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Opera 1996

Flawless technique – Gedda at 70

The generation which preceded that of today's Three Tenors also produced three tenors who towered above their colleagues as masters of vocal style and elegance: Carlo Bergonzi, Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Gedda. They are still singing, and the oldest of them, Nicolai Gedda, celebrated his 70th birthday last July.

  Gedda is indisputably the most versatile of the three. Indeed, no other tenor of the past or present has begun to approach the breadth of his repertory, either on stage or in recordings. He has performed considerably more than 100 roles on opera stages throughout Europe and America, from Gluck to Menotti. A superb Mozart stylist, he has sung Tamino in Die Zauberflöte in German, French, Italien, English and Swedish. His Faust, Hoffmann, Pelléas, Roméo, Don José, Des Grieux and Werther have led many critics to acclaim him as the finest French tenor of his time, while he remains unsurpassed in Russian roles such as Lensky and Dmitry in Boris Godunov. Unusually for a tenor, he is modest and unassuming off-stage, with a lively sense of humour. He also does wickedly accurate impersonations of artists he admires, among them Otto Klemperer and Donald Sinden.

  Born in Stockholm of a Russian father and a Swedish mother, the young Gedda spent six years of his childhood in Germany, where his father was cantor of the Russian Orthodox Church in Leipzig. By the age of five he could read music and play the piano and later sang as a boy soprano in a children's quartet. Trilingual in Russian, Swedish and German, he subsequently learned French and English at school in Sweden. 'When I began to sing I knew I would require Italian, so I learned that by myself. Living in Scandinavia, I automatically learned Danish and Norwegian. Later I learned Spanish.' After he finished school in Stockholm, during his year of required military service he sang for his fellow-soldiers, but had no thought of a career as a singer.
  A customer at the bank where Gedda worked as a teller introduced him to Carl Martin Oehmann, the famous Swedish tenor of the '20s and '30s who had taught Jussi Björling. Gedda sang 'Una furtiva lagrima' for Oehmann, who, greatly impressed by the young tenor's voice, taught him for several months without fee. 'He taught me all the essentials, which I knew nothing about. The need to cover the passagio notes and the use of the chest. He taught me about the support of the voice and told me that my posture must always be erect, that it was very important on the stage or concert platform, to hold the chest as high as possible. Oehmann was immensely musical, and played the piano beautifully. Everything he explained I understood very quickly, and I made rapid progress with him.'
  After two months, Oehmann arranged for Gedda to compete for the Christine Nilsson Award at the Stockholm Conservatory. Gedda won the award, studied at the Conservatory for two years and was still a student when, at the age of 26, he was chosen to sing the leading tenor role in Adophe Adam's Le Postillon de Lonjumeau at the Royal Opera, a role whose entrance aria calls for a climatic high D. 'They took an enormous risk, building an entire new production around a mere student,' Gedda recalls, but fortunately his debut on 8 April 1952 was an enormous success, with front-page headlines in the Swedish newspapers hailing him as the Opera's 'brilliant new acquisition'. The leading British record producer Walter Legge had arrived in Stockholm with his wife Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who was giving a recital. He auditioned Gedda, who sang the Flower Song from Carmen for him. Legge recalled later that 'he sang it with such astonishing beauty of sound, all except the last note, which was too loud. I explained what I wanted to do, the swell followed by a diminuendo, and asked him to do it again. Again he sang it beautifully and did the ending exactly ad I'd suggested. My next question was whether he sang any Mozart, and he replied that he knew both of Don Ottavio's arias from Don Giovanni. And he sang both those arias more beautifully than I had ever heard them except by Richard Tauber and, on record, by John McCormack. I asked him to return later that day, as I wanted my wife to hear him. She was equally bowled over. That same evening I sent two cables, one to Karajan and one to Antonio Ghiringhelli, the Intendant of La Scala. They read: "Just heard the greates Mozart singer in my life: his name is Nicolai Gedda".'

  Legge snapped Gedda up for EMI recordings, among them Boris Godunov in which he sang Dmitry. ('That Boris recording opened the doors of the world to me.') The Paris Opéra engaged him for Weber's Oberon, and before the year was out Gedda had been offered concert engagements by Herbert von Karajan. He made his debut at La Scala, Milan, in 1953 as Ottavio in Don Giovanni, conducted by Karajan. Carl Orff chose him to sing in the first performance of his Trionfo di Afrodite with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and invitations flowed in from opera houses everywhere. Gedda made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1957 as Gounod's Faust, and sang regularly with that company for the next 25 years. A Kammersänger and a Nobel Gold Medallist, he was recently accorded the more dubious distinction of having a Eurotunnel locomotive named after him. (Some weeks earlier another locomotive, presumably a larger one, had been named the Luciano Pavarotti.)
  Gedda's vocal range is remarkable, enabling him to cope with the high-lying tessitura of such bel canto roles as Arturo in I puritani and Arnold in Rossini's Guillaume Tell. He is equally at home, and stylistically perfect, in Bach oratorios, German Lieder, Russian, French and Spanish songs, and the operettas of Johann Strauss and Franz Lehár. When he created the role of Anatol in Samuel Barber's Vanessa at the Met in English with an otherwise American cast, more than one critic claimed that Gedda was the only singer whose diction could be understood.
  Legge cast the young Gedda in recordings of a number of Viennese operettas opposite Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and in Il Turco in Italia with Maria Callas. 'I was not comfortable when I arrived in Milan.' Gedda recalled. 'I had never sung Rossini before, and here I was, singing with Callas, who was already a great star. It was very intimidating! Callas impressed me as a serious, conscientious artist. Frankly, I was not crazy about her voice. It sounded peculiar to me. But her personality was temendous. We got along very well, and several years later we recorded Madama Butterfly at La Scala with Karajan and later, in 1964, Carmen in Paris under Georges Prêtre. The most valuable lessons of the Turco sessions came from a real old-timer, dhe baritone Mariano Stabile. I had known of him as a great singer from the past he was Toscanini's favourite Falstaff and hat not expected to find him still singing. Stabile showed himself a true master of Rossini style, especially in the recitatives.'

Gedda as Anatol in Barber's Vanessa

  At Covent Garden Gedda appeared in a wide variety of roles, beginning with the Duke in Rigoletto in 1955. In the title role of Benvenuto Cellini, which he sang in three seasons in the '60s and '70s, the consensus of critical opinion was that he was simply magnificent, and when in 1981 he at last brought his celebrated Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore to the Royal Opera House, one reviewer asked 'What other tenor singing today can articulate a rhythm with such exhilarating precision or spin a line so subtly shaped?', while another thought that 'Una furtiva lagrima' had 'a taste of honey, a softness and delicacy achieved only by those who are pretty sure of a final ovation before they have even sung the opening bars. Gedda duly received and fully deserved it.'
  His concerts with the Welsh National Opera Orchestra last year in Birmingham and Swansea revealed that, although Gedda's vocal quality is understandybly no longer youthful, his flawless technique is as secure as ever, and his musicianship as exemplary. Last May, his Lieder recital in Vienna was enthusiastically received, and in October an operetta concert in the Musikverein with the Volksoper Orchestra found him in top form.
  If one askes Gedda who his favourite singers are, one is given a long list of names. As a young man, he loved Tauber and the operetta tenors of the '20s and '30s. 'I'm thinking, for example, of the great Herbert Ernst Groh and Marcel Wittrisch. When I was young, I didn't care much for Wagner, but I knew about Lauritz Melchior. I first saw him as an old man in the movies with Esther Williams. He was marvellous – absolutely wonderful. But of curse I didn't have the Melchior kind of voice.' Gigli, Schipa and Björling were other idols. 'What marvels Schipa managed with indifferent material by his intelligence and technique. As for Gigli, at that stage I didn't object to his occasinal lack of taste.' Bjöling, whom he knew, Gedda reveres as 'the true voice of the North'.
  He has a particular favourite among his leading ladies? 'I would begin with Victoria de los Angeles, perhaps because her personality is a little like my own – naturally reserved, on the melancholy side. She is not at all the tigress or lioness, never the screaming prima donna. A fantastic musician with an exquisitely beautiful voice. Mirella Freni I first came to know when we recorded La Bohème. She was very young, very charming, with typcial Italian exuberance and spirit. Another artist whom I love dearly is Galina Vishnevskaya, a superb singer with wunderful Russian temperament. Joan Sutherland, of couse, is unique. A great exponent of the bel canto roles and a wonderful personality. And Beverly Sills, the true professional, with a tremendous sense of humour.' And conductors? 'I started with the greatest – Beecham, Karajan and Klemperer. You didn't have to look at Karajan at all. The beat, the movement, the flow of the music were so clear, so logical, so beautiful, that you were with him. And it was a great experience to sing with Beecham and Klemperer. I adored them both. They were fantastic musicians, and with them I felt I could do no wrong. If they liked what I did, I knew it was right. With younger conductors it's not the same. Many of them are afraid of slow tempos, afraid of being thought dull. Beecham could be so slow – Klemperer was the same – and yet the music lived, the music was fantastic.'

  Gedda is scathing on the subject of trendy concept productions and of 'young punks' who mess about with the great operas. 'I'm shocked and disappointed if the producer deliberately destroys an atmosphere that the composer wished to communicate.' He makes comparatively few appearances in opera nowadys, but used to prefer working with producers such as Otto Schenk, 'a man of the theatre who loves music and is a musician', or John Dexter, and he greatly admired Peter Hall's Yevgeny Onegin at Covent Garden, in which he sang Lensky when he was in his late 50s, causing Harold Rosenthal to write in OPERA that he 'can sing rings round most tenors half his age' and that 'his account of Lensky's hauntingly beautiful aria before the duel was a model of its kind'.
  Geoffrey Parsons, who was Gedda's preferred recital accompanist for many years until his untimely death, described the tenor's voice as 'very, very exciting and totally musical: apart from the sheen so characteristic of his sound, there is the subtle refinement of his legato line and his phrasing, plus a range of colours so wide that it seems as if he were using a whole collection of different vocal instruments'. His wide vocal range is the envy of other tenors. Luciano Pavarotti has said that 'there is no tenor alive with a greater ease in the upper register than Gedda'.
  That upper register and that immaculate sense of style can be experienced most excitingly on a CD of Gedda in I Puritani with Joan Sutherland, recorded live in Philadelphia in 1963. But Gedda's versatility is such that it is impossible to recommend just one recording. His Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus (conducted by Karajan) and Lustige Witwe with Schwarzkopf, his Des Grieux in Manon with Beverly Sills, his youthful Dmitry with Boris Christoff must all be heard. A marvellous solo disc (EMI CDM7 69550-2) contains a most moving accout of Lensky's aria, as well as arias from operas by Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Weber, Wagner, Ponchielli, Donizetti and several other composers.
  In his 71st year, Gedda does not appear to be rationing his concert appearances, and he also enjoys teaching and passing on his knowledge to a younger generation of singers. 'I'm intensifying my teaching, but I've also got various concerts all over the place.' He is touring Australia and Japan later this year, he will be in London to give a concert with Carlo Rizzi and the orchestra at the Royal Opera House on March 28, and a recital at St John's, Smith Square, on April 11. He will return next year to sing a cameo role in the Royal Opera's new production of Pfitzner's Palestrina.
Long may this great artist continue to delight his admirers all over the world.

Charles Osborne