FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
Remembering Italian Soprano Daniela Dessì
Monday, August 22, 2016 - 02:03 PM
In our day, because of social media and all manner of electronic communications, news can rapidly spread around the world. On Aug. 20, people who work in or care about opera learned of the passing of Italian soprano Daniela Dessì at the age of 59 within hours of her demise. The outpouring of grief and fond recollections was notable for its intensity compared to the customary “rest in peace” one often sees written.
The cause of Dessì’s death was a very aggressive form of cancer that claimed her quickly. She was appearing in public as recently as May. She was to sing the daunting role of Cherubini’s Medea at the Festival della Valle d’Itria in Martina Franca in July but canceled due to illness. It was one of her dreams to do this seldom-performed work. She announced that she intended to return to singing with a concert already scheduled for Oct. 8.
I knew Dessì primarily through tenor Fabio Armiliato, her partner in art and in life since 2000, with whom I have been friends for many years. What was so particular about the news is that Fabio’s birthday was on Aug. 17, and as per usual, I sent him an email with friendly greetings. He responded immediately but made no mention of anything being wrong at home.
Daniela's passing seemed to take everyone by surprise, but it was, in its way, emblematic not only of who she was but of a trait about Italians that is seldom acknowledged. In an article in June by Frank Bruni in The New York Times, I was quoted as saying that Italians have a love of privacy. Many people questioned my remark because their concept of Italian behavior was based more on extroverted cinematic personalities such as the volcanic Anna Magnani or the clever, fast-talking Alberto Sordi.
Saying that Italians value and cherish privacy (I prefer these verbs to “love”) seems to run counter to our received notion of Italy as a nation full of gregarious and friendly people. Most Italians are, in fact, genuinely warm and hospitable, but there is something in the country’s social code that calls for discretion and a desire for what is called riservatezza. Painful family experiences tend to be lived privately in Italy, with only the closest relations and intimate friends being aware of what is transpiring.
It is important to explain this not because very few people knew of Daniela Dessì’s grave illness but because it reminded me of something about her that I put in the headline of this article: She was an Italian soprano. One often hears that this type of artist is now very rare — and that is true — but genuine tradizionale Italian sopranos have long been precious commodities. They seem to have a lineage in lyric and dramatic spinto roles more than the coloraturas, though there are a few of those too (currently Mariella Devia). I could trace the line back to the early 19th century, but will start in the 1920s with the likes of Gina Cigna, Margherita Carosio, Licia Albanese and Magda Olivero on to Renata Tebaldi, Gabriella Tucci, Renata Scotto, Mirella Freni and Katia Ricciarelli to Dessì, Barbara Frittoli and Maria Agresta.
What all of these Italian sopranos share is true passion and feeling. They do not portray these emotions on the stage through overacting, unlike some divas from other countries who think overwrought acting is typical of Italian behavior. The performances by these exemplary Italian sopranos are an outgrowth of their complete connection to language, to music, to tradition and the subtleties of italianità, something that very few foreigners can truly grasp. Having Italian as a native tongue helps them derive ideas from the lyrics, but the true spark comes from the music, where the emotions are found.
I have been fortunate to know some of these sopranos and work with a few of them. Daniela Dessì was perhaps the most private of them all, and I say that without the slightest trace of criticism. I knew her enough to understand that she had a very rich and developed vita interiore, an important element of being Italian even if you are not an artist. If she seemed reserved, proper or unemotional, that was because she protected her creative source the way a city safeguards the reservoir that contains its potable water. Once spoiled it can never be restored.
She was a generous colleague and always had a kind word, given in the form of insight or encouragement, for a young singer. In social media comments since her passing, many young Italian singers have said something akin to “Daniela told me something I will treasure and always remember.”
On the stage, her interpretations were always deeply thought-through and musically impeccable. A few dissenters were not moved by her, but they were a distinct minority. She went deep into herself to draw from the well that was her vita interiore to bring out just what was specifically needed for the role she was about to play. As a true artist, she used all of who she was to make her characters indelible.
Dessì also was that rare singer who very often shared the stage with the man she loved, Fabio Armiliato. They trusted and inspired one another, and I have many beautiful memories of them singing together, including Madama Butterfly (at the Met); Andrea Chénier (in Nice); Aïda (Parma); and several Puccini works at the annual festival in Torre del Lago, where they were beloved for their devotion to the operas by that town’s most famous resident.
Daniela Dessì, who was born in Genoa in 1959, performed some 60 roles, most of them by Italian composers, even if they were sometimes in French, such as this excerpt from Guillaume Tell with Gregory Kunde. And she sang Italian-language Mozart. Her Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte was especially notable because she played a reserved and complex woman from Ferrara who is flummoxed by the cynical mores of Naples, where the opera is set. She teased out all of those subtleties in her interpretation of the character rather than play it broadly. In addition to the famous roles by the masters, she also ventured into their lesser-known compositions, such as Donizetti’s Alina.
How could she sing in such a wide range of styles, from Mozart to bel canto (she sang Norma, Maria Stuarda and rare Rossini) to Verdi, Puccini and the verismo composers? She liked to say, “you sing using technique and your brain and the voice responds.” That sounds simpler than what, in actual fact, was a profound and sophisticated understanding of repertory and voice. With that statement she was being customarily straightforward, insightful and private. She was not secretive but preferred to give opinions that required others to think.
Just in the couple of days since she died, her admirers have posted all kinds of audio and video of Dessì on YouTube. While the quality is not always good (many recordings were captured as “pirates” during live performances), it is possible to have a sense of what she meant to her fans and fellow artists, who mostly revered her. Here she is, in a gala performance from the Met in 1998, performing Mimì in the third act of La Bohème with Luciano Pavarotti and Dwayne Croft.
American audiences did not have many chances to hear her, even if she did occasionally appear at the Met as well as the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Palm Beach Opera, San Francisco Opera and the Washington National Opera. Her roles at the Met were few: Nedda in Pagliacci in 1995; a single act of Andrea Chénier opposite Domingo in a gala in 2000; four performances of Madama Butterfly in 2002 with Fabio Armiliato as Pinkerton and his brother Marco conducting; and three stupendous performances of Tosca in 2010 with Marcello Giordani and George Gagnidze, conducted by Philippe Auguin.
Although the Met’s Tosca production is not popular, the cognoscenti turned out to see Dessì in one of her signature roles. The singing was scrupulous and elegant, the characterization was of a deeply feeling woman who is offended by the crudeness of most of the men around her. More than most interpreters of the role, when her Tosca sang “I live for art, I live for love,” one really felt that she meant it. The emotions of Dessì’s Tosca were not of an opera diva (which is what Tosca does for a living). Rather, she was an Italian woman with a rich vita interiore.
While Dessì was in New York for Tosca, she, Fabio, a couple of other close friends and I went for dinner at a restaurant that was near a practice range for people who want to hone their shooting skills. While I have never held a gun and have no desire to do so, Daniela was eager to go practice shooting. “Why,” I asked. “Because I am preparing La Fanciulla del West,” she replied, “and I want to know what this feels like.”
Although she sang a little in North America, Japan and more often in all the major European opera houses, I can think of no Italian opera singer in our time who was such a star in her homeland. Think about the great Italian singers of the past 60 years and you will realize that almost all of them made their careers abroad. Dessì, usually with Armiliato, played not only in the major opera houses such as La Scala but in small historic theaters throughout the country. They went to where the audiences were and received gratitude for their efforts. In so doing, they kept operatic music alive in small, regional venues that once had annual seasons with Italian singers.
She often sang in Italy’s beautiful piazzas, and once upon a time, such concerts by major singers were carried on Italian state television. Watch this performance of “Un bel dì” from Madama Butterfly and focus specifically on her incredibly expressive eyes that connect to every word and emotion in the aria. This is pure theater with no need for costumes or scenery.
Below is a complete Tosca from Madrid in 2004, with Dessì, Armiliato and Ruggero Raimondi, conducted by Maurizio Benini. It is a performance completely in Italian hands and stands as a fine example of the particular kind of artistry and tradition that Daniela Dessì was nurtured in, maintained and was a sterling exemplar of. Unfortunately, in part of the video there is poor synchronization of words, music and action, but her essential qualities shine through and can be admired all the same.
Dessì’s legacy is a great one. I am among her many admirers who feels this loss acutely, although her family feels it the most. I hope that Fabio Armiliato returns to the opera stage when he is ready to do so, as he too is a beloved artist. The Met would be very smart to secure his services as soon as possible.