Antonina Nezhdanova (1873-1950) was a Ukrainian soprano who made her career in the last years of Imperial Russia and then continued after the 1917 revolution as a singer and teacher in the Soviet Union. She was the greatest Russian soprano of her era. She had a high lyric voice which negotiated all the obstacles of bel canto singing. Coloratura, roulades, acuti, trills, and all sorts of vocal ornamentation were under her easy control. But she could adapt her voice to Verdi and even Wagner as the need arose and sing with a beautiful line when the music called for cantabile singing. She performed for about four decades at the Bolshoi. She frequently sang with the great tenor Leonid Sobinov. She occasionally sang in the West, most notable was a 1912 Rigoletto in Monte Carlo where she sang with Caruso and Ruffo.
She made a lot of recordings, all the ones I’m familiar with were made early in her career and accordingly are acoustic. The sound on these primitive recordings is surprisingly good. Nezhdanova’s voice, unlike most other contemporary sopranos, comes across quite well. Credit also seems deserved by the Russian technicians who supervised the recordings. It is possible hear through the cover of more than century to appreciate what a fine artist she was.
I’ll start with two selections from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Nobles seigneurs, salut is sung by the page Urbain in Act 1. It’s usually performed by a mezzo, though it was written for a soprano. Nezhdanova brings a lightness and brilliance to the piece that no mezzo save Marilyn Horne could match. The trill and high note at the end are beyond the reach of any mezzo. O beau pays de la Touraine is Queen Marguerite’s aria from Act 2.
The Queen of the Night’s Aria is typically sung by a very high soprano. Nezhdanova sails through it with miraculous ease. The same virtuosity is true of her recording of Una voce poco fa from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Her technique is an astounding lesson of perfect bel canto singing. The last bel canto selection is Qui la voce sua soave…Vien diletto from Bellini’s I Puritani. It’s hard to understand how a Slav had so mastered an Italian style of emotional and ornamented singing.
Nezhdanova’s voice and technique were ideal for La Traviata. Ah fors’è lui and Sempre libera from the first act were recorded six years apart 1906 and 1912, respectively. Addio del passato was recorded in between the two above aria (1910). It requires a different style of singing, more lyrical and emotional. Nezhdanova has the voice for this intense piece, but loses some of its emotional content by taking it too fast.
I don’t know if she ever sang in a Wagner opera onstage, but she did record Elsa’s first and second act arias from Lohengrin. Einsam in trüben Tagen Lohengrin and Euch Lüften, die mein Klagen both recorded in 1910 show that a lyric soprano can bring a different insight to Wagner’s music. Notice how rich her tone is in a style different from bel canto, but which greatly benefits from a singer who has mastered florid singing and who can adapt to Wagner’s demands.
The Bell Song from Delibes’ Lakmé again showcases her brilliant staccato high notes. Finally, Sì, Mi chiamano Mimì from La Bohème which was still a new opera when Nezhdanova recorded it. I don’t know why she omits the aria’s conversational last line which mars an otherwise fine reading.
If Nezhdanova had made her career in New York rather than Moscow, she would be a legend in the West.