Raina Kabaivanska

Raina Kabaivanska was born in Burgass, Bulgaria, on the Black Sea. Her father was a veterinarian and a writer; also a talented inventor, as he designed and realized Balkantourist, the Bulgarian Tourist Association. Her mother was a professor of physics. Raina always lived in Sofia and studied there. As a child she played the piano and sang accompanying herself on a small accordeon. As a student at the Sofia Conservatory she was a soloist in the Artistic Collective of the Workers’ Army and played and sang popular opera arias for soprano and mezzo.

For a few months she was a member of the chorus at the Sofia Opera House, as a soprano. In the final end-of-term production of the Conservatoory. In the end-of-term spectacle of her last Conservatory year she took part in Tatyana’s Leter Scene from Tchaykovsky’s Eugene Onyegin amd in the final scene of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.

In 1958 she obtained a 6-month scholarship from her government. She used it to finish her musical education in Italy. There she met Zita Fumagalli Riva, who had been a reputed verismo interpreter in the ‘10s and ‘20es, and studied with her. In Milan Raina had to suffer hardships to complete her studies. She made her stage debut at Vercelli as Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il tabarro in 1959. Soon after she ap-peared at minor opera houses in Northern Italy, such as Sanremo, Mantua, Trento and Bozen, singing Bohéme and Pagliacci. She then won a competition to enter the Young Singers’ School at la Scala, Milan, where she worked with conductors such as Antonio Tonini and Gianandrea Gavazzeni and stage producer Mario Frigerio. In 1961 she was considered mature enough to debut in Malipiero’s Torneo Notturno at the Piccola Scala, with Antonino Votto’s enthusiastic endorsement. In May 1962 she sang at the Scala “proper” as Agnese in Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, opposite Joan Sutherland.

Thanks to her musicianship and stage experience, she immediately secured three international contracts : Sir David Webster, artistic director of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, presented her on that stage as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, between Mario Del Monaco and Tito Gobbi, under Sir Georg Solti’s baton.

Kurt Herbert Adler offered her a debut in the United States, again as Desdemona in San Francisco; a few months later, Rudolf Bing of the Metropolitan in New York, secured her services for fifteen seasons, beginning with Pagliacci with Carlo Bergonzi. Between 1961 amd 1968 Raina studied technique and repertoire with the great Rosa Ponselle in Baltimore and with her she prepared the roles of Leonora in La forza del destino, Cio.-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly and Leonora in Trovatore. Some extremely interesting tapes of those lessons are still extant.

Kabaivanska’s working relationship with La Scala remained intense during the ‘60’es (Falstaff, Busoni’s Turandot, Suor Angelica, Don Carlos, Mefistofele, Rien-zi). But her activity in the States was even more intense and profitable: at the Met and in the biggest American cities (Chicago, Washington, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas and so on) our artist polished all those roles that later gave her glory with humility and concentration.

In 1969 Raina opened the season at La Scala singing Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani with Placido Domingo and her fellow countryman Nikolai Ghiaurov. On that occasion she met a young stage producer, Franco Guandalini, the assistant to Giorgio De Lullo and an art collector, who was a chemist in Modena in Northern Italy. He would later become her husband. After the birth of daughter Francesca ( so christened after Zandonai’s opera), Raina Kabaivanska chose the city of Modena for her home.

Meantime, Maria Callas’s example had created a regular fanaticism for the Italian operas of the early Nineteenth century. It looked as though, after the “Callas phenomenon” the verismo repertory, or, to be more precise, the composers of the late Nineteenth century – the so called Young Italian School - had nothing more to say to a sophisticated audience.

Kabaivanska was able to overcome all blasé prejudice, interpreting the Art Nouveau heroines – Desdemona in Otello, Wally, Tosca, Adriana Lecouvreur, Butterfly, Francesca da Rimini – with sovereign musicianship, with strictly controlled style and taste, and with the charisma of a great actress. The operas she resurrected and the style with which she presented them are clear evidence that she was conscious she was operating on a high cultural level, just as high as rediscovering belcanto; and obtaining popular acclaim. At every performance our artist offers a physical and stage presence of dazzling glamour, just as the operatic stage demands - and very seldom gets.

She has resurrected the fascinating figure of the time-honoured singing-actress, in the wake of Emma Calvé and Lina Cavalieri, of Geraldine Farrar and Maria Jeritza, of Gilda Dalla Rizza and Claudia Muzio. In Italy Raina’s exquisite vocal and scenic creations in the late “Ottocento” and Art Nouveau repertory, that might have appeared outdated in the ‘70’es , have obtained praise from the strictest musicologists. And she is forever in the heart of a most fervent audience. Some performances of Verdi operas by this great singing-actress are memorable.

In ’73 she interpreted Duchess Elena in I Vespri Siciliani , which inaugurated the new Teatro Regio in Turin with Maria Callas as a producer. Soon after a moving and lovely Violetta was presented in the cities of Emilia and at the Sferisterio in Macerata with the expert guidance of Mauro Bolognini.

In ’76 she debuted as Amelia in Simon Boccanegra at La Scala, under Claudio Abbado’s baton. In 1978 Herbert von Karajan ( who had been both conductor and director to her tense, exciting Nedda in Pagliacci at La Scala ) wanted Raina in Trovatore at the Salzburg Festival and in Vienna. He also asked her to be Alice in his Falstaff, on record, at the Salzburg Festival and on film in 1981 and ’82.

Kabaivanska’s discography is hampered by the fact that she was always outside the major record corporations in the West.; but it does contain some precious discs. In the mid-seventies FONIT- CETRA made her record two elegant recitals, one of Puccini arias under Gianandrea Gavazzeni ‘s history-making baton, one of Russian chamber music with piano accompaniment. Between 1979 and ‘81 RCA distributed a few beautiful recitals ranging from Cherubini to Puccini. In the mid-eighties this artist was able to make accurate complete recordings of five of her greatest roles: Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, Adriana Lecouvreur and Francesca da Rimini.

In 1979 Raina sang Evgenji Onjegin a the Metropolitan in New York. In 1980 Tosca with Pavarotti was a major triumph at La Scala. Soon after she sued the Milan theatre for breach of contract. The end of that partnership meant that Raina was now free to choose the roles in her career. She was established as the most acclaimed soprano in Italy and in many European countries. The Rome Opera, the Comunale of Bologna, the Hamburg Staatsoper, the San Carlo in Naples, the Regio of Turin, the Coliseo of Bilbao, the Massimo of Palermo opened their doors to her with fresh suggestions.

In 1981 she sang with Alfredo Kraus for the first time in a new role, Manon in Massenet’s opera. Those performances at the Rome Opera had a triumphant reception, just as the inauguration of the 1981-’82 roman season with Donizetti’s Fausta. It was a veritable resurrection of a score which had been forgotten after Giuditta Pasta had interpreted it in 1833. Raina’s triumph in this difficult role - which she had prepared by going to the “Donizetti Society”in London and by being coached in the part by musicologist Rodolfo Celletti – was the prelude to many interpretation of classical roles.

There were productions of Spontini ‘s La vestale ( Genoa 1984), which had been a Ponselle and Callas warhorse, of Gluck’s Armide ( Bologna 1984), which caused the admiration of the French critics for her perfect dramatic diction. They were climaxed by Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux di Donizetti ( Rome 1988 and Genoa 1993). The redoutable Queen Elizabeth, harsh and threatening in the first two acts, underwent an amazingly pathetic catharsis in the final scene.

At the same time Kabaivanska never abandoned the twoManons, Adriana and Francesca: she kept singing them in the major theatres, as well as singing more than four hundred Toscas and Butterflies, with impeccable musicianship, cool elegance and tragic impact. In 1978, 1983 and 1997 she presented her subtle, intimate interpretation of Madama Butterfly in a giant open-air venue such as the Arena inearning deafening ovations.

Anticipating a much-trumpetend production of the ‘90’es, Raina has filmed Tosca in its authentic places – the church of S.Andrea della Valle, the Farnese palace and the Castle of S. Angelo – with Placido Domingo, already in 1979. Bringing her Adriana Lecouvreur to Montecarlo, Marseilles, Muenchen,, Oviedo and Lisbon, she has restored international celebrity ro this opera, which had lost it.

A young and enthusiastic public was now raising Kabaivanska to the status of cult singer. Versatility is not the least of her qualities. It could not be otherwise in an artist who is first and foremost a cultured, polyglot lady and an excellent musician, Her concerts and recitals are countless to this day and range from Monteverdi to our time. One area she particularly favours, slavic chamber music. As a chamber artist Kabaivanska has never forgotten her “roots”; she is a musician with a perfect command of Czech and Russian and she expresses herself with a deeply felt melancholy.

Raina Kabaivanska’s first master classes took place in 1992 near Turin; ever since it has been impossible to keep track with the frequency with which she has lavished her technical, interpretative and scenic expertise on young students.She was a prestigious coach at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena,at the Accademia in Osimo and at the Opera Real in Madrid, among others.

Lastly, since 1993 our artist has ventured into the exploration of Twentieth-century opera: the intricate one, by Strauss, Janacek, Britten, Poulenc. For such composers the human is not and cannot be the “bel canto” of the previous centuries, but the whispers and screams of characters with a neurotic, worn-out sensitivity. Kabaivanska has created chic, restless ladies, such as the Gräfin in Capriccio, the epitome of the Abandoned Woman in La voix humaine, the Governess in The turn of the Screw,; but also disturbed, tragical characters, such as Emilia Marty in The Makropoulos Case and Kostelnička in Jenufa. Critics of the spoken theatre expressed admiration for Raina.’s power as an actress.

In the current stage of her career, Kabaivanska is still digging in the treasure of XX century in musica. She has tackled The Merry Widow , non just as a purely frivolous divertissement , but as a milestone in XX century opera. Her latest acquisitions have been Janacek’s Jenufa in the original Czech text and the musical Lady in the Dark by Kurt Weill . Very soon she is expected to sing the Countess in Pikovaja Dama at the San Carlo in Naples and in 2006 Hérodiade in Strauss’s Salome in the little-known French-language version, at the Fenice in Venice. In such a wealth of languages and styles one must not forget the Kabaivanska who sings chamber music , from Beethoven’s Italian Lied “Ah, perfido!” to the lyrics by Sciostakovich.

As the late critic and musicologist, Rodolfo Celletti, wrote about her, “Raina’s voice, considered in itself, as pure sonic material, as an instrument, is almost as non-existing. What I mean is, it cannot be described if it is not associated to a clearly defined character, be it Tosca, Cio-Cio-San, Adriana or the Gräfin in Capriccio. It is a voice that becomes different each time. According to Wagner – who was writing about Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient – “this is the only praise to which a singing-actress should aspire”.

Gina Guandalini