Gina Cigna was a dramatic soprano whose career flourished in the 1930’s and 40’s, and who was the first to record the title role of Puccini’s ”Turandot”.
Ms. Cigna, whose given name was Geneviève, was born in Paris in 1900, the daughter of a French general of Italian descent. She began her musical studies as a pianist at the Paris Conservatory. She studied with Alfred Cortot and began what has been described as a promising career as a recitalist. But soon after her marriage in 1923 to Maurice Sens, a tenor at the Comic Opera, she decided to cultivate her voice, with her husband’s encouragement.
This was a great, great voice, and while she probably crossed into several fach, she in general stuck to the big roles. I make this point because today’s singers will sing anything at all, whether the role is right for their voices or not. And their careers suffer for it.
Morrò, ma prima in grazia, from Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera
Renato suspects his wife Amelia of infidelity and resolves to kill her. She begs for a last moment with her son.
Morrò, ma prima in grazia, deh! mi consenti almeno
l’unico figlio mio avvincere al mio seno.
E se alla moglie nieghi quest’ultimo favor,
non rifiutarlo ai prieghi del mio materno cor.
Morrò, ma queste viscere consolino i suoi baci,
or che l’estrema è giunta dell’ore mie fugaci.
Spenta per man del padre, la man ei stenderà
sugl’occhi d’una madre che mai più non vedrà!
I will die, but first in mercy, please allow me at least
to clasp my only child to my breast.
And if you deny this last favor to me as your wife,
do not refuse it to the prayers of a mother’s heart.
I will die, but let his kisses console this heart,
now that the last of my fleeting hours has come.
When she is dead by his father’s hand, he will stretch his hand
over the eyes of a mother who will never see him again!
Poveri fiori, gemme de’prati,
pur ieri nati, oggi morenti,
quai giuramenti d’infido cor!
L’ultimo bacio, o il bacio primo,
soave e forte bacio di morte,
Tutto è finito!
Col vostro olezzo muoia il disprezzo :
con voi d’un giorno senza ritorno cessi l’error!
Tutto è finito!
Poor flowers, the jewels of the meadow,
born only yesterday, today you are dying,
like the promises of a faithless heart!
Now I give you the first kiss, or the last,
sweet and strong, the kiss of death,
the kiss of love,
It’s all over!
The scorn dies with your perfume:
Let the mistake of one day die with you, never to return.
It’s all over.
Cigna was born in Paris, her real name was Genevieve and her father was descended from an Italian officer in Napoleon’s army. She studied piano at the Paris Conservatoire with Alfred Cortot and was heard by Emma Calvé the great French soprano who had been the most famous Carmen of the 1890s. Cigna was later a distinguished teacher herself and always insisted that vocal studies should continue until the voice was “unlocked”. She was 26 when Calvé arranged for her to audition for Toscanini at La Scala. She accompanied herself at the piano in arias by Verdi and Rossini, and was immediately engaged.
She made her professional stage debut at La Scala as Freia in Wagner’s Das Rheingold in January 1927. Only one other Wagner role followed – Elisabeth in Tannhäuser – before Cigna sang Norma for the first time. It was a role with which she became especially associated.
Cigna studied the title-role in Tosca with Hariclea Darclée, who had created it at the world premiere, and although she had a formidable voice, Cigna claimed that she always preferred “temperament and interpretation” to voice alone. In the 1930s the operas of Bellini, apart from Norma, were largely forgotten, and it was an adventurous choice for Cigna and La Scala to revive La Straniera, which she sang in a “deluxe production” – her own description – with Gianna Pederzini and Francesco Merli.
Cigna’s voice had a dark quality, with a rapid vibrato which she used with great skill, as can be heard on her many recordings. The big Verdi roles – Abigaille in Nabucco, Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera and the title-role in Aida were all favorites of hers – but she could also sing Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust and Gluck’s Alceste. She sang the operas of Puccini, Catalani, Mascagni and Respighi and was also the first Kostelnicka in Janacek’s Jenufa at its Italian premiere in 1941 at La Fenice in Venice.
Cigna was particularly fond of the operas of Respighi: she sang in the first Scala production of La Fiamma in 1935, and in Rome in a staging of his dramatic oratorio Maria Egiziaca (“the Egyptian Mary”).
Her international career took her to Argentina, Brazil, Hungary, the US – her debut at the Met was as Aida in 1937 – and Covent Garden in 1933. In Brazil she sang in Gomes’s Lo Schiavo and Maria Tudor, in London as Elisabeth de Valois in Don Carlos under Beecham, but it was in Turandot that she made perhaps the greatest impression, so much so that in 1981 she was awarded the Puccini Prize as “the century’s best performer of Turandot.” She claimed to have sung it 493 times.
Cigna’s life was inevitably overshadowed by the second world war: she was unable to leave Italy and her career at the Met came to an end after only four seasons. In 1921 she had married Maurice Sense, who died on the evening she was to sing in a revival of Catalani’s Loreley: she went through with the performance, nevertheless. Her second husband was Mario Ferrari.
In 1947 she was involved in a car crash on her way to sing Tosca at Vicenza. Though suffering from multiple bruising, she went through with that performance too, but collapsed afterwards and it was discovered that she had suffered a heart attack. She never sang again, but wishing to be “useful and alive,” began to teach. Among her pupils were the sopranos Elena Mauti Nunziata, Celestina Casapietra and Maria Parazzini. She was highly critical of modern singers who “want to sing everything, and alas, are allowed to do so,” and yet her own career ran the gamut from early music to classical roles by Mozart and Gluck to the belcanto and verismo operas – hardly specializing in one area.