Maria Galvany, probably the most controversial of vocal virtuosos, has reached CD format. The Austrian firm, Preiser, took the chance and has released what turns out to be an excellent representation of this soprano's special gifts while minimizing her shortcomings. It not only offers a generous sampling of her staggering pyrotechnical abilities but also helps balance certain notions about her musicianship or lack thereof.
Maria Galvany was born in Granada, Spain, in 1878. (Some sources claim 1876 or 1874.) Unfortunately, very few confirmed dates concerning this singer are available. She studied at the Conservatory of Madrid under Lázaro María Puig and then Napoleone Verger and made her operatic debut at Cartagena in 1896 (or 1897) as Lucia di Lammermoor. She soon became a favorite with the Spanish public, singing such operas as La traviata, Lucia, Lakmé, Les Huguenots (in Italian), Hamlet, and La sonnambula. Although she sang in Milan (1901) it was not at La Scala, but rather the Teatro Dal Verme. In 1903 she sang in Parma in Sonnambula, and in 1905 she toured Belgium, Holland, and France. During 1908 she was extremely successful as Ophelia in Thomas's Hamlet in Venice, and in 1909 she traveled to London as part of a touring company, singing La sonnambula, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Dinorah. Throughout that decade Galvany proved to be highly popular with provincial Italian and Spanish audiences. She was also greatly admired in Russia, particularly in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as in Brazil, Portugal, and Argentina.
Galvany performed in the United States only once, in San Francisco (1918), singing in vaudeville rather than opera. After this, information is scarce. Completely forgotten by the time of her death, her passing was not even noted in the press at the time. As a matter of fact, the circumstances of her death remain somewhat of a mystery. According to most reports, she settled in Rio de Janeiro, [End Page 505] taught voice, and occasionally gave concerts. Up until 1990 it had been assumed that she died in Rio on November 2, 1949, in the San Luis retirement home. (This information also appears in Preiser's notes.) It seems, however, that that may not have been the case. In the English magazine The Record Collector, Dr. Jacques Alain Léon of Brazil stated that the death information usually accepted about this soprano was false: "The person who actually died there in Botafolgo, in Rio, was another soprano, Fanny MARIA Rollas GALVANI . . . who was born on 25th March, 1859. She was a dramatic soprano and never recorded. She met the French tenor René Talba well into her eighties. He told me this story himself and he was sure that Galvany, the coloratura, was killed by influenza in 1918 as there is no trace of her after that."1
Maria Galvany was born seven years after the famous Luisa Tetrazzini and four years before the equally famous Amelita Galli-Curci. She never attained their renown, but there were several factors that contributed to this situation. First of all, she never performed on American operatic stages and only a few times in England. Second, she rarely performed in first-rate houses and under first-rate conductors. Today, almost 100 years later, her fame rests solely on the recordings she left for posterity.
There were other things working against this singer. From reports of the time we get the impression that she was an acceptable actress but little else, and she did not have that special presence that great artists possess. Indeed, from the few pictures one can find of this singer, one perceives a rather short, dark, small-framed woman of unassuming features. Her photographs offer no hint of temperament and, perhaps not surprisingly, many of her discs support this.
Contributing to her limitations internationally was the natural timbre of her upper register—a sound that generally did not appeal to English or American audiences. It reflects a particular vocal placement (pinched back to the soft palate rather than closer to the hard palate and frontal) that even today does not reproduce well on recordings. Galvany, however, was typical of the...