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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Giannina Arangi-Lombardi: A Great Dramatic Soprano

I am aware that Giannina Arangi-Lombardi is not exactly a name that rolls trippingly off the tongue of the average American opera lover, but this owes simply to the fact that she did not sing in America. Her life and career was centered largely in Europe, with some excursions to Latin America and Australia. All that to one side notwithstanding, I feel no hesitancy whatsoever in saying that hers was one of the greatest soprano voices of the 20th century, and her stature among dramatic sopranos can only honestly be described as outstanding.

Arangi-Lombardi was born in 1891 in Marigliano, and she studied at the Conservatorio San Pietro a Majella in Naples.

(I am indebted for the information that follows to Mr. Tim Shu, at dantitustimshu Tim is among the very best musical historians writing on Youtube, and his biographies are exemplary. If you do not know his channel, I urge you to become acquainted with it, as it is a treasure trove of great opera videos.)

"Arangi-Lombardi began her career as a mezzo-soprano in the early 1920s. With growing awareness of her brilliant middle-upper vocal capabilities, she made an important transition to become a dramatic soprano in the mid 1920s and enjoyed great success as Gioconda, Santuzza, Elena in Mefistofele, the Trovatore and Forza Leonoras and in particular Aida. In fact, she became the most famous Aida of her day in Italy. Such was her prominence in the role that the Teatro alla Scala mounted several performances of Aida with her leading the cast in the late 1920s. On top of that, she undertook a prestigious central European trip with the La Scala Ensemble and Toscanini in January 1929 and performed the role in Berlin and Vienna. Together with Giuseppina Cobelli and Bianca Scacciati, she ruled Teatro alla Scala as its co-prima donna in the mid to late 1920s. She also went on a five-week tour to perform in various cities in Australia in 1928, in the company of other distinguished colleagues including Toti Dal Monte, Hina Spani, Francesco Merli and Apollo Granforte.

With the departure of Toscanini from La Scala in early 1929, she ended her career at Milan's "Temple," but continued to sing in Rome and elsewhere in Italy. She retired in 1937 after growing vocal difficulties from the mid 1930s. From 1939 onwards, she assumed a teaching career in Milan. In 1947, she accepted a lucrative offer by the Turkish government to become the director of the Music Conservatory in Ankara. It was during her stint in Turkey that Arangi-Lombardi discovered a budding young soprano named Leyla Gencer and took great interest in her training and development as an artist. Gencer was to remember her teacher with great fondness. In an interview with OPERA NEWS (published in the November 2003 issue), Gencer recalled: "Every morning at ten, she would put on her most elegant dress, with pearls, and her diamonds on her fingers, sat at the piano, and we studied. I learned my first opera arias, from Ballo, Aida, Forza del destino, and when I sang them my whole life, I sang them just as she taught them to me."  For reasons of health, Arangi-Lombardi returned to Milan in 1951 and passed away in July of the same year."

I think there is no better place to start than with Aida's big aria "O Patria Mia." Aida was the signature role for Arangi-Lombardi, and this is why:

Or, if the author should remove the embed code in the future, see:

Isn't that simply stunning! I think that is one of the most extraordinary renditions of this very famous and often-recorded aria that I have ever heard. The reason I say this is that it displays a vocal technique and a presentation that is bel canto derived. The drama in her voice—and I would even say her very designation as "dramatic"—is as much a question of color as it is of heft. Some sopranos simple power their way through the aria. While that can work, it can make the more discriminating listener frown. I call particular attention to the high C near the end, taken piano and then taken out on a long crescendo, a tutta forza! The effect is overwhelming, as is that of the other big moment at the end when she soars up to the final note on a long portamento. This is grand artistry and vocalism of the old school, and for many, even in the 1930's, it came as a revelation, as verismo had done its job by that time, and this was singing of a different order.

For something more nearly on the "dramatic" side as we understand it today, I offer her rendition of "Suicidio!" from La Gioconda:


This is great singing, by any measure. It is hard to compare it to other versions, except possibly that of Zinka Milanov. It is "darker" than the Aida aria, but is attained purely through control of color. It's the same voice, same technique.

Finally, an aria in the category of "Only Great Singers Need Apply: Amelia's aria from Un Ballo in Maschera:


Great voice, great artist, great lady of the theater—dramatic opera singing at its best!