Make the movie already!

A Florentine girl is smitten with the theater at age eleven upon seeing the great actor Tommaso Salvini. She has a voice; opera calls her. By sixteen she is a sensuous beauty courted on every side and - more important to her - is a success onstage at Sinaluga in the role of Azucena. At 19 she is singing leads in her hometown opposite the big names of the day; Turin, Modena, and Genoa soon grab her up; a tour of Spain follows. By 25 she is an established star on the Italian circuit and a widow with two young children. Here the dramatic pace picks up.

At 27 she is singing Amneris on tour in Rio de Janeiro, having a passionate affair with the charismatic Russian tenor who sings Radames. The public rejects a lackluster conductor and the couple persuades the brilliant young principal cellist of the orchestra to mount the podium; so begins the career of Arturo Toscanini. We’re in 1887.

Medea Mei-Figner as Tosca

Medea Mei is our heroine’s name. In that year she follows her tenor, Nikolai Figner, to St. Petersburg for a triumphal debut in Les Huguenots (she is now switching to dramatic soprano roles). Figner is the beau idéal of the Marinsky, the scion of a noble family whose five siblings have all become revolutionaries. Medea’s impact on the Russian public is described by a baritone who sang with her there: “Her whole appearance was simply staggering - beauty of face, hair, singing, stage movement, and costume . . . Her voice was rich - soft-grained, smooth, and sonorous - with uninhibited heights and velvety depths. Medea’s special femininity was hers alone in Russia.”

By 1889 the Figners are married, Medea has learned Russian, and Tchaikovsky is planning an opera for the couple. The Queen of Spades is completed while the composer is their guest in Florence, and debuts in 1890; Yolanta follows, and after Tchaikovsky’s death come new operas by Napravnik, who had conducted the Queen of Spades premiere. The glamorous pair meanwhile introduces Otello, Cavalleria rusticana, Pagliacci, La bohème, and Tosca to the Russian audience. Tsars and nobles shower them with gifts. Four more children are born.

But the marriage collapses in bitter divorce in 1904. Both spouses are creatures of passion; Medea’s lovers include the jeweler Cartier and the industrialist dynamite inventor Nobel, while Nikolai cannot stop seducing new sopranos. And Russia is in turmoil. All three of Medea’s sons are dead in battle by the end of the Revolution. Nikolai’s sister Vera emerges after 20 years of imprisonment and eleven more of exile (for her role in the assassination of Tsar Alexandr II); on her return in 1915 she is hailed as “the Venus of the Revolution” while her estranged brother sinks into poverty and dies in 1918. Medea, who has bidden farewell to the stage as Carmen in 1912, ekes out a living teaching voice and surreptitiously selling off the jewels a sympathetic Bolshevik (an opera fan) has let her keep even as her real estate is confiscated.

In 1930 she escapes to Paris, carrying the precious gramophonic souvenirs of her voice: “In the end I had to damage them, because Soloist to the Tsar was printed on the labels, but I got them out.” And there she lives on in the phantom realm of Russian emigrés, long enough to record a half-hour interview of pre-Revolutionary reminiscences and bits of singing at age 90 after a second World War has wiped out most remaining traces of the various worlds she had inhabited.

Does this sound like a good studio property to you? A grand old cheesy panoramic spectacle, part Dr. Zhivago, part Interrupted Melody - do those still make money? If so Anna Netrebko definitely needs to option the role.  

In the meantime, Mei-Figner’s records of 1901-1904 give us some of our earliest and best ideas of the deep-seated Italian dramatic soprano sound, an ancestor of the kind of singing that would later be represented by Ponselle and Tebaldi. It is grounded in chest-voice firmness and has obvious power, but the “soft” surface noted by the baritone (Sergei Levik) is in velvety evidence. The control of dynamics and the evenness of sustained tones are in all parts of the range immaculate.

Here are her very first record and one of her rarest (they are all rare). Tosti’s “Penso” is sung in the most classic Italian pronunciation, never exaggerated but crystal clear. The super-rarity is Margherita’s aria from Mefistofele (another vehicle for the couple, and one in which they were able to support the advancement in St. Petersburg of the young phenomenon Chaliapin). It is sung in Russian, and though made two or three years later, sounds more primitive. It was probably originally recorded on cylinder when the Columbia company made its first efforts in Russia.


In life Medea had some eccentricities that might play well on screen (she trained a pet chimpanzee to serve drinks to her guests; the poor beast learned to open a bottle and drank itself to an untimely death). But her singing was centric, and even fairly “modern” in its interpretive stance. We don’t find the startling freedoms or spectacular effects of her Italian contemporaries Fernando de Lucia or Olimpia Boronat, the Genovese soprano who like Mei-Figner wound up in Russia. Two things not so modern, though, are worth learning from. One is the frankness of the drop into chest register at and below middle F (notice how her rhythm doesn’t even hesitate over the transition). The other, not unrelated, is the calm simplicity with which she sustains the top notes. If the latter quality is not immediately apparent at the climax of “Penso,” however, a technical problem of primitive recording plays a role.

In 1901 the gramophone business was still in its infancy; Russia was in fact the first market in which “celebrity” artists were persuaded to record, and the engineers seem not yet to have learned about turning the singer away from the recording horn for loud high notes. In most of Medea’s early records, including “Penso,” the highest ones are distorted by the “blasting” sound produced when the playback needle damages the grooves in response to a stronger signal than the old shellac can handle. This has an effect beyond annoyance. In many voices, one end of the vibrato’s pitch-span is louder than the other. So if the “blasting” is provoked afresh with each up-and-down cycle, it cannot help exaggerating the subjective impact of the vibrato itself. This happens in every known copy of Medea’s most famous record, the Queen of Spades aria that commemorates the first opera Tchaikovsky wrote with her in mind. Restoration techniques can moderate the problem, but not remove it entirely.

Screen shot from Queen of Spades aria

You can see this in the screen shot above (from the highly recommended VoceVistaVideo software program). The heavy red squiggle near the bottom traces the three fundamental pitches Mei-Figner was singing at the aria’s climax (A, B, A). The two fainter parallel squiggles above are the first two overtones (the lack of higher ones is what makes acoustically-recorded sopranos sound “thin” - in Ghena Dimitrova’s 1987 CBS recording as published, there is clear signal up to the 13th overtone, which is beyond the top of the piano keyboard).  The vertical lines that look like faint Chinese calligraphy are the “blasts” - added percussion up and down the audible pitch range each time the vibrato hits its peak.

In the next clip you can hear the three notes as they sound on ordinary playback (i.e. only minimally filtered for noise), and then as they sound with all frequencies above and below the sung pitches cut out. That means we hear only the bit of “blast” that shares that tiny slice of frequency, and so we get a much less distorted impression of her real vibrato.


Of course, you can’t transfer a record that way (notice that the accompaniment also disappears, and part of the vocal timbre too, even though we’re happy to be freed from the noise of groove damage). So we have to keep our imaginations active to divine what early sopranos sounded like - but the clues help. Meanwhile, here to close is a fragment of the same record, from the point we just heard to the expertly shaded chest-voice cadence at the end.

Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples, and click here for some pointers on how to listen.