The Unknown Fernando De Lucia  -  Phonotype Recordings, 1917-21      (The Record Collector TRC 44)
Item# V2510
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The Unknown Fernando De Lucia  -  Phonotype Recordings, 1917-21      (The Record Collector TRC 44)
FV2510. FERNANDO De LUCIA: The Unknown Fernando De Lucia - Rarely heard Phonotype Recordings. (England) 2-The Record Collector TRC 44, recorded 1917-21. The Elaborate 23pp. Booklet offers full discographical information & extensive biographical notes by Michael Henstock. Transfers by Norman White.


“If the art of singing, and the history of that art, is of importance to you, this set is essential. It is superbly produced, with scholarly notes and excellent transfers. Careful attention has been paid to pitching, always an issue with De Lucia, and the notes explain and document what is known about this subject. After a complete hearing, in a single session for both discs, I kept going back for more. Given that these are acoustical recordings with all the limitations this implies, greater praise would be hard to offer.

We will never know with certainly the correct pitch for De Lucia’s recordings (the uppercase 'D' in his name is correct according to the singer’s sample signatures). Different scholars with recognized credentials disagree on the subject. It is certain that De Lucia often transposed down, and it’s known that even in younger years his voice had a baritonal timbre and lacked reliability above A. But no records were kept in those days about the keys used by the singer, and recording speeds were notoriously unstable and inconsistent. I have had reservations in the past about producer Michael Henstock’s choices (he wrote a biography of the singer and has studied him perhaps more than anyone else); he oversaw previous releases on LP and CD of mostly earlier De Lucia recordings. I have a few similar reservations here (some of the tempos sound simply too slow for credibility, such as the ADRIANA LECOUVREUR scene), but they do not detract from the overall importance of this set.

Fernando De Lucia (1860-1925) is the earliest important singer to leave an extensive number of records for posterity — well over 300. What has been collected here is a large sample of the Phonotype Records he made between 1917 and 1921. CD #1 is entirely operatic; CD #2 contains songs, mostly Neapolitan. These particular recordings have received far less circulation than De Lucia’s earlier ones for Gramophone Company and Fonotipia made between 1902 and 1909, although some of the later Phonotypes have been issued, too. When these recordings were made, the tenor was between 57 and 61, and had clearly preserved his voice well. All the qualities we hear on the earliest recordings are still there, most notably the astonishing technique and breath control.

The first thing one notices about De Lucia is the freedom with which he sang. He was comfortable notes to lengths we think of as excessive today. The first part of his career was centered on the bel canto repertoire, and his ability to articulate the most florid passagework with ease and accuracy is remarkable. His later career focused more on the verismo style. One would expect his flexibility and freedom to be less appropriate, but in fact De Lucia applied them just as liberally and successfully. The fact is that composers around the turn of the century loved it. He recorded ‘L’anima ho stanca’ from ADRIANA LECOUVREUR with some jaw-dropping holding of notes and variations from the printed page, echoing those ‘distortions’ at the piano is the composer! Puccini wanted De Lucia to be the first Rodolfo. He was not chosen because of the high fees he commanded, but De Lucia did sing the role with Puccini present in early performances. Likewise, Puccini wrote to the tenor in 1897, ‘ I write TOSCA, I think of you as my Mario, a role which I hope that you will be the first to create’. Although that did not happen either, De Lucia did give the Naples and London premieres of the role.

We get insight into how verismo composers felt about De Lucia from a letter written by Giordano in 1898 and quoted here: ‘At present, I am thinking a great deal about hearing you in CHÉNIER. Delmas has recently sung it at the Lirico, scoring a triumph. Imagine what you yourself could do!...I have lowered the whole part and, if you will send me the score on which we made the transpositions together, I will write the other transpositions on it — as in the first act aria where the transposition in the recitative ‘Colpito qui m’avete ov’io geloso celo...’ is made on the word ‘celo’; instead of rising to D natural it stays on D flat, and the transposition continues thus for the whole piece. I will also indicate it for the final duet’. In other words, the composers were enthusiastic about what today’s critics seem to think of as interpretive excesses, and also were flexible about transpositions.

I won't go into details about the 38 tracks contained in this set. There are highlights to be heard everywhere. De Lucia’s complete mastery of nuance, dynamic shading, breath control, and the mezza voce is not duplicated to my knowledge by any other singer who recorded extensively. The glorious floated voix mixte in the LA SONNAMBULA scene, the variety of color and dynamic shading in the extensive LOHENGRIN excerpts, the hushed soft singing in ‘O dolci mani’ from TOSCA - these are irreplaceable moments to experience. The disc of songs is just as special, because De Lucia takes each one as seriously as an operatic aria. Nothing is casual, nothing is tossed off routinely. The fioritura flourishes at the end of ‘Bambola infranta’ will make you catch your breath, as will the beauty of the grace notes in ‘Fenesta che lucive’ and the magical hushed ending of ‘Lu cardillo’. It is unlikely that you have ever heard a more beautifully and sensitively rendered version of that old chestnut ’O sole mio’ either.

This is one of the most important vocal releases of the year, and frankly even the past two or three years. You will hear singing of rare distinction and individuality, singing that you will never be able to just keep in the background. Here is surely a candidate for my year-end ‘Want List’.”

- Henry Fogel, FANFARE

“De Lucia was born in Naples in 1860 and, whatever his successes and wherever he traveled, to Naples he always returned. His career blossomed. His greatest successes were in Italy where he was much in demand to create new roles. After 1908 he sang less frequently, but when he did appear he was not considered to be in decline. He sang at the funeral of Caruso, who died in Naples in 1921, but after that only two or three small appearances are known.

Fernando De Lucia was a tenor with a short voice. He may never have had top notes worth speaking of, and as time passed he used transpositions increasingly often and increasingly large so that when he comes within our ken he rarely if ever sings above A. The voice was neither particularly beautiful nor particularly powerful, but one can call to mind no other tenor, alive or dead, who even remotely rivals De Lucia's accomplishment in fioritura, the ability to sing rapid ornaments and decorations. Hermann Jadlowker and Gershon Sirota certainly come very near to him and each has a magnificent trill, conspicuously absent in De Lucia, but nevertheless they lack something which we find in him. It is in the area of refinement and delicacy, poise and finesse. But in his own day, De Lucia was much more in demand for the new verismo works, CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA and L'AMICO FRITZ, PAGLIACCI and FEDORA. Here his histrionic abilities were considered appropriate and his lack of a particularly beautiful sound less relevant. It is in these later works, CARMEN is another example, that his tremendous powers of conveying tension and drama are evident. However, his transpositions upset composers who strove for dramatic effect by writing high-lying parts and critics for whom a tenor without stentorian top notes was little short of an impostor.

In De Lucia we have a tenor whose eminence dictated that leading composers of the day insisted that he be associated with the premières of their works. His style and special vocal powers of creating light and dark effects, sfumature, his influence as a model and teacher on his tenor colleagues, and those of a full generation that followed in the lyric field, was immense. With the great baritone, Battistini, he is supposed to be a link for us with the so called ‘Golden Age’, epitomising what is supposed to have been the accepted style and vocal method pertaining to male singers at that time. Yet we now allow for the fact that transposition (generally frowned upon today) was then fairly common, and De Lucia it would seem, transposed almost everything….Yet, [Mascagni] insisted that De Lucia be involved. Evidently in the early part of his career De Lucia did command the top notes so generally admired by audiences.

What then is the fascination with De Lucia as a vocalist? Even for those listening to his recordings for the first time, he must certainly sound better practiced in singing florid music than many of his fellow tenors, and that, in a time when vocalising fioriture was supposed to be a facility de rigeur in all voice categories. It has been suggested that perhaps the vibrato inherent in his tone was an aid to producing the rapid ornamentation and roulades required by the early 19th century composers. However, without doubt his ability to mould and colour a phrase, and to float and extend the tone so that the listener is forced to wonder what is coming next (even in familiar music), makes many of his contributions on record unique. This not only applies to operatic excerpts but in particular also to his renditions of Neapolitan songs. In concerted items he seems to demonstrate an ability to blend perfectly with other singers, and to draw from them a mirror-like response to his particular way of dealing with the vocal line. Perhaps it was rehearsals, or a close association with those particular artists in live performances, that achieved those results, but it invariably strikes the listener as spontaneous.

Despite the revival of interest in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century works that require expert florid singing, and the current crop of talented tenors now on the international circuit singing those roles in the original keys, with, it must be granted, wonderful facility, expertise and dexterity, and a great deal of cultivated musicianship, the key factor missing is what Italians refer to as 'morbidezza'. This almost indefinable element of 'tenderness' is to be found essentially in the Latin voice, where it is underlined not only by tonal emission, but also seems to be a physical manifestation of the artist's very soul. That is where, with his unmistakable delicacy of utterance and pointed musical nuance, Fernando De Lucia has made his most significant contribution to the art of singing on record.”

- Alan Bilgora, 1994

“Fernando De Lucia was one of the bridges between nineteenth and twentieth century styles, a link that is reflected, appropriately enough, in his career. He began his career as a lyric tenor, verging on tenore di grazia, but by the end of the century he was well established as a verismo tenor. He also taught some of the most prominent tenors of the first half of the twentieth century, including Ivan Petroff, Enzo de Muro Lomanto and Georges Thill. Like his contemporary Enrico Caruso (he sang at Caruso's funeral), he had an almost baritonal timbre and rather limited top, and particularly in his verismo rôles he was most often compared to Caruso.

He studied voice at the Naples Conservatory, where his teachers included Vincenzo Lombardi. His opera début was in the title rôle of Gounod's FAUST in 1885 at the Teatro San Carlo. In 1887, he made his London début at the Drury Lane Theatre, though his London triumphs were not to come until 1893 and his Covent Garden début as Canio in Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI. This established him as a favorite at that house. 1893 also marked his Metropolitan Opera début, though he sang only one season there. His verismo rôles had taken a toll on his voice and by 1909, he had greatly reduced his stage appearances. He gave his last performance, in the title rôle of Mascagni's L'AMICO FRITZ, in 1917, though he continued to make recordings. Though many of these show some wear on his voice and much of the material was transposed down, even the late recordings show his profound sense of musical style in both the bel canto and verismo schools.”

- Anne Feeney,

“During World War II, Italians were called upon to collect metals, particularly copper, for the war effort. Raffaele and Americo Esposito [of Phonotype] knew that their matrices were threatened. Secretly, largely at night, they built a concrete bunker under the garden behind the factory in Via Enrico de Marinis, and there many of the matrices…passed the war years. A few reappeared when peace was renewed, but most remained underground. Raffaele died in 1945, and Americo in 1956. Astonishingly, neither ever revealed to the family the secret of the garden. In 1961, during work to enlarge the factory, a workman’s pick struck the edge of the bunker. As Americo’s sons…watched, the vault was opened, and the matrices once again saw daylight.”

- Michael E. Henstock, FERNANDO DE LUCIA, p.335