FELIA LITVINNE (1860 - 1936)
Félia Litvinne was born Françoise-Jeanne Schütz to a Russian father and mother of Franco-Canadian descent. Her mother’s influence was considerable, in an extremely musical family: her brother was an impresario and conductor and one of her sisters was married to the Polish bass Édouard de Reszke. After study in Russia, Switzerland and Italy, which enabled her to become multi-lingual in Russian, French, Italian, German and English, Litvinne moved with her family to Paris, where she studied singing with Mme Barthe-Banderali for three years and took lessons with Victor Maurel and Pauline Viardot-Garcia. Her voice was of the type known as ‘falcon’, after Marie-Cornélie Falcon (1814–1897), in that it possessed a wide range encompassing the capability for both mezzo-soprano and soprano coloratura roles.
In Paris Litvinne made an unanticipated debut in 1883, substituting as Amelia / Simon Boccanegra at the Théâtre des Italiens, where Maurel was a co-director; her formal debut came the following year as Elvira / Ernani. Maurel then invited Litvinne to tour the French provinces with him, after which she appeared in Geneva and Barcelona and toured America with the Mapleson Company during 1885. She sang at the Monnaie in Brussels for the three seasons from 1886 to 1890, where her roles included Brünnhilde / Die Walküre, Valentine / Les Huguenots, Selika / L’Africaine and Gertrude / Hamlet (Thomas), as well as leading parts in La Gioconda, Sigurd and Hérodiade.
At the Paris Opera Litvinne first appeared in 1889, as Valentine. She enjoyed great success at La Scala, Milan as Gertrude in 1890, and from that year to 1893 sang annually in Russia, where she was much admired by the royal family. A short-lived marriage between 1893 and 1895 took her away from the stage, but she returned to La Scala for the 1895–1896 season, taking part in the creation of Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII, followed by Samson et Dalila. She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1896 as Valentine; also singing Selika and Chimène / Le Cid (all ‘falcon’ parts), as well as the soprano roles of Aida, Donna Anna / Don Giovanni, Marguerite / Faust, Brünnhilde / Siegfried and Isolde / Tristan und Isolde, and the mezzo role of Gertrude.
Competition from Lilli Lehmann and Lillian Nordica meant that Litvinne was not invited to return to the Met. She settled in Paris, singing Isolde in 1899 (the first complete performance of Tristan in France) and Brünnhilde / Götterdämmerung in 1902, conducted by Alfred Cortot. Between 1899 and 1910 she sang regularly at the Royal Opera House, London, following her debut as Isolde, enjoying greater success here than in New York: her roles included Donna Anna, Aida and Gioconda, as well as Brünnhilde in a complete Ring cycle in 1905.
Litvinne returned to St Petersburg in 1900 and at the Monnaie sang the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde in 1901, followed by the complete Ring cycle in 1903. In Paris at the Opéra-Comique she sang in Hérodiade and Don Giovanni (both 1903) and during 1905 performed in concert selections from Les Troyens à Carthage as Didone, as well as singing Gluck’s Alceste. Also that year she sang Kundry / Parsifal in Amsterdam. In 1907 she returned to the Paris Opera in the title role in Gluck’s Armide, followed by Walküre, Henry VIII and Götterdämmerung in 1909; and in 1912 the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde in the first complete Ring cycle to be given in France, conducted by Weingartner.
As equally active in concert as in a theatrical milieu, Litvinne created her last operatic role, de Polignac’s Judith de Béthule, at the Paris Opera in 1916, which also served as her operatic farewell. She gave recitals until 1924 and remained active as a teacher, being appointed to a professorship at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau. Her pupils included Germaine Lubin and Nina Koshetz.
Many contemporary critics commented upon the flame-like character of Litvinne’s brilliant, flexible and impassioned singing. Although she recorded for several labels, on both cylinder and disc, her recordings in their original state are now very rare.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).