Happy Birthday, Leontyne Price!

Price RCA 090266390823

HANDEL: Atalanta: Care selve. Agrippina: Bel piacere e godere. Giulio Cesare: Piangero la sorte mia si crudele. BRAHMS: Ziguenerlied. GIORDANO: Andrea Chenier: La mamma morta. POULENC: Miroirs brulants: Nos. 1 & 2. Main dominee par le cœur. Metamorphoses: No. 2, C’est ainsi que tu es. BARBER: Nocturne. The Daisies. Sleep Now. HOLBY: Songs for Leontyne: No. 4, Winter Song; No. 5, In the Wand of the Wind. TRAD.: His Name So Sweet. My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord. Lord, I Just Can’t Keep From Cryin’. He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. PUCCINI: La Rondine: Chi il bel sogno di Doretta. Tosca: Vissi d’arte. GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess: Summertime. CILEA: Adriana Lecouvreur: Respiro appena…Io son l’umile / Leontyne Price, sop; David Garvey, pno / RCA Red Seal 090266390823 (live: New York, February 28, 1965)

Happy Birthday, Mary Violet Leontyne Price!

The old girl is 94 years old today. Neither racism nor competition, old age, pains or Covid-19 can stop her. She takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. When asked a few years ago if she still vocalized very day, she said, “Of course I do. It’s the only part of my body that still works without Blue Emu, Aspercreme or Ben-Gay!”

Hardly anyone under the age of 60 will ever believe what an incredible celebrity she was in her prime. I still remember, as a teenager going to New York on the bus in 1967-68 (I couldn’t drive yet) to see occasional performances in New York, how her picture filled up those huge poster-sized ads on either side of the subway tunnels. Leontyne in an ermine coat, or wearing a bucket of jewelry, larger than life. And the advertisers didn’t even have to put her name on the ads. All they said was, “What becomes a legend best?” Everyone knew who the legend was.

Of course she had obstacles on her way to the top. Even at a time (1954) when African-American soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs was already at the Metropolitan Opera, singing those high coloratura roles that were a half octave above Leontyne’s range, she was appearing on television singing Tosca—but did not yet have a Met contract. Word on the street was that the Met’s general manager, Rudolf Bing, was definitely going to bring her there, so in 1959 RCA Victor signed her to a 10-year contract and started recording her, first in Il Trovatore with Met stars Richard Tucker, Leonard Warren and Rosalind Elias, then in Verdi’s Requiem with Elias, Jussi Björling, Giorgio Tozzi and conductor Fritz Reiner. The latter was issued in RCA’s prestigious “Soria Series.” She sang Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni at the Vienna Opera under Erich Leinsdorf. But she still wasn’t at the Met. That didn’t come until 1961 in Verdi’s Aïda, and Bing hedged his bets against her receiving a poor reception by also debuting glamour-boy tenor Franco Corelli in the same performance. But it didn’t matter. Leontyne was a smash success.

Beyond Aïda, however, Leontyne encountered a strange sort of reverse racism. The critics loved her in Aïda because for once they had an Ethiopian princess who actually looked Ethiopian, but some had trouble accenting her as a Spanish doña in Trovatore or Ernani, and even more trouble when she appeared in “whiteface” as the young Japanese girl Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly.

Oddly, Price’s repertoire consisted of only a dozen operas (two of them outliers, Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra and Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Caremlites) plus the Verdi Requiem, yet she built a 17-career around those works. The voice began to have problems in 1977, in part because she laid so heavily into the top range that her lower range had become somewhat hollow and disconnected. By 1981 she stopped singing stage performances and stuck to recitals, which she performed for another decade.

But this recital, given in 1965, shows a soprano in full command of her voice, in part because she lightened it considerably for this performance. Indeed, throughout the first part of it, the Handel arias and Brahms Gypsy Songs, you’d almost think this was the Leontyne Price of 1954-55. The singing is not always subtle, but it is extraordinarily beautiful and the voice sounds fully integrated. Price’s greatest asset as a singer was her strict fidelity to the music. If the score said a quarter note, she sang a quarter note, if an eighth note she sang an eighth note. Nothing was ever stretched out of shape to show off her breath control or how long she could hold her high notes. She was a musician first and foremost, and this recital proves that. Other sopranos might have laid more heavily into the drama of “La mamma morta,” held onto the high notes for all they were worth, but not Price. A quarter note was a quarter note and an eighth an eighth, no more and no less. Yes, she gives a few interpretive touches to the words, but for her the music was sacrosanct. Bless her for that, many times over. In that respect alone, she was an important pioneer in the history of opera.

Yes, her singing of Poulenc is a couple of degrees too loud…French chanson was really not her thing, even though she did sing the composer’s Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Met. But even here, in the middle of “Tu vois le feu du soir” she suddenly lightens the voice as she did in the Handel and Brahms at the beginning of the recital. Maybe it was this shifting of gears in her voice production that eventually pulled the voice apart. Although she had very good training when young, a lot of what Leontyne did was instinctual and natural. You can tell as much from her frank, open and unmannered singing of the three Samuel Barber songs, reminding one of her early Columbia recording of that composer’s Hermit Songs.

Lee Hoiby’s 8 Songs for Leontyne Price (she only sings two of them here) have modern-modal harmonic leanings but are essentially lyrical pieces well suited to the soprano’s voice, and she responds beautifully here to two of them. Next up is the group of four spirituals. Unlike Marian Anderson, to whom singing spirituals did not come naturally (she was raised in a religious environment that didn’t include them), Price has a real swagger and bounce to her singing of these that is infectious even if you don’t buy into the religious context. (I got a kick out of her introducing Florence Price’s arrangement of My Soul’s Been Anchored by saying that Florence was “not a relative.”) Margaret Bonds’ arrangements of the last two spirituals is much more harmonically sophisticated than the first two.

Price ends the concert with an encore performance of “Vissi d’arte” from one of her signature roles, that of Floria Tosca. Opera fans and critics of the time preferred Maria Callas in this role, and Callas certainly gave the more riveting overall performance, but Price had her glorious voice and her musicianship to offer by way of compensation.

An excellent recital and a good way to remember this remarkable soprano.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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