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CD: Marston

Rosalia Chalia - Selected Recordings of a Forgotten Soprano
see end of review for details
Producer & audio conservation: Ward Marston
rec. 1898-1912
MARSTON 51007 [76:48]
Experience Classicsonline

Ours is a felicitous time to be alive for all lovers of the operatic voice: there are more recordings of better (clearer) quality available of Caruso, Tetrazzini, Chaliapin or Supervia, than were available during the lifetimes of these extraordinary artists. It is also true that some voices record better than others. I have never myself been able to join in all the rejoicing about Melba. What comes out of the speakers doesn’t tally with contemporary accounts. I conclude that the lady had something they didn’t manage to get onto record. As a rule of thumb, small voices gain greatly in the recording studio, while big voices often suffer. This came home to me recently in playing a recording of Birgit Nilsson to a young friend who hadn’t heard her live. He couldn’t understand my enthusiasm. Only then, did I realise that in listening to the Nilsson recordings, I was automatically adjusting my hearing to what I had heard in the theatre, to what, in fact, was a mere shadow of the overwhelming musical/dramatic effect of the necessary live performance. In three words, the recording made sense to me only by an aural memory recollection I was unconsciously making. Conversely, when I first heard Cecilia Bartoli in an unamplified hall, I was convinced I had been stricken with deafness. Since then, performances in discreetly amplified theatres - all major opera houses now have this - and the recordings, have me among her admirers for her impeccable artistry. But all these singers are household names; what about the superb voices of the past of whom no one has heard? 

Rosalia Gertrudis de la Concepcion Diaz de Herrera y de Fonesca was born into a distinguished Havana family on 17 November 1863 and at the beginning of her impressive career said to her promoters, Call me Chalia - the affectionate diminutive of Rosalia. So it was that she came to be known as Rosalia Chalia in a chequered but remarkable career. The rare, existing photos show her as petite with a cherubic face tending towards plumpness. Her repertoire - amply illustrated on this CD - was most remarkable, for its depths as well as its breadth. Which other soprano do you know who can make a memorable impression as Semiramide and as Rosina in Il Barbiere? These are the opening tracks. Rossini certainly had two different voices in mind for these roles. Isabella Colbran (by then his wife) created the role of Semiramide in 1823; though he already knew Colbran in 1816, he chose a very different voice to create Rosina.

It is impressive indeed that Chalia delivers on both roles, albeit within certain licences of 1900, the year she recorded. Both had to be got onto seven inch Zonophone discs, so there are some abrupt, jerky changes of tempo not called for by Rossini. There are liberal interpolations of Rosina’s vocal line, accommodating remarkable vocal fireworks, even when ignoring the character’s coquetry. But it is the voice itself which we feel grateful to know. The high notes have a beautifully clear, bell-like ring and seem effortless. The low notes are shot through with a rich, secure darker colour. That might sound like two voices in one, but there is a confident musicality welding them perfectly together. Never mind if she fails to deliver on certain aspects of character. This is a voice which has something interesting to communicate of both roles.

The Emperor of Historic Recording himself -Ward Marston - has made these transfers on his own label. As usual, he doesn’t disappoint. It is not only the archaeological researching to excavate from public and private sources perfect copies which have been rarely or never played but the supreme finesse of his ear in removing surface sound without touching any qualities of the voice - a skill which requires millimetres of perfect aural judgement. The 1900 discs have surface noise aplenty but the voice is as clear as if she were in the room with you. There is less “interference” in the 1912 recordings, but by then the voice had begun to show signs of wear and the intonation is less than perfect.

Sopranos tend to specialise in either the first half of the nineteenth century, crowned by Rossini or the second half where Verdi is king. Chalia serves both admirably. She gets a nice combination of turbulence and sparkle into Ah fors’ è lui (Traviata) but her final Traviata aria - Addio del passato - comes out as more menacing than menaced. Most impressive of all, is the Ballo in Maschera aria - Ma dall’ arido stelo divulso in which she combines dramatic thrust with real beauty of sound as nowhere else on this disk.

There are some charming Spanish numbers which are adequate enough, though here one longs for the voice of Supervia to do justice to their nuances. I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls and The Last Rose of Summer, together with Arditi’s Il Bacio are better vehicles for Chalia’s enormous talent.

The recordings which the great Edwardian actress, Ellen Terry made towards the end of her life, alas give us no indication of what made her great. We need to rely on contemporary evidence. Fortunately, Virginia Woolf was to hand. She wrote in her notebook, Shakespeare could not fit her, nor Ibsen; nor Shaw. But there is, after all, a greater dramatist than Shakespeare, Ibsen or Shaw. There is Nature … now and again Nature creates a new part, an original part. The actors who act that part always defy our attempts to name them … And thus while other actors are remembered because they were Hamlet, Phedre, or Cleopatra, Ellen Terry is remembered because she was Ellen Terry. 

So it is that Rosalia Chalia will be remembered because she was Rosalia Chalia. And fortunately, Ward Marston was on hand to bring her to our attention and to give us a perfectly focused reproduction of her greatness. There is a two-part interview with Marston talking about this recoridng on Youtube (Part 1 and Part 2).

Hers is an immediately recognisable, highly individualistic voice. No lover of exceptional voices will want to be without this CD.

Jack Buckley 

1. Semiramide: Bel raggio (ROSSINI) [2:17]
July 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone T9139
2. Il Barbiere Di Siviglia: Io sono docile (ROSSINI) [2:37]
November 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone Q9204
3. Il Barbiere Di Siviglia: Dunque io son (ROSSINI) [2:34]
with Alberto de Bassini, baritone Ca. 1898; Bettini cylinder
4. Stabat Mater: Quis est homo (ROSSINI) [2:04]
with Jane Frankel, contralto 4 December 1900; Seven-inch Victor 554 Take 2
5. Don Giovanni: La ci darem la mano (MOZART) [2:58]
with Emilio de Gogorza, baritone 24 May 1901; Ten-inch Victor 3401
6. L’étoile Du Nord: Barcarolle (MEYERBEER) [2:09]
July 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone 9136 Take 3
7. Faust: Ah! je ris de me voir [Jewel song] (GOUNOD) [2:26]
3 June 1901; Ten-inch Victor 3431
8. Carmen: Si tu m’aimes (BIZET) [2:49]
with Emilio de Gogorza, baritone 24 May 1901; Ten-inch Victor 3406
9. Carmen: Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante (BIZET) [2:15]
July 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone Q9134
10. La Traviata: Ah, fors’ è lui (VERDI) [2:32]
November 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone Q9208 Take 2
11. La Traviata: Addio del passato (VERDI) [2:16]
November 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone Q9207 Take 2
12. Un Ballo In Maschera: Ma dall’arido stelo divulso (VERDI) [2:14]
November 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone Q9199 Take 2
13. Aida: O patria mia (VERDI) [2:01]
November 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone Q9203 Take 2
14. Bohemian Girl: I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls (BALFE) [3:00]
3 June 1901; Ten-inch Victor 3434
15. ’Tis the last rose of summer (OLD IRISH AIR; words by Moore) [2:18]
November 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone 9200 Take 5
16. Il Bacio (ARDITI) [2:28]
November 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone 9206 Take 2
17. La Calasera (YRADIER) [2:21]
July 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone T9137 Take 4
18. [Habanera] (Sánchez de FUENTES; words by Sánchez) [2:12]
November 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone T9448
19. Zortzico vizcaíno (SPANISH FOLK SONG) [2:13]
July, 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone T9135 Take 2
20. Polo (SPANISH FOLK SONG) [2:30]
November 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone T9457
21. Fandango (SPANISH FOLK SONG) [2:23]
November 1900; Seven-inch Zonophone T9453
22. La Borinqueña (Attributed to RAMIREZ; Puerto Rican National Anthem) [2:32]
24 May 1901; Ten-inch Victor 3407
23. Aires criollos (CAMORA) [2:41]
3 June 1901; Ten-inch Victor 3428 Take 2
24. La Partida (ÁLVAREZ) [2:43]
3 June 1901; Ten-inch Victor 3432
25. Los Ojos Negros (ÁLVAREZ) [3:20]
18 April 1912; (B-11892-1) Ten-inch Victor 63681-A
26. Una Noite (Curros ENRÍQUES; Canción Gallega) [4:28]
9 February 1912; (C-11578) 12-inch Victor 68400-A
27. Lungi dal caro bene (SECCHI) [3:14]
9 February 1912; (B-11581) Ten-inch Victor 63674-A
28. Pietà, signore [Preghiera] (Attributed to NIEDERMEYER) [3:30]
5 March 1912; (B-11669) Ten-inch Victor 63674-B
29. Cavalleria Rusticana: Voi lo sapete, o mamma (MASCAGNI) [3:29]
18 April 1912; (C-11895-1) 12-inch Victor 68400-B
Accompaniments: Tracks [1-24] accompanied by piano; Tracks [25-29] accompanied by orchestra; Languages: Italian [1-7, 9-13, 16, 27-29]; French [8]; English [14-15]; Spanish [17-25]; and Gallega [26]




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