V2001. VIRGINS AND MATRONS, Anglo-Saxon Women Singers, incl. Ada Alsop, Olga Haley, Rosina Buckman, Florence Austral, Kate Winter, Isobel Baillie, Miriam Licette, Florence Easton, Nellie Melba, Frances Alda, Mary Garden, Dora Labbette (aka Lisa Perli), Margaret Ritchie, Clara Butt, Bertha Lewis, Muriel Brunskill & Marguerite d'Alvarez. (France) Malibran 751. Final Copy! - 7600003777515
“In the early years of the twentieth century it was usually possible to tell the nationality of a singer from the moment that he or she opened his or her mouth. Gallic sopranos with their bright, piquant timbre sounded quite different from their warmer-voiced and more vibrant Italian colleagues. British and Australasian sopranos and mezzos also produced an individual and instantly recognizable sound. Though the Anglo-Saxon sound was related to the creamy and instrumental sound of Germans and other Northern Europeans it was again something quite different. The stately British mezzos and contraltos of the early twentieth century were also in marked contrast to their more earthy and temperamental Latin sisters.
From the huge-voiced Wagnerian Florence Austral to the exquisitely fragile Dora Labbette and on down to the quasi-baritonal Clara Butt, all the singers on this disc are characterized by a purity and steadiness of tone that in the higher voices might be described as angelic or virginal and in the lower ones as matronly.
Some of these singers, notably Melba and Garden had glorious international careers. Others may be regarded as provincial and indeed had provincial careers. The lovely Ada Alsop who begins this disc was based in Manchester. Isobel Baillie was loved in the British provinces and throughout the Empire, even attempting some operatic performances in New Zealand but rarely ventured across the Channel. Amongst the many singers who had busy and useful local careers in Britain and who are now unjustly forgotten are the New Zealander Rosina Buckman and Margaret Ritchie from the unglamorous fishing town of Grimsby. Buckman is particularly delightful in the equally forgotten opera THE BOATSMAN'S MATE by Dame Ethel Smythe. Ritchie's version of Schubert's ‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’ is surely amongst the very best and even holds it own against the famous version of Elisabeth Schumann.
It is surprising how the characteristic ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sound frequently survived French or Italian training. It seems hardly credible, for example, that the prim Miriam Licette who sounds like a well-behaved school girl and performs the Jewel Song from FAUST as though larking around on the playing field, was trained in Paris and Milan and one wonders what Roman audiences would have made of her interpretation of Madama Butterfly in 1911. When Sir Thomas Beecham attempted to pass off his mistress Dora Labbette as a newly discovered ‘Italian’ soprano (named Lisa Perli, after the London suburb of Purley where she was born) in 1935 it can have fooled few people. At the first rehearsal of LA BOHÈME, a member of the orchestra was heard to exclaim ‘Blimey! It's Dora!’)
In most cases these singer's security of technique and their reluctance to take emotional and vocal risks, paid vocal dividends over lengthy careers. The English soprano Florence Easton as recorded in 1934 after more than 30 years of singing everything from Fiordiligi to Brunnhilde and Turandot sounds fresh as a daisy and in glowing vocal good health. If the same cannot quite be said of Dame Nellie Melba recorded at the age of 65 in 1926, the new electric recording medium revealed a fullness of tone not always evident in her earlier records. We can understand at last why this peachy voice inspired the famous recipe of Escoffier. The odd combination in Melba's singing of sexless choirboy and Iron Lady (Mrs Thatcher in a cassock) was not to the liking of Puccini. He detested her interpretation of Mimi and referred to Melba unkindly in his letters as ‘the nonagenarian’. However nobody ever complained of lack of sex appeal in the Scottish Mary Garden and the New Zealander Frances Alda. The intimate and dreamily sensual interpretation of the song ‘At Night’ by the greatly underrated Huddersfield-born mezzo Olga Haley is discretely erotic in a rather English way.
The Mezzo and Contralto counterpart of the virginal soprano is the matron. Dame Clara Butt might be regarded as the archetype though she was decidedly a one off and almost freakish in the awesome depths of her voice (‘une voix obscène’ according to Reynaldo Hahn). It was a vocal type much in vogue at the time and one from which Gilbert and Sullivan extracted much comic fun as we hear from Bertha Lewis' rendition of Lady Jane's aria from PATIENCE. When the mezzos and contraltos were not camping it up in Gilbert and Sullivan then tended to be confined to the oratorio circuit. It was a style of singing that could not always be adapted comfortably to opera. Gladys Parr's lugubrious oratorio tones intrude incongruously in the famous recording of the MEISTERSINGER Quintet with Friedrich Schorr, Lauritz Melchior and Elisabeth Schumann to almost comical effect. As an example of this style at its best and most appropriate we have Muriel Brunskill's splendid account of an aria from Mendelssohn's ST. PAUL.
The joker in the pack here is Marguerite D'Alvarez. Hardly Anglo-Saxon (she was half Peruvian and half French) and certainly not a virgin if we are to believe her rumbustious memoirs, she was nevertheless born in Liverpool and could do the matronly English oratorio style with the best of them. By way of contrast and relief we end this recital disc with D'Alvarez in gloriously unbuttoned form in Zarzuela - Miss Marple as Carmen!”