Everybody who likes vocal music has his or her dream list of roles their favourite singers should have sung – I am no exception. Back in the 90’s, Christa Ludwig was the object of such an obsession. I particularly resented the fact that there was no recording of her Verdi roles other than that Mrs. Quickly for Karajan (which even I found unsuited to her temper and attitude), the Lady Macbeth with Böhm that I trained myself to consider the best ever (I still find her performance psychologically provocative, but the passagework does leave something to be desired) and that Ulrica for Solti that I cherish full stop. But I longed for her Eboli (!), her Amneris (!!) and her Azucena (!!!).
On reading her excellent autobiography, I was shocked to discover she never thought herself at ease in Italian roles. Of course she had to be wrong – but then, you know, be careful with what you wish for: after some research, I could find her in everyone of these roles in broadcast or in-house recordings. I’ll make no suspense: of course she knows her voice better. Also, more experience with live performances has shown me that, although some voices have special qualities that enable them to sing particular roles not ideally suited to them on paper, you can never beat Fach.
If I had to single out one technical quality about Christa Ludwig’s voice, it would be homogeneity. This was a voice with no audible gear change, consistent in colouring from bottom to top in its hallmark velvety quality. This made her particularly successful in her Wagnerian roles. While most Kundrys and Ortruds sound like downright harpies, she always had this alluring plushlike sound that is the aural translation of seduction, beguilement, enticement etc.
However, this very velvetiness is precisely what you don’t need in a Verdian role. To start with, homogeneity is almost a no-go. I could guess Verdi expected the use of chest voice for those climactic low notes, since he never turns the down the orchestral volume for them (as Wagner would do). Also, as it seems to be a golden rule in Italian opera, top notes tend to be exposed (i.e., the orchestra either stops or gets dimmer in order to give them pride of place), meaning that a singer has to produce the necessary ping up there in order to “fill” the sound picture. Metal and not velvet is the required quality in a moment like that.
By now, you’ll have probably guessed what Christa Ludwig was talking about. The Eboli for example. This is a 1975 Salzburg broadcast with Mirella Freni, Plácido Domingo and Nicolai Ghiaurov under Herbert von Karajan. The Veil Song is reduced to one stanza and it is easy to see why. In order to produce a larger sound, Ludwig’s voice is beefed up and a bit tense – and when you beef up your middle register, you can expect trouble – top notes are never exactly in true pitch – either a tiny little bit sharp or a tiny little bit flat. Also, handling passagework without lightness is the antidote to precision. In ensembles, one sees that she seems always to have the uncongenial low line while the tenor goes high, resulting in almost complete overshadowing from her partners. O don fatale is a bit desperate too – she makes it through sheer will power. Of course, if we were in the theatre, we would find it all really impressive (though a friend who was actually there remembers she was “just ok” – he had seen Verret, Cossotto et al in this role), but one cannot help noticing this is not ideal casting.
When it comes to Amneris, I had the impression this would be the good role in this list for her – and indeed she sounds far better in it. Now this is a 1976 Wiener Staatsoper performance with Gwyneth Jones and James King under Heinz Wallberg recorded from a hidden microphone in the pocket of a member of the audience. This kind of recording is acknowledgedly unflattering, but finally very revealing about the singers’ ability to focus their tone and project into the auditorium. Comparison to Gwyneth Jones’s superpowerful soprano is a serious disadvantage, but the truth is that James King too has a better time piercing through the orchestra than her. The Judgement scene is another example of achievement through will power – her voice is dark and solid enough but one feels that it stays on stage than rather than flowing into the whole theatre. As in her Eboli, one realizes that a brighter edge is missing and that the tone is too thickened and darkened to soar in the perilous high tessitura. Some may wonder how she survived her soprano roles that sat somewhat higher in her range. The answer is simple – freed from the constraints of having to produce a dark fat sound, she can keep her voice lighter and more flexible. You just have to compare this Amneris with her Färberin, for instance, to see the difference in the sound (as a matter of fact, she sounds like two completely different singers in these roles).
It is also curious to compare this Amneris with her performance sung in German (1961 – Deutsche Oper – with Gloria Davy, Jess Thomas and Walter Berry under Karl Böhm). Of course, she was younger then, but also the effect of singing her own language seemed to extract from her a slimmer, brighter and un-Italianate sound that makes that Amneris far more comfortable for her). Another interesting comparison involves Tatiana Troyanos, a singer who also claimed to be ill at ease as Amneris. Judging from the 1976 Met broadcast with Gilda Cruz-Romo and James McCracken under Kazimierz Kord, it is obvious that the voice has a lighter tonal quality but the bright and tightly focused tone and the expert manipulation of chest voice endly show Troyanos far more responsive in this tricky role.
Azucena has to be a stretch for any singer who cannot truly call herself a dramatic mezzo, and the 1977 in-house recording from Vienna with Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti and Piero Cappuccilli under Herbert von Karajan finally proves why Ludwig performed this role very rarely. Of course, there is much to commend her – her intent to produce all the trills in Stride la vampa is praiseworthy by principle – but the truth is that she is swamped by orchestra and her partners too often for comfort. Of course, she produce exciting top notes now and then, but the middle and low areas of the tessitura are invariably recessed. Again, the importance of focus and above all brightness in Italian repertoire is proved by the fact that Pavarotti is captured with immediacy by the microphone during the whole opera, what is more remarkable considering this is on paper a role heavy for his voice too.
I don’t want anyone to believe that I am exposing such an admirable singer as Christa Ludwig to unnecessary criticism. On the contrary, if she ultimately managed to pull out decent performances in roles so unsuited to her vocal nature, this is only an evidence of this singer’s dependable technique. Her acknowledgment about the inadequacy of her vocal nature and method to this repertoire shows again what a sensible singer she has always been. Most of all, the fact that she could always produce intelligent, sharply observed characterizations in these difficult roles proves why she is one of the only singers who survived the golden rule: never sing against the grain of your voice.