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Your Recorded Heritage: Rossini
Roger Pines, Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
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Our ears are convinced by much of the legato singing we hear in early Rossini recordings: Its elegance wears the years lightly. Coloratura, however, is another story: Once we get past 1920, florid Rossini (especially as far as male singers are concerned) is rarely handled with the astonishing expertise to which we’ve grown accustomed in the decades since Marilyn Horne initiated the “Rossini renaissance.” Major artists today are also expected to ornament Rossini with a degree of authenticity that was not part of the operatic scene when the singers cited in this article were making records. There is nonetheless a good deal to be learned from pre- 1960 Rossini recordings as regards individuality and beauty of timbre, grace of phrasing, and sheer force of personality.

The Rossini repertoire we expect from sopranos today was hardly in evidence on pre-1960 recordings, excepting perhaps “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Semiramide. The aria received several notable performances, such as that of the now-forgotten German singer Irene Abendroth (1871-1932), who does not address the dramatic situation in the slightest but dazzles with extraordinary fleetness and accuracy in her florid singing. Much better known was longtime Met favorite Marcella Sembrich (1858-1935), a paragon in virtually all her recordings; it was thanks to her and numerous other important coloraturas who followed that Barbiere’s Rosina stayed firmly in the soprano Fach well into the 20th century. Other soprano Rosinas included two Italians: the musically willful but vocally scintillating Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940) and one of her most prominent successors, the always charming Toti dal Monte (1893-1975).

Among heavier soprano voices, the only Rossini pieces to be adequately represented pre-1960 are “Sombre forLt” from Guillaume Tell (usually sung in Italian translation as “Selva opaca”), interpreted most memorably by the aristocrat of spinto sopranos, Hina Spani (1896-1969); and “Inflammatus” from the Stabat mater, sung to staggering effect — with every turn, trill, and high C in place — by Florence Austral (1894-1968), an important Wagnerian, and Eleanor Steber (1914- 1990), America’s greatest Mozartian of the 1940s and 50s.

Mezzos and Contraltos

Few turn-of-the-century ladies took on Isabella and Arsace, excepting one of the earliest coloratura contraltos on records, the Italian Guerrina Fabbri (1866-1946). She reminds us that the idea of moving into a truly “mixed” chest voice without a break was not part of many Italian sopranos’ and contraltos’ singing on early recordings. Still, Fabbri had fine agility, impressive vocal amplitude, and an aptly colorful timbre.

It was above all the fiery Spaniard Conchita Supervia (1895-1936) — Cenerentola and Isabella in major Covent Garden revivals of the mid- 1930s — who brought new excitement to Rossini’s three best-known mezzo roles. Supervia’s Rossini heroines emerge as delicious portraits colored by unique femininity and sparkle, not just in the most elaborate music but also in the flowing line of Isabella’s “Per lui che adoro.” Provided one can get used to her unique vibrato, her records offer endless rewards.

The versatility of Giulietta Simionato (b. 1910) ran the gamut of 18th- and 19th-century roles, encompassing not only Rossini (including Tancredi, a real rarity when she sang it onstage in 1952) but also Gluck, Mozart, big Verdi, French repertoire, and verismo. Like Supervia, she offers florid ability that doesn’t quite equal the best that mezzos provide today, but she is irresistible nonetheless, thanks to the enormous vitality and intelligence with which she communicates in all her roles. Among her contemporaries are two singers from eastern Europe: Jennie Tourel (1900-1973), the Met’s first mezzo Rosina, who left warm-voiced, musicianly recordings of Rossini arias at a time when few mezzos ventured them on records; and Zara Dolukhanova (b. 1918), unique among Slavic mezzos for her magnificent fioriture, variety of color, and easy two-and-a-half octave range.


The virtuosi to be heard in early recordings include both lyric and spinto tenors. Among the latter, the only role to be considered is Arnold in Guillaume Tell, whose multiple high Cs tempted many leather-lunged singers. Léon EscalaVs (1859-1941) committed to disc some of the most astoundingly full, effortless top notes ever recorded, but he could also deal beautifully with Rossinian filigree. Another now legendary artist,Francesco Tamagno (1850-1905), Verdi’s first Otello, was also celebrated as “Arnoldo.” A few decades later came another major artist in this role, Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1969), whose 1917 Italian-language recording of the Guillaume Tell trio with baritone Giuseppe de Luca and bass José Mardones is a landmark of early Rossini recording.

Spectacular Rossini was recorded by numerous lighter tenor voices early on, with pride of place going perhaps to Fernando de Lucia (1860-1925) — also a famous Lohengrin! — and Dmitri Smirnoff (1882-1944), who had a surprisingly effective command of Italian style. Even though Rossini tenors’ range and florid ability declined notably from the 1920s until the emergence of Rockwell Blake in the mid- 1970s, several portrayals did leave their mark through their interpreters’ elegance, wit, and intoxicating charm: Juan Oncina (b. 1925), a Spaniard, as Count Ory and Ramiro; Michel Sénéchal (b. 1927), a Frenchman, as Ory; and Luigi Alva (b. 1927), a Peruvian, as Almaviva, Ramiro, and Lindoro.


From the dawn of recording, virtually every Italian baritone of note has been heard in Figaro’s “Largo al factotum.” The necessary vocal variety, verbal incisiveness, and ringing top are all provided by Riccardo Stracciari (1875-1955); like his great contemporary, Giuseppe de Luca, Stracciari didn’t lose his lightness of touch in moving from his famous Verdi interpretations back to Figaro and other bel canto parts. In terms of sheer voice, Sesto Bruscantini (1919-2003) was, like Stracciari, not the most formidable among baritones of his generation, but all his Rossini parts offered immense intelligence and a born actor’s delivery of the text. Among non-Italians, America’s Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960) was another baritone who could move delightfully from the “heavies” to Figaro’s “Largo,” to which he brings terrific involvement but also vocal thrills aplenty.


Salvatore Baccaloni (1900-1969) started out in serious bass parts, but his figure and voice both made him a natural for buffo repertoire, and his Bartolo set the standard for the 1930s and 40s in that role. Besides Basilio’s “La calunnia” — in which Russia’s Fyodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) is uniquely characterful — we generally hear pre-1960 Rossini basses only in the title role’s music of Mosé in Egitto, in which the grandscale instrument of Nazzareno De Angelis (1881-1962) is mightily impressive

Essential Recordings
Abendroth: “Yale University Historical Recordings, Vol. 1” – Symposium #1135
Austral: “Florence Austral,” Preiser Records/Lebendige Vergangenheit series, #89547
Spani, De Lucia, Smirnoff, Tamagno, Martinelli, de Angelis: “
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About the Author: Editorial Dramaturg, Lyric Opera of Chicago
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