Showing posts with label Puccini. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Puccini. Show all posts

18 January 2019

Katia Ricciarelli - operatic soprano

Star whose peak years were in ‘70s and ‘80s

Katia Ricciarelli was at her peak
for about two decades
The opera singer Katia Ricciarelli, who at her peak was seen as soprano who combined a voice of sweet timbre with engaging stage presence, was born on this day in 1946 at Rovigo in the Veneto.

She rose to fame quickly after making her professional debut as Mimi in Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème in Mantua in 1969 and in the 1970s was in demand for the major soprano roles.

Between 1972 and 1975, Ricciarelli sang at all the major European and American opera houses, including Lyric Opera of Chicago (1972), Teatro alla Scala in Milan (1973), the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (1974) and the Metropolitan Opera (1975).

In 1981, she began an association with the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro that she maintained throughout the ‘80s.

In addition to her opera performances, Ricciarelli also appeared in a number of films.

Ricciarelli performed at most of Europe and America's major opera houses
Ricciarelli performed at most of Europe and
America's major opera houses
She was Desdemona in Franco Zeffirelli's film version of Giuseppe Verdi's Otello in 1986, alongside Plácido Domingo. In 2005 she won the best actress prize Nastro d'Argento, awarded by the Italian film journalists, for her role in Pupi Avati's La seconda notte di nozze (2005).

During her peak years, Desdemona was one of her signature roles, while she was also lauded for her Giulietta in Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi and for her interpretations of Gaetano Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.

Ricciarelli’s most well received Rossini roles were Bianca in Bianca e Falliero, Elena in La donna del lago and and Amenaide in Tancredi.

As her career progressed, however, critics felt her voice became weaker and without some of its former lustre, which some have attributed to her being pushed into heavy, highly dramatic roles, such as Puccini’s Tosca or Verdi’s Aida, which were not suited to her voice.

Ricciarelli often performed alongside José
Carreras, with whom she enjoyed a romance
Some opera audiences are notoriously unforgiving. Her Aida at the Royal Opera House in 1983 was greeted with whistles, while in 1986 in Trieste her debut as Bellini’s Norma provoked a similar reaction.

Her career as a singer at the top level ended in the early 1990s. She made her last appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1990 alongside Domingo in Otello.

Born Catiuscia Mariastella Ricciarelli to a poor family in Rovigo, she was brought up by her mother after her father died while she was very young.

She loved singing as a child and, once she was old enough to work, began to save money so that she could enrol at the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory of Venice, where she had the opportunity to study with the soprano Iris Adami Corradetti.

Essentially a lyric soprano, following her operatic debut in 1969 she won the Voci Verdiane competition, organised by Italy’s national broadcaster Rai, and established herself as a superb Verdi singer, hailed as the “new Tebaldi” after Renata Tebaldi, a soprano popular in the postwar years who, coincidentally, had made her stage debut in Rovigo in 1944, two years before Ricciarelli was born.

Katia Ricciarelli has appeared regularly on Italian TV since she ended her career in opera
Katia Ricciarelli has appeared regularly on Italian TV
since she ended her career in opera
Although her operatic prowess began to wane, Ricciarelli’s career did not. She took up the position of artistic director of the Teatro Politeama di Lecce in 1998 and in the first decade of the new century turned increasingly to acting and appeared in television dramas such as Don Matteo alongside Terence Hill.

In 2005, after being nominated artistic director of the Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata, she began her professional relationship with the director Pupi Avati, who would later cast her in his film The Friends of the Margherita Bar (2009).

The following years brought a brief flirtation with politics as a centre-left candidate for the municipal council elections in Rodi Garganico, a beach resort near Foggia where she spent many summer holidays, more television work, an autobiography published in 2008 and a performance at La Fenice in Venice to mark her 40 years in music, in which she performed duets with pop singers Massimo Ranieri and Michael Bolton, among others.

A regular guest on variety and talk shows on Italian television, in 2006 she participated in the reality show La fattoria (Italian version of The Farm) on Canale 5.

Ricciarelli was married for 18 years to the TV presenter Pippo Baudo, the couple divorcing in 2004. She had previously had a relationship with her fellow opera star José Carreras that spanned 13 years.

Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is Rovigo's main square
Travel tip:

Rovigo is a town of around 52,000 people in the Veneto, which stands on the plain between the Po and the Adige rivers, about 80km (50 miles) southwest of Venice and 40km (25 miles) northeast of Ferrara, on the Adigetto Canal.  The architecture of the town has both Venetian and Ferrarese influences. The main sights include a Duomo dedicated to the  Martyr Pope Steven I, originally built before the 11th century, but rebuilt in 1461 and again in 1696, and the Madonna del Soccorso, a church best known as La Rotonda, built between 1594 and 1606 by Francesco Zamberlan of Bassano, a pupil of Palladio, to an octagonal plan, and with a  campanile, standing at 57m (187ft), that was built according to plans by Baldassarre Longhena (1655–1673). The walls of the interior of the church are covered by 17th centuries paintings by prominent provincial and Venetian artists, including Francesco Maffei, Domenico Stella, Pietro Liberi, Antonio Zanchi and Andrea Celesti. There are the ruins of a 10th century castle, of which two towers remain.

The beach at Roci Garganico is famed for  its soft sand and shallow waters
The beach at Roci Garganico is famed for
its soft sand and shallow waters
Travel tip:

Rodi Garganico is a seaside resort in the Apulia region, a 100km (62 miles) drive northeast from Foggia on a promontory east of the Lago di Varano lagoon. It part of the Gargano National Park.  It has for centuries been a major centre for the production of citrus fruits such us Arance del Gargano (Gargano Oranges) and the Limone Femminiello del Gargano (Gargano Lemons), both with DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) status under European Union regulations.  As well as its many kilometres of sandy beaches, Rodi Garganico attracts visitors for the local cuisine, which features orange salad, salad with wild onions, many fish dishes and a good variety of local wines.

More reading:

Alessandro Safina - the pop-opera star who made his stage debut alongside Katia Ricciarelli

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


18 September 2018

Alberto Franchetti - opera composer

Caruso sang his arias on first commercial record in 1902

Alberto Franchetti enjoyed his peak years in terms of popular success around the turn of the century
Alberto Franchetti enjoyed his peak years in terms
of popular success around the turn of the century
The opera composer Alberto Franchetti, some of whose works were performed by the great tenor Enrico Caruso for his first commercial recording, was born on this day in 1860 in Turin.

Caruso had been taken with Franchetti’s opera, Germania, when he sang the male lead role in the opera’s premiere at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in March 1902.

A month later, Caruso famously made his first recording on a phonograph in a Milan hotel room and chose a number of arias from Germania and critics noted that he sang the aria Ah vieni qui… No, non chiuder gli occhi with a particular sweetness of voice.

A friend and rival of Giacomo Puccini, Franchetti had a style said to have been influenced by the German composers Wagner and Meyerbeer. He was sometimes described as the "Meyerbeer of modern Italy."

Despite the exposure the success of Germania and the association with Caruso brought him, Franchetti’s operas slipped quite quickly into obscurity.

Blame for that can be levelled at least in part at the Fascist Racial Laws of 1938, which made life and work very difficult for Italy's Jewish population.

Franchetti (left), pictured with his friends and fellow composers Pietro Mascagni and Giacomo Puccini
Franchetti (left), pictured with his friends and fellow
composers Pietro Mascagni and Giacomo Puccini
Franchetti's works were banned from performance during Fascist rule. His fellow composer Pietro Mascagni made a personal plea for tolerance on his behalf directly to Benito Mussolini, but it fell on deaf ears.

Franchetti was the son of Baron Raimondo Franchetti, a Jewish nobleman. He studied in Venice, then at the Munich Conservatory under Josef Rheinberger, and finally in Dresden under Felix Draeseke.

His first major success occurred in 1888 with his opera Asrael, followed in 1892 by Cristoforo Colombo, which many consider to be Franchetti's best work. It did not, however, match the popularity of Germania, the libretto for which was written by Luigi Illica, which went on to be performed worldwide.

Illica is said to have offered his libretto of Tosca to Franchetti. It is not clear why it was taken up instead by Puccini. Some opera historians believe Franchetti was working on the opera but that Puccini asked the publishing house Ricordi to let him have it and that Franchetti was persuaded that the violence in the story made it unsuitable for an opera.

Another version - thought to have the Franchetti family’s seal of authenticity - is that Franchetti waived his rights to the opera because he felt that Puccini would make a better job of it.

Franchetti’s family home in Florence was the substantial Villa Franchetti, in Via Dante Da Castiglione, a short distance from the Giardino di Boboli (Boboli Gardens), where he would host lavish banquets for his friends from the artistic world. Puccini, Mascagni and the actress Eleonora Duse were regular guests.

During his life, substantial changes were made to the property, with the addition of an annex that served as a concert and dance hall, as well as stables in the grounds.  He decorated and furnished the house with the advice of his brother, Giorgio, a wealthy art collector who at the time owned the Ca d’Oro, the sumptuous palace on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Franchetti, who was director of the Florence College of Music from 1926 to 1928, died in Viareggio in 1942 at the age of 81. His music has been revived recently with new recordings of Cristoforo Colombo and Germania by the Berlin Opera.

He was married twice and had five children, one of whom, his son Arnold Franchetti, was a member of the Italian Resistance in the Second World War before emigrating to the United States and becoming a composer as well as a professor at the University of Hartford, Connecticut.

The Villa Franchetti-Nardi as it looks today
The Villa Franchetti-Nardi as it looks today
Travel tip:

After Franchetti’s death, the Villa Franchetti had a chequered history. It was seized by the Germans, who established it as a command post, during the Second World War, by which time the family’s financial fortunes had suffered badly. After the war it was rented for a few years before being largely abandoned in 1960 and falling into a state of disrepair.  The villa, which has had the status of "Historical Residence of Italy" since 1991, was rescued from its near-dereliction by its current owner Gustavo Nardi. Now known as the Villa Franchetti-Nardi, it opened its doors as a hotel in 2009.

The beautiful facade of the Ca d'Oro on Venice's Grand Canal
The beautiful facade of the Ca d'Oro on Venice's Grand Canal
Travel tip:

The Palazzo Santa Sofia, one of the older palace on the Grand Canal in Venice, is known as Ca' d'Oro - golden house - due to the gilt and polychrome external decorations which once adorned its walls. Built between 1428 and 1430 for the Contarini family, since 1927 it has been used as a museum, the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti, named after Alberto’s brother, who acquired the palace in 1894 and personally oversaw its extensive restoration, including the reconstruction of the Gothic stairway in the inner courtyard that had been controversially removed by a previous owner. In 1916, Franchetti bequeathed the Ca' d'Oro to the Italian State.

More reading:

Enrico Caruso - 'the greatest tenor of all time'

How one great opera made Pietro Mascagni immortal

The brilliant talent of Eleonora Duse

Also on this day:

1587: The birth of singer and composer Francesca Caccini

1916: The birth of actor Rossano Brazzi


8 September 2018

Magda Olivero - soprano

Singer who performed into her 80s and lived to 104

Magda Olivero made her debut in an opera broadcast for radio in 1932
Magda Olivero made her debut in an opera
broadcast for radio in 1932
The opera singer Magda Olivero, who became known as the last verismo soprano, died on this day in 2014. She was almost halfway through her 105th year, having been born in 1910.

Olivero became associated with the works among others of Francesco Cilea, Pietro Mascagni, Umberto Giordano and Franco Alfano, all of whom she actually worked with in person, her longevity providing a 21st century link with the world of 19th century Italian opera. She missed the chance to know and work with Giacomo Puccini only narrowly, the composer passing away at the age of 66 when Olivero was 14.

Born in Saluzzo in Piedmont, Olivero made her operatic debut eight years after Puccini’s death in a radio production in Turin in 1932. She gave her last stage performance 49 years later in 1981, although even that was not the end of her career. Her last recording of her signature role - Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur - did not come until 1994, when she was still able to control her pitch and tone at the age of 83.

Born as Maria Maddalena Olivero to a well-to-do family who gave her a good education, she built on her radio debut - singing Nino Cattozzo's oratorio, I misteri dolorosi - to establish a successful career, performing alongside pre-War stars such as Ebe Stignani, Beniamino Gigli and Francesco Merli.

Olivero with Mario del Monaco appearing in Giordano's Fedora in Naples in 1965
Olivero with Mario del Monaco appearing in
Giordano's Fedora in Naples in 1965
In addition to Adriana, her most famous roles included Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, Mascagni's Iris, Riccardo Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini, and Giordano's Fedora. She sang Jules Massenet's Manon at Verona with Giuseppe di Stefano as Des Grieux, and Margherita in Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele to the Faust of Ferruccio Tagliavini.

The conductor Tullio Serafin helped her with her technique, although he was less helpful, she later claimed, after she refused his amorous advances. She said that her relationship with the tenor, Tito Schipa, also became strained after he became similarly enamoured with her.

In fact, in 1940 she decided to retire from the stage at the age of only 30 after she married Aldo Busch, an industrialist, hoping they would raise a large family. One of her last performances was of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur in Ravenna and it was Cilea, almost a decade later, who would persuade her to make a comeback, telling her that she was the only singer who could do justice to the character.  She performed the role again in Brescia in 1951, shortly before the composer died.

That work was to become her calling card, and she sang it many times, as well as featuring often in leading roles in Puccini’s La Bohème, Madame Butterfly and Manon Lescaut, and in Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata.

Magda Olivero at the age of 95 in 2005
Magda Olivero at the age of 95 in 2005
She made her London debut at the Stoll Theatre, in 1952 and in 1963 she substituted for Renata Tebaldi at the Edinburgh Festival in Adriana Lecouvreur, its first performance in Britain for 60 years.

Her first appearance in the United States came in Dallas in 1967, followed by Kansas and San Francisco. By now her fame as an interpreter of the verismo genre, in which the characters are ordinary people and the singers are adept at bringing dramatic expression to the roles, was established and her New York debut as Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera in 1975 was a much-hyped sensation, even though by then she was 65.

According to the New York Times report, when she made her first entrance, the audience began screaming and cheering, forcing the conductor Jan Behr to stop the music; arias were interrupted by bursts of spontaneous applause and at the end she was given a 20-minute ovation, one of the longest in the theatre's history. She reprised her Tosca for the Met in 1979, opposite Luciano Pavarotti. 

For all her success, though, she never really escaped the shadow of Maria Callas or Renata Tebaldi, who were always seen as more marketable and therefore enjoyed more recording contracts than Olivero, whose only complete opera recordings are Turandot and Fedora (1969), in which she was partnered by Mario del Monaco and Tito Gobbi.

After her second retirement, she settled in Milan, telling visitors to her home that the secret of her long life was yoga and a vegetarian diet. She lived for 31 years following the death of her husband in 1983, her wish for a family having never come to pass.

The early 15th century Cathedral of the Assumption in Piazza Risorgimento in Saluzzo
The early 15th century Cathedral of the Assumption in
Piazza Risorgimento in Saluzzo
Travel tip:

Saluzzo, where Olivero was born, is a hill town about 33km (20 miles) north of Cuneo and 61km (38 miles) south of Turin, in Piedmont. Most of its 15th century old town is intact, with numerous cobbled streets, steep staircases, churches and elegant palaces to explore. In the Piazza Risorgimento is Cathedral of the Assumption, built between 1491 and 1511 in the Lombard-Gothic style. Another attraction is the Castiglia, a castle built at the summit of the town in the 13th century by the Marquis Tommaso I and renovated in 1492 by Ludovico II of Saluzzo, at the time when the town was a powerful city-state.

The Teatro degli Arcimboldi, which was built in a converted Pirelli tyre factory in Milan
The Teatro degli Arcimboldi, which was built in a
converted Pirelli tyre factory in Milan
Travel tip:

Milan’s best-known theatre is the opera house and ballet theatre Teatro alla Scala, inaugurated in 1778, but it is not the only theatre. Other respected venues are Teatro Sala Fontana, set within the beautiful cloisters of the church of Santa Maria alla Fontana in the northern part of the city, the Teatro Manzoni in Via Alessandro Manzoni, not far from Porta Nuova, and the ultra-modern Teatro degli Arcimboldi, which was built in 2001 in anticipation of the closure and renovation of La Scala opera house, in a converted Pirelli tyre factory about 7km (4.5 miles) from the city centre, in an area known as Bicocca.

More reading:

The beautiful work of Francesco Cilea

Giacomo Puccini - the musical genius who took the baton from Verdi

Pietro Mascagni and a career built on one great opera

Also on this day:

1474: The birth of poet Ludovico Ariosto

1504: The unveiling of Michelangelo's David in Florence


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


4 January 2018

Gaetano Merola – conductor and impresario

Neapolitan who founded the San Francisco Opera

Gaetano Merola ran the San Francisco Opera Company for 30 years
Gaetano Merola ran the San Francisco Opera
Company for 30 years
Gaetano Merola, a musician from Naples who emigrated to the United States and ultimately founded the San Francisco Opera, was born on this day in 1881.

Merola directed the company and conducted many performances for 30 years from its opening night in September 1923 until his death in August 1953.

He literally died doing what he loved, collapsing in the orchestra pit while conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra during a concert at an outdoor amphitheatre in the city.

The son of a violinist at the Royal Court in Naples, Merola studied piano and conducting at the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella in Naples, graduating with honours at the age of 16.

Three years later he was invited to New York to work as assistant to Luigi Mancinelli, another Italian emigrant, born in Orvieto, who was a noted composer and cellist who was lead conductor of the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Demand for his services grew and he made regular guest appearances with companies across America and beyond, including a stint at Oscar Hammerstein’s London Opera House on the site of what is now the Peacock Theatre in Holborn.

Merola in action with the baton
He became a regular visitor to San Francisco with Fortune Gallo’s San Carlo Opera Company – named after the Naples opera house – and it was after becoming acquainted with many opera enthusiasts there that he identified the city as potentially one to rival New York as a centre that could attract the world’s top stars.

Merola noted how much the city was prepared to pay to have such illustrious companies as the Chicago Opera and the Scotti Company as well as the San Carlo to perform there and determined that he would be the man to give San Francisco its own company and make it as prestigious as any across the country.

Invited to make his home there by a philanthropic patron of the arts who set Merola and his wife up in an apartment, he immersed himself in the city’s large Italian community, where there was much enthusiasm about his ambition to bring the world's finest opera stars to the city.

When, in 1922, he hit upon the idea of a two-week season of open air concerts at Stanford Stadium, where he had noted during a football game how much the half-time marching band benefitted from the venue’s acoustics, they were all for it and there was no shortage of businessmen and wealthy professionals from the community willing to offer financial support, investing between $500 and $1,000 each in the venture.

Beniamino Gigli was one of the big names Merola was able to attract to perform in San Francisco
Beniamino Gigli was one of the big names Merola
was able to attract to perform in San Francisco
Merola signed up many stars of the day, including the Italian tenor Giovanni Martinelli, the American soprano Bianca Soraya and the Spanish baritone Vincente Ballester. The audiences were large and enthusiastic, rising from around 6,000 for the opening performance of I Pagliacci to 10,000 for Faust on the closing night.

Yet it made no money.  Indeed, once the costs were reckoned up, Merola had to tell his backers they were liable to a $19,000 shortfall.  He feared his dream was over until Giulio Stradi, a produce retailer who was one of the bigger investors, spoke up for the rest of the group by putting an arm round Merola’s shoulder and telling him the experience had been worth every penny.

They paid his dues in full and encouraged him to pursue another funding scheme, this time not relying on the largesse of a small number of wealthy patrons but by finding 750 individuals willing to pay $100 each, which included a $50 season ticket.

In the event, Merola attracted more than 2,400 investors and comfortably hit his funding target. His San Francisco Opera Company was born and made its debut at the city’s Civic Auditorium with Martinelli and soprano Queena Mario starring in Puccini’s La bohème.

The War Memorial Opera House opened in 1932
The War Memorial Opera House opened in 1932
More productions followed, with headline stars including Beniamino Gigli and Giuseppe de Luca, and by the end of the 1923-24 season he was able to pay his investors a dividend.

The San Francisco Opera was now established and its continued success in spite of the financial Depression led in 1931 to the construction of a permanent home, the grand Palladian-style War Memorial Opera House, designed by the architect Arthur Brown Jr.  It opened in October 1932 with a performance of Puccini’s Tosca, with the Italian soprano Claudia Muzio in the title role.

Merola began to wind down in the 1940s, bringing in Arturo Toscanini’s assistant Kurt Herbert Adler to serve as conductor, choral director and his deputy.  Merola, meanwhile, continued to use his contacts to attract the biggest names to San Francisco, including Tito Gobbi, Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco.

After Merola’s death, which came as he conducted an excerpt from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Sigmund Stern Grove amphitheatre, Adler established in his honour the Merola Opera Program to provide training for young singers.

The San Francisco Opera still thrives to this day.  In 2002, when it celebrated its 80th anniversary, the guests included 98-year-old Louise Dana – the former Louise Stradi, daughter of Giulio, who had helped Merola with the organisation of his first season.

The Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella
The Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella
Travel tip:

The Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella – often known as the Naples Conservatory – can be found a short distance from Piazza Dante in the centre of Naples. Along with the adjacent church, it is part of the former San Pietro a Majella monastic complex, built at the end of the 13th century. The conservatory houses an impressive library of manuscripts giving an insight into the life and work of many great composers who spent time there, including Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Cimarosa, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. The museum has a display of rare antique musical instruments.

The Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is the oldest continuously  active opera venue in the world
The Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is the oldest continuously
 active opera venue in the world 
Travel tip:

The Teatro di San Carlo, the opera house of Naples, was opened in 1737 after the Bourbon king Charles III of Naples commissioned its construction as a replacement for the small and somewhat dilapidated Teatro San Bartolomeo, which was no longer big enough to satisfy demand in the city after the popular composer Alessandro Scarlatti had decided to base himself there and was establishing Naples as a major centre for opera.  Although it was partly destroyed by a fire in 1816, the theatre was rebuilt on the orders of Charles III’s son, King Ferdinand IV, and is regarded as the oldest continuously active public venue for opera in the world, predating Milan’s Teatro alla Scala and Venice’s Fenice by several decades.


27 December 2017

Tito Schipa – operatic tenor

Star on two continents whose voice divided opinions

The tenor Tito Schipa enjoyed success on two continents
The tenor Tito Schipa enjoyed success
on two continents
Tito Schipa, one of the most popular opera singers in the first half of the 20th century who sang to packed houses in the United States and South America as well as in Italy, was born on this day in 1888 in Lecce.

The tenor, whose repertoire included Verdi and Puccini roles in the early part of his career and later encompassed works by Donizetti, Cilea and Massanet, rose from modest beginnings to find fame with the Chicago and New York Metropolitan opera companies in America.

He also appeared regularly in Buenos Aires in Argentina and later in his career starred regularly at Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Rome Opera.

Some critics said his voice lacked power and had too narrow a range for him to be considered a genuinely great tenor, yet he overcome his perceived limitations to become extremely popular with the public wherever he performed.

Schipa was born Raffaele Attilio Amedeo Schipa in the Le Scalze district of Lecce, a fairly working class neighbourhood in the Puglian city.  His family were of Albanian heritage. His father was a customs officer.

His talent was first noted by a primary school teacher in Lecce and soon afterwards by a Catholic bishop, Gennaro Trama, a music enthusiast who had a reputation as something of a talent scout, and who encouraged him to join his local seminary.

Schipa often performed opposite the
soprano Amelita Galli-Curci
Eventually, feeling his opportunities in Lecce were limited, Schipa made the bold decision to move to Milan to work with Emilio Piccoli, an opera singer who had become a distinguished voice teacher.

With Piccoli’s help he was able to make his stage debut in Vercelli in Piedmont as Alfredo in a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata in 1909 at the age of 21.

He was by no means an overnight success, spending the next few seasons appearing at small opera houses around Italy. But in 1913 he had the opportunity to travel to South America. He had already displayed his linguistic versatility by singing in Spanish for audiences in Madrid and he was a hit with operagoers in both Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro.

On his return to Italy, a brilliant performance in Puccini’s Tosca on his debut at Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1914 earned rave reviews and suddenly Schipa was regarded as a major talent.

He developed a professional relationship with the soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, whose voice blended perfectly with his. It was alongside Galli-Curci that he made his US debut in Chicago in 1919, having been invited by the Scottish soprano Mary Garden and the impresario Cleofonte Campanini, who were managers of the Civic Opera.

His debut in Verdi’s Rigoletto began a 20-year association with the Chicago Opera Company, although from 1932, as the financial recession hit Chicago in particular, he was dividing his loyalties between the Illinois city and the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Schipa waves farewell from the steps of an American ship en route to New York
Schipa waves farewell from the steps of
an American ship en route to New York
Schipa’s career was boosted by the growing popularity of the gramophone. He made numerous audio recordings of arias and songs during his career from 1913 onwards. His 78-rpm set of Donizetti's Don Pasquale, made in 1932, is considered so good that it remains in circulation on CD.

Away from the theatre, Schipa led a colourful social life, although his associations with characters in the circle of the Mafia boss Al Capone often resulted in him losing money through dubious ‘investments’ presented to him.

He was married for the first time in 1920 to the French actress Antoinette Michel d'Ogoy, with whom he had two daughters, Elena and Liana.  During the Second World War he had a long affair with the Italian actress Caterina Boratto, although it was to another Italian starlet, Teresa Borgna, that he was married after Antoinette’s death in 1947. The marriage produced a son, Tito junior.

Schipa was a conductor as well as a singer and towards the end of his career, after he had retired from the operatic stage, was the director of a singing school in Budapest.  He had another singing school in New York, and was living in Manhattan at the time of his death, in 1965, at the age of 78, from diabetes.

Piazza Duomo in the Baroque city of Lecce
Piazza Duomo in the Baroque city of Lecce
Travel tip:

Lecce, Schipa’s birthplace, has such a rich cultural heritage it is sometimes called the Florence of the South. It is the main city on Puglia's Salento peninsula. It became a centre for the ornate architecture called Barocco Leccese. Its historic centre, compact and easy to explore, is filled with Baroque monuments. There are many restaurants, too, that offer fine food typical of Puglia.

The Piazza Cavour is at the heart of historic Vercelli
Travel tip:

Vercelli, where Schipa made his operatic debut, is a city of around 46,500 people situated about 80km (50 miles) northeast of Turin near the Sesia river.  It is one of the oldest urban settlements in northern Italy, founded in around 600BC and has numerous Roman relics and several noteworthy towers, including the Torre dell’Angelo that overlooks the market square, Piazza Cavour.  The Basilica di Sant’Andrea is one of the best preserved Romanesque monuments in Italy.

30 October 2017

Antonino Votto – conductor

Outstanding operatic conductor made recordings with Callas

Antonino Votto was regarded as one of the finest conductors of his era
Antonino Votto was regarded as one of the finest
conductors of his era
Operatic conductor Antonino Votto was born on this day in 1896 in Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna.

He became famous in the 1950s because he conducted the orchestra for the acclaimed recordings made by soprano Maria Callas for EMI.

Votto was also considered one of the leading operatic conductors of his time on account of his performances at La Scala in Milan, where he worked regularly for nearly 20 years.

After Votto had attended the Naples conservatory for his music studies he went to work at La Scala, where he became an assistant conductor to Arturo Toscanini.

He made his official debut there in 1923, leading a performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

Votto went on to build a reputation as one of the most outstanding conductors of Italian opera, appearing at many other operatic venues in Italy and abroad.

Votto taught at the Giuseppe Verdi conservatory in Milan
Votto taught at the Giuseppe Verdi
conservatory in Milan
In 1941 he began teaching at the Giuseppe Verdi conservatory in Milan as the war limited operatic activity in Italy and in most parts of Europe.

One of his students was the present day Italian orchestra conductor, Riccardo Muti.

Recordings of Votto conducting opera live in the theatre were a great success. He conducted Bellini’s Norma in 1955 with Callas at La Scala and La Sonnambula in 1957 with Callas in Cologne. These are both considered to be great performances.

Votto also made a series of highly successful studio recordings in the 1950s with Callas, based on productions that had been staged at La Scala. Their collaborations for EMI on Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera in 1956 and Bellini’s La Sonnambula in 1957 were enthusiastically received by both the critics and the public.

Votto made his debut at Covent Garden in 1924 with performances of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.

His American debut came in 1960 when he appeared at the Chicago Opera House conducting Verdi’s Aida and Don Carlo.

Votto continued conducting at La Scala until 1967 and died in Milan in 1985.

The bronze statue of Ranuccio II Farnese by Francesco Mochi is a feature of Piazza Cavalli in Piacenza
The bronze statue of Ranuccio II Farnese by Francesco
Mochi is a feature of Piazza Cavalli in Piacenza
Travel tip:

Piacenza, where Votto was born, is a city in the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy. The main square is named Piazza Cavalli because of its two bronze equestrian monuments featuring Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma and his son Ranuccio II Farnese, Duke of Parma, who succeeded him. The statues are masterpieces by the sculptor Francesco Mochi.

Teatro alla Scala is Italy's most prestigious opera house
Teatro alla Scala is Italy's most prestigious opera house
Travel tip:

Teatro alla Scala, where Votto conducted for 20 years, is in Piazza della Scala in the centre of Milan across the road from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an elegant arcade lined with cafes, shops and restaurants. It was built to link Piazza della Scala with Piazza del Duomo, Milan’s cathedral square. La Scala has a fascinating museum that displays costumes and memorabilia from the history of opera. The entrance is in Largo Ghiringhelli, just off Piazza della Scala. It is open every day except the Italian Bank Holidays and the days when it is closed in December. Opening hours are from 9.00 to 12.30 and 1.30 to 5.30 pm.

2 August 2017

Pietro Mascagni – composer

One opera was enough to build reputation of musician

Pietro Mascagni in 1890, the year his opera Cavalleria Rusticana, was first played
Pietro Mascagni in 1890, the year his opera
Cavalleria Rusticana, was first played
Pietro Mascagni, the creator of the opera Cavalleria rusticana, died on this day in 1945 in Rome, at the age of 81.

Cavalleria rusticana was an outstanding success when it was first performed in Rome in 1890 and was said to have single-handedly brought the Verismo movement, in which the characters were ordinary people rather than gods, mythological figures or kings and queens, into Italian opera.

The beautiful intermezzo from the opera was used in the sound track of the 1980 film Raging Bull and a production of the opera was used as the setting for the climax of the 1990 film The Godfather Part III, with Michael Corleone’s son Anthony playing Turridu, the opera’s male protagonist. The film ends with the intermezzo playing.

In 2001 Andrea Bocelli recorded a song entitled Mascagni on his Cieli di Toscana album and had an excerpt from Cavalleria rusticana incorporated into the music.

The opera has been so successful that it has led to Mascagni sometimes being dismissed as a one-opera composer, but, in fact, the composer wrote 15 operas, as well as orchestral and piano music and songs.

Two of Mascagni’s other operas, L’amico Fritz and Iris, have remained in the European repertoire and have been regularly performed since their premières.

Mascagni, pictured in 1905
Mascagni was born in Livorno in Tuscany in 1863. He began studying music at the age of 13 and soon produced compositions of his own.

In 1881 he won first prize for a Cantata which was performed at a musical contest in Milan.

The following year, Mascagni passed the admission examination for the Milan Conservatory, where he first met the composer, Giacomo Puccini.

In 1885 Mascagni composed Il Re a Napoli in Cremona, a romance for a tenor and orchestra. Then he left Milan without completing his studies and began touring as an orchestra conductor for opera companies and he also gave piano lessons.

In 1889, a competition was announced for a one-act opera. The following year, Mascagni completed the composition of Cavalleria rusticana and sent the manuscript to Milan.

Cavalleria rusticana won the contest and Mascagni was summoned to Rome to present his opera.  The première was held at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. It was an outstanding success and was then performed all over Italy. It was also performed in Hungary, Germany, Russia and Argentina and Mascagni became famous internationally.

Listen to Mascagni's most famous piece

Mascagni, who was married in 1889 to Lina Carbognani, with whom he went on to have three children, continued to write music and produce operas and went all over the world conducting orchestras.

Mascagni, centre, at a meeting in 1885 with his fellow  musicians Alberto Franchetti (left) and Giacomo Puccini
Mascagni, centre, at a meeting in 1885 with his fellow
musicians Alberto Franchetti (left) and Giacomo Puccini
By 1915 he was writing music to accompany silent films. In 1930 he conducted La Bohème in Torre del Lago as an homage to Puccini who had died in 1924.

In 1940, celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Cavalleria rusticana took place all over Italy, often with Mascagni conducting the orchestra.

His last opera season was in Rome featuring Cavalleria rusticana and L’amico Fritz, by which time he was so frail he had to conduct sitting on a chair.

Mascagni died on August 2, 1945 in his apartment at The Grand Hotel Plaza in Rome, which had by then been commandeered by the Allies but where he was allowed to remain.

His last years were marred by bitterness at his treatment by the post-Fascist Italian government, who punished him for his support for Mussolini and snubbed his funeral ceremony at Rome’s Cimitero Monumentale on August 4.

However, in 1951 Mascagni’s remains were transferred from Rome to his birthplace, Livorno, and reburied with honours.

The Terrazza Mascagni promenade in Livorno
The Terrazza Mascagni promenade in Livorno
Travel tip:

Livorno, where Mascagni was born, is the second largest city in Tuscany after Florence. Although it is a large commercial port, it has many attractions, including an elegant sea front, the Terrazza Mascagni, and an historic centre with canals.

Inside the sumptuous Grand Hotel Plaza in Rome
Inside the sumptuous Grand Hotel Plaza in Rome
Travel tip:

The Grand Hotel Plaza in Rome, where Mascagni lived in an apartment from 1927 until his death in 1945, is in Via del Corso in the heart of the city. It has beautiful views of Rome from its rooftop terraces. The hotel was remodelled in the 1920s, inspired by the Art Nouveau style in fashion at the time. It has been used as a film location on many occasions.

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