Liner Notes

Her Operatic Legacy

Among the 35 recordings of Félia Litvinne that are known to exist, 27 contain operatic material and eight are songs. Since Litvinne was primarily an operatic singer, I have confined the scope of this article to a survey of her operatic records. While these primitive recordings provide us with only a glimpse at Litvinne’s amazing voice and stage persona, there is much in these grooves that is immediately stunning, and the impression created is indelible. Subtler aspects of her artistry can be savored by further listening and reflection. One recording that aptly represents the majesty and versatility of Litvinne’s voice is her Odeon recording of “Sur mes genoux” from the second act of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine (CD 1, Track 28). We hear Sélika’s expressions of solicitude for Vasco launched in deep-seated tones, which at the same time convey her abiding love and a vague sense of unease. This is, indeed, Sélika’s inner conflict made palpable. Soon the somber vocal line expands into well-articulated downward divisions. Additional cleanly articulated flourishes, encompassing both upward and downward runs, climax with a superb trill held across a brace of notes leading to the tonic. Throughout, there is a satin-smooth legato, which imparts an aura of grandeur to the entire aria.

Reference books often categorize this tantalizing artist incorrectly as a dramatic soprano. Yet, how often does a dramatic soprano have such expert control of coloratura? Besides, do not Litvinne’s opening phrases here suggest more of a mezzo-soprano timbre? How does one reconcile this sound with the extremely bright top tones heard toward the climax of the flourishes? They are very exciting and expressive, although perhaps somewhat exaggerated in shrillness by the recording process. At the least, they are in marked contrast with the richer tones in the middle. A world of contradictory colors is encapsulated in this piece, and somehow the music seems to fit so perfectly around Litvinne’s equally volatile sounds. Why? Who is Sélika, and who or perhaps what is Félia Litvinne?

Although L’Africaine was completed in 1864, the year of Meyerbeer’s death, it had been begun over 20 years earlier when the Parisian opera world was still feeling the impact of the meteoric success and abrupt collapse of Marie-Cornélie Falcon (1812—1897), an amazing young artist whose career at the top of her profession was over before she was 30. Gifted with a richly expressive vocal instrument, the music written for her in the 1830s occupied a tessitura definitely higher than mezzo-soprano, but not entirely equated with traditional soprano writing of that time either. Her voice may have declined so prematurely because of the sheer abundance of spirit and power that she gave to every part she portrayed. Her contribution seemed so special to so many that the template that composers like Halévy and Meyerbeer established in their music for her (roles like Rachel in La Juive and Valentine in Les Huguenots) outlasted Falcon’s short career, becoming a recognized category unto itself, a Falcon. This term was applied both to roles in the Falcon mold and to those who could best interpret them.

Meyerbeer was haunted by the Falcon sound, and certainly, the development of the very term Falcon throughout the opera world of that time suggests he was not alone. Although Falcon herself was long retired from the stage by the time L’Africaine was completed, Meyerbeer obviously was thinking of the great singer when he wrote the music for Sélika. Massenet and Saint-Saëns also followed this pattern and such Falcon roles as Chimène in Massenet’s Le Cid and Catherine in Saint-Saëns’s Henri VIII were as prominent in Litvinne’s stage career as Sélika. For many, it is the rich abundance of contrasts and the tantalizing ambiguities in Litvinne’s instrument, heard so clearly in “Sur mes genoux,” that stamp her as a true Falcon. The rich emotion that she invests in almost everything she sings evokes contemporary descriptions of Falcon herself.

Listening to Litvinne’s three recordings of “Pleurez, mes yeux” from Massenet’s Le Cid, we can savor something of Litvinne’s portrayal of Chimène. We feel her suffering most directly, however, in the first G & T recording, partnered with Alfred Cortot at the piano (CD 1, Track 1). This is an enthralling reading, shadowed with a deep sense of loss welling up in the intrinsic richness of every tone. Its desperation climaxes in the final high-lying measures, with a hair-raising high note on “larmes!” (tears). Its heartfelt spontaneity makes it perhaps the most searing interpretation of Chimène’s sorrow on disc. It is a very primitive recording, even by the standards of the time. Also, there is a small cut, midway through, evidently to accommodate the entire repeat at the end with its fiery conclusion. Still, this remains an extraordinary recording, artistically speaking, and it is a great shame that the technical results of the entire first Litvinne session were so unsatisfactory. Litvinne’s second recording of the aria (CD 1, Track 18) may have a greater immediacy than the sonically flawed take with Cortot, but it does not reach the same intensity. For all that, it is not at all inexpressive, and its gentle, poignant portamento on each iteration of “rosée” helps in sustaining the mood for a more measured sorrow that can still draw in the listener. And the voice is truly beautiful throughout, including a luscious top note on “larmes!”

Litvinne’s final “Pleurez”, (CD 2, Track 7) with orchestra, which is her very last record, is more restrained than the first two, but at the same time, it attains great dignity. The precision of attack and the sweep of the line are superb throughout, but we do not have the same familiar use of portamento. Despite the vividness of the reading, the character of Chimène now seems more austere and her humanity is not so touching. Happily, what most sets this take apart is its restoration of the words preceding the repeat–“Ah! Mon père! / Hélas!”–and Litvinne’s quietly haunted “Hélas!” lingers long in the memory. It comes at a sacrifice, however, since the coda with that high B natural on “larmes” is not included.

Litvinne sang more than Falcon roles, of course, and London critics at the time especially felt that her Wagner roles were her strongest. So we move slightly upward in tessitura now for a discussion of an excerpt from her hochdramatisch repertoire. Litvinne evidently lavished heart and soul on her Isolde, and her treasured collaborator and conductor at the Théâtre du Château d’Eau, Alfred Cortot, was at the piano for a vintage performance of Isolde’s “Mild und leise”, sung in French, during that same amazing first G & T session (CD 1, Track 6). Unlike most interpreters, Litvinne does not at first portray Isolde going “gently into that good night.” She seems to project a deep unwillingness to accept Tristan’s death. Reconciliation to it comes hard. There is resentment, as much as there is wonder, in her awareness of “diese Weise.” Cortot shapes the whole with an elasticity of tempo that might seem downright wayward today. Still, this enhances the volatile and conflicted reading that Litvinne gives. There is a cut made in the first half, but everything from “Höre ich nur” on is presented complete. Litvinne and Cortot offer an enormous crescendo at “klinget” that almost shatters the grooves; but it’s amazing how, in all the supercharged emotion of this performance, and with the voice going full tilt, the upward flourishes on “schallend” and “umwallend” are meticulously clear and precise, a tribute to Litvinne’s training with Viardot-Garcia. Cortot shapes the climax with an accelerando in which Litvinne’s surges of sound on “Welt” and “wehendem” vividly recall pounding ocean waves, an effect exactly suited to the images in Wagner’s verse. Only at “ertrinken” do we finally hear any resignation from this Isolde. This is enhanced by an especially long and soft “höchste” before a slight catch in the throat and an equally soft “Lust.” Cortot then gives us an evocative postlude following the original score, instead of the customary abbreviated chords typical of early recordings.

We now go down in tessitura from Falcon to one of Litvinne’s successful mezzo roles, Léonor in Donizetti’s La Favorite. Litvinne’s “O mon Fernand,” (CD 2, Track 2) is delivered with grave beauty, with those mezzo tints heard in the “Sur mes genoux” much more pronounced. There is also an authoritative downward run, and later, a quieter repeat of the words “Mon Dieu,” conveying deep shame. The recording climaxes with an astounding cadenza taking in almost her entire range, thrillingly secure throughout its compass.

The wonders continue as we go back up from high mezzo to soprano writing, more lyric than Isolde’s: Verdi’s spinto writing for Aida, one of Litvinne’s most performed roles. In terms of sheer loveliness of tone, Litvinne’s recording of “I sacri numi” may be among her most dazzling (CD 1, Track 27). Characterized by a flawless legato, Litvinne offers here a ringing climax at the top of her range and two floated pianissimi at the close.

In discussing Litvinne’s incredible versatility, her apparent success in roles as disparate as the Saint-Saëns’s Dalila and Gounod’s Marguerite is practically unique! Juxtaposing mezzo-contralto and lyric soprano roles in this way is something that Falcon herself never did. We can have a taste of Litvinne’s facility in these two roles by listening to her final recording of Dalila’s “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (CD 2, Track 1) and her second recording of Marguerite’s “Seigneur, daignez permettre” (CD 1, Track 22). In Dalila’s music, we can hear an even more unequivocal alto sound than is heard in the Donizetti aria, particularly at key words like “jamais”, “tendresse”, and “ivresse”. Climaxes at the upper half of her voice are so strong that the high G-flat completely overloaded the recording apparatus, resulting in serious blasting. By and large, it is the unmistakably deep mezzo persona, however, that dominates.

Switching directly from Litvinne’s Dalila to her Marguerite can give the uncanny impression of a radically different instrument. Not only does the voice seem brighter, but momentary excursions into her lower range find Litvinne usually eschewing chest voice altogether, even when it might mean a less effective delivery. The one exception is her final low C, where she does open up in a way more typical of her Isolde or her Chimène, which gives the solo an effective and emphatic close. But this final note doesn’t affect the predominant impression throughout, which is of a bright soprano and a suitably youthful persona. Every time she sings the word “lumière,” the voice itself seems flooded with light. And the way she luxuriates at the crest of the high flourish on “descende” would do any high soprano proud.

An air of unreality sometimes hovers around these amazing contrasts in Litvinne’s discography, but it is well to keep in mind that all these roles, from Sélika to Isolde, to Dalila to Marguerite, were in her active repertoire on stage and were not mere creations of the recording studio.

Beyond Falcon, the model for Litvinne here is more likely her teacher, Pauline Viardot-Garcia, who shared with her great predecessors like Pasta and her own sister Malibran the facility for switching from Fach to Fach. It is a pity that Litvinne’s discography contains so few examples of Viardot-Garcia specialties. One such example, however, is the aria “O ma lyre immortelle” from Gounod’s Sapho, which was written for Viardot and created by her in 1851. Arguably, this excerpt is the most successful selection in Litvinne’s second group of G & T recordings (CD 1, Track 11). Beginning with her rapt decrescendo on “suis-je” in the opening recitative, the listener is immediately pulled in, recalling Litvinne’s hypnotic inflections of sorrow in her Cortot-accompanied “Pleurez, mes yeux.” Then, in the opening stanza of the aria proper, she sounds crushed, drained of hope, barely able to drag her weary self through phrase after phrase. The intensity does not increase until the second stanza, with the words “à souffrir,” which she links up with the next despairing word, “Non,” in a single full-voice phrase. Only now is she beside herself with grief, coming down heavily on “blessure” and holding a long retard on “ma” of a heavily declaimed “ma douleur.” For the coda, “la mer” gets a ringing B-flat.

We have seen, so far, that Félia Litvinne had the ability to sing a wide range of roles calling for completely different vocal types and as well, different emotional approaches to the music. What is more, Litvinne, in a role such as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, was able to integrate all of those diverse colors into the one role. Her two recorded arias from this opera, here sung in French, evince perhaps the most complete display of her many powers, though the recordings are certainly not without flaw. Judging from what we can hear, Litvinne did not play safe with this role by using her voice in a more restricted manner, as in her aforesaid Dalila or Marguerite. Rather, to a remarkable degree, her two Trovatore excerpts show that Litvinne understood just how much Verdi’s Leonora inherited from a Norma or a Donizetti queen, that is, an all-embracing showcase of the female singing voice, from high coloratura to declamatory mezzo. Singers from an earlier time, such as Pasta and Ronzi-De Begnis, had such roles written for them to demonstrate their great ease in singing across all vocal boundaries.

Litvinne’s “Tacea la notte placida” (CD 2, Track 3) and “D’amor sull’ali rosee” (CD 2, Track 4) draw a contrast between full-sweeping phrasing with a floating effortless top in the first aria, and remarkable flexibility surmounted by five immaculate trills and an infinite variety of color in the second. Her “Tacea” is characterized by an easy projection of lovely tone, not uniformly colored, which is even more fascinating for that.

The “D’amor” might not attain the same perfection as the “Tacea”, since the top notes sometimes come off as more exclamatory and separate than in the “Tacea”, where they are more bound in with each phrase. But the “D’amor” represents a more ambitious use of much that is in Litvinne’s arsenal. We have the rich low notes of her Dalila, the capacity to convey inner conflict of her Isolde, the wondrous flexibility of her Sélika, and the occasional fiery climax of her Chimène. We even have the occasional floated tone of her Aida, even though the Aida is still superior in this case, while nothing surpasses the conclusion of the “Tacea,” with its remarkable final pianissimo lasting a spine-tingling seven seconds!

Hearing a diva like Litvinne opens our ears to the traditions that lay behind Leonora’s music. Maybe others have phrased both the “Tacea” and the “D’amor” more broadly. But few have brought to the “D’amor” such a variety of inflections and shading. Litvinne’s fearlessness in playing off different registers enhances the conflicted feelings in this piece. One can easily forget that this aria is not just a wish to comfort Manrico; as we move into its final section, Leonora hopes to guide her thoughts to Manrico without revealing her torment. It is in this inner conflict that Litvinne shows herself an interpretive master. Without compromising the ethereal quality of Leonora’s music, she still manages to convey her heightened desperation through varying dynamics in the closing moments. All this is accomplished with due regard for those exquisite trills, well-tuned scales, and a clean legato. At the conclusion, she offers a cadenza and a final descent into low chest voice instead of the “proper” ending on the high A-flat. We can take exception to what may well be a dodge, but the directness and imagination of so much else in her singing reward repeated listening. If Litvinne helps remind us that Verdi was haunted by the traditions that nursed Viardot, then we today are haunted as much by these tantalizing phrases from a Viardot pupil of a bygone age. Félia Litvinne is doubtless a virtual Rosetta Stone to vocal history.

Here, her elegiac conception conveys a lofty sweep in its despair, suggestive of contemporaneous descriptions of the role’s impassioned creator.

© Geoffrey Riggs, 2006


Félia Litvinne:
Her Life and Career

Some stories can get told over and over and never lose their freshness. To many a record collector one story in particular has made Félia Litvinne a byword in her profound understanding of the importance of the still-young recording machine at the time she lived and sang: in her autobiography, Ma vie et mon art (1933), when reflecting toward the end of her life on her past glories, she remarks that while her voice “so beautiful, so warm, no longer exists, I have made some very beautiful records. I always say, when it comes to the gramophone, ‘Ci-gît Félia Litvinne’ (Here is Félia Litvinne).” She understood that her recordings left posterity a living monument more potent than the most imposing tomb.

More may be preserved in her early 20th century records than any one singer’s artistry. These records evoke a style of singing by certain extraordinary singers from the era before Litvinne’s. Litvinne may have been the last pupil to absorb the tradition of alternating soprano and mezzo directly from an exponent who practiced that tradition when it was still a living, breathing thing: Pauline Viardot-Garcia. Viardot-Garcia had launched her career at a time when Pasta, Ronzi-De Begnis, Ungher–a whole school of divas who routinely alternated soprano and mezzo–were still before the public, a natural part of the opera landscape of the time, not merely a memory. Viardot-Garcia’s older sister, Maria Malibran, had been a towering presence in this school. All these immediate forebears of Viardot-Garcia’s had blazed the trail for the dramatic coloratura or assoluta role. By her own example, Viardot-Garcia handed down a still-living tradition to pupils like Litvinne.

However, Viardot-Garcia did not always encourage her charges to emulate the full variety of what she had attempted (“I sang everything and ruined my voice,” she’d warn). The only known exceptions amongst her pupils who evidently did not need this warning were Marianne Brandt and Félia Litvinne. In fact, these two emulated their mentor’s variety. Of Brandt’s artistry, all we have are two mezzo selections and one song, all recorded after her retirement. But from Litvinne, we have a priceless legacy of enthralling records all made when she was in her prime, that reflect the entire staggering range of what she could do.

As it is, Litvinne managed to venture closer to the assoluta repertoire than Brandt had. While Brandt had mastered quasi-assoluta repertoire like Rachel in La Juive, Litvinne exceeded that with two Verdi parts, Elvira in Ernani and the Trovatore Leonora. Litvinne’s amazing variety of recorded titles (covering everything from the Gounod Marguerite to the Trovatore Leonora to Donizetti’s La Favorite to Saint-Saëns’s Dalila) matches closely the kind of variety pioneered by creators in the assoluta repertoire of the early 19th century. To gain insight into the vocal contrasts Litvinne could draw, sample her Odeon “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” (CD 2, Track 1) alongside her Odeon “Tacea la notte placida” sung in French (CD 2, Track 3). We seem to be hearing two entirely different personas.

On disc, Litvinne may be the most indicative of the Pasta/Ronzi-De Begnis/Malibran school. Like her forebears, Litvinne was known for her huge range and for an amazing facility, from the very start of her career, in both alto and soprano repertoire. Her bel canto flexibility and immaculate trill also stamped her as a true inheritor of the traditions that had inspired composers half a century before. She apparently had strong presence as a performer as well.

If any extant records can be said to reflect anything in the original assoluta tradition at all, then Litvinne’s bewildering variety of operatic genres and vocal Fächer point to distinct parallels with this lost art. Litvinne herself lists 41 operas that she performed on stage, along with 26 others learned during her career (Litvinne even had Micaëla under her belt). Successful appearances in the mezzo roles of Léonore in Donizetti’s La Favorite, Gertrude in Thomas’s Hamlet, and Dalila in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila and the “Falcon” roles of Rachel, Valentine, Sélika, Chimène, and Catherine in Saint-Saëns’s Henri VIII (some even regarded her as the illustrious Falcon’s truest successor) did not in any way detract from Litvinne’s standing as one of the finest Wagner sopranos of her generation. A distinguished Donna Anna, Gilda, and Tosca, she became a compelling Gluck specialist before her career drew to a close during World War I. Her Armide and especially her Alceste were acclaimed. Ernest Newman found her Alceste unforgettable, and Germaine Lubin, who was to be her pupil, remarked, “I had heard her when I was a student as Alceste, and she took my breath away.”

Born Françoise-Jeanne Schütz in St. Petersburg (Ma vie et mon art gives 11 October 1863, as the date, other sources go as early as 1860), of a French-Canadian mother and a Russian father, Félia Litvinne grew up one of the most linguistically versatile artists of her time. Although her mother’s Gallic background exerted the strongest influence on her, both French and Russian were native to her, and she studied not just in Russia but in Switzerland and Italy as well, mastering Italian, German, and English by the time she was an adult. Her whole family was quite musical. Her sister Céline was a pupil of Lamperti from the time of the family’s arrival in Milan in 1879. Her brother Willy was an impresario and conductor, and her sister Hélène, in addition to being a singer, was married to one: Polish bass Edouard de Reszke.

From Italy, Céline took the family to Paris, having assumed familial responsibilities upon their mother’s death. In Paris, Félia first studied for three years with Mme. Barthe-Banderali and Giovanni Sbriglia before being taken under Viardot-Garcia’s wing. She had already made a few recital appearances in Paris before her unplanned stage debut in December, 1883, at the Théâtre des Italiens, where baritone Victor Maurel was a co-director. There, she substituted at the last moment for an indisposed Mme. Fidès-Devriès as Amelia in Simon Boccanegra. But her formal debut there was as Elvira in Ernani, opposite Leopoldo Signoretti and Augusto Brogi, on 8 May 1884.

Maurel then invited her to tour the provinces and she appeared in Don Giovanni, Lucrezia Borgia, Les Huguenots, Rigoletto, Faust, Un Ballo in Maschera, Ruy Blas, and Hérodiade (Salomé) in Barcelona, Aix-les-Bains, and Bordeaux. In 1885, it was on to America and her debut there as “Litvinoff, of the Paris Opéra” in New York at the Academy of Music, where Colonel Mapleson was still in charge. Here, she was heard in Don Giovanni and Il Trovatore. Appearances in the provinces soon became a thing of the past, with appearances at Brussels at the Monnaie during the 1886-1887, 1887-1888, and 1889-1890 seasons, where she was heard in Les Huguenots, Il Trovatore, L’Africaine, Hamlet, Brünnhilde in Die Walküre (her first Wagner production), La Gioconda, Sigurd, and Hérodiade. Years later, in 1903, she would be chosen for Brünnhilde in the Monnaie’s first Ring cycle. She debuted at the Paris Opéra in March of 1889 as Valentine opposite Léon Escalaïs’s Raoul. The Paris Opéra too would select her for Brünnhilde in their first Ring in 1911. In the late 1880s, she returned to her native Russia, becoming a favorite in Moscow and St. Petersburg, being heard in Dargomyzhsky’s Russalka and Serov’s Judith, and eventually being made official soloist to the Czar. Finally, Litvinne conquered La Scala in 1890, where she scored a triumph in a mezzo role, Gertrude in Thomas’s Hamlet, opposite the Hamlet of Mattia Battistini and the Ophélie of Emma Calvé.

In 1893, marriage to a Dr. Emmanuel Depoux brought a temporary halt to her career. But happily for her admirers, the marriage did not last, and Litvinne was back before the public at Marseille in 1895. La Scala welcomed her back for the 1895-1896 season and an Italian premiere (singing the Saint-Saëns’s Catherine in Henri VIII) followed by the Saint-Saëns Dalila opposite Garulli and Pacini. She was to have a special association with Saint-Saëns for much of her career, singing Hélène in 1905 at Monte Carlo (where she had debuted in 1896) and creating the title role in L’Ancêtre at Monte Carlo on 24 February 1906. Also in the cast of L’Ancêtre were Geraldine Farrar (Marguarita) and Maurice Renaud (Raphël). On 25 November 1896, she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, bowing in the Falcon role of Valentine in Les Huguenots. During that season, she sang, in addition to the Falcon roles of Valentine, Sélika, and Chimène and a Falcon aria “Il va venir” (in La Juive) in concert, the soprano roles of Aida, Donna Anna, Marguerite (in Faust), the Siegfried Brünnhilde and Isolde, and the mezzo role of Gertrude in Hamlet, as well as the mezzo aria “O ma lyre immortelle” (Gounod’s Sapho) in concert.

It was around this time that Alfred Cortot became Litvinne’s conductor at the Théâtre du Château d’Eau in Paris, and Litvinne was heard again at the Paris Opéra and at the Lamoureux concerts, where she concentrated on Wagner. It was in Wagner that she made her 1899 debut at Covent Garden in the role of Isolde, opposite Jean de Reszke’s Tristan, Ernestine Schumann-Heink’s Brangäne, and Anton van Rooy’s Kurvenal. Her success in Wagner made her a greater favorite there than she had been at the Metropolitan: “…a powerful dramatic soprano, she is evidently well experienced both in the stage business of the part and in the declamatory style of her singing” (wrote the London Times of her debut as Isolde); “her voice is well-suited to the requirements of the music, with its full tone and clear enunciation” (also the Times on her Walküre Brünnhilde during the same debut season). Isolde became one of her most celebrated roles, and we can feel her passionate commitment in the stirring “Mild und leise” she recorded in French with her conductor Alfred Cortot (CD 1, Track 6). She herself remarked, “To sing Isolde is worth all the sorrow of living.” In addition to Isolde and Brünnhilde, Covent Garden also heard her Donna Anna (1902), Valentine (1899), and Aida (1899). Her first complete Ring cycle at Covent Garden was in 1905. Tenor/impresario Ernest van Dyck brought Litvinne back to Covent Garden in 1907 for German opera in the original language, and later that year, she added Gioconda to her Donna Anna and Aida. She then gave Covent Garden another Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde in 1910.

Although Litvinne retired from the stage after her triumphs in Gluck and her creation of Armande de Polignac’s Judith de Béthule in 1916, she re-emerged after the War as a recitalist during the 1920s, and we can savor some of her song repertoire on a number of her recordings. In 1927, she followed in Viardot-Garcia’s footsteps, becoming a teacher at the American Conservatoire at Fontainebleau. It was there that she taught not only Germaine Lubin, but Nina Koshetz, and a number of others, passing the torch to the next generation.

© Geoffrey Riggs, 2006


Natalya Yermolenko-Yuzhina

It is clear from historical sources that Imperial Russia had a love affair with grand opera since the early 1700s. Italian composers like Domenico Cimarosa and Giovanni Paisiello served the Russian Court and important Italian singers were imported to perform their operas. By the 1770s both the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg and the Bolshoi in Moscow had been built. In the 19th century virtually all the great singers, including Pasta, Lablache, Rubini, Viardot, and later, Battistini, De Lucia, Sembrich, and Masini made highly profitable visits. Alongside this fascination with Italian opera, a native culture developed. Glinka’s A Life for the Tzar (1836) was the first important Russian opera and its focus on characterization as against pure Italianate singing proved to be a defining element for later Russian composers. When we listen to recordings of early Russian singers it is that quality of intense dramatic involvement (sometimes at the expense of bel canto) that makes these singers unique. Obviously the legendary Feodor Chaliapin is the prototype. But these early recordings prove that a number of exceptional Russian singers performed at the Mariinsky and Bolshoi, as well as several private theaters, during the first decades of the 20th century. Among these, the recordings of Natalya Yermolenko- Yuzhina (1881—ca. 1937) are a revelation.

The Russian baritone, Sergei Levik, left an important memoir within which he described the singers of Imperial Russia in a detailed, tangible manner. Levik idolized Félia Litvinne but among other important dramatic sopranos he included Clara Brun, Leonida Balanovskaya, Marianna Cherkasskaya, and Natalya Yermolenko-Yuzhina. He wrote: “If we exclude Félia Litvinne, who was obviously unrivalled throughout the world, by far the most striking sopranos I have ever heard were Yermolenko-Yuzhina, Eugenia Burzio, and Balanovskaya.” The impassioned singing of Burzio, the great Italian verismo soprano, Litvinne, and Yuzhina makes for an interesting comparison.

Originally Natalya Plugovskaya, Yuzhina was born in Kiev in 1881 and studied with Maria Zotova in both Kiev and St. Petersburg. She later worked with Paul Vidal in Paris. Her operatic debut in 1900 as Lisa in Pique Dame in Kiev was swiftly followed by a 1901 debut in St. Petersburg that lead to a contract with the Mariinsky Theatre. A guest appearance as Gorislawa in Ruslan and Ludmilla at the Bolshoi also took place in 1901. Yuzhina sang with the Mariinsky from 1901 to 1905, continuing guest appearances at the Bolshoi. A 1903 Gotterdämmerung paired Yuzhina’s Gutrune with Litvinne’s Brünnhilde. In 1904 she sang Brünnhilde in the Bolshoi’s Ring Cycle. She joined the Bolshoi afterwards, remaining until 1908. During this period she married the tenor/impresario David Juzhin (1870—1920) and coupled their names. The two singers joined Zimin’s private opera company in 1908 and shared a great triumph in Norma.

In his notes for a 1976 LP set of Yuzhina’s recordings, Vivian Liff wrote of an interview he had with the soprano Oda Slobodskaya, who was present at one of those Norma performances. She recalled how magnificent Yuzhina was vocally in the dramatic moments of the score and considered it to have been one of the finest dramatic soprano voices she had ever heard. Slobodskaya did have reservations about Yuzhina’s florid technique and her reasons can be heard on the recording of the “Casta Diva” cabaletta, “Ah, bello a me ritorna,” where she seems to be singing in slow motion during certain difficult passages. But the grandeur of the voice and the deeply felt interpretations are undeniable. Slobodskaya preferred Yuzhina to Litvinne as Alexander Serov’s Judith, and the terrifying tessitura we hear on Yuzhina’s amazing recording of the first act aria might hint at the reason for this. Interestingly, she considered their voices to be of comparable size.

Important appearances at La Scala, Milan during the 1906-1907 season, and as Marina in the 1908 Paris premiere of Boris Godunov with the Diaghilev Company and Chaliapin in the title role, added to Yuzhina’s renown; she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. From 1910 to 1915 Yuzhina was the leading dramatic soprano at the Bolshoi singing the Russian premiere of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in 1913. From 1915 to 1920 she was once again at the Mariinsky, having great success with Chaliapin in Prince Igor in 1915 and Mefistofele in 1918. Yuzhina immigrated to Paris in 1924 and joined the Russian community there, occasionally concertizing. In December 1930 she sang Natasha in Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s Russalka with Dimitri Smirnoff and Chaliapin at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Yuzhina would have only been 49, but this was probably her last stage performance. She remained in Paris and died in 1936 or 1937, depending on the source.

Yuzhina had a very large and diversified repertoire that included all the major soprano roles in Russian opera. Her range also extended to Aida, Norma, Violetta, Agathe, Valentine, Countess Almaviva, Carmen, Venus, Elizabeth, Brünnhilde, Elsa, Sieglinde, Gioconda, Tosca, and Marguerite.

Although large voices often gave early recording devices a difficult time, Yuzhina’s records are thrilling. It clearly was a superb natural voice, with a solid, rich timbre throughout her range. She was not a particularly subtle artist, most often using a narrow range of dynamics with few pianissimos. Sometimes, as in the “Judith” aria, when you feel she couldn’t go higher or sing louder she surprises you by freely reaching further, easily answering the demands of the score. It’s full-throated singing, heady but not narrow. It’s easy to say that she’s more successful in Russian music - that can be said of almost every Russian singer, but her recordings from Tannhäuser are quite idiomatic in style, revealing a powerful Wagnerian soprano. The Aida excerpts, that including a duet with her husband David Yuzhin, also impress.

Most of Yuzhina’s recordings are from Russian operas, and some rarely recorded arias can be heard. Among these is the lovely “Cradle Song” from Pytor Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa, which contains some of Yuzhina’s most modulated singing. Tchaikovsky’s music often has a deep sense of longing and Yuzhina’s rich, spatial tones pour out into a seemingly endless steam of sound that communicates this melancholy. In a superb recording of “The Nightingale in the Grove”, from a seldom-heard Tchaikovsky opera, The Oprichnik, Yuzhina sings the chant-like Russian melody expressively, her upper tones flashing like rockets. The aria ends with an extraordinary octave descent from high A to a low A chest tone that’s the equal of any basso. Her voice has no weak patches and her range seems endless.

Unlike Félia Litvinne, who had a major international career, Natalya Yermolenko-Yuzhina had only brief engagements in Milan and Paris before emigrating in1924. She had been a leading artist for 20 years at both the Mariinsky and Bolshoi theaters, but these were times of extraordinary political upheaval in Russia. She was soon forgotten in the West, but her vibrant voice and passionate involvement surges out on these recordings to make a huge impact. I don’t believe Yuzhina or Litvinne will easily fade from our memories again.

© Harold Bruder, 2006