She was 99 and would have been 100 next week, so it’s hardly unexpected, but the Italian opera singer Giulietta Simionato died yesterday. I have always had a sentimental fondness for her, even though I never saw her live, because she was in the first classical recording I ever bought, the 1959 Karajan recording of Verdi’s Aïda. But apart from sentimental considerations, she was a great singer with a very distinctive mezzo-soprano voice — lighter and brighter than a contralto, but darker and more mature-sounding than most of the mezzos of today. She was particularly good at anything involving anger, confrontation, or madness, because she was great at making it sound like she was snarling or yelling while never actually ceasing to sing the notes. She was also, according to people who saw her live, a fine actress in the traditional Italian style, not trying to re-write the plot or run around the stage or anything, but conveying total conviction in her movements and gestures. Her passing removes another of the last links to a time when there was a true “Italian style” of singing; there are still good Italian singers, but the Italian opera tradition is largely propped up by the Italian government at this point; there was a time when operatic singing was to Italy as jazz to New Orleans, not only a point of pride but almost a universal language.
Here she is near the end of her career (but still good) in her big Aïda with Canadian tenor Jon Vickers.
And here she is in 1959, on tour in Japan, performing Carmen in Italian. Again, it used to be part of national operatic traditions to sing almost everything in Italian, unlike the U.S. and Canada where most things were performed in the original language: French opera houses performed in French, Italian opera houses in Italian.That’s another tradition that has evaporated, and while it’s good in some ways (no opera really sounds as good in the “wrong” language), it’s worse in other ways, since it re-enforces the idea that singers don’t have to communicate directly with the audience in their own language.
And here’s an audio recording of the weirdest crossover recording ever made, Simionato and the baritone Ettore Bastianini singing “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” while wisecracking about their terrible English (“What language do our American and English listeners think we’re singing in?” “Maybe Chinese!”)