Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Conrad L. Osborne: Best Opera Critic Ever

If I were in the publishing business, one thing I'd be trying to push through would be a collection of the opera and record criticism of Conrad L. Osborne. (This may guarantee that I'll never be in the publishing business, but let that pass.) From about 1959 to about 1969 Conrad L. Osborne was the regular critic of opera recordings for High Fidelity, which was the best record-review magazine in America and probably the world. Osborne continued to write occasional pieces for High Fidelity until it collapsed in the early '80s; since then he has done some writing -- he has terrific discographies of Faust, Tosca and Aida in the Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera -- but he has mostly worked as a singing teacher and actor. Apart from that I don't know a lot about him; maybe someone else can fill in the details.

What I do know about Osborne is that his reviews for High Fidelity represent some of the best criticism ever written about opera, about recording, and above all about singing. As a singer himself (a baritone), Osborne knows an incredible amount about voices and how they work, and manages to convey that knowledge to laymen like me in a way that's enlightening, funny, and fascinating. He's tough -- unlike many critics, he never overlooks a vocal flaw or downplays the importance of a singer's bad technique -- but he's fair, in that he always gives a singer credit for what he or she does well and never criticizes things that aren't there. His discussions of the works themselves are just as good. I would write more about his superb writing, but then I'd run out of room to quote it. Here are some of my favourite quotes from Conrad L. Osborne's High Fidelity pieces.

From "A Plain Case For the Golden Age" (October 1967), on why singers from the early days of recording really were better than today's. Osborne writes about a recording by Pasquale Amato and tells us, with very specific detail, what makes it so good:

The first section of "Eri tu" is rendered in a splendidly firm, strong-lined legato, the words crystal-clear; it comes to an end with a decrescendo and portamento down from the top F on "guisa," a most expressive turn and acciaccatura on "primo," and a fermata at the end of the phrase. The cantabile portion is quite straightforward (topped by a thrilling G) until the "e finita," from which point Amato treats the phrases as sections of a cadenza, rushing headlong donw from the F sharp on "non siede che l'odio"; executing a gorgeous mezza-voce fermata and portamento on "vedovo cor", full of mournfulness; then swelling the top F ("O speranze") from mezzo-forte to ff and breaking it off with a sob; lingering in a beautiful Mezza-voce on the turn; then returning to tempo for the final "d'amor's." The thing is, it works. It does not sound phony, but genuine; not softly indulgent, but manly; not unmusical, but eminently tasteful.

...What interests me is not only that Amato chose to sing "Eri tu" as he did, but that he was able to, whereas we do not actually know what the range of expressive possibility within a more modern style might be, since even our best baritones are relatively hemmed in by technical limitations. You do not play with dynamics and colors when your choice of volume level or balance is limited to one or two options; you do not maintain a firm line and even scale if one area of your voice works noticeably less well than another; you do not communicate with words if your vowel formation is indistinct to begin with.

Lest you get the idea that Osborne is the operatic equivalent of a baseball fan who says players were better in the good old days (he proudly makes the comparison himself at the beginning of the essay, adding: "It is just possible that Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb weren't a whit better than Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, but Pinza and Chaliapin sure as hell were better than (enter name of your favorite bass) and all that is required to prove it is the lowering of a stylus into a groove"), here's his review of Renata Scotto in a then-contemporary recording of Madama Butterfly (1967)

Miss Scotto is one of those singers whose personal qualities outweigh the vocal ones. She is a traditional Italian soprano, in the sense that she will more often than not select the same sort of coloristic device, the same kind of inflection, that one might well have heard from many another soprano in the past, from a Muzio or Favero or Albanese. One is never startled by the originality of her conception; the accenti are in place. But what Miss Scotto manages is to persuade the listener that these devices are being created afresh, that they are not merely bits of a stylistic accretion but the direct result of her personal understandings and reactions. In other words, she justifies them. Her use of them is never annoying, because in never sounds learned or swabbed on from the outside. To watch her or to listen to her is to be aware that one is in the presence of the authentic article, the type of artist for whom all the old tricks came into being in the first place. Consequently one understands the old tricks again, and is moved. This Cio-Cio-San is the best thing Miss Scotto has yet done on records. One would say that every young soprano should study it, except that then they will all go off doing their imitations of the "real Italian style" rather than trying to get at the impulses that brought it into being, and we will be spending many more faintly unpleasant evenings, wondering why Puccini bothered to set this play to begin with.

One more, from a truly extraordinary piece called "Diary of a Cavpag Madman" (June 1979). Reviewing a very mediocre recording of Pagliacci starring Luciano Pavarotti, Osborne wrote a long, funny, almost stream-of-consciousness piece about Pavarotti's ascent to pop-stardom and the descent of opera recording (and, in many ways, opera itself) into blandness. Here he writes about Pavarotti and his decline since an early, brilliant performance in Lucia di Lammermoor:

Musings on Luciano's Progress. I think he'd want us to call him Luciano, don't you?.... Now here's Luciano singing the Duke in a big splash of a Rigoletto.... still pretty good, at points brilliant, but the tops of some phrases ("saro per te in the duet, the big toughie in "Parmi veder") do have a disappointingly constricted sound. He moves with an oddly dainty gait. In the last act, he makes a point of feeling up Maddalena while leering cutely at the audience. Luciano has learned to keep on being Luciano while the opera is trying to take place. The audience would rather see Luciano than an opera, so it's total success.

....Later yet, at a Boheme, i really can't hear Luciano's top at all, except when the accompaniment is vide or he happens to catch hold of a phrase riding nicely from below, as at the opening of "O Mimi, tu piu." To put it bluntly, it's a bust, but the audience reaction is wild -- this is a personal appearance event. I begin to form a rather unappetizing image of a huge, mincing galoot with a pretty, medium-sized voice that can't make climaxes, kneading his handerchief and appealing to the audience for sympathy for all his hard work and sweet personality.

Since then I have heard Luciano sing high and small, low and large.... On all the TV shows, it's of course much harder to tell about the balance of the voice. But you can tell that singing, good or bad, is tough labor (indeed, Luciano shows off the labor just a bit) and that Luciano is a genuinely likable and amusing man with a sharp sense of his own appeal. Also that he has lost weight. Artistic failures and successes cease to have any relative values, since the audience and colleagues are parts of the act and behave as if each effort produced a triumph of absolutely equal and preditable proportions. The thought does occur that "live" audiences are learning the lesson.

Final query before listening to alleged Pag. How does it happen that a charming and popular lyric tenor, marvelously suited to parts like Edgardo, Alfredo, Faust, and Werther when in peak condition, decides that such roles as Calaf, Canio, Cavaradossi, Manrico, Radames, and Enzo are his Fach at the very time, almost to the hour, that his upper range is losing its juice and open-throatedness? The timing is devilish.

There are many other examples, perhaps better examples; those were just the ones I happened to pick, almost at random. Most of Osborne's reviews (though none of his articles or discographies) were reprinted in the High Fidelity yearbooks, called "Records in Review"; these are out of print but can still be found in university music libraries (which also usually have the back issues of High Fidelity). Pick up one of those books, and you'll find that any review followed by the initials C.L.O. is bound to be a treat. Come on, someone -- how about publishing a Conrad L. Osborne Reader?


Anonymous said...

Just came across this post three years later. I have loved Osborne's opera-on-records commentaries since I read the original issues of High Fidelity as they were coming out. He taught me how to listen to singers, and I've parlayed that into a huge collection of records and even occasional work as a radio commentator. I literally can't think of anything more desirable in the publishing world than the collected C.L.O., who, as the original post correctly shows, could write about singers and opera like nobody else in the English language in the past 50 years. You have to go back to the commentators of the early 20th century to find their like. People just paid much closer, more analytical attention to operatic singing back then, and Osborne was the last of that line, in my experience. Compare him to the Gramophone's John Steane, perhaps the most prominent conoisseur of opera voices writing in English now, and you see the difference right away.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. I probably learned more about singing and recorded opera by reading his High Fidelity reviews (which were more like essays). I was especially impressed by how he always backed up his remarks with direct references to the scores. Several years ago I called him in NYC to thank him personally for the education I received from him.

His collected reviews would make a wonderful volume.

Anonymous said...

I'm just coming across this blog post in 2011, and I think this is a very good idea. I don't know of a better, fairer or more knowledgeable critic than Conrad L. Osborne (not even the redoubtable Andrew Porter). His essays on all the available Mozart and Wagner recordings (at the time) are still worthy of reprinting.