Lina Pagliughi’s parents were of Italian origin: her mother hailed from Albareto, near Parma and her father, though born in Montevideo, was from a Genoese family. When Lina was two, the family moved from New York to San Francisco, where the large Italian immigrant population organized numerous musical events. She began to sing in public with success from the age of eight, often accompanied at the piano by her sister Flora. Because of her excellent musical recall—she was able to sing songs perfectly after just a single initial hearing—Lina was hailed as a prodigy by a local newspaper and sought to pursue a musical education.
Initial parental opposition was quelled when Beniamino Gigli and Luisa Tetrazzini both recognized Pagliughi’s exceptional qualities. At the age of fifteen, having first studied in Brescia, she moved to Milan where she studied repertoire with Gaetano Bavagnoli before making her operatic stage debut as Gilda / Rigoletto in 1927 at Milan’s Teatro Nazionale. This was soon followed by the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele, Turin whereupon Pagliughi was promptly cast in HMV’s complete recording of Rigoletto, conducted by Carlo Sabajno, the first electrical recording of this opera. Another significant event was her early marriage to the tenor Primo Montanari (1895–1972).
During 1928 she toured South America, when she sang her first, unscheduled, Violetta / La traviata with great success. Pagliughi subsequently fulfilled engagements in Holland, Monte Carlo and Spain as well as throughout Italy, making her debut at La Scala, Milan in 1930 as Gilda. She toured Australia in 1932, extending her repertoire beyond Lucia, Gilda and Rosina / Il barbiere di Siviglia to include Norina / Don Pasquale and Olympia / Les Contes d’Hoffmann, as well as recording a best-selling account of the Mad Scene from Lucia for HMV. Having made her first broadcast for Italian radio in 1934, Pagliughi continued to be a prolific radio performer for the rest of her career, using her skills as a quick learner to sing in many non-repertoire operas.
In 1937 she returned to La Scala to sing Sinaide / Mosè. During 1938 she sang Lucia there opposite Gigli, appeared with him at the Royal Opera House, London in Rigoletto, and toured South America once again with several stars from the Metropolitan Opera, New York. A further tour, this time of concert engagements in the US, followed in 1940.
The outbreak of World War II now significantly affected Pagliughi’s career. Despite excellent New York reviews, she returned to Italy as soon as she could, remaining active throughout the country until 1943. However, as hostilities became more ferocious she moved with her husband to Cesenatico on the Adriatic and then, identified by the German occupying forces as an American, took refuge in the mountains near Forli until the arrival of Allied troops.
Pagliughi resumed her career in 1945, making her last appearance at La Scala in 1947 as Lucia opposite Gigli. During 1948 she sang Elvira / I puritani in Rome, Lucia in Naples and recorded Gilda for the sound track of a film of Rigoletto with Tito Gobbi. She continued to sing Gilda, Lucia and Violetta, as well as giving concerts in Italy and Switzerland, until she retired in 1960, after which she became a respected teacher.
Her voice, which was especially sweet and agile, showed very little sign of deterioration during her later years. Although somewhat hampered dramatically by her considerable size, this was forgotten as soon as she began to sing. Pagliughi continued the line of distinguished Italian bel canto singers represented by Tetrazzini, Galli-Curci and dal Monte; her numerous broadcast, as well as commercial, recordings have ensured that her very considerable art can still be admired in some depth.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).