Adelina Patti and Marcella Sembrich

This is going to be an historial posting. If the history of singing does not interest you, I would advise you to skip this posting.

I am going to post recordings by Adelina Patti and Marcella Sembrich. Patti was the greatest of the bel canto singers in the 1860s, 70s, 80s and 90s. This recording was made when she was in her 60s in her castle in Wales. The sound of the voice had by this time deteriorated, but what I’d like you to listen for is the coloration of the words and the expressiveness that she brings. We will never hear her when she was in her prime, but this is as close as we can get to the true originator of the bel canto style.

Marcella Sembrich was the undisputed star of the Metropolitan Opera from its opening in 1883.

You must keep in mind that these records are acoustical recordings and are over 100 years old. Don’t judge the sound by what you hear. Rather, try to listen through the sound and imagine what these two singers must have been like in their primes.

Adelina Patti

Adelina Patti, original name Adela Juana Maria Patti, (born Feb. 19, 1843, Madrid, Spain—died Sept. 27, 1919, Craig-y-Nos Castle, Brecknockshire, Wales), Italian soprano who was one of the great coloratura singers of the 19th century.

Patti was the daughter of two singers—Salvatore Patti, a tenor, and Caterina Chiesa Barilli-Patti, a soprano. As a child she went to the United States, and she appeared in concerts in New York City from age seven. After spending several years touring North and South America and the West Indies, in November 1859 she made her operatic debut as Lucia in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the New York Academy of Music. Two years later she traveled to London, where her debut as Amina in Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula was a sensation. For the next 23 years she was a Covent Garden regular. She sang many roles in the operas of Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Charles Gounod, among others, as well as in several of the early operas of Giuseppe Verdi.

Patti’s pure, sweet soprano and dazzling technique conquered all who heard her. Her voice was considered small but was remarkable for its wide range, evenness of production, and purity of quality. Verdi declared her the greatest singer he had ever heard, and others—from musicians to royalty to a unanimously adulatory opera public—eagerly concurred. She was without doubt the supreme exponent of bel canto and coloratura in her day. She was also a notable actress and achieved her greatest successes in comedy, especially in the roles of Dinorah in Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, Zerlina in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Rossini having arranged much of the music of this part expressly for her.

From 1881 to 1904 Patti made a series of annual tours of the United States. Her official farewell appearance occurred at the Royal Albert Hall, London, in December 1906, but she continued to make occasional appearances.

Marcella Sembrich

Marcella Sembrich, original name Prakseda Marcelina Kochańska, (born Feb. 15, 1858, Wiśniewczyk, Galicia, Austria-Hungary [now in Ukraine]—died Jan. 11, 1935, New York, N.Y., U.S.), Polish coloratura known for both her operatic and her concert work.

Marcelina Kochańska learned to play the violin and piano from her father and performed on both instruments in recital when she was 12 years old. She also studied piano and voice with Wilhelm Stengel, whom she later married, and studied voice with Victor Rokitansky in Vienna. Franz Liszt, for whom she played and sang in 1874, is said to have encouraged her to develop her voice. She made her operatic debut in 1877 in Athens as Elvira in Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani. Her next performance, in Dresden, Germany, as Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, was so successful that she remained in Dresden for two years. At that time she adopted her mother’s maiden name, Sembrich, as her professional name.

In 1880 Sembrich signed a five-year contract with the Royal Italian Opera company in London and made her debut at Covent Garden in Lucia di Lammermoor. She also performed in Austria, Russia, Scandinavia, France, and Spain and made her American debut singing Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City during its premiere season in October 1883. On the last night of the season, in April 1884, she amazed the audience at a benefit concert by singing a selection from Giovanni Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, playing a movement from a concerto by Charles-Auguste de Bériot on the violin, and, as an encore, playing a mazurka by Frédéric Chopin on the piano. She returned to the Metropolitan in 1898 and remained a member of that company until her farewell opera performance in 1909. During that period several highly publicized incidents earned her a reputation as a tempestuous prima donna. At the height of her career, the 1905–06 season, she was paid $1,000 for each of 45 performances. Her voice, a brilliant and flutelike soprano of marked sweetness and remarkable range, was accounted one of the greatest of the time.