09 October 2015


Leyla Gencer as Anna Bolena, Elisabeth I in Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda 

Primarily the “trend” of reviving neglected operas started in 1957 when Maria Callas had a sensational success at La Scala in Anna Bolena. In one of her interviews Gencer said that “It was a trend and I followed it”. However it was actually Gencer who succesfully carried on this trend. Callas “revived” Anna Bolena and Gencer introduced the opera to bigger audiences. In 1958 right after Callas, Gencer sang on the Rai’s radio broadcast of the opera. In 1965 she performed the opera 12 nights at Glyndebourne Opera Festival. Gencer’s last performance of Anna Bolena was in Rome in 1977. In the era “Donizetti Renaissance” that began with Anna Bolena, Gencer also sang Donizetti’s other neglected operas such Maria Stuarda, Poliuto, Les Martyrs, Lucrezia Borgia, Belisario, Roberto Devereux, Caterina Cornaro and she proved to be the invincible queen of belcanto. Nevertheless the recordings of these operas were made by recording artists such as Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland. 

Gencer’s career reached its climax in the 60’s. In this period she began to perform vocally challenging roles in operas such as Norma, Macbeth, I Puritani, Gerusalemme, Roberto Devereux, Lucrezia Borgia, Alceste, Maria Stuarda, Un ballo in maschera, Le nozze di Figaro, Beatrice di Tenda, Medea, Belisario, La Vestale, La Gioconda and I vespri Sicilianni

Talking about her major performances in Gencer’s career, one must say a few words about Macbeth. Being undoubtedly the most impressive Lady Macbeth after Callas, Gencer performed the opera succesfully in Palermo for the first time in 1960. She later sang the opera at La Scala, Venice, Florance, Rome, Cagliari, Treviso, Montova, Como, Livorno and Maggio Musicale di Fiorentino Festival under the baton of Riccardo Muti where she had an outstanding success. In fifty years time no such soprano has yet out outshone Gencer’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth. Unfortunately Gencer sang the opera only in Italy, European and American audiences didn’t have the chance to see her live performances of Lady Macbeth. 

One of the other most important operas of this period is Bellini’s masterpiece Norma. In 1962 Gencer sang the role for the first time in Barcelona and two years after she sang the opera in Buenos Aires. In the 1964-1965 seasons La Scala took a major risk and put both La Traviata and Norma in the program, the operas which were identified with Maria Callas. Karajan was scheduled to conduct La Traviata and Gavazzeni was scheduled to conduct Norma. Franco Zefirelli’s new production of La Traviata with soprano Mirella Freni premiered on December 17, 1964. It was a big failure and the artists were harshly booed. Consequently Callas fans reached their goal; Mirella Freni left the role after two performances and Anna Moffo who had taken over the role could sing only one night. After three performances, the production was removed from the opera calendar. Gencer’s mission in Norma was even harder to accomplish. She would appear in the Margherita Wallmann’s production in which Callas had sung in 1955. Besides, Giulietta Simionato would sing Adalgisa as she had sung ten years ago. Even the costumes would be the same. Briefly, every detail that would remind of Callas would be featured in the production. On the premiere date January 9, 1965; the only difference from the previous production would be Gencer. Callas fans were present in the lodges waiting for the performance to start. Gencer’s interpretation of the famous aria Casta Diva didn’t receive much applause but except for a few grumbling, it wasn’t even booed either. The premiere was being carried on succesfully. Even La Scala’s Management was surprised. Because of La Traviata’s big failure, a major protest was expected that night. When the opera ended, the audience gave a huge round of applause. Gencer succesfully passed the test and sang Norma in January and Fabruary; 9 nights as planned and she became one of the very few sopranos who sang Norma at La Scala.

In the 60’s Gencer continued exploring the unknown. This time she sang Verdi’s neglected opera Gerusalemme in Italy and Germany. Not only it was Gencer’s, it was also Donizetti’s golden era. Some of his operas were performed for the first time and revived by Gencer.  On May 2, 1964; Donizetti’s neglected opera Roberto Devereux was performed in Naples after a long period of time. Gencer sang the role of Elizabeth and won the heart of the tough Neapolitan audience with her usual enchanting interpretation, especially with the final aria Quel sangue versato. The audience gave her a standing ovation for several minutes.

Probably Lucrezia Borgia was Gencer’s most favoured and succesful Donizetti performance. Gencer sang the opera for the first time in 1966 in Naples. Later she sang the opera in Rome (1967), Milan-La Scala (1970), Bergamo (1971), Dallas (1974) and Florence (1979). Once again she introduced another neglected opera to the opera audience. The recordings of this opera were also made by Monserrat Caballé and Beverly Sills.

After her success as Lucrezia; Gencer achieved a sensational success on May 2, 1967; in the opening night of Maggio Musicale di Fiorentino Festival with her performance in Maria Stuarda. The famous line Figlia impura di Bolena had a shocking impact on the audience and yet the audience gave her a standing ovation in the final of the second act. After the succesful performances of Maria Stuarda, another unknown opera was once again in Gencer’s agenda; Donizetti’s Belisario. It was a rarely performed opera which takes place in Byzantium. Gencer sang the role of Antonina and achieved another major succes. Her interpretation of the aria Egli è spento in Venice is considered to be one of her best performances.

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