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The Other Big Centenary in 2013: Licia Albanese

By James Inverne on Jul 09, 2013 07:00 PM EDT

Every year brings its big anniversaries, and if you know anything about classical music, you probably don't even have to blink before reciting the holy liturgy of important 2013 anniversaries. All together now: Wagner, Verdi, Britten, Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Well, there's another. Later this month, God-willing, one of the most celebrated sopranos of the 20th century will turn 100 years old--the great Licia Albanese. It is already some 28 years since Stephen Sondheim cast the veteran Italian-American soprano in the role of, yes, a gracefully aging diva in his all-star revival of Follies at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. (Happily, that cameo turn was recorded for posterity). It is longer since the call came from Arturo Toscanini, conducting royalty, for Albanese to be his recorded Mimi in Puccini's La bohème. That wasn't just another recording, even one with Toscanini on the podium. It marked 50 years since the same conductor had given the opera its world première. And so a direct line can be traced--back from Albanese, through Toscanini, to Puccini, himself. Still another connection was Albanese's singing teacher, a famous Madama Butterfly of Puccini's own generation, Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi.

With that performance tradition in mind, Albanese spent much of her career making the great Puccini parts her own. The voice was perfectly suited to them--it had grace and dark-hued colours, but also the power and accuracy that prevents Puccini's heroines from becoming merely, as they are sometimes called, his "little women." Listen to Albanese singing Madama Butterfly's great aria "Un bel di, vedremo," and you hear not only the patience of a devoted, unwittingly abandoned wife, you hear also a woman who believes that love is worth fighting for, even unto death. Here's that aria, caught on the wing from the Metropolitan Opera in 1953.

She all but owned that role at the Met in the 1940s, singing it there in excess of 70 times, and was part of a golden generation of America-based singers in Italian opera that also included Leonard Warren, Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker (also born in 1913, though, sadly no longer with us). That they were fêted by the likes of Toscanini was a great compliment to an authentic style, but it was not only the conductors who were impressed. Maria Callas, 10 years younger than Albanese and a fan, once admiringly asked her how on earth she coped with Toscanini's fast speeds when they recorded Verdi's La traviata. Albanese recounted this story years later to the San Francisco Chronicle, explaining how she had, in fact, come to terms with the conductor's frenzied tempos when singing the TB-stricken Violetta: "Before I sang the part, I went to a hospital to study the behavior of people with tuberculosis, and I learned that sometimes they can be hysterical."

Violetta was another role she dominated at the Met. She sang it more times at that house than any other soprano up to that point. And even if her fame has been somewhat eclipsed by some of her more hyped contemporaries--especially Callas and Renata Tebaldi--that perhaps has something to do with the fact that her greatest champion on record, Toscanini, was not known for being a collector of beautiful voices. His favorites, Albanese, Peerce, fellow soprano Herva Nelli were first and foremost fascinating interpreters. Not all their voices were to all tastes--Nelli is thought of these days a bit acidic, Peerce for a long time was overshadowed by the glamorous sounds of his tenor rival, Richard Tucker. But Albanese? Find me the critic who says her voice was less intoxicating an instrument than any of her rivals, and I’ll break my Albanese records. (It’s fine, I also have all the tracks on my iPod.)

Her discography is impressive, much of it for the RCA Victor label. Chief among them are the Toscanini operas--Verdi’s La traviata and Puccini’s La boheme. There are also Bizet’s Carmen under another famous conductor, Fritz Reiner, and back to Puccini, a magnificently ardent Manon Lescaut alongside a Jussi Björling in similarly blistering form. (Although, it was yet another tenor of the time, Franco Corelli, that she has named as her favorite of them all.) Her Liù in Puccini’s Turandot is caught, or a part of it anyway, on an EMI highlights recording under Sir John Barbirolli (also enshrining Eva Turner’s never-bettered ice princess). And rather endearingly, a recording has emerged of a Boheme rehearsal where Toscanini shouts out his comments while conducting...and even sings along!

Albanese has been more than an example to younger artists. In 1974, she started the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation to support young singers, which continues to this day and has helped the careers of great singers such as Thomas Hampson and Deborah Voigt. She was awarded the National Medal of Honor for the Arts in 1995 from President Clinton, and--here’s a nice slice of history--appeared in the Met’s first-ever live telecast, as Desdemona, in Verdi’s Otello. Later this month, we hope she’ll be celebrating her next big benchmark as she turns 100. The big question is: Who gets to sing "Happy Birthday" to her? Well, wouldn’t you be nervous?

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TagsJames Inverne, Licia Albanese, Stephen Sondheim, Arturo Toscanini, Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi, Puccini, Verdi, Leonard Warren, Jan Peerce, Richard Tucker, Franco Corelli, Jussi Björling, Bizet