Fernando de Lucia (1860-1925) was the last of the great 19th century bel canto tenors. Born in Naples, de Lucia began his musical studies as a double bassist at the Naples Conservatory. By age 19, however, he had switched his focus to singing and spent the next four years studying with Alfonso Guercia and Vincenzo Lombardi, among others. Following local concerts and recitals, de Lucia made his operatic debut with Casa Lombardi as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele in December of 1884. The production was little more than a piano accompanied showcase mounted by Lombardi’s Naples studio, but it was attended by important critics and agents who saw promise in the young tenor. When the Teatro San Carlo found themselves in need of a Faust for a production of Gounod’s opera, de Lucia was recommended. Although the management was reluctant to work with a tenor who had never before set foot on the stage, desperation (as well as de Lucia’s willingness to sing for no fee!) won out and de Lucia made his official stage debut on March 20, 1885.
By the fall of 1885, de Lucia had sung in Bologna and Florence and his international career began the following spring with performances of Faust, Lucrezia Borgia, La Favorita and La Juive in Buenos Aires. The tenor moved on to Montevideo that summer, adding La Gioconda to his growing repertoire. He returned to Europe that fall and made his Spanish debut at Madrid’s Teatro Real as Wilhelm Meister in Mignon. Debuts in other important theaters followed, including London’s Drury Lane and Covent Garden, Buenos Aires’ Teatro Politeama and Rome’s Teatro Costanzi. De Lucia’s Met debut came about on December 11, 1893 as Canio in Pagliacci. Critics were less than kind, with Henderson of The Times (who seems to have hated the opera itself!) remarking on the tenor’s “white voice”. Henderson did, however, commend de Lucia for the intensity of his acting. Of his performance in Don Giovanni, an unnamed critic wrote that de Lucia, “…has a remarkable facility for jumping from very good to very bad. His performance of Don Ottavio was of the latter variety.” Unfortunately, de Lucia never really caught on in New York. In April of 1894, after 41 performances of nine roles, his Met career came to an end.
Back in Italy, de Lucia made his La Scala debut in the premiere of Mascagni’s Silvano in March of 1895. In contrast to his brief New York career, de Lucia enjoyed a long and satisfying tenure in most of Italy’s major theaters. He was an important member of La Scala’s roster until 1916 and, appropriately, bid farewell to the stage at Naples’ Teatro San Carlo the following year. De Lucia was active as a concert artist for the next several years (he sang at Caruso’s 1921 funeral) and became one of Italy’s most respected voice teachers. The tenor continued to coach young singers (including French tenor, Georges Thill) nearly to the end of his days. Following a brief illness, de Lucia died of renal failure at his home in Naples on February 21, 1925 at the age of 64.
Fernando de Lucia enjoyed an illustrious 33 year stage career that took him to the major theaters of (in addition to those previously mentioned) Venice, Palermo, Bari, Monte Carlo, Seville, Lisbon, Budapest, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Vienna and Paris. His repertoire included over 40 roles in such works as L’Elisir d’Amore, La Sonnambula, Semiramide, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Fra Diavolo, Roméo et Juliette, Les Pęcheurs de Perles, Manon, Werther, Lohengrin, Falstaff, La Bohčme, Tosca and Fedora. De Lucia also created the leads in the world premieres of four Mascagni operas, L’Amico Fritz, Iris, Silvano and I Rantzau.
The reputation of Fernando de Lucia rests mainly on his enormous recorded legacy of some 400 discs, made for G&T/The Gramophone Company, Fonotipia and Phonotype between 1902 and 1922. Interestingly, the very discs that have preserved the tenor’s artistry nearly destroyed his reputation. When de Lucia’s original discs were being transferred to long-playing records in the early 1950s, recording technicians simply played them at 78 RPM and/or at score pitch. Unfortunately, these technicians had no way of knowing that the tenor ALWAYS employed major downward transposition in every recording he made. Also complicating matters was the fact that de Lucia’s early recordings for G&T were recorded at very slow speeds. When they were transferred at much faster speeds, the result was a voice that sounded akin to the bleat of a goat. This was the voice that a new generation of listeners grew accustomed to until well into the 1980s. Luckily, steps have been taken during the past three decades to transfer de Lucia’s originals at the correct speed, thereby allowing the modern listener to hear his REAL voice. Here, de Lucia (still in fine voice at 60) sings "No! Pagliaccio non son" from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. This was recorded for Phonotype in Naples on April 17, 1921.