Eleven years ago, in the automn
of 1955, Nicolai Gedda, a youthful Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto, last
appeared at Covent Garden. Now, a world-famous and mature artist, he returns
to London for the new production of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini.
'I am looking forward very much to this production, especially as Cellini is one of my favourite parts,' said Gedda. 'When this role was offered to me five years ago for the Holland Festival production, I became absorbed in the historical figure of the 16th-century Italian goldsmith and sculptor. It is notable that Goethe himself translated Cellini's memoirs into German.'
I heard Gedda's Cellini in Geneva in November 1964 and was especially impressed with the way in which he managed, thanks to his admirable voice-control, to identify clearly the specific facets of character of this Renaissance personality: from tender love to brutal murder. He can encompass every shade of musical expression, can follow a delicately breathed and intoxicating pianissimo with a powerfull, ringing forte, and can rise to C or even D flat!
Characteristic of this conscientious artist is his precise study of each part. That is why he is especially attracted to psychologically interesting and complicated characters, such as Hoffmann, Faust, and Dimitri in Boris Godunov. Following the enthusiastic acclamation of the New York press as 'The Faust of all Fausts' and the recent wild applause of Milan fans following his appearance with Giaurov and Mirella Freni in the same work, he has agreed to appear as Faust in an American television film in the summer of 1967. This has caused headaches in many of the world's leading opera houses: the film will prevent Gedda from appearing in any other performances for two months. The Bayreuth Festival is especially hard hit, for Gedda was supposed to sing Lohengrin there, a part he sang for the first time this year at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. 'I like to sing this Wagner part occasionally', Gedda told me, 'but not too often: I want to retain the light character of my voice and to be able to continue singing Mozart, oratorio and lieder in future.'
Gedda as Lohengrin
That the radiant and fascinating charm of his voice
remains unimpaired can be heard from his latest gramophone records: Belmonte
in a new recording of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Ritter
Hugo in Lortzing's romantic opera Undine and Don Ottavio in Don
Giovanni under Klemperer. When I met Gedda in August this year in the
Rome Opera, he was again standing in front of the micorphone. An oppressive
heat filled the auditorium but Nicolai Gedda did not seem to notice it.
After he had sung 'Una furtiva lagrima' from Donizetti's L'Elisier d'amore
one of the orchestral violinists remarked enthusiastically: 'Nobody since
Gigli has sung this aria in such a way.' His colleagues Renato Capecchi
and Mario Sereni clapped him enthusiastically on the shoulder: 'Tenore
primo, Nicolai, tenore primo!' The 'tenore primo' smiled modestly: 'I have
really worked hard. Those to whom God has given a fine voice are also burdened
with the duty of training it and caring for it.'
Away from his work Gedda has plenty of hobbies to keep him occupied. He is a passionate sportsman, an expert in painting and sculpture and very well informed about literature, especially as he reads the works of the great novelists in the original in the seven languages which he commands. His favourite mental relaxation, however, is to visit zoos. Animals are what he likes best. 'What I would really like to do is to keep a complete menagerie in my home, but unfortunately I am at home much too seldom to look after animals properly.' Recently he was invited to stay at the London home of a friend who owns a parrot. The normally shy creature immediately settled on his shoulder and allowed itself to be stroked and petted the whole evening. As Gedda prepared to leave, the bird started to make pitiful noises, obviously not wanting to be parted from its new friend. Today, weeks afterwards, Gedda still thinks tenderly of that little episode.
Gedda can only spend a few weeks a year with his
pretty young wife Anastasia, an American of Greek origin, in their villa
near Stockholm. He was born on 11 July 1925. His mother is Swedish; his
father, who died a few years ago, was Russian (a Don Cossack), by profession
an organist and choirmaster. Under his direction the five-year-old Nicolai
sang in a boys' quartet in the Russian Orthodox Church in Leipzig. His
father was the musical director there for six years, until the family returned
to Sweden in 1934. Gedda was educated at the Katarina Secondary School
and the famous old Södra Grammar School, matriculated and became a
bank official. In secret, however, he had only one ambition: to become
Among his regular clients at the bank was a member of Stockholm's Royal Opera House Orchestra. Gedda confided in him and was advised to seek an audition from the famous tenor Carl Martin Oehmann. This Gedda did and chose one of the most difficult arias of the whole operatic repertory. He sang 'Una furtiva lagrima'. Oehmann was highly impressed and enthusiastically accepted him as a pupil. Two months later he had made such progress that he succesfully applied for a grant and succeeded in winning the Christine Nilsson Prize. This scholarship enabled him to study at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Stockholm from 1950 to 1952
| His exceptional vocal range gave the
Administrators of the Stockholm Opera the idea of presenting as a showpiece
for his operatic début Le Postillon de Longjumeau by Adophe
Adam, a work hardly known in Sweden. After two months' rehearsals, on 8
April 1952 Nicolai Gedda first appeared on the stage in this precarious
tenor part. His success was the sensational start to a rapidly ascending
career. Two months later he had concluded his first recording contract,
appearing alongside Boris Christoff and singing Dimitri in a complete recording
of Boris Godunov. Before the year ended he had already completed
his second recording singing the tenor part in Bach's Mass in B minor
under Herbert von Karajan. It was Karajan, too, who engaged him for La
Scala only nine months after his début at the Stockholm Opera. His
Don Ottavio in Mozart's Don Giovanni aroused such respect that Carl
Orff immediately offered him the part of the Bridegroom in the first production
of his opera Il Trionfo dell'Afrodite at La Scala.
In the following years Gedda sang at the leading theatres of Europe including the Paris Opéra and Covent Garden. In 1957 he appeared for the first time at the Salzburg Festival as Belmonte in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail and following that he conquered New York returning triumphantly every year to the Metropolitan, the confirmed favorite of New York critics. No wonder that he was allowed the honour of being the last singer to stand on the stage of the old Met: on that memorable gala evening it was his appearance in the finale from Faust, on which the curtain fell.
Many people think of Gedda as a typical Italian,
because of his inimitable phrasing, the sensuous timbre of his voice and
his impeccable Italian diction. In fact, his greatest successes have been
in Italian roles. His Duke in Rigoletto remains unchallenged, famous
throughout the world. The Berlin audiences, knowledgeable and used to the
best, applaused as madly as the New York fans for minutes on end after
'La donna è mobile' and 'Ella mi fu rapita'.
Gedda is today much too strong a personality, and the possessor of much too individual voice, bo be simply compared with any of his great predecessors. If I were to be asked in whose company he could stand, I would say without too much reflection: between Tauber and Gigli. It is interesting to compare their gramophone records. Gedda sings Mozart differently from Tauber but he shares his love of Austrian operettas and sings Lehár and Johann Strauss with the same enthusiasm. He has also the same favorite composers: Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, Massenet and Schubert. He has Gigli's cultured vocal style and perfected art of phrasing and inflection.
In one thing Gedda has an advantage over all his colleagues: he is the cosmopolitan par excellence, as much at home in Rome, Stockholm or Paris as in New York, Moscow or London. His origin, education and career have brought him into such close contact with all kinds of cultural styles that he can reproduce them with something of his own added, whether it be a simple song by Schubert or a bravoura aria by Verdi, a sentimental plaint by Mussorgsky or a sparklingly elegant aria, full of French esprit, by Berlioz or Massenet. This multiplicity of facets has earned him his present distinction and fame.