EMMA CALVÉ The Complete 1902 G&T, 1920 Pathé and "Mapleson Cylinder" recordings.  Arias from Carmen, Cavalleria Rusticana, The Pearl of Brazil, Hérodiade, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Norma, Le Nozze di Figaro, La Périchole, La Vivandière, Sapho; songs of Massenet, Foster, Gounod, Martini, de Lisle, Yradier, Beethoven, Lully, Godard, Hahn, de Lara, Thomas, Bland and Rosa
CÉCILE MERGUILLIER  Arias from Sapho, Galathée, Pardon de PloÈmel (Dinorah), Le Pré aux Clercs, Le Domino Noir and Manon; Edison Cylinder 1904/5: music of Thomas, Massenet, MassÈ, Thomas and Gounod
MARSTON 52013 (2 CDs) (ADD) TT: 68:33 & 70:05

 

EMMA CALVÉ The Complete Victor recordings (1907-1916).  Arias from Cavalleria Rusticana, Carmen, The Pearl of Brazil, Hérodiade; songs of David, Foster, Gounod, Martini, Yradier and De Lisle, plus traditional songs.
ROMOPHONE 81024 (F) (ADD) TT:  62:47


The first decade of Emma Calvé's career didn't amount to much.  Her debut in 1882 in Brussels was a forgettable event, after which she studied with a series of teachers to develop a secure technique.  However, she was always held back by her personal insecurity and shyness. After overcoming those obstacles she was considered to be the greatest French soprano of the nineteenth century—although it took her many years to reach her peak of performance.  Calvé was born in 1858 into a farming family in the Aveyron region, but when she was very young the family moved to Spain.  Spanish became her first language and it was then she developed intense fascination for gypsies, many years before she sang her most famous role, Carmen. In Paris she studied with Marchesi for three years after which she made debut at La Scala, also a major disappointment. About this time, Calvé became fascinated by the Italian tragic actress Eleonora Duse, attending many of her idol's performances.  After seeing her on stage as Santuzza, Calvé translated Duse's intense emotion to the opera stage, enjoying a triumph in Mascagni's opera, acclaimed for both her acting and singing.  Along with her strong technique she now brought intense dramatic insight to her performances.  By 1890 she was recognized as a leading prima donna of her time. Her pupil, Peggy Wood, said of her, "She was the epitome of what one thinks a prima donna should be:  tempestuous, exotic, crafty, demanding, vivacious, a mountain of strength, highly intelligent, impossible and wonderful!"

Calvé then began to study the role for which she would be most famous, that of the gypsy girl Carmen.  Of her performance George Bernard Shaw wrote,

"To see CalvÈ's Carmen changing from a live creature into a reeling, staggering, flopping, disorganized thing, and finally tumble down a mere heap of carrion, is to get much the same sensation as might be given by the reality of a brutal murder...it was the desecration of a great talent. I felt furious with CalvÈ." 

In spite of this diatribe, audiences loved her Carmen; she claimed to have sung the opera over 3,000 times (an overestimation for sure).  Even though she didn't particularly like the role, impresarios, even after her "retirement" in 1904,  tempted her with huge fees which she accepted.  In later performances her Carmen became an exaggerated caricature with musical values ignored, histrionics exaggerated.  Shaw said of one of these later performances she "carried her abandonment to the point of being incapable of paying the smallest attention to the score." Later she realized she had overstepped her mark, carried away by her passion for realism and returned to the role as she had sung it earlier.

She specialized in  Santuzza, Carmen, Marguerite in Faust, Ophélia in Hamlet and two operas by Massenet which she premiered, La Navarraise, in 1894, written especially for her (in this Shaw said she was "a living volcano, wild with anxiety.") and the same composer's Sapho in 1897. In 1891 in Rome she was in the premiere of Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz.  Two years later she made her Met debut as Santuzza.  

 She was the bane of accompanists.  Often, depending on her mood, she would wish music to be transposed either up or down. Calvé didn't trust the recording process—or companies.  When she arrived at the back-street studio of  Gramophone Company for the first time she wouldn't enter until she was paid fully.  Once inside would interrupt her own recordings with comments, ruining many "takes."  A manic depressive, she lived life to the fullest but was terrified of "overwhelming catastrophes and illness."  At one time she fell under the influence of a guru who passed on to her the secrets of breath control.  She worked for three years with an aged castrato in the Sistine Chapel from whom she learned  her "fourth voice" which involved singing (or making sounds) with the mouth closed, as if humming which can be heard at the conclusion of Ma Lisette. Even the limitations of acoustic recording cannot hide this distinctive sound.  She married at least once, but little is known of her husband(s). Calvé continued singing into her '70s living in a rough stone castle high in the mountain at Cabrières in her native Aveyron.  She remained active until her last year, climbing the mountain and singing for anyone who would listen.  She wrote two autobiographies, the first in 1922 called My Life, the second, I Have Sung Under All the Heavens, in 1940.  There are many factual errors in both, particularly about her date of birth as well as major premieres she sang.  Calvé died in 1942.  

Some years ago Pearl issued a 2-CD set (GEMM  CDS 9482) of "The complete known issued recordings" of Calvé, which has been discontinued.  Now we have the two important sets listed above. Romophone's was issued in 1997 and contains the complete Victor recordings from 1907 to 1916, none of which are included in the later Marston 2-CD issue.  Both sets were superbly produced by Ward Marston who has worked his usual wizardry in transferring these acoustic recordings, although one could not say that the primitive recording process was kind to her voice. 

Between the two sets we have Calvé in some of her best-known repertory, often in multiple performances, both opera and concert repertory.  Of particular interest is La Marseillaise recorded in 1916 in which she is joined by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus.  Found on the Romophone CD, this appropriately is followed by Mme. Calvé's1942 "deathbed" reading of excerpts from her autobiography in which she tells of the excitement of her performance of the work before a huge audience.  There was doubt that this existed and now that it obviously does, question of its authenticity—it surely sounds like the real thing.  And there is another fascinating, if frustrating, plus on the Marston set: inclusion of all of Calvés Lionel Mapleson Cylinders recorded backstage during live Met performances in 1902.  Brief snippets (the shortest 1:11, the longest 2:17) from Faust, Carmen and Cavalleria Rusticana give some idea of the excitement and quality of Clavé in live performances.  The sound is dreadful indeed, but this is a glimpse of operatic history.

The Marston set is filled out with recordings by a contemporary of Clavé, CÈcile Merguillier (1861-1938) who was a leading coloratura at the Opéra-Comique for many years beginning in 1881.  Six 1904 Pathé recordings and nine Edison Cylinders from 1904/5, mostly abbreviated (2+minutes) because of the limited recording time, announced in barking fashion by the soprano (except for the final track, announced by "Monsieur Gluck, tenor" who sings a short duet with her).  It's another fascinating glimpse into the operatic world in France at the turn of the century.  Both sets some with splendid documentation and are highly recommended.

R.E.B.