Gina Cigna

02 July 2001

Gina Cigna, opera singer: born Paris 6 March 1900; married 1923 Maurice Sens (deceased); died Milan, Italy 26 June 2001.

One of the most gifted and admired dramatic sopranos of the 1930s, Gina Cigna sang in Paris, London, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Buenos Aires but it was in Italy that she enjoyed the highest reputation.

At La Scala, Milan, where she appeared every season throughout the decade, and at many other Italian theatres, she was considered a Norma, an Aida, a Gioconda, a Turandot without rival. A very handsome woman with a powerful, vibrant voice, she excelled in those roles which most nearly matched her own passionate temperament. Although a motor accident cut short her operatic career at a tragically early age, she continued to teach, first in Canada, then in Italy, until 1965.

Gina Cigna was born in Paris in 1900; her father, of Italian origin, was a general in the French army. Having played the piano from an early age, she studied at the Paris Conservatory, where Alfred Cortot was her professor, and embarked on a career as a pianist. In 1923 she married Maurice Sens, a tenor who sang roles such as Gerald (Lakmé), Des Grieux (Manon) and Julien (Louise) at the Opéra-Comique; it was Sens who discovered her voice and suggested that she become a singer.

After studying with Lucette Korsoff, on the advice of the great French soprano Emma Calvé Cigna went to Italy. There she worked with other well-known sopranos, Hariclea Darclée, Rosina Storchio and Giannina Russ. In 1926 she auditioned at La Scala for Toscanini, who declared that she had a voice suitable for Verdi and advised her to study the roles of Violetta, Leonora in Il trovatore and Aida. After a second audition, however, she was offered the part of Freia in Das Rheingold and made her début – under the name Ginette Sens – at La Scala in 1927, attracting little attention.

After further study and an engagement at Trieste singing mirror roles in Andrea Chénier and Wolf-Ferrari's Sly, in 1928 she gained her first major success at Carpi, in the title role of Catalant's Loreley. During 1929 she sang Elena in Boito's Mefistofele at Nice, Marguerite in Faust at the Verona Arena, her first Aida at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence and Leonora in La forza del destino at Pavia, before returning, now under the name of Gina Cigna, to La Scala as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. This time she scored a great triumph and a few weeks later sang Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, with equal success; her career was launched.

After appearances in Lisbon, Genoa, Parma and Rome, in 1933 Gina Cigna made her Covent Garden début as Marguerite in the first staged performance in Britain of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, and also sang Elisabeth de Valois in Don Carlos. She returned to Covent Garden in 1936 as Tosca; in 1937, when she sang Aida on Coronation Day (12 May), to the annoyance of some members of the audience, who felt that Eva Turner should have been given that honour; and in 1939, when she repeated her Tosca and also sang Leonora in Il trovatore. Though admired for her fine stage presence and deep involvement in her roles, Cigna was criticised in London – and later in New York – for the excessive use of vibrato in her singing.

Meanwhile, in 1935, the centenary of the death of Bellini, Gina Cigna sang Alaide in La straniera at La Scala and Norma in Catania, the composer's birthplace. That year she ventured outside her usual romantic repertory to sing Gluck's Alceste at the Maggio musicale in Florence, where in 1937 she was a notable Poppea in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea. Having made a much-acclaimed Metropolitan début in 1936 as Aida, she sang in New York for two seasons, as Leonora (Il trovatore), Gioconda, Norma, Donna Elvira and Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana. Aida was again her début role at San Francisco in 1937, when she also sang Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Norma and Violetta.

Toscanini's judgement, that Gina Cigna had a voice suitable for Verdi, was amply proven; as well as those already cited, her Verdi roles included Elvira in Ernani and Abigaille in Nabuco. She also sang Mascagni's Isabeau, Catalani's Wally, Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini and Respighi's Fiamma, operas in which her handsome appearance, magnetic personality and dramatic involvement were of paramount importance. As Turandot she was specially praised for the tremendous vocal authority she brought to the role. She also sang in a number of non-Italian operas, taking part in the Italian premieres of Janácek's Jenufa (1941) at Venice and of Richard Strauss's Daphne (1942) at La Scala.

After the Second World War, Cigna continued her career, appearing chiefly in Italy. On the way to Vicenza to sing Tosca in 1948, she was seriously injured in a motor accident and in consequence was forced to retire from the stage. She became a teacher, first in Toronto, later in Milan and Siena. Her complete recordings, made in the late Thirties, of three of her finest roles, Aida, Turandot and Norma, are available on CD. The Aida reunites Cigna with Giovanni Martinelli, Ezio Pinza and other members of the 1937 Metropolitan cast; the sound on all three recordings is amazingly good and lifelike, giving a vivid impression of the soprano at the peak of her career.

Elizabeth Forbes