Dame Eva Turner is likely to be the greatest opera singer England ever produced. Her dramatic soprano voice was, at the height of her career, without peer. Opera enthusiasts will of course argue about so hallowed a position as "the best" whatever, but I do feel perfectly comfortable saying that hers was one of the greatest voices of the 20th century. Many concede first place to her among all the sopranos who ever dared tackle Turandot, and I would heartily concur. I do not believe she was the very first to sing the role, but she did sing it the same year it was first produced—1926—and immediately claimed it as her own. There are of course other great Turandots whom others will champion, Birgit Nilsson being the leading contender.
Dame Eva was born near Manchester in 1892, and died in 1990, a month or so before her 97th birthday. She sang small roles to begin with, but by 1924 her ringing and powerful voice had attracted the attention of no less a conductor than Arturo Toscanini, who engaged her for La Scala's production of the Ring Cycle, in which she sang the roles of Sieglinde and Freia. She went on to sing in all the major opera houses, performing leading roles in Lohengrin,, Die Meistersinger, Tannhäuser, Siegfried, Die Walküre, Tosca and Aida, all roles in which her dramatic voice served her well. But let us go immediately to her recording of "In Questa Reggia," Turandot's big aria: It is 5minutes, but I urge you to hear it to the end, to hear the incredible high C's: [You may need to turn your speakers up a bit, as London Records were among the worst for miking singers. It's a good recording but the volume needs a boost]:
Isn't that something! It is easy enough to see why she is considered by many to be the greatest Turandot, and the recording also makes clear why hers was one of the great voices of the 20th century!
Her talents were also well displayed in Tosca, as this superb recording of "Vissi d'arte" will show:
Her mastery of the Italian language and style are notable. Many voices which are well suited to Wagner (Nilsson again comes to mind) fare less well in the Italian repertoire, but from her earliest youth, Dame Eva showed a rather remarkable propensity for the Italian way of singing, and a particular affinity for the music of Puccini, essentially a contemporary. This is uncommon for an English-speaking singer. However, one of the things that is sometimes overlooked when Dame Eva is the topic of discussion is her personality, which is decidedly grand, broad and highly romantic. This is not just an offhand idea of mine, it can be demonstrated. Because she lived to such an extraordinary age, there are films and tapes of her available. Happily, there is a wonderful interview on Youtube that will show exactly what I am referring to. Plácido Domingo is also on the tape, and you will need to listen to him sing a brief excerpt from a Zarzuela piece, while seated at the piano, but this is a pleasant enough task! Depending on how quickly the video loads for you, you might be able to move a bit ahead. It is at approximately 4:44 that Dame Eva talks for a moment about her opinion of Domingo. Just watch her and listen to her for a minute, for a rare insight into the grandeur of an age long gone, of which Dame Eva (95 at the time of this video) was the last survivor. She has both Domingo and the interviewer by her, but she sees only the audience, and it is that connection that says it all:
See what I mean? And we do need to recall that the great energy and enthusiasm displayed here were from a little woman who was not far from 100 years of age. Imagine her at thirty five or forty!
With that personality and that broad, melodramatic sense of grandeur fueling her amazing voice, all the elements were indeed in place, from the very beginning of her career, to create one of the world's great opera singers.