Saturday, January 31, 2004


WAGNER TENOR ROLES
--Geoffrey Riggs


This may seem incredibly Quixotic, but I thought it might prove intriguing if I were to risk putting out here a few thoughts on the relative difficulties of some of the Wagner tenor rep. I have not included every single tenor role Wagner ever wrote (like Froh or David, for instance). I decided to restrict myself to ten alone, and let the chips fall where they may. Please bear in mind that I have put out my thoughts here merely as a way of stimulating further discussion: either on where or how I may have been led astray in the following, or, conversely, on where any of my points may resonate positively with other posters who might wish to amplify with further reflections of their own.

There are five parameters, IMO, in the Wagner tenor rep: endurance at the top of the range, strength and amplitude in the low, stamina through a long role, eccentricities of musical style and, finally, consistency of heavy orchestral writing surrounding the role's vocal line.

For endurance at the top of the range, some have a more overwhelmingly taxing high tessitura than others.

First is the lineup from most taxing in the highs to least. What's being measured here is not which roles merely have the highest note; instead, what's being measured here is high tessitura: in other words, which roles spend the most time in the upper register generally. They may or they may not reach the highest tenor notes Wagner ever used. The chief consideration instead is how much time is spent in a vocal vicinity that is near or at those highest notes. Hence the word, tessitura, signifying the general *texture*, is applicable here.

Here are some Wagner tenor roles arranged acc. to high tessitura, starting with the most extreme, IMO:

Eric/Walther
Rienzi/Tannhauser/young Siegfried
Lohengrin
Goetterd. Siegfried
Tristan
Siegmund/Parsifal

The mirror image of this list relates to a fundamental component in a number of Wagner tenor roles: the degree of rich baritonal coloring necessary. It's rare and risky for any tenor to spend too much time beefing up the low and singing throughout a long evening practically like a baritone. In its way, that's as risky as spending too much time in the upper register, whether or not one actually sings one's very highest note. In this case, I would judge that the safest balance for the voice is found in Lohengrin, although that's hardly saying it's easy! It's just that the balance in Lohengrin found between high and low makes it arguably one of the -- relatively -- safest entrees for any tenor first dipping into Wagner, IMO. Taking Lohengrin as a control, therefore, one can judge that the most baritonal roles in the Wagner tenor rep are

Siegmund/Parsifal

followed by

Tristan
Goett. Siegfried
Lohengrin

after which the balance goes the other way, IMO, with

Rienzi/Tannhauser/young Siegfried
Eric/Walther

leading up the rear.

When it comes to stamina, the lineup, IMO, from most rigorous to least, is:

Tristan/young Siegfried
Rienzi/Tannhauser
Goett. Siegfried
Walther/Siegmund
Lohengrin/Parsifal
Eric

For those coming to Wagner from the more traditional rep, the acclimatization factor re musical style operates most significantly at the top of this following lineup, IMO:

Tristan/young Siegfried/Parsifal
Siegmund
Goett. Siegfried
Tannhauser
Walther/Lohengrin
Eric
Rienzi

When it comes to consistency of heavy orchestral writing, the lineup from heaviest to lightest is, IMO:

Tristan/young Siegfr./Goett. Siegfr.
Rienzi/Tannhauser
Siegmund
Parsifal
Lohengrin/Walther
Eric

Again, all of these five groupings are merely my personal estimates, and, sincerely, one of my goals in putting this out today is to stimulate further estimates from others, agreeing or disagreeing, who may have strong opinions of their own, based on the kind of in-depth knowledge typical of most of the contributors on this forum.

In assessing these parameters as a group, one has to acknowledge that, naturally, every different tenor is slightly different from every other. What's easier for one may be harder for another (Vickers' shying away from the young Siegfried but glorying in Tristan versus Jerusalem's being reasonably musical in the young Siegfried while consistently "gruffing" up Tristan ludicrously, IMO, and so on). However, if taken in terms of ease of casting for the impresario rather than ease of execution for individual tenors, then the emerging rarity of certain types of singers for potentially embarrassed impresarios helps focus the differences more clearly.

The Goett. Siegfried, for instance, only appears at the top of one of the five parameters, for heavy orchestration, and in the middle for all the others, so it can be slotted in as the easiest to cast of the *full-fledged* Heldentenor roles (the others in chronological order being Rienzi, Tannhauser, Tristan and the young Siegfried). OTOH, Rienzi and Tannhauser appear toward the top thrice: at second place for high tessitura, for stamina and for heavy orchestration respectively. The young Siegfried appears toward the top four times: in second place for high tessitura and at the top for unusual musical style, for sheer stamina and for heavy orchestration respectively. Tristan also appears toward the top four times: second place for baritonal gravity, first place for unusual musical style, for sheer stamina and for heavy orchestration respectively.

As a matter of fact, when examining this more closely, we see that Tristan and the young Siegfried are mirror images of each other, so to speak, with Tristan uncomfortably baritonal (in second place next to Siegmund/Parsifal) and the young Siegfried uncomfortably high (in second place next to Eric/Walther) -- a "wash". So the final lineup from hardest to cast to easiest starts out with a tie: Tristan/young Siegfr.

Similarly, for the least difficult to cast, we apparently have another "wash". Eric is in first place alongside Walther for high tessitura, but entirely lyrical and at the bottom when it comes to orchestration, whereas Lohengrin is slightly heavier in orchestration and a longer role while being relatively benign in tessitura, whether assessed either in terms of high tessitura or baritonal emphasis. So -- and it just came out this way -- there's a two-way "wash" both at the top and at the bottom of this lineup.

From hardest to easiest to cast, the Wagner tenor lineup, IMO, is:

Tristan/young Siegfried
Tannhauser
Rienzi
Goet. Siegfr.
Siegmund
Parsifal
Walther
Eric/Lohengrin

Again, bear in mind that this final synthesis, personal as it is, is, in turn, based on entirely personal syntheses when it comes to what I view as the respective orders for these ten roles in each of the other five main parameter lineups detailed above. Both my lineups for each of the five parameters above and this final synthesis are emphatically up for discussion, nor do I think this Quixotic posting worthwhile unless it stimulates considerable refinements, demurs, stern corrections or amplifications from others.

Cordially,

Geoffrey Riggs
www.operacast.com

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