Where Are Italy’s Opera Singers? Part I

Thursday, August 25, 2011 - 12:00 PM

Following up on my two-part article about all the excellent Italian conductors at work now (to which list I should have added Bruno Campanella), I now offer a three-part article that presents the leading Italian singers of today, many of whom you might not know. In the final posting I will discuss why the next generation of Italian opera singers faces challenges that even the current group did not.

Today’s Italian singers grew up in a time when opera began to recede from the national conversation but, nonetheless, they were able to see and hear some real giants. To name but a few who are still with us and, in some cases, teaching: Carlo Bergonzi, Fiorenza Cossotto, Mirella FreniKatia Ricciarelli, and Renata Scotto. All of them combined superb training, an innate sense of musical and linguistic phrasing, and a stage personality. By this I mean that they all had character and presence as artists in addition to imparting these to the roles they performed.

The legendary Magda Olivero and Licia Albanese have lived for a century and are the last links to the era of conductors such as Toscanini, Serafin, and Gavazzeni and that storied time when opera was front and center in Italian life. They too had students for decades, all of whom benefitted from precious counsel and insights that will soon be lost.

Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) was a megastar who represented opera to millions of people who did not know it. He had a glorious voice, an unforced musicianship, an engaging and natural stage presence, and diction that set the gold standard. He made music of the Italian language, perfectly phrasing and stressing every vowel and adjective as if they too were notes on a sheet of music. And yet he always made us understand the meaning of the words in musical and dramatic terms, rather than simply pronouncing them with care. Whenever I teach students and audiences about the Italian language, I use Pavarotti recordings. We are coming up to the anniversary of his death on September 6. I knew him well over the arc of decades, loved him as an artist and as a man, and miss him.

Bass Ruggero Raimondi (1941- ) and baritone Leo Nucci (1942- ) are probably the last notable contemporaries of Pavarotti who still are active singers. Raimondi also has superb language skills, is a wonderful actor (who has made many movies in addition to performing opera) and was an unforgettable Don Giovanni in Joseph Losey’s film version from the 1970s. Nucci is, in a way, the grand old man of the Verdi Festival held in Parma each October and a production is invariably built around him.

Pavarotti and all of his contemporaries grew up in an era when opera could be heard in provincial theaters throughout Italy and opera houses in major cities had full and varied seasons with great singers. Opera was available to the nation on frequent prime time radio and television broadcasts. La Scala was part of Italy’s image and the theater’s doings, along with news from the festivals in Verona, Florence, Spoleto and elsewhere were in national media, including television. Imagine opera being a regular news item, and not just when it involved strikes and gossip! Reviews of opera productions from around the country would appear in important national newspapers.

December 7 marked the opening night of La Scala and Milan’s Corriere della Sera, then Italy’s newspaper of record, would have at least two weeks of daily articles leading up to the opening and then print a magnificent special section that day rich in musicological, historical and political background on the opera being presented. I collected these for years because they provided reference material of unmatched value. Any Italian who was interested could have one for the price of a newspaper. Nowadays, Corriere might still have a four to eight page section but it lacks the heft in every sense that the ones in the past had.

There are still many fine Italian opera singers ranging from about 35 to 60 years old, many of whom grew up in homes where they had music, in cities where theaters still presented good seasons, and who somehow had the interest or the means to be exposed to opera. They also had the chance to hear the artists I mentioned above.

You surely know the sublime Barbara Frittoli, the foremost international exponent of the Italian soprano tradition.  But have you heard soprano Daniela Dessì who, along with her partner-in-life tenor Fabio Armiliato (brother of conductor Marco), constitute the most important singing couple in all of opera?  Both from Genoa, they have sung more than 270 performances together in many roles and almost single-handedly uphold a style and tradition that would otherwise vanish. They are at the same time traditional and quite modern and have a huge following in Italy. Last season, Dessì sang one of the most idiomatic Toscas at the Met you are ever likely to hear. It was so Italianate that the audience felt they were in Rome rather than New York. Fabio Armiliato was a frequent performer at the Met a while back and I hope he will return soon. Here they are in Tosca in 2010.


Other important Italian sopranos Americans scarcely know include Eva Mei  (a wonderful Alice Ford in a Falstaff I saw in Zurich in June) Patrizia Ciofi (who sings a lot of coloratura roles in Europe) and Micaela Carosi, a dramatic soprano best known for a musically secure Aïda. Bel canto cultists worship Mariella Devia, who was born in 1948 and is still makes rare appearances. Never a compelling stage presence, but a real phenomenon for her extraordinary vocalism. She often would stand onstage with her hands folded and barely act, but what singing!

Mezzo-soprano  Cecilia Bartoli is one of the few superstars in opera, which is unusual because she sings in very few productions, mostly in Zurich and Salzburg, and her repertory consists of few works anyone knows. She is a phenomenon because of the force of her personality, her agile singing of difficult music, and the following she has built who will go wherever she does musically. Luciana D’Intino is one of the few Italians now pursuing the Italian dramatic mezzo roles. I have spoken of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Daniela Barcellona in an earlier post.  

And yet, in comparison with the number of excellent Italian mezzo-sopranos we have had (Giulietta Simionato, Ebe Stignani, Fedora Barbieri, Fiorenza Cossotto, Lucia Valentini-Terrani, Bianca Berini to name some) in the post-war era, we are down to a precious few who have become boutique items and are not known to most audiences.

Question: Are there other Italian sopranos and mezzo-sopranos now before audiences whom you admire?

In the next posting: an overview of the best male Italian singers now before the public.


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Comments [10]

Nidia Mondejar from Woodmere, N.Y.

I miss the older great singers we heard from the sixties on; however the world has changed a great deal since then. I am glad to see that great new singers are coming to NYC from all parts of the world. Let's also hope that other countries still sponsor the arts to some degree. I know Venezuela has been doing it for a period of time. We still do it but probably less since corporations invest less in promoting the arts and also in bringing them to the public schools. It is very important to bring the fine arts to new young audiences.

Sep. 01 2011 08:41 PM
Mike Robbins from NYC

I was at Stella's debut at the Metropolitan as Aida in 1956. Bergonzi made his debut that night too. This was the high-tide time for singular Callas; SZtella held her own handily.

Sep. 01 2011 03:03 PM
Joseph from Toronto, Canada

I love Serena Farnocchia, a soprano with a smooth, warm voice and wonderful legato.

Sep. 01 2011 03:02 PM
Christopher from Vancouver, Canada

Fred, what a superb article. Very interesting and a great summation of how the face of the great Italian singers has changed over the years.

One of my favourites, though, seems to be missing (unless she was mentioned in an earlier article): Antonietta Stella. She is still teaching, I believe, in Rome, and one of her pupils is the up-and-coming Maria Luigia Borsi.

Aug. 27 2011 10:09 PM
Sarah Baker from New York, NY

I am looking forward to what I hope will be a discussion about The Italian Tenor.
Where in Itlay can young tenors turn to for training?

Aug. 27 2011 04:54 PM
Fred Plotkin

Patricia, I agree that Renato Bruson merits inclusion on the list of the "grandi." It was an oversight on my part. I had the honor of working with Piero Cappuccilli at La Scala in the late 1970s. He was indeed extraordinary.

Aug. 26 2011 10:59 AM
Patricia Panton

As usual I adore your "blog"!! ..I would have added however. Renato Bruson amongst the good old baritones 'still singing'...and well! His Germont is always superb!
Renato was born in Jan. 1936 so is slightly older
than Leo Nucci...
Piero Capucilli was, in my opinipn,; one of the greatest baritones of all time. (His Chenier is
outstanding....a lesson on how to sing!!)
Thanks for your realy interesting articles!!

Aug. 26 2011 08:57 AM
Fred Plotkin

People I know say good things about Serena Farnocchia, but I have not yet had the pleasure of hearing her. And I have not heard of Fabio Sartori. Let's hope they do well in SFO

Aug. 25 2011 08:03 PM

Two singers born in Italy and new to me are singing roles at San Francisco Opera this fall: soprano Serene Fornacchia and tenor Fabio Sartori. Comments on them?

Aug. 25 2011 07:43 PM
meche from MIMA

Thanks for the glorious videos. One can smell the garlic. BTW, Leonardo Vordoni's conducting was the best thing about the SFO's "Boheme" and I said as much in my blog.

Aug. 25 2011 05:24 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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