Celestina Boninsegna (1877-1947) was an Italian soprano best known for her facility with Verdi’s great soprano parts. Born in Reggio Emilia she was something of a vocal prodigy. Her first appearance on stage was as Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale; she was 15. Following the completion of her vocal studies at the Conservatorio Gioachino Rossini in Pearo she made a second début in 1897 in Bari as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust.
She subsequently appeared at most of the world’s leading opera houses. Her Met debut in 1907 opposite Enrico Caruso was in the title role of Verdi’s Aida. In total she appeared seven times with the company, all in 1907 and never returned. Why such a fine singer who was in 1907 at the apogee of her powers was forever after absent from the Met is unknown to me.
Boninsegna had a rich soprano with a secure top and a resonant chest voice that produced a remarkable sound when she employed the bottom portion of her range. Some listeners thought her chest tones to be disconnected from the rest of her voice. I don’t find this a problem. Her strengths are the beauty of her tone across her entire range combined the ease with which she handled fioratura passages. She could produce some fine pianissima at the top of her voice, though not quite with the same effect that Zinka Milanov or Montserrat Caballé did. Her main negative is her tendency to occasionally aspirate an extra syllable as she transitions from note to note. She retired from the stage at age 44 and concentrated on teaching thereafter. The reason(s) for her early departure from performing is also not known to me.
As a Verdi soprano I would put her in the same class as Rosa Ponselle or Milanov. Although this assessment is based solely on her acoustical recordings. She made 107 such recordings. The soprano voice was captured with difficulty by this primitive technique, but she seems to have overcome this hurdle. Also, if you’re looking for interpretative effects like those produced by Maria Callas, you won’t get them from Boninsegna. The beauty of her voice and its technical excellence are her strengths. Obviously, my assessment of her skill and artistry is based on clouded evidence, so it may be off.
Bel raggio lusinghier is from Act 1 of Rossini’s Semiramide. The opera was not in Boninsegna’s repertoire, but her recording of the well known aria shows her great strength with highly ornamented music, a skill not typical of Verdi sopranos. A bravura performance by a big voiced singer.
Ponchielli’s La Gioconda requires a soprano with the same vocal qualities needed for the big Verdi roles. Both Ponselle and Milanov, the most prominent Verdi sopranos of their respective eras, had the title role in this opera as a major part of their repertoires. Suicidio is from the opera’s 4th act. Note the impressive chest tones.
Lascia per or che libero is a duet from Act 1 of Catalani’s Loreley. The opera is based on the German legend of the Lorelei. The tenor is Luigi Bolis. The work is rarely performed. Boninsegna never performed the opera in a theater. The same is true for almost everyone else.
One of the few operas written by Verdi’s would be successors that Boninsegna performed on stage was Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Voi lo sapete, o Mamma is richly sung. Her sound is lush and full. The only Puccini opera on her list was Tosca. The very familiar Vissi d’arte suits her dark voice perfectly. Why she abjured the rest of Puccini’s work is unclear.
Now for Verdi, the composer to whose work much her career was dedicated. Ernani involami is from the opera’s first act. Verdi wrote three operas in which the leading soprano is named Leonora. His first Leonora is in his first work for the stage, Obero, Conte di San Bonifacio, which is rarely done. The other two Leonoras appear in works that are part of the standard repertory.
Two arias by the Trovatore Leonora. Tacea la notte placida is from Act 1. Bonisegna’s recording includes the cabaletta but as the price of omitting the second half of the aria. D’amor sull’ ali rosee from Act 4 is possibly both the most demanding and beautiful Italian aria for the soprano range. She gives the aria a beautiful reading, though the only pianissimo high note is the final one. The Forza del destino Leonora has a spectacular last scene aria – Pace, pace mio Dio. Boninsegna’s rendition is extraordinary despite the asperates mentioned above. The final high C will knock your glasses off. Finally, Ritorna vincitor from Aida.
The noted sound engineer Ward Marston had remastered all 107 of Boninsegna’s recordings. You can get Marston’s reastering via this link. You’d have to be an unusually enthusiastic devotee of the soprano voice to be in the market for Marston’s latest restoration, but if you fall into that category go for it. Regardless of where one stands on the soprano spectrum, Boninsegna was a fine artist whose work deserves attention even after the passage of well over a century.