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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Solomia Krushelnytska and Italy

Nov. 16 marked 54 years since the death of the celebrated Ukrainian singer
21 November, 2006 - 00:00

Solomia Krushelnytska found her last repose at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, beside the grave of the Great Stonemason, Ivan Franko. Although she died in middle age, the prima donna’s passing was a stunning blow to her contemporaries because time seemed to have no power over her performing art.

Rome, Paris, Warsaw, St. Petersburg, Buenos Aires, Madrid, New York, and Ottawa are just some of the cities on whose famed operatic stages Krushelnytska performed during her triumphant concert tours. There is no doubt, however, that Viareggio occupied a special place in her biography. Solomia experienced the joys of a happy marriage and great operatic success in this Italian resort town on the eastern coast of the Apennine Peninsula, south of Genoa.

Deciding to settle there in 1904, she chose a house in the cozy Passeggiata quarter between Via Flavio Gioia and Carducci Blvd. From the balcony Solomia could marvel at the fantastic beauty of the sunset and the sea that had an Italian way of being calm or stormy, rolling its waves one after another during the mistrals. Contemporary sources say that this reminded the singer of Ukrainian wheat fields undulating in the wind.

“Viareggio remembers and respects Solomia Krushelnytska,” says Simonetta Puccini, manager of the memorial museum Villa Puccini, “although 67 years have elapsed since the time the singer left the city for Ukraine, never to return.”

A memorial plaque was unveiled on a wall of the building in which the singer once lived. It was hung in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Solomia’s triumphant title role in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This happened three months after the opera suffered a complete fiasco.

“By a miraculous coincidence this original singer from a remote and almost unknown country was destined to captivate world audiences in one of Giacomo Puccini’s masterpieces,” writes Antonella Cerretini in her article “A Pure Image over the Sea of Viareggio: The Biography of Solomia Krushelnytska “ in the History and Culture Bulletin (2001, no. 1) published by the Institute of History of the Province of Lucca (Viareggio is administratively part of this province).

The author describes in detail how destiny brought the singer and the Italian composer together.

“Giacomo Puccini moved to Torre del Lago near Viareggio in 1891, when Solomia was in her first year at the conservatory. In a mansion by Lake Massaciuccoli the maestro sought peace and quiet so that he could devote all his time to music. In Torre del Lago he created the opera Manon Lescaut that premiered on Feb. 1, 1893, at the Regio Theater in Turin, followed by La Boheme which received a rather cool public response.”

The young singer first met Puccini indirectly in late 1894. Solomia sang in Manon Lescaut in Lviv.

In the meantime Puccini was working hard on his new operas. On Jan. 14, 1900, he presented Tosca at the Constanzi Theater in Rome. On Feb. 17, 1904, Madama Butterfly premiered at La Scala, where something totally unexpected happened. The opera was a complete fiasco. The composer left the theater before the end of the performance and returned disheartened to Torre del Lago, where alone he struggled to determine the cause of his failure. He was convinced that his work was artistically perfect and decided to make some technical changes in the composition. He then thinking about the next performance and who could sing the title part after the fiasco at La Scala.

That was when Solomia and the maestro met in person. No one knows whether the composer heard about the Ukrainian singer from his friends or reports about her successful performances. Before their meeting she had made triumphant appearances in Wagner operas in Vienna. Be that as it may, the two unique personalities met and Solomia accepted the maestro’s offer. Proof of her serious attitude to her new operatic part is the fact that during the three months of work on the opera the singer wore her stage costume, even after rehearsals, in order to gain deeper insight into the character of the geisha Cio-Cio-San.

The day of the performance, May 28, 1904, finally arrived. Puccini was trembling with anticipation in the wings of the Theatro Grande in Brescia. Solomia was also nervous, but determined to apply all her talents to performing the role of Madama Butterfly. We know the result: total triumph.

Even now experts marvel at Krushelnytska’s success at the time. This phenomenon is examined by the historians of the Italian theater Giorgio Gualerzi and Giorgio Rampone in the article “Return from the Past” (Turin, 2000): “Cio-Cio-San in Krushelnytska’s interpretation was rendered on a high intellectual level but without damaging the directness and verisimilitude of the heroine’s image, the essence and depth of which could without a doubt satisfy the most exacting taste... Butterfly’s ‘Orientalism’ gave the singer an excellent opportunity to demonstrate her refined artistry.”

The success of what was actually the second premiere of Madama Butterfly marked a turning point in the lives of the maestro and Krushelnytska. She decided to stay in Viareggio.

The singer often received guests in her home: actors, musicians, and opera lovers. Before long, Alfredo Cesare Augusto Riccioni, a lawyer and the mayor of Viareggio (b. Jan. 18, 1868), started attending these soirees. He admired the hostess’s voice and her beauty even more so.

Signor Riccioni’s courtship was a long one, but their feelings got the better of them and they finally decided to get married on July 10, 1910, in Buenos Aires, where Solomia was performing at the time.

The married couple lived in the singer’s home in Viareggio. Contemporary accounts indicate that the city residents, particularly women, became even more interested in Solomia. They looked forward to the attractive couple’s daily stroll so that they could examine Solomia’s hairdo and every detail of her clothes because she was perfection incarnate in everything.

The exhibit in the Villa Puccini Museum features a number of photographs of Solomia playing various parts in Puccini’s operas. There is a photo of her and the composer when they visited Cairo in 1904 (a copy of this photograph is at the Solomia Krushelnytska Museum in Bila near Ternopil). There are also newspaper clippings and essays by various experts. In 2003 the Puccini Festival Foundation launched a series of articles that are published as separate publications dedicated to noted singers of the past. The first publication, by Liza Dominicci, is about the Ukrainian Solomia Krushelnytska and the Italian Amelia Carola, with the front cover displaying a photo of Solomia as Madama Butterfly.

The singer’s life passed serenely and happily in the resort town until 1936, when her husband died. After Cesare Riccioni’s death Krushelnytska increasingly often contemplated returning to Ukraine. On April 23, 1937, she applied for a passport.

Solomia decided to donate her unique collection of books to the local municipal library. Now this collection is being used by a classical lycee. Thus, several generations of readers remember with gratitude Krushelnytska’s charitable contribution to the development of culture in Viareggio.

In 1939, she left the sunlit and cordial Italian town forever, leaving behind fond and proud memories of the world-famous singer.

Today Viareggio has a population of over 60,000. It is famous for its carnivals, sailboat regatta, literary competition, and, of course, Puccini music. It gratefully reveres the pure image of its former resident, Solomia Krushelnytska.