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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!


Anonymous said...

Whoa! I think I might fall into the category of people who didn't know this soprano, but she is fantastic! I can't believe I hadnt heard of her, but she is something! Great voice! Thanks for the introduction!


Edmund StAustell said...

My pleasure. I was aware than some opera fans, especially here in the US, might not have known of her, but she was certain a very major star in Italy and Europe generally in her day. I personally think the voice is spectacular, and in general she does some of the best singing I've heard, especially in these big dramatic arias. Thanks for the comment.

Daniel Shigo said...

Astonishing Bel Canto singing! Thank you so very much for this post. I had heard of this singer.

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you. Yes, traditional bel canto training seems to create a technique that is very adaptable. Depending on the natural endowments of the singer, it can make a very wide range of repertoire available. It is--again--the question of color. A voice can be "dark" and also very flexible. Some purely "dramatic" voices, trained differently, can be very sluggish and inflexible. Thank you for your comment!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Edmund, for a wonderful tribute to a truly great singer and artist! Your astute and vivid description of her key recordings, style and technique simply can't be bettered. Her achievements are even more admirable considering the fact that she had to work against the tide during the interwar years when the veristic "can belto" style had already become the order of the day in the operatic scene all over Italy. She stayed steadfastly in the "bel canto" path, emphasizing "exquisite vocal artistry, musical phrasing and rich tonal shading" (as Andrea Suhm-Binder put it). That she managed to hold her own ground admidst the prevalence of 'veristic' singers bespoke of her strong principles and integrity as an artist. Undoubtedly she stands alongside Rosa Ponselle, Hina Spani and Meta Seinemeyer as one of the great dramatic sopranos in the Italian repertoire during more than a century of the history of recording.


Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much, Tim. Very well said indeed! And thank you especially for permitting me to quote your excellent biography, which tells her story succinctly and accurately. Much appreciated!

My best,


JD Hobbes said...

What can I add? Great voice!

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much!

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the article; this singer is new to me. She was brilliant, one of the greatest. Sometimes it seems strange that there were so many great singers and some names are not well known.
I love singers who can change color of their voice, and her voice is beautiful.Like Callas she had "dramatic' timbre which helped her to sing verismo without screaming.


Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much for an excellent comment! Yes, you hit the nail right on the head, as usual! That control of color means SO much, and as I have said on several pervious occasions, I think it is actually color people often refer to when they speak of the apparently different voice catgorizations of singers, such as "dramatic," "spinto," and so forth. Thanks for an excellent observation.

Anonymous said...

Hello Sir, I was wondering if you would please do a piece on Nicolai Gedda (with of course your opinions of him). He seems a tenor you would like!

Edmund StAustell said...

Thanks for the question. Yes, I absolutely plan to do a piece on Gedda, and very soon! I heard Gedda on several occasions, up close and personal, as they say, in concert, and I was enormously impressed by him. He was a great tenor, without question! Stay tuned:)

Anonymous said...

To follow up on the previous comment...I would love it if you would do a piece on Alessandro Bonci...a tenor unknown to most but with a lovely voice which it seems to me you would love... and if it is not too much a burden, should you also please to write a piece on Jose Carreras I would be very I often hear about his voice and how it was very beautiful before his leukemia and singing heavy roles, but have never really been able to appreciate it...I am sure a post on him by you would be wonderfully informative... Thank you very much for your time and this great blog.

Edmund StAustell said...

I do in fact plan to do a piece on Carreras very soon! Thank you for your interest!

Gerhard Santos said...

Hello Sir Edmund, Thank you so much for this wonderful article. It is my pleasure to read your article! Your article was very helpful to understand why it's very important.
Its my Great pleasure to visit your site and to enjoy your awesome post. Thank you and More Power ! More Blessings! and and Always Good Luck in your Wonderful blog. Have a Beautiful weekend! *GOD BLESS*