Eugenia Burzio: Verismo Soprano

Complete Recorded Operatic Repertoire


Eugenia Burzio is known as one of the most famous female interpreters of verismo. She was an actress of gripping intensity whose career centered in Italy and whose recorded legacy closely mirrored her stage career in time and repertoire. Her voice was rich, dramatic and passionate. Like some singers who lived and performed at the cusp of the century, Burzio harkened to the past, using an emphatic open chest voice. This two CD set contains at least one recording of every aria and ensemble recorded by Burzio. It also contains an unpublished test pressing of "Non fui da un padre" from Loreley as well as other rarities on Fonotipia and Pathé. Liner notes are presented by William Ashbrook.

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Liner Notes

La Burzio may not be the ideal singer for everyone. J. B. Steane, in his book The Grand Tradition, allows Burzio some points, but not without some reservation: “Her recordings show a vibrant voice and a passionate style, which was imaginative and exciting at best but open to many criticisms.” But, those who can find pleasure in over-the-top commitment and intensity will find much that is admirable, even awesome, in Burzio’s artistry.

She was a belcantista with a verista’s emotional instincts. She can sail not quite imperturbably through complicated gruppetti, yet her attention to the significance of the text is exceptionally insightful. It seems as though she is always singing in italics. Listen, for example, how she varies that freighted and thrice-repeated word “Fatalità!” in the piano-accompanied Fonotipia recording of “Pace, pace”. (CD1, Track 8)

Eugenia Burzio was born in Poirino near Turin in what may well have been 1879, but a date as early as 1872 has also been suggested. Her musical aptitude made itself apparent when she was still a child, beginning with serious study of the violin. When she determined to become a singer, she gained a scholarship to the Milan Conservatorio. She made her first stage appearance at the Teatro Vittorio Emmanuele in Turin as Santuzza in 1899, when she was perhaps twenty or maybe twenty-seven. Following on the heels of Gemma Bellincioni and Emma Carelli, Burzio found the overt emotionalism and the more specific diction of such operas as Tosca, Adriana Lecouvreur, and Fedora congenial to her temperament. She was also an actress of gripping intensity, as I learned from Max de Schauensee, who told me that during the first decade of the twentieth century his parents would never dream of missing a Burzio performance at Florence’s Teatro Communale.

Burzio suffered from nervousness and became addicted to substances to help her sleep. On one occasion, according to reports, some combination of drugs caused her to lose her voice for a time. To put this artist in better perspective, it is important to recognize that she was capable of grandeur. The majesty with which she utters the word “Suicidio!” at the beginning of La Gioconda’s Act 4 aria and, indeed, the aura of tragic dignity she lends this whole monologue put other renditions of this aria in the shade. (CD 2, Track 12) The same tragic afflatus endows her Columbia two-sided version of Norma’s “Deh! Non volerli vittime” with a sense of sublime vulnerability. (CD 2, Track 4)

In March 1906, Burzio bowed at La Scala as Katiusha in Alfano’s Risurrezione, when that opera was first mounted there. The conductor on that occasion was Leopoldo Mugnone, and appearing with her were the tenor Piero Schiavazzi and the baritone Riccardo Stracciari. Her next role there was Loreley in Catalani’s eponymous opera, but only for one performance as she had been recruited into what was optimistically hoped would be the salvaging of Franchetti’s La Figlia di Jorio. Four days after the short-circuited Loreley she scored a personal triumph as Mila di Codra in La Figlia di Jorio, that opera based upon D’Annunzio’s overcharged drama of peasant life in Abruzzi.

The following year Burzio returned to La Scala, where Toscanini, a returnee himself that season, ushered her into her major repertory. After her early encounters with veristic roles, she moved into more traditional, classic parts, but lavishing upon them the same intensity and immediacy of response that won her her first laurels. Burzio sang Gioconda in what was the first performance of Ponchielli’s opera at La Scala in eighteen years for want of an adequate soprano. Toscanini directed her there in Aida, La Wally, and Cavalleria Rusticana. In December 1907 she sang an enthusiastically received Tosca, also led by Toscanini, and the following February 1908 she enjoyed another successful run of Giocondas. That fall the conductor went to the Met in New York, and Burzio, after visits to Buenos Aires for Gli Ugonotti, returned to La Scala, now with Tullio Serafin at the helm, in Pacini’s Saffo (20 January 1911). She opened the following season as Gluck’s Armida, and three months later she introduced a triumphant Norma.

On 12 June 1911 at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome she sang in the Italian premiere of Pucini’s La Fanciulla del West conducted by Toscanini. It has been reported that the Maestro was worried about Burzio’s health at the time and considered replacing her with Carmen Melis, but Burzio sang the entire run of those Roman Fanciullas (nine performances). Later, under Vittorio Gui’s baton, she introduced Fanciulla’s Minnie to the Teatro Regio in Turin and later sang the same role at the San Carlo, also with Gui. During that Neapolitan season, she further appeared in the title role of Cataloni’s La Wally and as Fleana in Leoncavallo’s Zingari. Her last performances at La Scala were in a well-received series of Loreleys, compensation for the single outing precipitated by the crisis over La Figlia di Jorio nine years earlier.

Subsequently, her health deteriorated and caused her to interrupt her career. Her final appearances were in Ponchielli’s Marion Delorme in 1919. She died prematurely on 18 May 1922, not yet fifty, of kidney failure, a consequence of her addiction to sleep-inducing drugs, and also, it has been rumored, from complications of a venereal origin.

Eugenia Burzio’s recorded legacy is one of the most revealing of any Italian soprano of her generation. The Fonotipias, mostly with piano-accompaniment, date from her first period at La Scala. Her Columbias date from the time she was appearing as Saffo and Norma with Serafin. The Pathé and Phonodisc Mondial recordings were all made by 1916. Conceding the earliest date conjectured for her birth, 1872, this means she was only 44 at most when she made her last batch of recordings.

Her emphatic use of the open chest voice—ugly to some ears, exciting to others—harkens back to the nineteenth century, when large-voiced Italian sopranos emphasized the voce di petto register for dramatic and emotional effect, and were expected to do so. Celestina Boninsegna, who belonged to this tradition, referred to her chest voice straightforwardly: “Era la mia gloria” she declared. We find a similar emphasis on this vocal resource in Burzio’s recording of Gioconda’s “Ecco la barca.” At the repetition of La Cieca’s words when she first gives the rosary to Laura (here at the same pitches), the ease and richness with which Burzio sings the low B-flat (on the final syllable of “E le preghiere aduna”) suggest that her vocal orientation was rather that of a falcon. (CD 2, Track 13) (Her recordings from La Favorita in particular seem to bear this out. Her top C was sometimes skittish.

What to some listeners sounds like an unevenly equalized scale is for a singer of Burzio’s effusive temperament just one of many colors in a rich palette. For instance, the voluptuous tints she lavishes on her Italian version of Grieg’s ‘Solvejg’s Song’ make it sound more like an amorous summons to an Apennine tryst rather than the lilt of some Norse girl gaily caroling on her Scandinavian heights. (CD 2, Track 17)

Her dramatic instincts are particularly apparent in the duet from La Gioconda, where she is joined by Giuseppe De Luca. Her first words, “Sí, il patto mantengo,” are grimly fatalistic, but when she begins her pseudoseduction of Barnaba, “T’arresta!,” the voice begins to glow suggestively. As she asks God’s forgiveness for turning the knife on herself, “Dio mi perdoni 1’immenso peccato,” we hear a soul’s despair. (CD 1, Track 12) In the duet from Il Trovatore with Antonio Magini-Coletti, she is properly dolorous in the “Mira, d’acerbe lagrime,” where the emphasis she gives the word “svenami” is itself hyperbolic, but she sounds overtaxed in the hurdles of the cabaletta, “Vivrà! Contende il giubilo.” (CD 1, Track 3) On the other hand, in the aria from Mefistofele, “L’altra notte in fondo al mare,” Burzio takes the volati perfectly in stride. This finely wrought performance, unusually deliberate in its pacing, shows Burzio plumbing the depths of grief when she refers to her sad soul at “mesta l’anima mia”. (CD 2, Track 11) The Slumber aria from Africana has some gracefully handled fioritura, but her way with Norma’s ....“Ah, bello a me ritorna” is plucky rather than completely immaculate. (CD 1, Track 1) (CD 2, Track 2)

Burzio’s recording of Minnie’s Act 1, “Laggiù nel Soledad” from Fanciulla is of particular interest. As reported above, she participated in the Italian premiere, conducted by Toscanini, who had also led the world premiere at the Met the previous December. One of the most regrettable lacunae in phonograph history is the relative scarcity of examples from this score by the first generation of its interpreters. Burzio’s performance is a marvel of variegated details, particularly in the expansive tenderness she lends to the phrase, “S’amavan tanto!” (CD 1, Track 22) Listening to this endearing performance with the elastic way she contours certain phrases, one cannot help wondering if this really reproduces the way she sang it at the Costanzi with the formidable martinet Toscanini in the pit. The odds and ends of musicians recruited into a recording studio were there to accompany a vocal star, not necessarily to serve a composer scrupulously. It is this resulting sense of untrammeled interpretative freedom that makes Burzio’s records such a particularly engrossing experience because she involved herself so intensely in the emotions of the characters she was representing. She was not a perfect singer with her lack of a trill and her occasional glottal bump or some attenuated portamenti, but such blemishes can easily be forgiven in a singer who, in my estimation, never made an uninteresting recording and also bequeathed us some unforgettable ones.

© William Ashbrook, 1999