Cher Public

Next to Norma

cerquettiJanuary 2, 1958 marked one of the darkest days in the career of Maria Callas.   After announcing to the management that she was ill, she was told there was no cover available for the title role of Norma for the opening night of Teatro dell’Opera, Roma in the presence of the president of Italy.  The now-legendary performance was cancelled after Act I.  Two days later, the season resumed with 26-year-old Anita Cerquetti who began commuting from Napoli where she was singing the druid priestess at Teatro di San Carlo.  In Roma she joined up with Franco Corelli and Miriam Pirazzini. 

Cerquetti had one of the most remarkable, most brief careers in opera in the past century: she sang for a exactly one decade in dramatica d’agilita roles such as Norma, Aida, Abagaile in Nabucco (the role of her La Scala debut), Elena in I vespri siciliani, Elvira in Ernani, Elcia in Mosè in Egitto, and Matilde in Guglielmo Tell.

Despite a handful of broadcasts available since the LP era, she made only two studio recordings: the title role in La Gioconda and a recital album, both for Decca.  “O Re dei Cieli” from the Italian version of Gaspare Spontini’s Agnes von Hohenstaufen on the recital disc is often regarded as one of the greatest recordings ever made.  (There is a rumor that she began a recording of Norma which remains in fragments in Decca’s vaults.)

Cerquettti’s career was largely overshadowed by that of Callas; she often replaced her in the second cast of productions which the diva assoluta inaugurated.  The reason for her early retirement was never clearly established: it has been attributed to her own physical health, the health of her mother, her marriage to baritone Edo Ferretti, and even to her mental health (one source reported that she spit on the steps of the church whenever she passed by).

Her career was centered in Italy, with only a few appearances in Mexico City and with the Lyric Opera of Chicago including Amelia in Un ballo in maschera opposite Jussi Björling under Tullio Serafin in 1955.  Her final performance was in 1961 at the age of 30.

I met her once in the 1980s when she was a jury member of a Licia Albanese vocal competition at Alice Tully Hall along with Ebe Stignani and Irena Arkhipova.  She spoke no English, but happily autographed the back cover of her recital LP (the unfortunate photo on the cover is notorious for showing a large woman with slightly frazzled hair and lipstick on her teeth).

She died from cardiovascular disease at 83 in 2014.

Corelli was by this time a well-known Pollione; he first sang the role opposite Callas in 1953 and joined her regularly through the end of her stage career.  Pirazzini’s career is largely documented on recordings in secondary and comprimario roles, although she sang mezzo leads in Italy’s regional houses for 20 years; in this series of performances she replaced the ailing Ebe Stignani as Adalgisa.  No obituary for her can be found on the Internet (including Italian Wikipedia) so she apparently turned 98 last August.  This represents one of the last performances by Giulio Neri, who died at 48 from a heart attack three months after this series in the role of Oroveso.

  • Luvtennis

    Cerquetti -- her story is so sad. The Gioconda recording is problematic. The voice is not captured well and she seems to have been nervous or ill. (The rest of the cast is stellar!). She was a great but inconsistent singer -- often in the same performance.

    And now I am missing Cerquetti-Farrell and Camille. And Clita del Toro. Sigh…. Shrug….

    • Luvtennis, yes, Camille!!! And Clita, too.The other you dast name I never cottoned to. Twas scum as I recall. (But memory is selective as are human beings, and indeed who of us has NOT been scum — except I and Thou.)

      For Anita you must go to the live documents, many of which are stunning. The live Gioconda conducted by Tieri is really thrilling. She floats an enormous tone on the breath never losing a spun, rolling sound that just roars out like the ocean. Her lyric passages are ravishing, the dramatic moments have force but not the gripped, tense choked tone that everyone now thinks essential, like a wobble, I wonder why or rather, who?

      And then there are two thrilling Forza Leonoras, the one from RAI a bit fresher sounding than the somewhat wilder Mexico performance. She has genuine grandeur of line and a haunting tone infused with pathos, which the score seems to demand but few deliver to that degree (the younger Tebaldi, before Naples even, highlights recorded by Arangi-Lombardi, and by the immense and amazing Burzio, perhaps).

      There is quite an exciting Vespri (cut, alas.) She was somewhat less successful in Trovatore (there is an often good but not effortless live recording from Mexico with the greatest Carlo Bergonzi and the insane but lovable Jean Madeira).

      I saw her do it in Philly as I did her Norma. I was too young to trust my impressions, someone named James Jorden and his best friend, the moron shyster, now crippled with agony in age as I wished back then, the former Mr. Rita Shane (now there’s an achievement!) were vicious to me for remembering this on RMO in the old days.

      Of course, I had been IN Norma about twenty times (as the child the audience rooted for her to kill) and had been to many rehearsals. I was also studying and could manage a piano score with patience and did. But hell, what is knowledge? Just read Wayne Koestenbaum! Let us now quote morons as authorities for isn’t Trump our God?

      They let lose because I had seen someone called Callas the year before. I hadn’t liked her, nobody upstairs (where the Italians sat) did. Those were more vociferous than I. I was just surprised to find her hard to hear in the Academy of Music of all places — but Fedora Barbieri just screamed a mighty noise and that was that for the Greek. Well, vicious enemies Mrs. John Claggart has had always, and she has outlived the many.

      In the Norma, Cerquetti was glorious sounding, the audience kept gasping at the sheer magnificence of her tone. But she was MY size, so huge she couldn’t move. Why, when she and Nell Rankin came out to bow after “Mira o Norma”, Anita couldn’t bend. Nell, who was slim, pushed her way down front, knelt, crossed her arms and kissed the stage as though the enormous storm of applause were for her. The late Alan Willig, later an influential actors’ agent and a fine man, pushed his way to the edge of the Amphitheater (he always sat with the Iteys) and screamed “Get up, Slut!”

      All the Italians stood up and booed Nell who began to sob. “That’s no slut!” A woman screamed. “That’s a cunt!” That woman was my mother. She had a temper. (After Birgit stood on the prompter’s box and struck everyone deaf with “Ecco l’orrido campo” from Ballo, my mother screamed, “get bad news before the show, HON?”)

      One of the greatest VOCAL accounts of Amelia in Ballo, perhaps the greatest, is Anita’s live performance (matched with a different sensibility by one of the few truly astounding documents of the Greek, live at La Scala). There is also a Don Carlo where she is heartbreaking in the last act.

      There are several Normas, the one she was singing in Naples when she went on for the Greek is better than the others. There are also at least two Aidas, Mexico is fun.

      But one of her greatest recordings is Les Abencérages (performed as Gli Abenceragi o Lo stendardo di Granata) by Cherubini conducted by Giulini no less. And she is amazing in Oberon, conducted by Gui (both are in Italian and cut, the Oberon is a somewhat odd version, but she is incredible).

      Gifted fat people with great gifts are soon forgot, and morons wax. But all die. Cheers!

      • grimoaldo2

        Yes Camille, Camille, please come back, we miss you!!’
        Clita del Toro was fun, Cerquetti-Farrell was a working operatic bass in Israel, as I recall, a most interesting and knowledgeable poster, mad about Wagner although he had never had the opportunity of hearing Wagner live..
        I also miss mcroche, amazing knowledge of Chinese and other non-typical “Western”opera, and my chum oedipe, fellow Alagna fan who annoyed quite a few here but shared with me an interest in weird French opera.

        • guys, I’m sure Camille will be back. She’s probably got other things going on as we all do from time to time :-).

          • Cameron Kelsall

            Camille was part of the Salome chat on Monday. At least, someone was using the moniker.

      • Luvtennis

        What of her Mathilde?!?!? Acres of beautiful tone and lovely diction even if she was denied the opportunity to sing the role complete. Damn the tastes of those dark days!

        My very first Mathilde (on an old blue Cetra reissue purchased at the book store across and down from the Harvard Square theatre). sadly in perhaps the most cut version of the opera ever -- was so very different! La Carteri.

        That book store and its handful of cheap records opened incredible doors into a vanished era. The Callas Macbeth. The ’53 Forza!!!!!!!!!!!!! The HvK/Callas Lucia. The la Scala Ring.

        Or the Harvard Coop, with the divine Pamela Dellal, as a clerk in the classical department.

        Antikitschy, you and your generation are missing out. Technology can’t replace that.

      • La Cieca

        You may have been too young when you posted on RMO to remember that the dispute back then with Our Own JJ was over a completely different performance of Norma, a performance by the Met company in which you insisted you heard Mario del Monaco when the Pollione was in fact Kurt Baum.

        Everything else you say in the comment above is, to my mind, perfectly accurate.

        • Why, thank you, La Cieca. Perhaps I had my tenors mixed up for also in dispute although not with Mr. Jorden was my having heard Cav. Del Monaco in Otello and twice in Canio, in 1958.

          How that idiot shyster, Mr. Shane, could have had any idea is a mystery and was why I was glad to read somewhere his son describing his extreme protracted agony — with glee — for the son hates him too. Moreover, I had simply suggested along with others that the tenor’s voice was astoundingly huge, deafening even all the way upstairs at the old Met. My family knew him and I had been in Otello and Pagliacci too (many times), but again any impression I had would have been a child’s impression of someone who in that world was a great star.

          Of course, I knew a little more when I saw him and chatted with him later after his terrible accident in Otello and as Samson. The first not what it had been, but the second still an imposing presentation in the Martian dialect of something on earth called French.

          I am glad we have cleared that dispute up. I will post the cross indexed list of who attacked me how often with what venom on RMO back when. It only runs to 7327 pages with notes. I am so glad I don’t carry grudges.

  • Guys live chat is back just in time for Salome?

    • Porgy Amor

      Look at the chat! How strange the chat seems! It is like an opera queen rising from a tomb. It is like a dead opera queen. You would fancy she was looking for dead singers!

  • Evening everyone; hope you all had a great Thanksgiving! I went to Canada with friends and had a blast :-D. This recording is a wonderful treat. Thank you Jungfer! I started listening to it today and will finish it tomorrow. It really is sad that Cerquetti never sang beyond 30, although 26 is a very young age to be singing roles like Norma and Abigaile…and given that she sang for 10 years, that must mean she started singing these roles at 20! Good heavens. I am not familiar with either the mezzo or Giulio Neri so it’s nice to discover “new” old talents as well, and bae is bae of course lol.

    This is really a happy happenstance since I actually just finished watching a live recording/broadcast of Norma from Teatro Real with Maria Agresta (as Norma), Karine Deshayes (as Adalgisa), Gregory Kunde (as Polione), conducted by Roberto Abbado. The performance took place in late October or early November I believe so pretty recent. I had downloaded it but didn’t get a chance to watch it until this past weekend. I’m also hoping I can see Hoffman from ROH and La Favorite from Munich soon but have finals coming up and two assignments still due and I’m still working part time so have a lot on my plate still.

    I was wondering if anyone saw a performance of this Norma from Teatro Real and would care to share their thoughts? Here are a few of my thoughts…

    The production was traditional and pretty vacuous conceptually but with handsome sets and decent costumes and wigs, except for Agresta’s which I thought was too stiff. Musically I thought it was a pretty solid performance and it was interesting to see Agresta take on Norma, although I think her voice is too light for the role (at least for my taste). She’s essentially a lyric soprano with a good range and wonderful float in her upper register, but with less flexibility and vocal weight in her voice than the role requires I think, but I mean my standard is Callas and I listen to her recordings of Norma that are available on Spotify on repeat (unfair comparison, I know!). They give me LIFE during those interminable bus rides I have to take to get to work. Agresta has a pleasant timbre and sang some lovely phrases and pianissimos but unfortunately her coloratura is often labored and she sounds over-parted at times in terms of breath control (especially toward the beginning; those long lines are killer!). She also distorts many of the vowels in order to thicken her tone which I think compromises her ability to do more with the text and produce a freer sound. In short, a very valiant and very formidable attempt but a bit too lyrical for my taste.

    Deshayes, who I was also unfamiliar with I thought was very good as Adalgisa; she has a nice timbre, good command of the bel canto style, a good lower register and I found her to be more involved and dramatically invested than Agresta, albeit since she is supposed to to be younger it makes sense that she be a bit more “animated”. I would characterize Agresta’s portrayal of Norma as that of a noble, sensual and ultimately broken woman, seemingly overtaken by her own mystical powers and by her inability to escape her predicament. There were moments during which I found this approach effective, especially towards the beginning, but there was no anger and no spark, so overall her interpretation left something to be desired; and her facial expression mostly consisted of a constant frown. Like most singers who attempt this role most of her efforts were devoted to the singing itself, so her dramatic commitment tended to fade at times. I can’t fault her too much there. This is a monster of a role and the pressure is unreal, and being that she is Italian, that adds an extra level of pressure.

    Kunde was ok as Pollione. I actually thought he would be better based on excerpts I’ve heard of him in other roles, but, I mean he’s 62, so for a tenor it’s kind of amazing that he is still singing. A bass named Michele Pertusi whom I was not familiar with sang Oroveso. He has a nice, sonorous (albeit worn) basso voice. The conducting I thought was mostly loud and un-nuanced, though admittedly I didn’t pay much attention to the conducting since I’m not familiar with this conductor so don’t take my word for it.

    The set consisted mostly a dark, bare background with a large blue half-moon behind a white curtain and in front of it a large, GoT like tree trunk with a staircase at the center of the stage, coupled with faded screen projections of lovers embracing and at one point Adalgisa and Pollione kissing and scantily clad (or exposed) wood-like or demonic (?) creatures that would ocassionally appear onstage. I didn’t mind the projections or the set (I’d call it a set more than a production) except that the ending was very bland. Here is a trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNFjAhg-P7A

    Speaking of Norma, I was very surprised to read in that interview QPF posted in another thread in which AN stated that the (real) reason she didn’t take on Norma was because she didn’t like the role and couldn’t even listen to a recording all the way through, and that because she didn’t like the production either that ultimately was “the last straw” that made her bow out. This was surprinsing given that she had originally said that the role didn’t suit her voice, which I suppose could still be true, and I totally understand why the latter is the explanation she gave, but ever since she announced that she was going to sing it I just thought that since she has sung other bel canto roles and because Norma is such an iconic role, that she was at least somewhat familiar with it and liked the music and the character…and that she had maybe seen/heard recordings of Callas in the role and dreamed of taking it on herself. It seems that wasn’t the case. What a shame. It’s a real disappointment for me since I LOVE Norma. I’t’s one of my favs, both because of the glorious music and the story, so it’s disheartening to hear that the one of the few, or maybe just the *one* artist who can do this part justice both vocally and dramatically, in the vein of Callas and the other great Assolutta divas, not only doesn’t want to do it but doesn’t even like it. Oh well. At least she was honest about her decision. That takes integrity. I ultimately respect her choice since its her voice and her career.

    And speaking of disappointments, I unfortunately wasn’t able to see AN in/as Manon Lescaut. I was going to try and get rush tickets for her last performance Friday after I realized there weren’t going to be any student tickets, but last week was one of the busiest weeks ever for me and the original plan I had of going to see Aida Friday night (since I had to be in NY Friday for a networking opportunity) and then Manon Lescaut Saturday didn’t work out. I actually decided to put off seeing Aida on Friday since I read on here that Latonia seems to be struggling a bit with the role so I’ll try and see her or Stoyanova in the spring. I ended up hanging out with a friend and going to the Met museum instead. I hadn’t gone to the Met Museum before and really enjoyed it! I love museums and their collections of African and Egyptian art is exquisite. Even after I didn’t stay in NY Friday night I still had the intention of going Saturday so I woke up to buy the rush tickets but by that time the bus tickets were all sold out, so even standing tickets were out of the question :-(. I was actually going to stay in NY Friday night with a friend but I didn’t even have time to pack my bags! These past couple of weeks have been crazy and I so I didn’t have time to properly carry out my plans. I’m pretty crushed about it since she wrote on IG that’s she’s saying goodbye to the role for a while so not sure if I’ll be able to hear her in it in the future. Sigh. Such is life. I look forward to hearing her in all her other upcoming roles though! She’s certainly not coasting that’s for sure.

    • Lohenfal

      Sorry you couldn’t see Anna as Manon Lescaut. I doubt I’ll ever see anyone better in the role.

      Without leaving my home, I saw 2 very fine performances this weekend on the Internet: Capriccio from Brussels with Sally Matthews, and Lady Macbeth of M from Munich with Anja Kampe. It’s great to hear singers who don’t appear as Met regulars. Why they don’t appear here is another question.

      • Yeah it’s a real bummer. I’d be interested to see that Lady Macbeth of M but I’d need subtitles. I tried to start watching La Favorite but for some reason neither the audio nor the subtitles work properly for the first part. ????

        • Lohenfal

          Sometimes I have to restart those livestreams a few times to get them to work properly. The Favorite, which did feature Met regulars (practically the entire cast of Devereux), was noteworthy, but the BSO doesn’t give a second showing unfortunately.

          • I hope I can find a good version with subtitles! At least for the first half…sigh.

            • OKAY I was able to get the audio for part one to work; still no subs but I will just read the synopsis and suck it up lol

            • Liz.S

              Le Fav is still available somewhere? It was one of the great perfs from BSO to remember. I’d like to watch it again if it is.

            • ipomoea

              me too…..

            • It is available through certain sites. I’d be happy to share links if you email me at jgdm337 at yahoo dot com.

  • Krunoslav

    “Her career was centered in Italy, with only a few appearances in Mexico City and with the Lyric Opera of Chicago including Amelia in Un ballo in maschera opposite Jussi Björling under Tullio Serafin in 1955.”

    Cerquetti sang in New York too!

    New York Town Hall: the role of Athena in Gluck’s Paride e Elena with Phyllis Curtin, Laurel Hurley and David Poleri (cond. Arnold Gamson) on 11/5/57

    Two days later this American Opera Society concert was repeated in Philadelphia, at the Academy of Music with Mariquita Moll ( City Opera Ariadne and Marschallin, Met Freia and a pal of my gay great-uncle, who had a Carnegie studio) replacing Curtin. Claggartesa, wast thou present?

    • Not for that, Krunoslava, the Lyric where we (the family) were connected presented her in Norma and Trovatore. Her Scala Abigaille was a huge sensation. She was supposed to sing Aida at Covent Garden but had an appendectomy instead, someone named Price went on instead. I forgot the Ernani performance with Dimitri Mitropoulos, which is very thrilling (Del Monaco, Bastianini, Siepi). She is also in a Mosè in Egitto broadcast and also does Mathilde in a William Tell. Her last pirate is a Nabucco, not at Scala, after a year off and some problems. I DO remember Mariquita Moll, I think I saw that Freia, it was my FIRST Das Rheingold but that I don’t remember so well.

      • fletcher

        That Mitropoulos Ernani is life itself, I’m so glad you brought it up! Every time I feel like I’ve settled on an essential studio recording of some opera, some Karajan or Abbado or whomever, I find a Mitropoulos live recording that blows it to pieces.