music is clear. The excerpts from Louise, an unusual selection in the 1930s, show a range of scenes from arias to duets to ensemble pieces. What I discovered immediately with Louise was that whatever perception I might have formed during the session deciding to study Thill this week was inaccurate. While the production definitely has a French feel to it and it is stylistically more French than Italian, it is by no means a purely lyrical approach in the tradition that grew out of the haute contre but rather one firmly rooted in post-romantic technique with the necessary foundations for dramatic repertoire. Even in this unusual Charpentier repertoire it is clear that the singing employs moderate vibrato, not a laser-like, narrow vibrato. Thill certainly makes use of smooth, seemingly rich singing in his middle range. Some of the higher passages, however, definitely have the power and ring of at least a typical Verdian lyric tenor production, if not an even more dramatic voice. Interestingly, in this Charpentier he is often very declarative, singing in a way that is almost talkative (I hesitate to use the word “shouting” as it has very negative connotations; perhaps a projected, pitched stage voice would be the best analogy). The first track on the CD is probably the best for hearing the whole range on the disc. Overall it is enjoyable though the sound quality is not so wonderful.
The compilation of French pieces to which I listened further reflects Georges Thill’s appreciation of French repertoire and also less usual repertoire. It may be, however, that this also indicates a relatively more regional stature compared to other tenors. Here, the differentiation between repertoires is actually clearer than on the Charpentier. An aria from Gluck’s Alceste shows a more characteristic early French style, mellifluous, reserved, yet flowing. As the CD progresses, it becomes clear that Thill’s success in multiple repertoires is characterized by two factors: two slightly different styles of singing and an understanding of stylistic imperatives for lyric rather than heroic moments. Particularly brilliant is that this differentiation is apparent both on a macro-level between different repertoire and also on a micro-level at different moments within that repertoire. It would be fair to say that, in general, selections from La damnation de Faust, Faust, Roméo et Juliette, and Werther use a more lyric, smoother approach with Thill singing very easily and lyrically through the passages and, when possible, even taking high sections or top notes softly. Contrariwise, selections from Les troyens a Carthage, Le Cid, Carmen, Samson et Dalila and in a way Guillaume Tell employ a more robust tone. In both cases, however, Thill never ceases to consider which sections require declamatory phrasing and which are better suited by a flowing line. He employs pianissimi in both kinds of repertoire, though more in the lyric repertoire, and also seems to modulate his vibrato and tone quality based on the repertoire. Particularly in what I believe is probably the D4-A4 range he seems to be able to alternate between a more honeyed, syrupy tone and a more metallic, gripping ring.
Thill’s approach to more Italianate repertoire and more standard repertoire is much the same. The contradiction is that, though it is hard to tell exactly, he seems to have been a lyrico-spinto voice perhaps “truly” (say, in the middle of his career) decidedly on the spinto end, yet in the heaviest repertoire he never entirely abandoned French reserve or long legato lines (“Nessun dorma” would be a quintessential example). The latter may just be good singing, the former, however, is definitely remarkable. The only review I could find was actually an obituary noting his success in both lyric and dramatic repertoire but suggesting his high notes could be shaky unless he was in top form. The studio recordings to which I listened of course did not show this. I will admit that while the top notes seemed wonderful and ringing, he did seem to really attack them except when specifically executing a piano effect. I took this to mean that, like many heavier voices, he perhaps had to work for those notes even if the result was superb when he got there. Amazingly, while this in some ways was reminiscent of my complaint about Carreras hooking into the top notes, the same break in tone was not apparent here, it seemed consistent, just louder and more present than the rest of Thill’s range. As a closing note, I will mention that in a vague way, Thill reminds me of Jussi Björling, my favorite tenor and the inspiration for this project. A similarly brilliant ring mixed with just enough depth to make the tone appreciable gives me this impression. The voices are unmistakably different and Björling employed a more Italianate style. Unfortunately, Thill’s voice declined much more rapidly than did Björling’s (although judging that was cut short). I did not note much in my listening to suggest this, perhaps with the exception that the voice does seem to lack the viscerally raw power of someone like Del Monaco or Corelli, but instead relied on a very bright, perhaps overly open production. It may be that Thill and Carreras are not that different, after all, but the results of Thill’s recordings are decidedly more unified and make more sense, suggesting a more coherent technique. Based on what I heard, I would like to imagine that Thill was simply less durable than others or that it really was, as he believed, his lifestyle outside of singing that caused his decline, whereas, unfortunately, I really do believe technical flaws and role selection errors cut-short Carreras’ singing prime.