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Bianca Scacciati: "A real Italian voice"

During the "golden" Toscanini era, one of the most celebrated periods for Italian opera in the 20th century, there were three primadonnas who "reigned" at Italy's greatest opera house - La Scala, dividing between each other various roles from the authentic dramatic soprano repertory. They were Giuseppina Cobelli (1898-1948), Giannina Arangi Lombardi (1891-1951) and Bianca Scacciati (1894-1948).

Giuseppina Cobelli, unfortunately, left only two commercial recordings of her voice and can hardly be adequately judged today, while the two other sopranos - Arangi Lombardi and Scacciati - left wide phonographic legacies and are "open" to contemporary listeners. The latter one, Bianca Scacciati, has unfortunately been widely ignored and deserves a great deal more attention from opera lovers, because her voice was undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary vocal instruments of the century.

Born in 1894 in Florence to a family of railworkers devoted to operatic music, Bianca straight from the early childhood showed her gifts for singing and very soon started taking vocal lessons. Her teacher was Ernesta Bruschini, the sister of the Italian soprano Matilde Bruschini and the author of the book "The technique of belcanto". Bianca's progress in singing was obviously rapid, and already in 1917 she made her professional debut at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence in the lyrical part of Marguerite in Charles Gounod's "Faust". "Una voce limpida, estesa, unita, una vera voce italiana (A limpid, extensive and well-managed voice, a real Italian voice)" - wrote the contemporary critics about her in the newspaper "La Nazione".

Having enjoyed the success in Florence, Bianca appeared, again as Marguerite, at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, a prestigious Italian opera house, to the Faust of the artist of the calibre of Alessandro Bonci. Her career evolved rapidly and successfullly, she signed contracts with the best opera houses of Naples, Parma and Verona as well as some provincial venues. In Verona she notably appeared at the Arena as Margherita in Arrigo Boito's "Mefistofele" in the starry company of Aureliano Pertile as Faust and Nazzareno de Angelis as Mefistofele. The other parts she sang in this period included the lyrical Mimì in Puccini's "La Bohème" and Desdemona in Verdi's "Otello" as well as some dramatic parts like Manon Lescaut in Puccini’s opera of the same title, Maddalena de Coigny in Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier” and the title role in Mascagni’s “Isabeau”.

In 1922 and 1923 she went on her first foreign tournées, appeared at the Champs Elisées Theatre in Paris and in Brazil, singing Elsa in "Lohengrin" (again with Pertile) and Wally in Catalani's opera of the same title. In 1924 Bianca Scacciati made her debut at the prestigious Teatro Costanzi in Rome, singing one of her best roles, Tosca, and soon after appeared in Cairo as Amelia in Verdi's "Un ballo in maschera", which signed her complete abandonment of lyrical parts like Mimì and Marguerite and the complete turn to the "tough" dramatic repertory.

In 1925 she added the dramatic Aida and Valentine in Meyerbeer's "Les Huguenots" to her repertory, and a year after made her debut in her most important role - Turandot, in Rome, with Francesco Merli as Calaf and Rosina Torri as Liù. The success was tremendous, the critics wrote about Scacciati's interpretiation of the ice princess: "Nessun dimenticherà la bellezza e lo squillo della sua voce in questa parte (Nobody with forget the beauty and squillo of her voice in this part)".

Since then she became Italy's most respected Turandot before the arrival of Gina Cigna. It was exactly then when Duce, Benito Mussolini, present at the premiere and absolutely enchanted by Scacciati's voice, invited her to Palazzo Venezia to receive from his hands a photograph with a dedication. Bianca, in response, politely turned down such an honourable offer, thereby showing her protest against the fascist regime. Another interesting episode which happened with her in Rome in 1926 was her meeting the great maestro Arturo Toscanini, who, having heard a lot about Scacciati's triumphs, invited her to give him an audition at La Scala. Bianca did not agree to go to Milan and offered the maestro to listen to her singing Elisabetta de Valois in Verdi's "Don Carlos" at the Costanzi. As far as we know, Toscanini was captivated by her voice and immediately gave her a contract with La Scala, where she made her debut in the November of the same year as Elisabetta opposite Giuseppina Cobelli, Carlo Galeffi and Antonin Trantoul.

Scacciati's career at La Scala was probably one of the most luminous even among her highly famous and respected colleagues. Maria Caniglia, a celebrated verismo diva of the successive generation, in her interview given to Lanfranco Rasponi spoke of Scacciati with great respect and admiration and referred to her as "one of La Scala's reigning sovereigns, worshipped by an adoring public". From 1926 until 1931 Scacciati appeared almost unstoppably at this legendary opera house, dividing the repertory, as it has already been stated, with Giuseppina Cobelli and Giannina Arangi Lombardi and singing the whole important classical belcantistic, romantic and veristic repertory: "Don Carlo", "Turandot", "Cavalleria rusticana" (directed by Mascagni), "Tosca", Boito's "Nerone", "Otello", Giordano's "Siberia", "La forza del destino", "Un ballo in maschera", "Aida", "Norma", "Il Trovatore", as well as some obscure works like Verdi's "I Lombardi" and Spontini's "La Vestale", always in totally first-class casts and often directed by Toscanini himself.

At the same time she managed her career on Italy's other best operatic stages and, notably, in 1928 toured the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires (as Aida, Leonora in "Il Trovatore", Manon Lescaut and Amelia in "Un ballo in maschera”) and in 1926 guested at the Royal Opera House in London (in "Turandot", "Les Huguenots" and "Mefistofele" singing both Margherita and Elena). At the latter theatre, however, she was not successful, as the English critics criticised her for the Italian-school vibrato in her voice and the emphatic manner of singing. Nevertheless, in her motherland Scacciati was always received with great admiration. After her leaving La Scala in 1932 her career was mostly relegated to appearances in the province as well as the minor theatres of South America.

She left the stage in 1942 after singing Tosca in Brescia and died six years after, in 1948, being only fifty-four years old. Bianca Scacciati left a considerable number of recordings, all electrical and made exclusively for Columbia (except for four rare records made for the company Excelsius), featuring arias and ensembles from various operas as well as the complete versions of Puccini's "Tosca" and Verdi's "Il Trovatore" (both recorded in 1930). A short note published in Columbia's catalogue in 1930 gives the following exalted commentary on Scacciati's art: "La sua voce calda, potente, dall'accento purissimo, stilizzato, dagli acuti portentosi, ha in breve imposto la sua personalità. Ove Bianca Scacciati passa è il delirio, il trionfo, l'entusiasmo (Her warm, powerful voice, with a highly clear and stylish accent, with prodigious high notes, has shown her personality. Everywhere where Bianca Scacciati passes is delirium, enthusiasm and triumhp)".

Listening to the recordings of Scacciati, which almost all are of exceptional interest, fully justifies the exaltation of these words and explains fully the great fame and respect she achieved in the operatic circles. The phonographic documents recorded by the diva show a voice of a stunning volume and extension, with a very "forward" vocal position, penetrating in the bass register, vibrant in the centre and amazingly "shiny" and inflammately brilliant on top. The great Italian critic Rodolfo Celletti in "Le Grandi Voci" noted Scacciati's "nitido squillo su tutta la gamma (limpid squillo on the with Molinari) and a flame-like squillo on top (as in “D’amor sull’ali rosee”), but a little bit deprived of the needed dynamics and vocal embellishments shown in the recordings of Rosa Ponselle and, later, Maria Callas. The “open” and even "masculine" chest notes in the dramatic moments generally do not spoil the singing and are mostly connected with the style rather than with the vocal technique.

Talking about the style, Scacciati sings the part in a "veristic" rather еhan romantic manner, so popular in the epoch. It is particularly evident in the final scene, which is carried out with deliberate affectations and even usage of the mentioned chest voice and may not be agreeable for everyone. However the overally fine vocal control and the richness of the voice (especially on top) compensate for these "weirdnesses" of Scacciati's Leonora, which can definitely be considered far better than the interpretations of many sopranos of the second half of the century.

The “veristic” style applied to romantic repertoire is also evident in the recording of “Ritorna vincitor” from “Aida”, exciting, despite the emphatic emotionality, for Scacciati’s squillant and rich vocality, especially the impressive final bass notes sung with a penetrating and vibrant “mixed” voice and the succesive phrases (“Numi, pietà…”) modulated on “piano”, perfectly supported by the breathing. Anyway, the interesting paradox is that, in spite of her "veristic" Leonora and Aida, Scacciati demonstrates a perfect command of authentic verdian style in her recording of Amelia's aria "Morrò, ma prima in grazia" from "Un ballo in maschera", remarkable not only for the perfect technical control of the emission but for the touching dramatic accent without any trace of “veristic” affectations.

Verdi - Ballo in maschera - Morro, ma prima in grazia

The scenes from “La forza del destino” (“Pace mio Dio”, “Me pellegrina ed orfana” and the final terzetto with Tancredi Pasero and Francesco Merli) show her ability to sing “piano”, “legato” and sound filaments demanded by the verdian style. What to say in conclusion? Though definitely not an authentic “belcantista” as, for instance, the great Rosa Ponselle, Bianca Scacciati, however, posessed a grand and well-managed voice of highly extraordinary quality, and in this aspect can be considered superior to a lot of dramatic sopranos of the century.

Verdi - La Forza del Destino - Pace, pace, mio Dio (1929)

Anyway, listening to a soprano with such a voluminous and squillant instrument and a fiery temperament is a very rare phonographic experience for any epoch, even taking into account the "weirdnesses" all derived from the veristic style which raged in Italy in the 1920s. In my opinion, except for prodigious Ponselle, there was no other dramatic soprano in the period capable of the vocal richness which can be heard in the singing of Bianca Scacciati. All this makes her one of the most interesting singers in the recorded history, so widely and unfairly forgotten today.

Text: by Severyan Tsagareyshvili, © Voci dell'Opera


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