- - - - - - - - A Met Opera Double Bill - - - - - - - -
OP1732. MANON LESCAUT, Live Performance, 31 March, 1956, w.Mitropoulos Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Licia Albanese, Jussi Björling, Frank Guarrera, Fernando Corena, etc.;
LA BOHEME, Live Performance, 25 Dec., 1948, w.Antonicelli Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Jussi Björling, Bidú Sayão, Francesco Valentino, Mimi Benzell, Salvatore Baccaloni, etc. (E.U.) 4-West Hill Radio Archives WHRA 6020. Transfers by Ward Marston. - 8717092003285
“In Björling and Albanese [Mitropoulos] has a pair of artists who know how to put to use the vibrancy emanating from the pit. Each turns it to particular advantage, according to individual strengths. Björling is able to send out his robust, vividly colored tones in expansive fashion. Both the bright, prismatic upper voice and the more somber baritonal hues are present in undiluted form….Albanese, of course, supplies the more telling verisimilitude as she depicts the many moods of the volatile Manon. Her immersion in the character is complete – no musical nor dramatic inflection is ignored. Her soprano is in prime condition…and everywhere she meets the challenges of this virtuosic role head-on….Björling and Albanese, their interpretive skills honed by decades of experience, triumphantly surmount the symphonic tone poem which Mitropoulos has made of Puccini’s opera.”
- Paul Jackson, SATURDAY AFTERNOONS AT THE OLD MET, pp.242-43
“Licia Albanese was, for her army of admirers, synonymous with the ‘old’ Met during the middle of the twentieth century. She made her début at the Met on 9 February, 1940, as Cio-Cio-San, and sang 427 performances of seventeen roles with the company. Her final Met appearance came at the farewell gala on the closing night of the old house, 16 April 1966, when she sang a thrilling performance of ‘Un bel dì’, dropped to her knees and softly kissed the stage that had been her home throughout the great and glorious years of her career. Many of those who attended remembered that the moment felt like the almost palpable passing of an era — which it was….it was not until she promised her father, on his deathbed, that she would forge a career that she moved to Milan and, with financial help from a cousin, studied with the great soprano Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi, who had been particularly identified with Madama Butterfly. The teacher instilled in her the importance of the meaning behind the words, the necessity of conveying emotion to the audience.
An amazing fairy-tale-style succession of events occurred in 1934 and ’35. Albanese found out about a national vocal competition from a friend the very day the competition was closing and managed to get in at the eleventh hour. Believing Baldassare-Tedeschi would deem her not yet ready, she entered secretly. One of three hundred singers, Licia won the first round in Milan and traveled to Bologna for the finals, where she competed every day for a week before a tough panel of judges that included Rosetta Pampanini and Luisa Tetrazzini. Licia [won]first prize with the enormously difficult and dramatic ‘Un dì ero piccina’, from Mascagni’s IRIS. Back in Milan, in 1934, she attended a performance of BUTTERFLY at the Teatro Lirico and was pulled from the audience and [appeared] onstage to replace the soprano in the title role — singing it for the first time. Cio-Cio-San was also her ‘official’ début role before the notoriously demanding audience in Parma, in 1935. Her performance was a triumph, and the young singer found steady work in Italian theaters, singing everything from Wagner’s Elsa to Refice’s CECILIA, gaining invaluable experience. At one point, she found herself onstage with Beniamino Gigli, who so admired the soprano that he requested her for his 1938 recording of LA BOHÈME and recommended her to the Metropolitan Opera. She made débuts at La Scala (as Lauretta in GIANNI SCHICCHI), Rome and Geneva, and the 1937 Coronation Season in London featured her Liù in TURANDOT — her Covent Garden début, and a performance of which recorded fragments exist, displaying the trademark Albanese sound. In 1941, she made her débuts at San Francisco Opera, again as Cio-Cio-San, and Chicago Civic Opera, as Micaëla in CARMEN.
Albanese was an ideal verismo artist of the time. She may not have possessed a sound as beautifully limpid as that of other Italian sopranos, but it was a voice of incomparable profile and cut — instantly recognizable to anyone who heard it even once. Always, she sang with full emotional commitment and stunning dramatic intensity; actor/comedian Charles Nelson Reilly, a lifelong Albanese admirer, once aptly observed that, if forced to, she might sacrifice the voice somewhat, but she never sacrificed the word. She invested her roles with enormous thought and preparation, no matter how many times she had sung them before. One of the challenges of Cio-Cio-San, she felt, was that the voice must be light in Act I, to underline the character’s youthful innocence, then gradually darken in the two successive acts, as the tragedy deepens. She took enormous pleasure in bringing certain plangent details to her characterizations — among them letting the wedding veil drop to the ground as Butterfly and Pinkerton enter their house at the close of Act I — ‘a little thing’, she told a reporter in 1947, ‘but effective’.
She worked with another legendary perfectionist, Arturo Toscanini, who requested her for Mimì in the fiftieth-anniversary performance of LA BOHÈME. She loved working with him and was equally delighted when he asked her to sing the title role in LA TRAVIATA with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1946….Under Toscanini, Violetta — which she had already sung many times at the Met — became one of her immortal recorded performances. In Act IV’s ‘Addio del passato’, the snuffing out of life within Violetta is overwhelmingly moving. Albanese’s remains one of the most vivid, spontaneous and nakedly real Violettas on disc.
Albanese had specific ideas about the nature of acting for the opera stage, feeling that it was a mistake to pursue absolute naturalism or to replicate acting techniques from the screen. ‘The stage is a world apart’, she once said, ‘and the opera stage something more specialized still…. You have to add poetry, too.’ She believed that Puccini’s roles were superbly crafted, but she always resisted the temptation to chew the scenery too much, underlining that Tosca was ‘a great diva in an era of poetic elegance’, not a common, hot-tempered shrew. Ultimately, she always believed in the innate dignity and aristocracy of Puccini’s heroines. She believed it was important to begin not with the notoriously tricky role of Manon Lescaut but with Mimì or Liù. ‘Butterfly’, she once said, ‘can break the voice’. She regretted never getting to sing Minnie in LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, but she did sing her first Magda in LA RONDINE in 1960, in Philadelphia. She also expanded her repertoire carefully, adding roles such as Verdi’s Desdemona, Massenet’s Manon and Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Explaining her remarkable longevity to OPERA NEWS’s editor Robert Jacobson in 1974, she said, ‘I never pushed on the low notes, except for some dramatic moments. I was taught to do it with accent and not with the voice. It is important to keep the middle voice light, even when dramatic, or you lose the high notes. The drama comes in accenting the words and with diction’.
Albanese sang in a total of forty-one Met broadcasts; her broadcast record was Violetta, with ten separate airings. Her total of eighty-seven Violettas still stands as a Met record. She was busy in other areas as well: from 1942 to 1947, she had a weekly radio program, TREASURE HOUR OF SONG, in which she branched out to sing operetta and Broadway tunes. She had a happy private life, too, as the wife of stockbroker Joseph Gimma, who soon took on a major role in the handling of her career. They had a child, Joseph, Jr., born in 1952. She had enjoyed very happy relations with Met general manager Edward Johnson through the 1940s and successfully made the transition to the new regime of Rudolf Bing in 1950. She also appeared on television on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW and VOICE OF FIRESTONE, as well as in the 1956 Warner Bros. musical drama SERENADE, starring Mario Lanza and Joan Fontaine. But by the 1960s, she was heard at the company far less often. (Albanese maintained that it was her determination to save the old Met on Thirty-ninth and Broadway, while the new building at Lincoln Center was in the works, that damaged her standing with Bing.) Although she never appeared at the New Met, which opened in 1966, she was frequently an enthusiastic — and voluble — member of the audience. At the opening of Giancarlo del Monaco’s new production of MADAMA BUTTERFLY in the mid-1990s, Albanese took exception to the director’s decision to have Pinkerton (Richard Leech) begin to disrobe Cio-Cio-San (Catherine Malfitano) onstage and erupted with a robust ‘BOO!’ from her orchestra seat.
She was also much in evidence as the guiding spirit of the Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation (an American counterpart to the established Italian organization), which she founded in 1974. For more than two decades, she presided over the Foundation’s concerts at Lincoln Center, handing out cash prizes to young singers, welcoming guest-star colleagues such as Fedora Barbieri, Leyla Gencer, Lucine Amara and Robert Merrill, and often performing herself; her opening-concert rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, complete with flag-waving gestures and a still-impressive B-flat, was always eagerly anticipated by the audience.
In her later years, Albanese’s energy was unflagging. She graced the Met Centennial Gala in 1983 and the opening of the refurbished War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco in 1997. She also taught master classes extensively, worked as a stage director, and appeared as Old Heidi in the New York Philharmonic’s all-star concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s FOLLIES in 1986; her fine interpretation of ‘One More Kiss’ embodied the musical’s themes of missed opportunity and regret. Almost to the end of her life, she continued to attend performances in New York. At a 2011 performance of LA RONDINE presented at Hunter College by Martina Arroyo’s ‘Prelude to Performance’ program, Albanese, now in her tenth decade, could be heard in the audience, softly singing along, having miraculously retained not only every note of the vocal line but the orchestral passages as well. Hers was a life truly centered in music, and she was gifted with the soul of a poet.”
- Brian Kellow & Ira Siff, OPERA NEWS, 16 Aug., 2014
“After making her début in Europe in the 1930s, Miss Albanese went on to become one of the most admired sopranos of the mid-20th century. She had a long association with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she sang in more than 400 productions from 1940 to 1966. Miss Albanese was what is called a lirico-spinto soprano, with a voice suited both for lyric roles and for somewhat weightier fare. A Puccini specialist, she was known in particular for the title role in MADAMA BUTTERFLY, a part she sang more than 300 times. Her other notable Puccini roles included Mimi in LA BOHÈME, the title role in TOSCA and Liù in TURANDOT. She was also famous as Violetta in Verdi’s LA TRAVIATA, singing the role nearly 90 times with the Met, a company record to this day. Writing in The New York Herald Tribune in December 1942, the composer and critic Virgil Thomson reviewed Miss Albanese’s first Violetta: ‘She used her limpid voice, her delicate person and her excellent musicianship to equal effect in creating the character’, he wrote, adding, ‘I use the word ‘create’ for her achievement because that is what she really did’.
By virtue of longevity, Miss Albanese was very likely the last singer of her generation to have been considered a prima donna assoluta — a prima donna so exalted that she exceeds nearly all others in esteem. Her voice was not large, nor, in the opinion of critics, was it unusually beautiful. But what her lower register may have lacked in luster, her soaring top range, with its silvery sheen, more than made up for. 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. Her deep preparation for her roles included, for the consumptives Mimi and Violetta, visiting a tuberculosis ward — no small risk for one whose livelihood depended on breath. Rehearsing Cio-Cio-San, the tragic heroine of MADAMA BUTTERFLY, she realized that Puccini had not left sufficient pause in the music so that the character might easily take off her shoes before entering a house, in the traditional Japanese manner. Miss Albanese took her stage shoes home with her, slipping them off again and again until she could do it with all due speed.
She was said to have a special talent for mortality. As the INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY OF OPERA said: ‘Nowhere was Albanese’s mastery of her art more palpable than during the moments that required her to ‘expire’ onstage, something she invariably accomplished with the most exquisite expressivity, whether called upon to demonstrate a gradual, quiet fading away (Mimi, LA BOHÈME); a final feverish outburst (Violetta, LA TRAVIATA); an intense losing battle to cheat death (MANON LESCAUT); or an act of unbearable poignancy such as the suicide of Butterfly’. This approach to the art of sung drama won Miss Albanese rapturous adoration. She spent her prime awash in bouquets at curtain calls, as audience members chanted her name in unison. A coterie of her most hard-core admirers spent years traveling from city to city like camp followers just to hear her perform. Yet she was no diva, by all accounts displaying little of the personal affectation that can come with the territory. ‘Diva? Hah! I was never a diva’, Miss Albanese told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. ‘Only God makes a diva. No, just call me a plain singer with lots of expression’.
Because she knew better than to attempt heavy works, like Wagner, which can erode the voice over time, Miss Albanese was able to keep singing well into old age. Long after her official retirement, she was heard for decades on every Met opening night at Lincoln Center, her voice ringing ceremonially out from her box with ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, including an impeccable high B flat. In 1985, Miss Albanese sang the role of the aging diva Heidi Schiller in a highly regarded concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical FOLLIES with the New York Philharmonic. That production, which also starred Carol Burnett, Barbara Cook, Elaine Stritch and Mandy Patinkin, is available in a live recording.
Her many other recordings include a celebrated LA BOHÈME, made in 1946 to commemorate the opera’s 50th anniversary, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, a frequent collaborator.
Miss Albanese also collaborated with some of the most eminent male singers of her time, whose names evoke a grand bygone era. Among them were Jan Peerce, with whom she partnered many times at the Met, and Ezio Pinza, a notorious trickster who made one of her swan songs even more difficult than normal: ‘I remember a BOHÈME broadcast when I kept smelling something terrible in the final scene, where I was dying’, Miss Albanese told The New York Times in 1989. ‘I kept singing, but in between I would whisper to everyone, ‘My God, what is that smell?’ And finally at the end, Pinza pulled a herring out from under my pillow’.
Felicia Albanese was born in Bari, in southern Italy, on 23 July, 1909. She began singing as a girl, becoming a pupil of Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi, a noted Butterfly in her day. Miss Albanese made her début unexpectedly in 1934, at the Teatro Lirico in Milan. At a performance of MADAMA BUTTERFLY at which she was understudying the title role, the soprano became ill during Act I. Miss Albanese was hustled onstage for Act II. A great success, she went on to appear at La Scala, Covent Garden and other European houses.
She left Italy for New York in 1939 and the next year, on 9 February, made her Met début as Cio-Cio-San. Reviewing her performance in The Times, Olin Downes wrote: ‘She sounded the note of tragedy and made it the more poignant by the constant light and shade of her dramatic interpretation. There was a real simplicity and contagious emotion in it, and everything was so thoughtfully proportioned that climaxes had never to be forced or passion torn to tatters to make it carry across the footlights’.
At the Met, Miss Albanese’s other roles included Susanna in Mozart’s MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, Micaëla in Bizet’s CARMEN, Marguerite in Gounod’s FAUST and Desdemona in Verdi’s OTELLO. She was also a mainstay at the San Francisco Opera, where she sang for many years. Miss Albanese, who became a United States citizen in the 1940s, received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1995. In retirement, Miss Albanese gave master classes around the world. In 1974 she and her husband, Joseph A. Gimma, established the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, which aids up-and-coming singers. Mr. Gimma, a Wall Street broker and a former chairman of the New York State Racing Commission whom Miss Albanese married in 1945, died in 1990. Besides her son, her survivors include two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
In September 1966, when the Metropolitan Opera moved from its storied old home at 39th Street and Broadway to its new one at Lincoln Center, Miss Albanese did not come along: She had left the company shortly before in a dispute with the Met’s imperious general manager, Rudolf Bing, who she felt was underusing her. The previous April, she had sung Cio-Cio-San’s aria ‘Un Bel Dì’ at the farewell gala at the old Met. At aria’s end, she knelt, kissed her hand and touched it to the stage. After the opera house was torn down, The Times reported in 1997, Miss Albanese could be seen on some fine days standing amid the rubble, dressed, as if in mourning weeds, in her Butterfly kimono.”
- Margalit Fox, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 16 Aug., 2014