Liner Notes

Francisco Viñas

The career

As far as I know, all the records of Francisco Viñas were made in Italy and so we are used to seeing his name as it appears on their labels, spelled Francesco Vignas, which seems to be the way he wrote his name everywhere he sang outside Spain and perhaps Portugal.

This great Catalan tenor was born Francesc Viñas in Moiá, near Barcelona, on 27 March 1863, and died there on 14 July 1933. Just as the healthy influence of singers like Adelina Patti and Emma Albani, trained in the old Italian school of singing, influenced taste in London and New York until the First World War, keeping before critics and singers the virtues of a steady, radiant tone and graceful phrasing, so the popularity in Spain and Russia of such highly esteemed and paid Italian singers as the tenors Masini and Marconi or the baritone Battistini preserved a respect for certain old-fashioned styles and mannerisms that local singers were quick to imitate. Emulation of role models played an important part in the education of singers lucky enough to be able to attend opera performances or, after the issue of Caruso’s first discs in 1902, wealthy enough to own a gramophone. Fernando De Lucia studied the personal traits of the three great tenors–Gayarre, Masini and Stagno–active at the San Carlo in his student days, about 1880-1885, and reproduced them in his own singing, so that his recordings are a sort of living museum of already antiquated stylistic quirks. In the records of Viñas we hear a bright, open, silvery tone similar to that of other “Spanish” tenors such as Valero and Constantino and, we believe, also typical of the way Italian lyric tenors sang before the age of Caruso–Marconi is somewhat similar in his more lyrical moments, while Signoretti has something of the declamatory brilliance of Viñas.

Viñas began to study, apparently with Gonçal Tintorer, at the Conservatory in Barcelona when he was 23. Juan Goula, a principal conductor in Madrid and Barcelona, heard the young man in the Conservatory concerts and invited him to study the role of Lohengrin. On 9 February 1888 Viñas made his debut in Lohengrin at the Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona, singing with the famous soprano Medea Borelli (who had failed in London but was a big star in Latin countries). Gayarre, the great tenor whose place he was in part destined to take, was so impressed with this first performance that he gave the young Viñas his own Lohengrin costume.

The steady progress of his career has been meticulously plotted out by Larry Lustig and Clifford Williams in the Record Collector, Vol. 34, nos 5-6-7, July 1989. After more performances of Lohengrin in Barcelona and Mefistofele in Valencia, Viñas was already invited to la Scala, Milan, where he sang Lohengrin in 1889 and again in 1891; he was also heard there in Cavalleria rusticana (1891), Carmen (1896), and Germania (1904). Over the years he also sang in Brescia, Treviso, Turin, Genoa, Catania, Palermo, Modena, Florence, Rome, Cremona, Venice, Perugia, Pistoia, Padova, appearing in most of these cities at least once in his famous interpretation of Lohengrin, and closing his Italian career with performances of Lohengrin in Bologna (1913) and Parsifal in Pisa (1914). (He was announced to sing Tristano at the Teatro Adriano, Rome, late in 1914, but these performances seem to have been cancelled by the outbreak of war.) The theater in which he was most loved was the San Carlo, Naples, where he returned again and again. He first sang there in 1893, inevitably as Lohengrin, which he repeated in 1896, 1901, and 1910. Naples also heard him in Mefistofele, Lorenza (Mascheroni) with Gemma Bellincioni (world premiere), Germania, Aida, Manon Lescaut, Andrea Chénier, La Gioconda, L’Africana (with Ruffo, Bonini, Amato, and Caronna sharing the baritone role in eight performances), La Perugina (Mascheroni), and, in 1910, his last season in Naples, Don Carlo, Il Profeta, and Lohengrin all with the great American mezzo-soprano Eleonora De Cisneros. Naples also heard him in concert performances of Massenet’s Marie Magdeleine (1902), Lorenzo Perosi’s Mosè (1903, with Salomea Kruschelnytska and Giuseppe De Luca, conducted by the composer), and Rossini’s Stabat Mater. Throughout his distinguished but perhaps less than spectacular career he was constantly to be heard in Madrid and Barcelona, and did not neglect the other theaters of Spain: a frequent visitor to the Teatro Principal, Valencia, after 1905 he was also heard in Seville, Malaga, Córdoba, La Coruña, Vigo, Santander, Oviedo, Gijon, and Palma de Mallorca. The Teatro São Carlos of Lisbon first heard him–need one say, in Lohengrin–in the 1904—1905 season; he returned in 1905—1906, 1907, and 1908, also appearing in Tannhäuser, Mefistofele, Aida, Tosca, La Gioconda, L’Africana, Pagliacci, Carmen, Fedora, Il Profeta, his first performances of Tristano e Isotta (with the ill-fated Cecilia Gagliardi), Amor De Perdiçao (Joao Arroyo), and Sansone e Dalila.

The pure quality of Viñas’s voice and his classical, even rather severe style of singing made him the perfect partner for such artists as Melba, Albani, Calvé, Nordica, Eames, Litvinne, Tetrazzini, Plançon, Edouard de Reszke, Ancona, Lassalle, and Maurel, with whom he sang in London and in the United States. His popularity in London does not seem to have been affected by the frequent observation by critics that he was by no means a good or convincing actor. (One wonders how plausible he can have been in verismo roles, for his vocal style was remarkably chaste and free from any cheap effects–what a perfect partner for Melba!) He made an instant hit with his singing of Turiddu in the first performance in London of Cavalleria rusticana in the adventurous Signor Lago’s season at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 19 October 1891: “Signor Francisco Viñas, who uses a tenor voice of remarkably good quality with skill and intelligence, received still further favours from the audience, as the ‘brindisi’ of the final scene, being the one very conventional number in the work, was doubly encored” (the Times). Cavalleria rusticana was performed at Windsor Castle by command of the Queen, and Viñas also appeared in a concert there, accompanied at the piano by Tosti. As generally happened to the best artists “discovered” by Lago, he was snatched up by Augustus Harris who engaged him for Covent Garden. For some reason he was not able to return in 1892 but made his Covent Garden debut as Lohengrin with Nellie Melba on 15 May 1893: “The Lohengrin of Signor Viñas, an impersonation not yet seen in London, though expected for some time, proved entirely successful. If the artist is hardly an ideal representative of the character, his vigorous style, manly bearing and artistic singing, exhibited in the first and third acts, make up for what he lacks in romantic charm” (the Times). Photographs of Viñas in costume underline this lack of “romantic charm,” but in those days any tenor who sang certain roles in London or New York was inevitably compared with the elegance and charisma of the aristocratic Jean de Reszke. The same critic later wrote: “Signor Viñas was a very satisfactory Tannhäuser and the part must rank as one of his very best, even though he has scarcely exhausted its possibilities.” Emma Albani was his Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, and he sang with Emma Calvé in Cavalleria rusticana and L’Amico Fritz, and with Lillian Nordica in Stanford’s Il Profeta velato. On 15 July he sang with Calvé and Ancona, with Mascagni conducting, a Royal Command Performance of Cavalleria rusticana and Act Two of L’Amico Fritz for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.

As was practically inevitable in those days, his success at Covent Garden was followed by an invitation to the Metropolitan (Maurice Grau would be artistic director of both theaters from 1897 to 1900, thereby strengthening the bond). He made his debut on 29 November 1893 as Turiddu; it was rather unfortunate that on the same evening the dynamic Emma Calvé was making her American debut as Santuzza, and that Pol Plançon, the greatest bass of his day, was also making his debut in the other half of the double bill, Gounod’s Philémon et Baucis, so poor Viñas, although favorably noticed by the press, was hardly the center of attention that most tenors would expect to be. Even worse was to come, for when he essayed Edgardo on 4 December, his Lucia was Melba, making her New York debut! Fortunately, between these historic events he had managed to sing a performance of Lohengrin on 1 December, with Nordica. As Irving Kolodin says in his The Story of the Metropolitan Opera, 1883—1950 (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1953, p.123): “As of the mid-nineties there was a problem common to both London and New York: how to admit the immense push of the Wagnerian literature to the common repertory without making it, as it had been in New York during the 1880s, an exclusively German enterprise, or as it had been in London–and still was–an exclusively non-German enterprise.” Performances such as Lohengrin sung in Italian by such sopranos as Melba, Nordica, and Eames and such tenors as Viñas and Jean de Reszke (with whom Viñas had to share the title role both in London and New York) were a satisfactory compromise until the Polish tenor and the Australian and American sopranos were ready to embark on their Wagnerian roles in German. Viñas continued to sing them only in Italian.

At the Metropolitan and on tour with the company in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis, Viñas sang further performances of Lohengrin and Cavalleria rusticana and Lucia di Lammermoor, in Tannhäuser with Melba, Nordica, Ancona, and Plançon and in Aida with Nordica and Lassalle. Fortunate those Met subscribers who, on 22 December 1893, heard a double bill of Pagliacci with Melba, Fernando De Lucia, and Mario Ancona and Cavalleria rusticana with Calvé and Viñas.

To some extent Viñas may have shared the fate of Pertile at the Metropolitan, appearing beside stars of extraordinary charisma who eclipsed him; however, such an excellent singer would certainly have been invited to return, for after all he was welcomed back to Covent Garden in 1895, 1904, and 1907. The problem seems to have been that he was struck by a severe kidney illness after the close of the Metropolitan season, preventing him from singing for nearly a year, and furthermore he had the same dread of the Atlantic Ocean that kept Battistini from ever singing in the United States. (Gaps in the chronology of his career may indicate other periods of ill health.)

After tentatively resuming his career with a few performances in Turin and Genoa, Viñas finally made his debut in Madrid as Lohengrin on 6 March 1895; he would return in 1898, 1899, 1901, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914, and finally in 1916, when he made his last stage appearances there, as Tannhäuser. Barcelona, the city of his debut, heard him as Lohengrin again in 1889 then had to wait until 1903 for his return–not only in Lohengrin again but also in Aida, Lorenza, and L’Africana. He returned in 1907—1908 (when he sang L’Africana with Hariclea Darclée and Tannhäuser with Battistini), 1908—1909, 1909, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1913—1914, 1914—1915, and 1915—1916. His last official public appearances were at the beautiful Palau de la Musica Catalana in Barcelona in February 1918, singing in excerpts from the opera Acté by Joan Manén.

In 1910 his old mentor Juan Goula persuaded Viñas to overcome his fear of ocean crossing one more time and accept an engagement to sing Lohengrin in Spanish at the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires; he also appeared with the company in Bretón’s Los Amantes de Teruel in which the fifteen-year old Conchita Supervia was making her debut.

The list of operas in Viñas’s repertory is not particularly long for such an excellent and famous tenor–about 35 works–and it includes several that he sang only once, such as Gli Ugonotti, Der Freischütz, Don Carlo, Sansone e Dalila, Fedora, Andrea Chénier, and Un ballo in maschera. In Valencia in 1901 he sang in two operas by the local composer Salvador Giner, Sagunto and El soñador (world premiere) and in Madrid in 1913 he sang in the first performances of Tabaré by Tomás Bretón. With the passage of time his Tristan became as famous in Spain as his Lohengrin, and his Parsifal, a fitting conclusion to his career, was considered a distinguished interpretation: he first sang it in Barcelona on 31 December 1913, but earlier in the year he had already sung portions of the opera (perhaps in Catalan) in concert.

Viñas married Giulia Novelli, a mezzo-soprano with whom he had sung Carmen in Palermo in 1892 (the Micaela was Olimpia Boronat, and how one would have liked to hear them in the duet!). He died of cancer of the lung in his hometown.

The voice and the records

Perhaps no better example of ideal voice production could be found for a young singer to emulate than Francisco Viñas; the voice we hear on the records is of a purity rivaled–but not surpassed–only by Caruso. The voice is perfectly free of the throat, easy and natural in emission, and, like Caruso or Gigli, does not have any very obvious vibrato: an example of how a voice should be firm and steady without being “fixed” in the way Latin ears find so detestable. It is a voice of silver, perhaps, rather than of gold, with the clarion ring of a Bach trumpet on the high notes. His range, on records, is from the low D (a weak note) to the high B natural. It is not surprising that a tenor born in Spain in the 1860s should have embodied so many virtues of the old Italian school, nor should we then wonder if we find that his major triumphs in Italy (where Tetrazzini and Battistini were considered rather old-fashioned) should have been in the older operas, Meyerbeer and Wagner, rather than in the new works of the verismo school.

The distinguishing technical features of the old Italian school are the correct method of breathing (described in the Vocal Method of the Conservatoire de Paris, 1803, and the Treatises of Garcia and Lablache), the pose of the voice on the breath, and the mastery of the registers, including the correct method of ascending to the high notes through adroit handling of the passaggio di registro. Antonio Cotogni, the great baritone and teacher of the Roman school, used to say that tenors and baritones should appear to be singing with an open tone at the top whilst correctly “covering” the notes: this is how Viñas sings. His voice has the most appealing, boyish, open timbre (even at the age of 50). When he ascends the scale he passes from “chest” to “head” voice on E flat or E natural, fourth space, but the difference in quality is only evident to the practiced ear. Many tenors would prefer to prepare the passaggio on C sharp or D, but Viñas always sings these notes with a fearlessly open sound, except in descending passages, when often we can clearly hear the darker and “dreamy” sound of the mixed voice brought down to D or D flat. The effect is of a seamless, homogeneous scale. The F, fifth line, is always a perfect mixed note whether he takes it loudly or softly. He is capable of very accurate singing in florid passages (an inheritance from his Catalan background, perhaps) and when he wants to effect a diminuendo or a crescendo (not, perhaps, as often as we should like) his voice floats easily and smoothly through the desired modulation. He never–or hardly ever–forces his voice, even on the highest notes or in the most taxing dramatic outbursts. He can linger dreamily on a sustained piano phrase, like the opening of “O paradiso,” or sweep majestically through ringing, fortissimo outpourings, as in the Germania apostrophe.

Like all the greatest names in singing, Viñas has an individual timbre and style that stamp him as a distinctive and recognizable musical personality. His wonderfully clear and pellucid diction, with limpid consonants and rounded, equalized vowels (the “i”, as so often happens, not quite so mellow as the other vowels, but helping him at times to get brilliant high notes) is an important feature of this distinctive style.

There are not many singers whose entire recorded output I long to hear, but Viñas is one of them: after at long last having had the opportunity to hear all his records, I find that they are all good, and quite a lot of them I shall want to hear again and again. Apart from the beauty of tone and the flawless legato, his singing is distinguished by a high sense of artistic endeavor.

There are not many joyous outbursts among his recorded repertoire, which seems to concentrate on rather serious pieces, but some of the songs feature a charming smile in the voice. His style is noble, and if the solemnity and measured tempi, as well as the brilliant high notes, remind me of Tamagno, I feel that his recorded excerpts from Lohengrin, his most famous role, must have something of the solemnly mystical aura of Jean de Reszke (as distantly suggested by the Mapleson cylinders).

All his records from Lohengrin are particularly lovely and explain why his performance was so famous; I cannot think of any other tenor on records who sings this music so affectionately. He has re-thought and modified Salvatore Marchesi’s Italian translation. His style is thoroughly Italian: in his first record (on G & T) of Lohengrin’s narration “Da voi lontan” (In fernem Land) he even inserts appoggiaturas on the penultimate syllables of “Monsalvato” and “ornato!” This record comes to a gloriously ringing conclusion. In “Ben altra prova” (“Prova maggior” in the score) his marvelously grand and yet affectionate phrasing of “della tua bocca la voluttà” is so faithful to Italian ideals of the shape of phrases that it practically constitutes re-composing! One of his greatest records, even better than the later Fonotipia, is the G & T “S’ei torna alfin,” in which he makes a lovely contrast between the fortissimo of “l’acciar gli accorderà” and the haunting piano of the succeeding phrase, “Ma se all’anello volgerà il suo sguardo.” He sings particularly slowly in this record, which might serve as a model for the execution of upward and downward portamento. There are some very long phrases but the voice floats on the breath with ineffable serenity throughout this profoundly eloquent performance. The grand style, indeed.

Wagner hoped for singers who could sing his works in the Italian style, and Viñas, whose Lohengrin and Tannhäuser were welcomed in London and New York, fitted in perfectly with such partners as Nordica, Melba, Lassalle, and Ancona. We should not, therefore, be scandalized to hear Wagner’s music sung in Italian nor disconcerted by hearing it sung with such loving reverence.

Viñas is a master of the legato style, tends to sing deliberately with grandly sweeping portamento, savoring the melody and the words and, especially at the fermate and at significant closes, he likes to introduce long-held and gracefully diminished notes; he also embellishes the vocal line occasionally with affectionate mordents. The extraordinary beauty and eloquence of his singing must surely make his records among the most important, stylistically and historically, among all documents of 19th-century Wagnerian performance practice.

The earlier, piano-accompanied Fonotipia recordings of 1905—1907 capture the beauty of the voice better than the slightly primitive G & Ts recorded in 1903. However, as happened with many other singers on the Fonotipia label, Viñas is further from the recording horn in the orchestrally-accompanied records made from 1908 and many of these do not capture the bloom on the tone so well. The earliest G & T matrices, the arias from Aida and I maestri cantori di Norimberga and La Walchiria, two operas he never sang in the theater, are rather dimly recorded but still very beautiful performances. It is worth noting that he sings Siegmund’s love song much more slowly than we are accustomed to hearing it, with lovely sustained legato, and so the speeding up at the climax is all the more effective–I do not find the “concert ending” in the Fonotipia recording at all inappropriate. (A simple concert ending, involving the cut of just one bar, is also used in his version of the Love Duet from Tristano e Isotta.) In the score the aria goes down to C below the stave, a note not really possessed by Viñas, but he solves the problem by transposing the Cs (and at least one of the Ds) an octave higher–an obvious solution indeed to an “Italian” singer of his generation. He sings Walther’s prize song with boyish enthusiasm and enviable ease. The “Studenti, udite” from Germania is a fine, forward recording; now that we are sitting in the front row, we can hear clearly how he blends the registers.

The Viñas voice is especially forward and present in the brilliant Fonotipia records of February 1905, allowing us to appreciate the full beauty and charm of the tone in his salon songs. Copies of these records are easy to find in Spanish junk shops, but alas! their inevitably worn-out condition is a testament to their having been enjoyed all too often. Viñas has left us several versions of his interpretations of the Aida and Africana arias, but these are the best, sung with insolent ease. He tries to observe the composers’ pianissimo markings (as in the opening of “O paradiso”) wherever artistic refinement might not upset those fans who clamor for loud high notes. His “Celeste Aida” is one of the very best, once we have accepted the fact that it is all going to be rather loud. His legato is exemplary, as is his use of portamento, though Verdi’s score calls for even more. His technical mastery is evident in the descending phrase on “vicino al sol,” five bars before the end, which he begins on a beautiful and quite soft F and continues to diminish in volume as he descends. The short excerpt from Mascheroni’s Lorenza, a most interesting work in which he and Gemma Bellincioni had really long and trying roles to get their teeth into, is one of the great records in the Fonotipia catalogue, a marvelous example of tenor declamation with a superbly ringing tone throughout. The culminating phrase, rising to the high C flat, is thrillingly sung and reproduced. In contrast the lyrical shadings of the stornello “Se ti dicessi” are enchanting.

A group of Wagner “chunks” recorded in September 1906 finds him in very fine voice, and in “Di’, non t’incantan” (“Atmest du nicht”) his singing is particularly charming, the legato style ravishingly persuasive. The first half of “Lohengrin’s Farewell,” “Cigno fedel,” is so poetically sung that it is a great pity that the second part (“S’ei torna alfin”) recorded the same day could not be published, because it could not stand the factory test of 50 playings with a steel needle! Viñas recorded the complete scene again on two sides in 1908, with orchestra, but the recording is not so vivid.

The pastorale “Sopra Berta, l’amor mio” from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète is one of Viñas’s best-known records, and he sings it very well in his most boyish, radiantly open tones. Tamagno, despite his 53 years, gives more of a virtuoso performance in this aria, still having a command of soft singing on the high B flat, but Viñas has more breath at his disposal and can include the downward scale at the end that the older tenor is forced to cut out. There were other dramatic tenors who, in the first 20 years of the last century, were recording arias from the old-fashioned repertory requiring the effortless delivery of brilliant high notes, but in Viñas, a 19th century singer of the old school, these notes are integrated into a perfectly produced and solidly supported scale in which all the notes are beautiful.

A small group of very good records is brought to us in 1907. The aria from Lucrezia Borgia, an inevitable number in any Spanish tenor’s repertory then, although Viñas never sang the role in the theater, suggests perhaps that his days of sustained, high singing in the voce mista may have been over. Both the Verdi arias are models, the tone saddened and thoughtful in “Ma se m’è forza perderti,” with a brilliant B natural in the cadenza; I wonder whether Viñas sang the aria onstage, for in those days it was usually omitted.

Sadly, the very first orchestrally accompanied records of 1908 occasionally hint at decline: in “O paradiso” and “Sopra Berta” the voice is not so steady as before, and the performances are rather effortful. “Celeste Aida” fares better, with graceful phrasing and a few diminuendi; the final high B flat is the only forced note. The Wagner pieces do not show any falling off in the singing, but neither does the recording reveal the full beauty of the timbre. “Nel verno al piè” from the Meistersinger is a charming performance. Viñas is back in fine fettle for the duet from Act Three of Aida, with very grand phrasing of the opening bars and a typical Viñas touch in the diminuendo on “Odimi, Aida.” Although all Mazzoleni’s records from this opera show that she has thoughtfully prepared the role, she is not a suitable partner for the mellow-toned Viñas: her voice is too open in emission and her rapid vibrato too obtrusive, so for all her care in phrasing her singing lacks nobility. There is no doubt of her effect in the theater, but she is not a “gramophone singer.”

Even less satisfactory is the little-known Maria Alessandrovich who joins Viñas in some Wagnerian duets; no adequate substitute for Melba, she is certainly not helped by being placed further away from the horn than her tenor, making her sound weak, but she seems at least to be singing accurately and in the same portamento style as Viñas. This style, harking back to the great days of opera, makes Wagner’s music sound even more languorous and erotic. In the central, duet proper section of the Tristan duet, an ambitious choice for Fonotipia (though the opera was very popular at the time in Italy), Viñas sings lyrically and caressingly with admirable steadiness, displaying the bright, manly and noble tone that sounds so unusual today in this music. The excerpts from Parsifal were recorded before he had ever sung the role in the theater, explaining perhaps the lack of variety in his otherwise splendid singing of the long scene from Act Two beginning “Amfortas! La piaga!” His voice, with its appealing, adolescent timbre, is perfectly suited to the character. I do not suppose that Bayreuth would ever have approved the high A flat which he interpolates to end Parsifal’s final scene, “Si salvo, assolto alfin!” It was a great coup for Fonotipia to get these celebrity recordings from Parsifal into their catalogue before the opera came into the public domain on 3l December 1913.

In 1911 in Barcelona Viñas made a series of records for Fonotipia whose engineers had, in previous years, traveled to London, Paris, and Berlin to make “out of house” recordings of their celebrities. Typically for a Spanish tenor trained in the old traditions, Viñas is careful to invest the two arias from Mefistofele with a wealth of shading and expressive detail that he does not always lavish on his pieces. A very ambitious diminuendo on the words “sacro mister” near the beginning of “Dai campi, dai prati” gives him no trouble, but in these arias we notice for the first time that he is uncomfortable on the F, top line, if the vowel is an “a”, which has suddenly become too open and wooden sounding. In later records he has corrected this fault. The vulgar “alternative” ending to “Giunto sul passo estremo” was, unfortunately, a variant hallowed by tradition (McCormack sings it much better.)

We listen to him in Tannhäuser with the greatest interest, as this was probably his most successful role after Lohengrin. In the “Hymn to Venus” he sings rather fast but brilliantly, with near-perfect accuracy in the difficult intervals. How beautifully he sings the “Rome Narration,” often a wearisome trudge through tuneless pages in the hands of less musical and imaginative tenors. With Viñas the music seems perfectly written for the voice. He employs a hauntingly beautiful dark and doleful tone for the remorseful passages, brightening when he sings of Elisabeth. The Narration comes to a thrilling climax with the Pope’s sentence.

Viñas may have been invited specially to Milan in 1912 to make his last series of recordings; now in his 50th year, the great singer is still in magnificent voice and Fonotipia are recording him nearer again, so the tones pour out with splendor. The prayer “O Padre santo” from Rienzi can surely never have been sung better than in this triumphant recording, showing off the instrumental perfection of Viñas’s line and his warm, pleading tone rising easily to high notes that are incorporated into the line and never unduly stressed. The high tessitura of Chapí’s “Flores purisimas” is surmounted with elegant ease. It is a pity that he opts for an unwritten high-note ending in Mascagni’s lovely “Serenata” for this rather spoils the stornello character of the piece. Viñas is at his brilliant best in Tirindelli’s “O Primavera” and Lorenzo Filiasi’s “In riva al mare.” In emulation of G & T, Fonotipia had–apparently in 1907–embarked on a music-publishing venture, publishing the sheet music of songs by Leoncavallo, Giordano, Filiasi, Paul Vidal, and Ernest Reyer, together with some piano compositions by Waldteufel and the enticing march “Alabama” by Elsa Gregori. The idea may have been for all the songs then to be recorded by some Fonotipia star, but this did not always come about (though Amedeo Bassi recorded Giordano’s “Canzone guerresca” just as Caruso had recorded Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata” for G & T). Two of the Neapolitan-composer Lorenzo Filiasi’s earlier songs had been dedicated to Bonci and Zenatello: he had more luck with Viñas, who recorded “In riva al mare,” dedicated to him, a pleasant enough song sung rather well with a ringing high B flat in the last phrase. I can find no evidence that the sheet music of this song was ever published by Fonotipia.

In conclusion, the main importance of Viñas’s recorded legacy lies in the records from Lohengrin, in which he was always highly regarded. These lovely and thrilling records will repay close study with the score in hand, and I do hope that young singers will be able to hear them. However, all the other Wagnerian excerpts, even from the operas that he never sang on the stage, also illustrate how the beauty of the music is fully realized only by the kind of elegant, aristocratic, Italianate style of singing that Viñas brings to it. Later tenors such as Pertile, whose most beautiful records are also from Lohengrin, tried for this style but did not boast the flawless technique and radiant tones of Viñas. During my lifetime of opera-going we have lost the habit of performing Wagner’s operas in translation, but this seems to me a symptom of decadence: we no longer listen to the words. Another custom to have disappeared from our opera houses is that of encores: Lustig and Williams quote a Madrid newspaper, ABC, revealing that in Lohengrin in 1911, after Lohengrin’s Narration “... there was so much applause that he had to repeat it.” No doubt this happened elsewhere, too. The Mapleson cylinders have demonstrated that as late as 1903 at the Metropolitan, New York, audiences would interrupt the music by applauding after the “arias” in Wagner’s operas, even in Siegfried. This particular custom is, perhaps, better not revived.

©Michael Aspinall, 2006



This essay could not have been written without reference to the definitive article “Francisco Viñas” by Larry Lustig and Clifford Williams, which includes a complete chronology and discography, in the Record Collector, Vol. 34 Nos. 5,6,7, July 1989.