The great Italian mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato died May 5 in Rome, just a week short of attaining the age of 100. She had a long and distinguished career singing more than 50 roles in the great opera houses of the world. She sang the great Verdi mezzo roles, but she was most comfortable perhaps in the bel canto operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.
She was a diminutive woman, but she was a capable actress as well. The term "singing actress" usually makes opera singers cringe, since it connotes more acting skill than vocal distinction, but in Simionato's case it was simply a statement of fact. She was a fine actress, but she also possessed a powerful mezzo voice with a particularly warm and vibrant lower register. She was admired by colleagues on the stage and by the great conductors of her day, including Tulio Serafin, Arturo Toscanini, and Herbert von Karajan, to name just a few.
In Simionato's day and before, the opera stage, particularly the Italian repertoire, was dominated by Italian singers. The roster of singers of that time included such names as Del Monaco, Stignani, Bergonzi, Siepi, Caniglia, and so many more. Today's opera world is more international, but at the same time the wellspring of distinguished Italian singers is much diminished. Simionato, who grew up in poverty, began singing to make a living. She was disciplined and hard-working, because she had no other choice. Fortunately she was also blessed with the makings of a superb singing voice. Together with excellent technique and her fine acting skills, she made a great career for herself on the stage.
Today, young Italians do not see the opera stage as a way out of poverty. Fewer young Italians attend church regularly, hence fewer learn to sing in church. Maybe the way out for poor young Italians is football or, for the lucky few, higher education. With Tebaldi, Corelli, and the others of her generation gone, Simionato's death spells the end of an era of full-voiced, full-blooded Italian singing.
Ann Shaffer will feature a tribute to Ms. Simionato on her show, A Time For Singing, 7 P.M., Tuesday, May 11, 2010, on WTJU, 91.1 F.M.
Giuletta Simionato sings Una voce poco fa from Rossini's "Il barbiere di Siviglia"