Focus Features

Legendary voices in song

[dropcap2 variation=”red”]B[/dropcap2]efore the advent of discography, songs were rarely included by opera singers in their repertoire but they made exception for folkloristic songs especially in Germany, Russia and England, which were deemed suitable for concerts and refined salons. Despite the success of Spanish song writers and the preponderance of the zarzuela, the folklore in Spain was neglected for a long time. In Italy, Neapolitan songs were so popular that opera singers of Southern Italy included them in their repertoire together with old Spanish songs. The latter were cherished by opera singers of Spain.With the berth of acoustic recordings, opera singers extended their field of artistic endeavour. Russian, Swedish, German and English folkloristic songs received particular impulse. In 1900, the tenor Davidov sang the Russian folklore immediately followed by Chaliapin. In 1901, Italian baritone Corradetti sang La Paloma, one of the very first songs to be recorded. In the early 1900, Spanish opera singers were singing La Partida and the Italians De Lucia and Caruso O sole mio. The tenor John McCormack recorded traditional songs in 1904 when he was hardly known yet.

With the development of electric recordings and the advent of sound movies in the late 1920s, the flood gates opened up. Maurel (the first Jago and Falstaff) had paved the way in 1901 as a celebrated baritone to record the likes of Maria Marì andMarechiare, Tibbett followed two decades later and obtained commercial success with Cuban Love Song, Schipa the same with La cumparsita, Donde estàs corazon and the eternalAmapola, Solari with the celebrated Wien du Stadt meiner Traüme, Fascino slow and De Muro Lomanto with no less than eighty Neapolitan songs.

There was also a myriad of one step, foxtrot and waltz dance tunes taken up especially by tenors, not  forgetting the appearance of famous opera singers on the silver screen in musical films: the tenors Tauber, Lauri-Volpi, Thill, Gigli, Schipa and later Tagliavini, Lugo, Ziliani, Manurita, Masini, the baritones Bechi, Gobbi, the sopranos Moore and Carosio. Tenor Pavarotti starred in the film Giorgio. In the past decade, he sang and recorded tens of songs, Vivere, Parlami d’amore Mariù, Voglio vivere così, La mia canzone al vento, Chitarra Romana and many others.

I chose five legendary opera singers in songs. The task was hard, to say the least. The criteria I used were: Primarily the vocality and intensity of interpretation by the singer, secondarily the melodious quality of the song and thirdly the song lyrics, accompaniment and tempi. My choices are: Chaliapin in Oci ciornia, Björling in Tonerna, Melchior in Serenade, Fisichella in Mattinata Siciliana and Bechi in Incantesimo.

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Feodor Chaliapin


Feodor Chaliapin was a Russian basso-cantante, perhaps the greatest singing and vocal actor in history. Boris (Boris Godunov), Dosifey (Khovanshchina), Susanin (The Life of the Tsar), Ivan the Terrible (The girl of Pskov), Konciak (Prince Igor), Salieri (Mozart and Salieri), the miller (Rušalka) and the demon (The Demon) were impressive examples. When he sang in Russian, he put on any of the tenor, baritone and bass’ colours. A cultured, mysterious and supremely genial nature.

[/three_fourth_last] [divider_padding] [one_fourth] Jussi Björling
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Jussi Björling


Jussi Björling was a Swedish tenor who conquered glory and fame especially at the Met, recorded aplenty and admirably. He embraced the Italian repertoire from Verdi (Trovatore) to all Puccini (especially Bohème and Tosca). He had a beautiful, round and coloured voice which excelled also in songs and odes. A lyrical nature, unsurpassed technique and vast even dramatic operatic repertoire.

[/three_fourth_last] [divider_padding] [one_fourth] Lauritz Melchior
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Lauritz Melchior


Lauritz Melchior was an American tenor, Danish by birth. He had the most sensational career known in history as a Wagnerian Heldentenor. His voice had a baritone quality, but his acuti were sonorous and brilliant. He embraced all the Wagnerian roles and ventured in other roles episodically except for a superb Otello. A dramatic nature and thrilling interpretation.

[/three_fourth_last] [divider_padding] [one_fourth] Salvatore Fisichella
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Salvatore Fisichella

b. 1948

Salvatore Fisichella is an Italian tenor who became particularly renowned in late 1900 for his Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti roles. He has an exhilarating timbre, seductive mid register and sumptuous bass. There is an extraordinary facility for high notes hurled like fascinating pings in the arias Di quella Pira and Nessun dorma. A sensitive nature and lirico spinto versatility.

[/three_fourth_last] [divider_padding] [one_fourth] Gino Bechi
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Gino Bechi


Gino Bechi was an Italian baritone who favoured the great roles of late Romanticism and excelled on stage as Figaro, Rigoletto, Amonasro (Aida), Tonio (Pagliacci, Hamlet and Gerard (Andrea Chénier). A follower of the great Titta Ruffo style and interpretation, he vaunted a voice full of luxuriance, power, dark colours but easy to climb to high notes. He recorded complete operas co-starring Gigli and Caniglia. An extrovert, generous nature and one of my favourite baritones.

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Oci ciornia (Black eyes) is a passionate Russian romance written by the Ukrainian poet and writer Yevhen Hrebinka. The first publication of the poem was in Hrebinka’s own Russian translation in Literaturnaya gazeta on 17 January 1843. Of the original melody author, Florian Hermann, not a single music score is known.

[fancy_box title=”Oci ciornia”]
Очи чёрныеBlack Eyes
чи чёрные, очи страстные!
Очи жгучие и прекрасные!
Как люблю я вас, как боюсь явас!
Знать, увидел вас я в недобрыйчас!
Невидалбы вас, не страдал бытак,
Апрожил бы жизнь улыбаяся.
Но увидел вас, потерял покой,
И весь мир забыл я для вас одной.
Очарован я, околдован я
Лаской нежною, взором пламенным.
Вы сгубили меня, очи чёрные,
Унесли навек моё счастье вы.
Black eyes, passionate eyes!
Burning and beautiful eyes!
How I love you, how I fear you!
It’s sure that I first laid eyes on you in a sinister hour!
Had I not seen you, I wouldn’t have suffered so,
But would have lived my life, smiling all the while.
But I saw you, and lost my peace,
And forgot all the world for you alone.
I’ve been charmed, bewitched
By your tender caress, your fiery gaze.
You have destroyed me, black eyes,
You’ve forever taken my happiness away.

The romance is a fervent declaration of love, mesmerised as he is by her black, passionate, burning and beautiful eyes. He wishes he had never laid eyes on her, having lost his peace and forgotten the world. He is bewitched by her caresses and feels completely distraught.

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Tonerna (Music) is a sweet little Swedish song written by Carl Sjöberg in 1892, with words by Eric Gustav Geijer.

[fancy_box title=”Tonerna”]
Tanka, vars strider blott natten ser!Discordant thought known only to night
Toner, hos eder om vila den ber.Seeks resolution in music.
Hjärta, som lider av dagens gny!The suffering heart, in the clamour of the
Toner, till eder, till er vill den fly.New day, finds solace in music.

The song is about the healing powers of music. Man almost religiously finds refuge and rest in music, a safe haven for troubled minds and hearts. One could call it escapism, whereby he is evasive about daily problems instead of confronting them.

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Serenade is a melodically rich and expansive ballad from The Student Prince operetta written by Sigmund Romberg in 1924 (lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly):

[fancy_box title=”Serenade”]

Overhead, the moon is beaming,
White as blossoms on the bough.
Nothing is heard but the song of a bird
filling all the air with dreaming;
Would my heart but still it’s beating,
Only you can tell it how, beloved;
From your window give me greeting,
Hear my eternal vow.
Soft in the trees lies the echo of my longing,
while all around you my dreams of rapture throng.
My soul, my joy, my hope, my fear,
Your heart must tell you that I am near.
List from above while I pour out my love
For you know through my life you are love’d.
Oh, hear my longing cry, oh, love me or I die!Overhead, the moon is beaming,
White as blossoms on the bough.
Nothing is heard but the song of a bird
filling all the air with dreaming;
Would my heart but still it’s beating,
Only you can tell it how, beloved;
From your window give me greeting,
I swear my eternal love.

The ballad is a heartfelt reflection on the surrounding calm of a moonlit night, only for her to hear his heart beating, the greeting of eternal hope and to hear that he is near. A passionate plea to hear him cry and love him lest he should die.

[/fancy_box] [divider_padding] Mattinata Siciliana (Sicilian morning) is a popular song in Sicily, written by Gaetano Emanuele Calì, with words by Giovanni Formisano.
[fancy_box title=”Mattinata Siciliana “]

Il sole è già spuntato in mezzo al mare
E voi mia piccola bella, dormite ancora…!
Gli uccelli sono stanchi di cantare
E infreddoliti aspettano qua fuori:
Sopra questo piccolo balcone si son posati
E aspettano il momento che vi affacciate.Su svegliatevi, non dormite più,
Perché in mezzo a loro, dentro questa via,
Ci sono pure Io che aspetto Voi,
Per vederne la faccia così bella.
Passo qua fuori tutte le nottate
E Aspetto il momento che vi affacciate.I fiori senza Voi non hanno vita
E sono tutti con le corolle penzolanti (teste abbassate)
Ognuno di essi non vuole sbocciare
Se prima non si apre(la porta di) questo balcone.
Dentro il bocciolo (i fiori) si nascondono
E aspettano quando Voi vi affacciate.

The song is a languid plea for her to wake up since the sun has risen on the sea and she is still asleep. The shivering birds are tired of singing and await for her, the flowers are lifeless and supine until the balcony door is ajar and she appears.

Note – The folklore loses its passion unless sung in Sicilian. It is normally accompanied by a small Sicilian orchestra with an original rhythm, almost a mazurka. Salvatore Fisichella himself made the arrangement for piano with a slower and dreaming rhythm in typically Sicilian vein. The song original title is: …E vui durmiti ancora.
[/fancy_box] [divider_padding] Incantesimo (Enchantment) is a popular song in Italy written by Olivieri, with words by Deani:
[fancy_box title=”Incantesismo”]

Sogno d’averti vicino ma tu sei il sogno lontan
Sei la mia dolce piccina anche se vuoto é il doman
Vorrei dimenticar la tua vision
Ma un’incanto mi lega a te nella passionSe in te sospiri un’ombra di mister
Che t’avvolge d’un fascinoso e serio a me
Sei tu che cerco invano di scordar
Mentre il core ripete ancor ti voglio amareT’amo ma tu non senti il mio richiamo
E forse tu non credi più a questo mio cor

The song is about a man dreaming to have her near him even if the future is void. He would forget her vision though an enchantment ties him to her, a mysterious shadow envelops both. Vainly he tries to forget but his heart longs to love her.


In singing popular and melodious songs, operatic singers make an immediate contact with the public well at large outside the relatively narrow circle of enthusiasts for opera and classical music. On recording the songs, they get to be known and leave tangible proof of their art, even if imperfect. Moreover, the temperament, talent and professional calibre of opera singers are revealed in songs no less than in arias. I hope you enjoyed these renditions.

[toggle title=”Notes”]Thanks to Helge K. Sæbo for providing the original Swedish and English translation of the Tonerna lyrics as well as comments on the song, tenor Salvatore Fisichella for an Italian translation of Mattinata Siciliana and general comments, Michèle Muller Grimonprez for the original Russian and English translation of the Oci Ciornia lyrics, Daniela Harris Filippeschi for comments on the Incantesimo lyrics, Yared Gomez for the mp3 on Serenade sung by Mario Lanza and assistance with the lyrics, Emile Keller for a discussion on Oci Ciornia, Ezio Maiola, Geoffrey Mallinson and Rodrigo Andres Zumaeta. [/toggle]