Kashu-do (歌手道): Sondra Radvanosky and Gregory Kunde: Big "High" Voices of Bel Canto’s Past

It is not often that I write articles about currently active singers.  I am not a critic and I don’t want to make current professional’s lives more difficult than they already are.  But this is not such a case, but rather the contrary.  These are two singers that in my estimation represent a type of singing we do not hear very much of, not because the voices do not exist, rather because the categories of tenors and sopranos who sing big Bel Canto repertoire (what we could call Dramatic Coloruaturas, tenors included) are severely misunderstood.

I heard Greg Kunde some years ago and I was floored at the power of the voice singing what we have come to think of as repertoire for smaller voices.  He was singing Rossini!  Greg is the only tenor I know who managed to sing both the Rossini and Verdi Otellos in the same season.  Truthfully, it is difficult to come up with any name of a tenor who sang both roles with equal success.  Yet in the same year Greg came out with this little ditty:

Sondra Ravdanosky has been filling the Metropolitan Opera with such dramatic roles as Tosca and Norma (the latter totally in line with her Bel Canto history), but she can be found on youtube singing a glorious Violetta capped with an effortless high Eb:

Both singers carefully crafted their careers singing repertoire that lies in a higher tessitura than the average spinto soprano or tenor.  That is because despite the size of their voices, they are not spintos in the true sense.  Their voices “bloom” higher.  Once could say that they have thick (vertically) vocal folds but somewhat shorter compared to spintos.  Their muscular passaggi are higher even though they make similar acoustic choices when compared to spintos.

Because traditionally “heroic” bel canto roles like William Tell and Dramatic Coloratura roles like Queen of the Night or Constanze or Donna Anna (think of Edda Moser) are sung, these days, by relatively lighter voices, the big-voiced, high tessitura singers are too often mistaken for their spinto counterparts.  When we look at Radvanosky’s repertoire, we find Bel Canto at it’s center.  High-lying roles like Donna Anna, Lucrezia Borgia, The Donizetti Queens, Verdi’s Belcanto Operas including Vespri Siciliani, Ernani, Trovatore (all requiring high tessitura and fioratura) and of course, La Traviata.  As the soprano’s voice grows in strength and can sustain greater volume in the middle range, she added such parts as Aida and Tosca and of course Norma, a role she was probably destined to call a signature part. The flexibility of the voice in the traditional passaggio gives her voice a peace in such noble and subtle roles as Suor Angelica, Tatyana and Rusalka. Indeed, as gorgeously pleasing as those roles are in her beautiful resonant voice, when I hear her sing them, I often wonder if she is not singing them a third lower than original, because her voice indeed blooms higher.  She is now exploring some of Verdi’s lower-lying roles such as Amelia in Ballo and the Forza Leonora.

The genius of Radvanosky is that she and her advisors understood that roles of lower tessitura such as Tosca and Norma (even though a Bel canto role, it lies a bit lower) would become more thrilling when the voice became stronger in the middle.  Voices with that kind of radiance (resonance) and easy power could easily be confused for heavier.  It is worthwhile to compare her magnificent Tosca with that of another one of my other favorite Toscas–Violetta Urmana.  This tells it all!  These are two magnificent voices, but different.  The way Callas and Tebaldi were different.

I have experienced both of these magnificent artists at the Met in this role, and I can attest that the experiences are totally different.  Yet, both voices carry with incredible power in the house–Different kinds of power!  Radvanosky’s Tosca has a gentle flexibility that sears every corner of the house with palpable energy, while Urmana is the traditional spinto who sends great waves of sound that throw you out of your chair.  I truly do not have a preference because they are both truly magnificent in ways that can only be experienced in the house.  Germane to this article however is that they are two different kinds of voices whose repertoires cross at a Tosca juncture.

Could we experience Sondra Radvanosky as Turandot, Abigaile, Lady Macbeth, Salome and eventually the high-flying Walküre Brünnhilde  (all those roles have very high tessituras)?  With her characteristic care in chosen repertoire, I predict this singer will last a long time and will thrill us with many new roles with a very fresh voice.

Lately I have come across quite a few big high soprano voices like that in my studio and whenever they ask for a current voice to listen to, I send them to Sondra Radvanosky.

The male version of this equation is no less spectacular.  Greg Kunde’s “elastic voice” (to use a favorite term of Pavarotti’s when describing his own voice) can be experienced on Youtube singing most of the classic bel canto tenor roles in such works as Rossini’s William Tell, Ermione, Otello, Tancredi, etc…, Bellini’s Puritani and Capuletti and Norma, Donizetti’s Fille, Pasquale, Lucrezia Borgia and many others.  In his second period, Greg has had great success with Vespri Siciliani, Ballo in Maschera as well as Otello and beyond the Italian repertoire, a huge success in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine recently.  It is not by accident that we see similarities in the repertoire that these two singers have sung.  Big sound with agility and flexibility and especially great comfort in a stratospheric tessitura.

Like I compared Radvanosky to Urmana, it is a worthwhile exercises to compare Greg’s Verdi Otello with a singer I believe should have sung the role more: Giuseppe Giacomini:

Two absolutely different voices and I don’t need my acoustic analyzer to know how well those two voices carry in the house.  We would have to go back to Lauri-Volpi and Miguel Fleta to find Verdi Otellos in the mold of the Bel Canto.  There is a different thrill with voices like Kunde’s.  Just as we heard with the Fille aria above from a couple of years ago, it is almost unbelievable that a voice of such mass can sing high Cs so easily.  Giacomini is the traditional spinto with a voice that blooms closer to G4 than Bb4 as we hear with Kunde.

Gregory Kunde and Sondra Radvanosky represent a rarity in our times that should be remedied.  They are not the only “Big High” Voices around.  The important thing is that their glorious voices are not diminishing as they are experience their primes.  Kunde has been maintaining his prime for quite a while and Radvanovsky is become a model on the women’s side.

The vocal folds are three-dimensional.  They are horizontal on two different axes and vertical as well.  The specific characteristics of the folds determine tessitura, ability to handle breath pressure (volume) and timbre.  It is a combination of those things that determine comfort or discomfort in a particular repertoire.

Greg and I did an interview a couple of years ago that ended up unfortunately not recording properly because my Skype-Audacity connection did not behave. His extremely busy schedule has made it difficult to remedy that loss.  I hope we will have a chance to discuss his magnificent career again!  I met Sondra Radvanoskly briefly after one of her Tosca, backstage at the MET.  She was gracious and friendly to everyone who approached her.  She seems just as easy-going as her very easy but powerful voice.  I would welcome a sit-down with her as well.

In a world where voices seem expendable, it is not only refreshing but extremely encouraging that two such great flowers should bloom in a field that does not always provide sunshine and water to bourgeoning talent!

I leave you the two Bel Canto Stars singing together in Lucrezia Borgia and Vespri. It is beautiful how well-balanced the two voices are together!

© 04/15/2014

Edit to add the last two videos, suggested by James L. Pike, my student who often gets valuable advice from Maestro Kunde.  May the two of them get to sing much more together.

One thought on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Sondra Radvanosky and Gregory Kunde: Big "High" Voices of Bel Canto’s Past

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: