18: Tribute to Wonderful
Saturdee Opry Links Overture!
"Le Villi" prelude, by Puccini
Licia Albanese, who died at 105 in 2014, was considered to be the last
interpreter of Puccini roles who was true to Puccini's ideal. Here she is with
"O Mio Babbino Caro" from "Gianni Schicchi," live in 1949. No histrionics,
nothing arch, just the facts, ma'am.
Setting: The bedroom of Buoso Donati, Florence, Italy, 1299
Synopsis: Buoso Donati has died and his relatives have found his will and
discoverd that he has left all his money to the church. Furious, they do not
know what to do. Rinuccio, who is in love with Lauretta but is forbidden to
marry her unless he was left some of the inheritance, sends for Gianni Schicchi
and Lauretta to see if they can help them. When the relatives find this out,
they are furious and argue with Gianni Schicchi. Fed up, he starts to leave, but
Lauretta stops him with this aria, singing that she loves Rinuccio and if
doesn't help them, she will throw herself in the river and die.
Lica Albanese was a lirico-spinto, meaning she had a lyric soprano, but was able
to punch through, above the orchestra, on the big notes. She sang over 400 times
between 1940 and 1966 at the Met alone, and was a staple at San Francisco Opera
for many years, as well. She sang with most of the great tenors of the 20th
century, it seems, from Beniamino Gigli to Luciano Pavarotti (at a tribute
concert after she retired.) Here she is with Gigli in "O Soave Fanciulla," from
Puccini's "La Boheme" in 1938, live at La Scala. If you think she sounds
understated, you would be right. Here is her comment on the performance: "I was
too young and my voice was very immature, like a little girl's voice. Listen to
my recording with Toscanini and [Jan] Peerce, not Gigli, and you will hear my
mature voice, my real voice." Perhaps. But Mimi was a frail creature, so it
works, dramatically speaking.
Albanese much preferred her "Mimi" in the company of tenor Jan Peerce, as she
said, and here they are together in a wonderful 1946 performance of Puccini's
"La Boheme," conducted by Toscanini (who was Puccini's chosen conductor for the
world premiere of "Boheme" in 1896.) Said Albanese of "Mimi:" She is very frail.
You cannot sing [imitates singing in a deep, booming, inappropriately heavy
voice] "Mi chiamano Mimì," which I hear often. They ruin the character! They
ruin the soul of Mimì." Her silvery voice, alternately limpid and soaring,
suggests much about the noble, humble, fatally ill Mimi. You can hear her sing,
"Mi Chiamano Mimi" at 25:30, followed by her duet with Peerce in "O Soave
Fanciulla." (You are certainly free to listen to Peerce's "Che Gelida Manina" at
18:15.) Note: the strange male singing voice you sometimes hear is either the
prompter or Toscanini.
Setting: Christmas Eve in a room in an attic
Synopsis: After Rodolfo tells Mimi that he has fallen in love with her, he asks
her to tell him something of her. She responds, telling him (among other things)
that her name is Lucia, although she is called Mimi.
"O Soave Fanciulla" duet translation:
And here she is in 1951 with Giuseppe DiStefano (when he was still young and not
ruined by cigarettes, booze, and women):
From Licia Albanese's NYT obit:
"Miss Albanese onstage was a sight to behold. Known for her sensitive dramatic
interpretations, her nuanced physical gesture, her pinpoint diction in a number
of languages and the passionate intensity she brought to singing and acting, she
seemed to inhabit her characters — in particular Puccini’s doomed, fragile
heroines — more fully than almost any other singer." She sang one such role, "Violetta"
from Verdi's "La Traviata," 90 times at the Met alone. Here, from that opera, is
the duet, "Parigi o cara," with the tenor, Cesare Valleti. This is a wonderful
match of voice, style, temperament. The duet finds the star-crossed lovers,
Alfredo and Violetta, united at last. Both know that Violetta has only moments
to live, yet they sing of how they will leave Paris together and make a new life
What I admire about Albanese is her lack of diva, so to speak. She was simply
dedicated to her art, and no ancillary considerations, affectation. As she once
said, "Diva? Hah! I was never a diva. Only God makes a diva. No, just call me a
plain singer with lots of expression.” There is surprisingly little footage of
her on Youtube, which is probably another indication of her having no interest
in any spotlights that did not hit stages. Here is a kinescope of her singing
several numbers on the old "Voice of Firestone" program. I direct your attention
first to the so-called "Bird song," from "Il Pagliacci," by Leoncavallo. This
isn't a "great soprano," in the puffy, star-quality sense, just a great soprano,
in the working sense. In this scene, Netta is carried away from her woes by
pondering the beauty of birds, and their songs. One might do the same with Ms.
Albanese. (Go to 8:55.)
Setting: The entrance to a village, Calabria, Italy, 1860s
Synopsis: Nedda watches her jealous and abusive husband go off with Beppe and
some of the villagers after announcing the play the troupe will perform that
night. She fears his discovery and then wonders about the soaring of songbirds
and the meanings of their songs.
Felicia "Licia" Albanese was born in Bari, in southern Italy, on July 23, 1909.
She began singing as a girl, becoming a pupil of Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi,
a noted interpreter of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" in her day. It is perhaps no
great surprise, then, that her operatic debut came as "Butterfly" in 1934, at
the Teatro Lirico in Milan. When the soprano became ill during Act I, Albanese,
the understudy, was hustled onstage for Act II. Out of the frying pan. . .She
went on to sing the role over 300 times (!), most at the Met, becoming one of
the great "Butterflies" of history. Here is a legendary moment. When the old Met
opera house---Albanese's beloved home---closed in order to be replaced by
Lincoln Center in 1966, she performed "Un Bel Di" from "Butterfly" as part of
the farewell gala---and then kissed the stage. You will see her do this at the
end of this video. After the opera house was torn down, she could be seen on
occasion, standing amid the rubble, dressed, as if in mourning, in her
Setting : Butterfly's house
Synopsis : Three years have passed since Butterfly's American husband left her.
Her servant Suzuki, tries to convince her that he isn't coming back, but
Butterfly is convinced that he will. She sings of the day that he will return.
She dreams of him sailing into the harbour and climbing up the hill to meet her.
Albanese was also much loved as Micaela in Bizet's "Carmen," which is perhaps
not surprising, given that "Micaela's aria" is rather Puccini-esque. Here, way
back in 1940, she sings this heroic, poignant aria on radio. You often see and
hear wonderful sopranos emoting like crazy in this moment, and it's
understandable, but all the acting in Albanese's rendition is in her voice. As
she once said, "Expression and quality of voice go with the meaning of the
words. I think in terms of qualities: I feel I can see the tone. You have to
treat one note as velvet cloth, another as taffeta, another as chiffon. I think
in terms of texture."
Setting: A mountain pass
Synopsis: Micaëla is a young girl from Don José's village, in love with him.
Searching for him in a deserted mountain pass, Micaëla finds herself alone.
Frightened, she prays for courage.
The great music critic Martin Bernheimer once described Albanese as "a soprano
who invariably knew how to caress the tenderest of phrases in an individual and
poignant manner, and who also knew how to wring the last vibration of emotional
fervor from every dramatic climax. . .Even when her vocalism … failed to enchant
the hard-eared purists, it seldom failed to move them."
I am not remotely qualified to add anything to this, but that never stops me, so
here is my mundane observation. Other sopranos might have more naturally
opulent, beautiful voices. They might "tug at the heart strings" more ardently,
more obviously. You are free to prefer them. But Albanese had a quality that was
her own. No one sounded like her. Here is an example, perhaps, of what
Bernheimer meant: "In quelle trine morbide" from Puccini's "Manon Lescaut."
There are notes here to make one weep.
Setting: Geronte’s house, Paris, France, 18th century
Synopsis: Remembering Des Grieux’s love, Manon is not sure she made the right
decision to live with Geronte. Even with the luxury she has, there is something
that chills her soul.
Studs Terkel Interviews Licia Albanese!
"Farewell to the past, happy dreams of days gone by." So tragically sings
Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata," one of the saddest moments in opera. Here is
Licia Albanese in one of her signature roles.
Role: Violetta Valery, a beautiful and wealthy Parisian
Setting: Violetta's bedroom
Synopsis: Violetta receives a letter from Alfredo's father saying that Alfredo
has discovered why she lied about her love for him and is coming to her. She
knows that it is too late, though, and sings a farewell to her happiness with
Ms. Albanese never really stopped singing, long after retirement. In her very
last outing to an opera at the Met, at age 105, she sang quietly along---with
all the parts: tenor, baritone, mezzo, soprano. No, no one shushed her! And now
back to Albanese in prime of life, singing the wonderful Neopolitan song, "Torna
Sorriento," which she first learned as a little girl in Italy. Go to 11:23.
Saturdee Opry Links Encore!
At age 86, Licia Albanese appeared in a production of Stephen Sondheim's
tremendous musical, "Follies." There is a song reserved for an "aging diva" in
the production, and someone was smart enough to ask Ms. Albanese to sing it.
"One More Kiss."
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