Born in France to Italian parents, Gina Cigna initially trained as a pianist, studying with Alfred Cortot at the Paris Conservatoire, where she was awarded a gold medal for her playing, and embarking on a career as a professional pianist. However, after meeting the distinguished French tenor Maurice Sens, whom she married in 1923, she followed his advice and turned to singing. Cigna studied with Emma Calvé, Hariclea Darclée and Rosina Storchio, but was mainly self-taught.
In 1926 she auditioned for Toscanini at La Scala, Milan, where she made her début in 1927 under her married name of Genoveffa Sens as Freia/Das Rheingold, without attracting much attention. During the following year she appeared at Monte Carlo as Musetta/La Bohème while continuing to study with Storchio and Giannina Russ. Under the name Gina Cigna she sang the title rôle in Catalani’s Loreley at Carpi and appeared at Trieste in Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly and at Nice.
Cigna returned to La Scala in 1929, this time enjoying great success as Donna Elvira/Don Giovanni, and appearing a few weeks afterwards as Elisabeth/Tannhäuser. From now until 1945 she was to be one of the principal dramatic sopranos of La Scala, alongside Maria Caniglia. She participated in the first Maggio Musicale at Florence in 1933 as Abigaille/Nabucco, which she also sang in Milan; and sang almost every year from 1929 to 1937 at the Verona Arena, in the title rôles of Norma, Tosca and Turandot.
Now Cigna rapidly established an international presence, appearing in Europe at Munich (1931–1932, 1936–1938); at Covent Garden, London, in 1933, 1936, 1937 (Aida) and 1939 (Leonora/Il trovatore); at the Paris Opera in 1933 (Aida), 1935 (Norma) and 1936 (Tosca); in Amsterdam, Brussels and Vienna (1936); Berlin (1937) and at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, in 1939. Her début at the Metropolitan Opera, New York was in 1937 as Aida opposite Giovanni Martinelli, swiftly followed by Leonora (Il trovatore), and the title rôles in La Gioconda and Norma. She returned the following season, when in addition to Aida and Norma she sang Donna Elvira and Santuzza/Cavalleria rusticana. She also appeared in Chicago and in San Francisco. During World War II Cigna sang mainly in Milan and Rome; a particular highlight was her assumption of the title rôle in the 1942 Italian premiere of Richard Strauss’s Daphne at La Scala.
While travelling to Vicenza to sing Tosca in 1947, Cigna was involved in a horrific motor accident and had to crawl through the window of the car to escape. On arrival in Vicenza she went on to sing as scheduled, but then suffered a heart attack after which she was unable to perform on stage again. Henceforth she devoted herself to teaching in Milan, Canada, and at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena (1957–1965), many of her pupils going on to enjoy illustrious careers.
Cigna’s voice was notable for its powerfully plangent quality, and in particular for a continuous fast vibrato seldom heard in later singers. She could vary her tone so that in dramatic repertoire she sounded mature, yet youthful in other works (for instance Gounod’s Faust); and had the unusual ability of creating an intense atmosphere through the quality of her singing. She took the title parts in the first complete recordings of Norma (1937) and Turandot (1938), both conducted by Vittorio Gui for the Italian Cetra label.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).