Reviewed by Andrew Wickes
On 16 May 1935, Rossini's opera L'Italiana in Algeri was revived at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. At the beginning of the second scene, Isabella disembarked from the ship that had brought her to the shores of Algeria. Down the gangplank strode a strikingly good-looking woman, about 5' 7" in height, with grey eyes, red brown hair, and a vivacious personality. She was wearing an extraordinary creation of pink and yellow, and carrying her pet pomeranian. The laughter and applause that greeted Conchita Supervía were tremendous, and as The Times reported "She was responsible for almost everything that could make the opera popular". That season at Covent Garden, Supervía repeated her Cenerentola from the previous year, and sang Carmen in London for the first time. At the height of her powers, her appearances were a sensation, and British opera-goers were at her feet. She died in childbirth a year later, aged only forty.
Conchita Supervía's coloratura mezzo-soprano voice is vividly reproduced on these Aria CDs. The transfers are by Joan Vilà, whose aim - as the booklet engagingly tells us - was "to eliminate only the most obvious parasites rather than use a filter that would screen as much noise as music". The sound is considerably cleaner than that in the Nimbus Prima Voce series, but with no loss of dynamic range. Indeed, these are some of the most remarkable dubbings of Supervía's records that I have heard. The voice is in the room with you. And what a voice! It is unmistakeable, with a contralto-like quality at the bottom of the range (down to a low G), and a shimmering, flexible high register (up to a top B). Allied with her sense of fun, her lively imagination and her ability to colour and shade the voice at will, she was a vivid stage performer - as can be seen from her brief appearances in the 1934 film Evensong, where she sings Musetta's Waltz from La Boheme (soundtrack featured on this compilation).
Supervía made her debut aged only fifteen, and though recorded between 1927 and 1934, these recordings give a remarkably complete account of her twenty-five year career. She made over two hundred 78rpm sides, and here we have all the operatic arias she recorded, including several unpublished items.
In her teens, she toyed with the heavier contralto rôles such as Ortrud and Dalila. Then she graduated towards mezzo-soprano parts, requiring weight combined with flexibility - Mignon, Octavian and Leonora in La Favorita. Finally, she began to specialise in the Rossini coloratura mezzo rôles for which many thought she was best suited. For years these parts had been the province of sopranos, despite having been written by Rossini for his wife, the Spanish mezzo Isabella Colbran. The original keys were restored for Supervía, and as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Isabella in L'Italiana in Algeri and Angelina in La Cenerentola she triumphed all over the world. As for Carmen, she first sang it aged sixteen, and the rôle was still in her repertoire when she died.
From the early part of her career, we hear her as Octavian in two duets from Der Rosenkavalier (both in Italian, with Iñes Maria Ferraris); as Dalila - very inward, gentle and tender; as Mignon and surprisingly in Werther, where she sings Charlotte's "Va, laisse couler mes larmes". The voice is frankly too busy for this aria, and the line becomes very broken, though there is a memorable phrase here and there. It comes as no surprise that this disc was not passed for publication.
From the roles she sang in the 1920's, we have Marguerite in both Faust and La Damnation de Faust, and Siebel from Faust; a souvenir of her La Scala Milan début as a lively Hansel in Hansel and Gretel (again in Italian); and Cherubino's two arias which she sang at La Scala under Richard Strauss.
These records were made in conjunction with a series of stage performances at the Opéra Comique, and it shows. Little imaginative touches abound, especially in the Card Song, where she is at first very inward and meditative, gradually letting the chest tones creep in as the cards confirm her fate. Only the final duet is disappointing - she seems unengaged - but here we have a valuable memento of one of her great rôles, by turns fearsome, playful and abandoned, and always very Spanish.
Of her classic Rossini, we have six sides from L'Italiana; four from Il Barbiere; and three from La Cenerentola, including the inimitable "Nacqui all affanno". These recordings have often been re-issued, but Aria's transfers make one thrill again to Supervía's extraordinarily fierce vocal beauty, her brilliant technique, and sheer sense of fun. The tight shimmer (some would say vibrato) in the voice may not be to everyone's taste, but this aspect of her singing was surely over-emphasised by the primitive recording methods of the day, and in the theatre I am sure it would have seemed more closely integrated with her luscious vocal tone.
This is a limitation also in the rarity, an elegant essay in Italianate melancholy from Gaztambide's El juramento, which requires a simple purity of line alien to Supervía's supercharged delivery. But then, what a unique pleasure to ask a singer for less rather than more vocal personality!
Finally - and my personal favourites - we have the excerpts from Lehár's Frasquita. In 1933, Supervía appeared in an extended comic opera version at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Six sides were recorded, all wild gypsy, castanets, seduction, charm, romance, a characterisation dripping with sexual allure. Inimitable and irresistible - the essential Supervía.
All in all, these lipstick-pink CDs are an unmissable treat - very highly recommended.
© Andrew Wickes 2000