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Arts and Culture / Beyond Opera

Gianni Raimondi: a Glorious Italian Tenor

Luigi Boccia (January 28, 2008)
Gianni Raimondi at home in Pianoro (BO) in 2004

He doesn't really need an introduction. Fans around the world still refer to him as the best Rodolfo (Bohéme), the most elegant Alfredo (Traviata) and an unfortgettable Arturo (Puritani). These are just a few of the roles from a career that lasted almost 30 years of Raimondi, one of the the most succesfull lyric tenors and one of the most representative vocal technicians of his period.


A model and an example for young singers - Luciano Pavarotti said many times that Gianni Raimondi was a divo from the start who had it all. He would stare at Raimondi singing for hours in hopes of imitating his exemplary technique, a.k.a. the covered sound technique (or tecnica del suono raccolto).

Technique is, fittingly, the reason we'd like to talk about this tenor from Bologna today. He studied with Gennaro Barra-Caracciolo, heir of Fernando De Lucia's teaching in Naples. At that time, especially for a tenor voice, the teacher would talk mainly about 'passaggio'.
This italian word, commonly used in English, in its original language means 'passage,' and is not that difficult to understand.

A tenor, in order to be called so, must hit the high notes. To produce a healthy and supported sound on said high notes, there is a kind of canal, let's call it, represented by four notes: F, F sharp, G, G sharp. These four notes of the middle register are at the end of the so called 'chest voice' and are the beginning of the 'head voice' and must be 'covered' when singing (that's why Italians - Beniamino Gigli among them - use the expression falsettone rinforzato, or reinforced falsettone, meaning for falsetto, a voice that sounds false because it has only head resonance.) If these notes are sung in full voice, they become too spread and require too much breath, tiring the vocal chords that cannot reach the high notes until B, C or C sharp with the same ease.

Teachers of Raimondi's era would suggest that their students darken the five italian vowels and modify them towards a pure 'O' vowel. In fact, it has been proven that a tenor voice in the passagio singing an 'O' vowel is covered (or raccolta, which is the opposite of spread, aperta) and allows the singer to rest the vocal chords and save the breath before launching into the high notes. This trick is a necessary one for full lyric (and dramatic) tenors because their repertoire consists largely of arias and recitatives which insist on those notes in the passagio and above. If you are not able to conserve your vocal stamina the voice cannot go through the small canal that leads to the higher register or tessitura. Composers, until Puccini or the Italian Verismo School (Mascagni, Cilea, Zandonai, Giordano, Catalani), were aware of the existence of the passaggio and would not require their singers to jump to a high note with an interval larger than a 5th.

Our purpose is not to give voice lessons, but to provide our readers with some information that will aid you in understanding why today we so rarely hear certain sounds and why we don't find tenors like Raimondi who retain a 'juicy' voice along with the ability to sing astonishing high notes. Many modern teachers deny the existence of the passaggio altogether!

Raimondi at home in Pianoro (BO) - Italy in 2004

I always laugh when someone says that you can't judge the voice of an opera singer from the ability to hit the high notes. It's true that there are many other parameters to consider: timbre, musicality, interpretation, acting, appearance, etc. but wouldn't you think a pole vaulter inadequate if he or she is unable to jump over the bar, regardless of how well trained the muscles, how long the legs and how perfect are the proportion of the body? Composers wrote high notes, singers have to sing them. It's as simple as that.

To prove to you what I'm saying, here is an example. The recording that you are about to hear is from Naples, 1959 (?) - Gianni Raimondi sings the role of Fernando in Favorita by Donizetti. This aria is the intro of the tenor. In other words, the tenor walks on the stage, sings a few short phrases and starts one of the highest and most challenging arias in Opera: Una Vergin, un Angiol di Dio (you can follow the text below!).
I want you to focus your attention on each vowels as it falls in the passaggio. Notice that, regardless of the vowel, the sound at that specific height sounds like an O. Let's see it together.


If you haven't already, listen to Gianni Raimondi singing Una vergin, un angiol di Dio (Donizetti)

The first 'covered' sound we hear occurs on "scesero all'alma." The first syllable of "Alma", written on a G sharp, is clearly sung "Olma." The same thing occurs when our tenor sings the F sharps on "Ah mio pAdre" and "la pAce del cor". Note that, in order to cover the sounds on these phrases, he modifies the 'A' sounds of "padre" and "pace" into a pure 'O', in effect singing the phrases as such: "Ah mio pO-dre" and "la pOce del cor".

In "la mente, ma quElla", the E is sung in the O vowel position. If we could have watched him singing this (if only to be so lucky!), we would have seen him rounding his mouth into an obvious O shape, even though we hear what sounds so clearly like E. So the trick, then, is to put the E in O space (which is larger, causing the E to sound much bigger).

It becomes more interesting when, in the final ascent toward C sharp (one the most powerful C sharps ever heard alive, and the audience there seems to agree!) the E natural is open and sounds like a pure A. The following F sharp, however, is closed and becomes darker. As the voice continues to approach the high C sharp, the voice gradually opens back up towards the A vowel.
In the last phrase "presente m'è ognor", the three syllables of "m'è ognor" are on G, G sharp and A: all are fully covered sounds, a solution that comes much easier when you have to sing an O vowel.

Raimondi and I in Pianoro (BO) - Italy in Spring 2004

I will never get tired of listening to this recording and admiring the miracles of a tecnique that cannot be more perfect and appropriate for both this voice and this repertoire. Some criticize that this tecnique fails to respect the purity of the 5 Italian vowels and therefore is not correct. Others thinks that Raimondi pushed the voice too far and that a better compromise is possible. For me, though, there isn't a tenor that can sing this aria any better!

I'm sure you must have comments of your own about what I have written or about this very special recording. I'm more than happy to answer all of your questions or to start an illuminating discussion about this topic.

Una vergin, un angiol di Dio
presso all'ara pregava con me.
Una speme, un terrore, un desìo
scese all'alma e di gioia l'empiè.
Ah, mio padre, ah, padre mio,
quant'era mai bella,
m'ha involata la pace del cor!
Volgo al lume la mente, ma quella
allo sguardo presente m'è ognor!

For more information about this tenor click here and read the bio by J.H. Anthonisen

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