Sì, mi chiamano Mimì: Soprano Licia Albanese as Mimì in Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème [Photo by M. Camuzzi for the firm Stab. Fot. Crimella, © Teatro alla Scala, Milano]
22 July 1909 – 15 August 2014
In March 1938, Beniamino Gigli was probably the world’s most accomplished interpreter of the rôle of Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème. This must surely have been the prevailing opinion when the great tenor stepped before a microphone in Milan to record the evergreen score for His Master’s Voice. Which Mimì could possibly partner Gigli at anything close to the level of achievement that was his calling card? That question must also have been in the minds of everyone involved with the recording of La bohème at La Scala in the spring of 1938. Gemma Bosini sang Mimì, the rôle of her professional début in 1909, in the first recording of the opera eight years later: Rosetta Pampanini and and Rosina Torri succumbed on records to the crushing chill of the Bohemians’ garret in 1928. Gigli was not always partnered with distinction before the microphones, but from her first breathless entrance in search of light the Mimì of Licia Albanese glimmers with the unsettling serenity of desperate love. The voice is both fresh and surprisingly mature, and where her Rodolfo leads she follows, not with blind faith but with the conviction of a fading woman whose life has only just begun. To be unchivalrously frank, recent seasons have offered the public a number of Mimìs not worth the trouble of a frantic search in the dark for a missing key. From the poetic wonder of her entrance to the artless sincerity of her death, though, Ms. Albanese’s Mimì was the genuine article, and so she would remain for three decades.
Born in Bari in the Apulia region of Italy in 1909 [some sources suggest 1913 and other dates, but her 1941 petition for American naturalization shows 1909 as the year of her birth], Ms. Albanese made her formal début either as Mimì in 1934 or as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly in 1935: whichever rôle introduced her to the public, it was one that would become a signature part, and it was an introduction that heralded the arrival of a Puccini soprano for the ages. Ms. Albanese’s début at the Metropolitan Opera as Cio-Cio-San in 1940 was virtually a second birth: becoming an American citizen five years thereafter, she was a beloved presence at the Metropolitan in New York and in San Francisco, where she débuted in 1941 as Cio-Cio-San. The esteemed critic Olin Downes wrote in the New York Times of her inaugural Butterfly at the MET that ‘there [were] a real simplicity and contagious emotion in it, and everything was so thoughtfully proportioned that climaxes had never to be forced or passion torn to tatters to make it carry across the footlights.’ Her career at the MET extended to a surprising array of parts: aside from her familiar Puccini portrayals, among which her Liù in Turandot opposite the Turandots of Birgit Nilsson, Mary Curtis-Verna, and Gladys Kuchta and the Calàfs of Franco Corelli, Flaviano Labò, Richard Tucker, and Sándor Kónya remains unforgettable, her repertoire at the MET included Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen, Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur, Susanna and the Contessa in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, Massenet’s Manon, and Verdi’s Violetta, Desdemona, and Nannetta. The restraint of her Mimì and Cio-Cio-San contrasted sharply with the abandon of her Nedda, who loved Silvio as passionately as she both hated and pitied Canio. In San Francisco, she also sang Zerlina and Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Lady Harriet in Flotow’s Martha, Antonia in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, Concepción in Ravel’s L’heure espagnole, Maddalena in Giordano’s Andréa Chenier, and the soprano part in Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, in addition to a Puccini heroine that she never sang at the MET, Suor Angelica. Remembered as one of the Twentieth Century’s finest proponents of verismo, Ms. Albanese generally does not receive the recognition that she deserves for the incredible versatility of her artistry.
The listener acquainted primarily with her singing of Puccini rôles might well be stunned by a performance like the 1943 MET broadcast of Gounod’s Faust, in which Ms. Albanese lent her radiant singing to an ensemble that included Raoul Jobin, John Charles Thomas (as resplendent a Valentin as has ever been heard), and Ezio Pinza. Spurred by the conducting of Sir Thomas Beecham to a surprising degree of authentically Gallic poise, Ms. Albanese’s Marguerite combines the forthrightness and soaring upper register familiar from the soprano’s singing of Italian repertory with intriguing blends of innocence, curiosity, and ecstasy. Her Nannetta in the 1949 broadcast of Verdi’s Falstaff conducted by Fritz Reiner hardly sounds like a skittish young girl, but she is to the life an imaginative young lady in the first throes of youthful love. Her Desdemona in the performance of Verdi’s Otello that opened the 1948 – 1949 MET Season—the first telecasted Metropolitan Opera performance—galvanized a struggling Otello and engendered an account of Act Four of which Shakespeare himself would have been proud. Her Violetta, both haughty and haunted, seems truly surprised by death though she has known since the start of the opera that she is dying.
Comparing three recorded performances of a rôle that was part of her artistic genetic code from the beginning of her career, Mimì in La bohème, reveals both continuous development as a singer and actress and astonishingly consistent vocalism. In the 1938 studio recording with Gigli, Ms. Albanese’s Mimì is already a fully-drawn portrait of a woman who sincerely believes that love can and will enable her retreat from the brink of death. In the 1946 NBC Symphony broadcast conducted by Arturo Toscanini, her Mimì is the sympathetic heart of a body of disenfranchised Bohemians: the loss of her is disfiguring, and it is impossible to imagine her friends, even the steely Musetta of Anne McKnight [before she was transformed into Anna di Cavalieri], carrying on without her. Partnered by the ardent, guilelessly emotive Rodolfo of Carlo Bergonzi, her singing in the 1958 MET broadcast conducted by Thomas Schippers is focused, heartfelt, and still especially beautiful on high. Astoundingly, the crispness of the voice was little affected by the twenty years between the La Scala studio recording and the 1958 broadcast, and what was a compelling depiction of one of opera’s most endearing heroines in 1938 was by the time of Ms. Albanese’s final Mimì for the Metropolitan Opera, a concert performance in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1966, one of the rightfully legendary characterizations in the four-century history of opera.
Deprived by a dispute with MET General Manager Sir Rudolf Bing of a fitting farewell to the company to whose fortunes her singing so meaningfully contributed, Ms. Albanese never sang on the stage of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. Her legacy is thus forever linked with the lore of the Old MET on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets. Her recordings continue to define the art of unapologetically impassioned soprano singing. The top B in her performance of Micaëla’s aria in Reiner’s Carmen is one of the most gorgeous notes ever preserved on records, and her interactions with Jussi Björling in Perlea’s Manon Lescaut set a standard in that opera that has never been surpassed. Unaccountably, the closest that she came to recording her emblematic Cio-Cio-San in studio was a pair of LPs of excerpts from Madama Butterfly for RCA Victor, the first conducted by Frieder Weissmann in 1946 and the second led by Vincenzo Bellezza a decade later. Fortunately, several surviving MET broadcasts document her Cio-Cio-San at its best, her singing of Butterfly’s entrance music rivaled for imagination only by Victoria de los Ángeles and Renata Scotto and for sheer beauty of tone solely by Eleanor Steber, Leontyne Price, and Sena Jurinac. As a multifaceted Italian soprano in the now-forgotten tradition of Rosetta Pampanini and Maria Zamboni, Ms. Albanese was unique, and subsequent generations have produced no worthy heir to her mantle. Through her work with The Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, she nurtured the careers of many promising young singers, however: this rôle as educator and guardian of the ethos of Puccini and his contemporaries was one of the most important parts that she took in her seven-decade career.
I never heard Licia Albanese sing in an opera house or concert hall, but I have also never heard a Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, or Nedda in any of the performances I have attended who so much as approached the impact that Ms. Albanese has on recordings. Neither her technique nor her integration of registers was perfect, but she made every effort and shortcoming part of a complete absorption of the drama of her rôles that renders her singing viscerally stimulating and profoundly moving even in the digital age, more than seventy years after she first bowed on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Hers is the Mimì to whom I turn when I want to hear her precisely as Puccini intended: resolved, reserved, and finally too much in love to notice that death will not relinquish her.
Un bel dì vedremo: Licia Albanese as Cio-Cio-San in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly [Photo uncredited; © The Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation]