Liner Notes

The Contralto Voice
Mantelli, Brandt, Fabbri, Fornia

The contralto voice has become rarer than it was two hundred years ago. Among the best-loved singers of all times were contraltos such as Clara Butt and Kathleen Ferrier, Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Louise Homer, Anastasia Vialtseva and Nadeshda Obukhova, singers of national importance whose lives and deaths were followed in the press as if they were royalty. This is perhaps because of the warm and sympathetic qualities of the contralto voice–Rossini compared it to the vox humana stop of the organ.



All that I know of Mantelli comes mainly from Kutsch & Riemens, from an article by Albert Wolf in The Record Collector, Vol. 4 No. 4, from the liner notes by Max De Schauensee written almost half a century ago for the Club-99 LP dedicated to Mantelli (CL 99-79), and from a letter from Keith Moyer in the “Notes and Queries” section of The Record Collector, Vol. 15 Nos. 5 & 6.

She would appear to have been born in Florence in or around 1860 and her parents are said to have both been vocal teachers. She graduated from the Conservatory of Milan in 1877. She made her debut at the Sao Carlos, Lisbon, on 20 November 1883 as Urbano in Gli Ugonotti. She then toured with the tenor Julian Gayarre in Germany, Italy, and Brazil.

In November 1887 she sang Adalgisa at the Teatro Costanzi, Rome, then she went to the San Carlo, Naples, for a series of performances as Eboli in Don Carlo with Adalgisa Gabbi, José Oxilia, Giuseppe Kaschmann, and Auguste Boudouresque. In 1889 she joined the company that inaugurated the Teatro de la Opera in Buenos Aires, giving further performances at the Teatro Solis, Montevideo: Mantelli sang with Battistini in La favorita, Amleto, La forza del destino, and Gli Ugonotti.

At some stage Mantelli married. Mr. De Schauensee tells us that her husband became an invalid and she was obliged to resume her career. She sang at the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, in March 1894 in Faust and Rigoletto with Battistini, and as Fidès in Il profeta with Tamagno–according to Mr. Wolf in Kharkhoff as well as Moscow. Also in 1894 she sang Brünnhilde in La Valchiria in Trieste, with Emilia Corsi as Siglinda.

She made her Metropolitan debut on 23 November 1894 as Amneris, remaining in the company until the end of the 1899-1900 season. Her career is documented in William H. Seltsam’s Metropolitan Opera Annals, (New York, The H.W. Wilson Company, 1947), and in Annals of the Metropolitan Opera published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc., in 1989, Editor in Chief Gerald Fitzgerald. Details of her performances on tour with the Metropolitan company will be found in Quaintance Eaton’s Opera Caravan, Adventures of the Metropolitan on Tour (New York, Metropolitan Opera Guild, 1957).

Henderson, reviewing Otello in the New York Times, purred:

“The role of Emilia was in the competent hands of Mme. Mantelli. It is not a great part, but its correct performance is necessary to the general effectiveness of the opera. It is fortunate, therefore, that so trustworthy a contralto is in the company.” (4 December 1894.)

She also sang with Tamagno in Il trovatore, Il profeta, and again in Aida with Nordica, as well as in the first Met performances of Samson et Dalila. Henderson noted that: “Mme. Mantelli did not impart sufficient mellowness nor warmth to either the Spring song or the ‘Mon coeur’, though it must be said that she sang both numbers with smoothness and good phrasing.” (New York Times, 9 February 1895.)

She sang Ortruda in an Italian Lohengrin with Nordica (alternating with Melba) and Jean and Edouard de Reszke. Of her second performance Henderson goes so far as to say “Mme. Mantelli was the Ortrud, and it is safe to say that the habitués of the Opera House have not heard a better one.” (New York Times, 15 December 1894.)

Mantelli went on to sing Siébel in Faust with Eames and the de Reszkes, Maddalena in Rigoletto with Melba, Queen Guinevere in Bemberg’s Elaine with Melba, the de Reszkes and Plançon, and appeared with Nordica, Melba, Jean and Edouard de Reszke, Ancona, and Plançon in Les Huguenots.

In 1895—1896 she repeated Ortrud, Lola, Azucena, Amneris, Urbani, and with Emma Calvé sang Queen Gertrude in Hamlet and the minor roles of Marta and Pantalis in Mefistofele. She and Ancona were allowed to revive La favorita, which was repeated the following season. W. J. Henderson pronounced: “Mme. Mantelli was a most satisfactory Leonora. She was in fine voice and she sang, except for her great tremolo, with taste and judgment throughout the opera. Her ‘O mio Fernando’ aroused great enthusiasm on the part of the ‘bravo’ army.” (New York Times, 30 November 1895.)

Mantelli sang Siébel on the opening night of the 1896—1897 season with Melba and the de Reszkes; to her usual roles she added Nancy in Flotow’s Marta. There was no season in 1897—1898, but Mantelli returned in 1898—1899, her new roles being Siegrune in Die Walküre and the Prologo in Mancinelli’s Ero e Leandro.

In 1899—1900 Mantelli added Stéphano in Roméo et Juliette (with Eames, Adams, and Sembrich alternating as Juliette) and the Second Lady in Il flauto magico. Mantelli then left the Metropolitan, returning on 27 November 1902 for part of one performance: Carrie Bridewell, replacing the indisposed Louise Homer, broke down in Act II of Aida, and Mantelli, who was singing in vaudeville in New York that season, was rushed in to finish the evening. Whilst in the company she had appeared in a great many concerts, singing several times in Rossini’s Stabat Mater with Plançon.

In March 1900 she announced to the press that she had decided not to return to the U.S.A. for the following season, as she had “made arrangements to sing for three months in Portugal at the Lisbon Opera House, and then fill an engagement at the Opera House in Seville for one month”. In September 1900 she was back in New York and was married to Fernando Ernest de Angelis (“better known in the musical world as Prof. Ernest Damico”) at St. Agnes’s church on East 43rd Street. (Her first husband had died in Italy three years earlier.)

After her New York season in 1895—1896 Mantelli went to Covent Garden for the Grand Season, making her debut on 13 May 1896 as Leonora in La favorita, with the New York cast of Cremonini, Ancona, and Plançon. She also sang Ortrud, Maddalena, Nancy, and Amneris, and repeated her Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, in which she must surely have sung in Italian though everyone else sang in French.

She did not lose all contact with opera in Italy during her Metropolitan years, for in 1898 she sang in Falstaff in Trieste. In September 1902, Pietro Mascagni took a Mascagni Opera Company on tour through the United States. The ill-starred season opened at the Metropolitan Opera House on 8 October 1902 with Zanetto and Cavalleria, with Elena Bianchini Cappelli and Mantelli appearing in both operas. Henderson was, on the whole, favorable to the enterprise: “The two singers had that combination of technic and temperament which is almost the birthright…Our old familiar friend Mme. Mantelli was the Zanetto, and surprised her most accustomed hearers by the spirit and vigor of her singing and acting.” (New York Times, 9 October 1902.) The operas were repeated the following day and subsequent performances of Cavalleria with Mantelli in the cast were given in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Baltimore, and Cleveland; Zanetto appears to have been given only in Baltimore and Cleveland.

In 1905 she toured America with her “Mantelli Operatic Company”, offering scenes and whole acts from Carmen and Faust and a complete Trovatore in English (at least, this is what she offered Denver, Colorado, on 9, 10, and 11 of February 1905). In 1906, having renamed her outfit the “Mantelli English Grand Opera Company”, she toured again, appearing in Il trovatore, La favorita, and Faust.

In January 1908 she sang Queen Gertrude in Amleto with Maria Galvany and Giuseppe Kaschmann at La Fenice and the same role to the Hamlet of Titta Ruffo and the Ophelia of Esperanza Clasenti at the Sao Carlos, Lisbon. She is reported to have sung Carmen at the Politeama Genovese in 1908. She sang Erodiade in Il Battista by Giocondo Fino at the San Carlo, Naples, in March 1909, with Emma Druetti alternating with Carolina White as Salomè, Kaschmann as John the Baptist, and Oreste Luppi as Herod. Mr. Wolf states that she also appeared in Luisa Miller, Le roi de Lahore, Linda di Chamonix, Dinorah, Un ballo in maschera, and Mignon.

From Mr. Moyer we learn that “After her retirement from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, she appeared in music halls there, then went to Lisbon, where she was promised a season in opera. The deal fell through, and she sang only two matinée performances of [Dalila] (her favorite role) and Carmen. Her private life after this became most unhappy. It seems that her second husband, Fernando D’Angelis, from whom she must have separated, lived in New York, and after a time ceased writing to her. She had two sons, one mentally disabled and the other, her favorite, died. She lost all interest in life and retired from singing. Eventually she took up teaching, and so numerous were her pupils that she was obliged to give evening classes. She taught up to the time of her death, which was caused by a liver ailment. She was buried in Lisbon, and a mausoleum was erected for her, through the contributions of her hundreds of pupils.”

She died on 3 March 1926.

The Eugenia Mantelli Recordings

Mantelli’s recordings might be considered a pendant to Patti’s as master-classes in bel canto singing. Her voice has been reduced in range, her noble efforts to sing Ortrud and Brünnhilde having probably weakened her highest notes. Although she reaches the high B natural easily in head register in the long runs of “Nacqui all’affanno”, she could not have sustained this note in full voice at the end of “Non più mesta”. She can sustain a good high A natural but B-flat and B natural are only available when taken en passant in head voice. At the other end of the scale she can sing a full and powerful B-flat below the stave but does not venture lower than A. The emission of the voice may be described as perfectly natural and apparently spontaneous: it is free of the throat in all three registers, and the registers are well blended. The tone is warm, limpid and velvety, round and fresh, and truly “forward”; the primitive but frequently close recordings enable us to hear her clear attack. This is only possible with the old Italian method of breathing preached by Garcia and Lablache in their Methods, and is the basis for Mantelli’s impeccable legato. She has equalized her vowels, and can declaim easily in the upper medium register with clear diction.

There are almost no signs of decay, no vocal problems. However, the armchair critic gradually becomes aware that she is saving her strength in the upper medium and higher range. When compared with Patti (or even with Rita Fornia) we notice that she does not offer much variation in dynamics or tone color.

Her mastery of coloratura is such that we may point to her Rossini records (alas, only four sides) as probably the only records ever made by a contralto or mezzo soprano in which the florid music is executed with absolute precision combined with perfectly produced and beautiful tone in the style of Rossini’s own singers.

And what of her “great tremolo”? There is not a single wobbly note in all her recorded output, nor does she ever manifest any intrusive vibrato. Thanks to the assistance of Mr. Robert Tuggle, I may have found the answer to this in another Henderson review, following her Met debut: “Mme. Eugenia Mantelli, who made her début as Amneris, proved to have a substantial contralto voice of fine quality. She forced it at times, and then it went sharp and tremulous; but when she permitted it to flow naturally it was tolerably free from tremulo and pleasant to hear. She will probably be a useful member of the company.” (New York Times, 24 November 1894.)

New York audiences, spoiled by only hearing the best artists (like Patti and the de Reszkes), did not like the cruder, more unrefined aspects of opera singing. Caruso listened to Plançon in order to emulate his sonorous legato singing “like a ‘cello’”: Mantelli must have polished her technique and style during her stay in New York. The “great tremolo” is not in evidence on her records because she had long before stopped forcing her voice.

Mantelli’s most important recording is the Rondo Finale from La Cenerentola. The voice is most beautifully recorded, catching the lovely timbre: from the A below the stave to the B natural above the voice is supported on the breath with admirable solidity. Some things are simplified–she omits the short trills on “soffrì tacendo”, and in the descending scales in the coda she resorts to a simple variation to avoid the low G sharp–but everything that she does sing is executed with a perfection that we shall not find in any other recording of this music. What a lesson she gives us in the properly defined execution of the runs, every note distinct without any hint of intrusive aspirates or diaphragmatic thrust; true to Garcia’s definition, her florid passages sound as though “played on the organ”. She interpolates two cadenzas, both similar to Rossini autograph variants. Curiously, she omits several essential appoggiaturas.

If only Zonophone had allowed her two sides for “Una voce poco fa”! (In the unusual key of E-flat.) What a wonderful performance!–not without humor (though we suspect this was not her strong suit), distinguished by fluid execution and masterly rhythmic accentuation.

She also committed to wax another coloratura spectacular, the Polonaise “Me llaman la primorosa” from El Barbero de Sevilla by Nieto & Giménez. In the zarzuela, the heroine, Elena, is rehearsing the role of Rosina in Rossini’s Barbiere, and this “Polaca” is the piece she has prepared for the Lesson Scene. Mantelli sings it brilliantly in G, a tone down, with telling ritardando effects, exhibiting models of correct execution in runs, triplets, and trills.

In the basic contralto repertory Mantelli gives us a useful guide to the “traditional” graces to the vocal line, as well as “correct” application of portamento di voce and tempo rubato. In “O mio Fernando” her style is broad, her embellishments lovely, but even better is the duet “Ah, l’alto ardor” in which both she and Parvis maintain a ‘cello-like legato, each listening to the other in perfect duet-singing. In “Stride la vampa” Mantelli again omits the short trills, substituting triplets–a change sanctioned by tradition. Her long trills are excellent. The Brindisi from Lucrezia Borgia is another example of her fleet coloratura singing (she appears to have transposed the aria down into B). In Urbain’s aria “Vaga donna” from Gli Ugonotti she combines lightness with solidity in her scales and arpeggi. The “Styrienne” from Mignon is another successful example of her individual style. Siébel’s Flower Song from Faust she sings, a tone down in B-flat, with vivacity and sweet tone, making the necessary contrasts in the middle section, and ending with a brilliant cadenza.

In “Voce di donna” from La Gioconda she allows herself rather too many breaths, but the illusion of unbroken legato is still there, due to the impeccable floating of the voice on the breath and the masterly use of upward and downward portamento, creating an effect of warmth and grandeur.

She sings Zerlina’s part in “La ci darem la mano” charmingly and interpolates the high A that she must have heard Sembrich sing at the Met; Parvis is very elegant in this duet (apparently modelling his tone on Scotti’s), although he misses one of his cues. Both sing even better in the “Swallow duet” from Mignon. Three of her four recordings from Carmen are in excellent French.

She sings with clear, pearly diction in French, Spanish, English (“Goodbye” and the Mascagni “Ave Maria”), and German (“Der Asra”–with one mistake in the words). In her Tosti songs her style is “old-fashioned”. Rubinstein’s “Der Asra” was a concert favorite, which Mantelli sings splendidly, giving full rein to the chest voice, though she hardly catches the dreamy effect of the mysterious young man’s responses. She is more at home in two splendid records, Mascagni’s “Ave Maria” and Braga’s “Serenata” (Leggenda valacca), which is, I believe, the only Mantelli record for which an original stamper survives, so we may hear it in a modern vinyl pressing bringing her lovely voice into our rooms with all its velvety clarity.

Because of the time limitation she is obliged to sing “Pur dicesti”much more quickly than Patti or Melba, but her joyous and invigorating performance is a valid interpretation in its own right, individual and arresting through her original use of rubato. We revel in her clean execution of intervals and ornaments, and in the brilliance of her trill–Patti and Melba had better look out!

I thank Robert Tuggle and Edward Johnson for valuable information about Mantelli.



Born in Vienna on 12 September 1842, her real name was Marie Bischoff. At the age of 20 she gained a place at the Vienna Conservatory and studied with Therese Janda, Zeller, and Frau Marschner. She appeared in her final examinations as Rachel in scenes from La Juive; a thunderstorm broke out at a dramatic moment in the opera, “stirring her soul to its depth and calling forth latent dramatic powers which in turn thrilled the audience.” (Henry T. Finck, Success in Music, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909.) And it was as Rachel that she made her debut on 4 January 1867 at Olmütz (or, according to some sources, Graz). She made her first appearance at the Royal Opera, Berlin, on 21 April 1868, as Azucena, following this with Fidès in Le prophète on 28 April. She retained the position of First Contralto in Berlin until 1886, occasionally singing roles more usually given to sopranos, like Meyerbeer’s Valentine and Sélika. She created Leah in Rubinstein’s Die Maccabäer on 17 April 1875. She spent the summers of 1869 and 1870 studying with Pauline Viardot-García in Baden-Baden. In 1872 she sang Leonore in Fidelio and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (with Patti and Faure) at Covent Garden, but her real triumphs in England date from 1882, when she sang Brangaene and Fidelio at Drury Lane. She sang regularly in Vienna from 1873 until 1883.

She was frequently heard in Weimar, where Liszt admired her Ortrud in 1870; other roles she sang in this great musical center were Maffio Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia, Adriano in Rienzi, Azucena, and Leonora in La favorita.

Wagner gave her lessons in singing as well as acting! She created Waltraute in the world premiere of Die Götterdämmerung at the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876, and Kundry in the second performance of Parsifal on 28 July1882. According to Walter Damrosch, (in My Musical Life, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926) “she sang the role only once and always remained exceedingly jealous of Madame Materna, whose rather amplitudinous charms, she insisted, had completely hypnotized Wagner.” She sang the Walküre Brünnhilde at least once, in Stuttgart in 1883.

From 1884 to 1888 she was one of the most valued members of the German company at the Metropolitan, making her debut on 19 November 1884, as Fidelio. On 4 March 1886 she sang Kundry in a concert performance of Parsifal. Many of these important German operas were being given their first performances in America, and in most of them Brandt shared the stage with Lilli Lehmann.

According to Herman Klein, Pauline Viardot had said to her: “I was myself capable of singing any role but those written for a light soprano. You, with your astonishing compass, have the same gift. Sing any music you like, so long as you do not have to tire or force your voice.” (Great Women Singers of my Time, London, George Routledge & Sons, 1931, pp. 194—198.)

In 1890 Brandt retired and taught singing in Vienna. She died on 9 July 1921.

The Marianne Brandt Recordings

On 11 September 1905 Brandt recorded three cylinders for “Artistikal Rekord” in Vienna. The two operatic selections were also pantographically transferred to disc for Pathé. The most important recording is “Ah, mon fils”, one of the arias that Meyerbeer composed in Le Prophète especially for Viardot’s voice. These are two-minute cylinder recordings, so the aria is not complete. As Michael Scott pointed out in The Record of Singing, Vol. I, Brandt’s technique owes as much to the Italian as to the German school: at the end of the aria she is able to float a soft F sharp, top line, adding a little crescendo and a grand downward portamento to the B natural below the stave. Her tone is dark, free, and steady without any “fixed” sound; a slight tremolo due to old age is noticeable only in her two faster numbers. In such a slow, stately piece her voice floats admirably on the breath: her opening statement “Ach, mein Sohn, Segen dir!” is magnificent, suggesting something of the dramatic power of her prime. She honors the memory of her great teacher, and does not sound 63 years old.

In one stanza of the “Trinklied” from Lucrezia Borgia we may admire a brilliantly articulated trill on E, fourth space, and the perfect placing and support of the voice in the wide intervals of the teasing triplet cadenza.

In her record of Schumann’s “Frühlingsnacht” we notice the impulsive rhythmic thrust of her singing, her lovely pronunciation of the text without any exaggeration and without any hint of the glottal stop, the elegant and discreet use of portamento, and the equally subtle introduction of ritardando.



This authentic contralto was born in Ferrara on 21 June 1866 (and christened Eguerrina) and died in Turin on 21 February 1946. She studied with A. Mattioli in Ferrara from 1881 to 1883, then underwent further studies with the great but unconventional Isabella Galletti Gianoli (another of those who wavered between soprano and mezzo-soprano roles). On 3 October 1885 she made her stage debut in Viadana as Maffio Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia, followed on 18 November by la Cieca in La Gioconda at the Teatro Dal Verme, Milan. On 6 and 8 December she sang the contralto part in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the Società del Quartetto at the Conservatorio, Milan and later that year sang in La Gioconda and Mefistofele at the Teatro Politeama, Palermo.

She appeared in Madrid for the first time in 1886—1887, singing often with Fernando De Lucia; she also created the role of Zulima in Los amantes de Teruel (Breton) with Fernando Valero and Delfino Menotti. The following season she was heard there again, singing for the first time with Patti, and in the 1888—1889 season she sang with De Lucia again as Laura in La Gioconda, as Arsace in Semiramide, and in Petrella’s I promessi sposi. She went to Buenos Aires for the first time in 1888, returning in 1889, when she appeared at the Politeama Argentino with Patti and De Lucia. During a lengthy partnership she sang with Patti in Semiramide, Linda di Chamonix, Crispino e la Comare, Rigoletto, Lakmé, Dinorah, Roméo et Juliette, and Marta, in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Chicago, Mexico City, San Francisco, Louisville, Boston, and New York. During the great Tamagno-Patti tour organized by Henry E. Abbey in 1889—1890, visiting the principal towns of the U.S.A. as well as Mexico City, Fabbri sang with Tamagno in Il trovatore and Gli Ugonotti. She was heard with Tamagno again in Madrid in 1893 as Preziosilla.

On 3 September 1890 (and again in 1894) she sang La Cenerentola at the Teatro Nazionale, Rome, following this with L’Italiana in Algeri; on 16 November she sang Orfeo at the Teatro Costanzi, Rome. In 1891 she sang Lola in Cavalleria rusticana and Zuleida in Condor by Gomes at La Scala, Milan, then appeared in L’Italiana in Algeri and La Cenerentola at the Dal Verme, Milan, and the Teatro Carignano, Turin, with four performances of La Cenerentola at La Fenice, Venezia, in July 1891. As late as January 1911 she would return to La Fenice for six performances of L’Italiana in Algeri.

In 1893 she sang Orfeo in Madrid, and both Pierotto in Linda di Chamonix and Romeo in I Capuleti ed i Montecchi at the Liceu, Barcelona, roles she repeated at the Sao Carlos, Lisbon, in 1895, also appearing as Maffio Orsini, Cenerentola, Isabella, and Amneris. She was heard in Orfeo at the Teatro Comunale, Bologna, in 1898 and at the Teatro Lirico, Milan, in 1899. She was heard in South America again in 1893, 1894, and 1895. She returned to the Costanzi as Ortruda in Lohengrin in 1893, and in 1911 to sing Edwige in Guglielmo Tell with Battistini, and Mistress Quickly. In June 1897 she sang Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola at the San Carlo, Naples, with Pini-Corsi as her Figaro and Dandini, and repeated Rosina at the Teatro Verdi, Florence, in 1901. Her last Rossini role was Isabella in L’Italiana at the Politeama, Piacenza, in 1912.

She had two big chances in London: in 1887 she sang Amneris on the opening night of Augustus Harris’s Drury Lane season, and in 1891 she was well received in a revival of La Cenerentola during Lago’s Italian Opera season at the Shaftesbury Theatre, where she also sang Orfeo and Fidalma in Il matrimonio segreto. She had more lasting success in Russia: in 1899 she sang in Ruslan and Ludmilla (in Italian) and Dargomyshky’s Rusalka (in Russian) at St. Petersburg as well as Carmen, and in the 1900—1901 season she sang in both St. Petersburg and Moscow with Battistini in Il trovatore, La Gioconda, La forza del destino, and Hamlet, and as Ortrud with Constantino as Lohengrin. In December 1903 she sang four performances as Amneris in Aida at the Liceu, Barcelona, with Francisco Viñas. In 1905 she sang Amneris and Azucena and, with Luisa Tetrazzini, in Dinorah at the Teatro Arbeu in Mexico City; in 1908 she appeared in the opening season of the new Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, as Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, Madame de la Haltière in Cendrillon, la Cieca, and Erda in Sigfrido. In 1909—1910 she sang some performances of Azucena and La Cieca with Celestina Boninsegna in the first season of the Boston Opera Company.

She sang Marcellina in the first Italian performances of Bruneau’s L’Attaque du moulin at the Teatro Lirico, Milan, (8 January 1898, a flop) and Madame de la Haltière in the Italian premiere of Massenet’s Cendrillon at the same theater, (28 December 1899, a success), which was repeated at the Teatro Adriano, Rome, in 1900, the Politeama di Genova in 1901, and at the San Carlo, Naples, in 1902. She finally took up Mistress Quickly at the Teatro Verdi, Trieste, in January 1903, at La Scala in 1906 and 1913, at the Costanzi in 1911, and at the Verdi centenary performances in Busseto in 1913.

She created the role of Margarita in Wolf-Ferrari’s I Quattro rusteghi at La Fenice in June 1914 and after the war repeated this part in many different theaters, including La Fenice, the Teatro Comunale, Bologna, the Teatro Regio, Parma, the Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo, La Scala, the Costanzi, the Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa, and at the San Carlo, Naples for nine performances in the 1926—1927 season and a further six in 1927—1928: these were her very last appearances.

Fabbri also sang in other world premieres: Cimbellino by Nicola Van Westerhout (Teatro Argentina, Rome, 7 April 1892); Madre by F. Deliliers (Politeama Margherita, Cagliari, 1900); the oratorio Maria al Golgota by A. Sanzogno (Teatro Verdi, Florence, 4 April 1903). On 6 October 1906 at the Teatro Lirico, Milan, she sang Hanninda in the first Italian performance of Aben by F. José Lopez, encoring her aria. She also created the tenor role of Taddie in Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff at La Scala, Milan, on 16 February 1895.

On 26, 28, and 30 May 1898 Fabbri, together with Teresa Alasia, Fausta Labia, and Maria Pozzi, took part in the first performances in Italy of Verdi’s Sacred Pieces, the Stabat Mater, Laudi alla Vergine, and Te Deum, with the Municipal Orchestra of Turin, conducted by Toscanini, in the concert hall in the Turin International Exhibition.

Her sister Vittorina was also a professional contralto whose career lasted from 1889 to 1895.

Most of the information in this article is taken either from Vol. IV of the Enciclopedia dello Spettacolo or from the entry by Paola Campi in Vol. 43 of the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (1993, pp. 634—636).

The Guerrina Fabbri Recordings

When casting the first performances of Otello, Verdi thought of giving the role of Quickly to Fabbri, and sent Boito to hear her in La Cenerentola. Boito seems to have been impressed only up to a point: “A voice of extended range, in tune, capable of plenty of volume without forcing, and in the medium notes beautiful enough to recall Alboni’s. She is a decent enough comic actress and vivacious when necessary; her musical phrasing is decent, her pronunciation of the words decent. This singer should not be judged in La Cenerentola because she seems ignorant, completely ignorant, of the Rossini style.”

Fabbri’s voice is evidently of imposing volume and of more or less equal weight throughout a scale extending from F below the stave to the high A. There is a marked break between the chest and medium registers which the singer certainly does nothing to disguise. There is no hint of a properly developed head register. She transposes Fidès’s air “Ah, mon fils” a semitone down to avoid the high A sharp, but the A natural is not a good note. She tries for a grandiloquent and monumental style, which is sometimes impressive; however, in her search for vigorous declamation she slips too easily into a coarse and vulgar manner.

She had learned to sing correctly, so her vocal emission has the round and smooth quality typical of the greatest Italian singers: her voice is never throaty, breathy, or hoarse. The middle range is often lovely, as in parts of the aria from Il profeta and Arsace’s cavatina from Semiramide. Although she likes to push the voice relentlessly until it becomes unsteady, she sings “Ah! Quel giorno” with a good legato line and some tenderness, then makes a contrasting effect with the energy of the cabaletta. She is fairly accurate in her execution of the florid passages and never aspirates the intervals. She delivers the opening statement of “Pensa alla patria” with notable grandeur, though her tone frequently has too much of the “howling” quality beloved of some verismo singers.

In her Rossini recordings she inserts all the appoggiaturas, but her ornaments are few and uninteresting and her cadenzas poor (except for the rather grand one at the end of the andantino section of “Ah! Quel giorno”); in her record of the first stanza of Vaccaj’s great aria “Ah! se tu dormi” she inserts a few of Malibran’s embellishments.

Her second, twelve-inch record of “Se Romeo t’uccise un figlio” is better than the first, though both are transposed down a full tone to F. She demonstrates some grand portamento, and the descent to low F is impressive, but her climb up the scale at the climax is marred by forced and unsteady notes. In the Brindisi from Lucrezia Borgia there is little in the way of coloratura display. This record contains her only attempt at a trill, on the E, fourth space, a very clumsy affair.

Apart from the books quoted in my text, I have also consulted the biographical notes on Brandt and Fabbri published by Lim Lai in The Record Collector, Vol. 28 Nos. 5 & 6 (1983).



The late Mr. William Moran published an article on Rita Fornia in The Record Collector, Vol. 10 Nos. 10-11, which contains all that is known about this excellent and unusual singer.

The indefatigable Mr. Moran received an informative letter from Mary Watkins Cushing, authoress of a biography of Olive Fremstad: “In the period of opera which included many of the greatest singers the Metropolitan has ever known, Madame Fornia did not stand out, although she was gifted with an excellent and useful voice, artistic stamina, and a kindly and accomodating disposition. Were she a member of the company today, she would doubtless be considered a top-flight singer. She was, during her time, an invaluable asset; the sort of hard-working, uninspired, but competent artist every company needs……She was a pleasant, fairly placid woman, of no great personal distinction either on or off the scene. She was, in short, not the material of which the so-called stars of the musical world are made, but she was beyond all doubt a first-rate example of what the Europeans call a routinière.”

Rita Fornia was born Regina Newman in San Francisco on 17 July 1878; her father, a successful wholesale jeweller, and her mother both hailed from Prussia. Regina Newman (already preferring to be called “Rita”) heard Patti in San Francisco (this must have been in 1890) and decided to be a singer. In 1898 her father allowed her to go to New York, where she may have had some lessons from the famous contralto Sofia Scalchi; the bass Emil Fischer told her to go to Europe. In 1899 she began to study in Berlin with Selma Nicklass-Kemper, later the teacher of Frieda Hempel, who trained her voice as a high soprano. She was given a contract for the Hamburg opera and made her debut at Lübeck in 1901 as Eudoxie in La Juive; on the Hamburg circuit she also sang such roles as Rosina and the Queen of the Night (with what she described as “the usual transpositions”, taking her no higher than E-flat). For about a year in 1902—1903 she studied in Paris with Jean de Reszke, who retrained her voice as a mezzo-soprano without sacrificing the highest notes. Jean recommended her to H.W. Savage, and she returned to New York to make her debut with the Savage English Grand Opera Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on 21 September 1903, as Siébel in Faust (in English). Between 1903—1906 Miss Newman sang Azucena, Musetta, Nedda, and Santuzza (sometimes both on the same evening), Elisabeth and Venus (these, too, occasionally in the same performance), and Brünnhilde and Sieglinde in The Valkyrie.

Conried engaged her for the Metropolitan’s 1907—1908 season and she made her first appearance, with her name temporarily modified into Rita La Fornia (after her native state), at the opening of the new Academy of Music in Brooklyn on 14 November 1907, as Siébel with Farrar, Caruso, Noté, and Didur. Her first appearance at the Metropolitan was as the Geisha in Iris with Eames, Caruso, Scotti, and Journet, on 6 December 1907. She proved her usefulness to the company when in Philadelphia, on 31 December, she replaced an ailing Sembrich in Il barbiere di Siviglia; she sat up all night to learn Rosina in Italian, having until then only sung the opera in German. Bonci, Campanari, and Chaliapin were in the cast. After some appearances as Helmwige in Die Walküre she hit the headlines when, on 19 March 1908, she replaced Emma Eames as Leonora in Il trovatore, singing with Caruso, Homer, and Stracciari. She must have been ready for this opportunity, for Eames only notified the management at 5:30 in the afternoon that she would be unable to sing that night. She repeated the role on 4 April and also on tour in Boston on 8 April. The New York American reported: “To the amazement of those who had not heard the singer in important parts, Mme. La Fornia made a pronounced and brilliant hit. Though she had had no rehearsal, she sang admirably. In the dramatic passages she had power, and suggested passion. In her florid music, she had taste, charm, and remarkable facility. Her voice is fresh and of a delightful quality. She acts intelligently. And she is handsome. Why has the Metropolitan management kept a singer of Mme. La Fornia’s caliber in the background all these months?”

Meanwhile, on 18 February she had sung Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni in Philadelphia (with the Met company) with Farrar, Bonci, Scotti, and Chaliapin, conducted by Mahler, and repeated the role in New York on 3 April 1908. This was not so successful an experiment. Reporting on her Met performance of Elvira, the New York Press opined that “Her voice, except when she was straining for high notes, was warm and expressive, and, allowing for the effects of excitement, well managed.”

Although she did sing Leonora again, and occasionally Nedda, her most significant roles from now on were Siébel, Suzuki, the First Flower Maiden, Marzelline, and Stéphano. She sang in several world premieres: Enya in Horatio Parker’s Mona, Giulia in Giordano’s Madame Sans-Gene, and La Badessa in Suor Angelica. She participated in Sunday evening concerts, even singing Euridice in a concert performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. In the 1908—1909 season she sang 48 performances in New York alone, besides appearances in the Met tour. After 1915 she sang less frequently: Geraldine Farrar told Mr. Moran that Fornia had problems with her health. In her last season, 1920—1921, she sang only nine performances, finishing her career as Suzuki to the Butterfly of her friend Farrar, with Gigli and Scotti in the cast, on 7 April 1921.

In April 1909 she married the New York art dealer James P. Labey, and this happily successful marriage doubtless helped her to accept a secondary position at the opera house. Fornia seems to have undergone an operation in New York in 1922, and on 27 October she died at her sister’s home in Paris.

Mr. Moran was unable to unearth any information about possible opera or concert performances in Europe. How, then, did she come to record such a charming selection of salon songs?

The Rita Fornia Recordings

The trio from Madama Butterfly, a souvenir of her most famous role, is dominated by the elegantly doleful singing of Antonio Scotti and the rather metallic contribution of Riccardo Martin. However, the solos from Faust and Roméo et Juliette are great records.

Fornia would seem to be typical of Jean de Reszke’s most successful students, such as Maggie Teyte, Rachel Morton, or Lucile Marcel. Her voice is easily produced and floats on the breath; the registers are well blended and she can sing softly or loudly at any point of her scale. Her performances are exquisitely refined, suggesting that the concert hall might have offered her a rich field.

To compare the two versions of the Flower Song from Faust is to learn something of recording conditions in 1910. Both are excellent and stylish, but with less time available in the second take singer and conductor have to go faster, although they still manage to use a great deal of tempo rubato. The earlier version imparts important lessons in style–if only singers and conductors today could listen to it! Notice the first rallentando appropriately placed on the words “Que mon coeur nuit et jour Languit d’amour!”, soon followed by an accelerando to underline the crescendo of excitement at the words “Le secret de ma flamme”. A similar pattern of “give-and-take” is continued throughout the song. The recitative “Fanée!” is marvelously rendered and the aria ends with a virtuoso touch: the first high G on “un doux baiser” is taken pianissimo, the repetition forte. She introduces appoggiaturas as if this were Italian music of ca. 1820; this is probably a “tradition” handed down at the Met from the days of Scalchi. Her singing of the “Chanson de Stéphano” from Roméo et Juliette is so fine that I often use this record as an example of bel-canto singing in the mezzo-soprano repertoire. Although she does not actually smile very much in what is, after all, an ironic aria, she is graceful and insinuating, and admirably precise in her execution of the triplets and the lightly sung but brilliant scale passage taking her easily up to high C.

The salon songs are beautifully sung, even “Aime-moi”, in which the execution is reasonably accurate and most pleasing. Even better is Chaminade’s “Madrigal”, a very good song with a fine piano accompaniment, and here Fornia and Rosario Bourdon have a wonderful time with their playful rubati. Listening to the lovely tone, the easy vocalization and the charming manner of Fornia in a difficult song like this, one has the sensation that she must have been one of the greatest and most poular singers of her day–and yet she wasn’t!

The songs of Erik Meyer-Helmund, a singer-composer born in St. Petersburg and a pupil of Stockhausen, are melodious and singable; Fornia gives the famous “Zauberlied” with fine sustained tone, but she is even better in her deeply felt “Dein gedenk’ich, Margaretha”. After a bumpy start she sweeps excitingly through Becker’s “Frülingslied”. Eugen Hildach’s “Der Spielmann” is an evocative song that rather taxes Fornia in the key of G–she might have sounded more relaxed a tone lower. Still, she suggests something of the nostalgic longing so skillfully echoed in Howard Rattay’s beautifully played obbligato.

Rita Fornia’s records demonstrate that a musical singer, even without a great voice, can come to possess an individual art and style that will still give pleasure almost a hundred years after her death.

©Michael Aspinall, 2007