De Lucia was famous in his lifetime as a performer of verismo roles (such as Canio in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci) and certain Verdi parts. He has also acquired a great posthumous reputation among record-collectors as a leading exponent of a certain style of ornamental tenor singing which is now extinct. They value especially De Lucia's recordings of Almaviva's arias from Rossini's bel canto comic opera Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville).
De Lucia sang at La Scala in 1895 in the world premiere of Mascagni's Silvano, and also appeared in the first Milan performances of Puccini's La bohème and Massenet's La Navarraise. At Covent Garden in that same year, he shared the principal tenor work with the heavier-voiced Francesco Tamagno and Albert Alvarez in the absence of Jean de Reszke. The American baritone David Bispham thought De Lucia admirable in Fra Diavolo that year. The cast of Auber's light-hearted opera featured Bispham and Mme Amadi (as Lord and Lady Allcash) and Marie Engle (as Zerlina), as well as Vittorio Arimondi and Antonio Pini-Corsi (as brigands).
In 1896, in Milan, De Lucia appeared as Cavaradossi in Tosca, and again as Almaviva. The next year, he sang in a state concert at London's Buckingham Palace for Queen Victoria's Royal Jubilee. At the Costanzi Theatre, Rome, on 22 November 1898, he created the role of Osaka in Mascagni's Iris, and at Covent Garden on 12 July 1900 he played Cavaradossi in the first performance of Tosca in England, supporting the Floria Tosca of Milka Ternina, with Antonio Scotti as Scarpia and Luigi Mancinelli conducting. The "Musical Times" found that his performance was highly effective and that his character exactly suited that of Cavaradossi.
De Lucia was also admired in London as Don Jose in Bizet's Carmen. He appeared, too, in the same composer's I pescatori di perle and in various works by Rossini, Bellini and Verdi. His last London season would be in 1905, in an outstanding operatic company assembled by Henry Russell for the Waldorf Theatre (now the Novello Theatre). De Lucia's colleagues on this occasion were Alessandro Bonci, Ancona and Pini-Corsi.
In 1916, De Lucia delivered his farewell performance at La Scala as Rodolfo. He said goodbye to his loyal Neapolitan supporters the following year at the Teatro di San Carlo. De Lucia's final appearance before the public occurred at the funeral of the incomparable Enrico Caruso in Naples in 1921. In his later years, De Lucia dwelt in Naples and taught at the conservatory there, in which he himself had been trained. His most famous pupil was the French tenor Georges Thill.
De Lucia's recordings of arias and duets from Rossini's Barber of Seville ('Ecco ridente', 'Se il mio nome' and 'Numero quindici', for example) show off his vocal characteristics to an even greater extent than do his records of verismo pieces or even Verdi. They contain a studied display of fioritura, rubato, limpid phrasing and portamento which appears to be a deliberate re-statement of the so-called bel canto style practised by previous generations of Italian tenors; or perhaps more accurately, a re-statement of that style's surviving mannerisms. These mannerisms were already dying out in the early 1900s when audiences, seduced by Enrico Caruso's resplendent vocal outpourings, came to prefer their tenor idols to sing in a more full-blooded, robust and emotionally-direct way.
George Bernard Shaw wrote tellingly of De Lucia in June 1892. Having seen his l'amico Fritz, he stated that: 'Signor De Lucia succeeds [Fernando] Valero ... as artificial tenor in ordinary to the establishment. His thin strident forte is in tune and does not tremble beyond endurance; and his mezza voce, though monotonous and inexpressive, is pretty as prettiness goes in the artificial school.' In 1894 Shaw speaks of De Lucia as a tenor of the Julian Gayarre school, without the "goat-bleat" of its extreme disciples. This comment of Shaw's provides a clue. Like Valero, Gayarre was taught by Melchiorre Vidal in Madrid. Another of Vidal's pupils, Rosina Storchio, was closely associated with verismo premieres. De Lucia, who sang in Spain in the 1880s, may have imbibed the example set by those who studied with Vidal.
By referring to De Lucia as an artificial tenor, Shaw is associating him with other pre-World War One Italian tenors who employed a similar vocal technique. They include Alessandro Bonci, Giuseppe Anselmi, Fiorello Giraud and Aristodemo Giorgini. The voices of each of these tenors had a fast, fluttery vibrato or tremolo which is all too apparent on their gramophone records. This excessive vibrato seems to be an integral part of the breathing technique that they use to negotiate vocal ornaments and perform portamenti. Musicologists debate whether it is a genuine stylistic hand-me-down from the "bel canto" singing tradition founded by the virtuoso tenor Giovanni Rubini (1794-1854) or merely a flaw, attributable to inadequate breath support, in the vocal method adopted by some Mediterranean tenors during De Lucia's era.
It should be noted that many famous Mediterranean tenors active in De Lucia's day, such as Francesco Tamagno, Francesco Marconi, Francesco Signorini, Emilio De Marchi, Francesco Vignas (a Vidal pupil, incidentally), Giuseppe Borgatti, Giovanni Zenatello and, of course, Enrico Caruso, did not 'tremble' like De Lucia and his ilk when they sang. This fact is borne out by their recordings. (Unlike the other tenors mentioned above, De Marchi did not make commercial records; but he can be heard singing Cavaradossi in a brief cylinder recording made live at the Metropolitan Opera in 1903.)
Fonotipia Records. De Lucia also recorded 30 Neapolitan songs for the Fonotipia label (later subsumed under Odeon Records). This company began recording exclusively celebrities in October 1904, having been founded for that purpose by Baron d'Erlanger as the Società Italiana di Fonotipia, Milano. The De Lucia titles had the catalogue numbers 92695 to 92724: the 92000 sequence was cut between 1907 and 1914 on the characteristic ten and three-quarter inch Fonotipia record, and these were probably made after cessation of work for Gramophone Co.: some duplicate the HMV songs.
Phonotype Records. Not to be confused with Fonotipia, De Lucia later established his own recording firm, the Phonotype Company, mainly to ensure that his art was suitably immortalized. These include many operatic titles, including a near-complete Barber of Seville.
Note: By the time that De Lucia came to make his recordings, his upper register had contracted to such an extent that he was forced to transpose downwards some of the pieces that he committed to disc by a semi-tone or tone.
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