Cher Public

Prodigy

Maria Callas’s most outstanding Adalgisa, out of all she partnered with, was Fiorenza Cossotto. (How’s that for a change of pace?) 

Attention has been instead spotlighted, for over 50 years, on Cossotto’s alleged insensitivity to Callas’s declining vocal state in her last Normas in Paris, and has been blown out of proportion.

The documented evidence reveals otherwise:

“Oh, rimembranza”:

“Mira o Norma”:

What we hear in these clips instead is of Cossotto being a very sensitive partner to Callas, who is in obviously troubled, but not disastrous, form.  The mezzo tones down the volume, and appears to be working conscientiously to go along with Callas’s diminishing resources.

There is no evidence of Cossotto trying to blatantly outsing her co-star. The real truth? No other documented Adalgisa sounds as right in the role of the girlish vestal virgin as Cossotto did, in Callas’s long line of exponents of the part.

Logically and evidentially, the claims of Cossotto’s alleged skullduggery doesn’t add up. It was with some astonishment to learn, on Frank Hamilton’s website, featuring Callas’s complete performance history, that Cossotto had sung Adalgisa for a total of 11 times with her in Paris, a year apart, in 1964 and 1965.

If Cossotto had been so un-collegial a partner, wouldn’t Callas have complained or issued a demand of change?  Callas herself never accused Cossotto of anything unscrupulous.  Franco Zeffirelli, who was fanatically obsessed with Callas in the “agent with one client” mode,  propagated this gossip.

Ever since then, critical reporting and Callas fans have tended to refer to Cossotto in a dismissive or contemptuous manner, but nowhere in any of her performances, either live or commercial, has there ever been any proof that she was an uncongenial colleague.  She may have been temperamental and deeply competitive offstage; reports have persisted of a claque behind her, and of imperious behavior.

Rather, scant attention has ever been given to the fact that Cossotto was the greatest Italian mezzo of the second half of the 20th century – and one of the greatest, period. I would even say that, pre-1950s, what I have heard in many highly esteemed mezzos in their recordings did not make much of an impact.

Take Ebe Stignani, for example. We’re told about her supposedly “miraculous” instrument, but all I hear, persistently, is a rather plain, no-frills tone and pedestrian phrasing. Fedora Barbieri I have rarely found appealing; she always sounded like she was loudly belting her tone, and that may be why her prime was so short.

Giulietta Simionato is a favorite in her era, and though she was versatile and reliable, but I find her not as sheerly, vocally pleasing, nor as scrupulous in notating scores as Cossotto did.

I am clearly biased, but it is easy for me to explain my reasons why.

Let’s start with the voice.

With a range of over two and a half octaves, Cossotto had an unusual aspect to her vocal production that comes through even on commercial recordings.  There was a distinctive “tubular” quality, of resonance space, a very full, rounded timbre that was evenly produced all across the range. The breath-tonal projection had a megaphonic bloom that filled spaces of the opera effortlessly; it was a huge voice that she flung out with authoritative abandon when called for.

Cossotto, in her prime, had an ease and freedom in her upper register that would have been (and probably was) the envy of many a dramatic soprano.  The rock-solid middle of the voice was peerlessly firm; and she could delve into the lower register with a satisfying fullness of tone that any contralto would have been proud to own.

What was astounding about Cossotto’s vocal technique is that she had a command of tonal colors and textures.  At her disposal, she could soften or harden the tone, depending on the verbal expression; and could open or close the vowel, especially on low, and seemingly had an infinite existence of choice in what she wanted to do with her voice.

She could sweeten or harden the tone at will, and at a variety of dynamic levels. In addition, for such a large voice, it was flexible, fluid, and she could dispatch difficult scales with unusual ease and suppleness.

Here’s an assertion I’ve rarely encountered in critical reporting: Cossotto’s voice was, in its prime, an instrument of surpassing beauty, with a gorgeous tonal sheen that recalled… Rosa Ponselle.

Did I just write that? You bet I did, and I’m sticking with it.

The 1965 Von Karajan Cavalleria Rusticana recording is one of the glories of the gramophone era. It demonstrated that verismo opera could be sung with the utmost attention to sterling vocal values, without shortchanging the drama.

In this is Cossotto’s magnificently sung Santuzza.  Her account of “Voi lo sapete,” is arguably, the finest sung ever.  It is begun very “inward,” quietly sorrowful. Listen to the flawless legato, especially at “eterna fé, giurato,” and the poised handling of the line.

Throughout, the voice soars at the emotional musical and expressive highs with puissant ease.  “Io piango” is given the proper, fatalistic accent, with superbly pungent low tones.

About that Ponselle claim? Here is the legendary soprano’s account. I defy anyone not to hear the similarities in vocal color (though Ponselle’s vowel formation is slightly more open):

Here, too is Cossotto’s account of the Easter hymn “Inneggiamo.”  Even all these years later, it gives me goosebumps: you can hear how staggeringly beautiful the tone is, how sweet and rich, and how sumptuously smooth the delivery is:

One of Cossotto’s most remarkable achievements on record is as Cherubino on the classic 1959 Giulini recording of Le nozze di Figaro.  What Verdian mezzo ever sang “Voi che sapete” with such wonderful lightness, with sweet, flowing ease, such sexy charm?

Veering in a wildly shifting mode, how’s this as a testament to Cossotto’s versatility – quite possibly the finest rendition of Ulrica’s “Re, dell’abisso affrettati.” This aria is rarely sung well, and it often is the least enjoyable moment in Un ballo in maschera.  The piece is a troubling one, as it requires the mezzo to deftly handle the precipitous intervals.

Cossotto here is just prodigious in her handling of this, utilizing the most firm and solid of tones on low, and jumping up, with freedom on high, without even the slightest of trouble – for once, this aria is a pleasure to hear so authoritatively, even excitingly deployed:

The first time I heard Cossotto was on the classic 1969 recording of Il trovatore.  This was the recording that turned me into a fan of hers; I was immediately taken with the richness, the exciting “booming” of the tone.  Hers is still my favorite Azucena, and when I studied the score, I noted how conscientiously she observes Verdi’s markings, which are copious, calling for numerous dynamic shifts (alas, the only blot is of ignoring the trills, which many Azuceni sadly leave out):

From the same recording is her extraordinarily vivid, dramatically declaimed “Condotta ell’era ceppi.” Again, the adherence to the score is notable, as is the complete confidence in the shifts of the range, not once appearing stressed or pushed; and the closing phrases, of the most subterranean richness of timbre, is astonishing (uh, be warned, there are lots more adjectives in this vein ahead):

In the duet “Mal reggendo,” here with Placido Domingo, observe Cossotto’s broad, expansive handling of the line:

And in the closing section of the duet, “Perigliarti ancor languente.” Hear how nimbly Cossotto negotiates the quick tempo; and at 0:48 how effortlessly leaps up to a high C:

Rosina in Il barbiere di siviglia is not a role we associate with Cossotto, but a few years ago, this live performance from 1964 in Moscow (!) turned up on YouTube.  In this account of “Una voce poco fa,” you might not exactly call Cossotto a Rossini specialist, but still, this rendition is quite remarkable. She’s more fluid than one might expect, and the staccati are easy and in place; plus, one can see how much fun she’s having, and the minx-like character appears quite well put across:

Cossotto recorded Adalgisa twice, in 1967 on the Varviso set with Elena Suliotis, and in 1972 for the Cillario recording with Monserrat Caballé. In both of them, Cossotto turns in the best performance, all told.

Here with Suliotis, you can easily discern how much better trained a singer Cossotto is, with a firm, solid sense of line, and a tone that is always secure:

By contrast, here is Cossotto with Caballé: what is so remarkable of this, is that whereas the rendition with Suliotis the keys are taken in the standard transposition of B flat and E flat, here the higher score keys of C and F are utilized. It demonstrates that Cossotto could handle any key with assurance; and she adapts with no trouble whatsoever.

This is easily my favorite account of the Norma-Adalgisa duet, because of Cossotto.  Observe as she begins the melody in the plushest and sweetest of tones, with the most gorgeous legato, and astounding breath lengths, matching Caballé’s own fabled abilities. The combination of these two voices, with the flawless purity of tone in both, make this an example of truly golden-age singing. And; Cossotto is actually freer, easier at the top of the range in forte than her co-star:

Here we find Cossotto in Classical mode, delivering Neris’s aria “Solo in pianto” from the 1967 Gardelli set of Cherubini’s Medea; it is an exquisite, sensitive performance:

Eboli in Don Carlos is regarded by many to be one of Cossotto’s finest assumptions, and one of the greatest ever.  In The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera, Peter G. Davis writes of Cossotto’s performance in the 1961 Santini set: “…who hurls her fresh, secure mezzo-soprano at Eboli’s music with awesome self-confidence if not much nuance.”

Did Davis even bother following Cossotto along in the score while reviewing this? At it happens, Cossotto not only displays “nuance,” but she follows the precise notations in the infernally difficult “Canzone del velo” with scrupulous care – and sings the piece with practically more stylish panache than just about any other mezzo on record. The extreme dynamic gradations throughout, the accents, the legato bows, and the fiorature within those are astonishing in their accuracy:

“O don fatale,” from the same recording, is one of the greatest in the gramophone era. In this, Cossotto exhibits the very classic tenets of Verdian singing: the bedrock solid middle voice, the the soaring, magnificent highs, the sweep of the phrasing, the mournful poignance, the fatal declamations of grief – it’s all here:

In yet another “wild shift,” Cossotto sang, for the (otherwise badly cast) 1968 Cillario recording of Lucio Silla, the role of Cecilio. Unfortunately, there is only one clip available on YouTube, “Il tenero momento,” which shows her coping with the fast passages better than one might think (how I wish I could put here Cossotto’s beautiful, suave rendition of the opera’s hit tune, “Pupille amate”).

Leonora in Donizetti’s La favorita was the role, when in 1962, she substituted for an ailing Giulietta Simionato at the last minute – and which won her overnight fame. Her fervent account of “O mio Fernando” was fortunately preserved in a live performance in 1971, from Japan:

The 1967 film of the Verdi Requiem, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, is one of the finest documents of its time, with Cossotto, Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti, and Nicolai Ghiaurov all caught in their absolute prime of voice.  Cossotto herself gives a peerless account of the mezzo part. It really should be watched as a whole to see and hear how responsive and attentive she is to the affair.  But here is her “Lux aeterna,” in which she uses the sweetest and dulcet of tones:

Saving the best for last: I think the role for which Cossotto is most highly celebrated is that of Amneris.  It hardly need be said that she had everything the role required: Verdian tonal values, the grandezza, the charisma, the sheer, balls-to-the-wall authority: it is one of the most singularly satisfying, most exciting accounts of an assumption to be had.

It is also perhaps her most documented role, with dozens of various commercial and live accounts on YouTube.

My favorite is the one by which I got to know Cossotto’s assumption, the live performance from the Verona Arena in 1981, available on DVD.  This is rather late in the career; by the mid-1970s, Cossotto’s voice had begun to lose the freedom of her upper register. She was one of those artists who rarely held back in her performances, both dramatically and vocally.

One can hear the beginnings of a vocal decline in the 1976 DVD of Cavalleria Rusticana from Japan; the hardening and loss of freedom of the upper notes were evident (it is still a great performance, though).  However, she seemed to have regained some measure of her previous vocal refulgence, for this account of the Judgment Scene shows her in marvelous form.

It is an exciting, vocal tidal-wave of white-heat energy: the imprecations she hurls against the priests are of scalding, scornful malice, and she uses her baleful chest tones with awesome power. The final “Empia razza! Anatema su voi!” are flung out like fearsome thunderbolts, imperious and with strike-dead force (and watch her charming acknowledgment of the audience, who roar and shout with vociferous approval):

Cossotto was present at the occasion of Leontyne Price’s farewell to performing in opera in 1985, at the Metropolitan Opera.

The part that lingered in the memory afterward was right at the end, when Aida and Radames, facing their death in the tomb, was Cossotto’s intoning of “Pace t’imploro.” She finds the right doleful, penitent tones and phrasing for this: it is deeply poignant and very moving drama, and caps the tragedy most fittingly:

As I hope I have demonstrated, Cossotto was a major talent and force in her time. Personally, I consider her, at her best, a vocal miracle, and a superb musician. She remains my favorite mezzo, and I think she deserves all the acclaim that is rightfully hers.