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;
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.
Photograph by Apeda, New York.
Emma Eames as Aida.
Photograph by Aimé Dupont.