Leonard Warren: Opera Arias and Concert Songs
It was forty years ago (March 4, 1960 to be exact), that one of the most dramatic events occurred in the history of the Metropolitan Opera. On that Friday evening, the Met performed Verdi's La forza del destino, with a cast that included Renata Tebaldi as Leonora, Richard Tucker as Don Alvaro, and Jerome Hines as Padre Guardiano. The Don Carlo was the Met's reigning baritone, Leonard Warren. In the second act, Warren was in the midst of Carlo's great solo-a scene that begins with the words "Morir! Tremenda cosa!" ("To die! A terrible thing!"). Warren was about to launch into the rousing final moments, when he suddenly clutched at his chest and pitched forward to the stage. Leonard Warren had suffered a massive heart attack. At 10:30 that evening, Rudolf Bing, the Met's General Manager, stepped before the curtain and announced, "one of the saddest nights in the history of this great theater …I ask you to honor the memory of one of our greatest artists, who died in the midst of one of his greatest performances." Leonard Warren was 48.
A biography of this unique artist has been long overdue. Now, Leonard Warren: American Baritone is available, courtesy of Amadeus Press and Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, author of the superb single-volume biography of Giuseppe Verdi. The two-CD set under review, produced by the Leonard Warren Foundation and distributed by VAI, has been issued as a companion to the Phillips-Matz biography.
Any discussion of Leonard Warren’s artistry must begin with his voice, a true force of nature. The middle of the voice, mahogany-rich in timbre, ascended to a brilliant upper register that would have been the envy of almost any tenor. All of this vocal gold was couched in a flawless legato. Warren could have enjoyed a major career merely by allowing his magnificent voice to pour out over the orchestra and into the theater. It is a credit to this great artist, however, that he worked tirelessly to become an idiomatic and sensitive interpreter of whatever music he sang. As a result, a Warren performance was an uncommonly satisfying fusion of vocal splendor and dramatic intensity.
Take, for example, the penultimate selection on the first CD (devoted to recordings of opera arias). It is the great solo from the last act of Verdi's Macbeth. In the opening of the super-charged recitative ("Perfidi! All'Anglo contro me v’unite!"), Warren ideally captures the Scottish king's defiance. But, as Macbeth begins to realize the futility of his life ("Eppur la vita"), Warren brings the color of infinite sadness to his voice. The ensuing aria ("Pietà, rispetto, amore") is a miracle of legato singing, featuring variations of light and shade and a masterful application of rubato. All of these elements give the music a wonderful sense of flow and momentum. And, as if this were not enough, Warren caps the aria with an absolutely spellbinding A-flat. It is golden-age singing, by any standards. The fact that Warren recorded this music the year before his untimely death is testament to the vocal health of a singer who made a career performing the most demanding of baritone roles.
The joys to be found in the aria CD, featuring selections recorded between 1941 and 1959, are many. Leonard Warren was the greatest Verdi baritone of his day, and the Italian composer is well represented in music from "La traviata" "Falstaff," "Un ballo in maschera," "Rigoletto," "Otello,""Il trovatore," "Macbeth" and "Forza." Throughout, Warren handles the punishing tessitura of Verdi's music with breathtaking ease, all the while giving full value to the dramatic situation at hand.
Other highlights from the first CD include a superb "Nemico della patria" from Andrea ChÈnier, in which Leonard Warren masterfully builds the music to an overwhelming climax. There is also the justly famous Dapertutto's aria from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman, with its astounding G-sharp.
To be sure, the recordings also reveal some flaws. The lower portion of Warren's voice lacked color and focusthis shortcoming is particularly noticeable in the Ballo and Carmen arias. The patter in the Barber of Seville aria ("Ah, bravo, Figaro, bravo, bravissimo") is so clumsily mishandled that one wonders why a retake of this 1945 recording was not made. However, in the main, the aria selections feature a great singer at the top of his form.
The second disc, consisting of "Sea Shanties," "Songs of Rudyard Kipling," "Songs of America," "Italian Songs," "Irish Songs," "Songs of Love," and "Sacred Songs," is an unalloyed delight. Unlike some opera singers, Leonard Warren understood that the song literature is not merely a vehicle for grandiose vocal display. Certainly, the glory of the voice is evident in each selection. But it is remarkable that a singer with such a prodigious vocal instrument resists the temptation to play to the gallery. The recording of Tosti's "Ideale" for example, is perhaps the most restrained and beautiful I have ever heard. There are many visceral thrills as well. The climax of "Danny Deever" is absolutely hair-raising. And Warren's heartfelt and stirring rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is sure to inspire a tear or lump in the throat.
The transfers, mostly from RCA recordings, are excellent (curious, though that the Macbeth aria, part of a "Living Stereo" recording, is here issued in monophonic sound). Warren's rendition of Wolfram's aria from Tannh”user receives its first release outside of Russia. In addition, this set marks the first commercial release of three Italian songs, all beautifully sung. The accompanying booklet contains an essay by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, photos, and information on the various recordings. Texts and (where appropriate) translations are also provided for all of the selections.
K.M. (Aug. 2000)