This article is dedicated to the memory of Robert “Bob” Rideout (1938-2023)
(This article was originally written in Dutch for the Dutch operatic magazine Esultate)
The lady in Verona
In the previous issue of Esultate, the title was “Giulietta Simionato 100 years”. That is not correct as the mezzo died one week before her centenary (Esultate was already in print). I never had the privilege of attending a Simionato-performance but I have seen her a few times. One minute before the start of a performance in the Arena di Verona, La Simionato appeared. She slowly walked through the middle corridor so that the loggionisti had time to recognize and welcome her warmly. She was a small female (1 m.55) with a high haircut that compensated for the missing length. And she always wore high heels. Not only during a performance but also at every opera recording in the heart of summer and even at home. Almost nobody got to see her without those surplus centimetres. Her record: heels of 14 centimetres in Aida.
I remember her in two video recordings. In a documentary, the interviewer asks her if she wants to repeat her life. “No,” she responds resolutely. “Wasn’t it all worth it?” is the next question. “No” is the resolute answer again. “You live for your profession, you make the biggest sacrifices on a personal level and then you stop singing. And what’s left? Loneliness and some acquaintances, because you don’t have children. You don’t have real friends because you were always traveling! ”. I suppose exaggeration is part of the uniform of an opera singer of her generation and she was still every inch a prima donna. In reality she enjoyed her fame and she was not always lonely as she had a good number of official and less official men during her lifetime. It was known in opera circles she was addicted to gossip; especially on the topic who did it with who. Less bitter and more realistic is her story in Madrid at the Mario Del Monaco commemoration in 2006, organized by his eldest son Giancarlo. He gives the floor to the 96 year old lady who stands up and starts to tell her experiences. The spectators look surprised at that lucid lady who speaks perfectly and passionately with the energy of someone 40 years younger.
Youth and education
Giulia (the family always calls her Giulietta) Simionato is born on 12 of May 1910 in Forli; still a beautiful tourist-free city in Emilia-Romagna. She is a late comer as her sister Regina and brother Carlo are born in 1901 and 1903 respectively. The Simionato family arrives in Forli from Sardinia just before the birth of Giulietta. Father Felice is a lawyer originally from the Veneto but mother Giovanna is a Sardinian. Felice Simionato is a prison director and belongs to the higher bourgeoisie. Mother Giovanna never fully recovers from the birth of her third child which is the reason Felice Simionato asks to return to Sardinia where the climate is better for his wife. We only know the version of the mezzo-soprano on her childhood and her stories are not flattering for her mother. A “shrew” is a fairly positive appreciation for “La Mamma” who regularly beats her children. Giulietta feels most happy at the country house of the family where the danger to be called upon or be beaten is less great. She later tells how she inherits her father’s willpower (the 24th of 24 children in a simple family) and how she admired Felice for his kindness and softness. That friendly man apparently choses to close his eyes when his children are treated roughly by their mother. In 1918 the family moves to Rovigo; a small but beautiful city between Padova and Ferrara. Giulietta follows primary education at the school of the sisters of “Maria Bambina” where she is prepared for life as a wife of a man from the same social class. She learns to play the piano and to recite poems so she can later entertain her guests as a hostess in her “salon” (Magda Olivero approximately gets the same upbringing). Of course Giulietta also learns to sing because she must be able to make everybody happy with salon romances. The child is very musical, has a nice and quite strong voice and the director of the local music school comes to ask if the girl may receive further musical studies. Mother Giovanna suspects all too well where girls with a beautiful voice sometimes end up and that is absolutely inconsistent with her bourgeois mentality. She briefly states: “I would rather kill her with my own hands than to allow her to become ‘una donna di teatro’. In 1924, mother has a heavy cold and develops a dangerous bronchitis. She refuses medicine, struggles for months with her health and dies at the beginning of 1925. We deduce from the words of her daughter that Giulietta is not really sad. All at once the manager of the music school is back at the door but father Felice answers he respects the will of his deceased wife: no music studies for Giulietta. Two years long she fights paternal resistance before it gradually crumbles. The crowbar is an amateur performance of “Nina, no far la stupida”; a small opera performed by a few citizens in the Teatro Sociale of Rovigo where Gigli and Tebaldi made their debut. Pa attends all rehearsals to check no inappropriate word is said and certainly no wrong gesture is made. The company also performs this piece by one Arturo Rossato in various theatres in the province of Padova. We read for the first time a critics opinion: “Simionato has a flexible and graceful voice and a lively intelligence (whatever that means)”. The 17-year-old is happy during those performances and in the next comedy “Ostrega” the tenor loses his voice in the middle of the show. Simionato sings his notes, including the aria “Ecco ridente in cielo” from Rossini’s Barbiere. Once again the teachers of the music school are on the threshold at Felice Simionato’s and this time father bows his knees when he hears the argument that such a talent should not be lost. Simionato starts her official studies and sixty years later she tells a few strange things. Her first teacher draws attention to her easy top and asks her never to sing soprano roles because she has the tessitura of a mezzo and she will kill her voice when she switches to the soprano repertoire. She follows his sensible advice. Later on she is less pleased with another “consiglio”: stop playing the piano and don’t pay too much attention to scales as this is not necessary with a good vocal coach. Simionato follows that advice too and later regrets this madness which gives her a lot of extra work to study her roles. Nevertheless she will sing 125 parts (most of them as a comprimaria). For four years she studies diligently in Rovigo, Padova and Venice with several teachers. At the beginning of 1932 she is ready to start her career. One of her teachers gives her the role of Maddalena in Rigoletto in Padova followed by the first of her many small roles: Lola in the opera where she will enjoy triumphs as Santuzza.
She must now prove herself in a sharky world where horrific egos rule, where a knife in the back always threatens, where decency is a disadvantage and jealousy a positive characteristic. For the time being she does not get commitments and Simionato tries a different way to become known. She prepares herself for the Firenze competition in 1933. Opera is still a living art in Italy when Simionato starts her career and the peninsula is bursting with young talent that sees a way to fame and money. There are 385 candidates in Florence. The main prize is an amount of two annual salaries of a skilled worker. The jury consists of members with names which still resound. Chairman is “The Grand Old Man” of Italian Opera: Umberto Giordano. Members are Tullio Serafin, tenor Alessandro Bonci, tenor Amedeo Bassi, sopranos Rosina Storchio (the 1st Cio Cio San of the Butterfly fiasco) and Salomea Kruszelnicka (the 2nd Butterfly of the Butterfly triumph). Simionato wins the mezzo soprano category. Giulio Neri is the only other winner with a career. Simionato receives an invitation from La Scala to audition: “Not ripe enough, timbre too sour, has to study much more, try again in a few years’ time” is the verdict. So the engagements come slow. In 1934 she gives a concert in her own Rovigo and then she has to wait three months before she can sing Lola again in Treviso (with Sara Scuderi as Santuzza). Then it is a five months wait before she sings her first Azucena in Trieste. The attention of the public is entirely focused on the tenor Vittorio Lois; one of those verismo power singers (such as Zerola, Chiaia, Ferrauto etc.) with a radiant high C. He encores “Di quella pira” twice.
Simionato has to follow the long arduous road. She signs a contract with an impresario who compiles an opera group ad hoc for one season in provincial cities. Simionato sings 13 roles in four months in the small but beautiful theatre of Malta; not a bad education. She alternates small and lead roles. In Malta she sings Ulrica, Adalgisa, Suzuki and the princess of Bouillon for the first time. But she also performs the musician in Manon Lescaut, Teresa in Sonnambula or the Countess di Coigny in Andrea Chénier. Then the company travels to Tunis (French property) and ends with a number of performances in Tripoli (capital of Libya and at that time an Italian colony where the Del Monaco’s live with their sons Mario and Marcello). Simionato sings her first Laura in Gioconda in Tunis. Most of her colleagues are young singers for whom this is a chance to prove themselves, to learn the profession without being bothered in the event of a lesser performance. Most singers will never get further than the Italian province, but a few names are still known such as Pia Tassinari, Afro Poli and Licia Albanese. The only star is tenor Giuseppe Garuti; a knight of the high C who proves on his recordings that volume and high notes are much more important than musicality and style. He finishes his career two years after this tour; barely 41 years old and voiceless after too much Mascagni. After the tour Simionato has once more to wait for new contracts. In May 1935 she sings two small rolls in Pizetti’s L’Orsolo (with Tancredi Pasero) but then she has to live in the paternal house for more than five months before she gets the unimportant part of Marta (and that of Pantalis) in Mefistofele. All attention goes to Pasero, to tenor Giovanni Malipiero and soprano stars Rosetta Pampanini and Sara Scuderi. When she loses her voice at some point, she follows the advice of the tenor and drinks a glass of ricinus or wonder oil. The cure is a success for the voice but a disaster otherwise (intestinal cramps, diarrhoea). The mezzo will never use this remedy again.
Comprimaria at La Scala
25 year old Simionato realizes Italian opera world is not waiting for her talent and she tries a different approach. She accepts a permanent contract at La Scala; most of the time for small parts and occasionally a big one. She doesn’t know this is the start of ten years of frustration; a period she still mentions with bitterness in old age. At the end of 1935, Simionato signs the well-known strangulation contract all newcomers at La Scala get. She has to study all comprimaria parts and cannot refuse a role. She must be present at all rehearsals; both in rehearsal rooms and on scene; both with piano and orchestra. The first year she is available for three months; the second year for six months. Her salary is 2400 lire per month. That is barely sufficient on condition she lives frugally and goes hunting for parts in the summer and autumn months when she is free and not paid by La Scala. The last days of each month are tough and she tells she picks up her salary calmly and cheerfully. Once outside La Scala, she heads for the first bar to drink a coffee and eat a sandwich so she doesn’t faint from hunger. She mainly lives on bananas. They are not too expensive in Italy and she hopes to get a little heavier. She makes her debut in January 1936 as Novice Master in Suor Angelica (with Oltrabella). And then one small role after another follows. Her absolute star part is Maddalena in Rigoletto (with Borgioli). She is not the only one in that situation. The role of valet in Rigoletto consists of the sentence “Schiudete, ire al carcere Monterone” and is sung by Tito Gobbi. Once her career is even in danger. She plays the insignificant role of Federico in Mignon and goes to her apartment after the second act. She listens to the opera which is broadcast on radio and suddenly remarks a tiny hitch with fright. She has forgotten she had to sing two more words in the third act. For three years she stays on the spot and gets the impression she is less and less appreciated. In Butterfly she has to sing the mother of Cio-Cio-San. In Cavalleria (with Gigli and Stignani) she doesn’t even sing Lola anymore but Mamma Lucia. Even worse is the fact she is now considered a comprimaria in the rest of Italy. She needs the money and so she sings Flora in Traviata in Carpi (with Pagliughi). A role as Siebel in a one-off performance for the Eiar (now Rai Milao) is a huge victory for her (with Olivero, Malipiero and Pasero). As Preziosilla in Forza in Palermo she finally and at last has the scene for herself for a moment. At the end of 1938 things are improving in a few provincial theatres. Her little stature, her youthful face and her young voice are assets for the role of Beppe, the gypsy child with a beautiful aria in the third act of L’Amico Fritz. But then it is back to La Scala and the small roles until the 29th December at the end of 1939 she is allowed to sing Beppe at La Scala (with Favero and Malipiero).
Marriage and war
A few weeks before Italy or rather Mussolini declares war to France and the UK, her private life changes dramatically. It is a bizarre story and like all her childhood memories she is the only source as she survives all her contemporaries. During her many days in the theatre, she is introduced to the violinist Renato Carenzio. He courts her and she later claims she was not very fond of his advances. He starts threatening her: an attitude we now call “stalking”. She wins information on Carenzio and she is told he has a “Sistemo Nervoso Fragile”, thus a nervous wreck. He is also a gamer who loses money with cards. But he has good looks and charm and offers some financial security. Finally, after a one year long hesitation, she agrees to get married. The marriage takes place on May 3 1940 and during the entire ceremony she cries hot tears. None of her biographers make clear what kind of marriage it is and you have to reconstruct it afterwards on the basis of her later marriages. In Italy you can get married in three ways in 1940 (or even today in 2010). First possibility is an ordinary civil ceremony at the town hall and there it all ends. One can also marry in church with a priest who at the same time serves as a civil officer (so one should not first go to town hall and then to church). And finally there is a purely canonical marriage only celebrated in church but without civil consequences. Italy still has no divorce legislation in 1940 and some couples only marry in a civil ceremony although they live in sin according to the Catholic church. If a marriage does not work, there remains the possibility of a civil divorce of table and bed which is not a real full divorce but at least arranges all financial matters. One cannot officially remarry. But these half-divorcees can have a canonical marriage with a new partner as they were never married before in a Catholic Church (the priest is no civil officer in such a ceremony and there are no civil consequences but the partners don’t live in sin anymore ). I think Simionato’s first marriage is only sealed in a civil ceremony as later on she marries in a church ceremony only while her first husband still lives
The career of the mezzo continues. In Trieste she can sing the Cherubino but at La Scala it is again business as usual: small roles with another 3 Beppes in between. And then there is the humiliating event at the recording of Cavalleria Rusticana. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the world premiere of his opera, Mascagni is allowed to conduct a complete performance for Voce del Padrone. Simionato sings L’Amico Fritz a few times under his leadership and always says he no longer had the energy to conduct his own work. Gigli sings Turiddu and the already half insane Bruna Rasa is Santuzza. Simionato has been invited and diligently studies the role of Lola she has sung a few times elsewhere. Only during the recording she understands she may only sing the few sentences of Mamma Lucia and she is disappointed and furious. The question one asks is why Simionato only gets small parts. Are they deaf at La Scala and in the rest of Italy? Not entirely. Young Simionato has no large voluminous voice. Later on decibels will be added but the very best Simionato will not break the glass of candlesticks. She is not Rita Gorr. Her most important qualities are her beautiful timbre and a completely homogeneous voice without register breaks. In addition, she has good high notes and almost no problems with a high C though the voice is clearly a mezzo -soprano. But almost to the end of her career she has youthful overtones and she projects the voice extremely well so that it cuts through heavy orchestration. During the first ten years of her career her voice is still too light to sing Verdi-parts like Azucena or Ulrica and she definitely cannot handle Santuzza. Her competitors are many. When Simionato starts her career, Irene Minghini (married to her teacher Ettore Cattaneo) is still the undisputed mezzo queen. But Minghini falls for the temptations of money and fame and makes trips into the dramatic soprano repertoire. It doesn’t last long and she returns to the mezzo repertoire again though the voice no longer works. At the beginning of 1940, the 48 year old says goodbye to the stage with La Cieca. Four years later she dies in the bombing of Rimini. In the meantime Ebe Stignani (born 1903) has taken over the mezzo crown and in La Scala she gets all the important roles. Simionato understands she cannot compete with this older colleague yet but she is jealous of other ladies. There is first and foremost Cloe Elmo (a year younger than Simionato) who made her debut in 1935. Elmo has the beautiful full sound of the real Verdi mezzo and she almost immediately overshadows Simionato. She pays a price for early assumptions of heavyweights. The moment Simionato finally knows world fame at the end of the 1940s, Elmo cannot cope anymore. Simionato’s biggest rival is Gianna Pederzini. She has a 10 year lead and the same rather light mezzo sound; a dugazon the French say ( like Frederica von Stade in the seventies, Von Otter later, Kozena today). She does not have the beautiful timbre and stylistic strength of Simionato. But Pederzini has a few trump cards Simionato does not have. She is the mistress of an important fascist with clout in Italian theatres. And she is a real beauty who likes to sing parts of male adolescents like Beppe, Cherubino etc. so she can show her beautiful legs (Giacomo Lauri-Volpi becomes lyrical when he describes Pederzini’s legs).
Opera performances are not suspended during the war. On the contrary; audiences crave fine singing more than ever. They love illusions that make them forget for a moment sad reality such as Allied bombing. At La Scala for the time being, everything remains the old story but beyond people notice more and more that the voice of Simionato has grown fuller and think she is actually too good to stay a comprimaria. During the Scala recording of Andrea Chénier in 1941 (Gigli, Caniglia, Bechi) she doesn’t get the part of old Madelon but has once more to do with countess di Coigny. But elsewhere in Italy she sings Madelon and she is invited as Hänsel, Suzuki, Preziosilla. All the time she is mainly on stage with singers from an older generation such as Merli, Gigli, Masini, Lauri Volpi but now her peers make their appearance. At the end of 1941 her Pinkerton is young Mario Del Monaco with whom she will make important recordings. At the beginning of 1942 she makes a first foreign trip with La Scala to the German theatre of Prague where she sings in Il Combattimento di Tancredi and Clorinda. She later sings it again in Milan and she even gets the role of Hänsel in Humperdincks opera. But then there are the classic parts of 5 sentences again. She is introduced to Wagner and Strauss though not impressed by roles such as Rossweise (Walküre), first girl (Elektra), Flosshilde (Rheingold) or First Norn (Götterdämmerung). Her agony temporarily ends when the Allies bomb La Scala (and Milan) on the night of 15 to 16 August 1943.
Dangerous days during the war
The king dismisses Mussolini and puts him under arrest. The new Italian government has secret ceasefire discussions with the Allies but declares in public that it continues the war on the side of Germany. At the beginning of September the government signs a ceasefire but keeps silent so the king and the government can flee to the south and the rest of the country may go to hell in their eyes. Allied supreme commander Eisenhower is tired of Italian duplicity and announces the truce. The confusion in Italy is immense as a cowardly king and a gang of incompetent ministers didn’t give clear orders to army and civil services. What will the army do? Some units desert, others stay well on the spot and do nothing and a single unit fights on a Greek island against the Germans (remember “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin). The Germans enter Italy “en masse” while the Allies invade it. The front is fixed over the entire width of the peninsula just south of Naples. The Germans free Mussolini and he sets up a puppet state: the Republica Sociale with seat in Salo (on Lake Garda). At the beginning of October 1943 the Italian government finally takes a decision and declares war to Germany. The Allies accept the Italians only as co-warrior but not as formal ally and they continue to bomb the country mercilessly. In the occupied part of the country by the Germans uncertainty is enormous and anarchy and civil war starts. The Germans take hundreds of thousands of Italian soldiers prisoners in the north and send them to the Reich (including Carlo Bergonzi and Giuseppe Taddei). They don’t recognize them as prisoners of war but treat hem (according to Bergonzi) as sub-humans. In the fall of 1943 all opera performances are suspended but at the beginning of 1944 they resume. The Germans are tough fighters and withdraw only very slowly and theatres reopen again in the Republica Sociale. Simionato sings a few roles in Genoa, Trieste and Como but most of the time prefers to stay at home as traveling is too dangerous. Allied planes fire at every train. At La Scala she sings small parts in performances which now mainly take place in Milanese Teatro Lirico. In spring 1945 the war comes closer and in April the Allies finally arrive in Milan. After the surrender of Germany chaos becomes even greater in Italy. Communist partisans (most of them are resistance fighters of the 11th hour) hunt fascists or so-called fascists and kill thousands of them. It seems Italy is on the edge of the abyss but the Allies recover order and support a new democratic Italy. Many theatres are in ruins; communications and transport are slow and difficult due to bombed out railways and food supply is poor.
Finally main parts
For Simionato rescue comes from France and Switzerland. In France she is invited to sing Dorabella in Lyon and Paris (Gaîté Lyrique) with among others Suzanne Danco. Switzerland is a paradise. No damaged roads or railways, enough food, good hotels, no riots or political problems. A former colleague invites her to Geneva and she sings Il Matrimonio Segreto, Falstaff and Un Ballo with Mario Del Monaco. Swiss radio is present and we hear her voice in a leading role for the first time. She is now 36 years old and this is the familiar sound that will become no. 1 in mezzo-country for twenty years. After some Swiss concerts, she returns home where her career and her life take a new turn.
In 1947 operatic life resumes everywhere in Italy. La Scala has been rebuilt. Other companies find halls while awaiting the necessary money to restore their theatre in its old glory. Simionato does not want to renew her notorious contract with La Scala and from now on decides to fly on her own wings. Done with parts for comprimaria. Time for a new generation. Simionato is helped by circumstances. Elmo pays the price for many heavy roles. Stignani has not spared herself either but thanks to her better technique still has a beautiful voice. But in an increasingly visual time, her obesity is not an asset. Pederzini has to be discreet as everyone knows her enthusiastic ties with fascism and 47 years is a bit too old to sing and play 17 year old Mignon. The most important competitor of Simionato is 27-year-old Fedora Barbieri who has more decibels but immediately steers towards the toughest Verdi repertoire though she is more alt than mezzo. Moreover her voice thins out at the top. Young Miriam Pirazzini is a promise too but does not have the potential of Simionato. The year starts for Simionato with a triumph in Genoa. In the Teatro Grattacielo (the Carlo Felice is still in ruins) she sings Mignon and she is even willing to sing on her bare feet so that her small figure fits the role. In those years singers are contracted a few months in advance of a performance and the management of La Scala is almost immediately at her front door. She gets a Dorabella in Cosi and does she want to repeat her triumph in Mignon in Milan in the fall? She certainly wants it. After Paris (Falstaff) and a debut in Edinburgh (Nozze), she achieves her first major success in the theatre where she was often frustrated. Her partners are new young stars as well. Giuseppe di Stefano is hardly 27 and Cesare Siepi is even three years younger.
Now the classic career of an operatic star starts. Packing, traveling, unpacking, rehearsing, studying new roles, singing, packing, traveling again. In 1948 she urgently expands her repertoire. At La Scala she sings Rosina; her first big Rossini and a return to the original score with a mezzo. Toscanini asks her to sing in a La Scala commemorative concert in honour of Boito in the third and fourth act of Nerone (with Siepi and Herva Nelli). It is a busy year for Simionato and she stays as long at La Scala as before albeit this time in leading roles. After her first Rosina, she sings her first Verdi-Requiem (Infantino, Pasero), one performance of Le Roi David (Honegger; in Italian of course), her first Charlotte (Prandelli is Werther). She already sang the princess of Bouillon 13 years earlier but not at La Scala (Favero, Filippeschi). In addition she performs her first Carmen (Lauri Volpi) at RAI, makes a debut in the Arena of Verona with Barbiere. There is another Giuditta on the program ( Honegger, not Lehar) and a first Santuzza and in Turin and Bergamo a first Leonore (with Poggi as Fernando, Bechi as Alfonso and Siepi als Baltazare).
Mario Petri and divorce
At the same busy time she is upset with personal problems. Her husband has been in charge of her money for 7 years. He has a permanent job in the orchestra, is a member of a well-known quartet and teaches violin. But Carenzio remains an incorrigible gambler, plays for large amounts and gets into debts. Now Giulietta has become the big earner in the family and he uses her fees to pay for his excesses. And then there is Mario Petri. As Simionato is more at La Scala than at home she gets to know the bass very well. He has a big though not exceptional voice. He is two years younger than the mezzo and is a lady killer. He measures thirty centimetres more than Simionato, has a pretty face and a good figure. He is the successor of Ezio Pinza in Italy as Don Giovanni (there is a DVD with him from 1960) and in real life he also behaves as such. Simionato falls madly in love with him and seeks his company as much as possible despite her feverishly busy agenda. Signor Carenzio is not from yesterday and naturally makes hellish scenes. Simionato tells one of her biographers she cheated her husband only in mind with Petri. Some colleagues claim the relationship was anything but platonic. The following year Carenzio has a few surprises. He drops his job and decides to become the manager of his wife so he can keep his eyes on her and according to tradition he himself can receive her fee after the 1st or 2nd act of a performance. Sometimes he does not travel with his wife and once he unexpectedly appears in her hotel and doesn’t find her in her room. She is in Petri’s “to borrow newspapers”. That uncomfortable situation lasts until 1952 when Simionato and Carenzio finally break up and he leaves her alone. In 1954 the couple officially separates ( “the divorce of table and bed”). He dies in 1985.
Her career gains momentum but she is a wise singer who carefully chooses her roles. She absolutely wants to keep her flexible voice and sing legato as much as possible and sparingly uses coloratura. She therefore also accepts lighter (albeit not exactly easier) rolls in addition to heavy guns such as Preziosilla, Santuzza, Bouillon. Dido and Aenas (Dido ed Aena), Hänsel und Gretel, Il Matrimonio Segreto provide variety. There are two new roles she cherishes to take care of her voice: Isabella in L’Italiana in Algeri and Cinderella in La Cenerantola. Until then those Rossini rolls are the domain of lighter mezzosopranos as Supervia and Pederzini who didn’t think for a moment to sing Verdi or Mascagni. Simionato is the first to break with that tradition. Horne will imitate her with much less success with heavyweights but with even more precision at Rossini. With fame gramophone companies arrive. Everyone has already forgotten she recorded two Madrigals in 1946 (Il Saluto di Beatrice and Come Quel Fior) which were not exactly a bestseller (To be found on Maurizio Tiberi’s 2 LP album of Simionato). In March 1949 she is again in the recording studio for aria’s from Mignon. They are a calling card for her debut in the New World where big money can be earned; even more in Latin America than in the US. Mexican summer seasons have a splendid reputation because rich citizens are very generous with fees and gifts. In retrospect there is a fine bonus as well for her admirers. Performances are broadcast in 1949. There is still no commercial Mignon who can compete with the Italian version from Mexico with Simionato, Cesare Siepi and heart-conquering Giuseppe Di Stefano. The same can be said of La Favorita (also with Di Stefano, Siepi and Enzo Mascherini). Finally there is the extraordinary Werther with the same tenor, only matched by the radio broadcast from La Scala with Tagliavini two years later. The mezzo-soprano is not someone who limits herself to 5 roles and travels the opera world with it. Until her last day she is willing to study a new role. In 1950 she adds Mosé and Kovantsjina to her Scala repertoire. She also sings for the first time at de Munt in Brussels (Il Matrimonio Segreto). But her most important new role she sings in Mexico. There she is Amneris for the first time; one of the toughest mezzo parts from the repertoire. There she is for the first time too the partner of Maria Callas. Before starting the Mexico season Simionato accompanies the American soprano on a visit to father Callas in New York. Callas offers a bottle of Seven Up and doesn’t know it has already been used to store cockroach poison. Simionato survives a swallow. Apart from Amneris she is also Adalgisa and Azucena next to Callas. Callas recognizes talent and musicality and understands her success does not become smaller but rather larger if her partners have her vocal level. The ladies are not very happy with tenor Kurt Baum; someone with an extraordinary voluminous top but an ugly timbre (Baum is a Jewish German from the Czech Republic who flees the Nazis on time). Callas and Simionato start their long fruitful collaboration in Mexico which will yield some wonderful live recordings. They are neither of them intellectual but love gossiping on the love life of famous people. They become friends and good colleagues though the friendship will not survive their careers. Simionato meets Callas for the last time in 1967; ten years before the soprano’s death. In Mexico Simionato sings her second soprano role: Fedora (with Filippeschi)
New roles and a star on records
courtesy Rudi van den Bulck-Charles Mintzer collection
Simionato’s life is now in a fixed fold. She sings a number of performances at La Scala every year. Rome (the theatre, Caracalla or Rai-Roma) too is often on her agenda and she doesn’t neglect the San Carlo in Naples or the Fenice in Venice. That becomes her career between the end of November and June. In the five months Italian theatres close, she accepts parts in the Arena of Verona or abroad: Brazil 1952, London and the American West Coast in 1953, Holland Festival and Chicago 1954, Japan in 1956. She continues to sing new roles: Samson et Dalila, Der Freischütz, Proserpina e Lo Straniero, Le Comte Oy, La Pietra del Paragone, Don Quichotte, Arlecchino etc. She is willing to study a role for just one performance at Rai : Cimarosa’s Gli Orazi e i Curiazi, Bluebeard’s Castle, Amahl and the Night Visitors, I Capuleti e i Montecchi. She is part of the last Italian generation which sings everything in Italian. During a concert she is sometimes willing to sing a French mélodie or a Spanish song but there is no French Werther with her. She may be the most famous Italian mezzo but the record companies are not fighting each other at her door. Her official discography is rather small. One of the reasons is the introduction of the LP. Recordings of recitals instead of a few arias are expensive during the first years of that medium. Most companies limit themselves to popular tenors and sopranos. Mezzo’s are not prominent in recording catalogues of the fifties. Lucky for us, many radio performances from RAI later appear on Cetra; the record brand of Italian public radio. Due to these performances we get her 1st Amneris, her Rosina, her 1st Santuzza, her 1st Cenerantola. EMI asks her for L’Italiana in Algeri. We mostly associate Simionato with the many legendary Decca recordings but the label initially prefers older Stignani, almost unknown Nell Rankin or Elena Nicolai. Only in 1954 someone at Decca remembers her name. She starts with the small role of Maddalena (Protti, Del Monaco). The next year follows with Favorita (Poggi) and Forza del Destino (Tebaldi, Del Monaco). In 1956 there are Il Trovatore (Del Monaco, Tebaldi), Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Bastianini). One year later comes La Gioconda (Cerquetti, Del Monaco). In 1959 she records her second Aida (Bergonzi, Tebaldi) and two years later the Cavalleria (Del Monaco), Un Ballo in Maschera (Bergonzi, Nilsson) and Adriana Lecouvreur (Del Monaco, Tebaldi). In 1962 Suor Angelica (Tebaldi) and in 1963 her Decca career ends with a second Cenerantola. She does not have a monopoly on mezzo parts. Some roles go to young Fiorenza Cossotto (Butterfly and Chénier) or Lucia Danieli (Mefistofele); the only Italian mezzo who almost matches the level of Simionato and is sadly neglected. In 1964 Simionato’s official record career ends with Falstaff (RCA) and again Trovatore (EMI Corelli). Decca does not spoil her with solo recordings. Her solo records are compiled on two small MP’s which later on appear on one LP. The voice is pure, noble and even from bottom to top. She is the best coloraturamezzo of her time although she keeps to a classic interpretation without the embellishments which later become fashionable according to the 19th century traditions. She sings the arias from French repertoire (Mignon, Werther, Carmen, Samson) in French which prove why she always sings in Italian on stage. “Les heures” in Samson becomes “Les Wore” and in the letter scene from Werther there are whole sentences where you don’t understand a word. Simionato is indeed a mezzo and not a soprano as in the “O don fatale” record even her voice reaches its limits and a there is a slight hint of flatness.
Fortunately, a lot of performances in theatres are broadcasted on radio and belcanto lovers already drag recording equipment with them. On the base of her unofficial recordings you get a nice overview of her career. In 1951 she sings her only performances of Cilea’s L’Arlesiana in Rome. Unfortunately a recording is missing. The Werther from two months later with Ferruccio Tagliavini from La Scala exists and is a reference recording. Another two months later she sings Aida for RAI and as a bonus there is the remarkable Caterina Mancini (forget the metal unstylish sound of Mario Filippeschi). Mancini is the Agathe in a dream cast in Der Freischütz the following year in Rome. Francesco Albanese, Giulietta Simionato and Boris Christoff sing the other lead roles and unfortunately there is no recording. Nothing has been preserved from the Nozze with Taddei and Tebaldi in Rome. Three Rossiniparts Comte OY, Tancredi and Pietra del Paragone cannot be found either. Unless La Scala ever opens its sound archives, nothing is preserved of “Proserpina e Lo Straniero”. I have not yet found a trace of Cimarosa’s Gli Orazi e I Curiazi though that was a RAI broadcast and there should be a tape in the RAI archives. We also lack Simionato’s Dulcinea in Massenet’s Don Quichotte (Don Chisciote) which she sang in Bologna at the end of 1952. Probably in the archives too is her Judith in Bartok’s Bluebeard, a RAI performance from the beginning of 1953. Only the arias already mentioned but no performance of Samson et Dalila is known. Not the one in the province in 1951 nor that of 1953 with Ramon Vinay in Lisbon. We do have a recording of a modern opera from that same year with her: the mother role in the then popular and now neglected Amahl and the Night Visitors (Amahl e gli ospiti notturni). Simionato has sung more modern music in her younger years and she was usually not very enthusiastic. Known is the altercation she had with one of the apostles of Avant-Garde: Luigi Dallapiccola. He asks: “What do you have against my music?” Her answer: “What do you have against my voice?” Another Simionato recording of 1953 is a performance of I Capuleti e i Montecchi (with weak colleagues). Apparently there is also a RAI performance. Her Marina has never popped up. Carmen has always been one of her favourites; almost until the last days of her career. Her RAI recording from 1950 is again a bit disabled by the other singers but at the end of 1953 she sings the role in San Carlo with a promising young tenor with whom she already performed the opera the year before: but now there is a recording: The first time we hear Franco Corelli (he is of course more impressive in the Carmen of 1959 in Palermo with Simionato).
A new husband
In 1954 there are the usual series of performances at La Scala, Naples and Rome plus performances of La Cenerantola with the Holland Festival in The Hague and Amsterdam. She also performs in Rio de Janeiro in Refice’s Cecilia (Tebaldi sings the leading role) and she is one of the stars of the first season in the finally re-established Chicago season where Callas also makes her US debut in her own country. For Simionato 1954 however is important for another reason. She has been suffering from chronic migraine for years and decides to consult some of the best Italian doctors. She herself told she wrote a few names on a piece of paper and took one at random. The story is so silly that it can be true. Thus she meets professor Cesare Frugoni. She is 44; he is almost 74. The whole of Italy knows him too. One of her biographers spends a page on his achievements and you almost get the impression every Italian is aware of that academic career though the real reason behind his fame is more prosaic. Frugoni (you will not read it in the Italian language biography of Simionato) was the best known doctor of Benito Mussolini after the duce became head of a German satellite in the north of Italy. After the war Frugoni takes care of the communist Palmiro Togliatti. Like so many people of his generation Frugoni likes opera and graciously accepts an invitation for a performance of Forza. Afterwards Simionato gets a bouquet of 100 roses. If we are allowed to believe Simionato, she regularly consults him on her health and he regularly visits her performances; even abroad. Finally, he writes her a long letter in which he expresses his love and tells her about his wife who is supposedly depressed and who lives in a villa with a few servants. He no longer sees her. According to the Simionato biographer, he hires a few lawyers to obtain a divorce (although, as already said, there is no real full legal divorce in Italy) from table and bed. Finally, he refuses from “delicatezza” to marry Simionato as long as his wife is still alive as only that half-divorce is possible. The couple has to wait for another eleven years. After the death of his wife Simionato and Fruggoni marry in 1965, though only in a Catholic ceremony because her first husband is still alive. For the church they are husband and wife; for the law they are not.
Finally at the Met
Back to her performances and recordings. From 1955 we naturally remember her interpretation of Zanetto in both Rome and La Scala. On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the death of Mascagni, people were a bit more original than nowadays. Simionato doubts the worth of that new role but it is a huge success and luckily the recording exists (only the VARA recording from 1977 is note complete). Simionato also performs at the Holland festival that year: three times in The Hague and three times in Amsterdam; always with L’Italiana. It is also the year of the opening of La Scala with a classic Norma: Callas, Del Monaco, Simionato. Some people still swear by this performance as in the other well-known RAI recording (also Callas, Del Monaco) from the same year Ebe Stignani sounds much too mature. There is still a discussion over an official Decca-recording of Norma. A few veterans always claimed Decca recorded the opera with Cerquetti, Simionato and Del Monaco. That statement was laughed at by other connoisseurs. Last year however, an important Del Monaco box appeared with the duet Pollione-Adalgisa as absolute novelty. So it seems that certainly some part of the opera was recorded. A surprise among her heavyweight roles are three 1956 performances of Scarlatti’s Mitridate at the Piccola Scala. In the autumn she visits Japan for the first time where she and Stella are the stars in a series of performances of Aida. Known too is the concert she gives in Chicago with Tebaldi, Bastianini and Tucker, conducted by Georg Solti. Known because Decca publishes that concert (with the famous quarrel duet from La Gioconda) while all contributions with Richard Tucker are deleted as he is under contract with another record company. After that triumphant Norma at the opening of La Scala the year before, Simionato gets the right to open the season for years to come. In 1956 she does it with Aida with Stella and Di Stefano (no recording available, although that’s okay, because she has 2 official and 10 live recordings). Even more interesting is the performance she sings three days later, for which she receives very good reviews. She is Cornelia in Händel’s Giulio Cesare with Corelli, Zeani, Rossi Lemeni and former lover Petri. Unfortunately, no recording (fortunately the Roman recording with Franco Corelli, Boris Christoff and Onelia Fineschi does exist). A performance in the small hall of La Scala is to her liking because she starts 1957 with an old love. 11 years after her first Il Matrimonio Segreto, she once again sings Cimarosa’s most famous work (no recording). Her most famous achievement that year is the heavily cut revival of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at La Scala. This is a new role for Callas but Simionato has already sung Jane Seymour in 1948 with Sara Scuderi. The same year she also makes her Salzburg debut in Falstaff at the request of Karajan. The line-up is formidable: Gobbi, Panerai, Schwarzkopf, Moffo, Petri (recording exists). At the end of the year, on her way to Chicago, she makes her first appearance in New York with a concert performance of Anna Bolena. Some elderly New Yorkers still get lyrical when they talk about that night. I never heard the recording because Davy, Cassily and others are not world class singers. She once again opens the season of La Scala on December 7th 1957 as Ulrica. Callas and Di Stefano sing the lead roles and I like that performance better than the official EMI recording with Fedora Barbieri as mezzo-soprano.
From the 1958 harvest, we remember the short role of Fenena in Nabucco with a young Cerquetti (unfortunately no recording) and the famous Salzburg Don Carlo with Siepi, Bastianini and Fernandi, which has already appeared on ten labels. That year too Simionato first appears on the scene of La Scala in Mosè two weeks after the season opening (with Christoff, Roberti, Guelfi, Raimondi and no recording). The next year is important in the 49-year-old mezzo’s long career. She is again a member of the troupe (Del Monaco, Protti) that performs Carmen in Japan and the video fragments show us a lively even humorous Carmen with an energy and a theatre métier most singers twenty years younger can envy. 1959 is also the year of her much delayed debut at the Metropolitan. I’ve never looked at her file at the Met so I’m not sure why it took so long. She herself always claims she already had an engagement with Orfeo in 1954, became ill and could not sing. General manager Rudolf Bing by that time obviously has a lot of experience with Italian singers and the creative ways of Italian doctors with sick notes. He severs all ties with Di Stefano, who in his own words is too ill (especially from the long rehearsals Bing wants) to honor his contract with the Met but just healthy enough to sing La Bohème at the Scala. Bing replaces Simionato with Rise Stevens and holds off for a while. And in 1958 he again has one of those Italian experiences. He engages Italian soprano Marcella Pobbe who immediately starts a steamy affair with Nicolai Gedda. After a short while she discovers the tenor eats both male and female dishes and after a terrible argument with Gedda lets the Met down without boo or yuck. Simionato finally does enter through the large door with the season opener in 1959-1960. Next to her are Antonietta Stella, Carlo Bergonzi and Leonard Warren (who dies in the Met 5 months later). The Met stalwarts say: “Finally! The real thing”. After years of Mignon Dunn, Nell Rankin, Irene Dalis and Rosalind Elias, all decent but still somewhat limited singers, they want to hear a real top voice and her performances in Trovatore and Cavalleria are sold out in short time (the recording in good sound is definitely worth it). She returns in February 1960 with Cavalleria and Aida. Between her series of Met performances, we naturally remember Adriana Lecouvreur from November 1959 in San Carlo. Tebaldi suddenly falls ill and the theater has to call on Magda Olivero. Next to her are Franco Corelli, Ettore Bastianini and Giulietta Simionato. More than half a century later, there is still no official or live recording that comes remotely close in intensity, vocal beauty, vocal acting. You only have to hear Corelli and Simionato or mezzo and soprano in their confrontations for a few minutes to know how this repertoire should be sung, how far we have fallen. Another new role that we do not immediately associate with her she sings in May 1960 at La Scala: Didon in Les Troyens (I Troiani of course) with Mario Del Monaco. Recording albeit quite cut available. The highlight of 1961 for the fans is the Italian company that performs Aida and Cavalleria in Tokyo. It is not the artistic highlight of Simionato’s career but it is the most important visual memory. Japanese television is on site and so we hear and see the mezzo as Amneris (with Tucci/Del Monaco). In Cavalleria Simionato -already 50 years- is everything a cheated 20-year-old woman should be: beautiful voice, passion and Sicilian temperament. And then there is the fly in the ointment: Angelo Lo Forese as Turiddu. Few singers with her age are still willing to learn many new roles and La Scala has to insist but in December 1961 she sings Neris in Cherubini’s Medea with Callas and Vickers (recording available). 1962 is perhaps the artistic pinnacle of Simionato’s career. Once more she dares to take on a real soprano role (she has already sung a duet as Aida with Bergonzi in concert). In May she is Valentine in Les Huguenots (Gli Ugonotti). I still remember the elderly Italian I met in 1990. He had a career of more than 60 years of Scala performances. He had heard Pertile, Merli, Gigli, Schipa, etc. He was present at all Callas performances. When I asked him which one performance in his life as an opera-goer had stayed with him most, he replied within a second “Gli Ugonotti”: Joan Sutherland, Franco Corelli, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Giulietta Simionato, Fiorenza Cossotto, Giorgio Tozzi under the direction of Gianandrea Gavazzeni. Not everything is perfect because there are heavy cuts as signor Corelli wants to save himself for that terrible duet and Simionato only sings the recitative but not the aria at the beginning of the fourth act. But every opera lover still remembers how his or her mouth fell open when he/she played the duet “Raul ove vai tu ?” for the first time. It is hard to believe that two folds in a human throat can make such voluminous and at the same time such beautiful sound. La Scala becomes hysterical after the duet: one of the most impressive live recordings ever made.
The last years of the career
Simionato stays busy. Just after Les Huguenots she sings her only world premiere: Pirene in De Falla’s Atlantida. There is a recording of it but Simionato’s comment is deadly: “What a boredom”. Simionato switches back to her usual mezzo repertoire which results in the well-known, also legendary Salzburg Trovatore with Price, Corelli, Bastianini and Karajan. The microphones are there, and what a pity television technology is still quite primitive with a need for a lot of light sources so there are no cameras. After much hesitation and under heavy pressure from the Scala management, she continues her career with the role of Arsace in Semiramide (with Sutherland and – a failure – Gianni Raimondi). The mezzo proves that she can stand alongside the Australian soprano in their duets. The following year we especially remember that for once she puts no new roles on her program. We can only look in frustration at images shot during the rehearsal for the opening of La Scala on 7.12.63. The sound recording is wonderful but we never get a complete Cavalleria with Corelli on video. The following year she is a member of La Scala during its visit to Moscow. It starts with a fight. For a few years now it is obvious 25 years younger Fiorenza Cossotto (born 1935) is her rightful successor. She starts with small roles for a few years, then gets bigger parts (like Urbano in that Ugonotti) and has been singing real leading roles for a few years. Moreover the days of exclusive recording contracts are over so Cossotto easily switches from Decca to Deutsche Gramophon. The Germans give her mezzo roles in their well-known recordings “in collaborazione con La Scala” (Don Carlos: Labo, Christoff; Trovatore : Bergonzi; Cavalleria: Bergonzi). Simionato discovers quite late Cossotto will do the Scala job in Moscow alone and the older mezzo won’t take it. She certainly doesn’t need the money but it’s a matter of prestige and that’s all important in the tough opera world. Simionato does not immediately intend to give up her throne and knocks vigorously on the table. She joins the party as Azucena. Fortunately as the Russians shoot the Stride la vampa scene (with Prevedi) for television. That’s the role she sings for EMI during summer (with Corelli and Tucci). Her exclusivity contract with Decca is over too and the record company has other ideas. Singers are judged on salability. Simionato may be a name but young Grace Bumbry is an important asset for the American market. In addition the Sutherland-Bonynge couple becomes almost all-powerful in the opera sector of Decca as Sutherland accounts for half of the sales of opera and bel canto records. The Bonynges have a soft spot for Jackie Horne and that is an extra selling point for Decca in the US too. So for once only Simionato switches to EMI. The BBC produces a program on the recording sessions called “Modern Troubadours”. It is discussed in The Gramophone but it still has not appeared on YouTube. Hopefully it hasn’t been erased as The Gramophone is shocked by a wonderful Franco Corelli demonstration of tenor vanity. At the end of the year Simionato does sing the Azucena in a new production of Trovatore at Covent Garden (Jones, Prevedi). In 1965 the Simionato career is still at the top. She may open La Scala again as Preziosilla (with Bergonzi, Ligabue); an evening full of incidents with Piero Cappuccilli leaving the performance halfway and being replaced by Carlo Meliciani. Perhaps someone (and hopefully not an Italian hagiography biographer) will one day get permission to study the Simionato archive (if it exists). It is not 100 % clear to me why someone performes La Forza until January 8 1966 and suddenly and unexpectedly says: “ora ho finito”.
Simionato later claims she quits overnight for her husband’s sake. She’s been married (in a church ceremony only) for a few months now and Cesare Frugoni is 85. She may want to dedicate herself to him. Another possibility: Frugoni is a man of the 19th century (born in 1882) and has the mentality of that time. Opera singers are fine; even as a mistress. But when a member from the upper class marries such a lady, her career is over. Rosanna Carteri, the best Italian lirico of the fifties, also finishes her career “immediately” after her marriage. And a singer with the technique and experience of Simionato has the knowledge to know that vocal problems are coming as there are some hollow sounds in the middle voice. All her pre-war contemporaries have already said goodbye to the stage. Some of her colleagues of the great years continue to sing with disastrous results for their reputation (Del Monaco, Di Stefano, Callas). Simionato cancels her contracts (including an Adriana in Rome to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Cilea’s birth), studies the role of Servilia in La Clemenza di Tito and after the 4th performance in the Piccolo Scala says: “Basta cosi!”. Apparently the surprise is not overly great in the Italian opera world judging by telegrams she receives. She therefore withdraws and unlike some opera stars (especially Franco Corelli) who never set feet in a theater again, she likes to encourage many younger colleagues. She is present at Tebaldi’s farewell concert at La Scala.
Frugoni dies in January 1978, aged 96. A year later she even appears on stage one more time and sings Non so piu from Nozze during a tribute concert in honor of Karl Böhm. She has widened her circle with people from her husband’s medical world. One of the (rich) people who comforts her is 73-year-old Florio De Angeli, an industrialist and widower. He becomes her third husband and dies in 1996. She does not withdraw in solitude. Persons or organizations who celebrate or pay tribute can always call on her. She is the guest of honor at commemorations of Mario Del Monaco and Maria Callas. She remains lucid and is sometimes shocked when she sees the decline of old colleagues. 92 year old Simionato is invited to a ceremony where 80 year old Franco Corelli is present too. He doesn’t even remember her anymore as his memory has partly gone. Simionato has an iron health and keeps the same recognizable and charming face until almost the last day of her life. The opera world is preparing to celebrate her 100th birthday and is visibly moved to learn she just missed that day. She slips away gently.
There is a sad epilogue to the story. At 93 years of age she is introduced by a friend to the family of lawyer Pierluigi Nardis. He has a son Marcello who aspires to a career as a tenor and is greatly impressed by the legendary singer. He regularly ask for advice and soon is inseparable. He accompanies Simionato to every concert and performance or conference and even follows her abroad on trips which she pays for. Her financial generosity to her family (children of her brother and sister) starts to dry up and their distrust turns to rage when the Nardis move to a wealthy residence in the Rome neighbourhood of Trigoria. Simionato leaves Milan for Trigoria too. Her family accuse the Nardis of embezzlement of Simionato’s fortune at her death as the Romans are the beneficiaries in her testament. The Nardis reply the mezzo lived in great style till the last day of her life and was not a millionaire anymore. There is an ugly incident between her family and the Nardis on the day of her burial but her testament is legal. Marcello Nardis continues his career. Recently he sung Remendado at the Rome Opera and will perform Barbarigo at the Fenice in I Due Foscari.
Jan Neckers, June 2023