From the earliest days of opera, that combination of all thearts, singers, the prima donna and the primo uomo, heroine and hero, have hadextraordinary prominence, dramatic, social and commercial. The presentanthology includes examples of the art and charisma of many of the greatestsingers of the earlier ages of recording.
Among the legendary prima donnas is Dame Nellie Melba(1861-1931), the Australian diva who claimed to have put her native country onthe map. There are many stories about her regal behaviour and apparentdisregard for colleagues of whom she disapproved. Born Helen Mitchell, she tookher stage name from her native Melbourne, and left it to Melba toast and toEscoffier's P?â?¬che Melba. In London she appeared at Covent Garden, which she regardedas her artistic home, and secured a place for herself in society. She appearedat the Metropolitan Opera in New York and at La Scala, Milan, toured inAustralia and did much to promote music there, in spite of her reported adviceto Clara Butt to 'sing 'em muck: it's all they can understand', counsel thatshe indignantly denied having given. She made her farewell appearance at CoventGarden in 1926 and spent her final years at home in Australia. She recordedfrom 1904, and the aria here included is Sweet bird that shunn'st the noise offolly, from Handel's setting of Milton's Il penseroso. This was recorded in1904 at Melba's London home in Great Cumberland Place, a retake, after anearlier recorded lapse in concentration.
Dame Maggie Teyte (1888-1976) followed Mary Garden inDebussy's Pelleas et Melisande. She was a pupil in Paris of Jean de Reszke, thetenor who had had the unfortunate task in 1896 of singing Siegfried to theinappropriate Br?â??nnhilde of Melba. After earlier operatic success that alsobrought appearances in London and America, she turned her attention to operettaand musical comedy, returning in the later 1930s to re-establish herself inFrench recital repertoire, often performing songs by composers whom she hadknown in France, Debussy, Ravel, Reynaldo Hahn and others. She recordedDebussy's Chansons de Bilitis in 1936 with Alfred Cortot.
One of Maggie Teyte's later appearances in London was withthe Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) in Purcell's Dido and Aeneasat Bernard Miles's newly established Mermaid Theatre. Flagstad's earlier careerhad been in Oslo, where she sang a variety of r?â??les, and in the 1930s began toappear in Wagner. She sang Isolde in Oslo in 1932 and followed this with thesame r?â??le at Bayreuth. In 1935, after coaching with George Szell, she appearedat the Met as Sieglinde, followed by Isolde, Br?â??nnhilde and Kundry,establishing a reputation as one of the great Wagnerian sopranos. She spent thewar years at home in German-occupied Norway, where her husband was lateraccused of collaboration, and her return to the stage, while welcomed inLondon, was hotly opposed in America, although she was eventually able torecover something of her former position. Heard here in Isolde's Liebestod, shewas partnered by the Danish singer Lauritz Melchior, the greatest of theWagnerian tenors of the day, in the 1936 Covent Garden recording of Wagner'sTristan und Isolde. Flagstad recorded with Melchior Kundry's Ich sah das Kindan seiner Mutter Brust, from the second act of Parsifal, in November 1940 inPhiladelphia. Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973) had appeared at Bayreuth and from1926 until his retirement in 1950 sang at the Met. He became an Americancitizen in 1947, but refused to appear with Flagstad after the war.
Flagstad's predecessor in Wagner at the Met had been FridaLeider (1888-1975). Born in Berlin, her ambition was aroused by hearingGeraldine Farrar and Frieda Hempel at the Imperial Opera. She began her careersinging Venus in Tannhauser at Halle in 1915, following this with Br?â??nnhilde inDie Walk?â??re in Nuremberg. In 1920 she appeared in Hamburg, undertaking avariety of r?â??les in addition to Wagnerian. In 1923 she made her firstappearance at the Berlin Staatsoper as Fidelio, and this house was at thecentre of her career until 1940. She made her debut at the Met in 1933 asIsolde, a r?â??le in which she excelled, but events in Germany led her to returnhome, after her first season there, leading to the house's recruitment ofFlagstad. Married to a Jewish husband, the violinist Rudolf Deman, leader ofthe Berlin Staatsoper Orchestra, who was forced into exile in Switzerland in1940, she thereupon turned her attention to recitals, which allowed her tovisit Switzerland. She gave her last concert in 1946. Her Abscheulicher, woeilst du hin? from Fidelio was recorded in 1928.
Between 1929 and 1933 Erna Berger (1900-1990) sang atBayreuth, appearing as the Shepherd Boy in Tannhauser, the Forest Bird inSiegfried and Woglinde in Rheingold. She had made her 1925 debut at the DresdenStaatsoper as the first boy in Die Zauberflote, and she continued with a numberof characteristic Mozart r?â??les to which her voice was well suited, firstappearing at Salzburg as Blonde and ending her last season there in 1955 asZerlina. Covent Garden heard her in 1934 as Marzelline and in 1949 she made herdebut at the Met as Sophie. Particularly famous were her Queen of the Night,and, as here, her Konstanze.
Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952) made her debut in 1909 at theHamburg Stadttheater as the Shepherd Boy in Tannhauser, remaining with thecompany until 1919, when she moved, at Richard Strauss's persuasion, to Vienna.There she continued until the Anschluss in 1938, when she settled in New York.Like Erna Berger, her voice was particularly suited to r?â??les such as Blonde,Zerlina and Despina in Mozart, and she too made a notable Sophie in DerRosenkavalier, a r?â??le which she sang in London in 1924. She also won fame as aLieder singer, and is represented here by Schubert's The Shepherd on the Rock,which she recorded in 1937 with the English clarinettist Reginal Kell.
Born in Vitebsk, Jennie Tourel (1900-1973) left Russia atthe Revolution, studied in Paris and made her American debut in 1930, singinglater at the Opera-Comique in Paris, for short periods at the Met in 1937 andin the 1940s, and, notably, in 1951 at La Fenice, where she created the r?â??le ofBaba the Turk. She recorded Mussorgsky's Serenade with Leonard Bernstein in1950.
The American-born soprano Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981), thedaughter of Italian immigrant parents, made a remarkable operatic debut at theMet in 1918, when she partnered Caruso in the first Met performance of Verdi'sLa forza del destino. She continued her career at the same house, undertaking21 different r?â??les, until 1937, when she decided to retire. She made her firstrecordings in 1918 and recorded Mira d'acerbe lagrime from Il trovatore twoyears later.
Pia Tassinari (1903- 1995) began her career as a soprano,later changing to mezzo-soprano r?â??les. She appeared at La Scala and otherItalian houses in the 1930s and after the war also performed in America. At theMet in 1947 she sang Tosca, with her husband Ferruccio Tagliavini asCavaradossi. Her later, mezzo r?â??les included Carmen, Charlotte in Massenet'sWerther and Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera. She is heard here in the Grand Ariafrom the second act of Orefice's opera Chopin, recorded in 1949 and with herhusband in the poignant Garden Scene from Werther. Ferruccio Tagliavini(b.1913) made his operatic debut in Florence in 1938 as Rodolfo. From 1947 to1954 he appeared at the Met, where he returned for a season in 1961. He sang atLa Scala and won praise in London for his Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore. He isheard here also in M'appari from Flotow's opera Martha, recorded in 1949.
It was in the