Giulietta Simionato

Giulietta Simionato abandoned the operatic stage in 1966 to become the wife of Italy’s most celebrated physician, Dr. Cesare Frugoni who died on January 5, 1978, at the age of ninety-seven. Simionato chose to retire on February 1, 1966, the approximate anniversary of her La Scala debut of thirty years earlier when she had appeared as one of the Flower Maidens in Wagner’s Parsifal.

Being a very emotional person, she very quietly planned to mark the occasion by slipping out of her career almost as quietly as she had entered it! She asked the artistic director to take part in La Clemenza di Tito at La Piccola Scala. But all the parts had been already assigned. She insisted that she did not want a big part but had to sing on that date for nostalgia’s sake. No one had been let in on the secret. When the make-up artist was working on her face she said: “Please do a good job, for this is the last time I shall appear on this stage or any other stage”. The news soon spread like wild fire among the stage personnel and finally it reached the audience. The performance was greeted with thunderous applause.

Simionato as Eboli
Simionato as Eboli in Don Carlo

Giulietta Simionato was born in Forlì, on May 12, 1910 and began singing at school with the nuns. She took lessons with the local bandmaster at Rovigo. Her voice was already placed and the vocal agility was natural. He taught her how to take advantage of what God had given her. She later moved to Padova to continue her studies with Maestro Palumbo. She earned her first few lire as a singer with the role of Maddalena in Rigoletto at Padova and Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana, which she sang in Montagnana. In 1933 she won the first competition launched by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino which led only to her being offered five thousand lire and a tiny role in Pizzetti’s L’Orséolo. After the competition, Tullio Serafin asked Giulietta Simionato to sit for a La Scala audition but her mezzo voice was found still immature. She was advised to continue her studies and to sit for another audition in two years time.

ROH (Malta) handbill Simionato as Ulrica
ROH (Malta) handbill. Simionato as Ulrica.

On the advice of basso Dante Sciacqui she permanently moved to Milan to be within easy reach of Impresarios looking for new talent. It was through the good offices of Signor Sciacqui that Giulietta Simionato met Maltese Impresario Giuseppe Farrugia who was in Milan engaging opera singers for the 1934/35 season at the Royal Opera House in Valletta. Together with Simionato, Mr Farrugia’s list of artists for Malta included sopranos Licia Albanese, Pia Tassinari and Mario Basiola. Mons. Licinio Refice was also invited to Malta for the eight performances of his Cecilia, Azione Sacra in three episodes, and a new work for Malta, premiered on February 2, 1935. The cast included Licia Albanese in the title role, Giulietta Simionato as the old blind woman and Maltese baritone Joseph Satariano in the role of Tiberius, brother-in-law of Cecilia. The press report in the “Malta” edition of February 4, 1935 predicted a bright future for the twenty-four year old Italian mezzo: “La Simionato – questa giovane dal sicuro avvenire é stata una cieca commovente.”

Her first appearance on the stage of the Royal Opera House came on November 10, 1934 with the role of Ulrica in Un Ballo in maschera. During her four-month engagement in Malta, Giulietta Simionato sang Rigoletto (Maddalena), Mignon (Federico), Manon Lescaut (Musico), Boris Godunov (Inn-keeper/Marina Maniscek), Francesca da Rimini (La Schiava), Andrea Chenier (Madelon), Le Preziose Ridicole
(Cathos), as well as Madam Butterfly (Suzuki). During this period she was also entrusted with the role of Adalgisa in Norma, which Simionato learned in a few days to substitute for mezzo soprano Maria Falliani.

In March 1935, Giulietta Simionato together with other artists engaged for the Malta season, travelled to Tunis where, at the Théàtre Municipal, she sang Adriana Lecouvreur and Cavalleria Rusticana with baritone Joseph Satariano as Michonet and Alfio respectively. Simionato also interpreted the role of La Cieca in La Gioconda, which she repeated at the Real Teatro Miramare in Tripoli together with Un Ballo in maschera.

Anna Bolena with Nicola Rossi Lemeni, La Scala, 1957
Anna Bolena with Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, La Scala, 1957

These were Simionato’s formative years and on her return to Italy she had no other choice but to sing small roles. Furthermore, with two established mezzo sopranos, Cloe Elmo and Gianna Pederzini taking the lion’s share of leading roles between them, Simionato found it difficult to make any headway. In the meantime, she once again auditioned for La Scala and was engaged for the 1935/36 season. Her appearances here consisted of a string of secondary roles. In 1938 she sang in Pizzetti’s L’Orséolo at Florence. During the next few years she sang Cherubino, Rosina (in its original key), Hansel and Dorabella. Finally, on October 2, 1947, she scored a great triumph when at La Scala she sang Mignon with Giuseppe di Stefano and was also chosen by Toscanini to sing Asteria in Boito’s Nerone. From here onwards she never looked back.

Her first visit to Great Britain came in 1947 to sing Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro at the Edinburgh Festival. Later, she was first heard at Covent Garden with Maria Callas in June 1953. Simionato sang Adalgisa (Norma), Amneris (Aida), and Azucena (Il Trovatore).

Carmen La Scala with Karajan 1955
Carmen with Herbert von Karajan, La Scala, 1955

Giulietta Simionato’s American debut took place in San Francisco during September of the same year. She sang Werther, Boris Godunov and Il Barbiere di Siviglia. On October 26, 1959, she finally made her Metropolitan debut in Il Trovatore with Carlo Bergonzi and Leonard Warren, followed by Cavalleria Rusticana opposite Jussi Björling. Towards 1953 she was in Vienna singing Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Carlo and Orfeo ed Euridice at the Staatoper. For the next thirteen years she continued to enthral opera lovers on both sides of the Atlantic, from Rio de Janiero to Osaka and Tokyo. Giulietta Simionato’s voice was a coloratura mezzo of agility with personal seductive timbre in its lower reaches. She was blessed by a charming stage presence.

Throughout her career she was regarded by many as the successor to Conchita Supervia in the Rossini repertoire and to Ebe Stignani as a bel canto singer in the operas of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi.

Her last public appearance on stage came on August 27, 1979 when she sang the aria “Non so più” (transposed an octave lower) at the Kleines Festspielhaus in Salzburg during a concert celebrating the 85th birthday of conductor Karl Böhm. Together with Mirella Freni, Giulietta Simionato sang a well-known aria but slightly modified for the special occasion: “Caro mio Böhm !”

's handwritten message for Xmas at age 95In her younger days, she suffered from very bad attacks of migraine. Apart from that, she enjoyed good health throughout her long life, including a sharp and well focused mind until the end. Her handwriting remained incredibly steady, as this message of good wishes for the festive season written in 2005 can attest.

In one of her last interviews at the age of 90, Giulietta Simionato confided that she still retained a special affection for Malta, where she started her singing career in 1934.

She died in Rome on May 5, 2010, one week short of her 100th birthday. The funeral service was held according to her wishes in the Chapel of the Knights of Malta, at the Church of Santa Maria del Priorato, which is surrounded by one of the beautiful gardens on the Aventino Hill. It is also situated close to the Piazzetta dei Cavalieri di Malta.

[fancy_box title=”Recordings”]The recorded legacy of Giulietta Simionato extends beyond the usual set of operatic excerpts but includes an impressive list of complete operas, originally released on LP but later transferred on to the CD format: L’Italiana in Algeri (Isabella), La forza del destino (Preziosilla), La Favorita (Leonora), La Cenerentola (Cenerentola), La Gioconda (Laura), Adriana Lecouvreur (Principessa di Bouillon), Andrea Chenier (Contessa), Cavalleria Rusticana (Lucia & Santuzza), Il Matrimonio Segreto (Fidalma), Il Trovatore (Azucena), Werther (Sofia), Carmen (Carmen), Norma (Adalgisa), Un Ballo in maschera (Ulrica) and Anna Bolena (Seymour).[/fancy_box]