OP2588. MIGNON, Live Performance, 28 June, 1949, México City, w.Picco Cond. Teatro de las Bellas Artes Ensemble; Giulietta Simionato, Giuseppe di Stefano, Cesare Siepi, Verdad Luz Guajardo, etc. (Italy) 2-Bongiovanni HOC 064/65. - 8007068064007
“Giulietta Simionato was the greatest Italian mezzo-soprano of her era, an artist whose singular career was shaped as much by her innate elegance as by her extraordinary musical and dramatic gifts. In an era before opera singers were pigeonholed as ‘specialists’, Simionato constructed a personal repertoire that stretched from the eighteenth-century graces of Mozart, Gluck and Cimarosa to the bel canto heroines (and heroes) of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini to the formidable ladies of Verdi, Mascagni, Ponchielli and Cilèa. Today, it would be highly unlikely for an impresario to cast the same artist as Cherubino and Amneris, but Simionato sang them both - as well as Carmen, Octavian, Mignon, Berlioz's Didon, Valentine in LES HUGUENOTS and nearly one hundred other rôles.
Simionato's voice, brilliant in the upper register and luminous in mid-range, was not so large as those of her Italian contemporaries, but her arresting combination of verbal clarity and emotional honesty made her one of the most charismatic artists to emerge on the international scene in the 1950s. She was a petite woman, but her superb figure and perfect posture - to say nothing of the very high-heeled shoes she favored both on- and offstage - made her seem statuesque. Simionato's characterizations, unfailingly bold yet never broad, were charged with enormous compassion: audiences succumbed as much to her generous spirit as to the sheer beauty of her sound.
Born in Forlì, in Romagna, Simionato made her stage début at seventeen, in a musical comedy at the Teatro Sociale in Rovigo, and studied voice with Guido Palumbi in Padua. After a few professional appearances in small rôles, she won a singing competition sponsored by the Maggio Musicale that brought her a contract for her Florence début, in the world premiere of Pizzetti's ORSÈOLO, in 1935. The following year, Simionato began her professional association with La Scala, as a Flowermaiden in PARSIFAL. For the better part of the following decade, she was chiefly confined to comprimario rôles in Milan, a situation in part due to the seniority (and political connections) of other mezzos on the La Scala roster, such as Gianna Pederzini and Cloe Elmo. Simionato's luck began to change after she acquired new management and won good notices as Dorabella in Geneva, Octavian in Trieste and Cherubino at the Edinburgh Festival. A particularly successful 1947 engagement in Genoa as Thomas' Mignon, a character to which she was ideally suited, brought an invitation to repeat the rôle at La Scala. Simionato made an enormous hit, and her status as a major star was assured.
Simionato was active at all the principal theaters in Italy but remained especially beloved at La Scala, where her legendary triumphs included Rubria in Boito's NERONE under Toscanini (1948); Giovanna to Maria Callas' Anna Bolena (1957); Didon in the La Scala premiere of LES TROYENS (1957); Valentine in LES HUGUENOTS (1962); and Arsace to Joan Sutherland's Semiramide (1962). She appeared regularly at Salzburg, where she made memorable appearances as Orfeo (1959) and Azucena (1962) under Karajan's baton, and in Vienna, Paris, Mexico City and London, where her Covent Garden appearances included Adalgisa to Callas' Norma (1953) and Azucena in Luchino Visconti's staging of IL TROVATORE (1964).
Simionato made her U.S. opera début in 1953, as Charlotte to Cesare Valletti's Werther, at San Francisco Opera. San Francisco also heard Simionato as Rosina and as Marina in BORIS GODUNOV (in Italian) during her first SFO season, but she did not sing with the company again until 1962, when she returned as Azucena, Santuzza and Mistress Quickly.
Like many of the leading Italian artists of her generation, Simionato considered her artistic home in the U.S. to be Lyric Opera of Chicago (then known as Lyric Theatre of Chicago), where she bowed in 1954, as Adalgisa to Callas' Norma. Simionato sang thirteen rôles in her six seasons with the company, allowing Chicago to hear a more generous sampling of her great specialties than any other North American city. In October 1957, immediately after making her New York début as Giovanna in an American Opera Society concert of ANNA BOLENA, Simionato traveled to Chicago, where she sang two performances each of MIGNON, Santuzza, Laura in LA GIOCONDA, Cherubino and the Princesse de Bouillon in ADRIANA LECOUVREUR for Lyric Opera, all within the span of a month. Six days after her final Chicago ADRIANA - during which she injured her ankle and sang Act III seated in an improvised wheelchair - Simionato made another significant U.S. début, when she appeared in L'ITALIANA IN ALGERI during the inaugural season of Dallas Civic Opera. Two weeks after her final Dallas ITALIANA (on 24 November), Simionato opened the La Scala season, as Ulrica in a brand-new UN BALLO IN MASCHERA. Such a rigorous schedule was business as usual for the fiercely disciplined Simionato, who typically sang eighty performances a year during the 1950s - and rarely canceled.
In 1954, the Met announced that Simionato would make her company début that season, as Orfeo, but she canceled her scheduled appearances, ceding the run of Gluck's opera to Risë Stevens. Simionato finally arrived at the Met on the opening night of the 1959–60 season, when she was Azucena in a new TROVATORE, directed by Herbert Graf. Despite her acclaim from the New York press and a significant number of devoted fans in Manhattan, Simionato sang just twenty-eight performances in four seasons with the Met - twelve as Amneris, six as Azucena, five as Santuzza and two as Rosina in BARBIERE, plus three 1965 tour performances of SAMSON ET DALILA, in which she sang Dalila in Italian, while the rest of the cast sang in French. The SAMSON presented during the 1965 spring tour's stop in Detroit marked Simionato's final Met performance and her final opera performance in the U.S.
The following season, when her second marriage, to the celebrated Italian physician Cesare Frugoni, was about to take place, Simionato decided to retire from the opera stage. She chose the thirtieth anniversary of her La Scala début – 6 February, 1966 - as the date. When she learned that the opera on the Scala schedule that night was Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO, Simionato learned the soprano rôle of Servilia in a few days and did a single performance of the opera at Piccola Scala. She did not sing in public again, save for a 1979 gala in honor of Karl Böhm, the maestro who had paced her first Cherubino, some thirty-two years earlier; in tribute to him, Simionato sang ‘Non so più’, transposed down an octave. Simionato enjoyed a long and comfortable retirement, frequently serving as a competition adjudicator and relishing the opportunity to comment on the state of singing in the years after she left the stage. After Frugoni's death, in 1978, Simionato married industrialist Florio De Angeli, who died in 1996.
Thanks to the impressive number of recordings she made during her great years, Simionato's artistry remains present and persuasive. Other artists may have filled Verdi with more sheer power or charged Rossini with a higher degree of virtuosity, but more than seventy-five years after her début, Simionato still sounds fresh and modern and natural in every measure. One cannot resist the spontaneity of her phrasing, the unerring simplicity with which she weights every word and reveals her profound connection to her music. It is a gift that will always set her apart from her rivals - if one chooses to accept that she had any.”
- F. Paul Driscoll, OPERA NEWS, May, 2010
“Giuseppe di Stefano, a flamboyant, sometimes erratic opera star who in his prime after World War II was lauded as the most thrilling Italian tenor in a generation and was renowned for his superb voice, Mr. di Stefano had only brief years at the top, with a repertory that focused on lyric roles like the Duke in RIGOLETTO, the title role in FAUST and WERTHER. Rudolf Bing, the longtime general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, asserted that Mr. di Stefano could have been as great as Enrico Caruso if he had demonstrated more restraint in his personal and professional conduct. Mr. di Stefano conceded that he could be reckless. He reveled in his image as a bon vivant and bragged of his affairs, including a long romance with Maria Callas, his favorite onstage partner.
‘I wanted to enjoy life — not just the opera’, he said in an interview for OPERA NEWS in 1999, which took place at his villa north of Milan, on the edge of the lake district. ‘Yes, I smoked a lot. And it’s true I used to gamble, and I would stay up late and sometimes drive around all night. So of course the critics wrote: ‘He was not in shape to go on stage'.’ But Mr. di Stefano insisted that it was severe allergies that permanently damaged his voice.
With the onset of World War II, he served in the Italian army, assigned to an infirmary. But he was saved from duty on the Russian front by his regimental commander, an opera-loving doctor, who gave him a medical dispensation because he felt that the young man had a promising career ahead. Mr. di Stefano spent some of the war years as a pop singer, entertaining audiences at movie theaters between feature films. Then, in 1943, he fled to Switzerland, where he began his operatic career with recitals on a classical radio station in Zürich.
After the war, Mr. di Stefano made his opera début in Italy in 1946 at the Teatro Municipale, in the city of Reggio Emilia, as Des Grieux in Massenet’s MANON. He was quickly recognized as a rising star, praised for the rich, velvety texture of his voice and his great emphasis on diction. He was invited to sing at the major Italian opera houses. In 1948, Mr. di Stefano crossed the Atlantic to make his Metropolitan Opera début as the Duke in RIGOLETTO. But he received his greatest accolades for his performances as FAUST. Mr. Bing was awestruck by Mr. di Stefano’s interpretation of the role in the 1949-50 season. ‘The most spectacular single moment’, Mr. Bing wrote in his 1972 memoir, 5,000 NIGHTS AT THE OPERA, was ‘when I heard his diminuendo on the high C in ‘Salut! Demeure’ in FAUST. ‘I shall never as long as I live forget the beauty of that sound’.
But Mr. di Stefano’s behavior soon caused Mr. Bing to sour on him. When a new production of LA BOHÈME went into rehearsal at the Met in the 1952-53 season, Mr. di Stefano failed to show up in time, contending that illness had prevented him from traveling from Italy to New York. Mr. Bing learned that Mr. di Stefano had in fact been healthy enough to perform at La Scala in Milan, and banned him from the Met for three years.
On his return to New York, Mr. di Stefano expanded his repertory to include Don José in CARMEN and Cavaradossi in TOSCA. But Mr. Bing, in his memoir, complained that the tenor persisted in his erratic behavior. ‘We never knew from day to day whether he would show up’, he wrote, adding that ‘his lack of self-discipline soon harmed what might have been a career men would remember with Caruso’s’. By the late 1950s, Mr. di Stefano’s career was in decline, with his failing voice often forcing him to cancel appearances. He insisted that an allergy to synthetic fibers had inflamed his larynx. But the opera world remained skeptical. After a miserable 1966 performance as Otello in Pasadena, CA, Mr. di Stefano’s stage appearances dwindled. In 1973-74, he and Maria Callas made a disastrous tour of North America, Asia and Europe, with critics panning their performances. Mr. di Stefano, who first sang with Ms. Callas in the early 1950s and later became her lover, rated her as the best diva with whom he ever sang. ‘Even when Callas’ voice wasn’t perfect, she had so much interpretation’, he said. ‘Opera is storytelling. Feelings must be conveyed. Acting must be moving. And Callas had it all’.
Even in old age, Mr. di Stefano insisted that he had no regrets about his short career at opera’s summit, and that he did not begrudge the success of peers like Luciano Pavarotti or Plácido Domingo. ‘I was never jealous of anybody’, he said. ‘I don’t have to go around insisting that I had one of the great voices. Fortunately, I made enough recordings to let people judge for themselves’.”
- Jonathan Kandell, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 4 March, 2008
“Giuseppe di Stefano possessed an especially beautiful voice. It was impossible not to be moved; he truly had the sound of tears in his voice, without being over sentimental. His wonderful piano – and his stirring voice – moved his audience almost beyond endurance.”
- Birgit Nilsson, LA NILSSON, p.116
"Nature would appear to dictate, that in general, tenors are short and portly, baritones are of medium height and stocky, and basses tall and rather spare. In the case of Cesare Siepi he was not only very tall but remarkably good-looking and possessed of a magnificent physique. He was the epitome of the rakish Don Giovanni that became one of his greatest roles, and never less than impressive in the dignified and sometime dominating characters allotted to the operatic bass."
- Alan Bilgora