About this Recording
8.110781-82 - GREAT SINGERS (1904-1952)
English 

From the earliest days of opera, that combination of all the arts, singers, the prima donna and the primo uomo, heroine and her

From the earliest days of opera, that combination of all the arts, singers, the prima donna and the primo uomo, heroine and hero, have had extraordinary prominence, dramatic, social and commercial. The present anthology includes examples of the art and charisma of many of the greatest singers of the earlier ages of recording.

 

Among the legendary prima donnas is Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931), the Australian diva who claimed to have put her native country on the map. There are many stories about her regal behaviour and apparent disregard for colleagues of whom she disapproved. Born Helen Mitchell, she took her stage name from her native Melbourne, and left it to Melba toast and to Escoffier’s Pêche Melba. In London she appeared at Covent Garden, which she regarded as her artistic home, and secured a place for herself in society. She appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and at La Scala, Milan, toured in Australia and did much to promote music there, in spite of her reported advice to Clara Butt to ‘sing ‘em muck: it’s all they can understand’, counsel that she indignantly denied having given. She made her farewell appearance at Covent Garden in 1926 and spent her final years at home in Australia. She recorded from 1904, and the aria here included is Sweet bird that shunn’st the noise of folly, from Handel’s setting of Milton’s Il penseroso. This was recorded in 1904 at Melba’s London home in Great Cumberland Place, a retake, after an earlier recorded lapse in concentration.

 

Dame Maggie Teyte (1888-1976) followed Mary Garden in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. She was a pupil in Paris of Jean de Reszke, the tenor who had had the unfortunate task in 1896 of singing Siegfried to the inappropriate Brünnhilde of Melba. After earlier operatic success that also brought appearances in London and America, she turned her attention to operetta and musical comedy, returning in the later 1930s to re-establish herself in French recital repertoire, often performing songs by composers whom she had known in France, Debussy, Ravel, Reynaldo Hahn and others. She recorded Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis in 1936 with Alfred Cortot.

 

One of Maggie Teyte’s later appearances in London was with the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Bernard Miles’s newly established Mermaid Theatre. Flagstad’s earlier career had been in Oslo, where she sang a variety of rôles, and in the 1930s began to appear in Wagner. She sang Isolde in Oslo in 1932 and followed this with the same rôle at Bayreuth. In 1935, after coaching with George Szell, she appeared at the Met as Sieglinde, followed by Isolde, Brünnhilde and Kundry, establishing a reputation as one of the great Wagnerian sopranos. She spent the war years at home in German-occupied Norway, where her husband was later accused of collaboration, and her return to the stage, while welcomed in London, was hotly opposed in America, although she was eventually able to recover something of her former position. Heard here in Isolde’s Liebestod, she was partnered by the Danish singer Lauritz Melchior, the greatest of the Wagnerian tenors of the day, in the 1936 Covent Garden recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Flagstad recorded with Melchior Kundry’s Ich sah das Kind an seiner Mutter Brust, from the second act of Parsifal, in November 1940 in Philadelphia. Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973) had appeared at Bayreuth and from 1926 until his retirement in 1950 sang at the Met. He became an American citizen in 1947, but refused to appear with Flagstad after the war.

 

Flagstad’s predecessor in Wagner at the Met had been Frida Leider (1888-1975). Born in Berlin, her ambition was aroused by hearing Geraldine Farrar and Frieda Hempel at the Imperial Opera. She began her career singing Venus in Tannhäuser at Halle in 1915, following this with Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in Nuremberg. In 1920 she appeared in Hamburg, undertaking a variety of rôles in addition to Wagnerian. In 1923 she made her first appearance at the Berlin Staatsoper as Fidelio, and this house was at the centre of her career until 1940. She made her début at the Met in 1933 as Isolde, a rôle in which she excelled, but events in Germany led her to return home, after her first season there, leading to the house’s recruitment of Flagstad. Married to a Jewish husband, the violinist Rudolf Deman, leader of the Berlin Staatsoper Orchestra, who was forced into exile in Switzerland in 1940, she thereupon turned her attention to recitals, which allowed her to visit Switzerland. She gave her last concert in 1946. Her Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin? from Fidelio was recorded in 1928.

 

Between 1929 and 1933 Erna Berger (1900-1990) sang at Bayreuth, appearing as the Shepherd Boy in Tannhäuser, the Forest Bird in Siegfried and Woglinde in Rheingold. She had made her 1925 début at the Dresden Staatsoper as the first boy in Die Zauberflöte, and she continued with a number of characteristic Mozart rôles to which her voice was well suited, first appearing at Salzburg as Blonde and ending her last season there in 1955 as Zerlina. Covent Garden heard her in 1934 as Marzelline and in 1949 she made her début at the Met as Sophie. Particularly famous were her Queen of the Night, and, as here, her Konstanze.

 

Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952) made her début in 1909 at the Hamburg Stadttheater as the Shepherd Boy in Tannhäuser, remaining with the company until 1919, when she moved, at Richard Strauss’s persuasion, to Vienna. There she continued until the Anschluss in 1938, when she settled in New York. Like Erna Berger, her voice was particularly suited to rôles such as Blonde, Zerlina and Despina in Mozart, and she too made a notable Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, a rôle which she sang in London in 1924. She also won fame as a Lieder singer, and is represented here by Schubert’s The Shepherd on the Rock, which she recorded in 1937 with the English clarinettist Reginal Kell.

 

Born in Vitebsk, Jennie Tourel (1900-1973) left Russia at the Revolution, studied in Paris and made her American début in 1930, singing later at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, for short periods at the Met in 1937 and in the 1940s, and, notably, in 1951 at La Fenice, where she created the rôle of Baba the Turk. She recorded Mussorgsky’s Serenade with Leonard Bernstein in 1950.

 

The American-born soprano Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981), the daughter of Italian immigrant parents, made a remarkable operatic début at the Met in 1918, when she partnered Caruso in the first Met performance of Verdi’s La forza del destino. She continued her career at the same house, undertaking 21 different rôles, until 1937, when she decided to retire. She made her first recordings in 1918 and recorded Mira d’acerbe lagrime from Il trovatore two years later.

 

Pia Tassinari (1903- 1995) began her career as a soprano, later changing to mezzo-soprano rôles. She appeared at La Scala and other Italian houses in the 1930s and after the war also performed in America. At the Met in 1947 she sang Tosca, with her husband Ferruccio Tagliavini as Cavaradossi. Her later, mezzo rôles included Carmen, Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther and Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera. She is heard here in the Grand Aria from the second act of Orefice’s opera Chopin, recorded in 1949 and with her husband in the poignant Garden Scene from Werther. Ferruccio Tagliavini (b.1913) made his operatic début in Florence in 1938 as Rodolfo. From 1947 to 1954 he appeared at the Met, where he returned for a season in 1961. He sang at La Scala and won praise in London for his Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore. He is heard here also in M’appari from Flotow’s opera Martha, recorded in 1949.

 

It was in the operas of Richard Strauss that the German soprano Lotte Lehmann (1888-1976) won her early fame, starting when she sang the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos in Vienna in 1916. Her career in Vienna continued until 1938, when she moved to America, having already established her reputation there from her earlier appearances at the Met. She excelled as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and continued to give recitals until 1951. She recorded Marietta’s Lute Song, Glück das mir verblieb, from Korngold’s precocious opera Die tote Stadt, in 1924 with Richard Tauber as Paul.

 

The English contralto Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) had a relatively short career, appearing principally in oratorio and in recital. She made her operatic début in 1946 in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne, where she sang Gluck’s Orfeo the following year. Her last two appearances were in this rôle at Covent Garden in 1953, cut short by her final illness. Under Bruno Walter she sang in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947 and they recorded the work in 1948 in Carnegie Hall. The movement Von der Schönheit is included here.

 

The Swedish tenor Set Svanholm (1904-1964) made his operatic début at the Royal Swedish Opera in 1930 in baritone rôles, but by 1936 had changed to undertaking heavier tenor parts in Wagner and Verdi. After the war he was the first Peter Grimes in Sweden, sang Siegfried at the Met, and appeared regularly at Covent Garden. He served as director of the Swedish Royal Opera from 1956 to 1963. He is heard here in the Prize Song from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, recorded in 1947.

 

One of the most famous operatic duets is O soave fanciulla, from Puccini's La Bohème. Here it is sung in a recording by the great Italian soprano, LICIA ALBENESE (b.1908) and the tenor GIUSEPPE DI STEFANO (b.1921). He had made his operatic début, first sang at La Scala in 1947 and started his association with the Met the following year, continuing to appear there until 1965. He first appeared in Britain in Edinburgh in 1957 as Nemorino, part of a short season that, however briefly, included an appearance by Maria Callas in La Sonnambula.

 

The name of Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) won legendary fame as perhaps the greatest tenor of the twentieth century, whatever the earlier technical deficiencies in his training, gradually overcome as his career advanced. He made his début in Naples in 1894, but it was in 1901 that he won his first great success at La Scala in L’elisir d’amore, an opera in which he also appeared in the same year in his native Naples, to an indifferent reception that dissuaded him from further appearances there. In 1902 he made his début at Covent Garden, going on to appear in leading opera houses throughout Europe. 1903 brought his début at the Met, where he returned in the following years, appearing there for the last time in 1920 in Halévy’s opera La Juive. His fame spread also through his many recordings, the first of which, including Una furtiva lagrima, were made in Milan in 1902. The commercial success

of this first venture opened the way for recordings by other singers, including eventually Melba, with whom Caruso had made his first appearance at Covent Garden.

 

Richard Tauber (1891-1948) was later associated with lighter lyric tenor repertoire and Viennese operetta, and made a popular reputation for himself both in his native Austria and in England, his adopted country. He had made his operatic début at Chemnitz in 1913 as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte, a rôle he sang at Covent Garden in 1938, with those of Belmonte in Die Entführung and in 1939 Don Ottavio. He was heard again at Covent Garden as Don Ottavio in 1947, the year before his death. He first sang Wilhelm Meister in Mignon in Dresden in 1913 and recorded the German version of Adieu Mignon (Leb’wohl Mignon) in 1923.

 

Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957) made his operatic début in 1914 in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, a work that had brought Caruso his first success in Palermo in 1897. He went on to establish a reputation in various houses in Italy and then in Spain before his first triumph at La Scala in 1918 in Boito’s Mefistofele, the work in which he first appeared at the Met in 1920. He continued in New York as principal tenor for a further twelve seasons, appearing in 29 of his many rôles. He discontinued his association with the Met in 1932, declining a reduced salary offer, and made his career thereafter in Italy, other European countries, and South America. Well known for the sob in his voice, whether in the Ingemisco of Verdi’s Requiem or in poignant operatic arias, he is heard here in Canio’s Un tal gioco, credetemi from Pagliacci, recorded in the opera in 1934.

 

In a professional career of some thirty years the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960) first appeared as a treble in the family vocal quartet established and trained by his father. He joined the Royal Swedish Opera in 1930, appearing first in that year as Don Ottavio. Towards the end of the decade he was heard in London, San Francisco, Chicago and at the Met in New York. His earlier recordings are largely in Swedish, but it was Italian repertoire, Verdi and Puccini, that was at the heart of his achievement. He is heard here in Nessun dorma from Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, recorded in 1944.

 

With a reputation as one of the greatest singing actors of his time, the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) appeared first with the Imperial Opera in St Petersburg, then with the privately owned Mamontov Opera and, from 1899 until 1914, at the Bolshoy. He started his international career in 1901, when he sang Mefistofele in Boito’s opera at La Scala, a rôle repeated at the Met, where he made his début in 1907. He appeared in the Paris seasons staged by Dyagilev before 1914, and returned briefly to the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, before leaving Russia in 1921. His repertoire ranged from the Russian operas in which he had first made his name to standard Italian and French works. It was for Chaliapin that Massenet wrote the title rôle of his 1910 opera Don Quichotte. Part of the final scene between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Oh, mon maître … Oui! Je fus le chef, was recorded in 1927.

 

The Italian bass Ezio Pinza (1892-1957), made his début in 1914 as Oroveso in Bellini’s Norma. He appeared in the 1920s at La Scala under Toscanini and made his début at the Met in 1926, when he sang the Pontifex Maximus in Spontini’s La vestale. He continued at the Met for some 22 seasons in many different rôles. His later career, after 1948, was largely in operetta and musical comedy. He sang with Maria Caniglia, Ebe Stignani and Beniamino Gigli in the historical 1939 recording of Verdi’s Requiem, from which the Confutatis maledictis of the Dies irae is included.

 

The Italian soprano, RENATA TEBALDI  took part in the re-opening concert at La Scala under Toscanini in 1946 and went on to sing Mimì and Eva in the new season.  She sang in London first in 1950 and in 1955 made her début at the Met, where she continued to appear over the following two decades. She is heard here in Puccini’s much loved aria Sì, mi chiamano Mimì from her first La Bohème recording of 1951.

 

Keith Anderson


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