Over the past fifty years there have been no comprehensive LP or CD reissues of Boninsegna’s records. We now pay homage to Boninsegna by reissuing all of her recordings in this five-CD set, which includes several extremely rare photos, complete discographic information, and an informative essay by Michael Aspinall on her career and recordings.
CD 1 (74:27)
|Carlo Sabajno, piano|
|1.||NORMA: Casta Diva (Bellini)||3:50|
|2.||IL TROVATORE: D’amor sull’ ali rosee (Verdi)||3:00|
|3.||IL TROVATORE: Miserere (Verdi)||3:03|
|Giovanni Valls, tenor|
|4.||AIDA: Qui Radamès verrà … O patria mia (Verdi)||4:06|
|5.||AIDA: Fuggiam gli ardori (Verdi)||3:51|
|Giovanni Valls, tenor|
|6.||LA GIOCONDA: Suicidio! (Ponchielli)||3:23|
|7.||MANON LESCAUT: In quelle trine morbide (Puccini)||2:22|
|8.||CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA: Voi lo sapete (Mascagni)||2:55|
|9.||LE MASCHERE: Sole delle mie giornate … Mio core travagliato dall’amore [Letter Aria] (Mascagni)||2:31|
|10.||FAUST: Il se fait tard, Adieu … Laisse-moi (Tardi si fa, addio … Dammi, ancor) (Gounod)||3:53|
|Fernando De Lucia, tenor|
|11.||Ninna nanna (Leoncavallo)||2:58|
|orchestra conducted by Carlo Sabajno except as noted|
|12.||ERNANI: Ernani, involami (Verdi)||2:31|
|13.||ERNANI: Da quel dì che t’ho veduta (Verdi)||4:20|
|Francesco Cigada, baritone|
|14.||IL TROVATORE: Tacea la notte placida (Verdi)||4:01|
|15.||IL TROVATORE: Mira d’acerbe lagrime (Verdi)||2:38|
|Francesco Cigada, baritone|
7304b (Victor 91077)
|16.||IL TROVATORE: Mira d’acerbe lagrime (Verdi)||2:38|
|Francesco Cigada, baritone|
|17.||IL TROVATORE: Vivrà! Contende il giubilo (Verdi)||2:28|
|Francesco Cigada, baritone|
|18.||I VESPRI SICILIANI: Mercè, dilette amiche (Verdi)||2:04|
|piano accompaniment, Carlo Sabajno|
|19.||UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Ma dall’ arido stelo divulsa (Verdi)||4:14|
|20.||UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Morrò, ma prima in grazia (Verdi)||3:04|
|21.||LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: Madre, pietosa vergine (Verdi)||4:15|
|22.||LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: La vergine degli angeli (Verdi)||3:12|
|La Scala chorus|
|23.||LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: La vergine degli angeli (Verdi)||3:05|
|La Scala chorus|
CD 2 (80:05)
|orchestra conducted by Carlo Sabajno except as noted|
|1.||L’AFRICAINE: D’ici je vois la mer … La haine m’abandonne (Di qui io veda il mar … Già l’odio m’abbandona) (Meyerbeer)||4:07|
|535c (Victor 92001)|
|2.||L’AFRICAINE: D’ici je vois la mer … La haine m’abandonne (Di qui io veda il mar … Già l’odio m’abbandona) (Meyerbeer)||4:13|
|3.||L’AFRICAINE: Quels célestes accords (Quai celesti concenti) (Meyerbeer)||3:10|
|piano accompaniment, Carlo Sabajno|
|orchestra conducted by Carlo Sabajno|
|4.||NORMA: Ah! Bello a me ritorno (Bellini)||2:56|
|5.||NORMA: Deh! Non volerli vittime (Bellini)||3:51|
|Luigi Colazza, tenor and Andrés Perelló de Segurola, baritone|
|6.||UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Non sai tu che se l’anima mia (Verdi)||3:57|
|Emanuele Ischierdo, tenor|
|7.||LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: Madre, pietosa vergine (Verdi)||4:01|
|8.||LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: Pace, pace mio Dio (Verdi)||3:52|
|orchestra conducted by Carlo Sabajno, except as noted|
|9.||RUY BLAS: Ah, tu mi fuggivi … O dolce voluttà (Marchetti)||3:47|
|Luigi Colazza, tenor|
|piano accompaniment, Carlo Sabajno|
|11.||Te solo (Sabajno)||3:06|
|orchestra conducted by Carlo Sabajno|
|12.||CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA: Voi lo sapete (Mascagni)||4:17|
|unidentified orchestra and conductor|
|13.||ERNANI: Ernani, involami (Verdi)||2:56|
|14.||IL TROVATORE: D’amor sull’ ali rosee (Verdi)||3:13|
|15.||UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Morrò, ma prima in grazia (Verdi)||2:55|
|16.||LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: Pace, pace mio Dio (Verdi)||3:05|
|17.||AIDA: Ritorna vincitor! (Verdi)||3:03|
|18.||LA GIOCONDA: Suicidio! (Ponchielli)||2:46|
|19.||MEFISTOFELE: L’altra notte (Boïto)||3:15|
|20.||CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA: Voi lo sapete (Mascagni)||3:13|
|4180 (26385, 78211)|
|21.||MANON LESCAUT: In quelle trine morbide (Puccini)||2:24|
|4183 (26181, 52641)|
|22.||LA BOHÈME: Sì, mi chiamano Mimì (Puccini)||2:34|
|4174 (26597, 50498)|
|23.||TOSCA: Vissi d’arte (Puccini)||2:51|
|4179 (26383, 48667)|
|24.||FAUST: Je voudrais bien savoir … Il était un roi de Thulé (Come vorrei saper … C’era un re di Thulé) (Gounod)||2:44|
CD 3 (76:56)
|unidentified orchestra and conductor|
|1.||SEMIRAMIDE: Bel raggio lusinghier (Rossini)||3:10|
|2.||NORMA: Casta diva (Bellini)||2:53|
|3.||LUCREZIA BORGIA: Com’è bello (Donizetti)||2:52|
|4.||IL TROVATORE: Tacea la notte placida (Verdi)||3:06|
|5.||IL TROVATORE: Miserere (Verdi)||3:00|
|Augusto Scampini, tenor and chorus|
|6.||I VESPRI SICILIANI: Mercè, dilette amiche (Verdi)||2:18|
|7.||LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: Madre, pietosa vergine (Verdi)||3:10|
|8.||LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: La vergine degli angeli (Verdi)||2:39|
|9.||AIDA: O patria mia (Verdi)||3:00|
|10.||MEFISTOFELE: Spunta l’aurora pallida (Boïto)||3:02|
|11.||Ave Maria (Bach – Gounod)||3:10|
|Virgilio Ranzato, violin; organ; and harp|
|12.||Legenda valacca (Braga)||2:58|
|Virgilio Ranzato, violin; organ; and harp|
|with La Scala Orchestra, conducted by Carlo Sabajno|
|13.||AIDA: Ritorna vincitor! … I sacri nomi (Verdi)||6:58|
|1 and 2 April, 1909; 1950½c and 1951c (053253 and 053231)|
|14.||AIDA: Qui Radamès verrà … O patria mia (Verdi)||4:09|
|2 April 1909; 1952c (053232)|
|15.||FAUST: Il m’aime (Ei m’ama) (Gounod)||3:37|
|14 May 1909; 1852c (053235)|
|unidentified orchestra and conductor|
|16.||SEMIRAMIDE: Bel raggio lusinghier (Rossini)||4:17|
|18 February 1910; 30359 (5013 M)|
|17.||NORMA: Casta diva (Bellini)||4:40|
|18 February 1910; 30356-1 (5034 M)|
|18.||NORMA: Ah! Bello a me ritorna (Bellini)||2:35|
|18 February 1910; 30357-1 (5034 M)|
|19.||ERNANI: Ernani, involami (Verdi)||4:24|
|14 March 1910; 30380-1 (A 5199)|
|20.||IL TROVATORE: Tacea la notte placida (Verdi)||3:25|
|14 February 1910; 30354-1 (A 5194)|
|21.||IL TROVATORE: D’amor sull’ ali rosee (Verdi)||3:45|
|14 February 1910; 30351-1 (5013 M)|
|22.||LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: Pace, pace mio Dio (Verdi)||3:45|
|14 March 1910; 30383-1 (A 5199)|
CD 4 (79:11)
|unidentified orchestra and conductor|
|1.||AIDA: Ritorna vincitor! (Verdi)||4:29|
|14 March 1910; 30381-1 (A 5196)|
|2.||AIDA: O patria mia (Verdi)||3:29|
|14 March 1910; 30382-1 (A 5196)|
|3.||LA GIOCONDA: Suicidio! (Ponchielli)||4:16|
|18 February 1910; 30358-1 (5035 M)|
|4.||CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA: Voi lo sapete (Mascagni)||3:33|
|14 February 1910; 30352-1 (5035 M)|
|5.||LA BOHÈME: Sì, mi chiamano Mimì (Puccini)||4:14|
|14 February 1910; 30353-2 (A 5195)|
|6.||TOSCA: Vissi d’arte (Puccini)||3:25|
|14 February 1910; 30355-1 (A 5195)|
|unidentified orchestra and conductor|
|7.||LOHENGRIN: Einsam in trüben Tagen (Sola ne miei primi anni) (Wagner)||2:51|
|11036 (D 4285)|
|8.||FAUST: Il était un roi de Thulé (C’era un re di Thulé) (Gounod)||2:10|
|11028 (D 4284)|
|9.||FAUST: Si j’osais seulement … Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle dans ce miroir (Non v’è alcun; come far! ... Ah! Io rido in poter me stessa qui veder!) (Gounod)||3:04|
|11029 (D 4284)|
|10.||FAUST: Il m’aime (Ei m’ama) (Gounod)||2:29|
|11048 (D 4685)|
|11.||ERNANI: Ernani, involami (Verdi)||2:48|
|42128 (S 62)|
|12.||UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Non sai tu che se l’anima mia (Verdi)||4:08|
|Narciso del Ry, tenor|
74711-1 (D 16315)
|13.||UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: O qual soave brivido (Verdi)||3:54|
|Narciso del Ry, tenor|
74712 (D 16315)
|14.||UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: Morrò, ma prima in grazia (Verdi)||3:04|
|11034 (D 4683)|
|15.||LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: Madre, pietosa vergine (Verdi)||3:09|
|11045 (D 4290)|
|16.||LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: La vergine degli angeli (Verdi)||2:56|
|11045 (D 4290)|
|17.||MEFISTOFELE: Spunta l’aurora pallida (Boïto)||2:53|
|11047 (D 4683)|
|18.||TOSCA: Vissi d’arte (Puccini)||3:16|
|42127 (D 9340)|
|19.||ISABEAU: Questo mio bianco manto (Mascagni)||3:18|
|42126 (D 9340)|
|unidentified orchestra and conductor|
|20.||IL TROVATORE: Tacea la notte placida (Verdi)||4:02|
|11 April 1911; 632-B (82022)|
|21.||LA FORZA DEL DESTINO: Pace, pace mio Dio (Verdi)||6:01|
|22.||AIDA: Ritorna vincitor! (Verdi)||5:40|
|4 April 1911; 619-B (unpublished)|
CD 5 (63:11)
|unidentified orchestra and conductor|
|1.||UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: M’ami, m’ami ... O qual soave brivido (Verdi)||4:11|
|Luigi Bolis, tenor|
5 June 1917; 3203c (unpublished)
|2.||UN BALLO IN MASCHERA: M’ami, m’ami ... O qual soave brivido (Verdi)||4:11|
|Luigi Bolis, tenor|
5 June 1917; 3204c (2-054071)
|3.||IL GUARANY: Pery! Che brami? … Sento una forza indomita [Love Duet, part 1] (Gomes)||4:14|
|Luigi Bolis, tenor|
2 June 1917; 3198c (2-054087)
|4.||IL GUARANY: Ah! Lo sguardo suo si vivido [Love Duet, part 2] (Gomes)||4:37|
|Luigi Bolis, tenor|
2 June 1917; 3199c (unpublished)
|5.||IL GUARANY: Ah! Lo sguardo suo si vivido [Love Duet, part 2] (Gomes)||4:34|
|Luigi Bolis, tenor|
2 June 1917; 3200c (issued only on HMB 171)
|6.||LORELEY: Lascia per or che libera (Catalani)||3:42|
|Luigi Bolis, tenor|
2 June 1917; 3197c (2-053136)
|7.||ANDREA CHÉNIER: Vicino a te s’acqueta (Giordano)||3:45|
|Luigi Bolis, tenor|
5 June 1917; 3205c (2-054075)
|unidentified orchestra and conductor|
|8.||IL TROVATORE: Condotta all’era in ceppi … La mano convulsa stendo (Verdi)||4:12|
|86550 and 86551 (10125)|
|9.||AIDA: Ritorna vincitor! (Verdi)||5:58|
|86518 and 86519 (10250)|
|10.||AIDA: Ebben, qual nuovo fremito (Verdi)||3:11|
|Ninì Frascani, mezzo-soprano|
|11.||AIDA: Fuggiam gli’ ardori inospiti (Verdi)||2:44|
|Icilio Calleja, tenor|
|12.||LA GIOCONDA: Là attesi e il tempo colsi … L’amo come il fulgor (Ponchielli)||3:02|
|Ninì Frascani, mezzo-soprano|
|13.||LORELEY: Ebben! Che ogni pietà spenta in me sia! … O forze recondite (Catalani)||3:00|
|14.||CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA: Tu qui Santuzza (Mascagni)||6:02|
|Jesús de Gaviria, tenor|
86619 and 86620 (10319)
|15.||ISABEAU: Questo mio bianco manto (Mascagni)||2:46|
|16.||ISABEAU: Venne un vecchierella (Mascagni)||3:01|
Producers: Ward Marston and Scott Kessler
Audio Conservation: Ward Marston, J. Richard Harris
Photos: Gregor Benko; Rudi van den Bulck/Charles Mintzer Archive; Peter Clark, Curator of the Metropolitan Opera Archive; and Michael Hardy
Booklet Coordinator: Mark S. Stehle
Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi
Booklet Notes: Michael Aspinall
Major sponsors: Harry S. Glaze and Eric Stott
Additional sponsors: Steve Bauman, Geoffrey E Braswell, Francisco Segalerva, Stephen C. Charitan, and William Russell
Marston would like to thank the following for making recordings available for the production of this set: Gregor Benko, Harry S. Glaze, Daniel Hladik, Lawrence F. Holdridge, Larry Lustig, Eugene S. Pollioni, and Paul Steinson.
Marston would like to thank Marco Contini and David Contini for providing a digital transfer of rare Pathé 86522 (CD 5/13).
Marston is grateful to the Estate of John Stratton (Stephen Clarke, Executor) for its continuing support.
by Michael Aspinall, ©2022
“La Eames è morta?” (“Is Eames dead?”) eagerly enquired the elderly Boninsegna of the critic Max de Schauensee when he went to visit her in Milan in 1937. How touching! When her Aida was only moderately successful at her Metropolitan debut in 1906, someone must have discreetly explained to her that the genteelly born Emma Eames, ladylike, exquisitely gowned and made-up, had made the role her own, and so the older American diva evidently became Boninsegna’s bête noire. It has always seemed to collectors of old phonograph records that Boninsegna, who was a successful Aida in London as well as in Latin operatic centers, must have had the ideal voice for the part, though she did not have very much in common with Adelina Patti, Verdi’s favorite soprano, who had sung the opera at La Scala in 1878.
Angered by some publicity material printed by La Scala, Verdi wrote a letter to Giulio Ricordi in 1892 in which he pontificated that “the soprano acuto and the soprano drammatico do not exist, there is only the soprano!”; nonetheless, opera critics have continued to define some exceptional voices as soprano verdiano or even that rarity a soprano drammatico d’agilità, and tradition prefers that the Leonora of Il trovatore, for example, should rejoice in this exceptional kind of voice. Such voices, on recordings from 1900 onwards, might include those of Celestina Boninsegna and her contemporaries Giannina Russ, Ines De Frate, and Teresa Arkel, then in the next generation Rosa Raisa, Giannina Arangi Lombardi, Vera Amerighi Rutili, and Rosa Ponselle, and more recently Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, and Anita Cerquetti. All of them sang Norma with success: Cerquetti was the last in the royal line of Italian sopranos founded by Giuditta Pasta, Giulia Grisi, and Marianna Barbieri-Nini who had all the voice, technique, and impassioned style for the classic roles of the soprano drammatico d’agilità: Donna Anna, Semiramide, Norma, Lucrezia Borgia, Anna Bolena….
All we know of Boninsegna’s life and career has been collected together by Bob Rideout in his invaluable article on the singer in the English magazine The Record Collector, Vol. 45 No. 1, March 2000. [The research of Roberto Marcocci has since unearthed details of many more performances in this hard-working diva’s career.] The part played by her phonograph records in perpetuating her fame is illustrated by Mr. Rideout’s reminiscence: “I heard a recording of her ‘Pace, pace’ sometime around 1965 and was overcome by both the resonance and the tone of her voice.” The authoritative English record collector Ronald Phillips told me that once in his early collecting days he had found two soprano records, one of Emma Eames and another of Boninsegna: he had liked the Eames, but when he put on the Boninsegna record it “restored his belief in the virtues of the female sex”!
THE TEACHER AND HER STUDENT
Celestina Boninsegna was born on the 26th of February 1877 in Reggio Emilia, where she studied singing with Guglielmo Mattioli. At what might seem a rather early age, she made her debut at the Teatro Ariosto, Reggio Emilia, on the 17th of June 1892 as Norina in Don Pasquale, a role that she would never sing again, though her records demonstrate that she was capable of the lightness and precision in agility that Donizetti demands. She then undertook more formal training at the prestigious Conservatorio of Pesaro (then the Liceo Musicale), where her teacher was the famous soprano Virginia Boccabadati (1828–1922), a “Verdi singer” who had, however, specialized in the operas of Donizetti and Bellini, which, she declared, she preferred—perhaps because of family tradition, her mother having been the even more distinguished soprano Luigia Boccabadati (1800–1850). On the 29th of February 1896—Rossini’s birthday—Boninsegna sang in his Petite messe solennelle at the Liceo with the tenor Fiorello Giraud, repeating the work a week later with Alessandro Bonci, a pupil from Felice Coen’s class at the same institution. The director of the Liceo Musicale at that time was Pietro Mascagni, who conducted a concert she gave with Bonci at the Liceo on the 13th of August.
Boninsegna made an “official” operatic debut at the Teatro della Fortuna, Fano on the 25th of December 1896 as Gilda in Rigoletto, an opera she would sing only once more, at the Teatro Goldoni, Bagnacavallo, in September 1897. In January 1897 she sang Margherita in Gounod’s Faust at the Teatro Piccinni, Bari, then we next hear of her in March 1899 in a concert at the Teatro Fortuna, Fano. In July 1899 she sang another untypical role, Adina in L’elisir d’amore, at the Teatro Piermarini, Matelica. The gap between these appearances might perhaps be explained if we were to discover that her marriage had taken place in that period. There were more concerts in Fano and Pesaro in 1897–1899 followed by her first important season, at the Teatro Comunale, Piacenza, beginning in December 1899, where she sang in twenty performances of Goldmark’s La regina di Saba, fifteen of Lohengrin, and in Janko by Primo Bandini, musical director of the theater. Finally, at the Teatro Dal Verme, Milan, on the 21st of April 1900, she was launched on her career as a Verdi soprano by performances of Il trovatore, in which she shared the role of Leonora with Isabella Paoli, followed by Marchetti’s Ruy Blas, then still a favorite with audiences. In September 1900 she returned to the Teatro Dal Verme—then, for the Milanese, a theater second in importance only to La Scala—for Ernani and Petrella’s Jone, after which she appeared at the Politeama, Cremona, in Ruy Blas and Faust.
Mascagni remembered Boninsegna and selected her to sing the “world premiere” of Le maschere at the Teatro Costanzi, Rome on the 17th of January 1901 (when she encored her aria), her first engagement at one of the leading Italian theaters. She repeated the opera in Milan at the Teatro Lirico in October 1907, and once more in Pisa in April 1908. Since several writers commented on her unusual height, I was delighted to find a rehearsal photograph of the full cast of the Rome premiere of Le maschere in Vittorio Frajese’s history of the Rome Opera1: Boninsegna towers above them all. Other photographs show her to have had a typical “opera singer’s face” with prominent cheekbones, big eyes and a large, pleasant-looking mouth; in one studio photograph her orders and decorations are pinned to her generous bosom.
In April 1901 she repeated Il trovatore at the Dal Verme with Vittorina Fabbri as Azucena. She then enjoyed two long seasons in Chile and Peru: from July to November 1901 she visited Santiago and Valparaiso, singing with Eugenia Mantelli, Fiorello Giraud, and Riccardo Stracciari. In addition to Ernani, she sang for the first time Aida, La juive, La Gioconda, Tosca, and Mefistofele, together with scenes in concert from La forza del destino and Norma. At the Teatro Verdi, Trieste, she sang Aida with Lucacewska and Signorini in January 1902 followed by La juive with Signorini in February. She returned to Santiago and Valparaiso between the 14th of June and the 1st of August 1902, adding to her repertoire Un ballo in maschera, Les Huguenots, L’africaine, Cavalleria rusticana, and the world premiere of Lautaro by Chilean composer Eliodoro Ortiz de Zárate. In December 1902 she conquered the feared Teatro Regio, Parma, in I vespri siciliani, followed in January by Il trovatore with Signorini. In 1903 she sang Norma, and both Margherita and Elena in Mefistofele at the Teatro Comunale, Modena. At the Teatro Rossetti, Trieste, she sang in Norma (with Luisa Garibaldi) and Il trovatore (with Antonio Paoli) in April 1904.
SUCCESSES IN SPAIN AND PORTUGAL
Her first appearance in Lisbon was at the São Carlos in January 1904 when she sang in Il trovatore with Eleonora De Cisneros, Julian Biel, and Giuseppe Pacini. She appeared at the Teatro Real, Madrid, in 1906—Il trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, La dannazione di Faust, and Siegfried—after which she revisited Lisbon for Aida and Il trovatore at the Coliseo. She returned to Madrid from November 1908 to January 1909 for Aida (with Armida Parsi-Pettinella, Augusto Scampini, and Francesco Cigada), Mefistofele (with Italo Cristalli), Tosca (with Giraud and Cigada), and Lohengrin (with Cristalli, a famous Swan Knight). The Italian press reported that Boninsegna was “beloved by audiences here, and once more shone because of her unrivalled qualities as actress and singer…She was called before the curtain innumerable times and met with well merited applause.” There was only one performance of Tosca, on the 27th of December, because the audience disapproved noisily of Giraud and Cigada: “La Boninsegna was the only one to be saved from the shipwreck, and was obliged to encore the aria Vissi d’arte in the second act. It should be remembered that it must have been hard for her to maintain her serenity in the middle of such a storm.”2 In April 1909 she was at Seville for Aida and Il trovatore with Mario Gilion, and she partnered with this brilliantly voiced tenor again at the Teatro Liceo, Barcelona, in April 1912, in both Aida and Il trovatore. These surprisingly few appearances on the Iberian Peninsula were prestigious engagements.
LONDON AND NEW YORK
Between October 1904 and October 1907 Boninsegna reached the high plateau of her career, singing in London, Madrid, Lisbon, New York, and Philadelphia, at the Massimo, Palermo and in Le maschere at the Teatro Lirico, Milan. She appeared in the autumn seasons at Covent Garden in association with the San Carlo, Naples in 1904 and 1905 in Aida, Il trovatore, and Un ballo in maschera with such great singers as Eleonora De Cisneros, Francisco Viñas, Giovanni Zenatello, Julian Biel, Mario Sammarco, Pasquale Amato, Riccardo Stracciari, and Vittorio Arimondi. She was highly praised as Aida, The Times affirming that hers was “a fine interpretation; her voice is full of color and her acting most temperamental: she sang Ritorna vincitor superbly.” It seems odd that she never appeared at the San Carlo in Naples. She sang in a benefit concert with Melba, Zenatello, Sammarco, Stracciari, and Didur at Covent Garden on the 19th of October 1905.
The record collector and critic P.G. Hurst heard and admired her at Covent Garden and when, in 1958, an article in The Record Collector by Clifford Williams and John B. Richards sparked off controversial opinions about Boninsegna’s status as a lyrical artist, he wrote in to insist that:
I heard Boninsegna on the stage twice in Aida and once in Ballo, and I can state as a fact that the impression given elsewhere that she was a bad stage figure is wholly wrong. I heard her in person before I heard her records, and it was the deep impression that she made upon me that led me so much to enjoy hearing her records a year later. Her acting was vivid and dramatic—I particularly remember the force of her scene with Amonasro, and the way in which she presented every aspect of this varied role. She was capable of intense emotion and gentle pathos, and I can still hear her lovely voice soaring with effortless beauty... [The Record Collector, Vol. XII, No. 3, March 1958, p. 65.]
It has only recently been discovered that she made a return visit to London in April 1911 especially to make records for Edison, and, in compiling the chronology of her career, Roberto Marcocci has found that in May 1912 she sang the Trovatore Leonora at Oscar Hammerstein’s doomed London Opera House.
She sang only once at La Scala, Milan, in a run of performances of Aida (with Virginia Guerrini, Emilio De Marchi, and Riccardo Stracciari) beginning on the 18th of December 1904. Some of the later performances were sung by Giannina Russ.
As so often happened, success at Covent Garden led almost automatically to an engagement at the Metropolitan, New York, where Boninsegna made her debut as Aida on the 26th of December 1906, with Caruso, Louise Kirkby Lunn, Riccardo Stracciari, and Pol Plançon. In the New York Evening World Sylvester Rawlings reported that “Her voice of light caliber was pleasing but scarcely big enough for the dramatic requirements of the part; her vibrato was pronounced and once or twice she sang flat.” The New York Times was more welcoming:
Her voice is an agreeable and well-controlled soprano, with an uncommonly rich and strong lower register which is not, however, well equalized with the middle and upper ranges of her voice. She sang the music with fervor and a dramatic accent, and she sang in tune. Her acting is well-schooled and experienced, and there were not a few moments in it of strong and poignant tragic power.
The New York American gave a curiously mixed review:
Hers is not a good voice, but she never exaggerates either vocally or dramatically. In her, Mr. Conried has one of the season’s discoveries. Step by step the audience warmed to her singing despite the terrors of her make-up. She wore two mops of black wool, and her arms were apparently covered with dark cotton stockings. She drew the color line at her neck, being almost white above. That she triumphed over these things is a tribute to her art.
According to Riccardo Stracciari, who years later recalled the evening in conversation with Max de Schauensee, she was:
…the only one who could sing Aida the way I thought it should be sung…Her voice was so big and beautiful, sheer velvet, but she had no charm, no elegance of person, and when she appeared in her Metropolitan debut (I was her Amonasro), her ample form swathed in chocolate-colored underwear, the New York public and critics would not forgive her, despite a voice that was unique in this role. Besides, the Metropolitan had Emma Eames—una bellissima donna!
Stracciari’s comments were echoed by Geraldine Farrar, who, in a private letter, recalled that:
Boninsegna had a beautiful voice but after she came to the Met, in my early days there, she was so colossal and as Aida, so awful to behold (according to New York tastes that demanded everything of a singer) her undeniable fine vocal gifts were overlooked—and thumbs went down on the re-engagement.
In another letter in 1935 Farrar declared that:
Boninsegna came to New York many years ago—a gorgeous voice, but alas! A hopeless tub of fat—our public wouldn’t have her!—Too bad! Several singers have failed because of exterior affects that were too alien for our taste.
She was called upon to appear subsequently once or twice in Aida and once in Cavalleria rusticana, and in two miscellaneous concerts. Perhaps she was not in the best of health, or suffering unduly from stage fright, or had misjudged the acoustics of the Metropolitan: it is odd that one reviewer suggests that her voice was “scarcely big enough”. For whatever reason she failed to make an impression and must have been glad to get back to Palermo, Milan, and Rome. Although she had enjoyed successes at Covent Garden, where an aristocratic audience expected a high level of performance and a show of good taste from its singers, she was unable to make any headway at the Metropolitan, despite being the only Italian dramatic soprano on the roster of artists in 1906–1907. Her rival, Giannina Russ, was singing Aida at the rival opera house, the Manhattan, but the critics had not raved about her, either.
BACK HOME IN ITALY
In March 1907 she sang Aida at the Teatro Massimo, Palermo with the faithful Scampini, who also joined her in January 1908 at the Comunale, Modena for La forza del destino. When she returned to the Teatro Costanzi, Rome in February 1909 for Aida, the Gazzetta Teatrale Italiana reported that:
…she went onstage without any rehearsal, because she arrived in Rome on the morning of the performance, and despite that fact she was insuperable in the ensembles and the solos. In the third act romanza… she sang divinely; she was rightly applauded and had to encore the aria.
Scampini shared in the praise: “Both in Boninsegna and Scampini musical feeling erupts, majestic and domineering, in the former with refined and passionate art, in the latter with irresistibly masculine accents, enthralling the audience.” [A. Giovannetti]
In 1909 the impresario Henry Russell, who had been involved in the management of the Covent Garden–San Carlo seasons of 1904 and 1905, was engaged by Eben D. Jordan to manage the opening season of the Boston Opera House, and he must have remembered Boninsegna, who made her first appearance there on the second night of the season, the 10th of November 1909, as Aida:
Four years ago, she sang twice or thrice at the Metropolitan. Her voice was then as vibrant, fresh and pure as it appeared last night. But for reasons which have never been explained—they may have had something to do with the peculiarities of her make-up (she has since discarded them) or with intrigues of her long-established rivals—in any case, though she was then, as with Mr. Russell I believe her now, one of the very finest Aidas on the boards, she failed to content the rather unreasonable New Yorkers and went back to Italy. She had her revenge when she appeared last night, winning repeated and deserved applause. Perhaps her happiest and most lovely moments occurred in her solo at the end of the first act and in the romanza near the opening of the Nile scene. Throughout, she was superbly dramatic, but too often she broke up her phrases painfully. [Charles Henry Meltzer in the Boston American]
In the same newspaper, Arthur de Guichard reported of a later performance of Aida on the 29th of November:
Mme. Boninsegna as Aida surpassed herself both in singing and in dramatic interpretation. Her acting has gained in intensity by its greater repose and freedom from exaggeration, and her singing was forceful, expressive, and full of sympathetic warmth. The aria in Act 3 gained greatly by her better phrasing, with smoother, longer sentences than before.
She also sang Cavalleria rusticana, Il trovatore, La Gioconda, Les Huguenots, Mefistofele, and Tosca in Boston and on tour with the company in Pittsburg, Chicago, Springfield, and St. Louis.
In Pittsburgh one critic, reviewing Aida, asserted that critics and audience were united in comparing her to Melba, “who sang here in the olden days”! Her Tosca was saluted rapturously by Gertrude F. Cowen in the Musical Courier:
Mme. Boninsegna evidently found the role of Floria Tosca more to her liking than anything she has done this season. First of all, the timbre of her voice was particularly well suited to the semi-declamatory, semi-lyric role, and she departed entirely from the solid routine with which she has been beset all season.
Most of the American reviews quoted above were first exhumed from dusty archives by that indefatigable researcher the late William R. Moran and published in his article “Celestina Boninsegna in the United States” in The Record Collector, Vol. XII, No. 12, February 1960.
THE INVETERATE TRAVELER
Boninsegna visited Montevideo, Santiago, and Tucuman again in April–May 1910, then on the 2nd of December 1910 she sang Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Teatro Dal Verme, Milan with Giovanni Martinelli singing the “Cujust animam” and Giuseppe Sala singing all the rest of the tenor music. After performances in Piacenza (Aida), Savona (Aida), Brescia (Il trovatore with Elisa Bruno and Mario Gilion), and Pavia (Aida and Tosca) she went back to South America with Mascagni’s company from May to September 1911, singing in his Guglielmo Ratcliff and Amica as well as Cavalleria rusticana. She would never have had the physique required for his “Lady Godiva” opera, Isabeau, but she chose to record two fragments from it. Boninsegna appeared in Rosario, Rio de Janeiro, São Paolo, Montevideo, and Valparaiso (adding Aida, Il trovatore, Mefistofele, La Gioconda, and Ernani to her Mascagni roles).
An undated press cutting (in curious Spanish) reviews her local debut in Il trovatore in a performance with Luigi Colazza, presumably in Montevideo in 1910. The anonymous critic penned these rather interesting remarks:
…her name has been known to part of the audience for some time because of the terrible circulation of her gramophone records through which her tones have reached even this corner of the world—she appears now in the guise of star of the company: she is earning the nice sum of two thousand francs per performance… Her appearance on the stage was awaited with marked interest…our attention was at first distracted by the actress, since she is unusually tall, but as soon as she crossed the stage and began to interest herself in her melodious engagement, we began to see that before us there stood a respectable figure of the lyric stage, a warbling Leonora whose singing was worthy of the most elegant of troubadours. Her voice is sweet, limpid, with a delicious timbre, of crystalline sonority on the high notes and velvety on the low notes. Her technique is perfect; she manages her organ with consummate art, emitting it with spontaneity and graduating the intensity of the sound without apparent effort. [The reference to the “terrible circulation” of her records simply means that the reviewer belonged to a wide class of music critics who despised the early phonograph, regarding it as a toy.]
On her return to Italy she sang La Gioconda in Piacenza in December 1911 and in February 1912 Aida at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice with Scampini (“a prodigiously big voice”), Fany Anitua (“quite good”), and Carlo Galeffi (“excellent”—as was also judged Boninsegna). Her appearances in Russia are still not thoroughly documented, but in March 1912 at the Soloznikoff Theatre, Kiev, she appeared in Aida, Tosca, Il trovatore, Les Huguenots, La Gioconda, La Juive, L’africaine, and Un ballo in maschera—all within the space of eleven days! Back on her rounds in Italy, she appeared in November at Turin (Il trovatore), and in January 1913 as Tosca in Piacenza. In February–March 1913 she sang Un ballo in maschera and Ernani with Battistini at the Mussura Theater, Kharkov, Maria di Rohan with Battistini as well as Cavalleria rusticana at Kiev, and Ernani at the Municipal Theater, Odessa with Battistini again.
During the centenary celebrations of Verdi’s birth in 1913 Boninsegna was the soprano soloist when the Requiem was performed between March and June in Siena, Modena, Bologna (where the work had not been heard since 1878), Ferrara, and Perugia (a certain Magana-Lopez replaced her for the performance at Santa Croce, Florence). Fernando Pesante reviewed the June performance in Perugia in the Gazzetta Teatrale Italiana:
I do not know if an artist who can measure up to Celestina Boninsegna has ever sung in our theaters before: certainly not in my day. She belongs to the company of the great ones, whom one cannot praise enough without seeming to exaggerate. To an uncommon intelligence, which makes her feel what she is singing, Celestina Boninsegna unites a great volume of voice that is velvety, trained so finely as to allow her to express marvelously, as in the Requiem, all the most varied feelings of the human soul, from the sweetest to the most passionate, to the most violent. The public understood this and applauded her frenetically.
In Perugia the other singers were Ninì Frascani, José Garcia, and Vittorio Arimondi.
In May 1913 she appeared in Un ballo in maschera at the Politeama, Florence, and, conducted by Vittorio Gui, at the Teatro Municipale, Treviso in October, fitting in Aida in Cremona between these performances in September. She returned to the Costanzi in December for La dannazione di Faust with Giuseppe Krismer and Giuseppe De Luca. La Tribuna praised her, writing “Celestina Boninsegna was revealed, even in a tessitura not perfectly adapted to her temperament, as a valuable artist. In the Song of the King of Thulé, sung with great expression, and in the following passionate duet, she knew how to conquer her audience.” [27 December 1913]
The magazine Vita Teatrale, on the 28th of December 1913, reported that “Signora Boninsegna …sang her short part to perfection, but was unable to show off all her talent: in order to speak more fully about her we must wait to hear her in I lombardi…”, but unfortunately she never sang that opera. Her Roman admirers could also hear her at the Teatro Adriano in 1907 and 1916.
In January 1914 she paid her last visit to Russia, singing in St. Petersburg, Kharkov, Kiev, and Odessa with Battistini in Un ballo in maschera, Ernani, Il trovatore, Tosca, and Maria di Rohan, appearing also in Aida, Cavalleria rusticana, and Don Giovanni.
In June 1914 she sang Norma for the last time at the Pavia sports stadium. In October she offered Il trovatore at the Storchi, Modena, with the young Gabriella Besanzoni as Azucena, followed by Aida at the Teatro Ventidio Basso, Ascoli Piceno in November and, in December, Il trovatore at the Comunale, Florence and Un ballo in maschera in Piacenza. She began 1915 with Il trovatore in Modena. She sang La Gioconda at La Pergola, Florence, in September and Aida and Il trovatore with Scampini in Pisa in October; a tour of Trovatore performances in November and December embraced Ferrara, Verona, Mantua, Venice, and Florence. Despite wartime conditions Boninsegna kept fairly busy, singing mostly in minor theaters, though in February 1916 she returned to the Teatro Regio, Parma, in Aida and Il trovatore, and keeping mostly to these two titles and La forza del destino until December 1917 when she dusted off Tosca and sang it at the Teatro Petruzzelli, Bari, and in La Spezia in September 1918. In May 1918 she is reported to have sung Desdemona in Otello at the Kursaal, Lucerne. Bari welcomed her back to the Petruzzelli in January–February 1919 for Aida, Tosca, and La Gioconda, when she was heard by the critic and record collector Aida Favia Artsay. At the Teatro Lirico, Milan, she sang La forza del destino with Carlo Albani and Il trovatore with Jesús de Gaviria in April–May 1919, then in August at the Teatro dell’Aquila, Fermo, she sang not only Aida but also, for the first and only time, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. In January 1920 she treated her audiences at the Politeama Genovese and the Teatro Storchi, Modena, to further performances of Aida, after which she toured Montevarchi, Brisighella, and Prato with Il trovatore. Her last ventures abroad began in October 1920 when she embarked for Cuba and Mexico City, where she sang Aida, Il trovatore, and Tosca, and, touchingly, in this engagement her baritone was Juan Valls, who had made two fine records—as tenor—with her in 1904. She concluded her stage career, fittingly enough, with La forza del destino at the Teatro Storchi, Modena in January 1921.
MARKING TIME IN THE PROVINCES
From her chronology it does not appear that she spent much time resting, but rather indulged in visiting a ceaseless round of secondary theaters; after her last performances at the Regio, Parma in 1916 her career trailed off somewhat, though to the end she was singing in theaters of decent reputation and usually with well-known singers. She did not forget Pesaro, giving concerts there in 1907, 1912 (Rossini’s Stabat Mater on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the composer’s birth, conducted by Amilcare Zanella on the 29th of February and the 1st of March: she encored the “Inflammatus”). The chronologies list several other concerts at home and abroad. In Pesaro on the 8th of October 1921 and at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, on the 29th of October, she joined another great pupil of the Pesaro Liceo Musicale, the tenor Umberto Macnez, in concerts commemorating Enrico Caruso. Her last recorded appearances were concerts in Pesaro and nearby Fano in November 1921, to which we can add a late performance in concert at Sassuolo in August 1938.
ACHIEVEMENTS OF THE VERDI SOPRANO
At this point we might pause to take stock of her career as a singer of Verdi’s operas. Boninsegna sang Aida in at least forty-six cities all over the world, in some of them in several different theaters and seasons; Il trovatore in some forty-four cities; Un ballo in maschera came next, with productions in at least ten cities. I vespri siciliani she sang only once, and Rigoletto she had a passing flirtation with in her early days. From her chronology, it seems that she was well aware of the suitability of her talents to the role of Aida, for whenever possible she would make her first appearance in any opera house in this opera. In comparison with this long list of Verdian performances, we note that some operas she only appeared in once (La Regina di Saba, Janko, Jone, Lautaro, Siegfried, Don Giovanni, Otello (unconfirmed), Manon Lescaut) or twice (Lohengrin, La damnation de Faust, Maria di Rohan). She sang Tosca and Cavalleria rusticana in at least fourteen cities, La Gioconda in sixteen, Mefistofele in twelve.
Aida Teatro Municipal, Santiago de Chile (1901,1902, 1911); Teatro Victoria, Valparaiso (1901, 1902, 1911); Teatro Forero, Lima (1901); Teatro Verdi, Trieste (1902); Teatro Comunale, Modena (1903); Politeama, Genoa (1903, 1909, 1917, 1920); Teatro Comunale, Reggio Emilia (1904); Teatro Masini, Faenza (1904); Teatro Piermarini, Matelica (1904); Covent Garden, London (1904, 1905); La Scala, Milan (1904); Teatro Real, Madrid (1905, 1908); Teatro Coliseo, Lisbon (1906); Metropolitan, New York (1906); Academy of Music, Philadelphia (1907); Teatro Massimo, Palermo (1907); Teatro Adriano, Rome (1907); Teatro Sociale, Mantua (1908); Teatro Fenice, Senigallia (1908); Teatro Costanzi, Rome (1909); Teatro San Fernando, Seville (1909); Teatro dell’Aquila, Fermo; Opera House, Boston (1909); Nixon Theater, Pittsburgh (1910); Auditorium, Chicago (1910); Olympic Theater, St. Louis (1910); Teatro Urquiza, Montevideo (1910); Teatro Comunale, Piacenza (1910); Teatro Fraschini, Pavia (1911); Teatro Coliseo, Buenos Aires (1911); Teatro de la Opera, Rosario (1911); Teatro Municipal, Rio de Janeiro (1911); Teatro Politeama, São Paolo (1911); Teatro Solis, Montevideo (1911); Teatro la Fenice, Venice (1912); Soloznikoff Theater, Kiev (1912); Teatro Liceu, Barcelona (1912); Teatro Ponchielli, Cremona (1913); Narodiago Doma, St. Petersburg (1914); Politeama, Pisa (1915): Teatro Ventidio Basso, Ascoli Piceno (1915); Teatro Regio, Parma (1916); Teatro Carcano, Milan (1916); Teatro Petruzzelli, Bari (1919); Teatro dell’Aquila, Fermo (1919); Teatro Verdi, Fiorenzuola d’Arda (1919); Teatro Storchi, Modena (1920); Teatro Nacional, Havana (1920); Mexico City (1920).
Il trovatore Teatro Dal Verme, Milan (1900, 1901, 1903); Teatro Municipal, Santiago de Chile (1902, 1911); Teatro Victoria, Valparaiso (1902, 1911); Teatro Duse, Bologna (1902); Teatro Regio, Parma (1903, 1916); Teatro Petruzzelli, Bari (1903); Teatro Storchi, Modena (1903); Politeama, Genoa (1904, 1909); Teatro São Carlos, Lisbon (1904); Teatro Rossetti, Trieste (1904); Covent Garden, London (1905); Teatro Real, Madrid (1906); Teatro Coliseo, Lisbon (1906); Teatro San Fernando, Seville (1909); Teatro Sociale, Varese (1909); Opera House, Boston (1909); Auditorium, Chicago (1910); Teatro Urquiza, Montevideo (1910); Teatro Sociale, Brescia (1910); Teatro Coliseo, Buenos Aires (1911); Teatro Solis, Montevideo (1911); Soloznikoff Theater, Kiev (1912); Teatro Liceu, Barcelona (1912); London Opera House (1912); Politeama Chiarella, Turin (1912); Narodiago Doma, St. Petersburg (1914); Teatro Verdi, Florence (1914); Teatro Storchi, Modena (1914); Politeama, Pisa (1915); Teatro Verdi, Ferrara (1915); Teatro Ristori, Verona (1915); Teatro Andreani, Mantua (1915); Teatro Rossini, Venice (1915); Politeama, Florence (1915); Teatro Sociale, Treviso (1915); Teatro Fenice, Senigallia (1916); Teatro Adriano, Rome (1916); Teatro Sociale, Brescia (1917); Teatro Donizetti, Bergamo (1918); Teatro Lirico, Milan (1919); Teatro Verdi, Fiorenzuola D’Arda (1919); Politeama Nazionale, Asti (1919); Teatro Sociale, Brisighella (1920); Teatro Varchi, Montevarchi (1920); Teatro Metastasio, Prato (1920); Teatro Nacional, Havana (1920); Teatro Esperanza Iris, Mexico City (1920).
Un ballo in maschera Teatro Municipal, Santiago de Chile (1902); Covent Garden, London (1904, 1905); Teatro Real, Madrid (1906); Soloznikoff Theater, Kiev (1912, 1914); Politeama, Florence (1913); Teatro Municipale, Treviso (1913); Narodiago Doma, St. Petersburg (1914); Mussura Theater, Kharkov (1914); Zimin Theater, Moscow (1914); Teatro Comunale, Piacenza (1914).
Ernani eatro Dal Verme, Milan (1900); Teatro Municipal, Santiago de Chile (1901, 1902, 1911); Teatro Forero, Lima (1901); Narodiago Doma, St. Petersburg (1914); Mussura Theater, Kharkov (1914); Solozieff Theater, Kiev (1914).
La forza del destino Teatro Comunale, Modena (1908); Teatro Urquiza, Montevideo (1910); Politeama, Genoa (1917); Teatro Chiarella, Turin (1917); Teatro Lirico, Milan (1919); Teatro Storchi, Modena (1921).
Fred Gaisberg, leading recording expert and impresario for the infant Gramophone and Typewriter Company, wrote of Boninsegna in 1942:
I like to dwell on the memory of her superb cooking and can still taste that dish of tagliatelle Bolognese, a specialty to which I have become a lifelong addict. While she was in the kitchen her big husband played the host, bouncing on his knee a baby boy, appropriately christened Hercules, who looked for all the world like one of Michelangelo’s massive cherubs in St. Peter’s. [The Music goes round, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1942.]
A VOICE OF FIERY RICHNESS AND PEARLY MORBIDEZZA
When Verdi’s very own mezzo-soprano, Maria Waldmann, walked up to the front row of seats in the church of San Francesco in Ferrara in 1913 to hear Verdi’s Requiem, in which she had created the contralto part in 1874, and people asked her why she had come; she replied: “Have you not heard Boninsegna’s recordings? Who in the world would not be here if he could?” A hundred years later, we should very much like to have been there, but at least we still have Boninsegna’s records!
The voice was obviously a stupendous natural gift, as a debut in opera at the age of fifteen might suggest. A well-placed, rounded chest register of sufficient weight to encompass Azucena’s great narrative, a warm middle register of typically “Italian” color, and a head register capable of both pearly limpidity and diamond brilliance, a range extending from A below the stave to the C-sharp above it: all would seem to indicate major star quality. Her attack, on any vowel and any note in her compass, is unfailingly clean and precise: this is the true coup de glotte that Garcia preached. She must have learned the old Italian method of breathing in order to have such control over her voice, from the lowest to the highest notes, and she can indulge in very long breath spans if she feels like it. Her vibrato, never obtrusive and always under perfect control, is more noticeable in the earlier records: by 1910 her vocal emission is somewhat smoother. Her style of singing reflects the late nineteenth century: everything is based on a firm legato, she uses much more portamento di voce than is practiced today, and she has a sound instinct for tempo rubato, which makes her Verdi recordings of particular interest. There were not many Verdi sopranos in her day who could also sing Rossini; her main rival, Giannina Russ (who actually sang Semiramide and Mosé on the stage as well as many operas by Verdi) began her career with a lovely, fresh voice and a perfect scale, but lost her high notes quite early on.
The acoustic recording horn took kindly to the voice of Celestina Boninsegna, for her best records, once the listener has become accustomed to the “yodel” effects, are thrilling in their passionate intensity and spontaneous flow of opulent tone. Although she had been trained in the elegant style of fifty years before she was born, she was living through the age of verismo and threw herself into her music with relish. Like her contemporary Eugenia Burzio she managed to overcome the limitations of the acoustic recording studio and leave us phonograph records that have some of the presence of live recordings from the stage. Burzio had the advantage of a more adventurous technique and a more vivid musical imagination. In her fiery and impulsive renderings she managed to wed verismo over-emphasis to a degree of refinement in shades and contrasts of tone rivaled only by Olimpia Boronat. Boninsegna’s ambition is much less lofty: gifted with a more impressive vocal organ, she tends to “let herself go” when faced with a complex musical task, relying instinctively on her solid technical preparation and Italian feeling for music and drama to get her through. She sweeps boldly through the arching line of Verdi’s great melodies, and the lovely quality of her upper register, whether she is singing loudly or softly, makes many of her interpretations linger in the memory. Leaving Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore behind her, she concentrated on a lirico spinto repertory typical of her day, from Verdi and Meyerbeer to Wagner and Puccini, though she was clever enough to keep “Bel raggio lusinghier” and “Mercè, dilette amiche” in practice. In these florid showpieces we can hear how well she had been trained by Virginia Boccabadati: there are, however, features of her singing of which we cannot imagine Boccabadati approving. When she is compared with “aristocratic” predecessors who were not verismo specialists, singers such as Patti or Medea Mei-Figner, or sopranos trained in Paris or London by Italian masters (Ada Adini, Lillian Nordica, and Eva Turner come to mind), Boninsegna’s pronunciation of the Italian language is not “noble”: her vowels, especially “A” and “O”, are too open and rob some of her singing of true elegance. We notice this particularly when she is forced to abandon her preferred leisurely tempi and sing quickly. Critics and audiences in London and New York did not like this “open” singing, which they referred to as voix blanche, which explains why many verismo singers popular in Italy did not enjoy triumphs at the Met or at Covent Garden.
It was unwise of Boninsegna to force her chest register up as far as G or even G-sharp (second line of the stave), often leading to a “yodel” when she arrived at the A in medium register. The effect is sometimes that of two different sopranos sharing an aria! In the Vespri siciliani aria she demonstrates how much easier it is for a soprano to travel down from the medium register into the chest, masking any inequality in the passage from one to another, than it is to keep a smooth transition when traveling in the opposite direction, ascending the scale. Boccabadati has left us a short but interesting treatise [Osservazioni Pratiche per lo studio del canto, Pesaro, 1893], in which she gives a lucid explanation of the traditional conception of the three registers of the soprano voice:
To tell the truth it is not easy to fix precise rules, when we consider that no two voices are alike. The experienced ear of the teacher and continual practice are a helpful guide to obtaining the balance of those delicate passages between the first register, that is, that of the low or chest notes, and the second register, of the high or head notes, together with a third register that with gentle transitions unites the notes of the one with the other…. However the low notes must not be forced in a young girl’s voice: the first register must not be carried beyond the F (first space) in the soprano voice. Often unfortunately they cannot even get the E [in chest register]. Between F-sharp and G a delicate sound should be sought, lightly mixed. A, B, C and D are the true medium notes. From D (fourth line) to E (fourth space) one studies the passaggio leading to the head notes, placed, as singing methods describe it, in the cheekbones; in fact, one feels these notes vibrating between the nose and the forehead. [pp. 10–11, my translation.]
The teenage Boninsegna may well have learned to equalize her scale under Boccabadati’s tuition, but on records she is usually guilty of carrying her chest voice too high, whereas her teacher declares that “Between F-sharp and G a delicate sound should be sought, lightly mixed”. Her earliest G&Ts suggest that at the outset of her career Boninsegna may have been more attentive to Boccabadati’s precepts about mixing the chest and medium registers: in “Suicidio” [CD 1/6], at the words “In questi fieri momenti” she refrains from overweighting the chest notes and she seems to bind the registers together more smoothly than she would be able to do later on. In the opening phrase of the 1904 G&T “Casta diva” [CD 1/1] she manages to keep the syllable “di-” in medium register on the F, first space, but the A of “-va” on this same note slips coarsely into chest voice. The open A vowel on the F sounds far from lunar, suggesting an aggressive market woman rather than the guilty priestess of the moon goddess. In her celebrated 1910 Columbia recording of the aria [CD 3/17] she is more careful not to overdo this contrast between registers, and is also more successful in controlling her upper register, so achieving the effect of soaring heavenwards (rather than merely yelling) which the composer so obviously desired. The fact that she remembered being taught about registers is also revealed in her majestic performance of Norma’s final scene, “Deh! Non volerli vittime” (1906) [CD 2/5], in which she maintains a beautifully limpid tone throughout, never allowing the lower F to pass into chest voice but keeping it light, in the medium register. In the once famous duet from Ruy Blas [CD 2/9], her voice is particularly young and fresh sounding, and here also she tries to avoid singing the F and F-sharp, first space, in chest voice, often obtaining a lovely soaring effect with her grandiose phrasing. Her efficient but hardly great tenor colleague Luigi Colazza is nearer the recording horn than she, but she manages to make herself heard. She can create startling effects when passing from a darkly resonant chest note to a radiant upper F or G, or vice-versa, and she exploits this dramatic contrast with skill in slow and stately music, but when the tempo is rapid, as in Sélika’s cabaletta “Quai celesti concenti” from the final scene of L’africaine [CD 2/3], she is clumsy in her gear-changing. While her chest register is constantly employed with surprising energy on the E, first line and the D below and F above it, when the musical phrase takes her lower, to C or B-flat below the stave, the volume is slightly less pronounced, removing any suspicion that she might really have been a mezzo-soprano.
AN EARLY STAR OF THE TALKING MACHINE
A record collector named C.G.S. De Villiers visited Boninsegna in Milan in 1934 (he simply looked her up in the telephone directory) and was kindly received by “a tall, well-covered woman with snow-white hair” who sang for him Aida’s “Oh patria mia”: “and soon the room was filled with the magical tones of the most wonderful soprano voice on records.” Fred Gaisberg recalled (opus. cit.) that:
Her voice was so smooth and velvety and of such even registers that recording was no effort; the results obtained were always thoroughly musical and therefore gave intense pleasure. Those harsh places expected in any record by a dramatic soprano were conspicuous by their absence. Boninsegna was a fine big woman of generous stature with a temperament to match. She simply exuded good nature. She never spared herself, and in consequence her voice could not stand the wear and tear of constant work. Thus her career was meteorically short.
Perhaps he did not really mean “even registers” but rather that the low and high registers were equally powerful, and that she was able so to control the squillo of her high notes that there was no fear of “blasting”.
THE G&T RECORDINGS OF 1904
On her initial visit to the Gramophone and Typewriter Company’s Milan studio in the autumn of 1904 her fresh and sumptuous tones were first vividly captured in an aria from an opera that was not then in her repertoire—of Puccini’s operas she had, so far, sung only Tosca—but here she is in a pleasingly vocalized “In quelle trine morbide” from Manon Lescaut [CD 1/7]. She continued with an aria that might have been composed especially to show off the best notes of her voice—“Suicidio!” [CD 1/6]—and how the old phonograph horn must have vibrated to her superbly placed F-sharp (top line of the stave)! She then drops an octave to the F-sharp (first space), which she chooses to place in a rather throaty chest voice. In her 1910 American Columbia record of Ponchielli’s aria [CD 4/3] she places the lower F-sharp more tellingly in the mask, but it is still dangerously chesty. Usually, in this aria, we sense the strain imposed by the octave leaps from one register to another and the repeated ascents in crescendo to the upper F-sharp, G and G-sharp (“perdei la madre, perdei l’amore”), but the higher Boninsegna has to climb, the more easily and triumphantly the voice rings out. At “domando al cielo”, marked dolcissimo, she does indeed produce sweet sounds, though her singing in the Columbia record is even more exquisite. Her high B-natural, as always, is a magnificent note. She has grasped the intense drama of the situation (she first sang the opera in 1901) and is able to project the heroine’s fluctuating emotions onto the record, despite the obvious panic when the pianist has to hurry her along as time is running out on the ten-inch record side—one can imagine the frantic signaling from the recording engineer—and they have to omit the final phrase of the aria.
It is always interesting to have a recording from a verismo opera by one of its creator artists, and Le maschere is so little known that Boninsegna’s record of Rosalba’s “letter aria” is welcome [CD 1/9]. It is useless to complain that she does not observe all the dotted notes but tends to iron out the rhythm, because this was a commonplace feature of Italian singing before 1914. It is unfortunate that, perhaps through technical limitations of the acoustic recording process, she shouts the spoken “letter reading” at the beginning, rather spoiling the effect that Mascagni must have intended.
She is rather rushed in her first Verdi record, an abbreviated “D’amor sull’ali rosee”, but we can appreciate her good intentions [CD 1/2]. Impetuous and rhythmically incisive in the “Miserere”, she makes a wonderful effect—which conductors today would not allow to Leonora—with her expressive rallentando on the descending tied notes “quan–do ca–da–ver fred–do sa–rà”, realizing a vocalized sobbing that might well have been Verdi’s intention [CD 1/3]. She is partnered by yet another of those excellent, boyish sounding though clarion voiced Spanish tenors who enjoyed a career in Italy, Juan (Giovanni) Valls, who introduces his own rallentando where Maestro Sabajno at the piano was clearly not expecting one! Tenor and soprano join forces again in the duet from Act Three of Aida, “Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti”, in which her beautiful singing does indeed confirm Stracciari’s opinion that she had the ideal voice for the role [CD 1/5]. The record of “O patria mia” made the same day is also one of her loveliest [CD 1/4]. Both these records end with a spectacular high note, taken in a lustrous piano. Was it here that Caruso is reported to have exclaimed: “Lucky that there are not too many duets with la Boninsegna”?
“Tardi si fa, addio” from Faust finds her singing for the only time in her career with Fernando De Lucia [CD 1/10]. They represent two very different generations of Italian singing: one can almost visualize Don Ferdinando, plumed hat in hand, bowing low to the young village maiden as he pays court to her with endless delicious diminuendi. She replies with admirable breadth of phrasing and richness of timbre in Gounod’s big tune, but in comparison with his, her singing is far from noble, the vowels too open. A fastidious French listener in those days might also have been shocked by the flaunting voluptuousness of this Italian Marguerite. The peppery Maestro Sabajno, a splendid conductor, is in this series an excellent accompanist: he follows the singers and tends not to use any pedal, to make the piano sound clearer, and omits what experience teaches him are inessential notes!
The 1904 series ends with a delightful and extremely rare record [CD 1/11]. The Gramophone & Typewriter Company ventured into music publishing with what seemed like a promising idea: they asked the leading Italian opera composers to each write a song especially for the Gramophone, which would then be sung into the recording horn by a star singer—perhaps with the composer at the piano—and they would publish both the record and the sheet music. Caruso’s “Mattinata” with Leoncavallo at the piano became a best-seller, but the same could not be said for the other records in the series. Both the record label and the sheet music proudly announce that Leoncavallo’s lullaby “Ninna Nanna” was specially composed “for the birth of His Royal Highness the Crown Prince” and is dedicated “To Her Majesty Queen Elena”. It is a pleasant song, charmingly sung. (Unfortunately, though Leoncavallo’s words proclaim with loyal enthusiasm that “Your name is blessed by everyone, because one day you will reign over them!”, this royal baby would grow up to be the Prince of Piedmont who would reign, as Umberto II, for exactly one month before departing Italy into exile in May 1946.)
MAINLY VERDI, 1905–1907
In her recordings after 1904 Verdi would predominate, and somehow we will sense that although Boninsegna is always expressive, it is Verdi who inspires her to true eloquence. His aria “Ernani involami” will ruthlessly expose any tendency to “yodeling” in a soprano whose scale is uneven, but, unconcerned and fearless, Celestina booms away magnificently and cavillers might notice that she observes (in part) Verdi’s request for a crescendo and diminuendo on the sustained upper F (“un Eden”) [CD 1/12]. She is daringly full-voiced in the florid phrase “saran quegli antri a me” that rises to high C only to descend to B-flat below the stave. Her final cadenza is delightfully light and accurate, finishing with a lovely diminuendo on the upper F.
The duet from Ernani, “Da quel dì che t’ho veduta”, with the excellent baritone Francesco Cigada making a rare appearance on the “celebrity” red label, suffers from a rushed tempo, especially towards the end, but both singers are on splendid form [CD 1/13]. Cigada, despite a rather wooden timbre, demonstrates the classical method of mixing the registers to rise easily to brilliant high notes. Curiously, Boninsegna avoids a descent to B-flat below the stave by transposing the phrase “Oh vile, o vil per me!” an octave higher, obviously a traditional variant (she effects the descent to B-flat in “Ernani involami” without batting an eyelid). In the Leonora–Di Luna duet from Il trovatore, two best-selling little records, both Boninsegna and Cigada are on top form, singing with impetuous vigor and remarkable accuracy, including interesting rubati [CD 1/15–17]. How rare to hear duets like these sung by two perfectly focused voices! The 1905 recordings include her surprisingly light and brilliant execution of one strophe only of “Mercè dilette amiche” from I vespri siciliani, which lies mostly in the crystalline and limpid upper range of her voice [CD 1/18]. She did well to keep a few old-fashioned arias of execution in her repertoire as they kept her voice “well oiled”. Verdi has thoughtlessly not left many opportunities for the soprano to take a good deep breath, so Celestina—like others on acoustic recordings of the aria—snatches an extra breath wherever she can. So weightless is her sparkling execution that she easily reaches both the high C-sharp (twice) and the A below the stave. She sings the aria equally well on the Pathé recording of two years later [CD 3/6].
Gaisberg thought that “In ‘Pace mio Dio’ from Forza del destino, Boninsegna showed off her voice to even better purpose than did the rest of her very fine records.” In fact, we can hear her at her best in all three of Leonora’s “set pieces”. “La vergine degli angeli” illustrates that the Boston critics were right to comment that from one performance to another she improved her phrasing: in the 1905 G&T [CD 1/22–23] she spoils the famous melody (still often heard in Italian churches today on sentimental occasions) by breathing in the middle of nearly every phrase, but she has corrected this in the excellent Italian Columbia version of a few years later [CD 4/16]. In 1905 she made a less than satisfactory recording of “Madre, pietosa vergine”, in which she is perhaps disconcerted when the enthusiastic male chorus and harmonium come in and she loses her place [CD 1/21], but fortunately the following year G&T replaced it in the catalogue with a splendid new version [CD 2/7], which became one of her most popular records: a “production number” with soprano, orchestra, chorus and “organ”! Her beautifully limpid attacks on the word “Madre” remind us that few sopranos have such a lovely D. Like many other singers in the recording studio she does not always bother with Verdi’s crescendo and diminuendo signs, but she is able to portray both the urgency and the pathos of Leonora’s prayer, and we forgive her any neglect of detail for the burning sincerity of the overall performance in an aria in which her rich chest tones and crystalline upper notes are used in constant contrast.
The first note of “Pace, pace mio Dio”, a sustained F (top line) marked crescendo and diminuendo, together with the sustained high B-flat pianissimo before the cadenza, combine to make this aria a test-piece for aspiring Verdi sopranos: Boninsegna passes with flying colors [CD 2/8]. She has all the requisites: a clean attack throughout her range, limpid and fresh high notes, a full middle range and those rich chest tones. In this aria she tries not to sing F (first space) in chest register. The opening phrases are beautifully floated, and at “Cruda sventura” we can again admire her beautiful D. She slows down in the bars before the repeat of “Pace, pace”, which few conductors would think of doing today, but Boninsegna and her conductor Sabajno had learned their parts in the nineteenth century and know precisely how this music should go. Now Celestina cuts the “L’amai, gli è ver!” section and skips to “Oh, Dio, fa ch’io muoia” and we can hear that she is warming up, anxious to get her teeth into the cadenza and finale: her soft high B-flat is a marvel, the cadenza is exquisitely molded, then they cut to “Maledizione!” and the record ends in triumph. It scarcely matters that she cheats by rising to the high B-flat with a portamento and singing the word as “Maledizio-e”! In the 1910 American Columbia record the cut is different: she sings all the “L’amai, gli è ver!” section, cutting from “non ti vedrò mai più!” to “Maledizio-e!” [CD 3/22].
One of the best of the G&T records is “Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa” from Un ballo in maschera, a fine, dramatic reading; the recording catches a golden quality in her voice, and some wonderful ascents culminating in a radiantly pure C [CD 1/19]. That she must have been a magnificent Amelia is also shown in her three recordings of the Duet from the same opera, the first in 1906 with the Spanish tenor Manuel Izquierdo (1871–1951)—a pupil of the distinguished conductor Juan Goula—who sings better on other records [CD 2/6]. How she enjoys launching into Verdi’s big tunes! G&T also produced her touching singing of “Morrò, ma prima in grazia”, unfortunately cut to fit onto a ten-inch record, but lovingly phrased [CD 1/20]. Like others in her day, she cuts out the part of the cadenza that rises to the high C. The later Columbia recording is even more heavily cut and not so well sung [CD 4/14].
Despite her tall stature and voluminous voice, Boninsegna demonstrates in her records of songs by Leoncavallo and Sabajno that she can adapt her enthusiastic outpourings to an intimate melodia, but the slightly erotic nature of Cantoni’s “Notturno” tempts her to unleash her powers [CD 2/10]. We suppose the composer to be the prodigy Fortunato Cantoni, a pupil of Giuseppe Martucci, who would have been only nineteen years old in 1906, but then he had produced his first one-act opera in Trieste at the age of thirteen!
In 1907 Boninsegna travelled to Paris to record for Pathé Frères, whose records had the advantage of producing a considerable volume of sound, while the miscellaneous rumblings and roarings inherent to the Pathé system were kept in the background in the reproducing horn of the old “Pathéphone”. Boninsegna announces the arias herself, quite charmingly. She must have been warned that little more than two minutes were available for each selection, so unfortunately most of the numbers are spoilt by cuts and a sense of hurry. Pressings vary in quality according to methods of production of the stampers used, but sometimes an unusually good copy can produce surprisingly forward and brilliant sound. Among the most satisfactory is her accurate and intensely dramatic execution of “L’altra notte” from Mefistofele, with well-defined trills (her only recording of this aria) [CD 2/19]. Margherita’s death scene “Spunta l’aurora pallida” from the same opera is magnificently declaimed [CD 3/10]. How delightful that she should have concluded this record with Margherita’s spoken “Enrico, mi fai ribrezzo!”—“Henry, you make me puke!” (Poor Boito! His inspiration was not soaring to the highest flights that day…) She would almost certainly have studied the aria “Com’è bello” from Lucrezia Borgia with Boccabadati and she sings it with care and something like the grand manner, increasing the speed at “Gioje sogna” where nobody would think of doing so today, and to considerable effect [CD 3/3]. The aria is elaborately embellished with unfamiliar and lovely variations, clearly derived from her teacher, so it is an important document for teaching stylistic authenticity. We can only wish that she had recorded the aria, unhurriedly, for Columbia or the Gramophone Company.
In 1909 the wandering Boninsegna returned home to the Gramophone Company studios in Milan, where, accompanied by the sympathetic baton of Maestro Sabajno and a decent orchestra, she was at last able to record, in a fairly resonant studio, a complete performance of “Ritorna vincitor” on two sides, which is one of her great achievements [CD 3/13]. The music all comes easily to her, she is able to sing at the unrushed speeds that she preferred, she vividly portrays all Aida’s conflicting thoughts, and she is in wonderful voice. The records enshrine detailed “performance practices” that are familiar to collectors of these old records: all of Boninsegna’s rubati, unfamiliar to modern Aidas, serve to enhance the musical expression and may be considered typical of what Verdi expected from his singers. Her use of portamento is particularly instructive, and she gives a classic demonstration of how to interpret Verdi’s written legatura when she joins “vorrei morir” to “Numi, pieta” with an elegant upward portamento. Her companion record of “Qui Radamès verrà” and one strophe of “O patria mia” is also superb, without replacing in our affections her spontaneous, fresh and limpid singing in her beautifully recorded 1904 disc [CD 3/14]. Here, also, we may observe a forgotten performance practice: Aida waits for the flute solo introducing her aria to come to a stop before she attacks “O patria mia”, although in the score the flautist’s F and Aida’s are superimposed. Similarly, when Aida finishes “mai più ti rivedrò” on the C (third space) the flautist waits for “the maiden fair” to “cease her singing” before coming in on the F.
During her season in Boston, Boninsegna recorded for Columbia thirteen sides which many have considered her most satisfactory discs. She was in limpid voice throughout the sessions and seems to have achieved a usable matrix with only one take of each title, except the Bohème aria, of which take two was published. Perhaps unexpectedly, hers is a memorably individual rendering of “Mi chiamano Mimì”, although the very first notes, E–F-sharp–G, betray the weakness that threatens any soprano who forces up her chest register [CD 4/5]. Throughout the aria she frequently dips into her fruity chest register on E and F-sharp and so risks turning the tubercular seamstress into a fully-fledged dramatic soprano, however the “old school” is apparent in many charmingly individual touches, for example at “che parlano d’amor, di primavere” or “il primo bacio dell’aprile è mio!”, sung in her lovely, limpid head register. There is a smile in her voice. Her top notes are exciting while remaining bound into the legato of each phrase. “Vissi d’arte” is also the work of an experienced singer who knew how to secure an encore of her aria [CD 4/6]. She manages to ennoble poor Santuzza’s “Voi lo sapete”, carefully avoiding chest register on the frequent F-sharps and maintaining a poignant sincerity throughout [CD 4/4]. “Tacea la notte placida”, not sung with much feeling for the mood of the piece, is reduced to one strophe to leave time for the cabaletta, “Di tale amor”, which she sings with her usual vigor [CD 3/20]. She simply omits most of the trills! On turning over the original record the buyer would have found a truly majestic performance of “D’amor sull’ali rosee”, elegantly phrased and with all the trills well-articulated [CD 3/21]. The high C comes easily to her, but in this very “Italian” rendering she is playing to the gallery, tending to neglect Verdi’s indications of pp and dolce. She is certainly singing con espressione, as Verdi requests at the incipit of the aria, and her “espressione” is closely bound up with her mastery of the ritardando, giving breadth and significance to her phrasing. She avoids the optional high D-flat. In Verdi’s suggested alternative flourish she obeys his instruction to contrast con forza with dolce. The first part of “Ernani involami” is sung more stolidly than her 1905 G&T, but in contrast she gives a most interesting light and rhythmically varied execution of the cabaletta “Tutto sprezzo” [CD 3/19]. Her voice is particularly well recorded in the two scenes from Aida, some of the softer phrases being of ethereal beauty, and she molds Verdi’s phrases with an instinctive feeling for the grand manner and the broad musical line [CD 4/1–2]. In all her recordings of “Ritorna vincitor” Boninsegna has left us a blueprint of the “interpretation” of this aria handed down by tradition from the nineteenth century, particularly significant for the imaginative use of flexibility of tempo: she shows us where to speed up and where to slow down, where to stretch out the phrase, where to hurry on.
Her record of “Casta diva” was for many years considered the classic rendering [CD 3/17]. It is, indeed, a lovely record: she must have studied the music with her teacher, for she sings it with scrupulous care, adding a few modest ornaments in the shape of simple mordents, and rising to the high C in the cadenza. Every phrase has been meticulously studied, and she employs a lot of ritardando for expressive purposes. The long phrases and the unhurried ease of all the rising passages demonstrate her complete control of the breath. Her execution in the cabaletta “Ah, bello a me ritorna” is more accurate than most of her contemporaries could have managed, and as her coloratura is all firmly supported on the breath and sung in full voice, the effect in the theatre would have been thrilling indeed [CD 3/18].
The series also includes a highly original recording of an abbreviated “Bel raggio lusinghier”, one of Patti’s warhorses, recorded for Victor by Marcella Sembrich with some of Patti’s variations [CD 3/16]. Boninsegna is probably reproducing the stately manner of her teacher’s generation in Rossini’s music, bringing out the majestic solemnity that Rossini expected in the difficult divisions. Her execution of the florid music is exemplary, all the notes clearly articulated and bound together in a properly supported legato. No aspirates, no faking.
In all these 1910 records the vibrato is much less evident, perhaps because the engineers stood her further away from the recording horn, but for whatever reason Boninsegna’s voice sounds even more beautiful and her enunciation slightly more “noble”. We are certainly listening to a singer who has continued to make progress since 1904.
Some time after her return from America, the Italian branch of Columbia persuaded her to add another thirteen titles to her list, and among these the record of “Questo mio bianco manto” from Isabeau is something of a revelation [CD 4/19]. Mascagni keeps Isabeau singing through five pages of awkwardly written vocal music almost entirely on the passaggio: the lowest note is G (second line), the highest B-natural above the stave—on the word “Iddio”! Boninsegna is in her element, soaring through the music with impeccable legato in very fresh voice, delicately and clearly sounding all the consonants, turning a piece of rather dubious composition into music, and almost into melody! This may be her only record in which she never resorts to her chest register, apart from a repeat performance for Pathé (1919) which consists of only the first half of the scene, and which does not reproduce the lovely timbre of her voice. The other side of the Pathé record presents her in the final scene of the opera. In “Vissi d’arte” as well, she scarcely ever touches her chest register, trying to keep the voice light, but the American record is better [CD 4/18]. In the scenes from Faust she is lighter than one would have expected in the recitative to the “Jewel song” and in parts of the aria itself, but on the whole her voice is too heavy for Marguerite [CD 4/8–10]. Another important Italian Columbia is the complete duet, on two sides, from Un ballo in maschera with the tenor Narciso Del Ry (1879–1939—a pupil of the great baritone Lelio Casini) [CD 4/12–13]. Boninsegna thoroughly immerses herself in this marvelously melodic and exciting music, singing with full and thrilling tone without any sense of strain or effort. Del Ry is an accomplished singer (who also sang I puritani and La favorita) but his tone would have been described as “bleating” by Bernard Shaw.
Like the great baritone Giuseppe Kaschmann and her fellow student from Pesaro, the tenor Umberto Macnez, Boninsegna travelled to London especially to make disc recordings for Edison in April 1911. Here she is able to sing “Pace mio Dio” and “Ritorna vincitor” without any cuts, while indulging in her usual penchant for leisurely tempi: “Tacea la notte placida” she may sing more slowly than anyone else on record [CD 4/20–22]. The extreme clarity of Edison’s recordings (here not afflicted with undue surface noise) perhaps caught the pearly dolcezza of Boninsegna’s medium and high tones better than earlier records, but somehow did not bring out the full richness of her chest register as the Gramophone Company had done. “Pace, mio Dio” is a virtuoso performance, and “Ritorna vincitor” is as good as the 1909 recording.
In June 1917 Boninsegna returned once more to the bosom of “La Voce del Padrone” to make a small group of highly effective records, although sometimes her tenor is placed rather nearer to the horn than she is. Luigi Bolis (debut 1900, died 1947) is a worthy partner, demonstrating mastery of the blending of registers as he sails up to the high notes, singing his part in the duet from Un ballo in maschera with a great deal of charm, while Boninsegna is truly in her element when Verdi gives her a big tune to sing [CD 5/1–2]. It is not clear whether Bolis is also singing his high C, so loud is the soprano an octave above him! Only the first part of the lovely duet “Sento una forza indomita” from Il Guarany was published at the time, although it is on this side that both of them make musical errors in the recitative [CD 5/3]! However, they sing with brio. The selection from Loreley is impressively declaimed [CD 5/6]. The session ends with the two of them plunging hell-for-leather into the final duet from Andrea Chénier, a highly satisfactory version [CD 5/7].
Towards the end of her career Boninsegna returned to the Pathé studios, this time in Milan, to record an interesting selection of titles, again partly spoilt by rushed tempi, as in the otherwise very welcome and dramatically unfolded duets from Aida and La Gioconda with the stalwart Ninì Frascani, who is also suffering from forcing her chest register too high, though she is an expert in concealing the deleterious effects of this on her medium register [CD 5/10 and 12]. The equally impassioned duet from Cavalleria rusticana is also propelled at hectic speed, but none the less we can hear that she was a great Santuzza, worthily partnered by the brilliant voice of Jesus de Gaviria (1892–1975) [CD 5/14]. Gaviria made his debut in Milan in 1919, so these records must have been made in that year. It was most unusual for Italian singers in her day to venture out of their own repertoire, but it must be said that Boninsegna gives a full-blooded account of Azucena’s “Condotta ell’era in ceppi”, in which we hear that her chest register descended to a rich and sonorous A below the stave [CD 5/8]. A rather poorly recorded excerpt from the Finale to Act One of Catalani’s Loreley is notable for some truly magnificent singing [CD 5/13]. Boninsegna begins with an effectively sung recitative in which the deluded Loreley commands her soul to become as of brass, then launches into her Invocation to the spirits of air “O forze recondite” with splendid impetus and brilliant tone, rising to a finely sustained high B, a note she takes again towards the conclusion of the piece, while she omits the high C in a brilliant downward scale. Catalani seems to be trying to emulate Meyerbeer in this rather weak music, not his best work.
I rang the doorbell and a very large rather untidy woman who I thought must be the cook opened the door. I asked for Signora Boninsegna and she looked at me with very kind eyes and said ‘I am la Boninsegna’. She asked me in and gave me a cup of coffee and we began to talk, sitting in a horribly ornate drawing room … I told her that I sang a little. ‘I wish you would sing something for me’ she said, but I protested that I had been travelling all the summer and had not opened my mouth for two or three months. ‘No, no, no’, she said ‘that does not matter—I am giving some lessons and my accompanist is here’, and she took out the score of Tosca and opened it at the first tenor aria. So I embarked on this and when I had got through it I thought that she would say something. But she made no comment except to say ‘Let’s go on’ and so she came in, ‘Mario! Mario! Mario!’, and we went on with the duet in the first act. She was not too good a musician, I thought, but her voice was still very remarkable in parts … The high notes and the low notes were still wonderful—quite marvelous; there was a sort of hole in the middle but that did not make any difference. Her voice was very tremendous in volume, especially on the high notes, and it was all I could do to balance her when we went up to those climaxes. And of course I felt as though I were in a dream. As a child I had had some of Boninsegna’s records and here I was singing with this person from another world! When we had finished she said ‘Let’s begin again from the beginning’; so we did and I must say that things went very much better. Then she said ‘I still have my high C’ and she gave me a demonstration, which was marvelous—the whole room rang. Then she plunged down into the low notes and sang the phrase from Aida, Amneris’s ‘Figlia dei faraoni’, and I felt as though Tamagno was in the room—I had never heard such a tremendous sound as this was; then she turned to me with flashing eyes and said ‘Questa era la mia gloria’—‘this was my glory’. [Lecture by Max De Schauensee, printed in Recorded Sound, No. 59, July 1975.]
Let us conclude by quoting the most distinguished Italian critical opinions of Boninsegna that we have been able to find. In The Record Collector, Vol. XII, Nos. 8 and 9, November/December 1959, we read that: “Eugenio Gara (1888–1985), Italy’s leading musical critic in the field of vocalism, recently told Signor [Rodolfo] Celletti that he had heard Boninsegna on a number of occasions and that, especially in Trovatore, he considered her to be among the greatest singers of the period.” Dottor Celletti himself, in both the Enciclopedia dello Spettacolo and Le Grandi Voci, after rating her as upstaged in various ways by Burzio, Mazzoleni, Destinn, Krusceniski, and Russ, goes on to say:
But probably she surpassed them all, especially in Il trovatore, because of the precious timbre, soft, velvety tones, the imaginative transparencies of her singing, the smoothness of her phrasing, the warm outpouring of feeling and, in other words, her reincarnation of the chaste passion and the timid yieldings of the angelic heroines of Verdi’s operas.
This article is based on the research of Bob Rideout, the late Thomas Kaufman, Roberto Marcocci, and Giuseppe Martelli, who supplied many quotes from reviews; our thanks also to Gioacchino Zarrelli for Boccabadati’s book, and to Maurizio Tiberi for much help.
1Dal Costanzi all’Opera, Roma, Edizioni Capitolium, 1977, Vol. I, p. 182
2Review from an unidentified clipping