Giannina Russ (née Cerri, 1873-1951) reached the world’s leading theaters - including international ones like Covent Garden, St. Petersburg, Buenos Aires, the Vienna Court Opera and Oscar Hammerstein’s legendary Manhattan Opera House - without ever quite becoming a star. She shared the stage with Slezak, Battistini, Caruso, Toscanini, and other greats of the day, but is probably best-remembered today for having made 108 individual recordings of songs and arias - a longer list than any earlier female singer had compiled.
Listening to any of them, you can understand both dimensions of the description. Russ was an impeccable vocalist, a stylish singer, and clearly a good musician who could record both from her own stage repertory and whatever else the infant recording companies might need for their catalogues. It’s probably fair to say that she lacked that last degree of sonic glamour or gripping personality that make a “star.” But she sounds like she’d make a fantastic teacher - and that seems to have been the case; she maintained a studio in Milan for many years after retirement and several of her students achieved fame.
Actually she can still teach today, through records like this one from L’africaine. How to bind intervals in classic legato without overdoing the audible portamento, for instance, and how to bend the rhythm to make time for this when needed. How to make an intelligible range of dynamic contrasts even within a piece that is mostly soft, and without ever losing core resonance. And though in some things a record can’t teach the “how,” she definitely gives a great example to live up to in cleanness of attack, precision of scale-work, fineness of trill, balance of registration on the difficult low E natural that occupies so much of the song, and smooth passage from head to chest without breaking stride in the difficult triplet passage.
But what kind of voice is it? I suspect most casual listeners to this record would infer a standard lyric-coloratura soprano, and in that light, Russ’s actual repertory in the theater might come as a surprise. Her most frequent role was Norma, which she sang in at least 28 productions between 1904 and 1920. Next in order of frequency came Un ballo in maschera, Aida, and La gioconda; also in the list were Tannhäuser, Nabucco, Il trovatore, Don Carlo and La forza del destino. It’s true that the aria from L’africaine never calls “big” high notes into play, and one can never quite judge those from early recordings anyway, but on Russ’s other discs - ranging from Aida, Forza and Nabucco excerpts to Isolde’s Liebestod - we can hear she had no trouble letting the voice sail out to ride the climactic lines.
We sometimes say “oh, but houses were smaller then,” which is true for 1700 but not really for 1900. There is no way Russ didn’t have a “big” voice. L’elisir, Rigoletto and Manon were left to others while she sang Aida everywhere. The real lesson here is that big voices, even the biggest, were expected to have the same skills of control and agility as that hypothetical lyric-coloratura.
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.