"Endowed with a voice of modest size, rather limited in the upper register, Bori used its clear and delicate timbre to draw characters of pathetic fragility . . . she imbued them with intense and passionate feeling and, in the comic repertory, with gentle and stylized charm."
Thus did Rodolfo Celletti, opera historian and author, describe the voice of the Spanish soprano Lucrezia Bori. She was born Lucrecia Borja y Gonzales de Riancho in Valencia; the exact date is unknown, but most historians agree on 24 December 1887. She claimed, half-jokingly, a distant relationship to the infamous Borgias of Italy.
Bori was educated first in a convent, and later studied at the conservatory in Valencia. She later traveled to Milan for singing lessons with Maestro Vidal. In 1908, she made her professional début at the Teatro Adriano in Rome, as Micaela (Georges Bizet, Carmen). This was followed with appearances as Nedda (Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Pagliacci) and Butterfly (Giacomo Puccini, Madama Butterfly).
The Metropolitan Opera of New York was visiting Paris in 1910, and the great Lina Cavalieri was to sing the title role in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut . Madame Cavalieri cancelled, and a replacement had to be found. Tito Ricordi, of the famous music-publishing house, suggested the relatively unknown Lucrezia Bori. She was summoned to an impromptu audition before Puccini, conductor Auturo Toscanini, and Metropolitan General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza. Assisted by Enrico Caruso, Bori’s well trained voice easily won her the role.
Gatti-Casazza offered Bori a contract, but the Teatro La Scala of Milan had already signed her. She appeared at La Scala for three seasons, singing the roles of Carolina in Il Matrimonio Segreto (Domenico Cimarosa), Frau Fluth in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Otto Nicolai), and Nannetta in Falstaff (Giuseppe Verdi). While at La Scala, Bori created the role of Octavian in the Italian premieres of Der Rosenkavalier (Richard Strauss), and Königskinder (Engelbert Humperdinck), as the Goose Girl.
Most authorities considered Bori’s voice to be just as described by Celletti. However, others felt it lacked sensuousness, and was inclined to be somewhat metallic. Yet, she knew the limitations of her instrument, and managed to overcome them through flawless diction and superb acting ability. Over the course of a performance, one paid less and less attention to the voice, and more to the way she built her characterizations: slowly, movingly, scene by scene.
BORI IN AMERICA
Following her successes in Europe, Lucrezia Bori arrived in the United States in 1912. On the Metropolitan’s opening night of the 1912-13 season, she débuted in Manon Lescaut, again with Caruso. Bori was hailed as a ‘new discovery’ and went on to appear as Mimi (La Boheme, Puccini); Gilda (Rigoletto, Verdi); Nedda (Pagliacci); and as Fiora in the American premiere of L’amore dei tre re (Italo Montemezzo). Though the critics again found her voice somewhat limited, she quickly became an audience favorite.
Bori remained at the Metropolitan through the 1915 season, when nodes were discovered on her vocal cords. Her doctors advised removal, and the condition was corrected through a series of successful operations. Then, to recuperate, she entered a state of semi-retirement. For nearly four years she rarely raised her voice above a whisper, fearing a return of the nodes. In 1919 she returned to performing, tentatively, in recitals and concerts. Fortunately, Bori’s voice had lost none of its quality, and by 1921 she felt ready to return to the Metropolitan.
Back at the Metropolitan, Bori returned to her familiar repertoire and was instrumental in the premiere of Puccini’s La rondine, in 1928. Though the libretto was weak, Puccini’s music was, in her words, “delicious . . . far more difficult than at a first glance.” She sang the role of Magda, and it was a favorite until her retirement.
Bori once again reigned supreme at the Metropolitan, but also made frequent appearances in other opera houses. One of her more popular performances was at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. There, in 1934, she sang four roles: Manon, Mignon (Ambroise Thomas, Mignon), Magda (Puccini, La rondine), and Violetta (Verdi, La Traviata), a role which caused her some difficulty.
FROM ONE LIFE TO ANOTHER
Though still in fine voice, Bori retired from the operatic stage in 1936, at a huge gala thrown in her honor at the Metropolitan. She settled easily into the life of a retired star, yet remained active in the opera world. Almost immediately, she became a member of the Metropolitan Opera Association board, taking this role as seriously as any she played on the stage. Bori became one of the company’s most successful fundraisers, and an invaluable public relations officer. When Sir Rudolf Bing took over at the Metropolitan in the 1950s, Bori took on a less prominent role.
As time went on, Bori was never far from the Metropolitan. She was regarded by all there as an old friend, a grand lady without an unkind word for anyone – including her colleagues, past and present. Bori was often heard to remark, when hearing of a singer’s difficulties, “It will be better next time. Everyone can have an off night.”
Lucrezia Bori died on 14 May 1960, in New York. She is remembered still at the Metropolitan, as one of its greatest singers, and one of its greatest supporters.
DISCOGRAPHY (selected recordings)
Lucrezia Bori: The Victor Recordings 1914-1925
. Romophone 81016, 2001
Lucrezia Bori: The Victor Recordings 1925-1937
. Romophone 81017, 2001
Lucrezia Bori, Arias
. Pearl 9246, 1996
Lucrezia Bori In Concert
. Eklipse Records, 1993
Various artists (incl. Lucrezia Bori), RCA Red Seal Century – The Vocalists
Benson, Robert E., "Lucrezia Bori", Classical CD Review. <http://classicalcdreview.com/bori.htm> 31 December 2002.
Rasponi, Lanfranco. The Last Prima Donnas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982
Christiansen, Rupert. Prima Donna: A History. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1984