The Complete Conchita Supervia, Vol. 3
Odeon/Parlophone 1930-1932

52060-2 (2 CDs)  | $ 36.00
VOCAL

 

The Complete Conchita Supervia, Vol. 3
Conchita Supervia is one of the most sought-after singers among the serious record collectors. In fact, she is as close to a cult-figure as it gets with the shellac-set. Supervia recorded over 200 sides for Odeon and later, several sides for Ultraphone. Although many of these records are common, many were only issued in Spain and are extremely scarce. What makes Supervia so well liked is the unique timbre of her voice that is immediately recognizable. Whether singing La cenerentola, Carmen, or the vast number of unusual Spanish songs, Conchita Supervia is amazing. This two-CD set, the third of five volumes, will span from 1930-1932 and will include her French language recordings from Carmen, an unpublised recording of “Air des larmes” from Werther, as well as her six Parlophone recordings of English songs.
CD 1 (73:09)
CARMEN (Georges Bizet)
Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy

French Odeon, Paris, 10 July 1930 and 24 April 1931

With orchestra, conducted by Gustave Cloëz
1. L’amour est un oiseau rebelle [Habanera] 4:16
  24 April 1931; (XXP7267-1) 123773  
2. Près de remparts de Séville [Séguedille] 4:11
  with Gaston Micheletti, tenor
10 July 1930; (XXP7098-1) 123714
 
3. Les tringles des sistres tintaient [Chanson bohème] 3:19
  10 July 1930; (XXP7099-2) 123714  
4. Attends un peu, Carmen 4:13
  with Gaston Micheletti, tenor
24 April 1930; (XXP7266-1) 123772
 
5. La fleur que tu m’avais jetée 3:26
  solo by Gaston Micheletti, tenor
24 May 1929; (XXP6900-1) 123772
 
6. Non tu ne m’aimes pas 4:08
  with Gaston Micheletti, tenor
24 April 1931; (XXP7265-2) 123773
 
7. Mêlons! Mêlons, coupons! 3:59
  with Andrée Vavon and Andrée Bernadet, sopranos
10 July 1930; (XXP7100-2) 123713
 
8. En vain pour éviter [Scène des cartes] 2:57
  with Andrée Vavon and Andrée Bernadet, sopranos
10 July 1930; (XXP7101-2) 123713
 
9. C’est toi, c’est moi! 3:46
  with Gaston Micheletti, tenor
24 April 1931; (XXP7263-1) 123774
 
10. Mais moi, Carmen je t’aime encore [Finale, Act 4] 4:25
  with Gaston Micheletti, tenor
24 April 1931; (XXP7264-1) 123774
 

Spanish Odeon, Barcelona, 24 October 1930

With orchestra, conducted by Antonio Capdevila
11. La paloma (Sebastian de Yradier) 3:31
  (SO6679-1) 184235  

Spanish Odeon, Barcelona, 24 February 1931

With piano, Alejandro Vilalta
12. Serranilla [Canción Montañesa] (Rodrigo; de Santillana) 2:24
  (SO6934-1) 184246  
13. Cançó de Maria (Lamotte de Grignon) 2:43
  (SO6935-1) 184229  
14. Els cants dels ocells (Traditional; Arranged by Joaquín Nin) 3:25
  (SO6936-1) 184229  
15. L’Hora grisa (Federico Mompou; Manuel Blancafort) 2:42
  (SO6937-1) 184251  

Spanish Odeon, Barcelona, 25 February 1931

With piano, Alejandro Vilalta
16. El paño murciano (Traditional; Arranged by Joaquín Nin) 1:28
  (SO6943) 184246  
17. El vito (Traditional; Arranged by Joaquín Nin) 1:40
  (SO6943) 184246  

French Odeon, Paris, 25 April 1931

With orchestra
18. EL HUÉSPED DEL SEVILLANO: Las lagarteranas (E. Reoyo; J. Guerrero and L. de Tena) 2:35
  (Ki4396-2) 188809  
19. El relicario (J. Padilla; Oliveros and Castellvi) 3:04
  (Ki4397-2) 188809  
20. Clavelitos (Joaquín Valverde; José Juan Cadenas) [text] 2:08
  (Ki4398-2) 195102  
21. ¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay! (Osmán Pérez-Freire) 3:01
  (Ki4399-1) 195102  
22. ¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay! (Osmán Pérez-Freire) 3:09
  (Ki4399-3) RO20165  
23. Ave Maria (Bach; Gounod) 2:28
  (Ki4400-2) PO51  
CD 2 (79:40)

French Odeon, Paris, 24 October 1931

With orchestra, conducted by Gustave Cloëz
1. WERTHER: Va, laisse couler mes larmes [Air des larmes] (Massenet) 2:31
  (Ki4896-1) unpublished on 78 rpm
Transposed down a semi-tone
 
2. FAUST: Faites-lui mes aveux (Gounod) 3:08
  (Ki4897-2) RO20180  
3. LA BOHÈME: D’un pas léger [Quando me’n vo’soletta] (Puccini) 2:39
  (Ki4898-2) RO20180
Transposed down a whole tone.
 
4. MIGNON: Connais-tu le pays? (Thomas) 4:26
  (XXP7311-2) 121165  
5. SAMSON ET DALILA: Printemps qui commence (Saint-Saëns) 4:23
  (XXP7312-1) 121165  
6. FAUST: Il était un roi de Thulé (Gounod) 3:35
  (XXP7313-2) Historic Masters HMB11  

French Odeon, Paris, 26 October 1931

With orchestra, conducted by Paul Minssart
7. LA DAMNATION DE FAUST: Autrefois un roi de Thulé (Berlioz) 4:26
  (XXP7314-1) Historic Masters HMB11  
8. Rey y señor (Joaquim Zamacois; Pedro Poch) 3:29
  (XXP7315-2) 121163  
9. La partida (F. M. Álvarez; E. Blasco) 4:18
  (XXP7316-2) 121163  

French Odeon, Paris, 30 October 1931

With orchestra, conducted by Paul Minssart
10. Santa Lucia (Cottrau; Traditional) 2:56
  (Ki4919-1) 184284  
11. Mi viejo amor (Alfonso Esperanza Oteo) 3:03
  (Ki4920-2) 184284  
12. Porque me besó (Pascual Godes; G. Alcazar) 3:09
  (Ki4921-1) 184276  
13. La pastora (Murillo; Miranda) 3:00
  (Ki4922-2) 184303  

French Odeon, Paris, 31 November 1931

With orchestra, conducted by Paul Minssart
14. Flor y luz (Pedro Puche; Juan Dotras Vila) 2:27
  (Ki4928-1) 184276  
15. La primavera (from SONGS WITHOUT WORDS, No. 30, op. 62, no. 6) (Mendelssohn; Miranda) 2:42
  (Ki4929-2) 184271  

English Parlophone, London, 17 March 1932

With piano, Ivor Newton
16. Should he upbraid (Bishop; adapted from Shakespeare) 3:35
  (LO3003-1) RO20186  
17. Oh no, John (Traditional; Arranged by Cecil Sharp) 2:32
  (LO3004-1) RO20193  
18. So sweet is she (“Have you seen but a whyte lillie grow?”) (Ferrabosco, arr. Dolmetsch; Ben Johnson) 2:26
  (LO3005-2) RO20193  
19. When I bring to you color’d toys [No. 1 from the opera GITANJALI] (John Alden Carpenter; Rabindranath Tagore) 2:40
  (LO3006-2) Historic Masters HMA1  
20. Lullaby, op. 57, no. 2 (Cyril Scott; C. Rossetti) 2:11
  (LO3007-2) Historic Masters HMA1  
21. A lesson with the fan (Guy D’Hardelot; F. E. Weatherly) 3:31
  (LO3008-2) RO20186  

Spanish Odeon, Barcelona, 21 May 1932

With piano, Pedro Vallribera
22. Flecha (Manén; Luis Doreste) 3:27
  (SO7697-1) 184342  
23. La noia bonica (F. Longás; Ignacio Iglesias) 2:31
  (SO7698-1) 184301  
24. Soleá (Modesto Pomero; F. Prado) 3:26
  (SO7699-1) 184315  
25. Háblame de amores (Esteban Fusté; Franco de Rioja) 2:51
  (SO7700-1) 184286  

CD 1:
Languages: French [1-10]; Spanish [11, 16, 18-22]; Montañesa [12]; Catalan [13-15]; Andalusian [17]; Latin [23]

CD 2:
Languages: French [1-7]; Spanish [8-9, 11-15, 22, 25]; Italian [10]; English [16-21]; Catalan [23-24]

 


Producer: Scott Kessler and Ward Marston

Audio Conservation: Ward Marston

Audio Assistance: J. Richard Harris

Photographs: Girvice Archer, Gregor Benko, César A. Dillon, and Charles Mintzer

Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi

Marston would like to thank Bill Breslin, César A. Dillon, Lawrence F. Holdridge, David Mason, Rudi Sazunic, and Vera Wilson.

This set is dedicated to the memory of George Fraser.

For additional discographic information see British Institute of Recorded Sound Bulletin, No. 4 (Spring, 1957), Conchita Supervia Discography by Harold M. Barnes.


Conchita Supervia, Volume III

A Gallery of Great Singers
by Desmond Shawe-Taylor

10: Conchita Supervia (1895–1936)

Conchita Supervia, a magnetic personality as well as a great singer, was the kind of artist around whose name legends gather; the facts are not always so easy to unravel. When, for instance, was she born?

Some years ago, while preparing a broadcast about Supervia, I consulted her English husband and her Spanish mother, both of whom were then living in London and have since died; neither felt sure of the year of her birth, though they agreed that her birthday was December 8. In 1958, by a chain of coincidences, I encountered the singer’s only son, Mr. George Supervia, in the outskirts of Lima; he was extremely helpful and forthcoming, and was later able to confirm ‘from a very reliable family source’ the probability (to which I already inclined) that the year of his mother’s birth was 1895; but in doing this he raised a fresh doubt about the day. ‘Since in Spain’, he writes ‘the saint’s day is more celebrated than one’s birthday, her “feast-day” was usually held on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception; hence the name Conchita’ (an abbreviation of Concepcion). At any rate there is no doubt that Conchita Supervia was born in Barcelona, of an Aragonese father and a Catalan mother, and was educated there at the Colegio de las Damas Negras; therefore, if these lines should chance to find an interested reader resident in Barcelona, he could serve the cause of accuracy if he were to unearth an entry relating to her birth either in the municipal archives or at least in the convent records.

The question is more than one of idle curiosity; it is musically interesting. We are always being told that one of the main reasons for the decline of singing is that singers won’t spend long years in patient study, but insist on taking engagements when they are too young. The explanation sounds plausible, but the facts hardly bear it out. The number of the world’s supreme female singers who began their careers in their very early twenties, or even in their teens, is extraordinary. Patti appeared in Lucia di Lammermoor when she was sixteen; Sembrich in I Puritani when she was nineteen; Schumann-Heink as Azucena in Il Trovatore, a very heavy role, when she was nineteen. And there are many, many more; so many, in fact, that I always feel a twinge of disbelief when I hear of some brilliant soprano who is about to burst on the world in her thirties.

There is, all the same, something slightly fabulous about the career of Conchita Supervia, if—as seems probable—she was truly under fifteen when she made her operatic début at Buenos Aires (not at the Colón, by the way, but at a smaller theatre) in Breton’s Los amantes de Teruel. This was in 1910, and her success must have been rapid, for by late 1911 she was singing in Rome as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. It is worth pausing there; for, if we had indeed got our dates right, she must have been just under sixteen when she made this important appearance in one of Italy’s leading opera-houses. Now, Octavian is supposed to be just over seventeen; and it is doubtful whether there has ever been another occasion when the singer of this role was positively younger than the fictional character. Within another year or so Supervia was singing in Buenos Aires such decidedly mature types as Carmen and Dalila.

We cannot surmise how she sang Octavian in 1911, except on the basis of some records she made from the opera in 1928, when she appeared in the role at La Scala under Strauss himself. Together with her Sophie, Ines Maria Ferraris, she recorded the Presentation of the Rose and the final duet. The language is Italian; and we find at once that Supervia belongs to that rare group of singers (John McCormack and Plunket Greene are others) who enunciate and phrase with such unifying art that they can make a translation sound like the original. In the Presentation scene Octavian’s first words are: ‘A me concesso fu l’onore d’esser prescelto a porre nelle vosri mani, a nome del illustre Signor di Lerchenau, mio cugino, questa rosa, quel pegno del suo puro amor.’ At the words, ‘Signor di Lerchenau’, she almost persuades us that the Italian text is a better fit than the German, so inevitably does she drop the syllables of ‘Lerchenau’ into and upward arpeggio phrase which in the original belong to the words ‘dessen zu’. In fact, there is a peculiar charm in these Supervia recordings of German opera in Italian, and the Hansel and Gretel duet (again with Ferraris) explains the great success of this Milanese production. The two singers make a most lively and uninhibited pair of children; indeed, a well-brought-up German child might be shocked by the Italian gusto of their mutual insults.1

Of course it was not in Strauss or in Humperdinck that Supervia was to become internationally famous; it was in Rossini. This part of her career seems to have begun in 1925, when the Teatro di Torino was inaugurated with a famous performance of the long neglected Italiana in Algeri under Vittorio Gui. Not long afterwards she added to this role an even more dazzling interpretation of La Cenerentola; and she used also, though less frequently, to sing the Barbiere in the original mezzo-soprano version, which was then rarely heard. These Cenerentola and Italiana revivals became so famous that they began to be given, with Supervia and the rest of the cast more or less intact, throughout Italy and elsewhere in Europe. In 1929 both operas were highly successful in Paris, and in 1933 La Cenerentola was included in the first ‘Maggio Musicale’ at Florence. In 1934 it reached London, and was repeated in 1935 together with the Italiana. No doubt Covent Garden would have heard much more of Supervia’s Rossini and of her other roles but for her untimely death in 1936.

For these Rossini operas Supervia had a formidable array of qualities. To begin with the voice itself, she had the necessary colour and range: a genuine mezzo-soprano of more than two octaves, from low G to high B. Then there was her remarkable agility: she could sing scales, arpeggios and the most elaborate roulades without turning a hair. We must not claim too much for her florid technique. Her runs were by no means Melba-like; they were helped along by a few intrusive aspirates; and in much of her coloratura work there is a Spanish vehemence and roughness which would perhaps have dismayed Rossini and his contemporaries. In his day, tonal beauty and perfect smoothness of emission were regarded as the prime vocal virtues (so indeed they are); and at first he might have dismissed some of Supervia’s roulades as coarse and provincial. I say ‘at first’, because she possessed in abundance other qualities which he must soon have found irresistible. Himself the wittiest and most sociable of men, and eminently susceptible to feminine charms, how could he have failed to surrender to her beauty, her brimming vitality, her infectious sense of fun and mischief? Both on the opera stage and on the concert platform she displayed a communicative power which can hardly have been surpassed; and this warmth of temperament is evident too in almost every one of the 200 or so recordings she made. She was incapable of dullness; even in the most trivial song there will come a phrase so personal and so completely genuine that the listener feels something akin to physical contact. In whatever language she sang—and she was a gifted linguist—she filled each word with meaning, and lent the utmost grace and point to the turn of every musical phrase. Her moods and the colour of her tone would change with lightning rapidity; and her sense of rhythm often gave a fascinating outline and precision to passages which seem quite ordinary in the score. Above all, she always conveys to the listener an extraordinary sense of joy in the sheer act of singing.

Although Supervia’s operatic reputation was largely made outside Spain, and of course not in Spanish works, it would be impossible to exaggerate the importance of her ‘Spanishness’. She seems a far more characteristically Spanish singer, more impassioned and closer to the soil, as it were, than Victoria de los Angeles. Her rich and fearless chest register, which was in life not so harsh or metallic as it is made to seem in those early electric studio recordings, reminds us of certain flamenco singers; so does her zestful rhythm, the kind of rhythm which makes the non-Spanish world seem only half alive and awake; Supervia might be called the vocal counterpart of such a dancer as Antonio. We know little or nothing of her musical education, and it is probable that the peculiar flexibility of her voice may derive from the profuse ornamentation found in Spanish song, which is quite a different thing from the ornaments of Italian opera, and is ultimately of oriental origin. It is typical, for instance, that Supervia’s technique seems never to have included a shake, which is a non-Spanish ornament.

There is another intensely Spanish element in her singing, which has given rise to much discussion: the passionate, rapidly beating vibrato which often (but by no means always) occurs in the course of her performances. To English listeners, whose ideal may be the flute-like English choirboy, Supervia’s strong vibrato often begins by sounding unpleasant. But it is clear that this vibrato is quite another thing from the usual tremolo or wobble, caused by faulty breathing and physical insecurity. There is never anything insecure about Supervia. She has full control over her vocal resources, and, like a violinist, uses more or less vibrato at will; there are gentle songs from which she excludes it almost completely; and if she sometimes uses more than we care for, it is because she comes from a country of violent emotions, in which a placid and virginal purity of tone is not particularly admired for its own sake. If we wonder that such a background and style enabled her to excel in the essentially Italian and highly civilized music of Rossini, we should remember that Colbran and Malibran and Viardot-Garcia were also Spaniards, sometimes criticized for the roughness of their execution and the unevenness of their scale. [All her Rossini recordings, by the way, have been collected on Parlophone PMA 1025.]2

It was inevitable that a singer of these gifts should tackle Carmen; and this was to become Supervia’s most famous role outside Rossini. It was, I believe, much admired in Paris in 1930; and the recordings made in that year with the Opéra-Comique cast (assembled on Parlophone PMA 1024) are of superb quality: so far as I know, the finest extended selection yet made, and superior to any complete recording so far issued.3 One of the French critics who most admired her suggested that she seemed almost too good-natured for the character: a flirtatious tease rather than a femme fatale; and it is true that five years later, at Covent Garden, her Carmen made nothing like the impact that it makes on records. But it is probable that on this occasion she did not do herself justice; the previous year there had been a battle royal between herself and the management over the order in which Carmen and Cenerentola should be given, if damage to her voice was to be avoided; all sorts of people, including old Emma Calvé, weighed in on her side, and the management had to yield. Perhaps the memory of this struggle prevented a perfect sympathy between the singer and the conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, who was also artistic director of Covent Garden at this time.

Among Supervia’s other operatic parts were Saint-Saëns’s Dalilia, Ravel’s Frasquita (in L’Heure Espagnole), Donizetti’s Leonora (in La Favorita), Berlioz’s Marguerite, and Mozart’s Cherubino. Rare performances which one would like to have caught were a presumably early Adalgisa, to the Norma of Giannina Russ; Mozart’s Dorabella; and Offenbach’s La Périchole at Monte Carlo. Her husband used to declare that her amusing performance in the tipsy scene of the last opera was a triumph of observation, since she was herself wholly abstemious. He thought too that she came to enjoy her stage appearances less and less in the latter part of her short life; and it seems probable that her career would have lain increasingly in the concert hall, which indeed by her vitality and stage sense—not to mention her dressing of the part for the Spanish groups—she could turn into a miniature theatre. Perhaps the only singer in recent times who equalled her power of making a great artistic experience out of slight musical material was John McCormack. Both, it may be added, showed a marked sympathy with the imagination of the child: the magic they distil seems to result in part from the fact that they had not forgotten the vivid apprehensions of childhood.

During the first war Conchita Supervia fell in love with an Italian lawyer named Francesco Santamaria, who was later to become the Mayor of Naples; he died in 1947. Their son Giorgio was born in October 1918; and some ten years later, in order to amuse her little ‘Giorgino’, she recorded a set of nursery songs by a composer named Gennai, each one with a spoken introduction. They are enchanting, and I believe that the Italian, spoken as well as sung, is pretty well flawless.4 In 1931 she married Ben Rubenstein and settled in London; and in the autumn of 1931 she made a long provincial concert tour in England. During this tour she sang a group of English songs, although she had only just begun to learn the language; and with these she created quite a sensation owing to the clarity and extraordinary charm of her enunciation. Of course, she had still (as is shown in her London recordings of early 1932)5 a marked foreign accent; nevertheless, there are few English singers who could not learn something from her intensely vivid handling of our language.

In the literature of Spanish song there has been no one to equal her in our time. Not even Victoria de los Angeles, an admirable artist with an exquisite natural quality of voice, has the sheer vitality and attack of Supervia; and these are qualities essential to Spanish song. Supervia’s performances of the Falla set of ‘Seven Popular Songs’ and of the Granados Tonadillas are unforgettable, full of fire, pathos and humor; later singers almost owe her a grudge for having made them so utterly her own. But memories, mercifully for others, are short; and the records are currently out of print.6 A forthcoming ‘Great Artists of the Century’ issue will include a large selection from her rarer Spanish material (some of this was recorded just before the Civil War, and has not survived in any form). One side will be devoted to excerpts from Spanish zarzuelas (I do not know whether she appeared in any of these, but they suit her down to the ground) and to songs with orchestral accompaniment, such as the captivating Clavelitos; the other to more intimate, piano-accompanied material. These songs show all her variety and her brilliance; her passion and scorn; her wit and pathos. Their brimming vitality makes her death, in childbirth, on March 30, 1936, appear as the horrible accident that it was.7

This first appeared in OPERA, Vol. 11, January 1960. It is used here with permission from the estate of Desmond Shawe-Taylor, OPERA, and with the help of Andrew Porter.

1 These selections from and may be heard on Marston

2 Parlophone PMA 1025 is a long-out-of-print LP reissue. Supervia’s Rossini recordings may be heard on Marston

3 Parlophone PMA 1024 is a long-out-of-print LP reissue. Supervia’s Carmen excerpts can all be heard on this present Supervia CD issue.

4 These can be heard on Marston

5 These can be heard on this set

6 The Falla “Seven Popular Songs” may be heard on Marston and the Granados “Tonadillas” will be available on the final volume of Conchita Supervia

7 In addition to the Great Artists of the Century set, Marston’s complete Conchita Supervia contains all of Supervia’s rare Spanish material among its four volumes.

 

Conchita Supervia’s Carmen

Though full of effective phrases, the role of Carmen is awkwardly written for the voice—uncomfortably high for a contralto, low for a soprano, leaving the fortunate mezzo-soprano to make the most of her opportunities in what is, after all, one of the great roles in opera. In the old days a singer such as Emma Calvé, who fancied herself more of a soprano on some days and more of a mezzo on others, could choose a tasty selection from various high and low variants, some “traditional,” others printed in early editions of the separate numbers from the score.

To many of us Conchita Supervia seems to have had the ideal Carmen voice on gramophone records. Though not of imposing volume, the voice was evidently big enough for the Opéra-Comique, where that difficult diva Emma Eames heard her, and graciously declared her to be the best Carmen since Calvé. Supervia’s Spanish vocal mannerisms lend an appropriately Iberian touch to Bizet’s music. In the 19th century, Carmen was considered a role for a great actress and even such renowned divas as Lilli Lehmann, Adelina Patti, and Lillian Nordica were unsuccessful in the part (so much for the widely-held notion that acting was first introduced into opera by Maria Callas). Supervia’s fellow Catalonian Maria Gay, possessor of a rich contralto voice, was a great Carmen of the preceding generation: hers is a “hell-cat,” but Supervia’s is a kitten—a very provocative kitten. Gay (especially in her thrilling recording of the final duet with Giovanni Zenatello) transforms Carmen into full-blooded Italian verismo, but Supervia cleverly avoids “baritonal” effects and tries to restrain herself whenever her natural enthusiasm might threaten to offend French ideas of style. Whereas in her Rossini roles her singing technique is taxed to the limits, she is able to throw off Carmen’s music with blithe spontaneity and evident enjoyment. Her florid singing is not always of the clear-cut precision of a Mantelli, but in Carmen’s dance to castanet obbligato—one of Supervia’s most brilliantly realized contributions to the recorded legacy of the opera—she not only executes the “Spanish” coloratura with full-toned accuracy and a thrilling, flame-like timbre, but she embellishes the melody with tiny mordents. This would have passed for extremely polished singing with the most severe critics. In comparison with her operatic recordings made about three years earlier, the Carmen set does perhaps reveal a slight vocal decline; there seems to be less flexibility in the head register, and when she has to declaim words on the upper medium notes, for example E or E-flat, fourth space, the timbre acquires a slightly choked and rattly sound and the enunciation is more laborious. She sings slightly flat in some places, more noticeably than formerly. The timbre is like Sardinian bitter honey, individual and immediately recognizable, and there are no unpleasant notes, although the high G-sharp and A do not come easily. English and American critics commented on her faulty method of breathing (which would seem to have been clavicular) and they alone, in all the hundreds of reviews found in the collection of the late Richard Bebb, mention her vibrato; they describe it as a flaw in her singing, but even the feared Henderson of the New York Sun did not allow this to interfere with his enjoyment of her New York recital in 1932. Music lovers who heard her in the flesh would often say that the vibrato so faithfully picked up by the microphone was not so jarring in the theater. Although “live” recordings are known to have been made of her broadcast of La Cenerentola from Covent Garden, nothing seems to have survived, which is a pity, as we might have got a better idea of how her vibrato sounded in a hall. In her chest and lower medium registers she is able to increase or diminish the intensity of her vibrato at will. The American critics considered her vibrato a typically Spanish feature, together with her “brassy chest quality,” but of course many French singers and actors of her generation (including Sarah Bernhardt) also employed a marked vibrato. The vibrato of Gaston Micheletti, Supervia’s ardent Don José, is of the throaty and choked variety, preventing him from emitting his voice naturally, and becoming worrying when high notes approach. Despite her technical flaws (call them idiosyncrasies, if you prefer) Supervia’s voice floats on the breath under what sounds like complete control; she maintains an impeccable musical line while coloring her timbre to fit the words—words which are always enunciated with a delicious clarity and point. The whole effect is of an adorable lightness, with danger lurking behind the sparkling good humor. The spontaneity of her utterance (in reality the result of years of study beginning at a precociously early age) makes it almost sound as if Supervia is making up the words and music as she goes along: her great art is indeed concealing art.

Like most “old” singers on gramophone records, Supervia will surprise opera-lovers who hear her for the first time by her generous use of portamento di voce and tempo rubato. In comparison with Calvé, de Lussan, Farrar, and other famous Carmens of the 1900 period, she seems rather more modern in her discreet use of these ancient, and indeed indispensable ornaments. Her portamento, which she tends to use where indicated in the score, adds lightness and charm to her phrasing rather than clogging it with too obvious slurring. Her use of this grace has developed and matured nicely since her wonderful but perhaps rather too coyly and insinuatingly swoopy “O aprile foriero” (from Sansone e Dalila) of 1927. It is interesting that the brilliant conductor Gustave Cloëz, five years younger than Supervia, was a regular at the Opéra-Comique from 1922-1946, and he lends his authority to her rubato; we are hearing the traditional tempi and style of a Paris Carmen in 1932. What a pity that Odéon were unable to engage the chorus as well as the orchestra!

The best review of Supervia’s Carmen at the Opéra-Comique in 1932 appeared in L’Ami du Peuple du Soir on 13 November and is signed Raymond Balliman: “What she restores to us is truly the passionate, feline and untameable Carmen, bringing out all the intentions behind the music and the words—which she, foreigner though she be, pronounces with a disarming correctness and refinement—impressing upon them the seal of her extraordinary personality. ”

Supervia may not have been in her very best voice on the day she recorded the Habanera, which lacks the vocal allure, the richness, and purity of timbre of some more sedate recordings. However, here we certainly have a lesson in how to sing this famous aria, with the rhythm delicately incised, the words well forward on the lips, the port de voix demanded by Bizet insinuatingly supplied. Without ever exaggerating, she is seductive, winning, ironic—but also hints at the hidden threat. Though in all these records from Bizet’s opera she generally sings what is written and in the original keys, going for no alternatives, she adds a little mordent here and there with impeccable taste. In the Séguidille, with what mastery she almost imperceptibly stresses the accents (as marked) in lines like “J’irai danser la Séguidille,” and how careful she is to follow the composer’s many suggestions for variation of color and dynamics. I hope that future Carmens will get the opportunity to follow this highly detailed piece of vocal interpretation with the score.

The metronome markings in the score of the “Chanson bohème” suggest that Bizet imagined something like the breathtaking accelerando achieved by Supervia, though her tempi are faster even than those of Calvé, thought at the Opéra-Comique in the 1890s to be daringly eccentric. Here Supervia’s Carmen is dazzlingly brilliant and extroverted—after all, she is singing (and dancing) for her friends; all the more astonishing is the contrast with the duets with Don José from later in the scene, where she employs a light conversational style, her humor flashing from joy to pouting and from mockery to rage—all with the most delicate vocal touch. The unlovely but, oh! so authentically French! voices of Mlles. Vavon and Bernadet were perfectly chosen to supply the gay, thoughtless obbligato to Carmen’s brooding over the cards, a scene movingly realized by Supervia, who takes her cue from Bizet’s instruction: simplement et très également (simply and smoothly). In the final duet she replies to José’s passionate pleading (a good performance from Micheletti) with quiet dignity until she is goaded into asserting her independence. Don José has the last word as he demands to be arrested over the mangled remains of Carmen, but for all Micheletti’s fine declamation of these thrilling phrases it is the voice of Carmen that remains in our ear after we have put the priceless old recording back on the shelf: could there ever be a more perfect marriage of a voice to a role, or a more exhaustively complete vocal realization of all the shades and intensities of a complex score?

©Michael Aspinall, 2008

A footnote:

It is good to be able to hear Supervia in the Quintet (Marston 52041, The Complete Conchita Supervia, vol. I), but this earlier, Italian recording is slightly disappointing, for the rather quacking effect of two fine buffo singers is not really what is required in this polished French music, and after all Carmen does not have much to sing here.

Throughout our Supervia series, we are following a chronological sequence by recording date and matrix number. In the first two volumes, we deviated slightly from this order when it made musical sense to do so. In this third volume, we have combined all of Supervia’s Carmen excerpts into one group even though they were recorded during two sessions nine months apart. We have also included Gaston Micheletti’s recording of the “Flower song” for the sake of musical cogency.

Concerning the remaining recordings contained in this volume, There are a few points that need to be mentioned. Supervia’s Barcelona sessions of 24 and 25 February 1931 produced six published sides. These are all exceedingly elusive due to the fact that they were issued only in Spain and received limited circulation. In fact, one of these recordings, “Boires baixes” by Granados (Matrix SO6942) has so far proved to be unfindable. We will continue searching for this record and if it surfaces, we will include it in our fourth and final Supervia volume. Since we had extra space on the first CD of this volume, we have included two takes of the Spanish song “¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!” both of which were published. Take 1 seems to have been issued only in Argentina, whereas take 3 was widely available on Parlophone and American Decca.

During her Paris sessions of October and November 1931, Supervia recorded 18 sides, of which six were unpublished during the 78 rpm era. Her recording of the “Air des larmes” from Werther exists only as a test pressing in private hands. We are grateful that we were permitted to borrow the disc for inclusion here. Supervia also recorded “Mon Coeur” from Samson et Dalila, and two songs by Gounod, “Sérénade” and “Le soir,” but no trace of these has ever been seen. The two “Roi de Thulé” arias from Gounod’s and Berlioz’s Faust were not released in 78 rpm format until the early 1970s when Historic Masters LTD. issued them on opposite sides of a 12 inch 78 rpm vinyl disc, pressed from original Odeon masters. At the same time, Historic Masters also issued two Supervia song recordings that had not been released during the 78 rpm era, John Alden Carpenter’s When I bring to you color’d toys” and Cyril Scott’s “Lullaby.” Would that we could listen to all of Supervia’s records on such quiet pressings. Sadly, masters no longer exist for most of the rarest Supervia recordings and in some cases, we have had to work with discs that were not in perfect condition. With careful choice of stylus size and judicious use of digital noise reduction technology, we hope to have minimized some of the inherent flaws in these recordings without compromising Supervia’s unique vocal timbre. In order to achieve the best results, all of the material in this volume was transferred directly from original 78 rpm sources. we have not used any second generation copies of original discs. We look forward to producing the fourth and final volume, which will contain the rest of Supervia’s Odeon recordings, as well as her stunning Ultraphone recordings from Lehar’s Frasquita.