Notes and Editorial Reviews
Je suis encore tout étourdie; Adieu, notre petite table; Obéissons.
Dis-mois que je suis belle; Te souvient-il du lumineux voyage.
L?amour est une vertu rare.
style="font-family:'Arial Black'; font-weight:bold">GOUNOD
Che volo d?augelli.
Les filles de Cadiz
Voci di primavera
The Second Minuet
Little bit of a fellow
The hand of you
From the land of sky-blue water
Little grey home in the West
The old folks at home. My old Kentucky home
Le nozze di Figaro:
Deh, vieni, non tardar
The Holy Child
Le coq d?or:
Hymn to the Sun
L?enfant et les sortilèges:
Toi, le coeur de la rose
Die Lorelei. Du bist wie eine Blume
Wiegenlied. Morgen. Ständchen
Si mes vers avaient des ailes
Clair de lune
Ay, ay, ay
My lovely Celia
The Kerry Dance
Last rose of summer
Still wie die Nacht
Wien, Wien, nur du allein
Opera history is replete with stories of the great opera singers who overcame significant obstacles to reach the stage in triumph. The story of American soprano Mary Lewis is a particularly poignant one, of hardship and abuse interwoven with success and world acclaim. That her extraordinary beauty and talent brought her notice, even among a generation of beautiful and talented American sopranos that included Rosa Ponselle, Edith Mason, and Grace Moore, is no surprise. That Mary Lewis never achieved anywhere near the career heights that her peers achieved is another part of her affecting story.
Though hard, precise, biographical details are, in places, sketchy, Mary Lewis, born Mary Kidd in 1897 (the same year Rosa Ponselle was born), was apparently deposited by her own mother into an orphan asylum right out of
, where she was likely subjected to child abuse; she was a run-away; was adopted by missionaries who managed to give her a sound vocal grounding as well as more abuse?what her biographer Alice Fitch Zehman terms ?a daily thrashing?; entered a child marriage; was part of a shabby disreputable ?traveling stage troupe? in the California gold camps; appeared as a ?comedy beauty? in Hollywood; and then landed in New York, eventually as a Ziegfeld Follies novelty act, as the ?prima donna.?
It seems miraculous that Mary Lewis ever reached the opera stage. That she made the leap from saloon girl, Follies girl, and faux prima donna to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera as Mimi in
as a genuine prima donna, is mind boggling. Along the way, she starred in the world premiere of Vaughan Williams?s
Hugh the Drover
and, at the request of Franz Lehar, in a prestigious
in Paris, in addition to a star engagement at the Vienna Volksoper. In
The Metropolitan Opera, 1883?1966
, Irving Kolodin carelessly dismisses her: ?Her marriage to and divorce from Michael Bohnen were the most notable happenings of a five-year career at the Metropolitan.? Michael Bohnen, once a very big star, a tremendously magnetic singing actor who could fairly be called the German equivalent of Feodor Chaliapin, is little remembered today. He was, however, a wife beater, and Lewis?s opera career effectively ended with alcohol abuse and weight gain. After their divorce, she did radio work, made a rich second marriage, and returned to concert activity, her spirit undiminished. But her harsh life (and perhaps a one-time Follies costume laced with radium) took its toll and she died in 1941 at the age of 44.
Much of Mary Lewis?s training was autodidactic, and yet nearly every prime recording of her demonstrates an above-average technique; she had a very good trill and the ability to execute a perfect diminuendo and, what?s more, she could manage the classic
messa di voce
(swelling and then diminishing the tone). One wonders what it would have been like for Mary Lewis, what she might have accomplished, if she had been taken under Mary Garden?s wing as was Grace Moore, or if she had had a pedagogue on the order of Lilli Lehmann as did Geraldine Farrar, or an Elvira Di Hidalgo as did Callas.
So never having quite reached the pinnacle, Mary Lewis would be virtually forgotten today except that she made records, all of which are never less than interesting and several of which are simply glorious. One of the reasons I gave so much biographical detail above, something usually best left to liner notes, is that her story left an indelible stamp on her work?her singing seems to have taken on an extra soulful quality not unlike that of Claudia Muzio?s late Columbias. Her fearless singing reflects that of a young woman who though brutally knocked down over and over, always bounced back up, one who never quit striving. As can be seen in the headnotes, her repertoire is unusually sophisticated and varied for a singer who only made a treasured handful of recordings.
What will strike the first-time listener of these records is how sensuously beautiful Mary Lewis?s voice was. Very warm and open, crystal clear, and mega-wattage shining bright, it is unmistakably American, a little like that of a fellow Southerner, Grace Moore, but it is an altogether finer instrument on the level with an Elizabeth Rethberg or Victoria De Los Angeles. The first-time listener will be impressed with the energy and passion she brings to her interpretations. This is not the cool, clean, and highly skilled, but too often generalized and, to my mind, the often inhibited and overly careful American singing practiced today by prima donnas like Renée Fleming or Deborah Voigt who, good as they are, are rather generic and not particularly imaginative artists. Nor is there any of the edgy stridency in Mary Lewis?s singing that could occasionally mar the recordings of that special American singer of genius who certainly had no shortage of imagination, Maria Callas.
Slightly awkward French aside, there are no better recordings extant of the arias from
than those by Mary Lewis, sublime acoustics made in England in 1924 and 1925. Not even Georgette Brejean-Silver?s records are as freewheelingly daring. But if ever a voice was made to exploit the early electrical sound, it was Mary Lewis?s, and her thrilling 1926 Victor re-make of the
aria ?Te souvient-il du lumineux voyage? haunts the memory. Her singing of Nedda?s ?Qual fiamma avea nel guardo . . . Che volo d?augelli? explains her popularity at the Met in the role. I found the 1926
Little grey home in the West
, a souvenir of her Ziegfeld days, lovely. It?s also a rare treat to hear
The old folks at home
sung with a genuine Southern accent and incomparable zest. Mary Lewis?s 1928 recording of
has long been famous as the best recording of Emmett?s minstrel standard. The listener will be captivated by her delicate charm, as well as her ultra clean diction in the nostalgic
The second minuet
Mary Lewis?s last vocal state, after her recovery and return to music, is preserved in 25 selections from a ?Thesaurus? of transcription discs made in 1936?1939 for distribution to radio stations rather than for commercial release. These radiate spontaneity, as if they were live recordings, but with superb sound quality and masterful playing by uncredited musicians from the New York Philharmonic. Mozart devotees will find Mary Lewis not at all careful, but on the contrary, muscular and with (almost unheard of for this period) interpolated high notes. I was particularly taken with her bracing ?Deh, vieni, non tardar.? A moving
, sung in Yiddish, is worthy of comparison to the classic recording by Rosa Raisa.
High praise to Ward Marston for issuing this set in the first place, and for his usual inspired transfer work. The biographical notes, ?Mary Lewis, the Golden Haired Beauty with the Golden Voice? are lovingly written by her biographer, Alice Fitch Zeman, whose invaluable book of the same title is well worth reading.
Ward Marston writes, ?It is time to elevate Mary Lewis to the ranks of important American singers.? Amen!
FANFARE: James Camner
Works on This Recording
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