From The Metropolitan Opera Archives:

Celestina Boninsegna

By one of those curious tricks of history, four sopranos who were among the most famous and successful during the first decade of the twentieth century, were unfortunate in the way their voices recorded. Much of what we have been told of Emma Eames, Olive Fremstad, Lillian Nordica, and Marcella Sembrich we take on faith, trying to reconcile the sounds remaining on their 78 rpm recordings with the reputations they enjoyed when the public could hear them in person. By contrast, Italian soprano Celestina Boninsegna (1877 - 1947), who appeared at the Metropolitan Opera during the 1906-07 season, and later for a single season with the Boston Opera, has been known for decades as one of the most successful of recorded voices, a dark sensuous sound that makes us wonder why the career was spent mostly in less prestigious theatres.

Boninsegna sang a single season at La Scala in Milan, two seasons at Covent Garden in London. In her Met debut on December 21, 1906 she sang the title role of Aida opposite Caruso, Louise Kirkby-Lunn, and Riccardo Stracciari. The New York American praised her "fresh, supple, warm voice" but was alarmed by "the terrors of her make-up. She wore two mops of black wool, and her arms were apparently covered with dark cotton stockings. She drew the color line at her neck being almost white above. That she triumphed over these things is a tribute to her art." Most of her reviews were good but not outstanding. However, New York was used to Eames as Aida, proud and elegant of costume, with her own secret blend of flesh-colored make-up. Contracted for forty performances at $336 each, Boninsegna sang only five times in opera, plus two concerts. She left in February and may have been ill, since there was no contractual penalty involved. (Other salaries from this season: Eames, $1,500 per performance; Sembrich, $1,200; Johanna Gadski, $1,000; Geraldine Farrar, $700; Fremstad, $500.)

Years later, Boninsegna seemed to blame Eames for her lack of success. When the future critic Max de Schauensee visited her in 1937, almost her first words were "La Eames - è morta?" and she became reflective upon hearing she was still alive. On another visit to Italy, de Schauensee interviewed the baritone Stracciari. He declared, "Only one woman sang the music of Aida the way I thought it should be sung, and that was la Boninsegna. Her voice was so big and beautiful, all silver and velvet. But she had no charm or elegance of person....the public would not forgive her, despite a voice that was unique in this role. Besides, the Metropolitan had Emma Eames - una bellissima donna!"

Boninsegna recorded 106 sides in Europe and America for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company, Pathé, Columbia, His Masters Voice, and Edison. The combined output of Fremstad, Eames, Nordica, and Sembrich was not much larger.


Celestina Boninsegna
as Aida.
Photograph by Apeda, New York.

Emma Eames as Aida.
Photograph by Aimé Dupont.