Perils of a great preformance

We count on our greatest artists to open up the horizons of the possible, showing us what we didn’t know could be done. But in the realm of operatic improvisation, a great artist (in conjunction with game-changing technology), has apparently severely reduced the horizons of the possible, or at least of the desirable.


The conductor Will Crutchfield, who specializes in bel-canto opera and doubles as a musicological detective, recently sat down to compare all extant recordings of “Una furtiva lagrima,” the plaintive tenor aria from Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.” Crutchfield wanted to know what singers of various eras have done with the cadenza—the passage at the end of the aria where the orchestra halts and the tenor engages in graceful acrobatics. Donizetti included a cadenza in his score, and later supplied two alternative versions. Early recordings show singers trying out a range of possibilities, some contemplative, some florid, none the same. Then came Enrico Caruso. He first recorded “Una furtiva lagrima” in 1902, and returned to it three more times in the course of his epochal studio career. After that, tenors began replicating the stylish little display that Caruso devised: a quick up-and-down run followed by two slow, sighing phrases. Out of more than two hundred singers who have recorded the aria since Caruso’s death, how many try something different? Crutchfield counts four.

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