On February 1, 1893, Giacomo Puccini’s third opera, Manon Lescaut, premiered at the Teatro Regio, Turin. Three years later to the day, his next stage work, La bohème, had its illustrious premiere at the same theater. In addition to the date and location, there was one other common thread linking those two productions: Cesira Ferrani, the Turinese soprano who created the roles of Manon and Mimi. Although she is almost completely forgotten today, Ferrani clearly impressed the composer–he said of her Manon that it was “ideal in appearance, talent, and voice,” and the day after La bohème opened, he praised her as his “true and splendid” Mimi.
A student of the Austrian dramatic soprano Antonietta Fricci, Ferrani made her local debut in 1887 as Micaela in Carmen; over the next two decades she would appear as Gilda, Juliette, Suzel (L’amico Fritz) Charlotte (Werther), Amelia (Simon Boccanegra), Elisabeth (Tannhauser), Elsa (Lohengrin), Eva (Die Meistersinger), and, in 1908, as Melisande in the first La Scala performance of Pelléas et Mélisande. After retiring the following year she spent much of the remainder of her life in Turin, where she established a a salon. She died in 1943.
In 1903, Ferrani recorded several arias for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company, including the following selections from today’s anniversary operas.
Manon Lescaut- “In quelle trine morbide”
La Bohème– “Mi chiamano Mimi”
Michael Scott, writing in The Record of Singing about Ferrani’s early recordings, notes that:
“Hers is a typical Mimi voice, with the characteristics we should expect to hear from a singer in this music today. The quality is pleasing, though she has little support left and there is not much legato; the phrasing lacks breadth and the tone has become quavery. For all that, Mimi’s ‘racconto’ has the right girlishness; though she must have sung it time out of number by then, it is still an expressive interpretation with even a suggestion of improvisation. As Manon, she is unable to float the opening phrase of ‘In quelle trine morbide,’ and the climax extends her to the limits, the high B flat collapsing into an unsupported slide. However, she sings entirely without the recourse to the cheap, etxra-musical effects that later became so familiar in these works.”
Questions abound. Is there anything at all to be gleaned from Ferrani’s recordings, or are they at best imperfect historical documents of a singer well past her vocal prime? How do we reconcile Puccini’s generally favorable comments with what we hear with our own ears? Is it possible to make a fair and accurate assessment of Ferrani’s voice when we have no idea what she actually sounded like before 1903? And, finally, how much should we rely on historical recordings for evidence of performance practice and style?