|Liner Notes: Jose Mojica - Tenor; Gabriella Besanzoni - Alto|
Jose Mojica, the Mexican tenor and matinee idol, lived a turbulent life, melodramatic to the hilt. In his confessional autobiography "I, a Sinner" , Mojica admits to being an illegitimate child. One step-father was even imprisoned for his violence towards the boy's mother. During his youth in Mexico, Mojica frequented circles of revolutionaries and engaged in fighting with the guerilla band of Francesco Madera, who helped oust the dictator Porfirio Diaz. Mojica's dashing looks captivated a young girl (a few years his senior) who seduced the unknowing boy, leading him onto "the path of sin". He describes his first amour: "I slept with her, and she became the diabolical oven in which the flower of my innocence was consumed." At the same time, Mojica was a mother's boy and the discovery of his lyrical tenor voice not only raised his family out of poverty, but catapulted Mojica into an international personage. His debut at the ideal I Theater in Mexico City saw the first of I many triumphs by a youth who had been precocious as a child. A film career was soon to follow, as Mojica's good looks tempted producers and agents to cast him as a "second Valentino" in films geared for the Spanish speaking community; in no time he became known as the Bing Crosby of Mexico.
Mojica's talent was noted by none other than Caruso. Mojica had known of the great tenor by reputation, and on a journey to New York, once heard him in person. Sitting at the Met to hear Rigoletto, Mojica recalled: "I became more and more aware of the things that went into a first class production, and of the great distance between the tenor Mojica and the tenor Caruso - not because I dared to believe that I could ever be as good as he, but because of the vast gulf that separated the Impulsora from the Met. I slowly began to shrink down in my seat. When the intermission came, I remained where I was. I was utterly annihilated, unmade, defeated."
In Mexico City, Caruso now had the chance to hear Mojica. After suffering the arias of other local aspirants, Mojica "sang the Cavatina from Faust and when I finished, the audience broke out in vigorous applause. Caruso himself applauded me, and motioned for me to join him in his box." A friendship arose between the two, as they behaved very informally, which delighted Caruso, whose temperament had little use of formal manners. Caruso and his friend "Mokika" prepared Edmondo for a performance of Manon Lescaut. "The rehearsal commenced. I was somewhat nonplussed when Caruso answered one of my musical phrases in a voice that mimicked my own. Everyone broke out laughing because his imitation was so perfect, still containing a bit of satire. Unbeknownst to Mojica, Caruso recommended him to the producer of the Ravinia Festival.
For nine years, Mojica sang at the Chicago Opera, which was under the imperious rule of Mary Garden. His debut took place in 1919, with the hero of Mexican Cinema and stage being cast in small roles. Mojica first encountered Garden in a rehearsal of L 'Amore dei Tre Re (Montemezzi). After hearing and seeing Garden in action, and being amazed by her acting and voice, my turn came. I only had one phrase in the last act, the one in which the little shepherds cry at the death of F1ora, but Mary Garden stayed to hear me. She took up her pose at the piano again, resting on her elbows with her chin cupped in her hands and those copper curls between her fingers. The green eyes she fixed on me were like those of a tigress in ambush. Garden exclaimed in French 'It is like a dream!' She made me repeat my phrase... afterwards stroking my head with her hand she said, 'You may one day be the ideal Pelleas. You are going to work hard, and you are going to follow my direction. I can assure you that inside of two years, you will sing with me.'"
Garden was annoyed with the excessive time the tenor was devoting to certain ballet dancers. Juno-like, she stepped in and gave the young man an ultimatum - to cool off or leave the Opera. Mojica reluctantly gave up his amours and began taking on important parts and gained popularity but not with Giorgio Polacco, the stage manager of the opera, who detested Mojica - a sentiment shared by the singer.
One of the great premieres staged at the Chicago opera took place in 1921. Prokofiev himself attended to the rehearsals and, with Mojica in the cast, conducted the very first performance of The Love for Three Oranges on December 30, sung in French. Mojica and Garden joined forces on another occasion - Garden's staging and appearance as Melisande in the Debussy opera role which she created.
Mojica befriended the great Chaliapin during the Russian's visit to Chicago. In "I,a Sinner", Mojica recalls the coaching he received for his role as Shuisky in Boris Godunov: "'You sit over there and watch me. you are Boris. I am Shuisky. You walk in like this. You lean over like this. You come close like this! And you proceed to spit out poison of your words upon Boris, you change your expression until you have the look of triumph on your face.' I nodded. Chaliapin continued: 'From then on,the scene is all mine. The public must not be distracted by any other face. You turn your back upon the audience and now it is I who must act, changing from a sane person into a madman! Then we reach the finale during which I smash everything on top of this table, and then you leave the stage. Now you do it!'
"Without any fear, I repeated the actions exactly as he had instructed me. When we finished, the giant (he was six feet-four inches tall) gave me a huge Slavic embrace and cried 'Bravo, Mushika. You are indeed an actor.'" In his autobiography we see a photo of this performance, the two singers bearded and robed in silks and furs, resembling the gaunt faces seen on icons.
In 1933, after leaving Chicago, Mojica made his one trip across the Atlantic, singing in Berlin (at the Mexican Embassy), Italy and Egypt. Hollywood had its eyes on the tenor and his appearance in "One Mad Kiss" made him a box office success but cost him his prestige as an operatic singer among the many aficionados who considered his celluloid triumph the equivalent of Mojica's having "sold out". Film work aside, Mojica found time between movies roles (in Spanish) and his Casanova-esque adventures to appear on occasion at the Chicago Opera, notably in Falstaff as Fenton in the 1940 season. It was the death of Mojica's formidable mother in 1942 which put an end to Hollywood, the stage, and romance; at his mother's deathbed, Mojica promised her to become a priest!
The United States was now at war and Mojica boarded a plane for Peru with his ticket and $35 in his pocket: all of Mojica's wealth was given to the poor. Stopping in Panama, an American officer bumped Mojica off the flight on a military priority. Mojica eventually made it to Lima where he found refuge and solace with the Francisc monks. After five years, he was ordained as Fray Jose Maria de Guadalupe Mojica, dressing himself in compulsory brown robe and rope belt, and shaving his hair so that a rim encircled his skull, the crown remaining bald. In Lima, Father Mojica founded a schcool to train priests. But the lure ofthe stage could not be long absent from his life, for Mojica began directing amateur plays and later became a painter.
Mojica continued singing, especially in the service of the church as he travelled throughout Latin America giving benefit concerts for the monasteries. When Mojica became afflictled with a temporary deafness, putting halt to his singing, he was ordered by his superiors to write his memoirs. Named after a Catholic prayer, "I, a Sinner" sold more than three million copies in Spanish before its translation into English in 1963. Written with a disarming confessional tone, Mojica's account of his fast and eventful life tells of Caruso's being honored at the opening of a Mexican opera house, the candor and reflections on his life's many miseries, and contains striking photos of the tenor posing as a prince, in bullfighting regalia, and as a gypsy. His squabbles with Garden and Polacco are put to rest as Mojica prays for their souls. Mojica's final appearance in film came towards the end of his life, when, as a friar, he played the lead in a biography of himself. After suffering for years from acute hepatitis, Mojica passed away in 1974 at the Convent of Saint Francis the Great.
It is interesting to note that these recordings made by Mojica were originally Edison Diamond Discs. Although Mojica was not entirely convinced of their merit, and we should bear in mind the inadequate reproduction offered by the talking machines at the time could be offensive, Edison himself was so enamored of Mojica's voice that he habitually played each evening before retiring the "Golondrina Mensajera."
Allan Evans 1989
Singing in an age called the "Golden Age of Contraltos" Gabriella Besanzoni became known as one of the most popular of her time. Blessed with a sweet voice and wide range, she sang in every major opera house in Europe, the United States and South America. During her career, Besanzoni became closely identified with several roles, most notably Carmen, which she sang so well as to frighten off many of her competitors.
Gabriella Besanzoni was born in Rome, September 2,1890. She received her first voice training in Rome, and her teachers immediately recognized her smooth, talented voice. She debuted at Vitterbo, in 1911, in the role of Adalgisa. Her career continued in several other smaller Italian cities including Genoa, Turin and Bologna. She returned to Rome and debuted there in 1913 at the Costanzi Theater and continued singing in Rome for several years thereafter.
Her career was thrust into prominence in 1919 when she was invited to join a company touring Mexico with the great Caruso. On October 5,1919 the company staged Carmen for the first of five performances in El Toreo, an enormous bull-ring in Mexico City which held over 20,000 spectators. Since the troupe had been thrown together at the last minute, many of the supporting cast were far from spectacular. However, as a Caruso biographer remembers, "The tenor was fortunate enough to sing opposite the Carmen of Gabriella Besanzoni, the only singer in the company worthy of the occasion. Her voice was vibrant and her characterization exceptional" During a later performance of Carmen, a heavy rain fell, forcing the singers, who wished to leave the stage to perform wearing raincoats over their costumes. The remainder of the tour was a success, including stagings of Aida, Norma and Pagliacci.
The following year, Besanzoni joined the Metropolitan Opera Company. She debuted with the Met on November 19, 1919 as Amneris in Aida, with D' Angelo as the King, Martinelli as Radames and Martino as Ramphis. She was to return to Amneris many times throughout her career, as her vocal abilities were perfect in catching the fluctuating emotions of the Princess.
On November 24, she appeared in Boris Godonov with Didur, Delaunois, Vosari and Perini. On December 5, 1919, the Met staged its first performance of Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri. The cast included Didur, Sundelius,Howard, Hackett and Besanzoni. Like several other Rossini operas, the protagonist is a contralto. The opera was very well-received by the critics. Although Besanzoni was not as wellliked as she had been in Aida, the New York Times wrote, "The dexterity of her vocal art in her solos was wholly satisfactory... she showed skill and humor in the comedy as an imperious and resourceful lady thoroughly mistress of the situation."
The highlight of the season for Besanzoni occured during performances of Samson et Dalila, in which she starred with Caruso. Although some lurid critics thought she was not sensual enough in the role, her voice was praised as "powerful, resonant and expressive" Besanzoni also appeared in performances of Rigoletto and Norma during that season.
At the close of the Met season, Besanzoni was again asked to tour with Caruso, this time to Cuba. For this tour, the company assembled was much superior, including Carmen Metis, Maria Barrientos and Ricardo Stracciari. Critically, the performances of Martha, Tosca, Ballo in Mascera, Aida and Pagliacci were well received. However there had been growing discontent about the high prices of tickets and the public's perception that they were paying first rate prices for second rate performances. Arthur Rubenstien, who has been linked romantically to Besanzoni remembered that his pay for one performance was almost equivalent to an average year's pay for a Cuban worker.
On June 12, 1920 during the final performance of Aida in Havana a bomb exploded behind the stage as Besanzoni and Maria Escobar sang the famous duet between Aida and Amneris in act II. None of the singers were injured, despite major damage to the stage and the overehead scenery. Several members of the audience were injured, but a catastrophe was avoided as the conductor struck up the Cuban National Anthem, and the crowd filed out in an orderly fashion.
The next year found Besanzoni in Chicago, where she sang for only one season. It has been said that Mary Garden, the prima donna of the company forced Campanini to oust Besanzoni, of whom she was extremely jealous. Besanzoni debuted in Chicago on December 5, 1920, in her familiar role of Amneris. The rest of the cast included Dentale, Hislop, Lazzari, Rimini and the glorious Rosa Raisa in the title role. Besanzoni also sang in Linda di Chamounix with Trevisan, Schipa, Lazzari and Rimini, and as Marina in Boris Godounov. Her highlight that year was singing in the title role of Mignon, on January 21, with Lazzari, Schipa and MacBeth.
Besanzoni then returned to her native country where she was to enjoy some of her greatest success. She was hand picked by Toscanini to sing in his productions at La Scala. She debuted there on May 22, 1923 in Messa di Requiem starring with Isora Rinolfi, Merli and Pinza. It was at La Scala that she began to become identified with certain roles. Toscanini loved her as Cenerentola, which perfectly fit her sweet voice and her gentle nature.
Another role at which she excelled was Orfeo in Orfeo et Eurydice. Originally sung by a castrato, it was at this time sung by a contralto. Pederzini, herself a marvelous contralto, praised Besanzoni's adaptation. "It is a role which should be sung by a contralto with an extremely strong lower register. It is one of the most demanding roles ever written,as the protagonist is on stage for the whole three acts. The singer who did it the greatest justice was Gabriella Besanzoni."
However the role which Besanzoni made her own was Carmen. Lina Pagliughi, another noted Contralto wrote about the competition in Italian opera at that time."Those were the times when the contraltos reigned and Anitua, Buades, Stignani and Besanzoni were formidable. I feel sorry for young people today who have no idea what a real contralto sounds like. Besanzoni was untouchable as Carmen, and the rest of us knew it."
Another singer who acknowledged Besanzoni was Gilda dalla Rizza, who disliked singing Micaela, but recalled,"Carmen was more tempting, but Gabriella Besanzoni was around in those days and no one could equal the velvet and the verve of her personality." In addition to her Italian performances, Besanzoni sang the role at the Liceo of Barcelona and the Reale in Madrid and was fabulously received in a country which had formerly snubbed this opera.
This Club 99 CD contains the major arias from Carmen which Besanzoni performed so well. In particular, the Seguidilla which ends act I and the famOus 'Card Aria" capture Besanzoni's emotion and the beautiful tones of her voice. Also included are two selections from Samson et Dalila, which she sang so smoothly at the Met with Caruso. Although she lacked the versatility of some singers, Besanzoni's ability to perfect her roles and the unquestioned beauty of her voice have made her singing endure.
Richard P: Connell
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