A Russian Mystery

Georgievskii - Label from another Zonophone record

Georgievskii - Label from another Zonophone record

This week’s recording is obscure Zonophone made in Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania but not exactly a capital of recording) in the industry’s early days. It is an opera aria with piano accompaniment, which would normally put the date sometime before 1905, though its catalogue number would suggest something more like 1910. The singer is one A. A. Georgievskii (А.А.Георгiевскiй), and he is extraordinary, but nobody seems to know who he was. He is described (on the labels of some of his Zonophones) as “Artist of the Private Opera” - several such companies existed in pre-Revolutionary Russia - but nothing more is known. 

The name can be spelled various ways in Roman letters, and there is a tenor who sang in the West a little later as “Arnoldo Georgewsky,” who apparently served for a time as a cantor in Bucharest, and who wound up in New York City, where he was still living in the early 1960s. That Georgewsky made recordings for Odeon and Columbia sometime in the late 1920s, mostly Puccini standards; they are attractive but fairly conventional. This Zonophone singer is something else again, and though cataloguers have assumed him to be the same person as Arnoldo, I don’t think so.

The music is Almaviva’s familiar aria from Il barbiere, “Ecco ridente in cielo,” and it sounds like a throwback to the 19th-century, with lingering pianissimi, perfect trills, bold ornamentation and spectacular cadenzas. Also a lot of confusion between singer and pianist, who don’t seem to have gotten on the same page before immortalizing their work. This is another reason for suspecting that the record might be a very early one. Nobody knew at first - how would they? - that trivial errors become disproportionately annoying upon repetition. At the end of the song, neither performer seems to have any idea what the other is going to do - but to fix it they would have had to make the whole record over again from the start!

I don’t mind - I’ll take it “as is” for the free-wheeling charisma and vocal expertise. Maybe this "A. A. Georgievskii" and “Arnoldo Georgewsky” were father and son? There sounds like about a generation's worth of difference in style. In any case - if anybody has a hint, I would love to hear about it, and I only wish we had a whole series of Bel Canto arias by this guy!


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.