Alfredo Kraus — ‘The’ Spanish Tenor for the Times

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Alfredo Kraus as Werther (drawing Josmar Lopes)

Tall, handsome, blue-eyed — and sporting a slightly graying mustache in his later years — Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus remained slim and trim even in his late sixties. He was the only singer I ever came into close contact with while living in New York City.

Though I saw many Metropolitan Opera artists near-and-around Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, it was in the winter of 1979 — at the New York Coliseum, of all places —  that I finally got up the nerve to actually talk to one of them.

My first contact with Kraus occurred during the annual New York Automobile Show, where I spotted him among the hundreds of onlookers. Taking a deep breath, I nervously went over to introduce myself. Well, it was more like I forced my trembling hand into his — and not very spontaneously, either — as I attempted to say (in my broken Spanish) how much I had admired his performance as Ernesto in that season’s presentation of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. A gorgeous blonde in a full-length fur coat was by his side, ogling this pathetic young stranger.

Ever the gentleman, Kraus accepted my greeting graciously if a bit reluctantly, thanked me for the compliment, and sped off with the fur-coated beauty to gaze at the autos. I personally would have preferred to gaze at the blonde, but whatever. I have never forgotten that brief encounter with one of my tenor idols.

Canary Islander

To discuss Alfredo Kraus’ art is to describe a singer who knew exactly what he wanted from his voice. To begin with, he was born in the exotic Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa, on September 24, 1927, of an Austrian father and a Spanish mother. Despite having studied industrial engineering, Kraus embarked upon a singing career soon after graduation. He had played and studied the piano as a youth, and had even sung in local choirs and churches while pursuing his professional degree.

With the added encouragement of having won a prize in a 1955 vocal competition in Geneva, Switzerland, Kraus made his first stage appearances in zarzuela (the Spanish equivalent of operetta). His official operatic debut, however, occurred a year later in Cairo, Egypt, as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, a role he would return to on many occasions.

At an age when many of us were still in diapers, Kraus was chosen to play the Spanish tenor Julián Gayarre in a 1958 film, for which he also supplied the singer’s voice on the soundtrack. He took part as well in a series of performances of La Traviata in Lisbon that have long since passed into legend; he sang the part of Alfredo Germont to the Violetta of fiery opera diva, Maria Callas.

Kraus went on to sing in all the major capitals of the world, but remained a loyal and frequent visitor to his hometown of Las Palmas, Gran Canárias. Both a concert hall and a biennial vocal festival were inaugurated there in his honor. Since his death on September 10, 1999 at the age of 71, the festival has continued to attract an international array of aspiring artists.

He first recorded his signature role of the Duke in Rigoletto around 1960 for Deutsche Grammophon. The conductor was the venerable Italian maestro Gianandrea Gavazzeni. Kraus was surrounded by other noteworthy talents, including Renata Scotto, Fiorenza Cossotto, Ettore Bastianini, and Ivo Vinco; it was a fine recording but gave little indication of the extraordinarily gifted voice that was yet to make itself heard.

His second traversal of the role, for RCA Victor Records in 1963 under Georg Solti, proved more illuminating. Upon listening to this performance in the late-sixties, my initial impression was that the record label had made some sort of huge casting error, employing a light comprimario for the vigorous, womanizing Duke. I was used to much heftier tones in the part, i.e., those of Mario Del Monaco, Richard Tucker, or Jan Peerce. As this was my first exposure to Kraus, it was a most disturbing discovery.

After the prelude, Kraus sang the opening air, “Questa o quella” with the requisite grace and buoyancy the score demanded, with nary a hint of vocal fireworks in his interpretation. Indeed, until the duet with Gilda in the second scene of the act, Kraus had done only a fairly respectable job, but no more.

He was then joined by soprano Anna Moffo in a lively reading of “Addio, addio, speranza ed anima,” the stretta portion of their love scene. It was here that I heard Kraus conclude the number with a truly spectacular — and, I might add, totally unexpected — unwritten high D that caught me completely off guard. So thrilling was this note in its execution and delivery that the hairs on my arms stood on end. I took immediate notice, and I wanted to hear more of this fabulous new tenor sensation.

Rarely Performed Aria

Kraus as the Duke (auladecanto.com)

Sure enough, I did hear him again in the second act. This being an uncut performance, Kraus was given the unusual opportunity of tossing off the rarely heard cabaletta, “Possente amor mi chiama,” after having turned in a melting “Parmi veder le lagrime.”

In the London/Decca recording of Rigoletto made two years prior — featuring the young Joan Sutherland as Gilda — the Duke on that occasion, tenor Renato Cioni, had also attempted this notoriously difficult piece. He was of the same light tone and timbre as Kraus, and had earlier recorded a complete Lucia di Lammermoor with the Australian soprano for the same label. He put in a noble effort, in my opinion.

Despite the similarities in vocal equipment and repertory, however, the difference in artistry between the two tenors was immediately apparent. Kraus capped the air off with another incredibly taken high D, a note I thought was beyond the reach of most tenors on the then-current operatic scene — and that included the aforementioned Del Monaco, Tucker and Peerce, as well as Franco Corelli, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Carlo Bergonzi. Not even the late, great Luciano Pavarotti, in the early 1980s, could have hit that note with the same fluidity and ease that Alfredo Kraus had.

My recollection of the London version was of poor, underpowered Cioni being totally swamped by the male chorus — and thoroughly ducking the high note to boot. To be perfectly fair, Kraus had a most modest voice of the slenderest proportions, but it was an extremely flexible and perfectly tuned instrument, which he used to project to the outermost reaches of the auditorium with no apparent strain.

He never produced a mechanical or artificial sound, and his wonderful expressive ability came directly from the heart. More importantly, his beautiful voice had an enviable and seemingly effortless top extension.

His models were the Italian tenors Aureliano Pertile, Dino Borgioli, Tito Schipa, Ferruccio Tagliavini, and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, five totally different vocal personalities. He studied all five of them, but especially Schipa, Tagliavini and Lauri-Volpi.

From Schipa, Kraus learned to caress the voice, to wrap it in the sheer beauty of its sound, and to use that sound to present the text in a naturally beguiling and completely comprehensible way. Coincidentally, Schipa was the singer he most resembled vocally. From Tagliavini, Kraus learned to convey the honeyed tones for which that tenor was so famous, and to sing in a lovely mezza voce without resorting to crooning. And from Lauri-Volpi, he learned to take that singer’s squillo sound and trumpet-like top notes (which both Schipa and Tagliavini lacked), and shape them to perfectly complement whatever role he sang.

Kraus had much in common with another fine singer of his generation, the Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda. Their respective repertoires frequently overlapped, especially in French opera. And, like Gedda, Kraus never forced his supple tone into parts he was unprepared or unqualified for. He never undertook a role that was beyond his capacity to excel in, neither did he sing too frequently nor fly more often than he should. This was undoubtedly the secret of his longevity as a vocalist.

The other, not so well-kept secret was Kraus’ amazing ability to hit the highest notes. Although he recorded Calaf’s arias from Turandot, along with “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci, and even Il Trovatore’s “Di quella pira” — with excellently produced, unwritten high C’s — he never sang the complete roles onstage.

In an interview with reporter Edwin Newman for Opera News in the early 1990s, Kraus claimed to have sung Rodolfo in La Bohème, Cavaradossi in Tosca, and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, only a few times very early in his career, and in small theaters with a reduced orchestra. He never returned to them thereafter. It was our loss.

On the Stage

Kraus & Gabriel Bacquier (www.youtube.com)
Kraus & Gabriel Bacquier (www.youtube.com)

I saw Kraus only once on the stage: it was on January 11, 1979, in a new production of Don Pasquale, with an all-star Met Opera cast headed by popular American soprano Beverly Sills, the fabulous French singing-actor Gabriel Bacquier, and Swedish baritone Häkan Hagegärd (Papageno in Ingmar Bergman’s film of Mozart’s The Magic Flute). The conductor was Nicola Rescigno.

The highlight of the evening was watching the tenor’s sprightly entrance, hearing his pointed vocalizing, and enjoying his wonderful comic timing. His gorgeous phrasing and lithe lyricism were put to splendid use in the third act. Sills was already past her best, but her magical duet with Kraus, coming so soon after his aria, “Com’è gentil,” in which he floated his high note on a seamless thread of silk, brought down the house.

I saw him again in the Met telecast of Don Pasquale a year later, and as Edgardo to Sutherland’s Lucia in 1982. Though he in no way resembled the ardent young Scottish lover, Kraus still sang with admirable alacrity. Regrettably, the opera was presented with standard cuts, so the rousing (and rarely heard) Wolf’s Crag scene between him and the rich-voiced Enrico of Puerto Rican baritone Pablo Elvira went by the wayside.

Kraus also made an elegant and impassioned Faust in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Gounod’s opera, with Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Richard Stilwell, and conductor Georges Prêtre. The work was broadcast several times over the air, and on public television, to increasing acclaim.

His light-lyric vocal category was able to encompass most of the French repertoire (Des Grieux in Manon, Faust, Gérald in Lakmé, Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann, Nadir in The Pearl Fishers, Roméo, Werther), in addition to principal parts in Donizetti (Edgardo, Ernesto, Fernando in La Favorita, Gennaro in Lucrezia Borgia, Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore, Tonio in La Fille du Régiment), Rossini (Almaviva in The Barber of Seville), Bellini (Arturo in I Puritani, Elvino in La Sonnambula), Mozart (Belmonte in Cosi fan Tutte, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni), Verdi (Alfredo, the Duke, Fenton in Falstaff), and even Boito (Faust in Mefistofele).

He never sang verismo roles on the stage, although he would have made an excellent Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, or even Ruggero in the same composer’s La Rondine. He should have sung the role of his namesake, Alfred, in Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus, a part tailor-made for his comedic and vocal talents.

Verdi was more problematic, for besides Alfredo, the Duke and Fenton, there were relatively few parts by the Italian master for his type of voice category. Perhaps the early Oberto, Un Giorno di Regno, or I Due Foscari were well within his reach, but he never sang them. He did record the role of Fenton in Falstaff, though,with Solti at the helm; and as far as major French roles were concerned, what an absolutely fabulous Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots he would have made, or Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, as his recorded extracts have shown. He did leave a rich legacy on disc, however, and for that we can all be grateful.

Poetic Justice

A Kraus performance frequently had the element of surprise to it — an interpolated high note or two, a twist, a turn or uniquely embellished word or phrase — that made whatever he sang indelibly his.

Kraus as Hoffmann (lastfm.es)

The part of the poet Hoffmann, for example, was no exception. The last complete performance I heard him sing was the January 1985 live Met broadcast of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. During the Prologue, Kraus launched into the Chanson de Kleinzach. At its climax, he let out a high note that seemed to emanate from somewhere other than onstage. The audience gasped audibly, and was so stunned by this unforeseen inclusion that it knew not whether to applaud or sit idly by. Applause surely would have been a sacrilege to the temple of this beloved artist.

The note that Kraus unleashed into the auditorium had appeared so suddenly — and with such laser-like focus — it was greeted with only (by Kraus’ standards) a tepid ovation, except by the vociferous claque members which lined the back of the auditorium. I’d like to think most of the gathering simply wanted to savor the sound of what they had just heard, rather than destroy the supreme beauty of that unforgettable moment. To quote a line from Mefistofele, “Arrestati, sei bello” (“Stay, thou art beautiful”).

Late in his career, Kraus made a specialty of Werther in Massenet’s eponymously titled work. Like the Duke before him, the part of the melancholy poet fit Kraus’ voice like the proverbial hand in the glove. It was a role his idol Schipa had long ago mastered. So youthfully impassioned and emotionally intense was Kraus’ performance of it that I’m sure there were few in the audience who realized they were hearing a man in his mid-to-late-50s.

The very last time I saw Kraus perform onscreen was during the televised gala concert for Metropolitan Opera maestro James Levine in the early nineties, in which he sang Werther’s third act lament, “Pourquoi me réveiller?”

His aristocratic bearing and spare but simple hand gestures were in perfect synchronization with the romantic nature of the piece. True to form, Kraus hit the two top A’s squarely and securely. He held on to them for so long it felt as if his very life force were about to eke out, lest he suddenly cut them off.

Sadly, at this stage in the artist’s career, his physical appearance betrayed his advanced age, but I sincerely doubt any singer at the time could have approached this piece in quite the same extraordinarily moving manner as Kraus had: he was greeted with the loudest, sincerest, and most vocal applause of any performer that night.

The current popularity of the Latin breed of romantic tenor continues to reflect Kraus’ growing importance, reputation and influence, beginning with the newer generation of Marcelo Álvarez and José Cura from Argentina; Juan Diego Flórez representing Peru; Ramón Vargas and Rolando Villazón of Mexico; and the Venezuelan Aquiles Machado. Roberto Alagna and Marcello Giordani (both Sicilian by birth), along with native Italian Vittorio Grigolo, can also be counted as Mediterranean heirs to Kraus’ vocal mantle, particularly in French opera.

Alfredo Kraus (spainisculture.com)
Alfredo Kraus (spainisculture.com)

But there will never be another vocal phenomenon like Alfredo Kraus, a true master of elegance and style on the concert stage and in the theater. His performances will continue to be studied, emulated, and recaptured in the abundant work of others, and his voice will be heard anew in his many fine and memorable recordings. He will long be remembered for his enduring contributions to the art of lyric singing.

I’m still waiting for the singer who can titillate me with an unwritten high D the way Kraus had some 40 or so years ago. Maybe I should try going back to the Automobile Show at the Coliseum. Who knows? I might even bump into that blonde again. ◙

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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