25 June 2013

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Tucker Triumphant—Celebrating Richard Tucker’s Centennial

Richard Tucker as Pinkerton in Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo uncredited] Richard Tucker as Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo uncredited].  Tucker sang five performances of Pinkerton for the MET, in New York and on tour.  His Cio-Cio-Sans were Dorothy Kirsten and Daniza Ilitsch.

On 28 August 1913, the Tickers—a family of Jewish immigrants from Bessarabia—welcomed a son whom they called Rubin.  Slightly more than thirty-one years later, on January 25, 1945, the Metropolitan Opera welcomed a new artist, débuting on the stage of the storied Old MET as Enzo Grimaldo in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda opposite Stella Roman.  Of that début, Noel Straus wrote in the New York Times that the tenor ‘sang Enzo’s music with poise and assurance.  His tones were steady and of pleasing quality, boasting special richness and resonance above the staff.’  Two years later, the young tenor reprised the role of Enzo in a production of La Gioconda at the fabled Arena di Verona that also introduced the discriminating Veronese to another young American-born singer, Maria Callas.  These were auspicious first steps on the world’s opera stages by Richard Tucker, the tenor whose thirty-year career would span a remarkable journey from humble beginnings in New York Synagogues to a public funeral on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, an act of affection and respect performed for no other artist in the Company’s history.

I first heard the voice of Richard Tucker via the 1952 Columbia recording of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, an abridged performance sung in the surprisingly charming English translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin, whose efforts at translating Italian libretti into English often produced the results of making even very serious dramatic scenes sound like bad verses by W.S. Gilbert.  In December 1951, the Metropolitan Opera launched a new production of Così fan tutte directed by Broadway genius Alfred Lunt and designed by Rolf Gérard, sung in English by a cast of American singers that included Eleanor Steber as Fiordiligi, Blanche Thebom as Dorabella, Patrice Munsel as Despina, Frank Guarrera as Guglielmo, and Richard Tucker as Ferrando.  The Metropolitan Opera Association deemed the production worthy of preservation on records, so the cast—with Roberta Peters substituting for Patrice Munsel—assembled in June 1952, following the annual MET tour, in Columbia’s 30th Street studios in Manhattan.  Mozart’s blossoming score was mercilessly pruned, leaving little more than a stalk: of Ferrando’s three arias, only ‘Un’aura amorosa’ remained, translated as ‘My love is a flower.’  Mr. Tucker was a buoyant presence in ensembles, but the poise, elegance, and technical mastery displayed in the aria were arresting.  Many voices of quality have been recorded in Ferrando’s music, but Mr. Tucker’s voice was of a size and weight rarely heard in Mozart.  [It will be interesting to compare Rolando Villazón’s performance of Ferrando in the forthcoming Deutsche Grammophon recording of Così fan tutte to Mr. Tucker’s performance.]  Among recorded Ferrandos, only George Shirley rivals Mr. Tucker’s successful combination of a robust timbre with pliant lyricism.  Mr. Tucker was perhaps an unexpected choice for Così fan tutte, but his singing of Ferrando was an apt introduction to his artistry.  Mozart demands all of the qualities that made Mr. Tucker such a consistently delightful singer, and it remains a tremendous pleasure to hear Ferrando’s music—what was left of it—sung so expansively.  It should also be noted that Mr. Tucker also sang seven performances of Tamino in Die Zauberflöte in Herbert Graf’s English-language production during the 1950 – 51 season.  The music of Mozart occupied a small place in Mr. Tucker’s repertory, but the dedication with which he approached it is refreshing.

Frank Guarrera as Guglielmo (left) and Richard Tucker as Ferrando (right) in Mozart's COSÌ FAN TUTTE [Photo by Mark Hagmann] Frank Guarrera as Guglielmo (left) and Richard Tucker as Ferrando (right) in a performance of the MET production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte in Philadelphia, 27 January 1953 [Photo by Mark Hagmann]

Two of the most exasperating statements that I have encountered in musical criticism refer to Richard Tucker.  The first was an expression of regret that, in her 1955 recording of Aida, Maria Callas’s partner in espionage by the Nile was Richard Tucker rather than Franco Corelli.  Mr. Tucker did not sing Radamès at the MET until January 1965, but by the time of the Milan recording sessions for Aida Mr. Tucker had already garnered praise in New York as Alfredo in La Traviata, Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera, the Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto, Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra, the title character in Don Carlo, and Don Alvaro in La forza del destino—impressive Verdian credentials by any standard.  Furthermore, Mr. Tucker’s Radamès was one of the strongest performances in Arturo Toscanini’s 1949 NBC Symphony concert broadcasts of Aida.  Corelli was an indisputably exciting singer and a dynamic Radamès whose mastery of the role is documented in two commercial recordings—an early effort opposite Mary Curtis-Verna for CETRA and a famous Rome recording with Birgit Nilsson—and numerous ‘pirated’ recordings, but the confident, idiomatic singing offered by Mr. Tucker under Tullio Serafin’s baton excellently complements Callas’s poetic reading of Aida.  A year earlier, in 1954, Mr. Tucker had joined Maestro Serafin and Callas in an engaging recording of La forza del destino.  Maddening as it is as a slight to Mr. Tucker’s artistry, the suggestion that Corelli might have been a preferable partner to Callas in Aida is indicative of the rivalries among tenors that were promulgated—and tirelessly perpetuated—by the press and proponents of the singers during the MET’s ‘Golden Age’ of Italian tenor singing in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.  Mr. Tucker had been on the MET roster for nearly a decade when Carlo Bergonzi débuted there in 1956—as Radamès, ironically—and for almost fifteen years when Corelli first bowed on the MET stage in 1961 as Manrico in Il trovatore.  One of the most exceptional achievements of Mr. Tucker’s career is the way in which he so often managed to beat the Italians at their own game, so to speak.  Few if any tenors possessed greater lyricism than Bergonzi, but Mr. Tucker could command greater power and ‘ping’ in the upper register.  Corelli possessed a kind of primeval power that electrified audiences, but Mr. Tucker was the more consistent, more reliable artist, and his learned Italian diction was superior to Corelli’s native command of the language.  Judged solely on its own terms, Mr. Tucker’s Radamès in the EMI recording is a superb performance, ‘Celeste Aida’ confidently if slightly muscularly managed, and the singing only continues to impress thereafter.  The top As with which Radamès closes Act Three are brilliant, and Mr. Tucker responds with equal affinity to his exchanges with both Fedora Barbieri’s Amneris and Callas’ Aida in Act Four.  In 1955, Corelli was still sorting out the slight flutter in his vibrato that is heard in his earliest recordings and was perfecting the placement of his upper register.  This is not to suggest that he would not have been a capable Radamès opposite Callas, but the casting of Mr. Tucker, already a finished artist, was an inspired—and inspiring—choice.

The second undeservedly critical observation concerning Mr. Tucker is that his success at the MET was primarily based on the fact that, as a Jewish artist, Mr. Tucker would not sing on High Holy Days but had no such objections to singing on Christian holidays.  Thus, he was a singer who could be relied upon to fill the house in Christmas-season performances, when out-of-towners flooded Manhattan and snapped up tickets left unsold by New Yorkers taking holiday elsewhere.  Opera is a business, and few businesses have been managed by overseers more attuned to the particular natures of their operations than Sir Rudolf Bing was to the presentation of opera at the MET.  Bing’s managerial skills were honed in Europe, where opera houses still largely operated with standing companies of singers and musicians, and though he was eager to import the most important European singers to New York he was keenly aware of the musical value and box-office usefulness of a native-born singer like Mr. Tucker.  The breadth of Mr. Tucker’s assignments at the MET confirms the esteem in which he was held by Bing, the MET Board of Directors, the artistic staff, and New York audiences.  He sang in the performances that introduced MET audiences to Robert Merrill, Jerome Hines, Hilde Güden, Josef Metternich, Ettore Bastianini, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Gilda Cruz-Romo.  He was Don José to the Carmen of Risë Stevens in the 1952 première of the legendary production by Tyrone Guthrie.  He sang Riccardo in the 1955 performance of Un ballo in maschera in which Marian Anderson became the first African-American artist to sing a role at the MET.  He was Cavaradossi to Renata Tebaldi’s first MET Tosca and was Don Alvaro to Tebaldi’s Leonora in the 1960 performance of La forza del destino during which Leonard Warren died on the MET stage.  He sang the title role in the 1966 performance of Andrea Chénier in which Zinka Milanov bade farewell to the MET, and three days later, on 16 April 1966, he sang Rodolfo in the Saturday matinee performance of La bohème that was the last performance of a complete opera in the original house at Broadway and 39th Street.  In April 1970, the Metropolitan Opera Guild sponsored a gala in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Mr. Tucker’s company début, a performance in which he partnered Sutherland in Act One of La Traviata, Tebaldi in Act Two of La Gioconda, and Leontyne Price in Act Three of Aida.  Mr. Tucker’s final performance at the MET was as Canio in Pagliacci, opposite Anna Moffo’s Nedda, on 3 December 1974: slightly more than a month later, on 10 January 1975, the Metropolitan Opera bestowed upon Mr. Tucker the honor of a funeral held on the stage of the theatre he had so often filled with golden sound.  These are not the accomplishments of a singer who was integral to an opera company principally because of his fiscally-significant willingness to sing when the absence of other artists might render full houses unlikely.  Mr. Tucker was a godsend for the MET in the years after World War II: he was a sort of ‘house brand’ who could not only hold his own among the best European singers but, in many instances, proved superior to them in preparation, dependability, and undaunted musicality.

Richard Tucker as Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini's TOSCA at the Metropolitan Opera, 1955 [Photo by Louis Mélançon] Richard Tucker as Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, Metropolitan Opera]

Vocally, Mr. Tucker sang every role that he undertook well, with equal success in lyric and dramatic roles, so assigning a particular Fach to his voice is difficult.  It is interesting to compare his singing in different performances of the same roles.  As Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, for instance, he carefully adapted the scale of his singing to the fragile orchid of Lily Pons’s Lucia in the Columbia studio recording and to the hardy redwood Lucia of Dame Joan Sutherland in the December 1961 MET broadcast.  [It is also interesting to note that, in her first seasons at the MET, Sutherland’s Lucia was paired with the Edgardos of Mr. Tucker, Jan Peerce, Barry Morell, and Sándor Kónya, none of whom would now be likely to be considered for the part.]  With Pons, Mr. Tucker was cautious to avoid overpowering his Lucia in their duets, surely a difficult task considering that Pons’s razor’s-edge tone had thinned markedly by 1954, when the Metropolitan Opera Association funded the Lucia recording.  Opposite Sutherland, whose sheer grandeur of voice was unusual in Lucia’s music and required no efforts at scaling-back vocal resources on the part of her tenor, Mr. Tucker produced floods of focused tone, matching Sutherland’s opulence.  Similarly, the delicacy of Mr. Tucker’s singing of Rodolfo in the 1947 Columbia recording of Puccini’s La bohème opposite Bidù Sayão’s Mimì contrasts tellingly with his broad joie de vivre in his later RCA recording with Anna Moffo.  A notable aspect of Mr. Tucker’s career at the MET was the longevity of his versatility: while many tenors sing a wide variety of roles, most move into a certain part of the repertory while phasing out appearances in other roles.  Mr. Tucker retained virtually all of the roles that he sang in his active repertory throughout his career, however.  For instance, he first sang the role of Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra at the MET in 1949, opposite Leonard Warren and Astrid Varnay: thereafter, he sang the role in 1950, 1960, 1961, 1965, 1968, 1973, and 1974, last singing the role in New York in January 1974, opposite Ingvar Wixell and Adriana Maliponte.  Don José in Carmen was the only French role that remained in Mr. Tucker’s repertory throughout his career at the MET.  None of his five MET performances of Gounod’s Faust was a broadcast, but a recording of a 1953 New Orleans performance confirms that he sang the role impeccably.  Unfortunately, there also was not a broadcast of any of the four performances of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila that Mr. Tucker sang in December 1971, though critic George Movshon deemed Samson ‘one of his best roles.’  Two of Mr. Tucker’s nineteen MET performances of the title role in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann were broadcasts, though, and recordings of the broadcasts validate the opinion expressed by esteemed critic Irving Kolodin, who wrote that his Hoffmann ‘suggested, rather conclusively, that his destiny, really, is to be a French tenor in the heroic style.’  Mr. Tucker’s voice might best be described as a spinto instrument, but in many ways it was a voice that could only be classified accurately as fantastic.

Despite his devotion to the company throughout his career, the Metropolitan Opera failed Mr. Tucker by denying him the opportunity to sing Eléazar in Halévy’s La Juive on the stage that was, for three decades, his artistic home.  Until revived in 2003 for Neil Shicoff, La Juive had not been performance at the MET since 1936, when Eléazar was sung by Giovanni Martinelli.  Eléazar is a musical tour de force and a role that holds special significance for Jewish artists because of its powerful but stereotypical depiction of a strong Jewish protagonist at odds with an oppressive Christian establishment.  Fortunately, in addition to a 1964 Carnegie Hall concert performance organized by the Friends of French Opera, productions of La Juive were organized for Mr. Tucker in New Orleans in 1973 and at the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona in 1974, and a 1973 concert performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall yielded a recording that reveals both the histrionic power of Mr. Tucker’s characterization of Eléazar and the marvelous condition of his voice as he approached his sixtieth birthday.  Leontyne Price remarked that she ‘could never get over how fantastically [Mr. Tucker] sustained his vocal powers; how indeed they seemed to grow as time went on.’  Eléazar was first sung by Adolphe Nourrit, the tenor who also created the role of Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, and this alone is an indication of the difficulty of the role.  Unlike many tenors, Mr. Tucker embraced the role of Eléazar completely, fully ‘living’ the part even in the context of a concert performance rather than regarding it merely as an opportunity to sing the famous aria ‘Rachel, quand du seigneur.’  Hearing the recording of the London concert performance of La Juive is one of the best ways to become acquainted with Mr. Tucker’s artistry.  Still in control of one of the greatest tenor voices of the Twentieth Century, he got at the heart of Eléazar with an eloquence and dramatic involvement that were not always evident in his singing.

Montserrat Caballé in the title role (left) and Richard Tucker as Rodolfo (right) in Verdi's LUISA MILLER at the Metropolitan Opera, 1968 [Photo by Louis Mélançon] Montserrat Caballé in the title role (left) and Richard Tucker as Rodolfo (right) in Verdi’s Luisa Miller at the Metropolitan Opera in 1968 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, Metropolitan Opera]

The criticism most frequently leveled at Mr. Tucker’s performances concerned a lack of dramatic verisimilitude.  Virgil Thomson, never shy about expressing even his harshest opinions, wrote of a 1952 performance of La Bohème that the cast needed, ‘in [his] opinion, only one major change.  That is the substitution for Mr. Tucker of a tenor somewhat more sensitive both musically and dramatically.’  Conversely, many contemporary critics wrote of the effectiveness of Mr. Tucker’s characterizations, but it is the perception of him as an indifferent, stand-and-deliver singer that has persisted.  The 1970 première of a new Franco Zeffirelli production of the double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci marked a milestone in Mr. Tucker’s career.  Singing Canio on stage for the first time despite having recorded the role for Columbia in 1951, Mr. Tucker was widely acknowledged to have achieved a new, substantially intensified level of dramatic engagement.  The sparks that flew when Mr. Tucker’s Canio was paired with the Nedda of Teresa Stratas were so white-hot that observers with overactive imaginations whispered that the relationship between the singers was rather more than professional.  In general, Mr. Tucker’s performances during the last several seasons of his career revealed a renewed commitment to his art that galvanized audiences and further secured his legacy as one of America’s best singers.  In 1971, twenty-six years after his MET début, Collins George wrote in the Detroit Free Press of a MET tour Carmen that Mr. Tucker’s voice ‘scarcely [betrayed] his age’ and that, as an actor, he was still ‘able to give the illusion in his dramatic tenor of the youthful heroes he is constantly called upon to play.’  Recordings of MET broadcasts after 1970 reveal that Mr. Tucker’s tone had dried and hardened slightly and that basic production of the voice and projection of the upper register no longer came as easily to him as they had when he was in his prime.  They also confirm that, whatever the extent of the inevitable ravages of time and near-constant singing of leading roles across three decades may have been, Mr. Tucker’s voice remained at the end of his career an instrument of extraordinary quality.

As an opera lover, a musician, a writer, and a collector of recordings, I am intrigued by comparing the performances of many singers in music that I love.  One of the best illustrations of this, and of the importance of Mr. Tucker to me as a listener, is the role of Manrico in Il trovatore.  When I want to hear Manrico’s music caressed with the velvet-toned finesse of a credible Spanish lover, I listen to Carlo Bergonzi.  When it is a rabble-rousing performance by a tenor who sounds as equipped to raise an army and route an enemy on the battlefield as to woo a noblewoman with song, I turn to Aureliano Pertile.  When I wish to encounter a chest-pounding performance of legitimately Italianate virility, I seek out Mario del Monaco.  When my ears long to hear shamelessly indulgent but pulse-quickeningly refulgent high notes, I choose Franco Corelli.  When I simply want to hear Manrico as Verdi wrote him, every note in place and in tune, every vowel idiomatically shaped, even consonant enunciated on the beat, the trills in place in ‘Ah si, ben mio coll’essere,’ the top notes ringing and secure, I listen to Richard Tucker.  His legacy in American music is enormously important as a lesson in the achievement of a great career through kindness, preparedness, sureness of technique, and understanding of one’s own voice.  To me, a listener who was born too late to hear him in the opera house, Richard Tucker’s legacy is being the only tenor who has never disappointed me.  For this, he is truly the unchallenged Rabbi of American opera.

Richard Tucker as Rodolfo in Puccini's LA BOHÈME at the Metropolitan Opera, 1952 [Photo by Sedge LeBlang] Richard Tucker as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in 1952 [Photo by Sedge LeBlang, Metropolitan Opera]


  • 1950  Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra with Leonard Warren, Astrid Varnay, Mihály Székely, and Giuseppe Valdengo; Tucker sings Gabriele Adorno—Metropolitan Opera performance of 28 January 1950 [available on multiple labels; best sound quality on Myto]
  • 1955  Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo with Eleanor Steber, Blanche Thebom, Ettore Bastianini, and Jerome Hines; Tucker sings the title role—Metropolitan Opera performance of 5 March 1955 [available on multiple labels]
  • 1962  Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West with Dorothy Kirsten, Anselmo Colzani, Paul Franke, Norman Scott, and Ezio Flagello; Tucker sings Dick Johnson—Metropolitan Opera performance of 6 January 1992 [Myto 052 307]
  • 1962  Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with Leontyne Price, Philip Maero, and Rosalind Elias; Tucker sings the role of Pinkerton—Studio recording [RCA, various releases]
  • 1968  Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller with Montserrat Caballé, Sherrill Milnes, Giorgio Tozzi, and Louise Pearl; Tucker sings the role of Rodolfo—Metropolitan Opera performance of 17 February 1968 [available on multiple labels; official MET release available on Sony]
  • 1973  Fromental Halévy’s La Juive with Yasuko Hayashi, Michèl Le Bris, and Juan Sabaté; Tucker sings the role of Eléazar—Concert performance at Royal Festival Hall, London, on 4 March 1973 [available on multiple labels; best sound quality on Myto]
  • 1973  Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore with Gilda Cruz-Romo, Mignon Dunn, and Siegmund Nimsgern; Tucker sings the role of Manrico; Concert performance in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 1973 [Gala GL 100 760]