Claudia Muzio (1889-1936) was one of opera’s greatest stars during the first part of the 20th century. Born in Pavia, she was the daughter of an operatic stage manager. He moved the family to London when Claudia was 2 years old to practice his craft at Covent Garden. Accordingly, she became fluent in English as well as her native Italian. He also was a stage manager in Italy and at the Met. Claudia lived in England until she was 16 whereupon she moved Italy to study voice with Annetta Casaloni in Turin. Her father had become convinced when she 10 that she was destined to be a great opera singer.
She made her debut in Arezzo as Manon in Massenet’s opera shortly before her 21st birthday. Her success was immediate. She rapidly made debuts in London, Paris, and La Scala. She debuted at the Met in 1916 in the title role of Tosca. Enrico Caruso was the tenor at that performance. Over the next 6 years she appeared in 198 performances at the New York house. She was Giorgetta in the World Premiere at the Met of Puccini’s Il Tabarro Then in 1922 some undefined altercation with management resulted in her absence from the house for 12 years. She returned in 1934 for only three performances, two as Violetta (the only times she sang the role at the Met) and one as Santuzza. Her reviews were excellent, but her health was failing as were her finances and her personal condition. She apparently was cheated by her manager, spent extravagantly, suffered crippling losses in the market crash of 1929, and entered into a bad marriage with a man 17 years her junior. She died alone in a Rome hotel under mysterious circumstances. The official cause of her death was heart failure. She was only 47.
Muzio’s voice was not exceptionally large, but it was sufficient for her to sing the big Verdi soprano roles while maintaining enough flexibility for Violetta in Traviata. Boheme and Butterfly were in her repertoire as well as Trovatore, Forza, and Aida. She was a great actress and was often compared to Eleonora Duse. Her extraordinary technique, especially her piano singing fully realized the pathos and emotion inherent in the roles she sang. Her interpretations were the epitome of morbidezza.
I’ll start with Ah! Non credea mirarti from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Her sound is richer than this wonderful aria usually gets. Her phrasing is perfection. As far as I know, she never sang this role onstage. The same composer’s Casta Diva from Norma receives an equally compelling performance. This opera was in her repertoire, though she never sang it at the Met. She did sing the aria twice at Met concerts.
Muzio’s recordings bridge the acoustic and electronic eras. D’amor Sull’ali Rosee from Verdi’s Trovatore was from the former period. It is most notable for Muzio’s facility with filatura and the absence of trills. She appeared in 20 performances of this opera in New York. Everyone who heard and saw Muzio in La Traviata seems to have agreed the her Violetta was the best of her time. Teneste la promessa…Addio del passato from the final act supports this verdict. Pace, Pace, Mio Dio from Forza was another role she never sang in New York. Here are two excerpts from Otello (also never sung by her at the Met) with the outstanding Italian dramatic tenor Francesco Merli. I’ll likely get around to him later. Gia Nella Notte Densa is the love duet that concludes act 1. Merli sounds fine in this selection. But in Dio ti giocondi the furious encounter between Otello and Desdemona in the 3rd act he’s either too far from the microphone or about to fall asleep. Aida was a staple of Muzio’s career at the Met; she sang it there 37 times, including opening night in 1917 with Caruso. O patria mia was recorded acoustically in 1918.
L´altra Notte In Fondo Al Mare from Boito’s Mefistofele is drenched with emotion as is Poveri fiori from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. Esser madre è un inferno is from Cilea’s less well known opera L’Arlesiana. Muzio seems to get more out of it than its composer put into it. La Mamma Morta from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier is sung by every soprano in the operatic universe, but seldom with the dramatic intensity Muzio brings to it.
Finally, Muzio’s last success was in the world premiere of Licinio Refice’s first opera Cecilia. It was written for the soprano and was a sensation at its first appearance in Rome in 1934. Most of this success was due to Muzio’s searing performance. Refice was a priest in addition to being a composer. All his music has a religious theme. This opera is about the legend of Saint Cecilia. This is the death scene of the saint. La Morte Di Cecilia
Muzio was one of that small group of unique singers who occupy a special place of distinction in opera’s pantheon. Her recording are a small, but important reminder of her art.