Sembrich’s father was a village musician and violinist who began to teach her the piano when she was four and the violin at the age of six. When she was twelve she entered the Lemberg (Lwów) Conservatory where she studied piano with Wilhelm Stengel (whom she was to marry in 1877) and violin with Sigismond Bruckmann. In 1874, Stengel took her to perform for Liszt, who advised Sembrich to develop her singing. The following year therefore she entered the Vienna Conservatory, where she studied piano with Julius Epstein, violin with Joseph Hellmesberger Sr and singing with Viktor Rokitansky. After a year in Vienna Sembrich decided to devote herself exclusively to singing and in the autumn of 1876 travelled to Milan to study with one of Europe’s then pre-eminent teachers, Giovanni Lamperti (son of another great teacher Francesco Lamperti, with whom she later studied in 1885).
After just a year with the younger Lamperti, Sembrich made her operatic stage debut in 1877 in Athens as Elvira / I puritani, followed by the title roles in Dinorah and Lucia di Lammermoor, Amina / La sonnambula and Isabelle / Robert le Diable. As a result of pregnancy she broke a contract to appear at the Vienna Court Opera, instead continuing her vocal studies with Marie Seebach and Richard Lewy in Vienna; and following a long search for a contract with an opera house, she joined the Dresden Court Opera in 1878, staying until 1880.
In that year Sembrich signed a contract to appear at the Royal Opera House, London for five seasons, making a sensational debut in 1880 as Lucia. She became extremely popular in London, where she appeared as Zerlina / Don Giovanni, Konstanze / Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Lady Harriet / Martha. During this period she toured extensively across Europe, appearing in St Petersburg (1880–1882), Moscow (1881–1882), Madrid (1882, 1884–1885), Paris (1884), Lisbon (1885), Brussels and Budapest (both 1887), Frankfurt (1887–1891) and Monte Carlo (1893–1894). So great was her fame that Johann Strauss II wrote a coloratura vocal part in his waltz Frühlingsstimmen for her.
It was once again as Lucia that Sembrich made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York on the second night of its opening season in 1883, going on to sing also Elvira, Amina, Gilda / Rigoletto, Marguerite / Les Huguenots and Rosina / Il barbiere di Siviglia. As a result of large financial losses the Met abandoned Italian opera for German, but not before a Sunday night concert at the end of the 1883–1884 season during which Sembrich sang several arias, played two movements from a violin concerto by de Beriot and then some Chopin piano studies. She did not return to sing at the Met until 1898, but then reigned as the company’s prima donna until her retirement in 1909.
Among her many notable successes in a vast repertoire were appearances as Violetta / La traviata and the Queen of the Night / Die Zauberflöte (both 1900), Elvira / Ernani (1903) Mimì / La Bohème (which Puccini described as ‘unmatched’) and Rosalinde / Die Fledermaus (1905). During 1907 she enjoyed great success as Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe in a production that ran for 242 performances at the New Amsterdam Theatre, New York.
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of her debut there, Sembrich said farewell to the Met with a gala performance in 1909, after which she toured Europe. In the same year she appeared for the last time on the operatic stage as Rosina in Warsaw and gave her final European recital in Vienna in 1911. She then taught in Berlin and Lausanne as well as in the USA, where she settled after the outbreak of World War I, giving recitals until 1917, the year of the death of her husband.
As a teacher at the Juilliard School and Curtis Institute Sembrich numbered many distinguished singers among her pupils, including Alma Gluck, Queena Mario and Dusolina Giannini. Her teaching studio at Bolton Landing, New York State, has been preserved as a museum.
Considered to be one of the finest sopranos in the history of opera, Sembrich allied a superb technique to equally superb lyrical singing. She recorded extensively, but many recordings were made relatively late in her career and so may not do her full justice.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
|EAMES, Emma: Complete Victor Recordings 1905-1911
|SEMBRICH, Marcella: Victor Recordings 1904-08
|Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Operetta, Opera, Orchestral, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
|SEMBRICH, Marcella: Victor Recordings 1908-19
|Opera, Operetta, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Operetta, Vocal, Operetta, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera||