The life of Lina Bruna Rasa (1907-84) is one of opera’s saddest tales. A phenom, she made her debut in 1925 at age 18. Her last performance was in 1942 when she was 34. She was one year younger than Zinka Milanov, yet the two sopranos seem of different eras. Milanov sang at the Met until 1966. Her peak years were the early 50s.
Bruna Rasa was born in 1907 in Padua where she began vocal studies at age 14. By the time she was 19 Toscanini had engaged her to sing Elena in Boito’s Mefistofele at La Scala. She soon was singing all over Europe and in Egypt and South America. Mascagni conducted her as Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana in the Piazza San Marco in Venice before a crowd of 35,000 people. She became his favorite impersonator of the role. He chose her for the recording of the opera to mark its 50th anniversary. Beniamino Gigli was Turiddu.
Her personality was always a bit odd. Her mental problems became more severe after the death of her mother. By the time of her Cav recording in 1940 she was hallucinating. She seemed fine when singing, but drifted away with the music. She had multiple admissions to santitoriums. Her last performance was in 1942 at the outdoor arena in Pesaro. She spent the last 36 years of her life in a mental institution in Milan. What should have been one of opera’s greatest careers was obliterated by mental illness.
I can only guess as to what her diagnosis was; but a reasonable theory would be that she suffered from chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia. It’s an outdated term, but it still conveys meaning. Regardless of what was afflicting Bruna Rasa, it ended her productive life.
When listening to her recording, note that the early ones made when she was barely into her 20s show a rich dark sound that is capable of great dynamic flexibility, but which also has a very rapid vibrato that some may find off putting. Her later recording show that she had completely put the vibrato in its proper place. Remember, that this was singer who was mute after age 34.
In quelle trine morbida from Act 2 of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut displays the singer’s vocal flutter in full flight. It has much to admire, but it can’t compare to Rosa Ponselle’s recording of the same aria made just a few years earlier. As far as I can tell the only Puccini opera in Bruna Rasa’s repertoire was Tosca.
Giordano’s Andrea Chenier was was opera Bruna Rasa performed on stage. La mamma morta is from Act 2. This was another early recording made when the singer was 21.
Two selections from Boito’s Mefistofele. L’altra notte in fondo al mare is from the start of Act 3. Margareta has been imprisoned for the death of the mother and infant child. Spunta l’aurora pallida is from the same act. It is Margareta’s reaction Faust’s arrival in her cell and her horror at seeing Mefistofele. A celestial choir proclaims her redemption as the act ends.
As mentioned above, Tosca was a role Bruna Rasa sang in the opera house. Vissi d’arte needs no further comment.
The remaining excerpts were recorded later and show the voice in its full glory. The duet between Amonasro and Aida in the third Act of Verdi’s opera was made with the noted baritone Carlo Galeffi. Ciel mio padre
Finally two selection from her most famous role – Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. First the aria Voi lo sapete in which Santuzza tells Mamma Lucia about her fling with Turiddu and its inevitable consequence. Then the blazing duet with Turiddu in which he refuses her entreaties to return to her. Beniamino Gigli is the tenor and Giulietta Simionato is Lola. Later her career Simionato assumed the role of Santuzza. I heard her do it at the old Met. She was terrific. The composer conducts.
The gifted young soprano was the victim of another of life’s cruel and seemingly random thunderbolts. A career that should have lasted until the 60s was crushed by madness. The universe is vast and our understanding virtually without foundation. Ripeness is all.