Jan Kiepura, Tenor (1902-1966)
Giuseppe Verdi: RIGOLETTO
"Ella mi fu rapita ... Parmi veder le lagrime"
Conducted by Gennaro Papi
Recorded live Metropolitan Opera House, March 11, 1939
My personal opinion: Honoré de Balzac hated critics: "They're all bugs", he said. For author Erich Segal a critic "is someone who gets angry, if the audience like what he doesn't like." The Irish poet Brendan Behan was convinced that "all critics are like eunuchs. They know how to do it, but they can't do it". And according to soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a critic is a person who did not manage to become an artist himself. In his memoires, former Met manager Rudolf Bing wrote the same: "It's hardly a profession a young man would choose unless there was some negative reason in the background."
A tenor named John Potter once said that one of the difficulties of writing a criticism about a historic singer is the risk of coloring the review with the ideologies of the present. In his time, the Polish tenor Jan Kiepura was loved by millions. Decades later he was heavily criticized for his unusual way of singing and performing. Irving Kolodin, for instance, wrote in "The Story of the Metropolitan Opera" that Kiepura was a more than commonly vain tenor, "who had first displayed his hard and unsensous voice as Rodolfo on February 10, 1938. He greeted Bidu Sayao's introductory words as Mimi with a self-satisfied smirk and a brisk rubbing of his hands. In CARMEN, Kiepura disturbed Bruna Castagna's card scene with aimless gestures behind her back." Ignored by voice experts Henry Pleasants and John Steane, Kiepura was damned by the German author Jürgen Kesting. He accused the tenor of using a whole catalog of bad vocal habits: "His recordings show too often a garish formed voice with a strained top and without tonal rounding. The phrasing is lousy; the vowels are permanently discolored and smeared."
Remember the John Potter statement, whereupon a singer's manner can be judged only in relation to the time he lived in. Author J. M. Fischer in his book "Grosse Stimmen": "The exhibition of theatrical effective high notes in his recordings was out of place, though Kiepura's audience loved it in the opera house." A singer's complacency on records is worn out quickly ...
The late Marcel Prawy, gentleman connoisseur and once secretary of the Polish tenor, knew both personally: Jan Kiepura and Richard Tauber. Many years later Prawy explained: "Kiepura was able to hold the high C bright and clear, again and again if requested. Tauber produced an ingenious falsetto sound and made everyone believe it was a high C ..."
In fact young Kiepura's top was radiant (Kesting, as so many times, was wrong), and with his good looks it's understandable he made money with it. It was the time when the talkies took the world and Kiepura naturally sang his tenor hits ("Ob blond, ob braun, ich liebe alle Frau'n") also in the movies and as an encore after opera performances. The crowd loved it. And Kiepura's flawed German pronunciation was regarded as an attractive exoticism. Back then, a long time ago ...
How times have changed. Seemingly today there is no place for such old-fashioned singing. And if in spite a modern tenor sings this naive songs, like Piotr Beczala, the result is without the typical wit of the clueless pre-war period. In the 1930's a tenor in tails was not uncommon. Today it is almost an anachronism, a caricature of a lost decadent era.
For this post I've listened again to the Met performance of RIGOLETTO with Kiepura: A strange transformation into a musical revue using the Verdi melodies. Lawrence Tibbett as the jester was, as usual, great. Lily Pons, as usual, was glassy and nerve-racking. Kiepura didn't care about the score. Here and there he interpolated endless stretched high notes, narcissistic pianissimi and lots of diminuendi - and all this with the blessing of conductor Gennaro Papi. In those days, faithfulness to the original was not a part of the Met performance practice.
But in all, the unconventional Jan Kiepura was a likeable appearance; charming and with a good sense of self-mockery - as I said before: Back then, a long time ago.
It's peculiar: Today, when opera is provoking, scandalizing and uncharming, sometimes I wish back the era of tails and top hat ...