Emma Calvé: The Great Femme Fatale
Emma Calvé was born in 1858, in Aveyron. She spent her childhood in Spain, but moved to Paris with her mother after her parents separated. She began her vocal studies at this point. Her debut was in Brussels in 1881, in Faust, but she did not find much if any success at the beginning, and small roles over the next year or so were not much of a showcase. She returned to Paris and began to study with Mathilde Marchesi, a well-known mezzo soprano of the day who had herself studied with Manuel García, the famous teacher and codifier of bel canto singing techniques. She did not now have to wait long for success. After a tour of Italy, where she watched and studied famous and successful singers, she returned to Paris in 1891 to create the part of Suzel in Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz. She scored a success, and was asked to create the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. That turned out to be the magic moment. Italian melodrama, the staple of the newly emerging verismo, perfectly suited her intense temperament, renowned acting abilities, and artistic instincts. Her success was huge and she went on to repeat it in London. Santuzza was ever after considered one of her signature roles, another being Carmen. Both these roles presented Calvé with an opportunity to display all her skills, which were everywhere celebrated. She was, in fact, so fiery and melodramatic in her stage portrayals that some newspaper critics were offended by such earthy and passionate emotional displays from a woman on the pubic stage. It did not conform at all—especially in Victorian London—to upper middle class notions of female propriety, even (or perhaps particularly) in the theater.
Here is a recording made in 1907 of "Voi lo sapete, o mamma." It needs to be remembered that we are dealing here with a soprano from so long ago (she was born two years before the American Civil War began!) that even her earliest recordings capture only the voice of a middle aged woman. She was, for example, nearly 50 years old when this record was made:
An absolutely fascinating recording from one hundred and four years ago! It is immediately apparent that the intensity and melodrama, if you will, of her presentation is strictly musical and stylistic in its nature. There is no shouting, no grating, gasping sobs, or any other kind of artistic indiscretion that some sopranos (especially mezzo sopranos) allow to infiltrate this piece. Her vocal instincts were always musical; it was the dramatic conception of the music and—from virtually all accounts—her acting that was so special. Indeed, she uses a vocal technique (the famously dark and intense chest voice so common in Belle Époque singing), to make her dramatic points. Its discreet use turns out to be all that is necessary to convey the emotional intensity of the music here. She leaves the essentially soprano part of her voice free from such affectation.
Let us turn to the other role for which she was so famous—Carmen. So powerful, according to contemporary accounts, was her portrayal of Carmen that it was many years before any other soprano or mezzo soprano could claim to equal it. Some record collectors claim that CD re-recordings do not do justice to the subtlety or intensity of her voice and pronunciation because record companies have "muffled" the sound in an attempt to get rid of the scratches on the old records. To put that idea to the test, here is a 1908 recording, directly from the old record, of the "Seguidilla" from Carmen. I ask you to tolerate the scratches in favor of the "live" feeling of the recording, and again, I stress the musicality of the vocal drama:
I think the old recording does give a better idea of the vocal drama being played out here.
A word is in order about the classification of her voice. The term "mezzo-soprano" was not much used in Calve's era. She was most commonly called simply "soprano." The floods of classifications were to come later, largely invented by critics. I have written elsewhere on this subject, and I do not hesitate to reiterate my feeling that much of this is simply unnecessary. There are other ways to describe voices than to create a new category every time some singer sounds a bit different from another singing the same parts. I daresay the old SATB choral designations would work remarkably well if we talked more about color, flexibility and tone, and less about mezzo, lyric, dramatic, coloratura, spinto, leggiero, profundo, etc. etc. etc. But I digress:) Let's settle for “soprano with a strong chest register” in Calve's case.
Actually, there is, in addition to all the drama, a lot of traditional bel canto soprano to be tapped here, as can be amply demonstrated by this lovely recording of "Charmant oiseau," from Félicien David's La Perle du Brésil, 1908:
Emma Calvé was important in her day because she led the way for women as passionate, real flesh and blood characters on the stage. That she could do so within the aesthetic framework of traditionally beautiful singing makes her all the more remarkable.