The Great Marcella Sembrich
Marcella Sembrich (1858 – 1935) was the stage name of the Polish coloratura soprano, Prakseda Marcelina Kochańska. She was born in Wisniewczyk, then part of Austria, and now part of Ukraine. She first studied violin and piano with her father, and later she entered the Lemberg Conservatory and studied piano with her future husband Wilhelm Stengel . She was able to enter the Vienna Conservatory in 1875. It was soon discovered that her voice was exceptional, and she dedicated herself exclusively to voice from then on. She made her operatic debut at the relatively tender age of 19 in Athens, as Elvira in I Puritani, in 1877. She was engaged shortly thereafter by the Vienna Opera, but due to pregnancy she broke the contract. Later, after the birth of her first son, she had to wait for another opportunity and was finally hired as a guest artist at the Dresden Royal Opera House in September, 1878, as Lucia. Her success was immediate and she was dubbed the "Polish Patti." She remained in Dresden for two years, but decided to act boldly—in order to make up for lost time—and broke her Dresden contract and began concertizing on her own, in order to raise money. She managed to get to London, and after a successful audition was accepted at Covent Garden, where she was quick to sign a contract with them. She created quite a sensation in her 1880 debut there in Lucia.
Emboldened by her success, she broke her London contract two years early and came to the United States in 1883 to make her Met debut, also as Lucia. From there it was on to St. Petersburg, and eventually back to the Met in 1898, where she finally settled. She remained there until 1909, having given over 400 performances. She concertized for years, finally retiring after WWI. From then on, she dedicated herself to teaching, in important conservatories. She was very successful as a teacher, and had significant influence. Among her students were the great Alma Gluck, Hulda Lashanska, a successful concert singer, coloratura soprano (and novelist!) Queena Mario, and dramatic soprano Dusolina Giannini, who had a very successful international career. Also among her students was radio vocalist and concertizer Conrad Thibault, who studied with her at Curtis, and who told the distinguished musical biographer James A. Drake, in an interview in 1976, that “she was always very attentive and generous to her students, and talked to them personally about the [singing teachers Francesco and Giovanni Lamperti ] and their methods.” Drake goes on to say, interestingly, that “He (Thibault) added that at least in his experience with her, she never demonstrated vocalises or otherwise sang even so much as a single tone.” * She was also a fundraiser for Polish causes, following WWI.
Since Lucia played so large a part in her earlier career, serving as a frequent debut opera, it seems appropriate to begin there. I apologize for the scratchiness of the recording. I cannot find a better recording than the one I posted some years ago, and I was not able to clean up the scratching on the transfer without taking some quality from the voice. Here is the 1906 recording of “Ardon gl’incensi”:
What most impresses me about this singing is the clarity, purity, precise intonation, and general absence of affectation, either stylistic or vocal. It is, as a result, what can honestly be classified as elegant singing, not always the case with divas of the era. She was often compared to Patti, especially in her youth, and one can see why: We note the same clarity and purity of the voice, including the floating, haunting tones. Like Patti, Sembrich sings perfectly on the breath, which is how she is able to portamento up and down so smoothly and seamlessly, and also trill easily. There is considerable vocal fluidity to be noted in the singing of both these great divas from the distant past.
Another favorite opera for Sembrich was I Puritani. Here is the lovely “Qui la Voce sua Soave” from 1907:
Lovely! This is really very accomplished singing for the period. At the beginning of the aria, the same “straight,” restrained and haunting melodic line is apparent. One can notice a slight development of weight in the lower register, compared to the Lucia recording of the previous year, but it is slight and still well integrated with the rather remarkable top register. Later in the aria, the great flexibility so characteristic of her voice is on display: the rapid and well executed cadenzas, with a brilliant, in-line C sharp inserted, stand out for their precision. It was common during this time for sopranos to attempt cadenzas they could not really articulate at speed, with the result that they were in effect glissandi, often musically inappropriate. Not the case here, as it was not the case with Patti. Sembrich’s intonation and articulation are both precise, and this is most admirable.
Finally, a 1912 recording of a song from Leo Fall’s 1907 Musical Comedy Die Dollarprinzessin (“The Dollar Princess”):
Sembrich was 54 years when this was recorded. What we finally have here is a wonderful recording, first of all because the recording itself, as an artifact, has been cleaned up to such a degree that it gives us a very real look at her singing! The digital transfer was done by my friend Doug at Curzon Road, one of the best classical music sites on the web. He is extremely skilled at creating audio files from old recordings, and this is so important. I feel I can very nearly hear the voice of this singer from long ago with a clarity resembling what one might hear in the opera house. Several things become apparent; first, the purity of intonation and articulation of which we have spoken is not an aural illusion from faded 107-year-old records! It is very real, and absolutely characteristic of the voice and training. Second, the vocal registers remain superbly well integrated; there are no “register scoops” and there is no inappropriate “huskiness” in the lower register at all. The purity of the high soprano voice remains spotless even at age 54. This is a diva who deserves her reputation! A fine, elegant, articulate, vocally and stylistically immaculate first lady of the lyric stage!
* My thanks to Mr. Drake for sharing this information on Sembrich's teaching with me!