Since Valletti, there has been no one remotely like him. He had what until recently I would have called one of the smallest tenor voices I have heard in major roles of even the leggiero sort, and its effective range was limited at the top. But because every note had clarity of emission and precision of intonation and pronuncia, and because he had mastered the arts of calling to us from afar with delicate, melancholy tints and then, like a pitcher with a sneaky fastball, surprising us with a pregnancy of tone, he gave an illusion of presence well past the actual decibel level. He sang Schumann and Wolf, Berlioz and Fauré, exquisitely and movingly in their native tongues.
Valletti gives us the most scrupulously articulated, coloristically realized version of the aria I know of, and does so without any suggestion of appliqué. When I talk of scrupulous articulation, I don’t mean that all indications are obediently regurgitated, but that the singer picks up on the little twists of feeling behind them, and voices those. Verdi had to have meant something by them–what is it? My favorite one in this aria I have never, to the best of my recollection, heard sung as marked. Verdi sets the words “ella temprò col placido” on a rising line leading into into a little grouping of eighth notes on the word “sorriso.” Thus: “she has tempered [my bounding spirits] with her peaceful (now the little grouping) smile [of love.]” These notes are marked staccato under a phrase arc (a common articulation in Verdi’s scoring), augmented by the instruction “stentato.” The notes are even in value, and this would be a uniquely bouncy, endearing reading of the word “smile” if sung as written. But no tenor can refrain from dotting the grouping and rendering the“stentato” (which implies a held-back kind of emphasis) as heavy accents–an entirely different, if enthusiastic, effect. Valletti’s inclination to understatement brings him closer to the original than most, but it’s still not quite what the composer suggested.
Examples of articulations Valletti does observe inimitably are the ppp markings on, again, the word “quasi” (“io vivo quasi in ciel” in the aria proper) and on the repetition of “dell’amor” (“sorriso dell’amor, dell’amor”). I can’t quite explain why Verdi wanted the ppp on “quasi” (“I live–s-s-sh–almost in heaven”?), except that when it’s expertly observed, as opposed to opened out or otherwise set off, it feels right. It’s technically tricky, of course, suddenly pulling the string without losing the line or sounding precious, and is related to the subito piano effect we sometimes hear from early 20th Century Italians on sustained notes in cadential passages–into it forte, then a little catch in the throat, and suddenly we’re at half-voice. A lost art. Valletti, more observant of the text than Di Stefano, is no less in personal possession of the music.
And once again I have arrived at the end of my self-allotted wordage without having gotten to much of what I intended to cover. Sonia Yoncheva will have to await a more general commentary on aspects of female technique. And the question of how and why one is moved, which is of interest in relation to the purely subjective component of critical analysis, needs more than incidental space. We’ll get there.