The name of operatic soprano Claudia Muzio is little-known today, except perhaps to opera historians and those interested in the great prima donnas. During the early years of the 20th century, her fame was such that she was ranked with artists such as Enrico Caruso, Amelita Galli-Curci, and Ebe Stignani.

Claudia Muzio was born near Milan, Italy, on 7th February 1889, into a family well versed in the theatre. Her father was a stage director, at both London's Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera in New York; and her mother, a choral singer. She studied in Milan with Elettra Callery-Vivian; and in Turin with Annetta Casaloni, who created the role of Maddalena in Verdi's Rigoletto.

Muzio made her stage début with the role of Manon in Massenet's Manon in 1910. Later roles included another Manon, this time Puccini's Manon Lescaut (1912, Teatro dal Verme, Milan; and again at Covent Garden, 1914); Mimi, in Puccini's La Boheme (opposite Caruso); and Margarita in Boito's Mefistofele.

She débuted at the Metropolitan in 1916, singing the title role in Puccini's Tosca (again with Caruso), and remained there for seven seasons. She spent ten years, 1922-32, at the Chicago Opera (débuting as Tosca), with a side engagement at La Scala in the 1926-27 season. Muzio's performances as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata were most notable; her voice was 'made of tears and sighs and restrained inner fire', according to the tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi.

A typical review of one of her Metropolitan performances (in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin) reads thus:

"(Her) singing and impersonation of the principal feminine role was an artistic feat which almost completely vitalized and signalized what must have been a very tepid, vapid sort of heroine, making Tatiana a glorious creature of glowing flesh and blood, of tempestuous passion and of every splendid quality." (John H. Raftery, The Telegraph, March 1920)

Many of Muzio's recordings survive and have been transferred to compact disc. Even with the limitations of the 78-rpm recording process used in her time, you can still get a sense of what it must have been like to hear her on the stage. In her rendering of "La Mamma Morte" (Giordano, Andrea Chènier), for example, it is not necessary to understand Italian to sense the pain in the aria. Hearing Muzio's "L' Altra Notte" (Boito, Mefistofele), you feel the anguish of Margarita, who has poisoned her mother and killed her illegitimate child. Muzio ends the aria with a gasp of despair, as Margarita senses her impending execution.

There is a dearth of information about Claudia Muzio. She was a very private person, and it appears that she preferred to express herself on stage and record, rather than grant interviews. However, she employed a private secretary, May Higgins, from 1929 to 1935. Miss Higgins wrote many letters describing her travels with Muzio, and those have been preserved. In those letters, Miss Higgins describes Muzio thus: "the most thoughtful person in the world", "No queen could be given more homage than Claudia receives here in her own country", and "Unlike most women of her profession, she does not like being the center of attention unless she is on the stage".

Claudia Muzio died prematurely on 24th May 1936, in Rome. There was some controversy as to the cause - suicide was suspected, but the official determination was heart disease. She lives on, though, through her many recordings. Once you have heard her voice, it is not one you are likely to forget.


DISCOGRAPHY (selected recordings)

Claudia Muzio - The Complete HMV and Edison Recordings, Romophone 81005, 1995
Claudia Muzio - The Complete Pathé Recordings (1917-18), Romophone 81010, 1995
Claudia Muzio - The Complete Columbia Recordings (1934-35), Romophone 81015, 1996
Opera Arias and Songs - Claudia Muzio, EMI/Angel 7697902, 1988 (my recommendation for a good introduction to her work)


SOURCES:

http://www.metopera.org/history/week-970428.html
http://www.mrichter.com/opera/files/files.htm, "Following a Star"
CD Liner notes: Opera Arias and Songs - Claudia Muzio. EMI/Angel 7697902, 1988
Christiansen, Rupert. Prima Donna: A History. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1984
Rasponi, Lanfranco. The Last Prima Donnas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982

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