Nicolai Gedda died this month at age 91. The Swedish singer was one of the great tenors of the middle part of the last century. His best years overlapped the careers of an extraordinarily large number of great tenors. When he started singing professionally Jussi Björling, Richard Tucker, Mario Del Monaco, and Giuseppe Di Stefano were well established. In quick succession, Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, Cesare Valletti, Alfredo Krauss, and Fritz Wunderlich appeared. Towards the middle of Gedda’s career Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras became prominent. Despite the competition Gedda was in the highest demand by the world’s leading opera houses. He sang everywhere – 367 times at the Met alone between 1957 and 1983.
His great vocal technique combined with good luck (essential in any endeavor) allowed him to continue singing into his seventies. What made Gedda a truly great singer was the combination of vocal beauty, flawless technique, extraordinary acuti, and piano singing that perfectly merged filatura, head tones, and falsetto into a tonal whole that no other tenor of his time could match. He also had the greatest facility for languages of any singer known to me. He was fluent in Swedish, Russian, French, German, English, Italian, and also sang in Czech and Latin. He probably was fluent in these last two, as well.
When he appeared in the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa at the Met (1958), his English diction was judged superior to that of the other principals who were all American. Critic Max De Schauensee wrote: “The English text, oddly enough, was clearest heard from the lips of the Swedish Mr. Gedda.” Paul Hume made the same observation: “Nicolai Gedda, the Met’s new Swedish tenor, distinguished himself in every way, especially for his superb English, the finest of the otherwise American cast.” I attended one of the performances of the opera’s initial run at the Met and can personally attest to both the beauty of Gedda’s voice and excellence of his English diction.
Gedda performed Mozart, bel canto, most of the great Italian roles save only the most heroic, and he was especially excellent in the French romantic roles. He also was a great lieder singer. His fluency with German and thus his full understanding of the text he was singing combined with a voice capable of extraordinary modulation made him one of the few great opera singers who could also master the German art song.
There are already six examples of Gedda’s singing on this site. They can be found by putting his name into the search box in the upper right corner of this screen. The following excerpts are new here. They are grouped by the language in which they are sung.
Gedda was the equal of the best bel canto tenorino. But what moved him beyond that type was the full rich sound that was combined with easy and, if needed, blazing high notes. Prendi! L’anel ti dono from Act 1 of Bellini’s La Sonnambula with Mirella Freni Show his facility with this type of singing. Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore is another example Gedda’s fluency with this elegant writing as is his interpretation of Favorita del Re!….Spirito gentil from Act 4 of the same composer’s La Favorita. Donizetti wrote La Favorita to a French text, but it’s more often done in its Italian version which is the language Gedda uses. His singing of this famous aria is a complete masterclass by itself.
Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia is commonly sung by a bigger voiced tenor. The role falls right in the Middle of Gedda’s comfort zone. Ah, talor del tuo pensiero … Ah! Verrano a te, the great first act duet, is sung again with Mirella Freni. Tombe degl’avi miei … Fra poco a me ricovero is from the opera’s last scene.
Ella me fu rapital….Parmi veder le lagrime from Rigoletto is one of the most demanding in the Italian tenor repertoire. It requires rock solid technique to be fully realized. Cielo e mar! from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is a tenor staple. But it rarely receives the lyrical lilt that Gedda gives it. It’s a dream set to music and Gedda reveals it. Ingemisco from the Verdi Requiem is an Italian tenor aria set to Latin words.
Gedda first achieved international recognition in 1952 when producer Walter Legge selected him to do the role of Dmitry in the complete recording of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov that featured Boris Christoff in the title role and that of Varlaam and Pimen as well. Opera’s most cynical love duet occurs in Act 3 scene 2 when the mezzo, here sung by Eugenia Zareska, manipulates the false Dmitry into doing the bidding of the priest Rangoni.
As mentioned previously, Gedda was especially effective in French romantic opera. Rossini’s last opera Guillaume Tell is set to a French text and is a precursor to both the Italian and French operas that succeeded it. Asile héréditaire … Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance in the last act is one of the most difficult arias in opera. Gedda’s climactic high C will melt your fillings. Viens, gentille dame from Act 2 La dame blanche by François-Adrien Boieldieu is likely the only music from the opera that most listeners will encounter.
Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini deserves far more performances than it receives. The title role exactly suits Gedda’s voice. Une heure encore … La gloire était ma seule from Act 2 is sung to perfection and with French diction so good that you can understand it even if you don’t speak the language. Gedda is joined by Enriqueta Tarres in the passionate love duet from Act 4 of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots O ciel! Ou courez-vous. Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette was a perfect vehicle for Gedda’s voice. Ah! Leve-toi, soleil is from the opera’s second act. The Aubade (Vainement, ma bien aimée) from Act 3 of Édouard Lalo’s Le Roi d’Ys is the only number from the opera frequently performed outside of France. The last French music here is the Légende de Kleinzach from the Prologue to Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Gedda’s voice is ideal for this role.
Gedda spent 5 years as a child in Germany which partly explains his total command of the language. He sings Ach so fromm from Act 3 of Flotow’s Martha in its original German. Karl Goldmark was an Hungarian Jew, but he wrote his operas in German. The best known of these, The Queen of Sheba, is especially known for its tenor aria Magische Töne, berauschender Duft from Act 2. Gedda’s piano singing in this piece is wonderous.
As far as I know the only Wagner opera that Gedda sang was Lohengrin. His performance was held to be marvelous. Auditors used ‘bel canto’ to describe his approach to the opera. In fernem Land from Act 3 gives proof to this assertion. Gedda was also adept at operetta as this recording of Dein ist mein ganzes Herz! from Act 2 of Franz Lehár’s The Land of Smiles demonstrates.
As mentioned above, Gedda was as good with lieder as he was in opera. His style in this art was in the same league as Fischer-Dieskau, only with a glorious instrument. Die Allmacht and Du bist die Ruh by Franz Schubert and Ständchen by Richard Strauss make the case.
The man may be gone, but his voice endures through the hundreds of recordings he bequeathed to the present and the future. If you remember just a bit of your high school German you’ll enjoy the video below made to mark the tenor’s 90th birthday. The German title translates to ‘The Knight of the high D’.