Reputations: Leontyne Price, every inch the prima donna

Guest Mon 6th February 2017

One of America's leading sopranos for over three decades, and a favourite with conductors from Karajan to Levine, Alan Blyth pays tribute

Leontyne Price (photo: Sony/Dave Hecht)

Leontyne Price (photo: Sony/Dave Hecht)

I was present in 1952 at the Stoll Theatre in London when Leontyne Price made her London debut, virtually unknown, in a legendary tour of Porgy and Bess. I cannot say I recall much about the occasion, but I certainly have a strong recollection of her next appearance in London when she returned, now with a burgeoning career, to sing the title-role in Aida, at Covent Garden in 1958. She felt and sang it with the instinctive rightness that comes of thorough training and innate musicality. Soon the role became her calling-card, including her La Scala debut in 1960 and her first appearance at the Metropolitan in 1961.

By then Price had established herself as the first black singer to appear regularly in opera houses around the world. True, Marian Anderson, at the end of a long career as a concert singer, had made a single appearance at the Metropolitan in 1955, but it was Price who broke down the colour bar and made certain that black singers had the same status as their white coevals. She herself has revelled in the achievement.

She has always had a similar pride in her own voice, which she has described as 'gorgeous'. In an interview for Gramophone (in August 1971), she told me that she liked nothing better than sitting down and listening to it. She also declared that: 'You cannot be an opera singer and be humble.' When she spoke like that, it did not smack of conceit, more of satisfaction at her achievement.

She has cause to be proud of that achievement. From about 1960 to 1980, she was a dominant singer on the international scene and in the recording studio (RCA treated her royally at the time). She was born in Laurel, Mississippi. Her mother worked hard so that her daughter could study piano. She was able to accept a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York, thanks to the generosity of a prominent family in Laurel. Seeing and hearing Ljuba Welitsch as Salome at the Metropolitan in 1949 inspired her to become an opera singer. She made her stage debut in Paris as St Cecilia in Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts, then sang Bess at the Ziegfield Theater on Broadway. As already noted, in the same year - 1952 - she began touring Gershwin's opera. In 1955 she caused a sensation in a TV production of Tosca, which led to an engagement at the San Francisco Opera. From then on she never looked back. Her stage career ended only in 1985 with Aida at the Met, though she continued in concert even after that.

Her repertory stretched from Purcell's Dido, through Mozart's Fiordiligi, Pamina (both given at the Met) and Donna Anna, (Salzburg Festival debut, 1960), to Tatyana, Butterfly, Manon Lescaut and Tosca, and on to Samuel Barber. In 1957 she had also sung Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, her debut at San Francisco Opera, a role for which she obviously had an affinity to judge by her later recording of Lidoine's moving aria. But it is in Verdi that she is most acutely remembered. Besides Aida, she revelled in the challenges of both Leonoras, each of which she recorded more than once, Elvira (Ernani) and Amelia (Un ballo in maschera).

Besides opera, she was a valued recitalist. Samuel Barber wrote extensively for her (she described him as a 'delicious, wonderful friend'), including the role of Cleopatra in his Shakespearian opera. She sang many other songs by American composers, hymns and - of course - spirituals. She offered, with varying success, French and German aria and song. In all there was sincerity of purpose, a dignity of expression that were their own justification.

In concert she sang Beethoven's Missa solemnis, Bruckner's Te Deum and - above all - the Verdi Requiem, which she performed with unrivalled command in the KarajanILa Scala video (now on DVD) of 1967. Technical matters that bother more fallible sopranos are as nothing to her as she fulfils all of Verdi's exacting demands while the terrors of the 'Libera me' find Price invoking eternity with special convincing force. At the same time, those moments where Verdi requires the voice ethereal, Price fines down her large instrument without any loss of quality.

That voice itself is rich and refulgent and she rightly referred to it as 'her best friend'. As such she refused to exploit it beyond its natural capabilities, which she considered those of a lyric soprano, though others including myself, would judge that it came into the lirico-spinto category. In a measured tribute in Opera, Max Loppert wrote that Price's voice 'commanded a true, sterling legato; dusky warmth, roundness and richness of timbre characterised by a gloriously personal fast-vibrato colouring; and the art of floating, caressing and sustaining lustrous high notes and phrases, of swelling up to a climactic top note (eg the C of 'O patria mia') and then fining the tone down...' It would be impertinent to attempt to better that comprehensive characterisation of the Price voice.

How does it fare on disc? By and large the earlier Price the better. For instance, there are four extant souvenirs of the diva's Trovatore Leonora. Of these the one recorded live at the 1962 Salzburg Festival, with a cast of opera legends, conducted by Karajan, is the one to go for, catching the voice itself at its pristine best and the characterisation, caught live, at its most vital. The 1969 studio version under Mehta is next best, the 1977 Karajan remake on EMI (now Warner) to be avoided.

Similarly, as the other Leonora - di Vargas from Forza - the early version with Schippers is more assured, more involving than the 1976 set with Levine, although here the difference in her voice is not that great but the supporting cast in 1969 is superior. With Aida, the Decca set of 1961 enshrines one of Price's most desirable readings, tone and expression in perfect accord, the phrases long and the technical hurdles of 'O patria mia' gloriously jumped, although it has to be said that the 1970 RCA set under Leinsdorf runs the earlier performance close. Her single Elvira (Ernani) and Amelia (Ballo) are further evidence of her Verdian abilities, the latter certainly a Price essential.

She loved singing Mozart and her Fiordiligi in Leinsdorf's version of Così (1967) shows why. A somewhat grand reading, it has the compensating virtues of bold, assertive singing and a technical command few equal today. For many, though, it is Price's Carmen that shows the singer at her best; her smoky allure and the occasional touches of wit are certainly admirable, but to my taste the approach, especially with Karajan laying a heavy hand on the score, is a mite stodgy.

For the rest, among complete operas, Tosca this time with Karajan - in 1962 at his concentrated best - is worth having, the heroine here every inch a prima donna. By 1970 the characterisation had become less interesting. Mehta obviously failed to fire his diva as Karajan had done. Butterfly is not quite Price's métier, but as Liù she must have been very special to judge from her refined, shapely versions of both the character's arias. Her account of Helena's glorious solo encapsulates her virtues in Strauss.

For opera, you could try RCA's four-CD 'The Prima Donna Collection', which ranges from Dido's Lament (very grand) to Elizabeth I's Soliloquy and Prayer from Gloriana. As a whole it encompasses excerpts from roles she never sang on stage or recorded complete. Countess Almaviva, Louise, Desdemona, Micaëla, Santuzza, Norma, Gilda, Adriana among others all appear before us clad in the armour of Price's full-throated tone, their solos phrased with absolute certainty.

There are also unlikely things here that may surprise those who know only her Verdi and indicate her wish to be eclectic and out of the ordinary. Even when the manner may be wrong, as with Weber's Agathe and Rezia and Wagner's Isolde, that vocal security is always a consolation indeed. Her Lady Macbeth is commanding in just the right way and the high D flat at the end is securer than in most performances. Rusalka's Song to the Moon is properly radiant if not wholly idiomatic. Letting her hair down as Offenbach's Périchole and Johann Strauss's Rosalinde may not come naturally, but you catch a sense of fun even if the actual vocalisation is a shade heavy.

Within certain emotional limitations, she is a most persuasive interpreter. In any case her place as one of the 20th-century's most glorious voices and as an artist who could touch the heart, especially in her own language as Bess and in Italian as Aida, is assured.

This article originally appeared in the February 2002 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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