Leyla Gencer (1928-2008) was a Turkish soprano who made most of her career in Italy. She was a lirico-spinto who like Maria Callas could sing just about anything in the Italian repertory. Unlike Callas, because of an outstanding technique she was able to do so for a long career. To my ears she had a much better sound than Callas and equaled her in the excellence and sensitivity of her portrayals. And she had that rarest of vocal qualities – intelligence.
Born to a Polish mother and Turkish father in a suburb of Istanbul, she initially trained at the Istanbul Conservatory. She then studied privately with the Italian soprano Giannina Arangi-Lombardi. She then was a student of the renowned baritone Apollo Granforte. After singing successfully in Turkey for several years, she made her Italian debut at the San Carlo in Naples in 1953. She made her La Scala debut as Mme. Lidoine in the 1957 world premiere of Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites. She sang at La Scala and the other important Italian houses until she retired from opera in 1985.
He repertoire was centered around Verdi and the bel canto composers, especially Donizetti. Because of her extraordinary technique she was able to sing the most florid passages as well as the heavy Verdi parts with equal facility. Her combination of beautiful tone, exceptional expressive ability, and vocal skill placed her at the pinnacle of 20th century sopranos.
So why isn’t she better known? Why did such a great artist never appear at the Met? She didn’t have a big record label behind her. In fact, I don’t think she ever made a studio recording apart from performances meant for broadcast or telecast. Almost all the recordings of her voice were “pirated” or otherwise made in performance. Accordingly, they are of variable sound quality. Nevertheless, they clearly show how extraordinary a performer she was.
She also seems to have lacked the support of big time representation which may, at least partially, explain why the Met’s audience never heard her. Another explanation is that the New York company is notorious for its nitwit management. That the world’s greatest opera company didn’t engage one of the world’s greatest singers is inexcusable.
Gencer had at least 72 operas in her repetoire, perhaps 78. Her artistic qualities were unsurpassed by any other soprano active during the last century. No great artist ever goes completely unrecognized during her life. Gencer always had a devoted following, though their number is far smaller than her merit deserves.
Verdi was a core part of Gencer’s repertoire. To show how varied and fluent was her technique here’s the final scene of the first act of La Traviata beginning E strano which moves to the florid Sempre libera. Now listen to her in two of Verdi’s weightiest soprano roles – Leonora in Il Trovatore and the title part in Aida. D’amor sull’ali rosee is followed by the Missere. This recording was made for TV; the tenor is Mario del Monaco. Gencer was only 29 at the time. The two Aida soprano arias were made at the Verona Arena, but in different years. Gencer Ritorna vincitor; Gencer O patria mia.
Nabucco and Macbeth send their soprano protagonists for a long walk on the wild side. Both roles require a lot of terribilità. Both Abigaille and Lady Macbeth are demons and that’s exactly how Verdi paints them. Ben io t’invenni… Anch’io dischiuso un giorno is in the second act of Nabucco. First there’s anger and bitterness followed by a relatively calm moment for Abigaille as she recalls past happiness.
Lady Macbeth has no moments of calm or repose. She’s a killer until she finally goes mad. Vieni! t’affretta! is from the Act 1 scene 2. The aria is preceded by the reading of the letter from Macbeth describing his encounter with the witches. She is possessed by the desire for power. La luce langue (The light fades) is from Act 2. Verdi’s Lady (he always referred to her with that single word) exults in the powers of darkness. Alas, the sound is poor in this made in performance recording. The Sleepwalking Scene is one of Verdi’s finest creations.
As mentioned above, Gencer was strongly identified with bel canto opera. First one Bellini and then to Donizetti . The title role in Norma is usually assigned to a spinto soprano. Nevertheless, Gencer sings Casta diva with a simple excellence that appears effortless.
Gencer specialized in many Donizetti operas that had fallen to disuse. Belisario was one of them. The opera is a fictionalized account of the latter part of the Byzantine general Belisarius’ life. Egli è spento is from Act 3. Gencer was the foremost proponent of the leading soprano role, Bellisario’s estranged wife Antonia. Note the long high note held for a very long time while the chorus sings.
Poliuto is a three act opera based on Pierre Corneille’s play Polyeucte written in 1641–42. The libretto was written by Salvadore Cammarano, who also wrote the libretti for Lucia di Lammermoor and Belisario. The play was based on the life of the early Christian martyr Saint Polyeuctus. The opera was written for the San Carlo in Naples, but at the last moment King Ferdinand II refused to allow the martyrdom of a Christian saint to be seen on stage and forbade the production. Donizetti revised it to a four act French libretto as Les Martyrs for the Paris Opera.
Occasionally revived, La Scala did Poliuto for Callas and Franco Corelli in 1960. After four performances Callas left and was replaced for the final three by Gencer. The Act 2 finale from a 1975 performance has Gencer singing with Amadeo Zambon as Poliuto. The ensemble ends with Gencer’s high D which apparently Corelli joined in during the La Scala run in 1960.
In a 1967 performance of Maria Stuarda, Gencer sings with Shirley Verrett as Queen Elizabeth I. Act 1 scene 2 in Fotheringhay Castle depicts the fictional confrontation between the two Queens, they really never met. This scene is the one where Mary calls Elizabeth “vil bastarda” among a lot of other nasty remarks. Gencer’s curse is so persuasive that the Florentine audience breaks into applause as soon as it’s uttered. The finale that follows is Donizetti at his best. Gencer’s ultimate high note is a blaze.
Com’è bello! Quale incanto in quel volto onesto e altero! is from the Prologue to Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Lucrezia sings it to the sleeping Gennaro who is her son, though he doesn’t know it.
The Turkish diva could also sing Puccini. Senza Mamma from Suor Angelica was recorded in 1958, the year after her La Scala debut. She fully realizes Angelica’s grief for her dead child.
Gencer died in Milan in 2008. According to her wishes, her ashes were spread over the Bosphorus.
Just below is a Turkish video made in 2019 as a tribute to the late singer. Perhaps the most interesting part of it is the elderly singer, now a voice teacher, listening to a recording of her younger self singing the ending of Norma. She is seated in front of a group of students as the film’s credits role. The camera doesn’t move from her face. One can only guess what she thinking of, but she’s moved to tears and puts on sunglasses. I think her face displays what it means to be human. She hears glory rampant, but departed. Glory that might have been more fully realized had her life unreeled just a bit differently. Who knows? We all might have taken a better or just a different turn. It’s a scene that speaks to us all. I’ve separated this last scene from the rest of the video so the viewer can watch it apart from the whole story of the singer’s life and career.