Conchita Supervia (1895-1936)
By Professor Stanley Henig
“A magnetic personality, as well as a great singer…. the kind of artist around whose name legends gather”
“Her gaiety, good temper, sympathy, and charm cloaked a keen intelligence and adamantine will power. To be with her was to inhabit a land of cloudless happiness”
“She had the rare gift which enabled her to penetrate beneath the externals of musical form and to recreate the human qualities of everything that she touched”
(H. M. Barnes and Victor Girard)
Some thirty-five years after Supervia’s tragically early death, the British Institute of Recorded Sound arranged an issue of vinyl pressed 78rpm discs of some of the greatest names in recorded vocal art. Subscribers were required to pay in advance and only the exact number ordered would be pressed. Two discs by Supervia received easily the most orders: more than such luminaries as Battistini, De Lucia, Patti, or Tamagno. Supervia’s personality and vocal style were equally unique; her career the stuff of which legends are made.
Beginning with the voice, it was—in Desmond Shawe-Taylor’s words—“a genuine mezzo-soprano of more than two octaves, from low G to high B”. He goes on to comment on her “remarkable agility: she could sing scales, arpeggios and the most elaborate roulades without turning a hair”. Later in the same article, originally published in Opera in January 1960, Shawe-Taylor tackles what for both contemporaries and subsequent listeners to Supervia’s records was and remains perhaps the most controversial aspect of her singing style—“the passionate, rapidly beating vibrato… [it] is quite another thing from the usual tremolo or wobble, caused by faulty breathing and physical insecurity”. Supervia was indeed different. “There is never anything insecure about Supervia. She has full control over her vocal resources, and, like a violinist, uses more or less vibrato at will”. One can only add that on any of her records, Supervia’s voice is immediately recognizable—unique and inimitable.
She was born in Barcelona on 9 December 1895. Her operatic debut took place shortly before her fifteenth birthday at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in a short extra season given by a troupe simply called the Spanish Opera Company. During October 1910 Supervia sang in five performances of Blanca de Beaulieu by Argentinian composer Cesar Stiattesi and four of Breton’s Los Amantes de Teruel. She also made one appearance as Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana. The next phase of her career was in Italy. Details, dates, and locations are somewhat vague but she seems to have made her Italian debut in Lecce as Carmen, followed by Mignon in the small town of Osimo and the role of Casilda in Marchetti’s Ruy Blas in the far more important Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari. However, for Supervia the culminating point of 1911 must have been her appearances as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at Rome’s Costanzi.
Now in Der Rosenkavalier Octavian is just over 17, so this is more than likely to have been the sole occasion when the singer was younger than the character. Conchita Supervia was indeed unique, but the sheer implausibility of any 15/16 year old being able, or daring, to sing such a role, let alone in such an important house, has occasioned speculation that she may actually have been older than has been suggested. One only needs to glance through the recent comprehensive Diccionario de cantantes Líricos españoles by Joaquín Martin de Sagarmínaga to see just how many female Spanish singers seem to have been conquering the major stages at an early age. However, in the case of Supervia there no longer seems any doubt that 1895 was the year of her birth. In addition, various photographs taken at the time of her early performances and published in Il Teatro Illustrato are clearly those of a teenager — suitably waiflike as Mignon, pert and attractive for the complex sexual riddles of Der Rosenkavalier, and trying very hard to look grown-up as Carmen. Supervia was much later to make recordings of these operas—her singing of Octavian is rich and stately, sung in Italian and not altogether typical of most of her vocal legacy.
Supervia first performed in her native Barcelona in spring 1912, making a huge impact as Dalila in Samson et Dalila, for her singing, stage presence, and acting alike, The adjectives are all there as shown in the various Spanish reviews quoted in “Supervia et la Presse”—“an extraordinary incarnation of Dalila”, “a revelation”, “a clear and beautiful voice”. In that first Barcelona season she also demonstrated “great dramatic artistry” as Carmen, a role she was to sing later that year at the Fenice Theatre in Venice opposite Bernardo de Muro. In 1914 she again crossed the Atlantic, this time to Havana in Cuba where she sang in Carmen, Mignon, and La Favorita. Neither the latter nor the small role of Maddalena in Rigoletto would become standard parts of her repertoire. However, it was on her return to the Liceo in Barcelona that she first appeared in an opera by Rossini, the composer with whom we would most associate Supervia, when she sang Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. As with her previous performances there was huge public enthusiasm and the local press went into overdrive, even making comparisons with Adelina Patti!
During the 1915-1916 winter season, Supervia was part of the Chicago company, seemingly her only performances of opera in the United States. Her impact was significantly less than it had been in her native Barcelona. According to Edward Moore she was “a nice girlish Carmen, a rather pleasant Charlotte in Werther, and as good a Mignon as was ever heard on the Auditorium stage”. He adds that “she might have done more, but was ill for a good part of the season”. She was, of course, part of a first class company directed by Cleofonte Campanini. Supervia’s tenor partners were Dalmorès in Mignon and Muratore in Werther and Carmen. Moore’s assessment may have been influenced by the fact that Geraldine Farrar also sang Carmen that season. At the height of her popularity, she had only recently added the role to her repertoire.
These performances in Chicago would seem to have been Supervia’s last outside Europe. For the next ten years her career was based in Italy and Spain. She first sang in La Cenerentola at the Teatro Communale in Bologna in November 1921. In that same season she also performed Carmen opposite her compatriot Michele Fleta and Benvenuto Franci and Rosina in a cast which included Riccardo Stracciari and Giuseppe Kaschmann. She also sang in Genoa, Rome (Teatro Argentina), and Turin, and most important of all at La Scala in Milan. Her first performance there was as Hänsel in Hänsel und Gretel early in 1926. Subsequently she also appeared as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro—clearly operatic management retained a penchant for Supervia in “trouser roles”!
In the final phase of Supervia’s career she went further north, first to Paris and then to London. The concert hall was now a much more prominent feature of her professional activities. On 31 March 1931 she was featured in the Diamond Jubilee Celebration of the Royal Albert Hall, singing the final Rondo from La Cenerentola with Sir Henry Wood conducting. The program described Supervia as a “coloratura contralto”. In subsequent weeks there was an orchestral concert with Weingartner and an all-Spanish recital “in costume”. Her fame was clearly sufficient for there to be no mention in the brochures of any supporting cast—orchestra or pianist. She also gave a remarkable series of four concerts covering almost the entire history of Spanish song with Ivor Newton as accompanist. On stage Supervia was now concentrating on the roles with which we most associate her: Carmen, Cenerentola, Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri, and Rosina, although she also found time to sing the title role in a revised version of Lehar’s Frasquita and to perform in Monte Carlo, Carmen and the title role in La Périchole.
These latter performances should perhaps have attracted more attention from music historians. In 1931 Supervia and the legendary Mary Garden each sang two performances of Carmen. Garden always enjoyed super-star status in France, but perhaps on this occasion the younger artist emerged with more laurels. According to one critic, quoted in T.J. Walsh’s Monte Carlo Opera, Carmen is “the ambition and despair of singers”. He went on to describe Supervia as “the good-natured Spanish girl, her glance full of sensuous promise, her hips provocatively undulating—she is indeed Carmencita—[her] success increased from act to act”. I am not sure whether these were Supervia’s only performances of Périchole. It was a part which could have been designed for her and it a sad omission from her recorded legacy.
Supervia had married and settled in London. Had fate (a tragically early death in childbirth) not decreed otherwise, this would almost certainly have been an artistic home for a continuing career. Press reviews and the recorded legacy both suggest she was still at the peak of her powers. She first sang at Covent Garden in 1934, the season being preceded by what we might well feel in retrospect was a well-engineered press row. For whatever reason, the management apparently decided to shorten the season with implications for Supervia’s contracted performances. She was quick to make it clear that she would not sing Carmen before Cenerentola and could not rehearse the second whilst still performing the first! Ivor Newton takes up the story in his autobiography At the Piano. He received a telephone call from Geoffrey Toye, the General Manager of Covent Garden. Toye understood that Newton alone had the ear of Supervia. Would he tell her that Covent Garden had spent a great deal on the production and that Sir Thomas Beecham was “greatly distressed”. Without commenting on the inherent improbability of the latter assertion, Newton commented that it would be difficult since Supervia had expressly forbidden him to utter the words “Covent Garden”. Ultimately he disobeyed and asked if she would meet Toye. Supervia agreed to stop at the Mayfair Hotel on her way from a film première to a late night supper party: Toye could look for her in the lounge. In the event the disagreement was patched up: Supervia withdrew her threat to sue Covent Garden. She only sang in La Cenerentola in the 1934 season, whilst the following year she also appeared as Carmen and Isabella.
It is an interesting reflection that at the time Supervia was making her only film. Evensong, based on Beverley Nichols’ novel, is a somewhat malicious film about an aging prima donna—clearly Melba, for so long the reigning prima donna at Covent Garden. Supervia portrayed her younger rival. The possibly manufactured row with Covent Garden with its attendant publicity was an excellent demonstration that the enduring “art” of the prima donna had not died with Melba. The anonymous publication shortly thereafter of a booklet entitled Conchita Supervia’s debut at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in “La Cenerentola” entirely devoted to press reviews—“Conchita was well worth waiting for”; “Splendid Acting”; “Prima Donna’s triumph”— was perhaps a little more of the same.
Supervia left a considerable recorded legacy, although in one respect it is hardly an adequate reflection of her career. Given the activities of the recording industry in both Spain and Italy, it seems extraordinary that she made no records until late 1927. We have, therefore, no real means of assessing her voice at the time of her youthful exploits or even during what could be considered her ‘galley years’ as she developed her unique skills in Barcelona and elsewhere. Apart from the short volume Supervia et la Presse—a collection of press notices issued by her agents—there have been no books devoted to her career. Most of the accessible critical comment comes from the last few years of her career and her life.
Supervia’s records were all made for the Lindstrom group of companies—Fonotipia, Odeon, and Parlophone—and they appeared on a variety of labels. At the time of their first publication in Britain, Herman Klein was the leading vocal critic of the Gramophone magazine. Born in 1856, he could claim to have heard them all, even as far back as Jenny Lind, admittedly in the twilight of her career. Klein offers an important historical perspective in reminding us that the roles of Rosina and Cenerentola had often been transposed upwards so as to become part of the soprano repertoire. He goes on to recall Marietta Alboni who achieved (in Cenerentola) “one of the most remarkable triumphs of her career… by the rendering of the famous rondo finale, ‘Non píu mesta’ as I had occasion to recall not long ago when it was so brilliantly recorded by Conchita Supervia”. It may be worth bearing in mind that Alboni was widely regarded as one of the greatest contraltos of the nineteenth century. It is worth quoting in extenso Klein’s review of Supervia’s recording of “Una voce poco fa”: “her bravura is singularly flexible and sometimes even brilliant… a curious feature is an extremely marked coup de la glotte, so audible that again and again in this adroit rendering… there seems to emerge due voci instead of one… the anticipation of the note can be distinctly heard on the gramophone – a phenomenon that I have never encountered before”.
Clearly the aged critic retained a keen interest for the novel, even when it was a vocal feature unlikely to enthuse the purists. It would be easy enough to surmise that Klein was another who had fallen under the spell of Supervia’s beauty and charm but his rather harsh comment on Cherubino’s arias from Le Nozze di Figaro suggests otherwise: “she overdoes the liveliness…. what is more she misses most of the meaning while her Italian positively bristles with faults”. Strangely enough in commenting on the duets from Hansel und Gretel, Klein felt that it sounded better in Italian than in the original German! Finally there is an odd reference in Klein’s 1930 review of De Falla’s popular songs—“it must be about ten years since I first came across the wonderfully clever set… here recorded”. Failing memory or did Supervia actually make some long forgotten early recordings? The only version we know —included on these CDs—was recorded in late 1928! The detail of Klein’s review is worth extensive quotation and may serve as a summation.
“It takes a born Spaniard to do them justice; nor can I imagine a rendering more true to the composer’s intentions, more redolent of the genuine national style, than that achieved by Conchita Supervia, who not only possesses a phenomenal voice, but is in her own particular way a phenomenal artist. Her rich penetrating tone varies constantly with the changing moods of the music and her contrasts seem quite as natural and appropriate. Take that between the Asturiana and the Jota—the acme of melancholy tenderness and pathos followed by the very spirit of the intoxicating dance—nothing could be more striking”.
By Professor Stanley Henig, 2004
"I wish I could score everything for horns." - Richard Wagner. "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." - Friedrich Nietzsche