V1401. ANITA CERQUETTI: Arias from Norma, Agnese di Hohenstaufen, Ernani, I Vespri Siciliani, Ballo, Don Carlos, Aïda, La Wally & Andrea Chénier. (Italy) Bongiovanni 1206, Live Performances, 1954-58. - 8007068120628
“Anita Cerquetti, a gifted Italian soprano who rose to instant fame in 1958 when she was called on to substitute for the mythic and sometimes mystifying Maria Callas in one of opera’s most dramatic episodes, and three years later surprised people again by ending her own career, died 11 October,in Perugia, Italy. She was 83. Her death was confirmed by Alfredo Sorichetti, a conductor who helps oversee an annual singing competition and academy named in Miss Cerquetti’s honor, in her hometown, Montecosaro. She had been hospitalized for several days after a heart attack, he said.
The drama that brought Miss Cerquetti worldwide attention began on 2 Jan., 1958, a Thursday, the opening night of Bellini’s NORMA at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome. After Callas, the glamorous American-born prima donna in the lead role, received a few derogatory whistles amid much applause for the first aria, ‘Casta Diva’, she began to appear tense. She never emerged for the second act, locking herself in her dressing room. Boos, hoots and foot-stomping shook the cheap seats. In the royal box, the president of Italy, Giovanni Gronchi, and his wife waited nearly an hour before leaving, and the show never resumed. Callas retreated to her hotel, insisting she was ill, and stayed there for five days. She could hear chants in the street below: ‘Down with Callas!’. By Saturday, there was a new chorus: ‘Long live Italian women!’.
Those were the words that met Miss Cerquetti, a rising star who happened to be performing the same role in Naples, when she stepped in for Callas at the Teatro dell’Opera for the first time on that Saturday night. The audience loved her, roaring at her version of ‘Casta Diva’.
Callas apologized for her absences and offered to return to the stage the following week — to sing two performances free. The manager of the opera house declined, and the Italian government, which subsidized the opera house, ordered her replaced. The role now belonged to Miss Cerquetti, who had a powerful, dramatic voice that audiences adored. Miss Cerquetti, who was just 25, had already impressed opera lovers in the United States, making her début with the Chicago Opera in 1955, singing the role of Amelia in Verdi’s UN BALLO IN MASCHERA. But while replacing Callas thrust her to a new level, it also took a toll. She went on to noted performances at La Scala in Milan and elsewhere, and on Italian radio broadcasts, but just three years after those tumultuous days at Teatro dell’Opera, she abruptly retired and all but disappeared. This time, it was Miss Cerquetti who faced questions. Had her voice failed? Did she have neurological issues? Heart problems? She blamed fatigue. ‘It got to the point where I had absolute need of physical rest. Above all, I needed to sleep. This was from stress. But, thank God, my vocal cords remained intact and have remained so until today. This is the truth’.
‘Miss Cerquetti’s recorded performance of arias by Verdi, Bellini, Spontini and Puccini leaves no doubt that her voice is a remarkable instrument’, John Briggs wrote in The New York Times in 1957 in a review of an Operatic Recital by Anita Cerquetti, one of a small number of commercial recordings she made. ‘Whether it is being used with skill is another question’.
‘I received many offers to return. There were moments when I almost accepted. But then I thought, what’s the point? I’ve already found my peace, my serenity. To return under the gun? Basta! And so I closed the door’.”
- William Yardley, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 16 OCT., 2014
“The brevity of Italian soprano Anita Cerquetti’s career was a great loss for the world of opera. But what she accomplished in those few years (September 1951 — October 1960, retiring at barely age 30) is amazing. The mystery of her early retirement remains a mystery. Hers was a voice of dramatic intensity, fiery temperament, plenty of volume, seemingly inexhaustible vocal reserves, and a flexibility that let her excel in bel canto roles and made her an ideal Verdian soprano. In performance, Cerquetti never stinted, giving it her all. Very soon she was deemed the new Callas and ‘inherited’ rôles that Callas had abandoned. Only three commercial recordings of Cerquetti were published in her brief career, all of them by Decca, all in 1957: a complete LA GIOCONDA, a recital of arias, and excerpts from NORMA (to have been a complete recording with Mario Del Monaco). That recital disc is heard here, along with a duet (with Giulietta Simionato) and an aria (‘Suicidio!’) from the GIOCONDA. In addition the disc contains five extracts from performances broadcast by RAI: ‘Bolero’ (VESPRI SICILIANI), ‘Mare, Superbo Mare’ (OBERON), ‘Ebben, ne Andro Lontano’ (LA WALLY), ‘La Mamma Morta’ (ANDREA CHÉNIER), and ‘Selva Opaca’ (WILLIAM TELL). The eight arias from the recital disc cover her repertory: Aïda, Norma, Abigaille, Tosca (which she never sang on stage), Elvira (ERNANI), Leonora (FORZA), Elena (VESPRI), and AGNESE DI HOHENSTAUFEN. It’s all here: the intensity, the excitement, the drama, and, alas, the sometimes hard, harsh edge in the top voice. But that is a small price to pay for great singing.”
- Charles H. Parsons, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, July/Aug., 2012
“The career of Anita Cerquetti was all too brief. She withdrew from the scene in 1961 after establishing herself as one of the leading artists of the world. It was a stupendous instrument, to my ears a more natural voice than either Callas’ or Sutherland’s. Cerquetti recorded very little, though there is a good deal of live material. Her recording of ‘Casta diva’ from Bellini’s NORMA is singing to be treasured.”
- Michael F. Bott, THE RECORD COLLECTOR, 2011
“In a career that lasted barely a decade, dramatic soprano Anita Cerquetti established an immense reputation that survives into the twenty first century. Why did she retire at age 30? Countless explanations have been advanced to justify Cerquetti's early departure from the stage, ranging from heart problems to ennui, impending motherhood to an instrument about to collapse owing to overuse. Yet not one seems satisfactory. Spasms in the facial nerves were an initial cause cited by the singer. After retiring for a period to rest, she returned to the stage. Why, then, did she permanently retire shortly after her reappearance? Cerquetti has suggested that she was tired and looking forward to giving birth to a child. That child, however, made her appearance some years after Cerquetti's retirement. The real truth may never be known and is perhaps unknown even to the diva herself. Despite the mystery surrounding the closing of Cerquetti's career, those ten years were of an undeniable magnitude. The soprano's voice -- large, bright, firmly supported up to an E flat above high C, searing in its penetrative power -- would have been a phenomenon in any age. Although its agility stopped short of the rapid-fire precision demonstrated by Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland, its keen focus was of the sort that stopped listeners in their tracks. Like other such densely compacted voices with fast vibratos, it sometimes veered sharp on top and was sensitive to dry acoustics. Cerquetti's was an instrument that required open spaces to fully unfold. Following a mere year of vocal study at the Conservatory in Perugia, Cerquetti made her début in Spoleto singing the title rôle in Aïda. From the very beginning, she was exposed to intense pressures to help fill the critical need for sopranos who could sing the dramatic repertory. For her début, she was also asked to assume the rôle of the High Priestess for a singer who had fallen ill. From that point through her final great year in 1958, she expended herself coming to the aid of those who had pressing need of her. When she was called upon to take over the rôle of Norma from Callas during a January 1958 production in Rome, she sang the rôle both there and in Naples, where she was already contracted. America heard too little of her, but she made an unforgettable impression in Chicago when Tullio Serafin (a mentor to the artist) brought her to the Lyric Opera for Verdi's UN BALLO IN MASCHERA, which also starred Jussi Björling and Tito Gobbi. When the soprano returned two years later, she was in less-glowing voice, but her Elisabetta in DON CARLO was well received. Despite her considerable size, Cerquetti learned to move with poise on-stage; with advice from both Serafin and coach Mario Rossi, she likewise learned to phrase with eloquence and beauty of sound. Though lacking a true pianissimo, she achieved the effect of softness and reflection by keeping her instrument truly and gently on the breath.”
- Erik Eriksson, allmusic.com