Recently, I’ve acquired some more Operatic playbills and programmes, etc. Ranging back in time to the 1890s, they are a fascinating window to a lost musical world. The quality of cast after cast especially around the trurn of the century was astonishing. Unlike the programmes on the other pages in this site, (which were sorted by location), I’ve arranged these in rough chronological order, to give an idea of the development of Opera during the 20th century…
Here is a typical concert of the time. The featured singers were Sigrid Arnoldson (1861-1943), the great Swedish soprano, and the young Ferruccio Giannini (1868-1948), one of the first operatic singers to record. This fine tenor was also to be the father of Dusolina Giannini (1902-1986), who recorded with Gigli (see below), 30 years later.
The same year, within the exclusive walls of Queen Victoria’s home in London, a concert was given by golden-era singers Nellie Melba-soprano, (1861-1931) Pol Plancon-bass (1860-1914), Mario Ancona-baritone (1860-1931) and Albert Alvarez-tenor (1860-1933).
Within three years of each other, the Teatro Constanze in Italy was able to mount La Boheme, then an opera scarcely 10 years old with two legendary casts. 1902 offered Alessandro Bonci (1870-1940), then at the beginning of his career, alongside the fine soprano Lina Pasini-Vitale (1872-1959), and the production was conducted by her husband, Edoardo Vitale. The 1905 production, even more impressively offered Giovanni Zenatello (1876-1949) and the wonderful Maria Farneti (1877-1955) who was still making thrilling recordings as late as 1931…
Entry price? Just three lire!
All of these singers were snapped up by the ground-breaking Italian Operatic label Fonotipia in their long-fought duel with The Gramophone Company. Ultimately, this was a battle that they would lose, but not before hundreds of superb recordings were made for posterity…
Meanwhile for only TWO lire, if you were at the less prestigious Opera House, the Teatro Adriana, you could hear the incomparable dramatic soprano, Celestina Boninsegna (1877-1947), who did not have her contract renewed by The Gramophone Company despite her ‘Red-Label’ status, and thus was able to record also for Pathe and Columbia.
The bombing of The Queen’s Hall in World War Two was over 3 decades away when the creator of Verdi’s Falstaff and Iago, Victor Maurel (1848-1923), the legendary actor-baritone, gave a concert there toward the end of his distinguished career, during the Edwardian era. Luckily, he was one of the earliest singers to record his voice for posterity.
The following pictures and cast-lists shows how high a standard was being kept up at the Théatre National De L’Opéra in France, during the 1890s!
Ernest Van Dyck
Look at the quality of artistes involved in these operatic nights, and this while equally good casts were singing all over Italy, the UK, the USA, Russia etc.
Notice particularly, the regular participation of the two great French tenors, Agustarello Affre and Albert Vaguet, the latter before an accident prematurely ended his stage career, but led him to be perhaps the most prolific of early Pathé recording artistes…and what a fine singer he was! Nevertheless, on one occasion, he plays a minor tenor role alongside the immortal Francesco Tamagno who plays the part which he had created just 15 years or so earlier….OTELLO!
Emilio De Gogorza (1872-1949), despite his name was born in Brooklyn and spent all his life in the USA. He was a concert artiste rather than an Operatic-baritone, but a very fine one, as his many records show, one or two with his legendary wife, the American diva, Emma Eames. He was also crucial to the history of the gramophone, for not only did he record for Victor under various pseudonyms, depending upon the price-range and targetted audience of the respective recordings, but he was the first of what we now call A&R men, recruiting the finest of singers for Victor’s recording horn in the first decade of the 20th century. Among the singers that he taught, later in life, was the baritone, John Brownlee. This imginative and wide-ranging concert, given in Washington, DC., in 1923 included songs by Gretchaninov, Moussorgsky, Debussy, Valverde and Alvarez, as well as some Basque folk-songs…..
The rumour was that Louise Kirkby-Lunn (1873-1930), the world-class British mezzo-contralto, a stalwart of the early British HMV catalogue and Percy Pitt, the well-known conductor were lovers around the period of this typical song-concert of its day, and the Kaiser’s War had yet to begin…
As mentioned on the Great French Singers’ page (with pictures), Marthe Chenal, (1881-1947), had begun as a dancer in the Folies Bergeres, but by 1916 she had enough quality as a singer to hold her own as Floria Tosca against such names as the famous Dutch baritone Henri Albers (1866-1925) as Scarpia with such fine singers as Hippolyte Belhomme in support! All of these singers recorded for Pathe, of-course.
Although this doesn’t seem to be one of them, Frieda Hempel (1885-1955) had made a name for herself throughout the 1920s by re-creating Victorian ballad concerts At The Royal Albert Hall during the 20s, dressed as the original 19th century nightingale, Jenny Lind. She recorded for HMV, Odeon, and Edison.
It seems strange to think, what with her first recordings appearing on the market as early as 1916, that it took Amelita Galli-Curci (1882-1963) another 8 years to make her debut in London. Nevertheless, the above programme shows this to be the case and, as the following pictures equally demonstrate, the English audiences wanted to make up for lost time. Her concerts were obviously sold out! Much of this success was no doubt helped by massive sales of her Victor recordings.
Hidden on the inner page of a 1928 programme, we see here, fascinatingly, the British tour schedule for the unique Feodor Chaliapine (1873-1938), just months after he put on wax his definitive performance as Boris Godounov, live at Covent Garden.
The year 1873 may have given Italy Enrico Caruso, Russia Feodor Chaliapin (and his ear;ly accompanist Sergei Rachmaninov!), and Austria Leo Slezak, but it also gave Gt. Britain, the redoubtable contralto, Clara Butt (1873-1936), here at the height of her powers. After years of recording acoustically for both HMV and Columbia, she survived long enough to record some electrics for Clumbia. Perhaps only those last recordings give us a true idea of the magnificence of her voice.
Whoever Mrs. Wilson-Greene was is now lost in time, a lady of high society, no doubt, but here, she had obtained the services of the great American contralto, Louise Homer (1871-1947) who had been America’s greatest contralto for over 25 years by this time (7th November, 1928). This concert, shared with her daughter, included Schubert, Handel, Tchaikowsky, Loewe songs as a well as a couple by her beloved husband, Sidney Homer and duets from Madama Butterfly and Norma. Her many records, all on Victor (HMV in Europe) likewize spanned over 25 years and are happily easily obtained…
The great soprano Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967) had retired from the Operatic stage by 1920 after a glittering career from Berlin (after studying with the legendary Lilli Lehmann) to New York, with a following like a film-star (which of-course, she became, too). Despite her operatic repertoire, this concert in somewhat provincial Iowa demanded much of her audience. It ranged widely from Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Franz through Wolf-Ferrari, Donaudy etc., to Respighi and Chopin, Chaminade, Dvorak, Greig, Gretchaninov and the great Anton Rubinstein. Her records are still common today on G&T, HMV and Victor, sometimes with all the other greats of her time, including her regular partner at the Met., Enrico Caruso himself…
The great bass, Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was never, of-course, an Opera-singer, but a great artist nonetheless and with an unique voice, who first sang at The Royal Albert Hall in the late 20s. I saw him sing there in the 50s when, after the infamous McCarthy era in the USA, he was finally given back his passport. The Royal Albert Hall was absolutely packed. We sat in the choir seats behind the stage and were happy to watch him over one shoulder, as it were. As he entered on to the stge, the entire 5000 people stood up and applauded in welcome for 10 minutes. He was very moved. He is best remembered through his mainly British films and HMV recordings, but he also recorded for Columbia and Iron Curtain labels.
The great Spanish mezzo-soprano, Conchita Supervia (1895-1936) was both a sort of sex-symbol of the operatic circuit and one of the truly unique voices of the century. Who could have guessed, when attending this Wigmore Hall concert in 1934, that she would die in child-birth just a couple of years later. Alongside Tauber, she was one of the stars of the Parlophone-Odeon label.
Margarete Matzenauer (1881-1963), the fine German contralto, was living in the USA after World War One. She moved to the San Fernando Valley in later life, and although this Los Angeles programme is not dated, I assume that this concert was given after her retirement from the Operatic stage when her main work was as a teacher. Her recording career began as she starred in all the major European houses, on G&T, HMV and Pathe, but she continued recording until the late 20s, firstly with Columbia and Edison, but principally with Victor. This late concert included songs by Gluck, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, Laparra, Chopin, Faudrin, Respighi, Cimara as well as a section of songs by her accompanist, Richard Hagemann.
The same year, the fine French coloratura soprano, Lily Pons (1898-1976), now safely ensconced as Galli-Curci’s successor at The Metropolitan in New York and a budding film-star to boot, found herself promoted by HMV in the Royal Albert Hall programme for this concert as The new soprano wonder of the musical world. Nevertheless, later on, she moved on to the Columbia label, though by then her voice was beginning to show signs of wear.
During the 30s, legendary tenor Richard Tauber (1890-1948), who was partly Jewish was forced ot flee Nazi Europe. He settled in England where his popularity soared, be it in Opera, Concerts, Operetta, Films (see above illustrations) Radio or on Record. his records were on the Parlophone-Odeon label. and are happily still easily acqured today He was one of the truly great singers of the 20th century…
World War Two was fast becoming inevitable in 1938, but at Covent Garden, the season continued with such offerings as the great Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957), already middle-aged though with almost another 20 years of his career still to run, here portraying the libertine Duke in Rigoletto at the head of a more than competant if not star-studded cast.
This is the portrait adorning the cover of the programme for Gigli’s Royal Albert Hall concert of 16th April 1952, somewhat idealized by this point in his life. The concert consisted of Operatic arias (La Traviata, Mignon, Tosca, Sadko, Adriana Lecouvreur and Carmen) and of-course, lots of Italian and Neapolitan song favourite. This was part of his spring 1952 British tour promoted by Jack Hylton and Harold Fielding.
The notes inside this programme speak of the remarkable Italian tenor, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (1892-1979), one of Gigli’s chief rivals, as having fought in the trenches during World War One. To say this, there must have been a Second World War. So, this concert was given after 1945, when the tenor wa already around 50 years old. Twenty-five years on, he was to astonish an audience who were there to celebrate the centenary of a Spanish Opera House, by launching into a highly emotionally-charged performance of Nessun Dorma.
Ninon Vallin (1886-1961), as well as being a world-class French lyric-soprano, was a stalwart of the Pathe record-catalogue and enjoyed a long successful career. She first recorded around 1920 and yetr here she was still giving concerts, over 25 years later in 1948.
This is a 1943-4 programme for aNew York concert given by the celebrated German soprano, Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952) at the Town Hall. It was a wartime Lieder concert of Schubert and Hugo Wolf songs. The only other singer included in that season of concerts at the Town Hall, was the British soprano, Florence Easton. It is interesting to note that it was evidently easier to present a programme of German music during World War Two in New York than in London!
When Bruno Walter, who had actually known Mahler personally, conducted this Royal Albert Hall concert of the great composer’s music in the late 1940s, he could surely never have heard a greater singer of this work than the legendary contralto, Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953), nor could he have realized how tragically short the career of this doomed artist was to be.
If the quality of singing weren’t quite a match for pre-war casts, you could have been fooled by the talent from La Scala visiting Covent Garden in 1950. Maria Caniglia (1905-1979), Fedora Barbieri (b.1920), Cesare Siepi (b.1923)and Paolo Silveri (b.1913)were all fine singers, but with Falstaff played by one of the greeatest baritones ever to record, Gino Bechi (1913-1994?)!
If Vallin had a long career, what can one say of the wonderful lyric-tenor Tito Schipa (1889-1974) who first recorded for HMV in 1913. He was already in his 60s by the time he gave this Parisian concert in 1951 and still had two decades of performance ahead of him. Surely, he was one of the century’s greatest vocal artists.
When I saw Jussi Bjorling (1911-1960) sing 3 or 4 years later, it at The Royal Albert Hall, but this was an earlier concert in the then brand new auditorium of The Royal Festival Hall, designed to be part of The Festival Of Britain in 1951. He was indeed, the greatest tenor of his day and the last in the line of great tenors of the century.
This intriguing concert at the Royal Festival Hall paired a relatively new soprano, Lucia Kelston, with two great Italian singers who had both begun their careers back in the 1920s, Ebe Stgnani (1903-1974) the dramatic mezzo-soprano with an enormous voice, probably the great Italian mezzo of the 20th century and Tancredi Pasero (1892-1983) who, alongside his contemporary, Ezio Pinza, shared the larels of the greatest of Italian 20th century basses.