Lucrezia Bori was born into an aristocratic Spanish family: her father was an army officer and her mother an amateur singer. She was initially educated at a convent and also studied singing, piano and music theory at Valencia Conservatory. During a trip to Milan in 1908 the full potential of her voice was recognised, leading to further study there with the teachers Sibella and Melchiorre Vidal.
She made her operatic debut at the Teatro Adriano in Rome in October 1908 as Micaëla / Carmen and was promptly invited to sing Mimì / La Bohème in Genoa, appearing also as Manon / Manon, Marguerite / Faust (Gounod), Gilda / Rigoletto and Butterfly / Madama Butterfly in other Italian regional theatres during the 1908–1909 season.
While singing Butterfly at Naples, Bori auditioned for La Scala, Milan (the listening panel consisting of Gatti-Casazza, Puccini and Toscanini) and was quickly engaged for the 1910–1911 season. During the Metropolitan Opera’s visit to Paris in 1910 she was recommended as a substitute for Lina Cavalieri as Manon / Manon Lescaut. Singing opposite Caruso and with Toscanini conducting she enjoyed a great success, but was unable to accept the offer of an immediate engagement at the Met because of her contract with La Scala. She made her debut at La Scala during January 1911 as Carolina / Il matrimonio segreto, followed by Juliette / Roméo et Juliette (Gounod) opposite Leonid Sobinov. During 1911 and 1912 at La Scala she sang Octavian / Der Rosenkavalier, the Goose Girl / Königskinder and Mistress Ford / Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor in the first Italian performances of these works.
During 1911 Bori appeared for the first time in South America, singing Butterfly, Carolina, Puccini’s Manon and Mimì at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Her debut at the Met finally came in November 1912, once again opposite Caruso in Manon Lescaut. The veteran music critic of the New York Times, Henry Krehbiel, wrote: ‘…she surprised the audience, critical and uncritical alike, by the real fineness of her vocal art – by exquisite exhibition of legato singing, by exquisite diction, impeccable intonation and moving pathos.’ In addition to her busy schedule at the Met, Bori sang Nanetta / Falstaff in the Verdi centenary celebrations at Busseto in 1913 with Toscanini conducting, and returned to Buenos Aires in 1914, enjoying great success in the premiere of Carlos López Buchardo’s opera El sueño de Alma with Alessandro Bonci. At the Met during 1914 she sang in the first American performances of Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re (as Fiora) and Wolf-Ferrari’s L’amore medico (as Lucinda), with Toscanini conducting both productions, and during 1915 she appeared as Ah-Yoe in Leoni’s L’oracolo and in the title role of Mascagni’s Iris, while also singing in other repertoire works such as Pagliacci (Nedda), Carmen (Micaëla), La Bohème (Mimì) and Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Antonia).
Between 1915 and 1919 Bori did not sing at all because of nodules on her vocal chords: a series of operations was required to eliminate these, as well as complete silence. Fully recovered, she sang Mimì and Nanetta opposite Beniamino Gigli at Monte Carlo in 1919. She returned to the Metropolitan Opera in 1920, to sing the title role in Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna. Thereafter she was based in New York and became one of the Met’s best-loved stars. She took part in the American premiere of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, as Despina, in 1922. Other new roles which she sang in New York included Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snowmaiden (1922), Suzel / L’amico Fritz (1923), Mistress Ford / Falstaff (1925), Mélisande / Pelléas et Mélisande (1925), Concepción / L’Heure espagnole (1925), Salud / La vida breve (1926), Mignon (1927), Magda / La rondine (1928), Louise (1930) and Mary / Peter Ibbetson (Deems Taylor, 1931) in addition to her regular roles, which also included Violetta / La traviata, Manon, and Giulietta / Les Contes d’Hoffmann.
The financial crash of 1929 and subsequent economic depression caused monetary problems for the Met. As one of the company’s most popular stars, Bori agreed to help it by postponing her retirement from 1933 to 1936. In addition she became the Chair of the ‘Committee to save the Metropolitan Opera House’, working tirelessly to raise funds through appeals and performances. Bori was also active elsewhere in America, appearing at San Francisco in 1933 (Manon, Mimì, Nedda) and in 1934 (Manon, Violetta, Magda and Mignon). She participated in the farewell gala for Gatti-Casazza at the Metropolitan in 1935, and a year later was the centre of her own star-studded farewell gala, the entire proceeds of which she donated to the company. An early radio opera star, Bori continued to broadcast occasionally, also becoming the first singer to be invited to join the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Opera (in 1935). She also became Chair of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, the company’s key supporters’ organisation, in 1941.
Bori was an extremely polished singer and actress. Although her voice was not large and was limited at the top of its range, she used these aspects positively to portray fragile and pathetic characters to great effect. To quote the distinguished Italian critic Rodolfo Celletti, ‘…she imbued them with intense and passionate feeling and, in the comic repertory, with gentle and stylised charm.’ Bori recorded continuously throughout her career, both in the acoustic process and electrically from 1925 to 1937. Her moving singing may also be heard in several early ‘off-air’ recordings, for instance as Mélisande, captured in Boston during the Metropolitan’s 1934 tour.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).