Rosa Raisa (1893-1963) was born in Białystok, Poland as Raitza Burchstein. Because of the pogroms endemic in Russian controlled Poland during her childhood, her family fled to Italy when she was 14. Her vocal talent was soon recognized and she made her professional debut when she was 20. She sang at most of the world’s great opera houses with the notable exception of New York’s Metropolitan. The reason for her absence from this august company was doubtless the other Rosa – Rosa Ponselle. They were contemporaries, had the same vocal type, and shared much of the same repertory. There wasn’t room for both of them. Hence Raisa’s American career was made in Chicago.
Raisa is best known as the creator of the title role in Puccini’s Turandot in 1926. Arturo Toscanini chose her for the part as he had for that of Asteria in the world premier of Boito’s Nerone in 1924. Toscanini was not her only admirer. Enrico Caruso who had sung with her in London and Buenos Aires called her “the greatest dramatic soprano in the world.”
Her voice was renowned for both its power and agility. She did not make that many recording and from the ones she did make it’s hard to discern the large sized voice she was said to have. Her vocal agility is clearly heard on her recordings. The ease with which she handles florid passages is rare for a dramatic soprano who can sing Turandot and the big Verdi soprano parts.
D’amor sull’ali rosee is of course the supreme test for a Verdi soprano. This recording was made when Raisa was only 25. While it’s not up to the Zinka Milanov standard, neither was Zinka when she was 25. Using a measure fit to normal humans, it’s very good. The Miserere is also from the 4th act of Il Trovatore. This recording was made in 1923. The tenor is Armand Tokatyan. Tokatyan was a mainstay at the Met for more than 20 years. He sang 449 performances with the company.
In 1929 Raisa opened the new Chicago Civic Opera house in the title role of Aida. She was picked for the part by the company’s patron, industrialist Samuel Insull. She and her husband, baritone Giacomo Rimini, invested all their money in Insull’s securities and lost it all when he went broke during the depression. O patria mia opens the Nile Scene. The role was one of her most performed parts.
The Ave Maria from the last act of Verdi’s Otello shows the evenness of her vocal line and her ability to sing with restraint and control. The Bolero from Verdi’s I Vespiri Siciliani was recorded in 1920. It shows the singer’s mastery of fioratura which, as mentioned above, is so rare in a big soprano. Pace, pace mio dio is from the last act of La Forza del Destino. The aria sounds sharp. I suspect it was recorded at different speed from that at which it was put to disc.
Casta Diva ~ Ernani! involami ~ Un bel dì vedremo are presented in sequence. The first from Bellini’s Norma, the second from Verdi’s Ernani, and the last from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The selections show the soprano’s range and versatility. Another Puccini aria is Viss d’arte from Tosca. Beautifully sung even if the Italian is not idiomatic.
Here are two arias by Boito. The first with word and music by him L’altra notte from Mefistofele. The singing is excellent, though it lacks the Italianate passion needed to fully realize the piece. The second just has words by Boito. Suicidio is from the final act of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda.
La mamma morta is from the third act of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier. Finally, here two songs in Yiddish. The first of these ‘Eili, Eili’ was typically performed at the end of Raisa’s numerous recitals. Two Yiddish songs.
Raisa was clearly one of the great dramatic sopranos of the first part of the 20th century. Her memory may be fading, though she deserves to be remembered.