Where Are Italy’s Opera Singers? Part I

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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.