17 April 2017

Graziella Sciutti - operatic soprano

Vivacious performer who became a successful director

Graziella Sciutti became an opera star in the 1950s
Graziella Sciutti became an opera star in the 1950s
The operatic soprano Graziella Sciutti, a singer known for a vivacious stage presence and engaging personality who excelled in the work of Mozart, Puccini and Verdi, was born on this day in 1927 in Turin.

The daughter of an organist and pianist, she grew up in a bilingual household, speaking both Italian and her mother’s native tongue, French. Her early childhood was spent in Geneva in Switzerland before the family moved to Rome, so that she could attend the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, which is one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious musical institutions.

Sciutti wanted to play the piano like her father but it became clear she had a notable voice and she caught the eye as a soloist when she was still a student.

She was asked at the last moment to appear in a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, the up-and-coming Austrian who would become one of the greatest conductors in the world.  It was a daunting prospect, forced on her at short notice after another singer became ill, but she rose to the challenge and won accolades as a result. 

It led her to be spotted by Gabriel Dussurget, founder and leading light of the Festival at Aix-en-Provence Festival, who had enough confidence in his new discovery to cast her in 1951 in the one-woman opera, Menotti's The Telephone, a role regarded as a test for a young, immature singer.

Sciutti's vivacious character made her a popular performer in Italy and beyond
Sciutti's vivacious character made her
a popular performer in Italy and beyond
Her ambition at that stage was to be a concert singer and she was unsure at first whether she could master the dramatics of opera, yet she was to return to Aix many times. It was there, in fact, that she began to acquire her association with the heroines of Mozart, singing Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Despina in Così Fan Tutte and Zerlina in Don Giovanni with distinction.  

In 1954, she made her debut at the Glyndebourne Festival in England, playing Rosina in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). In subsequent years she enchanted audiences as Nannetta in Verdi's Falstaff and again visited the Mozart roles of Susanna and Despina.

Sciutti undertook the role of Carolina in Cimarosa's Il Matrimonio Segreto (The Secret Marriage) in the inaugural performances of the Piccola Scala, the small theatre in Milan that adjoined the famous Teatro allaScala, in 1955.  At one stage she was nicknamed ‘the Callas of the Piccola Scala’.

Some critics felt her voice to be too thin for her to be seen as one of the great sopranos but she had the technique to project to all corners of the theatre and, for all her early doubts, she had the acting skills to make up for any shortcomings in her voice. Pretty and petite in comparison with many singers, the innocence, perkiness and coquetry demanded of many of her roles seemed to come naturally.

Her debut at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden followed in 1956. In 1961 she appeared on stage in America for the first time at the San Francisco Opera, going on to make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York soon afterwards.

Sciutti excelled in the arias of Mozart, Bellini and others
Sciutti excelled in the arias of Mozart, Bellini and others
At the Vienna State Opera she sang many of her best roles, including Nannetta in a staging of Falstaff conducted by Leonard Bernstein and directed by Luchino Visconti.

Sciutti was a regular at the Salzburg Festival for 20 years, her Mozart interpretations always in demand. Her final appearance there came in 1972 as Norina in Donizetti's Don Pasquale, conducted by Riccardo Muti.

Her voice proved enduring enough to appear at Glyndebourne even at the age of 50 as Elle in Poulenc's La Voix Humaine. This was a production she also directed, paving the way for a new career.

She directed Figaro and L'Elisir d'Amore for Canadian Opera and in 1983 her production of Puccini’s La Bohème at the Juilliard School won praise.  A year later she directed at the Met for the first time. Her 1995 staging of La Bohème at the New York City Opera won her an Emmy Award after it was broadcast on live television.

Always eager to pass on her knowledge to opera students and would-be performers, she taught at both the Royal College of Music in London and the Lyric Centre in Chicago.

She married an American singer, Robert Wahoske, in 1955, but they divorced in 1960.  She died in Geneva in 2001, a few days before what would have been her 74th birthday, and was survived by her daughter, Susanna.

The historic headquarters of the Accademia was in central Rome, near Piazza di Spagna
The historic headquarters of the Accademia
was in central Rome, near Piazza di Spagna
Travel tip:

Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia is one of the oldest musical institutions in the world, founded by a papal bull (public decree) issued by Pope Sixtus V in 1585. Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music. Its historical headquarters was in Via Vittoria, not far from Piazza di Spagna, but since 2003 it has been headquartered in Viale Pietro de Coubertin at the Renzo Piano-designed Parco della Musica in Rome. It has had a permanent symphony orchestra and choir since 1895. Alumni include Beniamino Gigli, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ennio Morricone and Cecilia Bartoli.

An audience at the Piccola Scala in 1978
An audience at the Piccola Scala in 1978
Travel tip:

The Piccola Scala, next to Teatro alla Scala, the opera house in Milan considered to be one of the world’s great opera venues, was opened in 1955 as a theatre dedicated to ancient works that were suited to a fairly intimate setting.  It had room for no more than 600 people. As well as Cimarosa's Matrimonio Segreto, early productions included works by Handel and Monteverdi. Later it staged operas by contemporary composers, including Nino Rota, who was better known for his film music but actually wrote the score for 11 operas.  Sadly, the theatre closed in 1985 after the capacity was reduced to 350 because of new regulations, too small to make it economically viable.

More reading:

How mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has helped revive lesser-known composers

Giacomo Puccini - musical genius who assumed Verdi's mantle as Italy's greatest

Maestro Muti shows no signs of slowing down

Also on this day:

1598: The birth of astronomer Giovanni Riccioli


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