VINA BOVY, Gent en de diva by Eric Bauwens

Snoeck publishers 2018, 223 pp
ISBN 978-94-6161-446-9

Click here for the author's website

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This is the second book dealing with the life and career of the Belgian soprano. The first was published both in a Dutch and a French edition in 1965 by Jacques Deleersnijder (1), a book which still has its value though a serious detailed biography it isn’t but neither is the one under discussion.

Vina Bovy was one of the most famous Belgian sopranos of the interbellum. She was born in Ghent on May 22nd 1900. Being an orphan at age two she was educated by her working-class grandparents. At the early age of fourteen she enrolled herself in the Ghent music conservatory. After three years of study she made her stage debut in the Flemish theatre in Ghent in 1918 in a Dutch language version of ‘Les deux billets’ by Poise (role of Argentine).

For the 1920-21 season she was enlisted by the Ghent French opera where she roles such as Mimi, Nedda, Marguerite, Thais and Butterfly. Her most important partners were André Burdino, César Vezzani and René Maison. The following season Bovy explored wider horizons and sang at the Gaieté Lyrique in Paris and at the ‘Palais d’hiver” in Pau (France). The Brussels  Munt heard her for the first time in 1922 and for three consecutive seasons she continued to develop her talents and extend her repertoire. Famous colleagues here included John Charles Thomas, Fernand Ansseau, Joseph Hislop and Dmitri Smirnov. The Parisian press had called her a ‘a great artist’ at her debut as Manon in March 1925 which is far from suspecting her to become one of the most brilliant stars of the Opéra Comique where she would sing about 200 performances up to 1949.

1925 was a turning point in her career. Toscanini present at a performance of Manon at the Comique requested her to enlarge her knowledge of the Italian repertory. Thus Bovy decided to go to Italy to study with the renowned ‘repetiteur’ Cimara. The fact that she took the trouble to learn Italian opened the doors to some of the great Italian theatres, South and North America. In June 1927 she parted with “La Grande Compagnia Lirica Italiana” to the Colon where she made her debut on July 14 as Manon opposite Tito Schipa.

After numerous appearances in France, Belgium and Monte Carlo she was at the zenith of her career when on Christmas Eve 1936 she made her debut at the Metropolitan in Traviata (click here to listen to her Violetta). Other roles here included Gilda, Lakmé, Juliette and Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust. She also participated in a performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony with Toscanini conducting. Bovy was considered a real diva by the Met as she was paid about 700 USD per performance which was the same as Giovanni Martinelli. Only Grace Moore and Lily Pons got more. In comparison Germaine Lubin was offered ‘only’ 400 dollars a performance in 1941.
World War II made an end to Bovy’s international career and she only sang in France adding Lieder recitals to her repertory. 

Click here to listen to her singing Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben (in French)

From 1947 to 1955 Bovy directed the Ghent opera house being also the prima donna of her company. Despite great financial difficulties she nevertheless succeeded to attain a high artistic level and achieved an immense popularity which is still alive today with the older generation. It was during these 8 years that some live recordings were made. They enable us to hear a moving  artist in her early fifties and in comparison to her studio recordings of 20 years earlier they show us a far more convincing singer who needed a stage and her public to give her utmost best.

Click here to listen to her Manon live from Ghent with tenor André Laroze

Vina Bovy described by Lauri-Volpi as ‘bellissima donna e doviziosa voce lirica’ died in her hometown on May 16, 1983.

(Bovy with Gino Becchi on the right, radio producer Etienne Vanneste is on the left)

Though she was under contract for both Columbia and HMV she only made a dozen recordings. She also recorded during the 2nd  world war but these remained mostly unpublished. As late as 1947 she recorded Giulietta in Les Contes d’Hoffman under André Cluytens. Bovy also acted and sang in one movie “Le capitaine Fracasse” by Abel Gance in 1943.

(rare photo of Bovy in Faust at the Koninklijke Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp)

Now to this newly published biography. Of its 223 pages only 82 (!!) really deal with Bovy’s life and career the remainder of the book is devoted to other singers, conductors and composers.
The author frequently uses fictional “interviews” with Bovy trying to recreate the personality of the singer and her world. More pulp than a serious biography. Here and there he gives some admittedly welcome new information but not enough to make it a real biography or to make us forget the Deleersnijder book. His “research” limited itself to Belgium, in fact he didn’t even meet or interview her son or (great?)grandchildren. There is no index, there is no chronology, and there is no discography. There isn’t even mention of the only LP release of Bovy’s recordings (2). Redeeming factors are the many photos (interesting for non-Dutch speakers) but the reproductions aren’t always of the highest quality. This hard cover book is printed on glossy high quality paper and is very appealing to the eye.

Last but not least the book could have used a serious editor as there are several typos and some serious errors. A sample : on page 26 the author –a former army officer and teacher at the military school - calls Gavrilo Princip a Serbian while he was clearly Bosnian. On page 28 the author wrongly states that August De Boeck’s opera “La route d’émeraude (click here) is based on the life of Rembrandt. It is not.  Bauwens also writes that André d’Arkor became director of the Munt/Monnaie (pg.44) which d’Arkor never was.  La Sonnambula is written as “La Sonamvoula”  on page 57 and as “La Somnanbula” on page 28. In a photo caption on the same page Tullio Serafin is painfully misidentified as Gigli. On page 67 the author surprisingly mentions  that the Basque tenor Luis Mariano –who sang Ernesto with Bovy on stage - had been strongly in love on several occasions but that a marriage never materialized while everyone now knows Mariano was gay. Also Olin Downes of the NY times is always called "Colin Dowes"....

Click here to listen to Bovy and Mariano in a duet from Don Pasquale + click here to listen to Bovy and Mariano in the quartet from the same opera

While I don’t doubt Mr Bauwens's good intentions the manuscript as such was not ready for publication. Half of it should have been edited out and more focus and especially research should have been devoted to the singer herself. Too many questions remain unanswered and thus the real Bovy biography still needs to be written.


Rudi van den Bulck, July 2018 

(1) Vina Bovy by Jacques Deleersnijder, 128 pp, Gent 1965

(2) LP EMI CO51-23272 VINA BOVY Beroemde Belgische Stemmen (1971)