A Sicilian tenor, born at Catania in Sicily on November the 16th 1876, was Giuseppe Anselmi.
He was a musical prodigy, studying composition at an early age and making his debut as a violinist at Catania, at the age of 13.
He was so successful, that the following year finds him playing in concerts at Tunis and then Athens. During his late teens, his interest in singing became paramount. Although he never lost his interesting composition and indeed was a composer of some merits. His work including a symphonic poem, some piano pieces, and songs, (some of which he recorded by the way).
His singing career began humbly enough, with a touring operetta company, and his lucky day came, when on a tour in southern Italy, he was heard by Ricordi, the music publisher who urged him to study seriously and gave him a letter of introduction to Luigi Mancinelli.
As he might expect, he was a quick learner, and he was hardly 20, when he made his debut as Turridu in Cavalleria Rusticana, Athens in 1896.
He seems to have spent the next three or four years learning his trade, mainly in Greece and Egypt before singing in Genoa in 1900. He must have been a success, where he was chosen to take part in one of seven simultaneous premieres of Luscinia’s new opera, le masquerade, which had the unique distinction of being a complete failure at all seven venues. 1901 saw his debut at Covent Garden, as the Duke in Rigoletto.
I find The Times comments on his performance particularly interesting and revealing, in the light of subsequent events. I quote, ‘the tenor is a young Italian, who has sung with great success at Naples and Palermo. He is a lovely voice with pure quality, alive and graceful figure, and considerable powers of acting’.
These last, might with advantage, be kept a little in check and if you were wise, the young singer will seek the advice of some competent voice trainer.
As he already had a slight tendency to force the tone. A tendency which is certain to grow if it is not cured early.
He returned to Covent Garden in 1904, this time to greater critical acclaim. Appearing in Rigoletto, Adrianna Lecouvreur, La Boehme, Tosca, and in the usual double bill of Pagliacci with Caruso and Cavalleria Rusticana, where his performance was enthusiastically received.
Here then, is his Siciliana from that opera, Cavalleria Rusticana
Now Anselmi was in great demand. And over the next few years, he was heard in Lisbon, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna. He was adored at La Scala, and in Spain he was simply idolized. And preferred even to Caruso there.
I have mentioned before, the great rivalry generated by the appearance of the great stars, in various parts of the world.
In Spain, the camps were divided between the Anselmiests and the Batistiniests. The great baritone having a huge following in that country.
In 1906, he made the first of his almost annual visits to Moscow and St. Petersburg. And like many other Italians, he established himself as a favourite there, and indeed he made records of two Russian songs and sang them in their original language.
He was heard in Russia by Sergei Levic, a Russian baritone turned critic, who was to supply posterity with some penetrating and invaluable comments on singers in Russia. I am writing a book about them.
Here is what he has to say of Anselmi. “A most interesting phenomenon, notable for a great and finely developed musicality. He possessed a beautiful face, and the small but elegant and plastic figure, ideal for such parts as Romeo, Vetra, Andegruire, and in other roles.
Tremendously gifted, he suffered from one shortcoming, which for a singer of lesser talents, would have been an insurmountable obstacle to the achievement of great fame. In comparison with the standard of all the other of his qualities, the basic timbre of his voice was not characterized by sufficient beauty.
So much more valuable was the mastery, with which Anselmi was able to conceal this feeling and impart great charm to his timbre. Anselmi’s voice evolved noticeably within my recollection.
At first it was small and typically lyrical, after a few years it became stronger and gained in breath, and the singer began to sing without difficulty, the roles of both the troubadour and Radames. And after another few years his voice began, just as noticeably, to wane. Some spoke of his having had a throat operation, others were inclined to see this, as a result of Anselmi’s changed to L’erocospinto repertoire.
But by the time he was 42, a former favourite of the musically competent section of audiences, an idol of the young, was in essence, voiceless.
So, while still in good voice in 1907, let’s hear him sing the aria, Di Campi from Boito’s Mefistofele
In 1909 he came to Covent Garden for the last time. On May 26th in a Tosca, with Destine, Samarco and Guilleber, he sang with great charm and intensity of expression. On May 31st in a Barbieri, with Tetrazzini, he made a charming and graceful Count with elegant movements and delightfully easy voice production. And if at first, he seemed to be sparing himself too much, he sang out in the second act and played the drunken scene with great gusto and admirable art.
In a La Boehme on the 15th of June with Kuznetsova, his Adolfo was of ideal excellence. He also sang with much acclaim, in Rigoletto and Lucia de Lammermoor, both Tetrazzini.
From 1910 to 1913, he appeared at the Cologne in Buenos Aires. As far as can be traced, these were his only American engagements. But he continued to sing regularly at La Scala and his other favourite opera houses until 1916.
In 1917, he retired from the operatic stage, a man of culture and varied interests, he lived happily in his magnificent villa, at Rapallo, finding contentment in composition, and the collection of rare books. And it was in Rapallo, that he gave his last public performance, once again as a violinist on February the 27th, 1926.
He died on the 27th of May 1929 and was buried at the cathedral in Catania. But a clause in his will, bore testimony to his love of Spain, a land with greatest triumphs. It directed that his heart should be sent to the Museum of the Theatre Real in Madrid and there it is preserved to this day in a crystal coffer.
Most of the real essence of Anselmi however, is enshrined in his gramophone records.
Over 100 phonotapayas and a handful of Edison’s. The repertoire contained in them, is unusually interesting.
In addition to the usual operatics, and they contain some Handel and Padruski, there are Italians and Russian songs, Ancelmi’s own songs and some Mendelssohn Leda. There are even two sides devoted to poetry reading.
His records have always been held in high esteem by discerning collectors and in their original form were both scarce and expensive. Not all of them show Anselmi at his best, but many of the performances he gave for the gramophone, are quite simply incomparable.
Once his performance, the aria condo was served from Verde’s opera, Luisi Milla. Long considered the finest ever version of the piece.
John Stein, after listening to versions by Bonci, Ver tele, Stipa, Tucka, Delmonico and Ber Gonzi has this to say about it. “Yet Anselmi still makes one listen afresh, more than all the others, he makes a pleasant piece momently exquisite.
He can draw out the phrases, in exactly the right proportions. Hear that first high phrase was Guardo in Lamorato, the leading note spun out and held over to join the highest note taken softly. And he can feel this in the way that probably, only a singer can do. It is part of a singer’s art and one that conductors have now largely usurp. Anselmi is his own conductor, with that kind of singer, in that kind of music, the pearliest procedure is vindicated.
The later, musicianly and disciplined singers, have had their wings clipped. The music pleases, the magic has gone.