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Nancy Tatum: "Operatic Recital"

spacer Wiener Opernorchester, Quadri; Parsons, piano. No texts or translations. Decca 480 8183

Recordings Tatum Operatic Recital Decca Cover 315

This American dramatic soprano remains a figure of mystery. During the 1960s and ‘70s Tatum sang all over the country and all over the world, in major houses, but few remember her today. There is little available biographical material to indicate why her career was short-lived, or what became of her. Reviews indicate that the critics were not always kind, and that poor technique may have been an issue. Yet from the evidence on this disc, which comprises nearly the entirety of her time in the recording studio, Tatum had a massive, thrilling voice and the talent and temperament to back it up.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee (sources vary as to whether it was 1934 or 1937), Tatum worked as a secretary until making her stage debut as Aida at Oper Saarbrücken in 1963. Her single La Scala appearance was in 1966, as Senta, and her single Met appearance was in 1974, as Turandot opposite Corelli. One year later she debuted at New York City Opera, also as Turandot, and sang the role at NYCO several times over the next few seasons.  Tatum took on most of the leading dramatic soprano roles — including Gioconda, Lady Macbeth, and Brünnhilde — in the opera companies of the major European cities. Sadly, her Adalgisa and the Norma of Elena Suliotis were roundly booed at Carnegie Hall during an American Opera Society concert in 1967. 

This Decca Most Wanted Recitals disc comprises the whole of Tatum’s 1965 disc Nancy Tatum: Operatic Recital and bonus excerpts from her 1966 Nancy Tatum: Recital of American Songs. Both are making their CD premieres. The operatic disc leads off with an opulent “Dich, teure Halle,” showing off Tatum’s gleaming high notes, followed by Elisabeth’s Act III prayer, rendered in tones of hushed despair. Weber’s “Ocean, Though Mighty Monster” from Oberon is, quite simply, one of the most thrilling accounts of this demanding aria ever recorded. Singing with fierce commitment, Tatum handles the declamation and the challenging leaps between register extremes with ease. Her diction is very clear, and she lightens her voice successfully to produce the required trill. Although her trills in Verdi’s “Ernani! Ernani involarmi” are less defined, Tatum gives the rather dull character of Elvira a pleasant dash of gutsiness to contrast with her soaring, effortless melismas. The same holds true for Trovatore’s Leonora in “D’amor sull’ali rosee,” and her Aida in “O patria mia” takes a fearless approach to that daunting high C. Tatum also tears into the Gioconda “Suicidio!” with passion and power. One might ask for purer Italian vowels and a smoother sense of phrasing, but this is the kind of mighty dramatic-soprano delivery that seems to be in short supply these days. A bonus is that Tatum’s tone is almost always pleasing to the ear, even in the most harrowing dramatic moments. Argeo Quadri, conducting the Wiener Opernorchester, provides strong support.

The ten excerpts from the American Songs disc can’t help but come as a sort of letdown, small-scaled as they are, with only Tatum’s voice and Geoffrey Parsons’s piano accompaniment. But Tatum hones down her vocal heft enough so that she does not overwhelm the sense of intimacy. Some of these numbers are the sort that were recital standards during the early twentieth century — MacDowell’s “To a Wild Rose,” Kathleen L. Manning’s “Shoes” — but there is also the rarely-heard cycle “Songs of Love and Parting,” by film and television composer Ernest Gold, based on poems of Emily Dickinson and Edna Vincent Millay. Tatum’s English diction is admirably clear in these — at times a bit too much so, with the overly-rolled “r’s” that were probably drilled into her by her old-school voice teachers. spacer 

ERIC MYERS

 

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