Aida – Gina Cigna, Beniamino Gigli, Ebe Stignani, Tancredi Pasero – conductor-Victor De Sabata

I would like to reiterate the purpose of this blog.  If you listen to the posting regarding “Old School Singing” versus “Modern Singing”, that pretty much says it all.  But I will restate it here.  I am taking a stance regarding the performance of classical music today.  While I venture into instrumental playing, I am focused on the voice.  My hypothesis is that, for the most part, good voice teaching disappeared somewhere in the 70s and 80s to be replaced by what we have today, and by the performers whom we have today.  My only goal is to provide a selection of youtube links or of my own recordings of people who knew how to play or to sing.  These people have, for the most part, been forgotten as has their technique and sound.  When a voice teacher at several of the major music conservatories says something like

give me a bright sound in a dark place

(and I am not making this up) that is not teaching, and that is also the reason that we have the level of performing artists that we have today.  The human body has not changed in 50 years, but the sounds emanating from it certainly have changed.  My desire is that the people who read this blog hear what was possible and demand it again.  With respect to the information that I provide about singers, I am, for the most part, taking that from other places on the internet.  I am not an expert in the history of a multitude of singers or musicians, but I have really good ears, and if you listen to this blog, so will you,

This opera had some of the best Italian singers of its day, but appears to be have been performed in Bavaria in 1937.  This is reason for the voice over in German.

This is an entire Aida, with the prologue chopped off.  It begins with Gigli’s singing “Celeste Aida”.  My interest was to have you hear Gina Gigna in her prime.  “O Patria Mia” begins at about 1:14:00.

Gina Cigna (March 6, 1900 – June 26, 2001) was a French-Italian dramatic soprano.

Gina Cigna was born in Angers, department of Maine-et-Loire, to parents of Italian origin. She trained as a pianist at the Paris Conservatory studying with Alfred Cortot and graduated with a gold medal. She then started a career as a recitalist. She met French tenor Maurice Sens, whom she married in 1923, and following his advice turned to singing. She took private lessons with Emma Calvé, Hariclea Darclée and Rosina Storchio, but was mostly self-taught.

She made her debut as Geneviève Sens in 1927 at the Teatro alla Scala, in Milan, as Freia in Das Rheingold, and sang minor roles in Boris Godunov and Ariane et Barbe-Bleue under Arturo Toscanini.

Two years later, still at La Scala, but this time under the name Gina Cigna, she sang the role of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, and this time it was a triumph. A few weeks later she appeared as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser.

She was to sing regularly at La Scala until 1945, quickly establishing herself as one of the leading Italian dramatic soprano alongside Maria Caniglia in operas such as Il Trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, La forza del destino, Aida, Andrea Chénier, and Tosca.

She recorded Norma in 1937 and Turandot, opposite Francesco Merli, with Magda Olivero as Liù, in 1938, both for Cetra Records. She sang at the Paris Opéra, the Royal Opera House in London, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera, and the New York Metropolitan Opera, where she made her debut on February 6, 1937 as Aida.

Cigna’s career came to a halt in 1948 when she was involved in a serious car accident and suffered a heart attack. Forced to retire from singing, she turned to teaching.

Cigna died in Milan, Italy, on 26 June 2001, aged 101.

Victor de Sabata

Victor de Sabata (April 10, 1892 – December 11, 1967) was an Italian conductor and composer. He is widely recognized as one of the most distinguished operatic conductors of the twentieth century, especially for his Verdi, Puccini and Wagner.

De Sabata is acclaimed for his interpretations of orchestral music.  De Sabata has been praised by various authors and critics as a rival to Toscanini for the title of greatest Italian conductor of the twentieth century.

In 1918, aged 26, de Sabata was appointed conductor of the Monte Carlo Opera, performing a wide variety of late-19th century and contemporary works, and earning acclaim from Maurice Ravel. De Sabata became the music director at La Scala in Milan, a post he would hold for over 20 years.

Following World War II, his career expanded internationally. He was a frequent guest conductor in London, New York and other American cities. His post-war operatic work included celebrated collaborations with Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, most notably his famous recording of Tosca with Callas in 1953. His career was cut short by a heart attack that same year.

Early life

Victor de Sabata was born in Trieste, at the time part of Austria-Hungary, but now part of Italy. His Roman Catholic father, Amedeo de Sabata, was a professional singing teacher and chorus master, and his mother, Rosita Tedeschi, a talented amateur musician, was Jewish.

De Sabata began playing the piano at the age of four and composed a gavotte for that instrument at the age of six.   He composed his first work for orchestra at the age of twelve.

His formal musical studies began after his family moved to Milan around 1900. In Milan, de Sabata studied at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory, excelling at piano, violin, theory, composition and conducting, and graduating cum laude in composition, piano and violin. He would remain a virtuoso pianist and violinist up until the end of his life.

In 1911 he performed in an orchestra under the baton of Arturo Toscanini who influenced him to become a conductor. De Sabata’s first opera, Il macigno, was produced at the opera house of La Scala on March 31, 1917 to a mixed reception. It was frequently performed during the next few years.

Conducting career

1918–1929

In 1918 de Sabata was appointed conductor of the Monte Carlo Opera, performing a wide variety of late-19th century and contemporary works. In 1925, he conducted the world premiere of L’enfant et les sortilèges by Ravel.

In 1921, while still conducting opera at Monte Carlo, de Sabata began his career as a symphonic conductor with the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. In 1927 he made his U.S. debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, substituting for Fritz Reiner in the first eight concerts of the year. He did the same in 1928.

1929–1945

De Sabata conducted the orchestra of La Scala in concert starting in the 1921–22 season, and conducted opera there from 1929. He became the principal conductor in 1930 in succession to Toscanini.

During the 1930s, de Sabata conducted widely in Italy and Central Europe. In 1933 he made his first commercial recordings with the Orchestra of the Italian Broadcasting Authority in Turin, including his own composition Juventus. According to Benito Mussolini’s son Romano, de Sabata was “a personal friend” of the Italian dictator, and gave “several concerts” at the leader’s Villa Torlonia home.

According to George Richard Marek’s biography of Toscanini, de Sabata’s friendship with Mussolini became another factor distancing him from his former mentor Toscanini.

In 1936, he appeared with the Vienna State Opera.  In 1939, he became only the second conductor from outside the German-speaking world to conduct at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus when he led Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (Toscanini had been the first, in 1930 and 1931).

That same year he made celebrated recordings of Brahms, Wagner and Richard Strauss with the Berlin Philharmonic. He forged a friendship with the young Herbert von Karajan. It is unclear why de Sabata was allowed to work in Germany by the Nazi regime given his partially Jewish maternal background.

In the closing stages of the war, de Sabata helped Karajan relocate his family to Italy.

1945–1953

After World War II, de Sabata’s career expanded internationally.  In March 1950 and March 1951 de Sabata conducted the New York Philharmonic in a series of concerts in Carnegie Hall, many of which were preserved from radio transcriptions to form some of the most valuable items in his recorded legacy.

De Sabata’s base remained La Scala, Milan, and he had the opportunity to work with two upwardly-mobile sopranos: Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas. In August 1953 he collaborated with Callas in his only commercial opera recording: Puccini’s Tosca for HMV (also featuring Giuseppe Di Stefano and Tito Gobbi along with the La Scala orchestra and chorus). This production is widely regarded as one of the greatest opera recordings of all time.

Heart attack and retirement

The Tosca recording was planned to be only the first of a series of recordings in which HMV would set down much of de Sabata’s operatic repertoire. However, soon after the sessions he suffered a heart attack so severe that it prompted him to stop performing regularly in public.

De Sabata conducted only twice more, once in a studio recording of Verdi’s Requiem from June 1954 for HMV, and for the last time at Arturo Toscanini’s memorial service (conducting the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony at La Scala opera house followed by Verdi’s Requiem in Milan Cathedral) in 1957.

Victor de Sabata died of heart disease in Santa Margherita Ligure, Liguria, Italy in 1967, aged 75. At his memorial service, the Orchestra of La Scala performed without a conductor as a mark of respect.