Notes and Editorial Reviews
FLORENCIO CONSTANTINO: Victor Recordings 1907–1908
Florencio Constantino (tenor); Alice Nielsen (sop); unidentified conductors, orchestras
PREISER 89748, mono (78:52)
Arias, songs, and duets by
VERDI, MEYERBEER, PONCHIELLI, PUCCINI, FLOTOW, BOITO, DONIZETTI, ROSSINI, MASSENET, GOUNOD, TIRINDELLI
Operatic recordings provide an inaccurate picture of singers and their careers. Consider Enrico Caruso. He was a superstar by the measure of his age, but was
overtaken in popularity by local artists in many nations, such as France, Russia, and Germany. In Spain and South America he was very popular, but so were several others who vied for the same crown, such as Giuseppe Anselmi and Bernardo de Muro. Even in New York City, where Caruso was king, it could be argued that he shared the throne with Alessandro Bonci, who was first his rival over at the Manhattan Opera House, and then joined him at the Met after Oscar Hammerstein’s artistic adventure collapsed from over-expansion. There were other singers who can’t be discounted, either, and high among their ranks was the Bilbaoan tenor Florencio Constantino (1869–1919).
It was while living in Argentina in the early 1890s as a self-employed farm harvester that friends pointed out to Constantino just how fine a voice he had. By the mid 1890s he was training under a local Lamperti pupil, then performed in zarzuelas in Montevideo and Buenos Aires. Soon he had moved on to opera, accumulating good notices on tour in the Netherlands and Italy. By 1900 he was in the big leagues, singing major roles alongside the likes of Luisa Tetrazzini, Mattia Battistini, and Josefina Huguet. The U.S. first saw and heard him with the San Carlo Opera Company, before settling in, like Bonci, with the Manhattan Opera in 1908. Two years later he was at the Met, performing in a
that also featured Maurice Renaud, Nellie Melba, and Adamo Didur.
Alongside all this activity and triumph, Constantino was gaining a reputation of another sort. A very charitable and big-hearted man, he spent and gave away money without thought. This would lead to almost violent but ultimately successful arguments for extremely remunerative new contracts with opera houses, followed by too many performance no-shows. The result was a protracted series of lawsuits. More followed when he almost took out the eye of another performer during a staged sword fight, for which he was eventually required to pay $50,000 in compensation. Within just less than half a decade he was spending most of his time in South American opera houses once more; it was while he was in Mexico City to perform at its Teatro Colón that he experienced a stroke—possibly not the first, if descriptions of at least one other illness in his career are accurate. He was found lying unconscious in the street, and was brought to a nearby hospital, where he soon died.
Constantino never made it onto the exclusive labels for the big companies, presumably because he refused to sign contracts limiting himself to one or another. He did record a lot for his time, however: more than 200 sides in roughly nine years. His Victors (of which we get 19 published selections, plus four unpublished ones) reveal a fresh lyric tenor with a bright, almost heroic edge to accompany its basic sweetness. It’s instantly recognizable, just as are the voices of Caruso, Escalais, Clement, and Bonci.
The manner is pre-Caruso on his “La donna à mobile”—that’s to say, he adds elegant figurations that were an 18th- and early 19th-century Italian survival, and probably meant to indicate in this instance the superficiality of the Duke. He does these with ease while displaying exemplary enunciation, phrasing to the manner born, supplying a pair of
and a liquid run that concludes with a good high B. It’s an aristocratic performance, right down to the little chuckle at “La donna è mobil” in the second verse that doesn’t disturb the line. “Una vergine” shows a similar delicacy, as does “Parigi, o cara,” though the necessity of recording two artists in the latter (he’s partnered here and on six other cuts by Alice Nielsen) places him further from the acoustic horn, to the detriment of his voice.
“Ecco ridente” confirms Constantino’s adherence to a manner that would soon pass, along with an ease at handling
that’s engaging. Still, his performance seems tentative, with little sense of caressing the line in what is, after all, a song of lovemaking. He sounds most at ease when singing out at full volume, as he does unstylishly for a couple of lines before the end of the first part. Here I think we can say that the tenor who was five years older than Caruso has sensed the musical changes in the air, and was prepared to drop finesse for full-throated wooing.
With the likes of “Ah! Dispar, vision” and “O Paradiso” we have no figurations, but a broad line sung with tremendous breath support, and a willingness to sing all-out during musical climaxes that must have been thrilling when heard live. Many singers of the period treated recordings as pocket money, but others were prepared to provide a souvenir of their performances for their fans. Constantino clearly fits into the second category.
Which isn’t to say that he lacks flaws. Sometimes he’s bar-bound, or choppy—his rejected “M’appari tutt’amor” provides this—and more frequently, he is content to allow his fine technique to carry all before it without thought of interpretation. These moments occur inexplicably in numbers where some very inspired singing can also be heard, as in “Giunto sul passo estremo.” But overall, Constantino shows himself to be a sensitive, intelligent artist who deserved to sing with the best and command the salaries he did.
Preiser’s sound is good, perhaps a little too much filtering at the top, but still finely equalized. There are no obvious instances of grit, swinging sides, thumping, distortion, or scratches, aside from a clearly worn copy of “Che gelida manina.” Worth getting? I think so. If it were left up to written history, we might wonder what this tenor who swept through the U.S. garnering accolades for a few years was like, but thanks to these cuts, we get more than a glimmer of what all the excitement was about.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Works on This Recording
Manon: Dispar, vision by Jules Massenet
Florencio Constantino (Tenor)
Written: 1883-1884; France
Faust: Laisser moi by Charles Gounod
Florencio Constantino (Tenor)
Written: 1859; France
Martha: Ach, so fromm by Friedrich von Flotow
Florencio Constantino (Tenor)
Written: 1847; Germany
Work(s) by Various
Florencio Constantino (Tenor),
Alice Nielsen (Soprano)
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