19 January 2021

Rosina Storchio - soprano

Star prospered despite Butterfly debut flop

Rosina Storchio was hailed for her voice and her acting skills
Rosina Storchio was hailed for her
voice and her acting skills
The soprano Rosina Storchio, a major star of the opera world in the early 20th century, was born on this day in 1872 in Venice.

A favourite of the celebrated conductor Arturo Toscanini, with whom she had an affair that scandalised Milan, she sang opposite Enrico Caruso and other male stars of her era, including Giuseppe Anselmi, Titta Ruffo and the Russian, Fyodor Chaliapin.

She sang in five notable premieres.  Ruggero Leoncavallo cast her as the first Mimì in his version of La bohème (1897) and also as Zazà in the opera of the same name (1900), Umberto Giordano created the role of Stephana for her in Siberia (1903), while she was Pietro Mascagni’s first Lodoletta (1917).

The first night for which she was often remembered, however, was the one that turned into a personal catastrophe for Giacomo Puccini, when Madama Butterfly was unveiled at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1904 only to be roundly booed by the audience, forcing the opera to be pulled from La Scala’s spring programme after one night.

Critics argued that the second act was too long and that despite a star-studded cast, including the celebrated Storchio in the role of Cio-Cio San, the story’s tragic heroine, the performance suffered from being under-rehearsed owing to Puccini having completed the score less than two months before the premiere.

Storchio in the role of Cio-Cio
San in Madama Butterfly
Puccini relaunched his opera, which remained his favourite work in spite of its disastrous debut, three months later in Brescia, this time to great acclaim, but Storchio was singing in South America at the time and refused to reprise the role in Italy until 1920, towards the end of her career.

Storchio had attended the Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi in Milan as a young girl. For undocumented reasons, the conservatory expelled her, but she continued to receive private tuition and made her operatic debut as Micaëla in Bizet's Carmen at Milan's Teatro Dal Verme in 1892, at the age of 20.

Over the next three years, she sang at La Scala, making her first appearance there as Sophie in Jules Massenet's Werther and at the Teatro Lirico as Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, becoming a firm favourite with Milan audiences.

In 1897 she was cast in two world premieres, including Mimì in Leoncavallo’s La bohème at Teatro La Fenice in her native Venice, and opposite Caruso as Cristina in Giordano’s Il voto at the Teatro Lirico. 

By then, she had already been Mimì in Puccini's earlier version of La bohème in Florence and Como. Soon she was in demand all over Italy and beyond, making appearances in Germany, Austria and Monte Carlo and touring Russia. A lyric coloratura soprano, she was adored by some critics, who hailed her both for her voice and her acting skills.

Arturo Toscanini, the conductor, with who Storchio had an affair
Arturo Toscanini, the conductor, with
who Storchio had an affair
After watching her in Verdi’s La traviata, one critic wrote: “There will never be another Violetta to sing with such unutterable perfection, moving, laughing, loving, suffering as the slight and gentle Rosina Storchio [with] her enormous seductive eyes, her delightful coquetry, her gay tenderness, her fresh spontaneity."

Often partnered with the Sicilian tenor, Giuseppe Anselmi - who was also in the cast for Madama Butterfly’s premiere - she became a fixture at La Scala, as well as embarking on tours of Spain and South America, accepting invitations too to perform in New York and Chicago.

Storchio’s affair with Toscanini began after they met at rehearsals for the premiere of Leoncavallo's Zazà in 1900. Toscanini was captivated by her voice and beauty and their relationship caused a scandal because the conductor was married and about to become a father for the third time. Storchio fell pregnant in 1902 and gave birth to their son, Giovanino, the following year. It was an ill-fated liaison, however. Their relationship lasted only a few years before Toscanini embarked on another affair and Giovanino, who suffered brain damage at birth, did not live beyond the age of 16. 

Nonetheless, Storchio’s professional life continued to yield success and it was only when her voice began to falter in her late 40s that her reputation declined.  She gave her final public performance as Cio-Cio San in Puccini's Butterfly in Barcelona in 1923, aged 51.

In retirement, she lived privately and offered teaching to budding sopranos before taking the bold decision to join the Third Order of the Franciscans as a tertiary, while giving away her entire fortune to the Piccola Casa della Divina Provvidenza - the Little House of Divine Providence - a Turin-based religious charity, which cared for the poor and sick and raised orphan children.

She died in Rome in 1945 at the age of 73. Her remains were buried at the Monumental Cemetery in Milan.

The Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, where Rosina Storchio made her debut in 1892
The Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, where Rosina
Storchio made her debut in 1892
Travel tip:

Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme, where Storchio made her professional debut, can be found in Via San Giovanni sul Muro in central Milan, a short distance from the Castello Sforzesco. Opened in September 1872 - the year of the soprano's birth - it soon established itself as one of Italy's most important opera houses, staging world premieres for a number of important operas, including Puccini's Le Villi (1884) and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (1892) and I Medici (1893). Since the 1930s, it has been at different times a cinema and a theatre for musical productions, having needed to be rebuilt after the Second World War, when it suffered bomb damage and had the metal parts of its central cupola stripped out by the occupying Germans. More recently it has been home to the Orchestra i Pomeriggi Musicali. 

The town of Gazoldo degli Ippoliti, home of  the Museo Lirico Rosina Storchio
The town of Gazoldo degli Ippoliti, home of 
the Museo Lirico Rosina Storchio
Travel tip:

The singer’s life is commemorated at the Museo Lirico Rosina Storchio in the town of Gazoldo degli Ippoliti in Lombardy, about 20km (12 miles) west of Mantua. The museum is dedicated to the history of opera, in particular the tradition of melodrama, and houses an extensive collection of memorabilia.  As well as Storchio, the museum celebrates the lives of the tenor Mario del Monaco and the baritone Aldo Protti. The Storchio memorabilia, originally housed in a museum established in 2002 in Dallo, a small town to the south of Brescia, were transferred to Gazoldo in 2016.

Also on this day:

1737: The birth of castrato singer Giuseppe Millico

1739: The birth of architect Giuseppe Bonomi

1853: The premiere of Verdi’s opera Il trovatore

1935: The birth of camorrista Assunta Maresca

1940: The birth of anti-Mafia magistrate Paolo Borsellino


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