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Gina Cigna

“If you don’t know how to breathe, you don’t know how to sing… Opera has lost spontaneity, beauty and freedom.”

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Gina Cigna

Born in 1900 in Paris to a well-to-do family, Cigna studied music theory, also piano with Cortot and voice with Calvé. She was a painter and ceramist. In 1927 she debuted under her married name, Ginette Sens, at La Scala, as Freia. After studies with Storchio and Russ and performances in the Italian provinces, she reemerged under her own name at La Scala as Donna Elvira and went on to appear in Florence, Verona, London, Paris, Cologne, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Brussels, Munich, Hanover, Dusseldorf, Berlin, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Toronto. In 1947 on her way to perform Tosca in Vicenza she was in an auto accident. She crawled out the window of the car, arrived at and sang the performance but at some point suffered a heart attack. This caused her retirement.

Her repertoire included 50 roles, from Poppea to Kostelnicka. Her principal parts were Turandot (which she performed 493 times), Norma, Gioconda and Violetta. She also sang a prodigious number of recitals. Her recordings include Norma, Trovatore, Turandot and Aïda.

Cossotto coached repertory with Cigna and Pobbe coached Aïda with her. Her voice students included Casapietra, Mauti Nunziata, Dimitrova and Luis Lima.

Cigna’s voice often had a touch of omnipresent conspicuous fast vibrato, seldom heard since her day. Throughout a wide range her voice was plangent. Sometimes, though, it sounded unsupported at ends of phrases, and her breathing sounded labored. In her recordings from 1930-32, she used chest resonance sparingly, but in those from the late 30s she didn’t stint. She claims not to have employed chest resonance. However, her pupil Françoise Detchenique (seen with her in the film) says Cigna advised her to use it with restraint.

Her singing communicated understanding of musical structure: harmonically unimportant notes subordinated, notes of harmonic tension emphasized, those of harmonic relaxation deemphasized. She built crescendos note by note, propelling melodies toward their points of greatest dissonance. Sometimes, however, her treatment of dynamics was a little too understated (perhaps because of her French background).

She was a singer of many aspects. In Gioconda her voice was dark like a mezzo’s, but in Faust it was bright. In dramatic repertory she could sound like a mature woman, yet in Faust she was girlish. Although Cigna is remembered principally for Turandot, she often sang with Innigkeit (with inward or interior feeling), like a Lotte Lehmann of the Italian repertory. (Cigna’s vocal personality wasn’t quite as warm.) Her singing created an atmosphere, her characters oozed mystery, so that in listening to her one believes they felt even more than they expressed.

Stefan Zucker

For a performance with Cigna, go to Il trovatore

Download the complete essay, including the chest voice and vocal technique articles, in PDF format:

Opera Fanatic: Biographies, Opinions—and Dish