Meetings onstage – Lauri-Volpi
I first met Lauri-Volpi in Rome, but started singing with him later, in Monte Carlo. Having just finished one exhausting tour, I suddenly knew that my impresario had made an agreement, according to which I would have to perform in the capital of Monaco during several forthcoming months. Thus, no sooner had I settled down comfortably in a hotel room in Paris, than I had to leave it and depart for Monte Carlo. Two days later there, the rehearsals started. By that time I had already had occasion to perform in Monte Carlo, that’s why I was more excited by the great names of my future stage partners, than by that adventurous climate of the city. Talking about my excitement relative to my partners, first of all it concerned Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. People told about him a number of curious and piquant stories, but at the same time they bowed before this singer’s mastery and his legendary E of the third octave – a note, which even a coloratura singer dreams about, not to mention a tenor!
Monte Carlo has been kept in my memory as a city of pompous and famous citizens and guests, including families of millionaires, counts, lords and barons, the majority of which were possessors of forged titles and imitation jewelry. For me Monte Carlo has always been a city of aphrodisiacal metresses and luxurious hotels with silent and ready-to-fulfil-any-of-your-wishes servants, a city of bars, exotic female dancers, appetizing menus and expensive evening dresses. I have always regarded Monte Carlo as a modern Babylon, a fair of talents, of glory and money – real or fake. I have always considered this city to be a sort of a mysterious magnet, that late in the evening would easily devastate the lining of fat wallets, the owners of which didn’t even have time to realize when and how it had happened. People, that not long ago regarded themselves as rich men and hoped to enlarge their savings, filling pockets with money at the expense of a casino, shortly afterwards found themselves atop of the cliff of death. It was a place, where unlucky visitors of numerous “dens of iniquity” of that strange city usually committed suicide, having been reduced to the depths of despair.
The Operatic Theatre of the tiny princedom of Monaco possesses a small, but very attractive building, in terms of architecture. This theatre distinguishes itself by its excellent acoustics and a spacious stage. Ticket prices have always been here terribly high. And it’s natural, since performances with participations by such singers as Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Beniamino Gigli, Aureliano Pertile and Fedor Chaliapin used to be given, taking into consideration the audience, possessing solid means. As for common people, they couldn’t even afford to dream about attending on such a performance. Operatic spectacles usually played here a role of an overture, giving a certain sign to people that the city had just begun its ebullient night life, offering different amusements of its famous casino and various entertaining places.
The impresario and the head of the Operatic Theatre in Monte Carlo, a witty and very talented man, was then an old bachelor, Raoul Gunsbourg. He ordered to lodge all the soloists at the same hotel, the “Du Paris”, the most luxurious one I have ever stayed at: fantastic magnificence of inner decoration, cut-glass ware and silver, noiseless, courteous and, it would seem, fleshless maids, comfortable and spacious rooms. Famous political figures and businessmen could get here huge multi-room apartments. This, of the richest hotels, had even a specially constructed escalator, with the help of which the hotel’s lodgers could get to the foyer of the Operatic Theatre at any moment. Thanks to it, ladies’ evening dresses always remained blamelessly clean and thus, there was no need for using a cloak-room – neither street noise nor dust could trouble anyone. The hotel “Du Paris” had its own unbreakable traditions: only notable persones could stay there, whose names were highly influential in the financial, political and artistic world. Exactly this fact explained that peculiar promptness of servants and the management of the hotel. I arrived at the hotel rather late and soon after made myself comfortable in a room. Little time passed and somebody knocked at the door. Deciding that it was a chambermaid, I invited her to come in. To my great amazement, there stood on the threshold Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and his wife Maria Ros. I had made the acquaintance of the tenor and his family in Rome and even twice by that time had been their guest. But for all that, I hardly could call my acquaintance with the Lauri-Volpis a close one. I invited them to come in and sit down, then I asked Giacomo about rehearsals, as we were going to sing together in the same performance. Saying, that he was happy to have in “Il Trovatore” such a mother as I, Lauri-Volpi took out of his pocket a letter, on the envelope of which I saw my name, written in capital letters. An old acquaintance of the tenor and my close friend, the leading bass of the Roman Opera, Felipe Romito, sent me in such a way his long and warm message. The Lauri-Volpis, being people of tact, excused themselves for the trouble and went out, having gotten my consent to have supper together.
Lauri-Volpi hadn’t changed at all from the moment we first met in Rome. Tall, slim, without those usual tenor “paunch” and double chin, broad-shouldered and muscular – he looked rather like a baritone, than an ordinary Italian “nice fellow-tenor”. His hair, thick and dark, was well groomed. He used to dress with some elegant negligence. It was quite easy to notice that he was much more worried about keeping that famous E of the third octave, than about his outward appearance, his costume etc. A cheerful and nice man, Giacomo looked like a poor actor, who, with aristocracy given by nature, played the part of a millionaire. He was a typical Italian with vividly expressed and his own peculiar charm.
I read the letter by Romito. The bass congratulated me with my successful tour in the Theatre “Colon” in Buenos Aires and recommended me not to be afraid of singing on stage with Lauri-Volpi. Romito also wrote to me about the arrival of an impresario, who was ready to engage me for performances in a new tour of South-America. Having put on an evening dress, I passed to a salon. Here Gunsbourg also showed all the wideness of his nature: throughout the whole season, opera soloists could broad at the main restaurant’s hall at the expense of Gunsbourg. But not only artists would gather around long tables, abounded with different viands. Famous politicians, millionaires and numerous and mere adventurers, joined us with pleasure, to observe how well-known opera stars behaved in common life. Interesting conversations would start here, the latest gossip would be discussed, concerning the hotel’s lodgers, the casino’s habitues, the sensations and the scandals, which regularly took place in Monte Carlo. Gunsbourg introduced me to his colleagues and announced the time of a morning rehearsal. I sat down by Lauri-Volpi, his wife was sitting opposite to us. To the left of the tenor the famous singer Riggiani was having supper; she first made herself conspicuous due to her outstanding appetite and later – when we sang on one stage in “Il Trovatore” and “Aida” – thanks to her wonderful professional qualities. Having made himself comfortable, massive Petre Stefanescu-Goanga – a performer of the parts of the Count di Luna in “Il Trovatore” and of Rigoletto in the near forthcoming performances – was sitting solemnly in an armchair. The obesity of stout Petre was equal in its greatness to his witty, inventiveness and resourcefulness, which he showed either on the stage or in common life – at a friendly table or during a stroll. Lauri-Volpi’s wife – an interesting short woman, rather of a type of Gypsy beauty than of a Spanish one – met me in a very friendly manner. She always pretended that she attentively listened to her interlocutors, but as a matter of fact she was in watchful tension, foreseeing any caprice or wish of her husband. Like a tender and careful mother, she permanently controlled all the movements, words and intentions of Giacomo, using a very well worked out system of gestures and looks, invisible to others.
It seemed, that it was she, who decided how her husband should spend his spare time and what exactly he should do then. It concerned absolutely everything, beginning with his food, conversations, strolls and finishing with his singing. An absolutely obvious fact was Maria’s cordial dislike to all beautiful and interesting women. She was able to be light-hearted and carefree only towards one-hundred-kilo-sopranos, as for women with more or less attractive and vividly expressed appearance, she attentively watched the behaviour of each and one of them. As Maria was a woman of jealous nature, the spouses seldom ate at the common table. The famous tenor afforded expressive compliments, full of passion, to those present, not paying any attention to his vigilant guard. On such occasions he would rapidly forget the main topic of a conversation – the charm of a woman greatly roused his eloquence and Giacomo used to turn into a true poet. When at last he realized that his oratory had run away with him (Maria for sure helped him to come to such a conclusion), he again became withdrawn, polite and concentrated. His wife recommended not to notice it, as Lauri-Volpi, according to her words, was inclined to love affairs, while any flirtation could easily overbalance him, threatening loss of his famous high notes, forgetting a text and etc. These words by Maria – whether they were true or not – aroused a lot of curiosity among the female lodgers of the hotel, including millionaires and singers, or charming chamber-maids.
It so happened, that in Monte Carlo, to the great surprise of many people, Lauri-Volpi’s wife and I became rather close friends. Our mutual sympathy was based on our similar attitude to the last trends in women’s hats, which we both felt some weakness for. In the capital of Monaco there was a magnificent store of women’s hats, which, regardering its wide selection, fancy styles and high quality, could easily compete with the most famous Parisian stores of the same profile. Once, being on my way to the theatre, I dropped in there and bought four hats. One of them – decorated with a multitude of flowers and a small beautiful bird, sitting among them – I drew on at once. Meeting me at the door of the hotel, Maria began to ask me about my purchases straight away. One of the hats made so an indelible impression on Maria, that I immediately and with great pleasure gave her a present. Being delirious with delight, she coaxed me to show her that store after dinner and I gave a ready assent. Thus began our friendship. The most humorous thing was the fact that Maria never liked the hats she bought by herself. With the same ability as she led her husband, señora Lauri-Volpi soon managed to bereave me of two hats more. All these stories greatly amused the tenor, who, in his turn, continued ladlling out praises and compliments right and left. Such was his behaviour that María once asked me to be less affable with her husband. According to her words, my courtesy attracted Giacomo’s attention, which, in its turn, distracted the singer from his thoughts relative to a performance. A woman’s solidarity is a great thing and I agreed to her proposal.
I usually wore a bracelet, bought sometime in Holland. Decorated with imitation jewelry, the bracelet glared so, that there was created an illusion of a marvellous rainbow. A whole week through Maria followed me up, inquiering where and when I had bought this jewel. I took a hint – she adored bijouterie and jewelry. And again I couldn’t help making her a present. She was extremely happy, her husband also looked rather content. Maria was jumping for joy, while her Spanish-Gypsy eyes were dancing a real seguidilla. Short and lively, in a dress, made of a colourful flowered fabric, she looked like a child, who had gotten at last a long hoped-for toy. Some time passed and when we met again, Maria, mysteriously closing my eyes with the help of a dense veil and letting me know beforehand not to look, as children usually do, put in my hand something heavy and cold. I looked at my hand and saw a massive gold bracelet. Set with genuine diamonds and rubies, the bracelet glared with magical radiance and shone even in the dark.
– It’s for you! – whispered Maria.
I couldn’t believe my ears. The temptation was rather strong, because jewelry has always been my weakness. I consented to accept the bracelet, providing that I would wear it only up to the end of the tour and return it on the morrow of our performances. Otherwise, my irreversible decision to accept the present would mean breaking one of the main life principles of mine. I didn’t explain to the Lauri-Volpi’s what principle it was exactly, but my unqualified refusal spoke for itself. I have never accepted any presents from women and will never accept it. Gifts of this nature make you owe a debt of gratitude, while you hardly feel the same obligation towards men. Delight, that a man looks at the face of the woman he admires, rewarded him for his present. But as for a woman, she will never content herself with a mere sight of aesthetic delight. Such is life!
Meanwhile, the run-throughs of “Il Trovatore” started – due to its unique cast, the forthcoming performance was going to become an outstanding one. A Rumanian baritone, Stefanescu-Goanga, the Italians Lauri-Volpi and Riggiani, as well as I myself, felt how easy our voices filled the house. Neither the stage manager, nor the conductor concealed their delight. To tell the truth, the majority of us didn’t show the maximum of their vocal and dramatic mastery, keeping forces for the first night. Lauri-Volpi, the leading “ace” in our quartet of solists, was the only one, who, being absolutely sure of himself, sang in full voice all the time. On rehearsals he acted with great enthusiasm, constantly repeating that in the scene of farewell with the mother he was ready to embrace her two hundred times instead of doing it twice. To a great extent it distracted me to concentrate upon my scenes with Manrico and my role on the whole. Simultaneously with the rehearsals of “Il Trovatore”, there were passing rehearsals of “Aida”, where practically the same cast of singers were engaged. Here Giacomo’s compliments became much more importunate.
Once, during a performance, in the trial scene, he sang in my ear, that he renounced Aida and accepted Amneris’s conditions. I just barely coped with my voice and finished a vocal phrase – the frivolity of the tenor had made me rather angry. A short pause allowed me “to take a breath” and the words “the will of Gods” with that ending B sounded with unexpected, even for me, force. This put a wet blanket on the self-confident Lauri-Volpi, who had already got accustomed to carry himself with the dignity of an indisputable master and who rather often presumed bantering his partners.
I will never forget the first night of “Il Trovatore” in Monte Carlo. The gilt house of the Opera Theatre glared. The performance began like a real gala night. Manrico sang his serenade from the first act with incredible easiness, as if it was a plain canzonetta. Leonora – a highly professional and musically precise (precise to pedantry) singer – gripped the attention of the audience straight away. The voice of the Count di Luna sounded with such inimitable and doughty force, that I could hear it even from my tiring-room. Sooth to say, I became a trifle frightened, having just heard my colleagues. Mobilizing all my attention and keeping self-possession I began to control every movement, every gesture of my heroine. Time was ripe for my entry. I was rather sure of myself and preserved an equal mind. The first aria “Stride la vampa” I sang well, but the audience, still taking my measure, didn’t hurry to show their favour, so to say, “in advance”. But when the time came for the story about the mother’s execution, I forgot everything – about the stage, about Lauri-Volpi, sitting next to me, about the audience… Some new and incomprehensible feeling – not artistic vanity, but an irresistible and sudden creative inspiration – made me a Gypsy; move, go, in horrow dismiss a terrible vision with a wave of my hands, in the depth of despair tear my silver fell of hair. My voice also unrecognizably changed. I came to myself only by the end of the aria. It was the audience ovation that brought me back to reality, when in paroxysms of true weeping I was repeating the last Azucena’s words: “Sul capo mio le chiome sento drizzarsi ancor!”. The recognition from the public was won. This success inspired me and in the duet with Manrico I felt already newly and certain – I became offensive, active, masterful. I had warmed to the role of the poor Gypsy in so much, that, as eye-witnesses would say later on, even taking a bow I kept the same Azucena’s impulsiveness and temperament. The performance was going over with a bang and its final promised to make super impressions. Meanwhile the sixth scene with Manrico’s aria and that famous stretta began, at the end of which Lauri-Volpi, instead of a usual C, would sing Es of the third octave. This moment was of special interest for everybody, including me. I approached closer to the stage and, standing behind the scenes, listened to Giacomo’s singing. The aria sounded so, as it could have been performed only by Caruso or Lauri-Volpi – with amorous passion and heroic pathos of a soldier, a troubadour, a husband. The stretta began remarkably – his clear voice with some metal sounded spiritually and vividly, but … The Es in the finale didn’t sound – Lauri-Volpi suddenly lost his breath. The excited public, being petrified by this failure, kept silent. Not a single cry followed from the audience, inexpressible horrow was written on their faces. Giacomo, keeping moveless countenance and not losing his nerve, spoke to the conductor: “Aspetta!” The maestro gave a sign and the orchestra again started playing the stretta. All the singers were in great tense and anxiety and all of a dither. The finale sounded like a shot, like an explosion. It was an excellent note – beautiful, clear, soniferous, deep and strong, ending with a marvellous long fermata! At the top of their voice all the house cried “Bravo!” and sprang to their feet to enthusiastically applaud this outstanding singer. I remember very well what I was thinking of at that moment, standing on the stage – so seldom in our life we manage to hear such beautiful notes. “Supernal loveliness!” were the only words, that floated in my mind. And I haven’t still found the other, more precise definition, that could better describe his singing, singing at the moments of creative enlightenment.
After the premiere we got lots of flowers, gifts and congratulations. At night we all gathered at a friendly table to solemnize our success. The representatives of two small Balkan countries – Stefanescu-Goanga and I – were especially glad and proud of the prestige of our national art. Lauri-Volpi personally, and very eloquently, congratulated me with the triumph.
The tenor, though he didn’t have a reputation of a misanthrope, produced, however, an impression of a man, believing exceptionally in his own voice, his own Es and nothing more. To all appearances, the state of his vocal cords was the only thing he constantly thought and worried about. He almost didn’t imbibe strong drinks – if there appeared a wineglass in his hand, he might be trusted to drink white dry wine. Lauri-Volpi preferred to eat tinned food or high-calorie concentrates – exactly suchlike meal, probably, allowed him to keep such an ideal figure. Sport, tourism and strolls hadn’t found favour in the eyes of the singer. His hobby was the profession of a vocalist. Thus, he substituted vocal exercises and super sophisticated arias from a classical repertoire for daily physical jerks, so honoured among sportsmen. Those vocal exercises toned up and enforced vocal muscles and, consequently, turned out much more effective and preferable, than physical jerks, playing tennis or excursions. The tenor had a nervous and fussy manner of walking, so well corresponding to his hot and sharp temper. I remember, that first I didn’t like his habit to look at himself in the mirrow. Only by the end of the tour I realized that it wasn’t a sign of self-adoration and vanity, but a testimony of his constant work on himself. In such a way – before the looking-glass, Lauri-Volpi worked through all the plastic movements, gesticulation and facial expression of his personages. Probably, exactly according to this custom of his he had never tolerated on the stage any exaggerations, theatricality, grotesque… The famous tenor ably dealt with his financial affairs with his impresario and, as it was known, had been one of the most well-paid singers of that time (in the first place it concerned his records). Giacomo wasn’t a venturesome man and even when he was in Monte Carlo he kept absolute indifference to roulette. He didn’t risk to waste his money and liked repeating: “My roulette is my voice! It always guarantees me winnings and the most faithful stake is my Es!”
As for me, games of chances afforded me great pleasure, though more often than not they brought me loss. Once, on a Saturday evening, I squandered in a casino a rather pretty sum of money and returned to the hotel in the worst mood. My colleagues laboured so that the news about my failure became common property. Lauri-Volpi listened to their story with a smile and then mysteriously said: “Listen, sometimes, during a performance, happy ideas come to my mind. Tomorrow I will call you the figures, that will ensure your winnings!” And really, in the sixth scene of “Aida” (the scene of the trial) Giacomo whispered in my ear several figures. I bet on them and, like it was in “Pique Dame” (“The Queen of Spades”), won more than I had lost earlier. This story greatly surprised me, because such an act was rather in the spirit of Fedor Ivanovich Chaliapin, than in the spirit of Lauri-Volpi… In token of gratitude for the triumph in the casino, I gave a festive supper in honour of Lauri-Volpi and invited all our stage friends.
Our impresario had a marvelous touch in dealing with the excitable and restive tenor, unmistakably foreseeing his mood and intentions. Before and after each performance he knew who he should better speak to and what about, how to achieve the best creative atmosphere and eliminate probable difficulties in work. We were all delighted with his strategic mastery, given by nature and carefully cultivated as it was. In strict confidence from others he asked the “stars” if they were content with their partners, if he should annul or prolong this or that agreement and so on – suchlike things very often depended upon “leading singers” (as a rule, not prima donnas were such “star actors”, but tenors). Probably, exactly from that time I became prejudiced against leading tenors. I could never face up to their daffy perversity. Long years experience gave me an opportunity to more than once see at first hand, that many persons, possessing big names, overwhelmingly turned out capricious and selfish people. As for those conditions, concerning their partners, they were based not on necessary artistic demands, but upon empty vanity and eagerness to say once more about themselves and create a stir around their names. It can be easily demonstrated by the fact that almost each out of ten tenors I used to sing together with, regarded himself as the very pretender, worthy of Beniamino Gigli or Aureliano Pertile.
Now I’d like to share with you my impressions, concerning Lauri-Volpi’s voice. I used to performed with him only in Verdi’s repertoire. Giacomo was said to be a phenomenon, and, indeed, the tenor possessed a wonderful voice. But from my point of view, his greatest achievements as a vocalist, were his parts in operas by V. Bellini, G. Donizetti, G. Rossini and G. Meyerbeer. I believe, that exactly in the roles of this repertoire he was and has still remained an unapproachable singer, without rivals. Giacomo was able to satiate his singing with vivid dramatism, tender amorous languor and poetic melancholy. Moreover, at the same time his voice, like a rapier, could easily transpierce the thick of the loudest orchestral sounding. And this is only a small part among other outstanding qualities, characterizing Lauri-Volpi’s singing.
Once in the morning, entering a hotel luxury suite, where Giacomo had stayed, I heard several arias by V. Bellini and G. Donizetti, sung by the tenor. It seemed, that there stood before me a possessor of an absolutely different voice, a different timbre, too different from what I had heard the day before in “Aida”. Besides rare vocal makings, Lauri-Volpi also operated with a masterly vocal technique, especially concerning his manner of breathing (he himself called this type of breathing “diaphragm-rib-abdomen” breathing). He faultlessly sang the most difficult cadences and graces, moreover, he did it in the highest register, not straining at all and keeping at the same time that true kingly self-possession. He looked spiritually tender and romantically sad. Such was his Arthur in the aria from “I Puritani” by V. Bellini. But when he began singing Arnold’s aria from “Guglielmo Tell” by G. Rossini and off-hand sang the upper D of the third octave, even the pianist would stop playing, delighted with the beauty of that amazing note. As for me, already long ago had I stood up from my armchair and unconsciously – being under the impression from his singing – approached the piano. Lauri-Volpi’s notes from B of the second octave to E of the third octave influenced listeners magically. These notes made people delight and drive themselves crazy. The same notes provoked hundred letters a day from admirers of his outstanding talent. But being pressed for time, Giacomo had no opportunity to even look at this correspondence, a lot less answering. It’s worth mentioning, that the phenomenal vocal mastery achievements of Lauri-Volpi in the aforecited parts (to which two more roles – in “La Sonnambula” by V. Bellini and in “Les Huguenots” by G. Meyerbeer – can be added) were explained not only by his talent and a classic vocal school, but also by his exceptional exactingness towards himself and his work on professional self-perfection. When the question concerned his voice and care of it, Giacomo was a resolute and strong-willed personality.
In contradistinction from the majority of his countrymen, Lauri-Volpi didn’t suffer from religiousness. While such famous singers as Riggiani (Leonora in “Il Trovatore” and Aida in Verdi’s opera of the same name) and the coloratura soprano Pedrini (Gilda in “Rigoletto”) were devotees and absurdly superstitious. Walls of their rooms were iconned from floor to ceiling. Thus, in a day of a performance, they could follow their tradition and, crossing, praying and kowtowing in religious ecstasy before icons, ask the Lord for his help in their successful singing of this or that difficult aria. The most picturesque sight – according to the quantity of icons – was Riggiani’s room. She was a well-grown and grand woman, possessing a powerful dramatic soprano voice and reliable soniferous high notes. At each of her appearances on the stage, the audience felt certain and calm, that any note would be sung easily and beautifully, as it had been originally conceived by the composer. I had several occasions to perform with her in different performances and I can’t recollect even a single case when she let out a squeak or was out of tune. Even though Riggiani on the stage was always precise, and sang in tune and preserved an equal mind, before each performance she thrilled and shook with fear. During a tour, her trunk with icons constantly followed the singer. Among sacred images there were lots of Slavonic works, decorated with gold and silver. But the real pride of the soprano was a big Byzantine icon, inlaid with rubies, sapphires, turquoise and small diamonds. Riggiani believed that her icon possessed miraculous strength, saying that when she was in bad voice, only the sacred image helped her to successfully sing in a difficult performance.
As for Pedrini, who sang the part of Gilda and with whom I happened to take part in the South American Tour, she was absolutely inseparable with her small white fluffy doggy. For Pedrini this doggy was the closest friend and a questionless oracle. The singer was in the habit of permanent talking to her toy dog, asking questions as if she spoke to her eminent vocal teacher. Before a spectacle, changing in her tiring-room, she would ask her doggy if the forthcoming performance would go successfully, if she would sing her main aria well, if she should give the audience an encore to her aria and so on. In reply the doggy was cheerfully barking and briskly wagging the tail. To demonstrate her pet’s ear for music, Pedrini organized a special dog show. Having invited an accompanist, the singer sang several songs and arias. Every time, when she sang a false note – of course, on purpose – the doggy barked furiously. The worst was singing out of tune, the more frenziedly barked the doggy. This talent of a small four-legged creature won the hearts of all the company and we, in eager rivalry, demonstrated his makings to our colleagues. The Lauri-Volpis also cordially met the doggy. Maria patently sympathized with animals. As for Giacomo, though the singer wasn’t in particular sympathetic with them and indulgently looked at similar human weakness, even he couldn’t help accepting, so to say, definite professional musical abilities of our doggy-phenomenon.
During our joint tour in Monte Carlo, the city didn’t scant its usual sensations. Now I have already forgotten the name of that millionaire, the owner of the hotel, where we stayed at, but then his suicide shocked everybody. In those days, lots of presuppositions and gossips relative to the motives of his suicide were circulating. From my point of view, the most believable version is that his death was linked with his fatal passion – he was in love with the most elegant and interesting woman in the hotel. It seemed, that the nature had endowed this woman with all its largesse, but joy and humour. Her wonderfully beautiful eyes glistered with apathy, indifference, satiety and coldness. Two days before the suicide she left the hotel, as sudden as she had appeared there. For a long time after the incident, people in Monte Carlo were tattling about this death. As for us, soon work again absorbed our attention and we had no time for chit-chat.
The performances “Il Trovatore” and “Aida” went over with a bang. Each of the soloists after singing his aria or duet was honoured with ovation, lasting more than five minutes. It was rather difficult to say in such a situation that any of the leading singers were better or worse, because the audience was delighted with all the soloists. Performing among such a cast of singers, the star of Lauri-Volpi couldn’t no longer glare with the same dazzle he had gotten accustomed to. Naturally, the famous tenor, used to absolutely dominate the audience and enjoy exclusive honours, didn’t like this situation. Giacomo didn’t wish to share the success with others and finally, not having sung all the contracted parts, let the impresario know of his decision to leave. The news caused terrible alarm behind the scenes, because nobody knew the true reason for such a step. As for Lauri-Volpi and his relations with his colleagues, he, like a thoroughbred gentleman, continued to conduct himself very correctly towards them. No sooner had Giacomo left for Monte Carlo, when the leading tenor of the Parisian Grand-Opera appeared in our hotel, specially invited to participate in the two last performances of the season. Lauri-Volpi carried himself with ease and friendliness, as if nothing had happened. Cordially bidding his farewell, he went to Rome.
After his departure we often discussed, in a friendly circle, what exactly had made him leave Monte Carlo. To my mind, the singer seemed to be tired, moreover, the recent incident with his Es, clearly demonstrated that he needed some rest and relaxation. But, probably, the true reason was the powerful voice of Stefanescu-Goanga. Courageous, with some metal in sounding, this voice won the hearts of the audience in “Rigoletto” and “Il Trovatore” and, I suppose, could at some extent confuse the tenor. Lauri-Volpi rather preferred to take care of his voice, than force it, competing with other talented vocalists. I believe that exactly this was the reason of his retreat from the “Battle-field,” however, Giacomo himself didn’t explain the motives for his decision.
I met Lauri-Volpi again in the Grand Opera. As well as Gina Cigna and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, I had been incorporated in the cast of “Aida.” All three performances went over with a bang. I was particularly impressed by the attitude of the Parisians towards the singers of the Grand Opera, one of the soloists which I was then. Now I often think: “It would be wonderful, if the audience of our Sofia’s Opera was like the Parisians…” The next day the Lauri–Volpis and Gina Cigna were my guests. Thus, there was lain the foundations of our kind and friendly relations.
Every time I came to Italy, especially to Rome, I stayed at the Lauri-Volpis’ residence. They had a luxurious mansion in the centre of the city, furnished with articles of the antique (Greek and Roman amphorae, vases and vessels) and furniture, rococo and Empire. Giacomo had a collection of original pictures by artists of the Renaissance and by modern young painters. Lauri-Volpi did not like modernism, neither in painting, nor in music. I often saw him standing before a landscape, where there was pictured a tempest “like this canvas, because here you indeed feel a real tempest, perturbing and frightening” – he would say. Then we stopped in front of the other landscape. “This picture fills a soul with a sense of peace and romantic dreams. When I look at it, I relax and indulge in reverie… Such must be any art. And music is no exception: even the most difficult aria will easily flow from a soul and a throat, if the melody is beautiful and vivid and the emotions, which this melody expresses, are honest and sincere. A heart and a throat of a singer should mutually understand and feel each other. Nuances in singing are nothing else than thrill of heart, causing vibrations of air, which, in its turn, passes through vocal cords. Therefore, while singing, a throat should be widely open, only thus will there be born beautiful and clear sounds. If a throat is forced and suppressed, it produces constrained sounds, making listeners hearts nervously cower, while a part itself loses its clear outlines and stops to influence the audience,” explained Lauri-Volpi.
Regarding his comprehension of a vocal school and its role for a vocalist, Giacomo affirmed, that only right technique could open and develop the high notes and a great range. He also added that an “academic approach,” appeared no sooner than a vocalist had deeply known himself, his essence and peculiarity. The tenor affirmed that a singer-beginner should imitate nobody, as imitation itself spoils a voice, depersonalizes a vocal image, and annihilates the artist inside man. When somebody would say to Lauri-Volpi, that this or that tenor tried to imitate his manner of sounding and colouring of a vocal phrase, he resented and resolutely claimed: “This singer will not be a great man! He will not leave any memory behind!”
At home Giacomo was a rather good mixer. Here, unfortunately not very often, you could meet other famous people from the art world. Lauri-Volpi always carefully chose people, worthy of his society. Just a favoured few were honoured with his full confidence. I still have the deep-rooted belief, that in his early days the tenor greatly suffered from his trustfulness, and, having gone through many heavy disappointments, became too carping and suspicious towards people. Then, during my repeated tours at the Milanese “La Scala” and when I sang on other Italian stages I met the Lauri-Volpis several times. By that time Giacomo hadn’t performed on the operatic stage regularly for some time – he devoted himself to training young singers and writing works on vocal mastery, which, obviously, are well-known to you, my dear inquiring readers.
This article, written by Bulgarian mezzosoprano Ilka Popova (1905-1979), is an extract from her memoirs in Bulgarian entitled “Meetings on the Operatic Stage,” published in Bulgaria in 1972 and then in 2001 in Russia (translation by Maxim Malkov). The below fragment has been translated from Russian into English by Olga Besprozvannaya and made available by Alexey Bouliguine.
Russian: Глава из книги болгарской певицы (меццо-сопрано) Илки Поповой «Встречи на оперной сцене», изданной в 1972 году в Софии. Перевод на английский язык Ольги Беспрозванной ( Россия).