HERVA NELLI, the Italian-born American soprano, was best known for the Verdi recordings that she made, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. These were taken from live concert performances, broadcast on NBC between 1947 and 1954, of Otello, Aida, Falstaff, Un Ballo in Maschera and the Verdi Requiem.
Although Nelli's voice, with its pure, almost instrumental tone, did not appeal to everyone, she was greatly admired by Toscanini, who also featured the soprano in a concert that he conducted at La Scala, Milan, on 10 June 1948, the 30th anniversary of the death of Arrigo Boito. The concert was devoted to music from Boito's two operas Mefistofele and Nerone. Later that year Nelli sang Aida, probably her finest role, at La Scala; otherwise her career was spent mainly in the United States. She sang from 1953 to 1961 at the Metropolitan and also appeared in San Francisco, Chicago and other US cities.
Herva Nelli was born in Florence, but came to America at the age of 12. She studied at the Pittsburg Music Institute and in New York, where she made her debut in 1937 as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana with the Salmaggi Opera at the Hippodrome. She also appeared with the Philadelphia La Scala Company, in a repertory that included Bellini's Norma as well as several of her Verdi roles. In 1947 she sang Desdemona in Otello, the first (and generally acknowledged the best) of the NBC broadcasts conducted by Toscanini. The following year she went to Milan to take part in the Boito memorial concert, singing Margherita in two acts of Mefistofele and Asteria in scenes from Nerone, and to appear as Aida at La Scala. Back in New York she sang in two more of the NBC broadcasts, with Toscanini, as Aida (1949) and Alice Ford in Falstaff.
Nelli made her San Francisco debut in 1951 as Desdemona, and during the season she also sang Leonora in La Forza del Destino. Returning to San Francisco the following year she was heard as Leonora in Il Trovatore and as Aida, which was the role of her Metropolitan debut in 1953. During her nine seasons at the Met, Nelli also sang Maddalena in Andrea Chenier, Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, Santuzza, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and both Leonoras. In 1954 she participated in another NBC broadcast, this time as Amelia, and in 1956 she sang in the US premiere of Darius Milhaud's David, which was given as a concert performance in the Hollywood Bowl. The same year she appeared in Chicago as Leonora (Il Trovatore) and in 1957 returned a final time to San Francisco for Amelia. She continued singing into the 1960s, taking Norma in 1962 with the Brooklyn Opera Company. After she retired she took up catering.
Her legacy of the Verdi opera recordings made with Toscanini ensures that Herva Nelli will not be forgotten. Her Desdemona and Alice Ford, in particular, are the performances of a fine artist and singer who is inspired by the genius of the conductor to achieve greatness. Other sopranos may have larger or richer voices, but none penetrates more deeply into the hearts of Verdi's characters than Nelli, guided by Toscanini.