José Luccioni (1903-78), despite the Spanish first name and the Italian surname, was a French tenor. Born in Corsica he was a race car driver and auto mechanic for Citroen before he discovered he had a voice. He studied with tenors Léon David and Léon Escalais and made his debut in Rouen as Cavaradossi in Tosca in 1931. The following year he made debuts at the Paris Opera and the Opéra-Comique. His most frequently performed role was Don José in Carmen which he sang more than 500 times. In 1936 he created the title role in Franco Alfano’s Cyrano De Bergerac.
While most of his career was made in France, he also sang in Italy, Spain, the UK and South America at the Teatro Colon. His single appearance in the US was at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in the season of 1937-38. He started out as a lirico-spinto tenor whose tone was not completely focused and with a noticeable vibrato. In his forties he became a dramatic tenor famous for his interpretation of Otello. Big voiced tenors typically mature at 40 or more. This late maturation was true of Melchior, Del Monaco, Corelli, Tucker, and contemporaneously of Jonas Kaufmann.
Del Monaco is said to have remarked when he was engaged to sing Otello in France, “Why do you want me when you have Luccioni?” When you listen to the recordings below it will be obvious to you when they were made. The recordings made in the immediate post World War II years show Luccioni’s voice to its best effect.
I’ll start with the Flower Song from Carmen, his most frequent role. Next are the two tenor arias from Massenet’s Werther – Invocation à la nature and Pourquoi me réveiller. Ah! fuyez, douces images from the same composer’s Manon was recorded around the same time and show the same style of singing. Another recording from the 1930s is Au fond du temple saint from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. Luccioni is joinded by baritone Pierre Deldi (1897-1973). Deldi was a fine baritone who sang mainly in France. While Luccioni seems closer to the microphone, Deldi’s singing seems to me to be the steadier of the two.
Luccioni’s recording of Gounod’s Faiblese de la race humaine from The Queen of Sheba was recorded in 1946. This aria is the best known piece from this rarely performed opera. His sound has changed appreciably. The rapid vibrato is gone and the voice has darkened. The singing almost seems to come from a different tenor. Finally, before we turn to Luccioni in Italian opera here is his version of the once famous song by Mischa Spoliansky (1898-1985) Heute Nacht oder nie sung in French as ‘Cette nuit mon amour’.
As Luccioni’s voice darkened he added the heavier Italian roles to his repertoire. Qu’elle me croie en libertè (Ch’ella mi creda) from the 3rd act of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West shows his voice to good advantage, though there is still a bit of flutter left. Canio in Pagliacci was a good fit for his tenor as it developed. His laugh in Vesti la giubba (in French) is a twist on the typical tenorial overstatement; he adds a bit of cynicism at its end. Celeste Aida (in French) is given a bright and forceful reading. I can’t think of anyone now singing who could do this difficult aria better. He sings the final B-flat forte as do most tenors. To sing it pp and morendo as it’s marked in the score is virtually impossible.
As I intimated above, Luccioni was famous for his Otello. Here are four excerpts from the opera. Otello’s entrance Esultate (in French) is so hard not because of it’s high notes, but rather because almost all of it is in the middle of the tenor’s passaggio. Getting a powerful and resonant sound during a prolonged stretch of music in this register, which Otello’s entrance requires, is very difficult. Latter in the same act the same tenor has to sing a long and lyrical duet – Già nella notte densa. The soprano is Maria Giovanna Vitale. Ora e per sempre (in French) marks the beginning of Otello’s descent into homicidal madness. The final excerpt, Niun mi tema (in French), is the end of the opera when Otello finally realizes that he is the biggest dupe in the history of the theater and kills himself. These selections show why Luccioni’s Otello was in so much demand.
Why certain singers fall from view after they leave the stage and life itself is often impossible to fathom. Luccioni left a lot of recordings behind which deserve to be heard. His was a major talent.