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Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Great Fedora Barbieri

Fedora Barbieri was born in Trieste, Italy, in 1920. Encouraged by friends and family to develop the vocal talent she displayed as a child, she began her formal study and was able to make her professional debut in Florence, in 1940, as Fidalma in Cimarosa's Matrimonio Segreto. She sang her first Azucena the next night and repeated Fidalma the night after that, displaying the kind of hard work and determination that Ernestine Schumann Heink also displayed at an even younger age. She was a mezzo soprano with a dramatic, powerful voice that was capable of displaying many colors, and was perfect for the Verdi roles, in which she excelled. She made a La Scala debut in 1942 in a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. It was on to the Met in 1950, where she appeared as Princess Eboli in Verdi's Don Carlo. She was to go on to perform 96 operas at the Met. A favorite with both European and American audiences from the 1940's on, she was particularly admired for her appearances as Azucena in Il Trovatore, Amneris in Aida, Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma, and in the Verdi Requiem.

Here she is in one of her signature roles, Azucena in Il Trovatore, singing the bloodcurdling "Stride La Vampa":

The drama in the voice is more than evident in this exciting recording. This is vintage Barbieri. The depth of the voice is impressive, almost contralto-like, and the top is very powerful, capable of ringing and dramatic tones for the big climaxes that are so characteristic of Verdi operas, especially the ones in which she excelled. Someone once said that there were hundreds of colors in her voice, and I can believe it. It was a wonderful, rich instrument, capable of startling effects, very much in the style of Maria Callas, whose voice was similarly colored. Here she is, in a filmed 1955 version of an aria from Cilea's Adriana Lecourveur. Note the complete change of vocalism toward the end:

This is a perfect example of the many colors of the voice, and her ability to switch from dramatic to lyric mode instantly. The lovely, lyric passages at the end of the aria sound very much like a lyric soprano. She can float the long, legato lines of that part of the aria very convincingly, and it is hard at that moment to think of the bone-chilling dark drama of, let us say, "Stride la Vampa." This is a very impressive flexibility, and one that won her much praise.

Barbieri never really retired. She continued to sing even into old age, although she sang much less as she aged. She was always a great favorite, not only because of her voice, but because she had a personality, and a certain near-melodramatic sense of acting, that served her very well. It is often common to talk of Callas and Barbieri together, not only because they were friends and often sang together, but because their dramatic sensibilities were also quite similar.

Finally, here is the great mezzo in a stirring dramatic piece, "O don fatale," from Verdi's Don Carlo. We are now back in dramatic mode, to be sure:

Absolutely wonderful! This was Fedora Barbieri. She was much beloved, and these excerpts show why. Like Zinka Milnov and Maria Callas, she knew how to put the "grand" in "grand opera"!


corax said...

once again i am struck by your gift for analogy. the comparison to milanov and callas is spot-on.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend. Yes, she and Callas were reported to be very close, both on stage and off. The two of them together--and it happened fairly often--must have been simply divine. Ah, those were the days:)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article. She is a brilliant singer with a beautiful voice. To my taste, she can be called a perfect mezzo-soprano. What I especially like is her very profound “classic” style, and her musicianship .Her sense of rhythm is just fine (Stride la vampa is a great example) . It’s natural that Callas loved to sing with her; Callas was a very precise singer herself and they match artistically. Barbieri’s switch to lyric sound was very impressive too, she was a diverse artist.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Exactly right! You touch on all the important aspects of this fine singer! And you are right about Stride la vampa. Most mezzos just slide over the top of those 16th notes, and don't even try to articulate them. It gives a different impression when the rhythm is precisely observed. Thanks for great comment.