I’ve briefly touched on the singing of the Spanish tenor Miguel Fleta (1897-1938), but until now have not devoted a full piece to him. His career was as brief and brilliant as the firing of a flashbulb. I want to mostly focus on his singing rather than his story. There are several excellent biographical sketches online – go here, here, or here (click on show more).
Briefly, he was born to a very poor family. He entered a singing contest, came to the attention of a singing teacher, whom he married and had two children with. He later divorced her and remarried and fathered four more children. After making his operatic debut, he rapidly achieved fame. He sang all over Europe, South America, and Mexico. He made his Met debut on November 8, 1923 as Cavaradossi in Tosca alongside of Maria Jeritza and Antonio Scotti. Even though the Met had Gigli, Martinelli, and Lauri-Volpi on its roster, they re-engaged Fleta for the seasons of 1925-27. He broke his Met contract to accept a more lucrative offer and was successfully sued by the Met. His American career was over.
He debuted at La Scala the year following his first Met appearance. He was so successful at the Milan house that Toscanini chose him as Calaf in the world premiere of Puccini’s final opera – Turandot. A somewhat strange choice as Aureliano Pertile was also available. Pertile’s spinto tenor was more suitable for the role than was Fleta’s voice.
Fleta was a sensation. His extraordinary ability to modulate his sound from very loud to almost inaudible without losing full vocal support drove audiences wild. It’s a talent that seems to be a gift from God. It can’t be taught. The only other tenors I know of who possessed this ability were Corelli and Di Stefano. Speaking of God, Fleta brief career gives proof to Dimitri Mitropoulos’ observation That God give voices to stableboys.
Fleta’s life was chaotic. He sang too much pushing his voice to the limit and beyond, he drank to excess, he contracted syphylis, he immersed himself in incendiary Spanish politics – on both sides! He was dead from renal failure at 40. Looking back it seems he was never properly socialized. But for a few years he had a voice unlike any other great tenor.
It’s difficult to put him in the lyric or spinto category. He sang many spinto roles, even if Calaf did not prove suitable. His 38 appearances at the Met included Don José (Carmen), Radames (Aida), Andrea Chenier, and Canio (Pagliacci) – all spinto roles. His last appearance in New York as Canio was part of a Cav and Pag double bill that had Gigli in the Mascagni opera. Nothing this luxurious was offered at the Met until Corelli and Tucker appeared together in the double bill. They did both parts jointly on different occasions.
Fleta’s sound was dark somewhat like that of Jonas Kaufmann. But, as I’ve mentioned, above it was his piano singing that set him apart from all his coevals. It was an effect that some observers thought he over used. He also tended to sometimes add vulgar adornments to his singing. Here’s E lucevan le stelle recorded about the same time as his Met debut. Terrific, easy to understand the review in Musical America of his performance as Cavaradossi: “The newcomer, Fleta, at once captured the favor of the vast audience. At the last bar of his introductory aria the throng cheered, stamped and applauded. This demonstration was richly deserved, for the young artist proved himself a singer of ability and an actor of intelligence. He used his vibrant, velvety voice with discretion and, despite the inevitable nervousness, acted his part like a graceful young cavalier. At every opportunity the audience thundered approval.”
Now listen to the same aria recorded a few years later. The great filatura is still there, but the hysterics at the end are uncalled for as are the excessive rubato and overemphasis of a few syllables. Fleta E lucevan le stelle
Celeste Aida is very well sung, but surprisingly Fleta sings the climactic B-flat fortissimo. Given his extraordinary ability to sing softly, he should have sung the aria’s conclusion as Verdi wrote it.
Vesti la giubba receives a performance unlike any other. The nuanced reading and just the right amount of pathos put Fleta at the top of the list of the innumerable recordings of this aria. The Flower Song from Carmen is an early recording (in Italian) that shows the tenor’s brilliant high notes before over singing dulled them. The Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto was another role he sang at the Met. La donna e mobile is from the last act.
La Bohème was a staple of his repertoire. Che gelida manina shows the nimbleness and flexibility of his voice. Though the high note is not as free as just a bit earlier.
A te o cara is part of an ensemble in Act 1 of Bellini’s I Puritani. I don’t believe Fleta ever sang a staged performance of the opera. This recording was made while the tenor was still in his too brief prime. Another bel canto role is Fernando in Donizetti’s La Favorita. Spirto gentil is from Act 4. Fleta’s soft singing is superb. The declamatory passages are a bit forced.
Lohengrin was also on his list. He sang the role in Barcelona in December of 1926. I’m not sure what language the performance was in. The two following excerpts are in Italian. In fernem land and Mein lieber Schwann are from Act 3 of Wagner’s most performed opera. The messa di voce effects in both arias are virtually never heard in Wagner, even in a work a lyrical as Lohengrin.
As Fleta’s vocal troubles increased – from about age 30 on – he increasingly turned to zarzuela. El Huésped del Sevillano is a 1926 zarzuela by Jacinto Guerrero (1895-1951). Mujer de los negros ojos makes no great demands on the tenor and plays to his strength. Even after his halcyon days were gone, Fleta could be very impressive with the right kind of music. The aubade from Laslo’s Le roi d’Ys was recorded around 1932 – I don’t have the exact date handy. He manages the well known piece quite well.
Fleta belongs in a special class of artist – Maria Callas is another example – one who burns away like a super nova but who has a unique gift that sets him apart from everyone else. Giuseppe Di Stefano also belongs in this rare category, though he hung around for decades after the fire was extinguished. Fortunately for the generations that came after Fleta’s brief span at the very top of the opera world, we have scores of recordings that show him at his best. He made in total about 100 recordings, all of which are still available.