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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 2 AUGUST 2010 — A few months ago the great Italian mezzo-soprano, Giulietta Simionato, died just before reaching her 100th birthday. Last month, Cesare Siepi (10 February 1923, Milan – 5 July  2010, Atlanta, Georgia) left us at the ripe old age of 87. Both events signal once again the passing of an era, when Italian singers offered us thrills aplenty, plush vocalism and charismatic stage presence.

Giulietta Simionato

Giulietta Simionato (12 May 1910, Forli – 5 May 2010, Rome) was a small woman with a big voice, always deployed with artistry, even in so tawdry a work as Adriana Lecouvreur. Her career started in small roles, traces of which remain in recordings from the late 1930s and early ’40s, where she can be heard alongside Beniamino Gigli in Andrea Chenier and Cavalleria Rusticana, but after World War II she began her rapid ascent to stardom, singing the major Verdi roles, Carmen (of which she complained because she had to work so much harder than the other principals), Mignon, La Favorita, but also Bellini’s Romeo and Adalgisa, Rossini’s Rosina, Isabella and Cenerentola, with a special mention for Gli Ugnotti. Mozart figured in the mezzo’s early years, and to make her unheralded farewell, she learned the role of Servilia in La Clemenza di Tito, thus rounding out a major career.

Simionato was a pillar of the early Decca-London empire alongside Renata Tebaldi, Mario del Monaco, Ettore Bastianini and Cesare Siepi. If not always well-partnered – think of the dreadful Gianni Poggi – her qualities could save a recording. If today we may want our Rossini and Bellini sung with greater technical assurance, we must be grateful that she helped keep these works alive with her panache.

Cesare Siepi

Cesare Siepi’s unheralded debut in the opening night Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera in 1950 that rang in the Bing era announced a new star, one able to sing Verdi and Mozart, though his repertory stretched over a wider range, encompassing Donizetti’s Henry VIII and Wagner’s Gurnemanz; he was also a consummate recitalist. For me he reigns supreme as Filippo II: who can forget the way he crossed the stage in his first, non-singing entrance, with the gorgeous Raina Kabaiwanska at his side, making us feel the weight of his personage? And his Don Giovanni, brimming with life, dealing with Eleanor Steber or Joan Sutherland (Anna), Lisa della Casa or Pilar Lorengar (Elvira), and Roberta Peters (Zerlina), with the irrepressible Fernando Corena as his alter ego. It is unfortunate that his career came to an abrupt end due to the boorish management of Schuyler Chapin, but our memories of a singer with a burnished sound, glorious legato and unrivalled stage presence are undiminished.

Unfortunately neither is well-represented on DVD except for a Salzburg Giovanni from 1953 for Siepi conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler and with Elisabeth Grümmer and Lisa della Casa and two Japanese telecasts for Simionato, Cavalleria and Aida. For those willing to explore the aural universe of these two artists, there is a plethora of official recordings as well as many live performances on the usual variety of labels.

Sir Charles Mackerras

On another plane, we lament the passing of Sir Charles Mackerras (17 November 1925, Schenectady, New York  – 14 July 2010, London), an Australian conductor with one of the broadest active repertoires, from Handel to Stravinsky and Britten as well as such special loves as Mozart and Janacek. Mackerras was equally at home in concert and opera, and in his younger years arranged two ballets for John Cranko: Pineapple Poll to Gilbert and Sullivan and The Lady and the Fool to Verdi. He was also the first to record Handel’s Royal Fireworks Music in the original instrumentation. At the same time, he taught performers to overcome a too literal approach to Mozart’s operas, encouraging ornamentation and the grammatically correct appoggiatura. While some felt that his approach to Handel was overly elaborate, his enthusiasm was unfailingly communicated to public and performers alike. His recordings of five Janacek operas remain classics, and here again he was a pioneer in encouraging the use of authentic editions of the scores.

Recommended CDs and DVDs

To hear Simionato and Siepi together, listen to the Decca recordings of La Forza del Destino and La Gioconda (the rest of the cast is also front-line), the DGG reissue of a severely cut Don Carlo from the Salzburg Festival. For the mezzo herself, listen to any of the live performances you can find, not to mention Solti’s first studio Falstaff with the under-appreciated Ilva Ligabue, Mirella Freni, Alfredo Kraus and Robert Merrill. Siepi can be appreciated in a broadcast Faust with Elisabeth Soederstrom and Jussi Bjoerling from 1957, a recital from Salzburg (Orfeo), countless Giovannis and Figaros, though I particularly recommend the 1954 Salzburg Giovanni conducted by Mitropoulous. For both performers, there are many aria albums on the market in varying sound, but do your best to listen through the crackles to hear two remarkable artists.

For Mackerras, there are the Janacek operas (Jenufa, Katja Kabanova, Cunning Little Vixen, Makropoulos Affair and House of the Dead), the Handel Fireworks Music (reissued on Testament), the DVD of Cunning Little Vixen in a near-perfect performance, Handel’s Julius Caesar and Messiah, Dvorak’s Russalka, Martinu’s Greek Passion, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux with Beverly Sills or Maria Stuarda with Janet Baker, before going on to his performances of Czech music in general.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque.com. He has been opera critic for Opera (U.K.) and Opera News (U.S.A) for thirty years and was elected to the International Music Critics Association (UNESCO) in 1996. Long before the existence of "blogs", Mr. Kasow kept an Opera Diary for Culturekiosque. Opera fans can access the archive of his intensely personal, ongoing commentary on the opera world here.   

For collectors of opera and vocal recordings, please click here to access Operanet's archive of CD and DVD reviews.

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