Leyla Gencer’s Stunning “Lucia”

0 ANA FOTO Erika Davidson 3

DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor / Leyla Gencer, soprano (Lucia); Giacinto Prandelli, tenor (Edgardo); Nino Carta, baritone (Enrico); Lilia Hussu, mezzo-soprano (Alisa); Antonio Massaria, bass (Raimondo); Lorenzo Sabatucci, tenor (Arturo); Raimondo Botteghetti, tenor (Normanno); Teatro Verdi di Trieste Orchestra & Chorus; Oliviero de Fabritiis, conductor / available for free streaming on Internet Archive (live: December 13, 1957)

Although the Maria Callas legend continues to live on, the Leyla Gencer legend slowly grows. Ignored by record companies, British and French audiences and the Metropolitan Opera during her lifetime, Gencer nonetheless carved out a fabulous career spanning nearly 90 roles in addition to concert works like the Donizetti Requiem for Bellini. Moreover, in A-B comparisons, it is Gencer and not Callas who normally pins you to the wall and rivets your attention.

But since Callas knew that Gencer’s voice was almost as quirky-sounding as her own, she harbored no jealousy towards her Turkish-born rival. It was Tebaldi who obsessed her, in part because the record companies (EMI on Callas’ side, Decca on Tebaldi’s) created this silly rivalry between them and in part because she really was jealous of Tebaldi’s more beautiful timbre. Perhaps she should have watched over her shoulder, however, because as Callas’ career wound down into occasional stage performances and concerts, Gencer’s was ramping up.

In fact, except for a small number of roles such as Iphigénie and Amina, Gencer encompassed most of Callas’ repertoire: Gioconda, Aida, Tosca, Medea, Leonora, Amelia, Gilda, even Giulia in La Vestale…the list goes on and on and on. Plus, Gencer sang a ton of roles that Callas never tackled, such as Donna Elvira, Elektra in Idomeneo, Lucrezia Borgia, Charlotte in Werther, Lida in La Battaglia di Legnano, Odabella in Attila, Donizetti’s “Queen Trilogy” and Antonina in his Belisario, even Sister Blanche in Dialogues of the Carmelites and Lisa in Pique Dame. The woman was, quite simply, fearless, and in everything she sang she gave a real performance. She never held back and never cheated her audience. What made her voice controversial, despite having had excellent Italian training from former soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi and baritone Apollo Granforte, was that her timbre seemed to always go between ear-ravishing sweetness and a somewhat abrasive metallic sound, but for those who could overlook the occasional harshness she had even more to offer the listener than Callas did.

Ironically, her forays into Lucia came about as a result of Callas’ hedging. In San Francisco to sing Liú in Turandot opposite Leonie Rysanek, director Kurt Herbert Adler noticed that she had Lucia on her resumé. Callas was scheduled to sing the role there but, since she kept postponing her arrival date, Adler asked Gencer to step in for her. She agreed, not telling him that all she really knew of the opera were the arias, but she kept quiet and learned the full role in a week and had a terrific success. That, in turn, was what led to this Trieste performance in December 1957.

Although this is not the complete score, but rather the “standard” performing version of Lucia used until the 1960s when they began re-inserting the Tower Scene, to say this performance is exciting would be an understatement. To begin with, Lucia was one of conductor de Fabritiis’ specialties; he conducted it for an Italian film version in 1946 starring Nelly Corradi and Mario Filippeschi, at Mexico City in 1951 with Callas, in this 1957 Trieste performance, and in fact was still conducting the opera in person 19 years later than this. The music was in his blood; he pulled the score together to produce a taut, exciting reading, and was blessed on this occasion with an exceptional cast from top to bottom.

Prandelli as Edgardo

Prandelli as Edgardo

Prior to hearing this recording, I had never even heard of baritone Nino Carta, bass Antonio Massaria or mezzo Lilia Hussu, but all had absolutely phenomenal voices and inhabited their roles superbly. In fact, I would rank Carta’s Enrico alongside that of Mario Sereni or Tito Gobbi’s as one of the best I’ve ever heard, and to be honest I’ve never heard an Amelia who could sing and act with the voice as well as Hussu. But the stars of the show are, rightly, Gencer and Prandelli, two outstanding singing actors who pour their whole hearts and souls into their roles. In my experience, only Pavarotti was a good an Edgardo as Prandelli, and NO ONE surpasses Gencer. No one—not even Callas in her fabled 1955 Lucia with Karajan. She’s very good in that performance, but it ranks behind what Gencer accomplished here, and neither di Stefano nor Panerai did on that performance what Prandelli and Carta do here. This is, quite simply, opera as drama in the fullest sense of the word. Even in the “mad scene,” surely the silliest music in the entire opera, Gencer casts a spell over the listener that never breaks until she has sung her final note.

Lucia front coverBut there were some technical issues that had to be overcome. The orchestral opening of Act I was an absolute mess, with soft passages blasting and loud ones recessed, and the orchestral-choral opening of Act III was exceedingly noisy. I corrected this by replacing them with the same passages conducted by de Fabritiis from a later performance. I then had to correct several “drop-outs” in the sound and removed all the crackle. All of Act III was extremely muddy and indistinct, which required a treble boost of anywhere from 12 to 15 decibels. The second scene of Act III was also a half-tone flat, and in the middle there were roughly 30 seconds’ worth of music missing. This, too, I added from the later de Fabritiis performance. Thus I cannot really recommend any of the existing CD issues of this performance because none of these defects have been addressed, but I uploaded it on the Internet Archive for your enjoyment.

UPDATE: Since posting the full performance with inserts, I have since discovered the missing segment of Act III, Scene 2. The sound is harsher and somewhat inferior to the rest of the act, but it IS the same performance with Giacinto Prandelli as Edgardo. You may still prefer the other version I uploaded, but this one is more correct. You can access this scene HERE.

I sincerely hope you like it as much as I did. I’d welcome your feedback, especially if it is positive.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Leyla Gencer’s Stunning “Lucia”

  1. Max Cornise says:

    I haven’t heard Gencer’s Lucia, but her Norma and Pirata weren’t half as stunning as Callas’ best, nor Bolena—especially Bolena. Though Belisario, the three queens—breathtaking! If she were a painter she was an equal of Raffaello, but Callas was Leonardo. The Norma trio with Callas, Simionato and Corelli, was a nuclear explosion with colors and sfogature that Callas didn’t even know she had. Chiaroscuro all’infinità!


    • Who cares about “Il Pirata” or “Anna Bolena”? They’re garbage operas. But since you haven’t heard Gencer’s “Lucia,” you really should before commenting. I put it on the Internet Archive for free streaming.


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