I must confess that I had only a very nebulous idea of Emilio de Gogorza’s voice, career and place in operatic history before I undertook to review this double disc, but some listening and research have opened up to me a fascinating talent and an unusual individual.
I was first aware of him through his impressive recorded duets with Marcella Sembrich, Enrico Caruso – to whom de Gogorza introduced the idea of a recording contract - and Emma Eames, his second wife whom he married in 1911. In December 1905 he had gone on tour with Eames and returned smitten. A further tour in Europe the following year cemented their affair and after protracted and scandalous divorce proceedings he secured his freedom from his first wife at a price rumoured to be $100,000. Eames, too, had obtained a divorce in 1907 from celebrated portrait painter Julian Story. De Gogorza and Eames themselves eventually divorced, acrimoniously – she was not, by all accounts, an easy woman and he evidently had a roving eye, despite his urbane demeanour and immaculate manners.
But enough gossip; it is his artistry which counts here. He had a smooth, powerful baritone and exceptional linguistic gifts which would have lent themselves to the performance of opera were it not for the fact that de Gogorza was short, myopic and had a pronounced limp; his photographs reveal a dapper little man with a preposterous waxed moustache and elegant sartorial taste. A possibly apocryphal anecdote tells us that his only attempt to sing opera resulted in his taking a tumble into the prompter’s box. It is in any case certain that he avoided the stage and made a long and prosperous career as a recitalist in concert performances and from recording prolifically – over a thousand recordings whose sustained popularity undoubtedly helped to fund the considerable personal outgoings resulting from his complicated personal life. He was recording from 1900 – and thus a recording pioneer – into the electrical period, when he remade some of his best-selling acoustic discs. He then retired in 1930 from recording and the concert platform and turned to teaching at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where among his voice students was future composer Samuel Barber. He was effectively the house-baritone for the Victor Talking Machine Company for a quarter of a century, and all the records here are from that source.
Like Caruso, his voice was made for recording, as long as - again like, Caruso - its amplitude could be tamed by the primitive acoustic process. His versatility in style and languages and his crystalline diction allowed him to become one of the first genuine crossover artists, sometimes recording under various pseudonyms to avoid over-exposure. The selection of songs here eschews the more egregiously populist hits like the parlour song “Juanita” and leans more towards art songs – although there are no Lieder and some more light-hearted and folk numbers are included.
It is ironic that so successful and admired an artist should now be familiar to collectors and opera buffs mainly through his duets with more widely known singers and that so few previous releases have been devoted to his solo work. We have only five duets in this collection and none with Caruso, presumably because they have already been given wide currency. This compilation certainly goes a long way towards rectifying the omission and presents us with ample evidence of de Gogorza’s range and ability.
It is extraordinary to think that this disc allows us to listen to recordings most of which were made around a hundred years ago; it really is a window – well, a sonic time-capsule – onto the past. On track 2, we hear the extraordinary, fluting voice of de Gogorza’s first touring partner Marcella Sembrich. When they were on tour, you may be sure that he was very much the junior partner, but by this stage in 1907, two years off Sembrich’s retirement from the stage, they would have been on more equal terms. On four other tracks we hear the voice of Emma Eames, which is not dissimilar to that of Sembrich. De Gogorza is always suave and stylish; Don Giovanni’s Serenade is a model of seductive charm and restraint. He has excellent breath control, a firm tone and an alluringly fast, vibrant vibrato. I am very amused by the nasal, falsetto sneers with which he caps each strophe of that demonic little ditty of an aria for Méphistophélès. It gains all the more by its juxtaposition with the succeeding aria for Wolfram from “Tannhäuser”, sung by de Gogorza with grave beauty. It is followed by an intense characterisation of Rigoletto, a pitiless Conte di Luna and a tortured Renato, in which aria he exhibits a wonderful legato – versatility, indeed. It would be otiose to go through every aria methodically; suffice to say that everything is expertly delivered and every character vividly differentiated.
The second disc of songs is a different bag of pretzels, but de Gogorza brings the same verbal acuity and musical nuance to the merest tune. He is never rhythmically flaccid or indulgent and ranges easily between the stately pathos of “Caro mio ben” and jaunty, dotted rhythm Mexican folk songs. Spanish, English, French, Italian and Neapolitan dialect are all sung with aplomb. Caruso, who was not as skilled a linguist, also made gold of this kind of repertoire, perhaps under de Gogorza’s guidance and advice. You will have your favourites as I have mine – which is, I think, the delicate “Bergère Légère”. There are curiosities, such as Elgar’s “The Pipes of Pan”, so typical of the “faery whimsy” that gripped England around the turn of the century and into the 1920s. The last item, Debussy’s “Romance”, is the only electrical recording and allows us to hear more of his exquisite mezza voce, his idiomatic French and very little deterioration in quality of tone.
Given that this is such a welcome and thoughtful offering from Nimbus, it’s a shame that their quality control did not extend to spotting the usual errors in the track-listings and, more seriously, the fact that the date of de Gogorza’s death is printed in large font in the notes and on the back of the CD as 1935 – although John Steane gets it right in the text of his article: 1949.
The sound is the result of usual Nimbus “Ambisonic” process, whereby the original shellac discs are recorded when played through a horn in a small, purpose-built to scale concert hall. The result is warm, pleasing and largely hiss-free with a welcome reverberance, but not too much.
I also acknowledge my indebtedness for some of the information above to articles in the Nimbus CD notes by John Steane.
Ralph Moore, Musicweb-international.com