V3001. CELESTINA BONINSEGNA: The Complete Recordings, Incl. Arias and songs by Bellini, Braga, Boito, Cantoni, Catalani, Donizetti, Giordano, Gomes, Gounod, Leoncavallo, Marchetti, Mascagni, Meyerbeer, Ponchielli, Puccini, Rossini, Sabajno, Verdi & Wagner. 5-Marston 55003, recorded 1904 - 1919. Program notes by Michael Aspinall. Transfes by Ward Marston. - 638335500324
“Celestina Boninsegna (1877–1947) was an Italian soprano who began her career in 1892 at the remarkable age of 15 (as Norina in DON PASQUALE) and sang until 1921. There is a mention of her singing in a concert in 1938, but it might have been a one-off, because Boninsegna’s stage appearances seem to have ended 17 years earlier. A major part of her career was centered in Europe and South America, and she was a favorite at many Italian houses. She was not a great success at the Metropolitan Opera, however, where she failed to compete with Emma Eames, also a fine singer and a more glamourous-looking figure on stage.
Boninsegna’s recordings are treasured by collectors, although they have not always been easy to find. Ward Marston has solved that problem for us with this superb restoration of all 107 of them. As is Marston’s custom, the discs are accompanied by a booklet with insightful, erudite notes by Michael Aspinall.
Boninsegna’s reputation was particularly strong as a Verdi soprano, and this set demonstrates why. Virtually half the tracks (53 out of 107) are arias or scenes from Verdi’s operas. It is easy to hear the reasons behind her success. The most outstanding feature of her singing is the voice itself: an instrument of rare purity and beauty. Her top range is effortless; her technique is secure enough for Verdi’s demands; and she floats ethereally soft high notes exquisitely. Boninsegna uses a strong chest voice for her low register, which creates a powerful dramatic effect, but it also emphasizes the break with the rest of her voice. The final phrases of her 1907 Pathé recording of ‘Suicidio’ from Ponchielli’s LA GIOCONDA could almost have been sung by a contralto. In her later recordings, such as the 1910 Columbia of the same aria, the chest voice is somewhat less pronounced but still a feature of her art.
The gleam of her top range and the security of her singing keeps one returning to these recordings. John B. Steane, in THE GRAND TRADITION, puts it this way: ‘…it was a voice of such exceptional beauty and often used with such sincere feeling that she wins an assured place for herself in the line of great singers’. Boninsegna made three recordings of ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio’ from LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, and each has a claim to greatness. The last one, a 1911 Edison Diamond Disc recorded in London, is particularly remarkable. Her crescendo and then decrescendo on the first note is perfectly controlled. She conveys the tragedy of Leonora’s plight, particularly with the use of her chest voice, and she soars across Verdi’s long phrases with ease. The pianissimo high B-flat at ‘invano la pace’ is stunning.
It was as Aida that Boninsegna achieved her greatest fame. According to Aspinall’s notes, she sang the role in 46 cities throughout the world. He quotes the great Italian baritone Riccardo Stracciari on the greatness of her singing, but also her failure to succeed at the Met. ‘[She was] the only one who could sing Aida the way I thought it should be sung…Her voice was so big and beautiful, sheer velvet. But she had no charm, no elegance of person, and when she appeared in her Metropolitan debut (I was her Amonasro) her ample form swathed in chocolate-colored underwear, the New York public and critics would not forgive her, despite a voice that was unique in this role. Besides, the Metropolitan had Emma Eames––una bellissima donna’. If the sight of her was a distraction, this needn’t concern us while listening to her exquisite recordings of ‘Ritorna vincitor’, and ‘O patria mia’.
Although she was not known as a Puccini singer, Boninsegna’s ‘Vissi d’arte’ from TOSCA, especially the 1910 Columbia version, is beautifully done. Her expressive use of portamento and her sensitive dynamic shading identify her as a unique singer. Boninsegna had not only the ability to sing pianissimo without losing the body of her tone, but also the imagination to use every shade between pianissimo and mezzo-piano. Beyond the notes, she sings with commitment to the text and dramatic situation, but it is fair to say that one turns to Boninsegna for the beauty of the voice rather than the kind of specificity of inflection and insight found in the work of singers like Muzio or Callas.
Marston’s superbly transferred collection is a treasure for all historical vocal collectors. I have rarely encountered truly successful transfers of acoustical recordings by sopranos, a voice notoriously difficult for the horn to capture, and very few sound as fine as these.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
“Celestina Boninsegna (1877–1947) was one of the most prolifically-recorded sopranos of the early twentieth century. Yet it was not her stage career which convinced recording executives to produce her records, but her ‘phonogenic’ voice that created the demand. Boninsegna’s recordings are stunning, making her one of the most collectible sopranos of her time. She managed to overcome the limitations of the acoustic recording studio and leave us records that have some of the presence of live recordings from the stage. According to Fred Gaisberg, the impresario for the Gramophone Company, Boninsegna’s ‘voice was so smooth and velvety and of such even registers that recording was no effort; the results obtained were always thoroughly musical and therefore gave intense pleasure. Those harsh places expected in any record by a dramatic soprano were conspicuous by their absence’.
Over the past fifty years there have been no comprehensive LP or CD reissues of Boninsegna’s records. We now pay homage to Boninsegna by reissuing all of her recordings in this five-CD set, which includes several extremely rare photos, complete discographic information, and an informative essay by Michael Aspinall on her career and recordings.”
- Ward Marston