The singer who first performs a role in an opera is referred to as the role’s creator. Why? Ask the composer. Or don’t because you may get an unflattering answer. Enrico Caruso (1873 – 1921) created the tenor roles in a total of ten operas – possibly a record – including Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West”, Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur”, and Umberto Giordano’s “Fedora.” Certainly Giordano had no reason to complain as this recording, made in 1902 only five years after the opera’s premiere and with the composer at the piano, demonstrates.
Not all composers were so lucky. Until the late nineteenth century operas were written with the music tailored to the abilities of the singers under contract or available to the theater (or Royal personage) which had commissioned the work. The composer had very little choice in the matter. Still, it would be wonderful to listen to a recording of Giuditta Pasta, the 19th century soprano who created the role of Adina in “La Sonnambula” and was also the first “Norma.” How about Luigi Bassi who was Mozart’s original “Don Giovanni” or Fanny Salvani-Donatelli, Giuseppi Verdi’s Violetta in the Paris premiere of “La Traviata”?
Well, maybe not her. Verdi tried unsuccessfully to replace her and at least part of the blame for the opera’s disastrous opening night was due to the lady’s being heartily booed by the audience. Some Creators are less satisfactory than others. Francesco Tamagno (1856 – 1905) also did not please Verdi. Verdi tried to replace him but eventually allowed Tamagno, who was vain and had a tendency to sing off-pitch, the title role in “Otello.” Recorded in 1903 at the age of 53, Tamagno’s voice was still powerful and distinctive.
Few creator recordings exist of operas written before the 20th century. By the time sound recording was invented many artists were too old (or their voices in decline) and many of the recordings that they did make (wax cylinders and fragile disks) have been lost or destroyed. Additionally, a surprising number of artists simply never recorded the roles that they had created so we can only sample their voices in recordings of other roles.
The great Lilly Lehmann (1848 – 1929) sang in the premieres of two Richard Wagner operas: as Helmwige in “Die Walkure” and as Woglinde in the 1876 premiere of Das Rheingold. Here she sings from “Die Walkure” but as Sieglinde – in 1907 at the age of 55, thirty seven years after the opera’s premiere.
Adelina Stehele (1861 – 1945) was a remarkable artist who created not only Nannette in Verdi’s “Falstaff” but Nedda in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” but we’ll have to settle for an aria from “Adriana Lecouvreur” which she sings here, with husband Edoardo Garbin,
Vittorio Aramondi (1861 – 1928) was a superb basso who created the role of Pistol in the first performance of Verdi’s “Falstaff” as this recording of “Il lacerato spinto” from “Simon Boccanegra” demonstrates.
Giacomo Puccini’s operas were written just before or during the 20th century and when his creators were alive, relatively young, and in good voice for the recording studios. Cesira Ferrani (1863 – 1943) was the first Mimi, appearing in the 1896 premiere of “La Boheme.” She recorded her role in 1903.
The Romanian soprano Harrieta Darclee (1869 – 1939) was Puccini’s first “Tosca.” She also appeared in the premieres of “La Wally” by Catalani, and “Iris” and “I Rantzau” by Mascagni. She must have been exceptional but unfortunately almost none of her recordings survived the destruction of World War II. Here are two:
Rosa Raisa (1893 – 1963) sang at La Scala and at the Metropolitan Opera where she was a colleague and friend of Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso (who both greatly admired her voice.) She sang the very first “Turandot” at La Scala in 1926 and was also a helluva Leonore in “Forza del Destino.”
I’ve saved my favorite for last. The French baritone Victor Maurel (1848 – 1923) was very popular and a favorite of Verdi’s. He not only created the role of “Simon Boccanegra” in Verdi’s opera of the same name, but was the first Iago in “Otello” and the first Falstaff. Here we have him in two of his creator roles. First, at the age of 59 he recorded Falstaff’s “Quand’ero Paggio.”
and then as Iago singing “Eri la Notte” from “Otello.”
There are many more Creators on record. I urge you to seek out (YouTube is a great place to start) and enjoy among others: Emmy Destinn who created Minnie in “La Fanciulla del West”, Rosina Storchio who was the first “Madama Butterfly”, and Geraldine Farrar who created “Suor Angelica”, all for Puccini. Listen also to Emma Calve and Fernando de Luca who starred in the premiere of Mascagni’s “L’Amico Fritz.”