PROSPECTUS (including notes and pitching decisions) by Dr Michael Henstock

Fernando De Lucia (1860 – 1925) sang in many of the world’s greatest opera houses from his début at the San Carlo of Naples in 1885. Since 1909, however, his operatic activity had been limited to only a handful of performances (Rome and Paris in 1910, Naples in 1914, and Milan and Rome in 1916) when, in February 1917, he was persuaded to emerge from retirement to give some last performances, at the T. San Carlo of Naples, of the title rôle of Fritz Kobus in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, a part that he had created at the T. Costanzi (as it then was) of Rome, in 1891.

It was in 1917, shortly after Fernando De Lucia had been enticed from the virtual retirement of several years to make some farewell performances at the T. San Carlo, Naples, that his old friend Raffaele Esposito, proprietor of the small Neapolitan recording house of Phonotype, offered him the opportunity of making records for his company. It would be a resumption of a recording career which had started in 1902, with the first of his 69 published titles made for G&T up until 1909, but to which the 30 published Fonotipias of 1911 had seemed to write finis. It would also be the most prolific period of that career, for over the period May 1917 – 1922 De Lucia recorded 301 titles for Phonotype: they embraced operas that he had never sung on the stage, religious pieces, a great variety of songs, both Neapolitan and otherwise, and much of his operatic repertoire (including ‘complete’ versions of Rigoletto and Il Barbiere di Siviglia).

Phonotypes had little circulation outside Naples, and they are rare even in that war-ravaged city. Most are known in only a handful of copies. Many collectors may never have seen one. Although the late Ron Phillips sponsored direct shellac pressings of two of the titles from I Puritani (M 1764 & M 1810) it was a false dawn, for no others appeared. Thus, it was a cause for celebration among enthusiasts when, in 1967, it was learned that some two thirds of the De Lucia masters had survived fifty years and a World War (during which, to preserve them from scrap metal drives, they had been concealed in a concrete bunker under the garden behind the Phonotype plant). From tentative beginnings many of these survivors – some showing visible and audible scars of their precarious history – have since been pressed on vinyl and thus made available, probably to a wider audience than they had ever enjoyed when they were current.

Even among the rare there are degrees of scarcity, and some Phonotypes are so elusive that, in more than thirty years of searching major collections, this writer has failed to locate, or even hear of, a single copy. Of the present issue of 16 sides only ‘Rimpianto’ (M 1860) and the arias from I Puritani (C 2528) and La Favorita (C 2529) are known in original form. The other 13, including an important Tosti group, are, for all practical purposes, unknown. This does not necessarily mean that they were unpublished: some, indeed, appear in catalogues. It does, however, mean that the present issue offers today’s collectors their first opportunity to acquire direct pressings of records – lost for more than eighty years – of one of the most important singers to have recorded.

The documented opinions of De Lucia’s contemporaries reinforce numerous performance reviews: together they clearly indicate that he was in vocal decline even when, in 1902, he first entered the recording studio. His records exhibit more or less heavy downward transposition, whose extent is variable but probably reflects his then state of vocal health: for example, his 1902 G&T of Werther: ‘Ah, non mi ridestar’ is transposed further than is that of 1917. The issue of material previously unavailable now provides new evidence, permitting reassessment of provisional conclusions reached from other recordings in the same sessions. However, whilst we can be reasonably certain about the speed of most operatics the songs are problematical: with no definite ‘score pitch’, raising or lowering the speed by 4 rpm (equivalent to raising or lowering the pitch by a semitone) may involve a subjective balance being struck between shrillness at the top and lugubriousness at the bottom of the recorded range. It is quite possible to believe that some phrases of a given title sound best at one speed and others a semitone higher or lower. It must therefore be emphasised that the speeds given here are suggested speeds: they are based on a study both of the records and of the available contemporary evidence concerning De Lucia’s voice and his transpositions on stage, but they remain opinions.

M 1806 Andrea Chénier: Improvviso, Pt.1 (Giordano) 74.07 Aug. 19th 1917

M 1807 Andrea Chénier: Improvviso, Pt.2 (Giordano) 74.07 Aug. 19th 1917

Giordano was eager that De Lucia should essay the part of Chénier, and to this end he worked with him on the necessary downward transpositions. In the event, De Lucia never sang Chénier on stage but he recorded it for Esposito, in 1917 and 1921. The piece emerges transposed by a tone; the tempi necessary to fill two 30 cm sides (6 min. 55 sec., compared with the 4 min 25 sec. taken by Domingo in the RCA CD issue of the opera) devitalises the music somewhat, however.

M 1845 I Pescatori di Perle: Del tempio al limitar (Bizet) 74.07 Nov. 11th 1917

(w. Giorgio Schottler)

The part of Nadir offered De Lucia some notable triumphs in the 1890s, and his affection for the work is reflected in no fewer than 11 recordings of extracts from it. The great Act I friendship duet with the Neapolitan baritone Giorgio Schottler emerges with a semitone transposition. Some clicks at the beginning may be minimised by the use of a narrow (e.g. .0022″) stylus.

M 2155 La Traviata: Ah! non più (Verdi) 80.00 Oct. 5th 1919

(w. Angela De Angelis)

De Lucia and De Angelis recorded the duet in both 27 cm form and in this 30 cm version, which plays a semitone down at 80 rpm.

C 2528 I Puritani: A te, o cara (Bellini) 78.00 Feb. 6th 1921

The 1921 version of this aria is distinguished from the 1917 by De Lucia’s entry a bar late and by the orchestra’s seven triplets instead of four. Both versions are transposed by two full tones to avoid the high C sharp of the second verse.

C 2529 La Favorita: Spirto gentil (Donizetti) 78.00 Feb. 6th 1921

This 1921 version of Fernando’s last-act romanza is transposed by a minor third, i.e. a further semitone down from his 1917 version on M 1759/2. The evidence of this and of C 2528 suggests that the 1921 ‘Improvviso’ (C 2531/2) plays at 78 rpm, with a tone transposition, and not at 75 rpm and a minor third, as previously thought.

M 1860 Rimpianto (Toselli) 74.07 Nov. 18th 1917

In the limited space available in these notes we need remark only that it is a great pleasure to have available once again one of De Lucia’s finest Phonotypes, which emerges in the key of D.

C 1867 Autunno (E.De Curtis) 74.07 Dec. 30th 1917

The twin facts that De Lucia lived for most of his life in his native Naples, and that his artistic life coincided almost precisely with the heyday (1880 – 1910) of the Neapolitan song, give particular authenticity to his interpretations of those songs, which make up almost one quarter of his enormous recorded output. The great ones of the genre – De Crescenzo, De Curtis, De Leva, Gambardella, Tirindelli, Tosti, Valente – all dedicated songs to him. Their works, very often written in minor keys, frequently embody a strain of sadness: it is well said that ‘they seem to sigh, to laugh and then to die, with words and music so interdependent that that one could not exist without the other’.

‘Autunno’ is just such a melancholy song: ‘Perhaps it is the autumn that makes me feel so sad’ writes the poet, longing for a word, a single word, from Ninetta. Its sadness is well conveyed by De Lucia in the keys of G minor/major.

M 1870 ’O Marenariello (Gambardella) 74.07 Dec. 30th 1917

‘The young seaman’ seems a prosaic translation for the title of one of the best-known and most frequently recorded of all Neapolitan songs. Certainly it is the best-known of Gambardella’s many songs, as well as the first to be published. It is heard here in the keys of G minor/major.

C 1979/2 Nuttata napulitana (Valente) 74.07 Aug. 19th 1918

No text is to hand for this Valente song (‘Neapolitan night’), given in the key of B flat minor.

C 2453 La mia canzone (Tosti) 75.00 Nov. 7th 1920

C 2454 Povera Mamma! (Tosti) 75.00 Nov. 7th 1920

C 2460 In mare (Tosti) 75.00 Nov. 7th 1920

A group of Tosti songs, divided between two sessions, presents the listener with the problems of subjectivity mentioned above. C 2453, 2454 and 2460 are from a session in which the only operatic aria is the Iris ‘Serenata’ which, as Stratton pointed out almost 40 years ago, is transposed ‘a tone or more down’. The writer still inclines to a minor third transposition (75 rpm) for the Iris, at which speed the three songs are heard in D, E minor, and G flat, respectively. ‘Povera Mamma’ strikingly confronts the poet with the reality of death as he visits his mother’s grave: ‘Here at the cemetery, how many crosses, my God! What memories, what weeping, what silence, what oblivion!’

C 2506 L’ultima canzone (Tosti) 75.00 Jan. 23rd 1921

C 2510 Apri! (Tosti) 75.00 Jan. 23rd 1921

C 2512 Mattinata (Tosti) 75.00 Jan. 23rd 1921

Without a single operatic piece to which to relate speed and pitch the choice is between 75 and 79 rpm; the writer inclines to 75 rpm, at which the three songs are given in D flat min/major, E flat and E flat, respectively. ‘L’ultima canzone’ exhibits that rare phenomenon the De Lucia aspirate.

Playing condition: Although the masters have been stored for many years under adverse conditions the voice is, in all cases, forward and resonant over whatever surface crackles (usually at the beginning of a side) there may be. Such noise may often be mitigated by the use of a narrower stylus. It is hoped that listeners will agree that these defects should not prevent the use of what, in the Committee’s view, truly are Historic Masters.

Michael E. Henstock

This edition of sixteen titles has been produced for Historic Masters Ltd by Symposium Records from metal parts made available through the generosity of Sir Paul Getty KBE


Comments are closed.

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.