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Friday, February 20, 2015

Emma Calvé: The Great Femme Fatale

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.


CurzonRoad said...

Such a great artist... her intensity is chaste (does that sound strange?), never over-the-top, reigned in by the weights & measures of bel canto. Love & respect. Thank YOU, Edmund!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Please remember, my friends, that you will need to wait a bit before your comment appears. I have to approve the comments. It doesn't take too long. Thanks, Edmund

JD Hobbes said...

The antiquity of these recordings that you post is remarkable. Thanks for introducing Calve to our modern world.

Unknown said...

Calvé is hardly someone who will ever be far from the memory of addicts of fine singing per se. I am so glad that you chose to highlight the adaptability of a classic technique to realism on the operatic stage. We must never forget that the REALLY divine Miss Em was a supreme mistress of her craft and, as the ¨Perle du Brésil¨aria shows, highly finished. How I wish, therefore, that you had included some mention of the ¨fourth voice¨ learned from the last of the truly great castrati at the Vatican, Domenico Mustafà, perhaps illustrating it with ¨Ma Lisette,¨ or the aria from Massenet's Sapho, one of her greatest creator rôles. But hey, she's so great that a Calvé 2 might be warranted someday, no? After all, among New York critics at the time Henderson, that crochety opponent of verismo ¨can belto¨ singing consistently held Calvé up to the younger singers as a model of refined vocalism,

Edmund St. Austell said...

Great comment Father, Thank you so much!


* and thanks again for the wonderful blog on Scharley last week I think we're all hoping you'll do another one soon. Anyone you want to write on is fine with me!

DanPloy said...

As the critic Herman Klein wrote (and I cannot put it better myself), '...[her voice]...seemed to have the sombre quality of of a contralto miraculously impinged upon the acute timbre of a soprano - the best voice of all for the expression of mental anguish, suffering, pleading, and despair'.

And here is that remarkable 'fourth voice'.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. St. Austell, if I may clarify some details of Emma Calvé's career:

She did study some with Mathilde Marchesi, but gave greater credit to Rosina Laborde and the castrato Mustafà, who helped me discover her "fourth voice".

CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA was Mascagni's first opera, and its world premiere was in Rome 1890. The leads were the celebrated Gemma Bellincioni and Roberto Stagno — Calvé was not involved with the production. The opera's extraordinary success helped catapult the young Mascagni's career with an initial bangthough in later years he ruefully claimed that he was "crowned before being king". Calvé was Santuzza in the ensuing French premiere of the opera (Paris Opéra-Comique, November 1891), which occurred after the L'AMICO FRITZ world premiere (Rome, October 1891).

The great Neapolitan tenor Fernando de Lucia, previously hailed on this site, was Calvé's partner in that FRITZ. They had already performed together in Bizet's LES PÊCHEURS DES PERLES (!), January 1890, Naples' Teatro San Carlo. In fact, their onstage partnership extended to two operas apiece of two composers: Bizet's PÊCHEURS and CARMEN, Mascagni's CAV and FRITZ. Just imagine who among recent tenor-and-soprano pairs would do likewise!

Famous singer and actress Peggy Wood (most familiar today for playing the Mother Abbess in the famous 1965 THE SOUND OF MUSIC film, though her singing voice was not used for the movie) studied with Calvé, and claimed that Calvé "was the epitome of what one thinks a prima donna should be: tempestuous, exotic, crafty, demanding, vivacious, a mountain of strength, highly intelligent, impossible and wonderful!"