Notes and Editorial Reviews
GIULIETTA SIMIONATO: PORTRAIT OF A LEGEND
GIulietta Simionato (mez); various accompaniments
PREISER 93483, mono (72:05)
Arias and songs by:
THOMAS, ROSSINI, BIZET, SAINT-SÄENS, MASSENET, MASCAGNI, VERDI, BELLINI, DONIZETTI, PAER, GORDIGIANI, BERLIN
Although this album draws upon operatic singles and sets recorded from 1949 to 1960, mezzo Giulietta Simionato (1910-2010) began her professional career as early as 1932, with Maddalena in
and Lola in
, staged in Montagnana. Her career lost steam in small parts until 1940, when she made a breakthrough as Cherubino in Trieste. Two complete recordings followed: a magnificent Lola in
marred by perfunctory conducting by Mascagni himself, and an excellent Contessa di Coigny in one of the best
versions ever put to disc, featuring Gigli, Caniglia, and an especially impressive Bechi. But World War II was already underway, and it wasn’t until after its conclusion that Simionato became an international opera star.
Thus she was already nearly 40 before the majority of her records were made. Many mezzos start showing imperfections of technique by that time: The registers separate with some color differences, the top shortens, the chest becomes dryer, the passaggio collapses like a badly repaired bridge between two foreign lands. None of this applies to Simionato, however. Her voice remained perfectly even, with a darkness that arose from the chest, and an extended top that allowed her to sing the Rossini heroines and Carmen, as well as the expected Azucena and Ulrica. It also remained strong, with a good deal of power in reserve that never strained her tone when used. And though appoggiaturas were out of fashion during her day, she possessed agility, and was trained to phrase in the bel canto tradition.
Some critics take Simionato to task for severely aspirating the coloratura in her Rossini recordings. But consider Simionato’s “Una voce poco fa” and “Non piu mesta,” the former a studio recording from 1950, the latter from 1949, both on this album. The figurations and runs are fluent in both, with a rare sense of ease. She does aspirate occasionally, but not often; her worst fault in the former aria is repeatedly smearing the sixteenth note figure on “toccano” in the line, “Ma se mi toccano dov’e’.” Certainly many sopranos and mezzos today can do far more intimidating arias just as well if not better from a fireworks perspective, but early 19th-century Italian opera wasn’t as popular in Simionato’s day, and she was among the best of her time.
Another criticism I’ve heard is that she didn’t follow the dynamic markings of composers in their scores. And the “Connais-tu le pays” from
, heard on a 1949 Columbia recording here as “Non conosci il bel suol,” lends this view credence. But then we have for comparison Simionato’s live performance in the role in Mexico City a year earlier. (It’s not on this disc, but that complete set has been reissued frequently over the years. In large part, it must be admitted, because Guglielmo is sung with ravishing tone by a young Giuseppe di Stefano. Its most recent incarnation is Bongiovanni 064.) One might expect more emoting on stage than in the studio, but in fact Simionato provides a more detailed performance. “Ove l’aura è più dolce” is taken far more softly, dreamily live, for example, following the score that is marked
. While both versions feature a pleasant diminuendo at the end of the first verse on “in sen,” it’s the live one, again, that supplies better, more natural phrasing to the line in both refrains that starts, “Potess’io tornare.” This is in accord with the score’s slurs.
What we’ve briefly looked at it here holds true elsewhere. For whatever reason, Simionato’s studio recordings don’t always do her justice. She tended to fall back on her excellent training and voice in many commercial releases, sometimes missing interpretative details that are present in her surviving stage performances. Regardless, there’s much to enjoy on this album. The 1955 “O mio Fernando” displays refined phrasing, excellent enunciation, and a firm, aristocratic tone. It’s from a complete recording, and demonstrates why even at this point in her career, Simionato was in such demand. “O don fatale” from 1954 doesn’t grab you by the throat immediately, but Eboli’s character—commanding, loving, despairing—is never in doubt. A Habanera from 1951 brings another kind of pleasure: an almost grimly harsh reading without any velvet at all. It is a Carmen who mesmerizes not by sultriness, but thanks to the hypnotic gaze of a predator.
The transfers are curious: usually clean, but revealing in various ways that they haven’t been edited in the digital era. Frequency equalization is haphazard, and there are a couple of tick edits in one of the two included songs,
Il bacio del pastore
, that are clumsily done out of phase—which simply wouldn’t happen unless you were doing it the way I was taught, with a razor blade on a tape block. There is also a slightly off-center swing and recurring scratch at 33 rpm in “Di tanti palpiti.” The latter at least could have been removed very handily with a variety of commonly used audio software. Why didn’t Preiser have this done? The company that produced hundreds of carefully remastered archival LPs and CDs in its Lebendige Vergangenheit and Court Opera series seems to have abandoned its pedestal.
That aside, and with reservations noted, recommended. As a sampler of Simionato’s art, this disc will do very nicely, though I urge listeners not adverse to the defects of improvised taping more than half a century ago to seek out her live performances. They’re not to be missed.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal