OP0545. LA CECCHINA, Live Performance, 25 Nov., 1969, Napoli, w.Caracciolo Cond. RAI Ensemble, Napoli; Mirella Freni, Werner Hollweg, Ronaldo Panerai, Sesto Bruscantini, etc.; DIDON, Live Performance, 16 April, 1970, Napoli, w.Rossi Cond. RAI Ensemble, Milano; Gabriella Tucci, Angelo Mori, Mario Petri, Nicoletta Panni, etc. (both Piccinni). (Italy) 2-Arkadia 596, w.19pp. Libretto-Brochure in Italian & French. Very long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 8011571596023
“Mirella Freni, an exemplary Italian prima donna for nearly 50 years, whose voice was ideally suited to lighter lyric roles but maintained its bloom even as she took on weightier, more dramatic repertory in midcareer, was hailed as a last exponent of the great Italian operatic heritage. ‘That tradition is ending’, Plácido Domingo was quoted as saying in a 1997 NEW YORK TIMES article about Ms. Freni. ‘Mirella is the end of a chain. After that you cannot see who really follows her’. Many opera lovers acknowledged Ms. Freni’s special claim on this tradition, which valued bel canto principles of producing rich, unforced sound; of shaping even, lyrical lines across the range of a voice; and of sensitively matching sound to words.
With her beguiling stage presence, quiet charisma and the affecting vulnerability she could summon in her singing, Ms. Freni made Mimì in Puccini’s LA BOHÈME a signature part. She won international acclaim in the role in a landmark 1963 production at La Scala in Milan, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, who became one of her major champions. Though vocal beauty and proper technique were central to the Italian tradition, Ms. Freni placed a premium on expressivity and feeling. Commenting on the state of opera in a 1997 interview with The Times, she said there were many young artists who sing well and move well. ‘But that is all’, she added. ‘Finito! I want something deeper. It is important to have emotion, to live through the music onstage’, she continued. ‘Also, the Italian singers have a special feeling for the language. Even when we speak it is musical’. Yet she steadily expanded her repertory and, as the colorings of her voice grew darker with maturity, sang more dramatically intense and vocally heavy roles, like Desdemona in Verdi’s OTELLO, Verdi’s Aida and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. She was particularly urged on this course by Karajan, who brought her to the Salzburg Festival to sing Desdemona and the demanding role of Elisabetta in Verdi’s DON CARLO.
With the support of her second husband, the Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, she ventured into Russian repertory, singing Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s EUGENE ONEGIN and Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s PIQUE DAME. Yet Ms. Freni never lost the warmth and richness of her lyric soprano origins. Reviewing her performance in MANON LESCAUT at the Met in 1990, THE TIMES’ Donal Henahan marveled at her longevity and excellence. ‘The wonder of Mirella Freni at this stage of her career’, he wrote, ‘is that she continues to sing Puccini with seemingly reckless ardor while preserving a surprisingly fresh and beautiful sound’. Still, Ms. Freni considered herself a judicious soprano. She could say no, even to the imposing Karajan, if she though a particular role was not right for her. She recorded Puccini’s Madama Butterfly twice, including a film version conducted by Karajan, but never performed the role complete in a staged production in an opera house.
‘I am generous in many ways, but not when I think it will destroy my voice’, she said in a 2013 OPERA NEWS interview. ‘Some singers think they are gods who can do everything’, she added. ‘But I have always been honest with myself and my possibilities’.
She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1965 as Mimì and returned regularly to sing, among various roles, Adina in Donizetti’s L’ELISIR D’AMORE, Liù in Puccini’s TURANDOT and a new 1967 production of Gounod’s ROMÉO ET JULIETTE opposite the star tenor Franco Corelli (with whom she recorded the opera splendidly the next year). But she had been absent from the Met for more than 14 years when she returned in 1983 as Elisabetta in DON CARLO, with James Levine conducting and Mr. Ghiaurov as Philip II. In 1996 the Met mounted a production of a rarity, Giordano’s FEDORA, for Ms. Freni and Mr. Domingo, garnering rave reviews for both. She sang more than 140 performances with the company in all.
Asked whether she thought of herself as the ‘last prima donna’, as she was sometimes called, Ms. Freni demurred. ‘You tell me why I am the last of a tradition’, she said. ‘I have done my job honestly. I have worked hard and with joy’.”
- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 9 Feb., 2020
“Gabriella Tucci, an Italian soprano whose richly expressive voice and beguiling stage presence made her a mainstay at major international houses who, from the start of her career in the 1950s in Italy, was praised for her lustrous sound and the velvety smoothness and refinement of her singing. An unaffected and subtly compelling actress, she was best known for her interpretations of the spinto repertory, like her rendition of the title role of Verdi’s AIDA, which demanded both lyric soprano lightness and the vocal heft to lift soaring phrases over an orchestra. Yet Ms. Tucci displayed notable range during her career. She brought brightness and agility to coloratura soprano parts, like Elvira in Bellini’s I PURITANI, and fervor and carrying power to the title role of Puccini’s TOSCA. In a 2002 interview with OPERA NEWS, she attributed the confidence of her singing to good technique and common sense. ‘I saved my voice’, she said. ‘I never tried to push, to make the voice seem bigger or stronger that it was’. If one has the technique, she emphasized, ‘you can sing lightly, you can sing, you know, smiling, sorriso, and you can sing dark’. True to the Italian operatic heritage, she emphasized the importance of the text. ‘All the answers are there’, she said.
During her prime years, from the late 1950s into the early ’70s, Ms. Tucci earned consistent respect from critics and loyal fans but tended to be overshadowed by star sopranos who also sang her repertory, including Maria Callas (for a period), Renata Tebaldi and Leontyne Price. That she was held to comparison with the greats of her day was, if somewhat unfair, inevitable. When the Metropolitan Opera introduced a new production of Verdi’s OTELLO, conducted by Georg Solti, in March 1963, Ms. Tucci was called upon to take over the role of Desdemona from Tebaldi, who had withdrawn. ‘Stepping into the shoes of Renata Tebaldi’ had to be ‘a thankless task’, the critic Paul B. Affelder wrote in THE BROOKLYN EAGLE, but ‘the attractive young Italian carried it off with dignity and sensitivity, gaining considerable effect by slightly underplaying the part’. And, he added, ‘one could wish for no finer singing of the ‘Salce’ and ‘Ave Maria,’ her two big arias in the final act’
Her granddaughter Flaminia Filoni explained in an email, Ms. Tucci drew from her ‘own strength’ even as a child. She put great effort into her studies and throughout her career remained ‘very precise and stubborn’, Ms. Filoni said. Ms. Tucci continued her studies at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the Rome conservatory, working with the vocal coach Leonardo Filoni. They married in 1955; he died in 1993.
She made her debut in a leading role as Leonora in Verdi’s LA FORZA DEL DESTINO at Spoleto in 1951, opposite the celebrated tenor Beniamino Gigli, then 61. ‘I had to learn the role, and I was a little bit afraid to face it’, she said in the OPERA NEWS interview. But she had six months to prepare. ‘It was really emotional for me to sing with this god’, she said. ‘But he was very kind. He said ‘Brava, brava’. Appearances followed in Florence, Venice and, in 1959, Milan, where she made her debut at La Scala as Mimì in Puccini’s LA BOHÈME. The next year she sang the title roles of AIDA and TOSCA at Covent Garden in London.
Following her American debut with the San Francisco Opera, Ms. Tucci made her Metropolitan Opera debut in October 1960 as Cio-Cio-San in MADAMA BUTTERFLY, winning strong reviews. She went on to sing 259 performances with the Met in 20 roles, mostly in works by Verdi and Puccini. She appeared in four new productions, including Verdi’s FALSTAFF in 1964, which was also the Met debut of both the director Franco Zeffirelli and the conductor Leonard Bernstein. That Rudolf Bing, the Met’s general manager at the time, valued Ms. Tucci was clear from the double-duty assignment he gave her on April 16, 1966, the company’s last day at its old house: She sang Mimì at the Saturday matinee and took part in the gala farewell to the house that night, ending the program in a performance of the final trio from Gounod’s FAUST (with the tenor Nicolai Gedda and the bass Jerome Hines).
She fared equally well in the new house. Reviewing her as Liù in Puccini’s TURANDOT in 1968, Harold C. Schonberg of THE NEW YORK TIMES wrote: ‘Has the first-act aria ‘Signore, ascolta’ been sung more touchingly, more artistically, more elegantly in recent years? One doubts it’.
Ms. Tucci sang Marguerite in FAUST in her final performance at the Met, in December 1972.
Though she can be heard on historic recordings of live performances and radio broadcasts, Ms. Tucci made only two studio recordings of complete operas, both early on: Leoncavallo’s PAGLIACCI in 1959 (starring the tenor Mario del Monaco) and Verdi’s IL TROVATORE in 1961 (with an exceptional cast that also included Franco Corelli). ‘I don’t live in my past’, she said in the 2002 interview. ‘Inside me, nothing has changed. I’m still Tosca. I’m still Aida. But now, above all, I’m Gabriella’.”
- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 17 July, 2020
“The Italian tenor Gianni Raimondi had a prestigious career lasting three decades. From 1956 to 1976 he sang frequently at La Scala, where his partner a number of times during the early years was Maria Callas. His voice, smooth and warm in tone with a good coloratura facility and very strong top notes, was ideal for 19th-century Italian opera from Rossini and Donizetti to Verdi and Puccini and he rarely sang anything outside that repertory, apart from a few French rôles and a couple of modern operas.”
- Elizabeth Forbes, THE INDEPENDENT, 27 Oct., 2008