So here I was, innocently surfing the Naxos catalog of imported items, when I chanced upon a 1954 live performance of one of my favorite “forgotten” operas, Gasparo Spontini’s Agnese di Hohenstaufen. I recognized most of the names in the cast, but not the Agnese, one Lucille Udovick (sic). I downloaded Agnese’s famous aria, “O Re dei ciel,” and listened to it.
And was absolutely blown away.
Here was a voice with not only steady emission but also power, style, musicianship, feeling, and a silvery sound that cut into the atmosphere like a gleaming sword. It wasn’t just a good voice, it was a great voice, one of those rare voices that not only thrill you but brings tears to your eyes when listening to her.
Who the heck WAS this soprano? And why had I never heard of her before?
It turned out that she was an American of Croatian descent, born in Denver, Colorado in 1930. Her family moved to California where she began studying music, taking up violin, piano and voice at the Community Music School in San Francisco before going East to complete her studies at Columbia University and Hunter College. Upon graduation, she sang in church services and musical comedies, including a role opposite Carol Channing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
In 1953 she went to Italy to complete her vocal studies. On the train to Rome she was discussing singing with another vocalist who, hearing her, urged her to set up an audition with the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, who was looking for a young (and inexpensive) soprano to go on a concert tour with. Gigli hired her on the spot, and the exposure proved a big boost. The following year, in May of 1954, she made her stage debut at the Florence May Festival in that same performance of Agnese di Hohenstaufen with tenor Francesco Albanese, baritone Giangiacomo Guelfi, fellow American soprano Dorothy Dow and a young, up-and-coming Italian tenor named Franco Corelli. Her performance was a sensation.
From that point forward her career took off splendidly. Her voice, large and cutting, could also be pared back to lyric beauty when called for, thus she was hired to sing Elettra in the
1956 Glyndebourne Opera production of Mozart’s Idomeneo with tenor Richard Lewis and conductor John Pritchard. The resulting EMI recording of that production turned out to be her only commercial recording, but in the ensuing years Udovich—whose last name in Italy was often spelled “Udovick” to ensure proper pronunciation, and her first name spelled “Lucilla” to Italianize it—was hired for a number of important performances. Among these were a splendid 1957 performance (in Italian) of Beethoven’s little-known secular cantata Der Glorreiche Augenblick under conductor Hermann Scherchen (click here to listen to her sing the aria), a 1958 performance of Turandot in the title role with a now-big-star Franco Corelli (this performance has been issued on a VAI Video), a 1960 La Gioconda in Buenos Aires with tenor Flaviano Labò, mezzo Mignon Dunn and baritone Aldo Protti, and in 1961 Abigaille as Nabucco in San Francisco opposite the great baritone Ettore Bastianini (who adored singing with her) in the title role. Udovich seemed set to have a humongous career.
But then, little by little at first, she began having back problems which became more severe as time went on. She had to cut back on her performances, generally choosing to sing in concert where she could sit for much of the time. By the early 1970s she simply gave up. She and her sister Ann had been living in Rome since her first Italian successes in the ‘50s, and they now retired there to a small apartment where she was generally forgotten.
But Herbert Burtis, a voice teacher from Sandisfield, Massachusetts (http://albertitalks.blogspot.com/2010/07/luilla-udovich-my-roman-diva.html), traveled to Italy in the 1980s. A former pupil of his, now a Sister of St. Joseph from Milton, told Burtis that if he ever got to Rome he simply had to look up Udovich who was a formerly close friend of hers. Burtis wasn’t thrilled about doing so—he had never heard of Udovich and didn’t know what she was like as a person—but he took the plunge and discovered that she was a happy, warm, outgoing woman who loved company and, wonder of wonders, could still sing even though she could barely walk or stand.
Despite this handicap, Burtis insisted that Udovich return to America and sing again, even if sitting down, which she did. She also held some “amazing” master classes in New Jersey and at Harvard. It was a glorious sunset to a career cut short, briefly reviving the name and voice of this superb artist.
It would be nice to say that everyone who heard her was as overcome with joy and awe as I was, and as Herbert Burtis was, but apparently this was not so. Online you can find some pretty awful assessments of her singing from a few people who heard her “live,” and apparently not in good voice. The kindest description I have read, from someone who heard her Elettra in Glyndebourne, was that the voice was “strident.” Less charitable auditors have called her a “screamer,” “a wiry voice that did not thrill on the high notes” and “the ugliest voice…ever heard…like nails on a blackboard.” But surely these are exactly the kind of qualities that recording would exaggerate, not smooth over. I’ve heard a number of such sopranos in person myself, and every one of their recordings, whether pirates or commercial, exaggerate their faults. But Udovich’s recordings, at least the ones I’ve heard made between 1954 and 1961, are thrilling and not at all wiry, ugly or screaming. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Burtis that her performance of Turandot “is the best singing of that role I have ever heard, bar none!”
However, I shall let you be the judge. Here is a generous selection of her performances for you to listen to and judge for yourself. Just click on the link below:
It isn’t often that I ask my readers for feedback, but in this case I would like your honest reaction to her singing. Please let me know if you hear her as lovely and thrilling, as I do, or a wiry, ugly screamer. I know that no two people hear voices alike and I’d be interested in knowing your reaction.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley