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Saturday, March 28, 2015




Luisa Tetrazzini was born in 1871, in Florence. She began to sing as a small child, and was trained at the Instituto Musicale in Florence. By the age of 19 she was ready to make her debut as Inez in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. She sang around Italy, and then went to Russia, where she scored a big success in St. Petersburg. She was kept busy as a young lady, learning her craft and drawing increasing attention to herself by virtue of her superb voice. She was not beautiful, as was Patti, but was rather fat from early on. Her divine voice, however, spared her from any undue or cruel criticism for her appearance. From the earliest days, she displayed a flexible and high coloratura, of the kind that was very much in vogue in the lyric theater of the day. She commanded an extraordinary trill, easily produced, and was comfortable with extensive fioratura. There was a thrilling sound to her voice that won her acclaim early on in her career. Her American debut was in San Francisco in 1905. By this time, she was well known for her lyric coloratura roles, especially Violetta, Gilda and Lucia; roles in which her great vocal endowments could be shown to advantage. She auditioned at the Met, but they seemingly were not impressed, which is somewhat curious, as she was already famous. One suspects that something unknown outside the Met may have been in play. It makes no sense otherwise. She did sing for the Manhattan Opera in 1908, but never warmed to the Met, because of their inexplicable attitude, and only sang one season there, in 1911-12. She was in such demand world-wide that the Met was inconsequential in any case. She is reputed to have made a very large amount of money. Unwise associations over time, however, led to a sad end, characterized by poverty. Most scandalous was her victimization at the hands of a dreadful male gold-digger, thirty years her junior, who married her late in her career, and stole most of her money. In spite of such reckless errors of judgment, however, she was by all accounts a lovely person, outgoing and friendly, even to the extent of letting aspiring singers live in her home, at her expense, at least during the good years. Her last days in poverty and sickness anger and bewilder many people even today. It is so wretchedly unfair. One wonders where the charity of fellow performers was. Yes, times were hard in late 30's, but Gigli, to take but one example, managed to raise a huge amount of money during this period by the many charity concerts he gave. Were people wary of her because of her poor judgment in getting involved with such a vile (although doubtless "charming") man as the one who wrecked her life? Why did no one come to her aid at the end when she was so obviously in need? The State of Italy, at least, provided her with an appropriate funeral. It's just all too sad.
Here is the great soprano in "Caro nome":

As the recording shows, the top part of her voice was quite extraordinary. Like virtually all sopranos of her age, she will scoop down into the lower registers, and that sound jolts us somewhat today, when all sopranos simply sing low notes very softly. It is possible that in Tetrazzini's time, when people actually paid more attention to the words, sopranos felt they needed the additional heft in the lower register, so that their voice, and the words they were singing, did not get lost in the orchestra. Another thing that is immediately apparent is the exceptional and easy nature of her trill. I don't think I have ever heard that many trills in "Caro nome" before. But she was just showing off one of her greatest natural endowments. Here is the famous "Ah non giunge," from La Sonnambula:


Certainly an attractive rendition, although one must be honest and point out certain tendencies that are perhaps not up to today's standard: There is sometimes a lack of adequate articulation on the cadenzas that comes dangerously close to a glide, although she was not alone in that during her day. She also sacrifices the lower parts of her voice to the top, which is certainly common (and smart) because that is what people are paying to hear. From an aesthetic point of view, however, she lays herself open to criticism for making the bottom and(especially) middle register of the voice rather open, white, and somewhat blaring. The top is excellent.

Here is a sentimental view of Tetrazzini—the only moving pictures I am aware of—listening to a Caruso recording late in life, and bursting into song along with it. Her girly and giggly abandon at the end is most charming, and just makes one upset yet again that she was treated so badly by others, and did not have the dignified and comfortable retirement she deserved.


Isn't that delightful? She seems a lovely person, and the fact that people speak of her so fondly even today, some 75 years after her death in 1940, is a fitting memorial to a magnificent artist, who literally gave it all.


JD Hobbes said...

Ha! Thank you for this. It was so nice to see the video clip and see how totally immersed she was in the music. Her laugh was wonderful! I am sure it brought back a lot of memories for her.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes. Yes, that is a phenomenal clip, and it shows what a wonderful personality she had. It's just so sad that the end of life was so wretched.

CurzonRoad said...

In Tetrazzini's recocrdings we hear warmth, fun pleasure, jollyness, testimony to her legendary real life personality, which clearly, literally pops from the grooves. A wonderful artist. Many thanks Edmund for this, another fine presentation!

Unknown said...

Luisa, let's not forget, was one of three singing sisters. Eva, wife of conductor Cleofonte Campanini, in particular, had a notable career. IMHO, no one on records conveys the joy of singing as does Luisa, though.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much,
Doug, and likewise,
Father, for great comments! It is such an upper for me to know I have so superb an audience. Absolutely first rate!

Anonymous said...

What an utterly wonderful, charming lady she was, and it showed in her singing. Her "Caro Nome" is nothing short of perfect, so what can one say of perfection? True, her "Ah! Non Giunge" has certain flaws, which, however, are laughed off under the utter charm and elan of her rendition. And oh, that video of her singing with Caruso! What a treasure. What joie de vivre she still had, despite her later life unfortunately being no bed of roses. In her own words: "I may be old and I may be fat, but I'm still Tetrazzini!" BRAVA DIVA!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article, Edmund. Yes, she was a lovely, charming person, and the end of her life is too sad. She was, perhaps one of the greatest sopranos ever.


Unknown said...

Сверкающий и переливающийся голос...Людей с таким светлым характером легко обмануть...

DanPloy said...

Luisa is, for me, one of those singers who can do no wrong. They have such personality in their voice that they just carry you along with them. We do not analyse singers of this greatness as we might lesser singers, we are grateful they took us along for the ride.

She certainly did have her faults, the lower register as you point out, and a certain feeling that she breezed into the studio, recorded the aria at first take with no rehearsals, and breezed out again.

But those faults also give us a spontaneity, a joy to the singing where other singers seem studied and laboured.

And if we view music as not some doctoral thesis, but a piece of living art, then surely she is one of the greatest of interpreters.