Showing posts with label La Scala. Show all posts
Showing posts with label La Scala. Show all posts

9 November 2021

Piero Cappuccilli - operatic baritone

Singer highly respected for interpretation of Verdi roles

Piero Cappuccilli as Ernani in a performance of Verdi's Don Carlo
Piero Cappuccilli as Ernani in a
performance of Verdi's Don Carlo
Piero Cappuccilli, regarded during a 41-year opera career as one of the finest Italian baritones of the late 20th century, was born on this day in 1926 in Trieste, in the far northeast corner of the peninsula.

Although not exclusively, Cappuccilli’s focus was predominantly the work of Italian composers, in particular Giuseppe Verdi, in whose operas he sang 17 major roles.

He sang at many of the world’s great opera houses, travelling to South America and the United States, where he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Giorgio Germont in Verdi’s La traviata in 1960 and had a particular association with the Lyric Opera in Chicago, where he made his first appearance in 1969 as Sir Richard Forth in Bellini's I puritani and returned many times before his farewell performances there in 1986.

Nonetheless, he spent most of his time in Europe. He made his debut at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1964 as Enrico in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor; at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden as Germont in 1967; and at the Opéra de Paris in 1978, singing Amonasro in Verdi’s Aida. He also appeared at the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival and worked with Europe’s finest conductors, including Herbert von Karajan, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, Claudio Abbado, and Carlos Kleiber.

Cappuccilli was initially reluctant to pursue the idea of a career in opera
Cappuccilli was initially reluctant to
pursue the idea of a career in opera
His retirement, in 1992 in his mid-60s, was enforced, unfortunately, after he was seriously injured in a road accident following a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco at the Arena di Verona. Although he recovered enough to make further contributions to the world of opera as a teacher, the damage to his body left him unable to cope with the physical demands of performing on stage.

Cappuccilli first encountered opera as a 10-year-old boy, during a family holiday, when he was recruited for the children's chorus of a production of Bizet’s Carmen in Naples. He thought nothing at that stage of a career in music, focussing his ambitions on becoming an architect.

As a young adult, friends noted the quality of his voice whenever he sang and in 1949 encouraged him to audition at the opera house in Trieste, the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi. Luciano Donaggio, an opera teacher, heard him and thought he had enough potential to offer him free lessons. 

Even then, Cappuccilli was not convinced it was worth his time and gave up for a while. But Donaggio ultimately persuaded him he was good enough to contemplate a career in opera and he joined the company at the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in 1951, taking a succession of small parts.

Many of Cappuccilli's performances have been preserved in a large discography
Many of Cappuccilli's performances have
been preserved in a large discography
His major break came in 1955 when he auditioned at La Scala in Milan, on the back of which it was suggested he enter the Viotti International Music Competition in Vercelli, Piedmont, now world-renowned but at that stage still in its relative infancy. He won first prize in his category and offers of more important roles soon followed. Cappuccilli made his debut in a major role in the Teatro Nuovo in Milan in 1957, singing Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.

In the years that followed, Cappuccilli not only excelled for the rich quality of his voice, outstanding breath control and immaculate phrasing but for the sensitive interpretation of the characters he portrayed. Critics spoke of him in the same breath as Tito Gobbi and Ettore Bastianini among the great Italian baritones.

He seldom disappointed in any role but his performances in Aida and Forza del Destino at La Scala in the 1960s attracted particularly enthusiastic reviews, while London critics were wowed by his interpretation of the title role in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra when the La Scala company guested at Covent Garden in 1976.

Happily, many great performances were preserved in an extensive discography that includes performances alongside Maria Callas, Katia Ricciarelli, Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni under the baton of Von Karajan and Abbado among others.

Cappuccilli spent his final years back in Trieste, where he died in 2005, aged 78. He left a wife, Graziella, three children and two grandchildren. He is buried at the Cimitero di Sant’Anna.

A view of the Canale Grande in Trieste, the  maritime capital of  Friuli-Venezia Giulia
A view of the Canale Grande in Trieste, the 
maritime capital of  Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Travel tip:

The seaport of Trieste, capital of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, officially became part of the Italian Republic in 1954. Trieste had been disputed territory for thousands of years and after it was granted to Italy in 1920, thousands of the resident Slovenians left. The final border with Yugoslavia was settled in 1975 with the Treaty of Osimo. The area today is one of the most prosperous in Italy and Trieste is a lively, cosmopolitan city and a major centre for trade and ship building.  The city has a coffee house culture that dates back to the Hapsburg era.  Caffè Tommaseo, in Piazza Nicolò Tommaseo, near the grand open space of the Piazza Unità d’Italia, is the oldest in the city, dating back to 1830.

Piazza San Babila is the home of  Milan's Teatro Nuovo today
Piazza San Babila is the home of 
Milan's Teatro Nuovo today
Travel tip:

The Teatro Nuovo theatre in Milan, located on the Piazza San Babila in the lower level of the Palazzo del Toro, was designed by architect Emilio Lancia and was the project of the impresario Remigio Paone. It was inaugurated in December 1938 with a performance of Eduardo De Filippo's comedy Ditegli sempre di sì. Piazza San Babila is characterized by the presence of a fountain built in 1997 by the architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni in conjunction with the Ente Fiera Milano.

Also on this day:

1383: The birth of military leader Niccolò III d’Este

1697: The pope orders the relocation of the city of Cervia, in Emilia-Romagna, because of toxic air from surrounding marshland 

1877: The birth of Enrico De Nicola, the first president of Italy

1921: The birth of football stickers pioneer Giuseppe Panini

1974: The birth of footballer Alessandro Del Piero

(Image of Canale Grande by Severin Herrmann from Pixabay)



20 August 2021

Carla Fracci – ballerina

Brilliant Romantic dancer brought ballet to the people

Fracci performed at most of the world's top ballet theatres
Fracci performed at most of the
world's top ballet theatres 
Destined to become one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century, Carolina ‘Carla’ Fracci was born on this day in 1936 in Milan.

Carla became a leading dancer of the La Scala Theatre Ballet in her home town and then worked with the Royal Ballet in London, Stuttgart Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, becoming known for her interpretations of leading characters in Romantic ballets such as Giselle, Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet.

As a small child during World War Two, she had been sent to live with relatives in the countryside, but after the war ended, she returned to Milan and her mother took her and her sister to sit the La Scala Theatre ballet school entrance exam.

She has said of her early days at the school that she found it boring and a terrible chore, but after performing alongside Margot Fonteyn in The Sleeping Beauty when she was 12, Carla changed her mind about ballet training and started working hard to make up for lost time.

After joining La Scala Theatre Ballet on graduating, Carla was promoted to a soloist within a year. In 1958 she was asked to fill in for the French ballerina, Violette Verdy, in Cinderella, which led to her being promoted to the role of principal dancer with the company.

A picture of Fracci early in her career at La Scala Theatre Ballet
A picture of Fracci early in her
career at La Scala Theatre Ballet
Carla left La Scala Theatre Ballet to pursue a career a freelance ballet dancer and  she performed with star partners such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev.

In 1964, Carla married theatre director Beppe Menegatti and they later had a son, Francesco.

In the late 1980s, Carla began directing ballet companies in Italy. She also helped bring ballet to the people with an open-air performance in Paestum and ballet displays in public squares and schools.

Carla played a vital role in securing a stronger appreciation of ballet in Italy than it had had in the first of the century. The Italian Government acknowledged her achievements with honours in 1983, 2000 and 2003.

After Carla retired from ballet, the family made their home in Florence. Carla died on 27 May this year (2021) in Milan from cancer. She was 84 years of age.

The classically designed Teatro alla Scala in Milan, better known simply as La Scala
The classically designed Teatro alla Scala in
Milan, better known simply as La Scala
Travel tip:

Milan’s famous Teatro alla Scala, the ballet and opera house of world renown, was founded after a fire in 1776 destroyed the Teatro Regio Ducale, which until then had been the home of opera in Milan. The cost of the new theatre, built on the former location of the church of Santa Maria alla Scala to a design by the great neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini, was borne by the owners of the boxes at the Ducale, in exchange for possession of the land and for renewed ownership of their boxes. The theatre, inaugurated on August 3, 1778 with a production of Antonio Salieri's opera L'Europa riconosciuta, was originally known as the Nuovo Regio Ducale Teatro alla Scala, which was in time shortened to Teatro alla Scala and ultimately to La Scala, by which it is usually known today.  

The second Temple of Hera at Paestum, built around 2,500 years ago
The second Temple of Hera at Paestum,
built around 2,500 years ago

Travel tip:

Paestum, where Fracci gave an open-air performance, is situated on the coast of Campania about 40km (25 miles) south of Salerno and 10km (six miles) north of Agropoli. It is best known for the extraordinary archaeological site a mile inland that contains three of the best preserved Greek temples in the world, which were once part of the town of Poseidonia - built by Greek colonists from Sybaris, an earlier Greek city in southern Italy, in around 600BC.  The relics cover a large area and takes as much as two hours to explore, but there are several bars close by and a hotel and restaurant just outside the site.

Also on this day:

1561: The birth of court musician Jacopo Peri

1799: The death by hanging of republican noblewoman Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel 

1937: The birth of Stelvio Cipriani, award-winning composer of film scores


3 February 2019

Giulio Gatti-Casazza - impresario

Manager who transformed the New York Met

Gatti-Casazza was manager at La Scala in Milan before working in New York
Gatti-Casazza was manager at La Scala in
Milan before working in New York
Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the impresario who as general manager transformed the Metropolitan Opera in New York into one of the world’s great houses, was born on this day in 1869 in Udine in northeast Italy.

The former general manager at La Scala in Milan, Gatti-Casazza was in charge of the Met for 27 years, from 1908 to 1935.

In that time, having brought with him from Milan the brilliant conductor and musical director Arturo Toscanini, he not only attracted almost all of the great opera singers of his era but set the highest standards for the company, which have been maintained to the present day.

Gatti-Casazza also pulled off the not inconsiderable feat of rescuing the Met from the brink of bankruptcy after the stock market crash of 1929.

The young Gatti-Casazza had studied engineering after leaving school, graduating from the Genoa Naval School of Engineering, yet the love of opera was in the family. His father was manager of the Teatro Comunale, the municipal theatre in Ferrara, where they had moved when Giulio was young, and he succeeded his father in that role in 1893.

He proved very effective, combining his knowledge of opera with a natural gift for management. His success attracted attention and in 1898, at the age of just 29, he was recommended by the composer Arrigo Boito as a suitable candidate to be general manager at Teatro alla Scala - universally known as La Scala - in Milan.

A photograph taken at a dinner held in honour of Gatti- Casazza and Toscanini at the Hotel St Regis in New York
A photograph taken at a dinner held in honour of Gatti-
Casazza and Toscanini at the Hotel St Regis in New York
Gatti-Casazza was appointed at the same time as Toscanini, also 29, was hired as principal conductor, having made his mark already in Buenos Aires and Turin.

At La Scala, he undertook a complete administrative overhaul and redefined the house’s purpose, turning it from a commercial theatre to a centre of excellence, dedicated to the advancement of the musical arts. It soon came to be seen as a temple of opera in Europe comparable with the opera houses of Paris and Vienna.

Again, his achievements were soon noted further afield, and in 1908 came an offer from Otto Kahn, chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Opera, to go to New York. 

Toscanini was persuaded to go with him, while another bonus was the opportunity to work again with Enrico Caruso, the brilliant Neapolitan tenor who had been given his debut at La Scala by Gatti-Casazza in 1900. Caruso had been at the Met since 1903, hired by the Austrian impresario Heinrich Conried, Gatti-Casazza's predecessor as general manager.

Gatti-Casazza with his first wife, the soprano Frances Alda, in 1921
Gatti-Casazza with his first wife, the
soprano Frances Alda, in 1921
Early in their tenure, Gatti-Casazza and Toscanini arranged for the great composer Giacomo Puccini, whose fame had been established by the success of La Bohème and Tosca, to oversee a production of Madama Butterfly as well as commissioning him to write La Fanciulla del West for Caruso and their Czech soprano Emmy Destinn. The opera had its world premiere at the Met in 1910.

Under Gatti-Casazza's leadership, the Met’s reputation grew exponentially and most of the world’s celebrated singers in the early 20th century were only too eager to appear there, including Frances Alda, Amelita Galli-Curci, Lily Pons, Giovanni Martinelli, Beniamino Gigli, Titta Ruffo and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi.

Gatti-Casazza became the toast of the New York cultural scene, twice featuring on the cover of Time Magazine as one of the first Italians to be afforded that honour.

Although he suffered a blow in 1915 when Toscanini decided to return to Italy, by far the biggest crisis to face Gatti-Casazza in New York was the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which prevented a planned move of the company to a new home at the Rockefeller Centre and revealed large holes in the Met’s finances.

Along with other staff, Gatti-Casazza took a cut in salary in a bid to keep the business going. But it was mainly his willingness to embrace new opportunities that enabled him to ride out the storm.

One of the first to see records as a way to build a Metropolitan Opera brand, he had responded to the travel restrictions of the First World War by encouraging and promoting American singers and when Paul Cravath, who had succeeded Khan as chairman of the board, signed a contract with the National Broadcasting Company to deliver weekly radio broadcasts of concerts - beginning with Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel on Christmas Eve, 1931 - Gatti-Casazza took on the challenge with typical entrepreneurial enthusiasm.

Twice married - first to the New Zealand-born soprano Frances Alda and later to the Italian ballerina Rosina Galli, he retired from his position at the Met in 1935 and returned to Italy, working again in Ferrara until his death in 1940.

The Piazza della Libertà is the architectural showpiece of the northeastern city of Udine
The Piazza della Libertà is the architectural showpiece
of the northeastern city of Udine
Travel tip:

Udine is an attractive and wealthy provincial city and the gastronomic capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Udine's most attractive area lies within the medieval centre, which has Venetian, Greek and Roman influences. The main square, Piazza della Libertà, features the town hall, the Loggia del Lionello, built in 1448–1457 in the Venetian-Gothic style, and a clock tower, the Torre dell’Orologio, which is similar to the clock tower in Piazza San Marco - St Mark's Square - in Venice.  The city was part of the Austrian Empire between 1797 and 1866 and retains elements of a café society as legacy from that era, particularly around Piazza Matteotti, known locally as il salotto di Udine - Udine's drawing room.

Find hotels in Udine with TripAdvisor

The Castello Estense, built in the later years of the 14th century, dominates the centre of Ferrara
The Castello Estense, built in the later years of the 14th
century, dominates the centre of Ferrara
Travel tip:

The Este family ruled the city of Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna between 1240 and 1598, the character of the urban landscape established in that time still visible in the narrow, medieval streets to the west and south of the city centre, between the main thoroughfares of Via Ripa Grande and Via Garibaldi. The centre is dominated by the magnificent, moated Este Castle (Castello Estense), on which work began in 1385 and which was added to and improved by successive rulers of Ferrara until the end of the Este line. The castle was purchased for 70,000 lire by the province of Ferrara in 1874 to be used as the headquarters of the local prefecture.

More reading:

The chance career-change that turned Arturo Toscanini from cellist to world famous conductor

Arrigo Boito, the composer and patriot who fought with Garibaldi

Enrico Caruso, the tenor some call the greatest of all time

Also on this day:

1702: The birth of Sicilian architect Giovanni Basttista Vaccarini

1757: The birth of eye surgeon Giuseppe Forlenza

1857: The birth of sculptor Giuseppe Moretti

(Picture credit: Castello Estense by Massimo Baraldi)


1 August 2018

Antonio Cotogni – baritone

Singer who moved the composer Verdi to tears

Antonio Cotogni's voice was admired by the composer Giuseppe Verdi
Antonio Cotogni's voice was admired
by the composer Giuseppe Verdi
Antonio ‘Toto’ Cotogni, who achieved international recognition as one of the greatest male opera singers of the 19th century, was born on this day in 1831 in Rome.

Cotogni’s fine baritone voice was particularly admired by the composer Giuseppe Verdi and music journalists wrote reviews full of superlatives after his performances.

Cotogni studied music theory and singing from an early age and began singing in churches and at summer music festivals outside the city.

He made his opera debut in 1852 at Rome’s Teatro Metastasio as Belcore in Donizetti's L’elisir d’amore.

After that he did not sing in public for a while, concentrating instead on building up his repertoire.

After singing in various Italian cities outside Rome he was signed up to sing at Rome’s Teatro Argentina in 1857 in Lucia di Lammermoor and Gemma di Vergy, also by Donizetti. Later that year he performed in Verdi's I due Foscari and Sanelli's Luisa Strozzi at Teatro Rossini in Turin. He met the soprano Maria Ballerini there and married her the following year.

His major breakthrough came in 1858 when he was asked to take the place of the famous baritone Felice Varesi in Nice.

Varesi’s fans felt that Cotogni, who was virtually unknown, should not have been chosen to replace the popular singer.

Cotogni in the role of Enrico in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor
Cotogni in the role of Enrico in
Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor
He was engaged to sing Antonio in Donizetti’s Linda di Chamonix but was greeted with noises and whistling before he had sung a word.

The audience fell silent as he sang his opening aria and gave him thunderous applause afterwards demanding an encore. His performance revealed him to be a master of his art and Antonio became one of his signature roles.

Cotogni made his debut at La Scala in Milan in 1860 and after overcoming his initial nerves, he won over the notoriously critical audience.

He appeared at the leading opera houses in Madrid, Lisbon, Paris, Moscow and Saint Petersburg and became particularly popular with London audiences, performing at the Royal Opera House regularly from 1867 to 1889.

The famous baritone gave his last operatic stage performance in 1894 in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in Saint Petersburg.

Cotogni became a celebrated vocal teacher in retirement, teaching first at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and then at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome.

He taught dozens of celebrated singers during his retirement between 1894 and 1918, the year in which he died in Rome just before the armistice ended World War I.

Cotogni sang most of the major Verdi baritone roles and the composer himself praised the beauty and strength of his voice. Verdi heard him privately in several of the key pieces from Don Carlo and was moved to tears by his singing of Rodrigo’s death scene. Verdi had his own nickname for Cotogni, calling him mio ignoratino - my little ignoramus - which he used not in an insulting way but in teasing the singer for his unfailing modesty, humility and deference.

Cotogni was an exceptional teacher and was able to pass on to his pupils what Verdi had said to him about the arias and elements of the operas that had been changed in rehearsal.

Cotogni (second row, middle) with his class at the St Cecilia Academy. Beniamino Gigli is on the right at the back.
Cotogni (second row, middle) with his class at the St Cecilia
Academy. Beniamino Gigli is on the right at the back.
Working with him was the young Luigi Ricci who would later become a vocal coach. Ricci took meticulous notes on information that Cotogni passed on to his pupils about things that had been changed in rehearsal but had never been officially recorded, as well as traditions begun by singers from the previous century.

Ricci eventually compiled a four-part collection, Variazioni-cadenze tradizioni per canto, which recorded this information for posterity.

At the age of 77 Cotogni recorded a duet with a much younger tenor for the gramophone. Although his voice was not the same as when it had moved Verdi to tears, it is a permanent reminder of the singer who had entranced audience throughout Europe for 40 years. It is also the oldest voice ever recorded for the gramophone as Cotogni had been born in 1831.

Via dei Genovesi in Trastevere
Travel tip:

Antonio Cotogni was born at number 13 Via dei Genovesi in the Trastevere district of Rome and there is a commemorative plaque on the house. Trastevere, once a working-class part of the city, is now one of Rome's most fashionable neighbourhoods, certainly among young professionals, who are attracted by its pretty cobbled streets and the wealth of inexpensive but chic restaurants.

he Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Via dei Greci is part of the Academy
The Conservatory of Santa Cecilia in Via dei
Greci is part of the Academy
Travel tip:

The St Cecilia Academy - Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - where Cotogni taught singing, is one of the oldest musical academies in the world. It was founded in Rome by Pope Sixtus V in 1585 at the Church of Santa Maria ad Martires, better known as the Pantheon. Over the centuries, many famous composers and musicians have been members of the Academy, which lists opera singers Beniamino Gigli and Cecilia Bartoli among its alumni. Since 2005 the Academy’s headquarters have been at the Parco della Musica in Rome, which was designed by the architect Renzo Piano.

More reading:

The death of Giuseppe Verdi - how Italy mourned the loss of a national icon

The brief but sparkling career of 19th century soprano Marietta Piccolomini

Antonio Scotti - the Neapolitan baritone who sang for 35 seasons at The Met

Also on this day:

1464: The death of Cosimo de' Medici, founder of a dynasty

1776: The birth of Francesca Scanagatta, the girl who pretended to be a man to join the Austrian army


12 April 2018

Caffarelli – opera singer

Tempestuous life of a talented male soprano

Caffarelli was taught to sing by the renowned composer and tutor Nicola Porpora
Caffarelli was taught to sing by the renowned
composer and tutor Nicola Porpora
The castrato singer who performed under the stage name of Caffarelli was born Gaetano Maiorano on this day in 1710 in Bitonto in the province of Bari in Apulia.

Caffarelli had a reputation for being temperamental and for fighting duels with little provocation, but he was popular with audiences and was able to amass a large fortune for himself.

One theory is that his stage name, Caffarelli, was taken from his teacher, Caffaro, who gave him music lessons when he was a child, but another theory is that he took the name from a patron, Domenico Caffaro.

When Maiorano was ten years old he was given the income from two vineyards owned by his grandmother to enable him to study music. The legal document drawn up mentioned that the young boy wished to be castrated and become a eunuch.

Maiorano became a pupil of Nicola Porpora, the composer and singing teacher, who is reputed to have kept him working from one sheet of exercises for years before telling him there was no more he could be taught because he was the greatest singer in Europe.

In 1726 Maiorano made his debut in Rome, aged 15, under the stage name Caffarellino. He sang the third female role in Domenico Sarro’s Valdemoro.

A drawing of Caffarelli by the caricaturist Pier Leone Ghezzi
A drawing of Caffarelli by the caricaturist
Pier Leone Ghezzi
His fame spread and he performed in Venice, Turin, Milan and Florence.

In London, at the King’s Theatre, he performed the title role in Handel’s Serse, singing the famous aria ‘Ombra mai fu.’

He went on to work in Madrid, Vienna and Lisbon, but his career in France was cut short after he badly wounded a poet during a duel and had to leave the country in disgrace.

Caffarelli took up a post at the royal chapel in Naples and often performed at the Teatro San Carlo in the city. As a first-rate castrato he was able to command large fees and he bought himself impressive estates in Naples and Calabria.

He was unpredictable on stage and sometimes conversed with people in boxes during other performer’s solos. He was sometimes kept under house arrest or put in prison after fighting duels or assaulting someone.

Caffarelli was a mezzo soprano with an extensive range and considered to be one of the finest singers of his time. Unlike his rival, Farinelli, who ended his career at 32, Caffarelli carried on performing well into his fifties.

In later life he is said to have given generously to charity. Caffarelli died in Naples in 1783.

The Piazza Cattedrale in Bitonto
The Piazza Cattedrale in Bitonto
Travel tip:

Bitonto, in Apulia, where Caffarelli was born, is known as the ‘City of Olives’ due to its numerous olive groves, which produce extra virgin olive oil for export to Europe and America. The city lies approximately 11km (7 miles) to the west of Bari and has a medieval castle and a Romanesque Cathedral, the Cattedrale di San Valentino.

Teatro San Carlo in Naples
Teatro San Carlo in Naples
Travel tip:

Teatro San Carlo in Naples, where Caffarelli regularly performed, is thought to be the oldest opera house in the world. It was officially opened in 1737, way ahead of La Scala in Milan and La Fenice in Venice. The theatre is in Via San Carlo close to Piazza Plebiscito, the main square in Naples. It was designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano for the Bourbon King of Naples, Charles I. In the magnificent auditorium the royal box is surmounted by the crown of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

More reading:

How Farinelli became music's first superstar

Nicola Porpora - opera composer and brilliant teacher

Why Francesca Cuzzoni is remembered as opera's first diva

Also on this day:

1948: The birth of World Cup-winning soccer manager Marcello Lippi

1950: The birth of entrepreneur Flavio Briatore


28 March 2018

Anselmo Colzani - opera star

Baritone who had 16 seasons at the New York Met

Anselmo Colzani in his signature role, Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca
Anselmo Colzani in his signature role,
Scarpia in Puccini's Tosca
Anselmo Colzani, an operatic baritone who was a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as La Scala in his home country, was born on this day in 1918 in Budrio, a town not far from Bologna.

His stage career continued until 1980, when he made his final stage appearance in one of his signature roles as Scarpia in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.

Although his repertoire was much wider, his reputation became strongly associated with the works of Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi, with Jack Rance in Puccini's Fanciulla del West and the title role of Verdi's Falstaff, as well a Amonasro in Aida and Iago in Otello among his most famous roles.

Colzani’s association with the Met began in March 1960 after he was approached by Rudolf Bing, the opera house’s general manager, following the sudden death of Leonard Warren onstage during a performance of La Forza del Destino.

A few weeks later, Colzani took over Warren's role in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. It was not only the first time he had sung at the Met, but the first time he had sung the role, which he had to learn it in a matter of days.

Yet so impressive was he that he returned to the Met for the next 16 seasons, making 272 appearances either in New York or on tour. A measure of the stature he achieved there in a short space of time was that he was the baritone chosen for the title role in the first performance of Franco Zeffirelli’s acclaimed production of Falstaff in 1964, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

Colzani with the soprano Renata Tebaldi, with whom he starred many times
Colzani with the soprano Renata Tebaldi, with
whom he starred many times
Brought up in a musical family, Colzani joined the Italian Army before beginning to study singing formally, signing up as an 18-year-old in 1936. His service required him to fight in the Second World War. Thankfully he survived and in 1945 began attending the Bologna Conservatory under the tutelage of Corrado Zambelli.

He made his debut at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna in 1947 in the small role of the Herald in Wagner's Lohengrin. Also in the cast and making her house debut was the  soprano Renata Tebaldi, with whom he would later be reunited in New York.

Colzani made his bow at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, in 1952, as the murderous Alfio in Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, and he continued to sing there until 1970, his last appearance being also as Alfio.

He was soon in demand throughout Italy for the dramatic baritone roles of Verdi in particular, becoming a major draw  in Naples, Verona and in Rome, where he enjoyed several seasons at the Baths of Caracalla.

He made his United States debut at the San Francisco Opera in 1956, but it was at the Met that he established an enduring foothold, appearing there with many of the major stars of the day, including Maria Callas, Franco Corelli and Carlo Bergonzi.

Colzani's last Met performance was as Michonnet in Adriana Lecouvreur, by Francesco Cilea, in 1978. He continued singing until 1980, when he gave his final performance in Tosca, reprising the Scarpia role in which he most frequently appeared during his years at the Met.

Married twice - his first wife died young - Colzani died in 2006, a few days before what would have been his 88th birthday. He was survived by his second wife, Ada, and his two children, Bianca and Miriam.

One of the towers that formed part of
Budrio's medieval 
Travel tip:

Colzani’s home town, Budrio, is 15km (9 miles) east of Bologna. A former Roman settlement, it is notable for the remains of the four corner towers of a castle rebuilt in the 14th century, inside which the original village was contained. Each year, the town stages an international opera competition in Colzani’s memory.

Travel tip:

Bologna has a tradition of presenting opera that goes back to the early 17th century. The Teatro Comunale, where Colzani made his debut, came into being in 1763 as the Nuovo Teatro Pubblico, designed by Antonio Galli Bibiena, who won a competition to design a new theatre for the city after another one, Teatro Mavezzi, had been destroyed by fire.  Arturo Toscanini, who went on to be musical director at La Scala, the Met and the New York Philharmonic, conducted there many times in the early part of his career.

More reading:

Why Renata Tebaldi was said to have the 'voice of an angel'

How Arturo Toscanini became a conductor by chance

Tito Gobbi - the baritone who enjoyed a movie career

Also on this day:

1472: The birth of the great Renaissance painter Fra Bartolommeo

1925: The birth of legendary film producer Alberto Grimaldi


6 December 2017

Luigi Lablache – opera star

19th century giant was Queen Victoria’s singing coach

Luigi Lablache appeared in his first major role at the age of 18
Luigi Lablache appeared in his first
major role at the age of 18
The singer Luigi Lablache, whose powerful but agile bass-baritone voice and wide-ranging acting skills made him a superstar of 19th century opera, was born in Naples on this day in 1794.

Lablache was considered one of the greatest singers of his generation; for his interpretation of characters such as Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Geronimo in Domenico Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto, Gottardo the Podestà in Gioachino Rossini’s La gazza ladra, Henry VIII in Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Oroveso in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma he had few peers.

Donizetti created the role of Don Pasquale in his comic opera of the same name specifically for Lablache.

Lablache performed in all of Italy’s major opera houses and was a star too in Vienna, London, St Petersburg and Paris, which he adopted as his home in later life, having acquired a beautiful country house at Maisons-Laffitte, just outside the French capital. 

Lablache was a man of not  inconsiderable girth
Lablache was a man of not
inconsiderable girth
He was approached to give singing lessons to the future Queen Victoria a year before she inherited the English throne, in 1836.  He found the future queen to have a clear soprano voice and a keen interest in music and opera and they developed a close bond, establishing an arrangement that would continue every summer for 20 years, coming to an end only when Lablache’s health began to decline.

Lablache’s father was a French merchant, Nicolas Lablache, who had fled Marseille during the Revolution.  His mother was an Irish woman.  They were well connected, and when his father died Luigi and his mother were helped by Joseph Bonaparte, a French diplomat whose elder brother, Napoleon, would eventually make King of Naples.

Luigi was sent to the Conservatorio della Pietà de’ Turchini in Naples, where he was taught singing and became proficient at playing the violin and cello.  His burning ambition at the time was to act and several times he ran away from the conservatory, hoping to join a theatre troupe, but each time was brought back, not least because he had revealed himself to have a wonderful voice, at that time a contralto.

Before it broke, he sang the solos in Mozart’s Requiem at the funeral of Joseph Haydn.  Later in life, he would sing at the funerals of Beethoven, Chopin and Bellini.

Once it had broken, his voice developed rapidly. In 1812, at just 18 years of age, he was engaged at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, and appeared in Valentino Fioravanti's La Molinara.

Lablache in Donizetti's Don Pasquale
Lablache in Donizetti's Don Pasquale
He sang in Palermo from 1812 to 1817, when he moved to Teatro alla Scala in Milan to take the part of Dandini in Rossini's La Cenerentola.

His reputation spread throughout Europe.  From Milan he went to Turin, back to Milan in 1822 and then to Vienna via Venice. Returning to Naples after 20 years away, he gave a sensational performance as Assur in Rossini's Semiramide. In March 1830 he was first heard in London as Geronimo in Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto and from that year forward he would visit London annually.

Despite his physical size and the natural power of his voice, Lablache had the dexterity to produce comic, humorous, tender or sorrowful effects when requred and was versatile enough as an actor to be equally convincing in comic and dramatic parts.

While his size was arguably an asset to his vocal power, he was naturally of a lazy disposition and it is said he would have been content had he been nothing more than a provincial singer.

He was cajoled and encouraged to realise his potential largely by his wife, the singer Teresa Pinotti, whom he married when he was just 18 and who bore him 13 children.  Several of his children became singers themselves.  His descendants include the English-born Hollywood actor, Stewart Granger, who was his great-great-grandson.

His health began to deteriorate in around 1857 and he returned to Naples, taking a house in Posillipo in the hope that the warm southern Italian climate might reduce his tendency to develop chest infections.  The relief was only temporary, however, and he died in Naples in 1858 at the age of 64.

His body was returned to France and he was buried at Maisons-Laffitte in accordance with his wishes.

Villa Donn'Anna was built right on the sea's edge
Villa Donn'Anna was built right on the sea's edge
Travel tip:

Posillipo is a residential quarter of Naples that has been associated with wealth in the city since Roman times. Built on a hillside that descends gradually towards the sea, it offers panoramic views across the Bay of Naples towards Vesuvius and has been a popular place to build summer villas. Some houses were built right on the sea’s edge, such as the historic Villa Donn’Anna, which can be found at the start of the Posillipo coast near the harbour at Mergellina.

Teatro San Carlo has been open for business since 1737
Teatro San Carlo has been open for business since 1737
Travel tip:

The Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, where Lablache made his debut at the age of 18, is the oldest continually active venue for public opera performances in the world, having opened in 1737, more than 40 years ahead of both La Scala in Milan and La Fenice in Venice.  It was also, when it opened, the largest opera venue in the world, with the capacity to accommodate 3,000 spectators, a large number of whom would be standing but of whom 1,379 would have seats, including those occupying the 184 boxes, arranged in a six-tier horseshoe around the stage.

2 November 2017

Luchino Visconti – director and writer

The aristocrat of Italian cinema

Luchino Visconti came from a family that once ruled Milan
Luchino Visconti came from a family
that once ruled Milan
Luchino Visconti, who most aficionados of Italian cinema would place among the top five directors of all time, was born in Milan on this day in 1906.

Visconti’s movies include Ossessione, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, Death in Venice and The Innocent.

One of the pioneers of neorealism – arguably the first to make a movie that could be so defined – Visconti was also known as the aristocrat of Italian cinema, figuratively but also literally. 

He was born Count don Luchino Visconti di Modrone, the seventh child of a family descendant from a branch of the House of Visconti, the family that ruled Milan from the late 13th century until the early Renaissance.

Paradoxically, although he maintained a lavish lifestyle, Visconti’s politics were of the left. During the First World War he joined the Italian Communist Party, and many of his films reflected his political leanings, featuring poor or working class people struggling for their rights.

He enraged Mussolini with his grim portrayal of Italy's poverty in Ossessione (1943), based on James M Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. His first movie as a director, and the film that spawned the neorealist genre that would be the hallmark of post-War Italian cinema, depicted Fascist Italy as a destitute, windblown country, robbed of its dignity. Visconti found himself for several months hounded by the Fascist regime.

The movie poster for the Visconti classic Rocco and His Brothers
The movie poster for the Visconti classic
Rocco and His Brothers
Visconti, who had not helped himself by allowing Communist agitators to hold clandestine meetings in the family palazzo in Milan, was arrested more than once and believed he would have been executed as a subversive had the Allied invasion not driven Mussolini from power.

He continued to explore neorealism in his 1948 movie La Terra Trema – The Earth Trembles – set in the post-War poverty of Sicily, and to an extent in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), a story of the brutal life of Southern Italians trying to better themselves in Milan, said to have influenced Martin Scorsese in his making of Mean Streets and Raging Bull and Francis Ford Coppola’s interpretation of Mario Puzo’s narrative in The Godfather.

Other Visconti films looked at social change as it affected the wealthy, but with a sense of empathy. The Leopard (1963), based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel of the same name, was about the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy at the time of the Renaissance, while The Damned (1969) focussed on a wealthy German industrialist, whose lavish and decadent lifestyle collapses as the Nazis consolidate their grip on power in the 1930s.

Death in Venice (1971), the film for which he is most well known along with as Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard, was largely concerned with the homosexual obsession of Dirk Bogarde’s character with a teenage boy, played by Bjorn Andresen.

Visconti with the actors Sergio Garfagnoli and Bjorn Andresen (right) on the set of Death in Venice
Visconti with the actors Sergio Garfagnoli and Bjorn
Andresen (right) on the set of Death in Venice
Visconti himself was openly gay and had relationships with the Austrian actor Helmut Berger, who appeared in a number of his films, and his fellow Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who worked with Visconti in the theatre.

Away from the big screen, Visconti was a huge fan of opera and directed productions at La Scala in Milan, several of which featured the great soprano Maria Callas, the Royal Opera House in London and the Vienna State Opera.

A heavy smoker, said to have worked his way through up to 120 cigarettes a day, he suffered a stroke in 1972 but continued to smoke and died in Rome from complications following another stroke on 1976.

From the 1950s, Visconti would frequently retreat to his villa on the island of Ischia, La Colombaia, built to have the look of a French medieval castle, which he had purchased from a baron and renovated to an impeccably high standard.

The villa now houses a foundation in his name and a museum dedicated to his life.

Visconti's villa on the island of Ischia
Visconti's villa on the island of Ischia
Travel tip:

Ischia is a volcanic island in the Bay of Naples, less famous than its neighbour, Capri, but some would argue to be more beautiful. Famous for its thermal springs and its mineral-rich mud, Ischia has been used as the backdrop for many films.  It has an impressive Aragonese castle, built on a rock near the island in 474 and accessed by a stone bridge.

The Visconti palace in Via Cina del Duca in Milan
The Visconti palace in Via Cina del Duca in Milan
Travel tip:

Visconti grew up in the Palazzo Visconti di Modrone, a 16th century palace that can be found in Via Cino del Duca, about one kilometre from the centre of Milan.  It came into the possession of the modern Visconti family in the 19th century, when it changed hands for 750,000 lire Milanese.  The building, spread over three floors, is one of the richest examples of Milanese rococo.

18 August 2017

Antonio Salieri - composer

Maestro of Vienna haunted by Mozart rumours

Antonio Salieri was director of Italian opera in the Habsburg court of Joseph II
Antonio Salieri was director of Italian opera
in the Habsburg court of Joseph II
Antonio Salieri, the Italian composer who in his later years was dogged by rumours that he had murdered Mozart, was born on this day in 1750 in Legnago, in the Veneto.

Salieri was director of Italian opera for the Habsburg court in Vienna from 1774 to 1792 and German-born Mozart believed for many years that “cabals of Italians” were deliberately putting obstacles in the way of his progress, preventing him from staging his operas and blocking his path to prestigious appointments.

In letters to his father, Mozart said that “the only one who counts in (the emperor’s eyes) is Salieri” and voiced his suspicions that Salieri and Lorenzo Da Ponte, the poet and librettist, were in league against him.

Some years after Mozart died in 1791 at the age of just 35, with the cause of death never definitively established, it emerged that the young composer - responsible for some of music’s greatest symphonies, concertos and operas - had told friends in the final weeks of his life that he feared he had been poisoned and suspected again that his Italian rivals were behind it. Salieri was immediately the prime suspect.

Despite being put forward as truth in works of literature such as Pushkin’s Little Tragedy and hardly discouraged by the portrayal of Salieri in the film Amadeus, it is largely accepted now that the story is a myth and that the two composers enjoyed a relatively cordial and mutually respectful relationship.

Mozart felt the Italians in Vienna wanted to block the progress of his career
Mozart felt the Italians in Vienna wanted
to block the progress of his career
Yet Salieri had to live with the rumours during his lifetime. Rossini apparently teased him about it and Mozart’s father-in-law pointedly shunned him. When he became old and mentally frail, Salieri began to believe he must be guilty and while in a deranged state he supposedly confessed to the murder.

Salieri began his musical studies at home in Legnago, taught by his older brother Francesco, and by the organist of the Legnago Cathedral, Giuseppe Simoni. When he was about 13, both his parents died. He was looked after by another brother, a monk in Padua, before for unknown reasons becoming the ward of a Venetian nobleman, Giovanni Mocenigo.

While living in Venice, Salieri’s continuing musical studies brought him to the attention of the composer Florian Leopold Gassmann, who was so impressed with his protégé's talents that he took him to Vienna, where he personally directed and paid for the remainder of Salieri's musical education.

There, influenced by Gassman and Christoph Gluck, he was introduced to the emperor, Joseph II, who invited him to join in chamber music sessions. His appointment in 1774 as court composer and conductor of the Italian opera made him one of the most influential musicians in Europe.

He became a pivotal figure in the development of late 18th-century opera, helping to establish many of the features of the genre. He dominated Italian-language opera in Vienna and his works were performed across Europe. In all he wrote 37 operas, enjoying great success with many from Armida in 1771 to Cesare in Farmacusa in 1800.

Although he wrote no new operas after 1804, he remained a much sought-after teacher. Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven, and Mozart’s son, Franz Xaver Mozart, were among his pupils.

By the time of his death in 1825, his music was already disappearing from the repertoire but has enjoyed a revival in the last decade or so.

In 2004, the renovated La Scala in Milan reopened its doors with L'Europa riconosciutaEurope revealed - the work Salieri had written for its first performance in 1778.

The soprano Cecilia Bartoli recorded an album devoted to his arias, while recordings have been made of Salieri overtures and some complete operas.

The Teatro Salieri in Legnago
The Teatro Salieri in Legnago
Travel tip:

Legnago is a town in the Veneto about halfway between Verona and Ferrara, straddling the Adige river. It was formerly a centre for textile production although most of the factories have now closed. Legnago has had an important military role since the early Middle Ages. In the 19th century it was one of the Quadrilatero fortresses, the main strongpoint of the Austrian Lombardy-Venetia puppet state during the Italian Wars of Independence.  Legnago's theatre, constructed in the early 20th century, is called Teatro Salieri.

The Palazzi Mocenigo complex on the Grand Canal
The Palazzi Mocenigo complex on the Grand Canal
Travel tip:

The history of the Mocenigo family in Venice, who held influence from the 14th to the 19th centuries, is preserved in a complex of palaces on the Grand Canal roughly opposite the San Tomà vaporetto (water bus) stop, named the Palazzi Mocenigo.   The English poet Lord Byron stayed there in the early 19th century. Seven of the Mocenigo family were doges. Another Palazzo Mocenigo, in the San Stae area of Santa Croce, is a museum of textiles, costumes and perfume.

24 July 2017

Giuseppe Di Stefano – tenor

Singer from Sicily who made sweet music with Callas

Giuseppe Di Stefano was one of Italy's greatest tenors
Giuseppe Di Stefano was one of
Italy's greatest tenors
The opera singer Giuseppe Di Stefano, whose beautiful voice led people to refer to him as ‘the true successor to Beniamino Gigli’, was born on this day in 1921 in Motta Sant’Anastasia, a town near Catania in Sicily.

Di Stefano also became known for his many performances and recordings with the soprano, Maria Callas, with whom he had a brief romance.

The only son of a carabinieri officer, who later became a cobbler, and his dressmaker wife, Di Stefano was educated at a Jesuit seminary and for a short while contemplated becoming a priest.

But after serving in the Italian army he took singing lessons from the Swiss tenor, Hugues Cuenod. Di Stefano made his operatic debut in Reggio Emilia in 1946 when he was in his mid-20s, singing the role of Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon. The following year he made his debut at La Scala in Milan in the same role.

Di Stefano made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1948 as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. After his performance in Manon a month later, a journalist wrote in Musical America that Di Stefano had ‘the rich velvety sound we have seldom heard since the days of Gigli.’

Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano on stage in Tokyo, at around the time they had a brief affair
Maria Callas and Giuseppe Di Stefano on stage in Tokyo,
at around the time they had a brief affair
He made his Royal Opera House debut in 1961 as Cavaradossi in Tosca.

He was admired for his excellent diction, passionate delivery and the sweetness of his soft singing.

In his Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of Faust he attacked the high C forte and then softened the sound to a pianissimo. Sir Rudolf Bing, the Met's general manager wrote in his memoirs: ‘I shall never as long as I live forget the beauty of that sound.’

Di Stefano was chosen by EMI to record all the popular Italian operas with Maria Callas. Their 1953 studio recording of Tosca is considered one of the greatest performances in the history of the gramophone.

The two also performed well together on stage from 1951 onwards. He sang with Callas in the famous Visconti production of La Traviata in 1955 at La Scala and the last time they sang together in an opera was in Un ballo in maschera at La Scala in 1957.

In 1973 Di Stefano accompanied Callas on her final recital tour. Critics said they were both losing their voices but they were enthusiastically received everywhere. It was during this tour that the two had a brief romance.

Di Stefano also made recordings with a wealth of other opera stars.

Di Stefano's albums sold millions of copies
Di Stefano's albums sold millions of copies
His final operatic role was as the aged emperor in Turandot in July 1992.

In 2004 Di Stefano suffered a brutal beating by unknown assailants near his home in Diani Beach in Kenya after he was ambushed in his car with his wife, Monika Curth.

The singer was still unconscious a week after the attack and had several operations.

He was flown to Milan and admitted to the San Raffaele clinic where he slipped into a coma.

Eventually he came out of his coma but his health never fully improved and he died at his home in Santa Maria Hoè, between Bergamo and Como, in 2008 at the age of 86.

Luciano Pavarotti said he modelled himself on Di Stefano, who was his idol. He said Di Stefano had ‘the most incredible, open voice you could hear.’ Di Stefano is also said to be the tenor who most inspired José Carreras.

Travel tip:

Motta Sant'Anastasia, with a snow-covered Mount  Etna in the background
Motta Sant'Anastasia, with a snow-covered Mount
Etna in the background
Motta Sant’Anastasia, where Di Stefano was born, is a municipality nine kilometres (5.5 miles) west of Catania, built on a rocky outcrop not far from Mount Etna. It was inhabited by Greeks in the fifth century BC. Roman coins and a Roman mosaic have also been discovered there. The Tower of Motta was built in the 11th century as a defensive structure to protect the area from Saracen invasions.

Travel tip:

Di Stefano performed regularly on the stage of Teatro alla Scala in Milan from 1949 onwards. The theatre was officially inaugurated in 1778 after being built on the site of the former Church of Santa Maria alla Scala to the design of Giuseppe Piermarini. It is across the road from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an elegant arcade lined with shops, cafes and restaurants which links Piazza alla Scala with Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s cathedral square. La Scala’s museum displays costumes and memorabilia from the history of opera. The entrance is in Largo Ghiringhelli, just off Piazza alla Scala and it is open every day except Bank Holidays.