Pace, Pace Mio Dio

The outpouring of emotion caused by the recent death of Frank Sinatra may remind us of the power of music, and the particular power of the voice, to get under our skin. Sinatra hypnotized three generations with his smoothness, his rhythm, and his matchless enunciation—a notable achievement in English. But though the bobbysoxers called him "The Voice," Sinatra, whatever his accomplishments, never deserved that sobriquet. He didn't have the chops. And there have been a lot of other admirable singers who didn't altogether have what it takes in the vocal department, strictly speaking. So—who was "The Voice," then?

There are legitimate contenders for that title, a number of whom have been dead for well over a century. Then there are some 19th-century legends who come into view—or earshot—as their careers ended and the era of recording began. We can talk about some of the old bel canto singers, artists of the stature of Mattia Battistini, Fernando di Lucia, and others. But the old 78's really started spinning with Enrico Caruso, whose tenor still resounds. Titta Ruffo, the Lion of Baritones, was perhaps the only singer of his range with such charisma that he could sell out an opera house by himself. There were basses then, before and after the Great War, who left imposing evidence of their command: Plancon, Journet, Pinza. But when we look in the soprano range, some think, as I do,...

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