Italy in the 1950s and very early 1960s was a testing-ground for the kind of operatic programming that neither they nor any other country has done before or since, a mixture of standard repertoire works with great older operas that had not been staged for decades as well as some modern operas that were worthy of staging as well. This meant that, in addition to all the Rossini-Bellini-Donizetti-Verdi-Giordano-Puccini stuff that had become regular operatic fare in Italy by then, audiences could also hear, and see on stage, great operas by Gluck, Salieri, Cherubini, Spontini, Weber, Mussorgsky and Wagner that had not been performed there (La Scala gave its first-ever complete “Ring” cycle in 1950, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler) as well as 20th-century works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Orff, Pizzetti and others that, sadly, would not be repeated in later seasons. And it wasn’t just at La Scala, and not just to satisfy the desires of soprano Maria Callas. These operas were also performed in Naples, Venice, Florence. Spoleto and other operatic cities within Italy.
And when the management couldn’t get such star names as Callas or Tebaldi to perform these works, one of the young sopranos they could always rely on was a heavy-set young woman named Anita Cerquetti. A native of Montecosaro, she actually trained to be a violinist—eight years, in fact, with Luigi Mori—only to discover at age 19 that she had a fine singing voice. After only one year of voice lessons, she made her debut at age 20 in Spoleto as Aida. Nowadays she’d probably be forced to get her Master’s degree, which would take her to age 24, then go through six or eight years’ worth of vocal competitions before they’d even let her on stage, but this was a different time when your ability to actually sing well took precedence over your formal education and competition credentials.
Word spread slowly within Italy about Cerquetti’s abilities, but with each new triumph the whispers became louder and the news traveled faster. By the time she sang the Italian version of Cherubini’s Les Abencérages (Gli Abencerrogi) under Carlo Maria Giulini, whose reputation as a conductor was also growing, in 1956, the secret was out. Cerquetti, despite her hefty size and not-so-lovely face, could inhabit an operatic role dramatically with the intensity of Callas but with a far better voice.
Interestingly, Cerquetti did sing in America—at the Chicago Lyric Opera for three years, from 1955 to 1957, singing both Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera and Elisabetta in Don Carlo with tenor Jussi Björling, at that time a refugee from the Metropolitan Opera where general director Rudolf Bing had gotten tired of his cancellations. Though none of them were recorded, those performances became the stuff of legend.
Her success in the Cherubini opera led to three even bigger ones in 1957, a Forza del Destino with Pier Miranda-Ferraro, Aldo Protti, Giulietta Simionato and Boris Christoff (conducted by Nino Sanzogno), Un Ballo in Maschera with Ettore Bastianini and Gianno Poggi, and an even more celebrated Ernani with Mario del Monaco, Bastianini and conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos. Suddenly, Cerquetti was a name to be reckoned with, at least within Italy, but she didn’t hit the international scene until January 1958. That was when Maria Callas made her infamous “Rome walkout,” refusing to sing a performance of Norma despite the presence of the Italian president and royalty because she didn’t feel up to it. Cerquetti was her understudy; she stepped into the breach, sang everyone else (including tenor Franco Corelli) off the stage, and suddenly became a cause célèbre. Almost immediately, the Decca-London label signed her up and recorded an operatic aria recital as well as a complete La Gioconda in which she was partnered, again, by del Monaco and Bastianini. Suddenly, Anita Cerquetti was the hottest new property in the opera world.
But in 1961, after a so-so performance of Verdi’s Nabucco, she dropped out of sight and was never seen or heard on an operatic stage thereafter. For decades, the rumors spread that she had lost her voice due to inadequate training and over-exposure, singing roles too heavy for her too soon and too often. Cerquetti herself stayed silent most of the time, but occasionally issued public statements that this wasn’t altogether true, that she was under heavy emotional stress at the time because her father was dying (which was true) and that she chose not to return to the stage because she didn’t like many of the newer “conceptual” productions which she found distasteful. But of course, this didn’t satisfy the legions of Cerquetti fans who just wanted her to sing again, period, regardless of the cost to her.
Eventually, decades later, she revealed the whole story. Around the time her father died, she had married and had a daughter. By the time her daughter was four years old, her voice had returned to its former glory. But because she had been so young and perhaps because so much was expected of her due of the extraordinary quality of her voice, she was very self-critical. “After a performance,” she said, “I would go back to my hotel room and relive the whole day over again. Did I warm up properly, or enough? What did I do right in the performance? What did I do wrong, and why did it go wrong? How could I prevent that from going wrong in the next performance? It was all very stressful. After 1965, I was offered many chances to return. A few times, I almost gave in. But then I thought to myself, To return under the gun? Enough! (Basta!)”
On Facebook, Italian composer-conductor Angelo Inglese posted this fascinating reminiscence of the great soprano:
“I had the great honor of knowing her and dating her for years. A special friendship, of those that enrich you, transform and ennoble you; of those that bring you closer to an otherwise inaccessible world: a world of legend… I witnessed and accompanied some of her lessons with young singers – it was awesome to see how much she lived every single word of the roles she played. The emotions she conveyed were fluttering, ardent and passionate, because in every sentence, every single sound, there was a storm of feelings linked to memories, and the impressions lived on stage around the world. She transmitted to share and donate, with extreme generosity, everything she possessed in her deepest intimate [feelings]. It was burning and slid with impetus. I still see before my eyes her elevated hands, her tight fist and her index finger strained upwards, how to engrave, shape and chisel – just like a sculptor or a skilled oraph – the music in marbles, stones or precious metals.
“With me she opened up, hatching her world, exposing all her deepest emotions. I will never forget how many tears she shed as we listened to her historic recordings of Ernani, Norma, Aida, Agnes of Hohenstaufen, Oberon. We were there, listening to ‘Here’s the horrid field′ of a masked dance; she stared into my eyes, to look into my soul, and as soon as she sensed my vibration, a whisper of mine, – her ‘Forward’ was something superhuman… or, maybe, extremely human – she used to hold my arm, as if she said: ‘You know!’ At her house I met the Livornese baritone Edo Ferretti, her husband. With Edo was born, from the first meeting, a blunt friendship, a deep affinity, an incredible understanding between a Tuscan and an Apulian… Poor Edo, a few months after I met him, had a brain ischemia, which led to his death. That was the period when, every single day, I would collect Mrs. Anita from her house om Via Mantegna to take her to the Sant’ Eugenio hospital in Rome, and visit her husband. Every day for almost 3 months, I witnessed the inevitable deterioration of his condition. Every visit, Edo held my hands tightly to thank me for the affection I had towards his beloved wife. In the last days Edo’s conditions were compromised, and I saw Anita wrapped in melodramatic despair; I drove her home and she abandoned herself in her memories, seeking consolation in her music.”
This, then, was Anita Cerquetti, an almost perfect singer with only one deficiency, the lack of a trill; but when you listen to her sing, somehow the omission of this decoration in “Ernani, involami” or “Ozean, zu ungeheuer” from Oberon (another unusual opera which she performed on stage) doesn’t seem to matter. As one commentator on Amazon put it, as soon as Cerquetti started singing you felt immediately drawn into her world of emotions; she lived and breathed the character she was portraying, every bit as much as Callas. And this is why the legend continues, despite the sometimes uneven casting in her live performances. Rarely did she have a tenor who respected the written notes and the lyric line as well as Björling did with her in Chicago; most of the time she got stuck with Gianni Poggi, a tenor with a coarse-sounding voice and a bull-in-a-china-shop musical style. Occasionally she sang with Mario del Monaco, who had a better voice but was even a coarser interpreter. In Mexico City she actually had Carlo Bergonzi with her in Il Trovatore, but the incomplete recording of that performance has wholly inadequate sound. Thus I can only really recommend three and a half opera recordings to display how great she really was:
CHERUBINI: Gli Abencerragi / Louis Roney, tenor (Almansor); Alvino Misciano, baritone (Gonzalvo); Mario Petri, bass (Alemar); Augusto Frati, baritone (Octair); Paolo Washington, bass (Alamir); Anita Cerquetti, soprano (Noraima); Lidia Toncelli, mezzo (Egilona); Lorenzo Tesi, bass (Araldo); Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor; Teatro Comunale, Florence Orch. & Chorus / Gala 100.577
One of Cherubini’s late operas (1813), Les Abencérages with its large choruses and grand spectacle is considered an important influence on French Grand Opéra. The plot revolves around the feud between the families of the Abencerrages and the Zegris. In spite of this conflict, Almanzor, a young Abencerrage warrior, and the Zegri princess Noraïme have fallen in love and are due to be married (can anyone say Aida?). Almanzor has also made friends with the Spanish noble, Gonzalve of Cordoba, and forged a peace treaty between the Muslims and the Christians. But Almanzor’s popularity has made him enemies among many of the Zegris and they plotted against him. On the day of the wedding, a revolt breaks out among a subject tribe and Almanzor is forced to leave to quell it. He takes with him the standard of Granada, which is so sacred that its loss would mean exile.
In this performance Cerquetti is partnered with three excellent singers, the well-known bass Mario Petri, the lesser-known bass Paolo Washington, and the virtually unknown American tenor Louis Roney, who had a beautiful voice and a fine sense of drama. Young Giulini conducts with wonderful feeling and little of the draggy tempi that marred many of his later live performances and recordings. And oh, yes, Cerquetti will rivet you to the wall.
VERDI: La Forza del Destino / Antonio Massaria, bass (Marchese); Anita Cerquetti, soprano (Leonora); Aldo Protti, baritone (Don Carlo); Pier Miranda-Ferraro, tenor (Don Alvaro); Giulietta Simionato, mezzo (Preziosilla); Boris Christoff, bass (Padre Guardiano); Renato Capecchi, baritone (Fra Melitone); Vera Presti, soprano (Curra); Adelio Zagonara, tenor (Trabucco); Renzo Gonzales, baritone (Surgeon); Eraldo Costa, baritone (Alcaide); Nino Sanzogno, conductor; RAI Rome Chorus & Orchestra / Myto MCD00124
This is the 1957 performance referred to in my above article. If it had been performed complete, it would be my preferred Forza of choice, but in keeping with performance practice of the time it omits the third-act final duet, “Sleale! Il segreto.” Every singer in this remarkable performances sounds locked into his or her character, even the usually-snarly Boris Christoff as Padre Guardiano. Pier Miranda-Ferraro, a much-maligned tenor because he was in very poor voice for his one and only commercial recording, the stereo La Gioconda with Callas, was actually one of Italy’s most interesting tenors. He had a fine if not conventionally beautiful voice and could sing both exceptional lyric lines and interpret his character superbly. Many years after this performance, in 1974, I saw him perform Otello at the Newark Opera opposite soprano Mary Costa and baritone Giuseppe Taddei; it was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my entire operagoing life. But no one believes me because of that dreaded Gioconda. Listen to this Forza, and you’ll be a believer in his excellence as a singing actor.
And Cerquetti…oh my God, how can I describe Cerquetti in this performance? Characterful? Mesmerizing? Somehow these words pale in comparison to the extraordinary range of color and feeling she brings to the role. Just one example of how good she was: after she finishes singing “Madre, pietosa vergine,” the Roman audience does not explode in applause as they would have done with Tebaldi or Callas. They just sit there silently, waiting for the performance to continue. They were too moved, too much in shock from what they had just heard and didn’t want to break the spell. At the end of the act, after she sings “La vergine degl’angeli,” they do applaud…after a few seconds. Reluctantly. Again, they were too moved to want to break the spell. That’s how much Cerquetti’s singing moved them.
And one final note. Giulietta Simionato, who was utterly boring in all of her studio recordings but not in live performance, sings the greatest Preziosilla you’ll ever hear. The voice is towering, she pours everything she has into it, and makes Preziosilla sound like Carmen. You’ll never want to hear anyone else sing this role after hearing her. I promise.
BELLINI: Norma (excerpts) / Anita Cerquetti, soprano (Norma); Giulio Neri, bass (Oroveso); Franco Corelli, tenor (Pollione); Miriam Pirazzini, mezzo-soprano (Adalgisa); Giannella Borelli, soprano (Clotilde); Piero de Palma, tenor (Flavio); Rome Opera Chorus & Orchestra; Gabriele Santini, conductor / Myto MCD00142
This is the famous Rome Norma that made Cerquetti an international sensation. Yes, it exists complete, and here it is, but after hearing it you’ll probably do what I did, which is to cut out as much of Franco Corelli’s disgracefully distorted singing as possible. And it’s really noticeable. Every time you hear Cerquetti, Neri and/or Pirazzini singing, you have a riveting performance that is both musically correct and dramatically exciting, but every time Corelli opens his mouth it’s as if you’ve switched stations on the radio and are listening to an entirely different, and badly-sung, performance. Of course, your tolerance for Corelli may be higher than mine, which only extends to two live performances, the 1954 La Vestale with Callas and the 1959 Adriana Lecouvreur with Olivero.
PONCHIELLI: La Gioconda / Anita Cerquetti, soprano (Gioconda); Giulietta Simionato, mezzo (Laura); Mario del Monaco, tenor (Enzo); Ettore Bastianini, baritone (Barnaba); Cesare Siepi, bass (Alvise); Franca Schachi, contralto (La Cieca); Giorgio Giorgetti, bass (Zuàne); Athos Cesarini, tenor (Isèpo); Gianandrea Gavazzeni, conductor; Florence May Festival Orchestra & Chorus / Urania WS 121.201
This, Cerquetti’s only complete studio opera recording, is still a gem 63 years after it was recorded. Yes, del Monaco sings too loudly at times, but Enzo Grimaldo is a role you can do that in, and everyone else is splendid—even Simionato who, singing here with Cerquetti, had her fire to draw on. Decca-London was also smart to engage Gianandrea Gavazzeni, himself a composer and one of the most musical of Italian conductors of that era, to lead this performance, because he actually imposes structure on this often-rambling score and makes musical sense out of it. If you like Callas as Gioconda, you’ll love Cerquetti…she’s everything Callas was, but with a much better voice.
And of course, there are many operatic excerpts you should hear by Cerquetti from complete opera performances that otherwise had weak cast members as well as her aria LP which includes her phenomenal performance of the aria from Spontini’s opera Agnese di Hohenstaufen. Virtually anything that Cerquetti herself left us on record is valuable, and I think that, once you hear a good amount of her singing, you’ll be saying to yourself, “Maria who?”
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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