A Singular Generation

Honoring the timeless stars of a classic era at the Vienna State Opera

Is it only my imagination, or did everything really used to be different? No one can say. We have lived at a certain time, and at the opera, we’ve watched all sorts of artistic feats. We weren’t watching professionally yet, and thus all the more enthusiastically. There were gods in singer heaven. And if we are honest, they haven’t lost their value; on the contrary, they are still at the top. That’s not because they are being glorified because of advanced age. Quality is timeless, elusive, it can’t be measured, nor can it be pinned down.

Giulietta Simionato came to the Vienna State Opera in 1956 from La Scala in Milan as a trade initiated by director Herbert von Karajan when the Italians finally began to be sung in Vienna in their original language. She was the grande dame of the Italian mezzos, aristocratic, intense, resolute and imperturbable. When she came out on stage the scene belonged to her. A crystal clear voice, concentrated and focused, a tone that was always lean and clear. She had something that one had begun to believe no longer existed. And her expressiveness has no successor. Not Fiorenza Cossotto and not Christa Ludwig, whose plump voices have caused a different kind of furor. Guilietta Simionato passed away this spring in Rome, seven days before her hundredth birthday.

There have been many exceptional Italian baritones. Piero Cappucilli, equipped with a wonderful timbre and an explosive delivery, was, one might say, both the center-forward and the penalty taker (his high B as Ezio in Verdi’s Attilla was something to experience, and he obviously enjoyed it too). Tito Gobbi had no competitor in the character roles (Jago, Scarpia). But over the decades there was also the incomparable Giuseppe Taddei. He was, par excellence, an animal of the theater. And a man of principle and conscience. A member of the Italian Resistance, he could only begin his career after 1945.

Above all at the Theater an der Wien; my father told me a lot about that time, the first of countless second careers. Karajan liked him and placed him in the mini-role of Schaunard in the legendary 1963 production of La Bohème with Freni and Raimondi.

Taddei was also omnipresent in Central Europe and taught the people around him how to sing Verdi. He was a stylist without an equal, and in this discipline found only one successor in Renato Bruson. In the mid-1980s he sang Falstaff in Bregenz. And when shortly thereafter Karajan planned the work for the Salzburg Festival, his advisors pushed for Taddei.

But the maestro was skeptical. Was his voice still intact? You couldn’t ask someone like Taddei to audition! So Karajan snuck into the back of a box at the Vienna State Opera to listen to Taddei sing a performance of L’elisir d’amore. The next day he was engaged as Falstaff for two Salzburg summers. Years later Taddei told me that a certain Ioan Holender wanted to draw up the contract for this engagement – and to cash a percentage of the earnings. Taddei threw Holender out with no further ado.

He was a great singer who entered listeners’ hearts, especially as the Genovese Doge, Simone Boccanegra. But when Holender came to the helm of the State Opera, he was simply ignored. Viennese friends of the opera loved him, a monument for more than half a century. Last June he passed away in Rome, shortly before his 94th birthday.

And in July, Cesare Siepi died – probably completely blind – at 87 in Miami. What a man, what a singer. And above all: what an artist. For Mozart and Verdi he had no rivals. That wonderful bass voice with its smoky timbre, a voice that poured over legato and lines, its dramatic expression and attacca: it was beyond belief. The best Don Giovanni (in the mid-1950s he recorded it for Decca, not once but twice), a wonderful Mephisto and Mephistofeles. He was an ace in every respect.

Actually one shouldn’t write such absolutes, but in this case… who can possibly compare? Was Ezio Pinza better than Siepi? No one can say. In the Viennese repertoire, Siepi was certainly a challenge for Nicolai Ghiaurov, six years Siepi’s junior. But it would be absolutely senseless to compare the one to the other. They came from completely different worlds. And that is what made the difference so appealing. Siepi was a gentleman from top to toe. It speaks for him that once, before the finale of Don Giovanni, in the “alley” of the State Opera stage, he slapped a stupid singer like Wladimiro Ganzarolli. Cesare Siepi was one of the greatest artists I ever experienced on a stage; he lived for excellence and had little patience for anything else.

Translated by Cynthia Peck.

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