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Veteran Barbieri Still Facing New Challenges

OLD ACQUAINTANCE: Another in a continuing, occasional series in which beloved stars of an earlier age reflect on the musical past--and present.

January 03, 1988|WALTER PRICE

NEW YORK — When Fedora Barbieri sang her first Azucena in "Trovatore" at the Metropolitan in 1950, Jay Harrison in the Herald-Tribune advised customers to get their seats at least half way back in the auditorium because the sheer impact of her personality and vocalism all but blew one away.

She had made her American debut earlier in the season, on Nov. 6, 1950, as Princess Eboli in a new production of "Don Carlo." It was the inauguration of the Rudolf Bing regime as general manager. The reaction by critics and public had been much the same.

Hers was a big, rich mezzo-soprano with booming low tones that made doing justice to Boris Godunov not unthinkable. As it ascended the scale, a brilliant edge appeared which made those climactic Verdi top notes thrilling.

No question about it, Barbieri was a singer who aimed for the gut. Unlike her great predecessor, Ebe Stignani, the young mezzo offered more than sheer vocalism. The minute she walked on stage, it was difficult to notice anyone else.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 17, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Page 64 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
The photograph identified as Fedora Barbieri as Zita in "Gianni Schicchi" ("Veteran Barbieri Still Facing New Challenges," Jan. 3) was actually of Giuseppe Taddei in the same production.

She was an exponent of the venerable old-fashioned Italian style of total commitment to the task at hand. Barbieri never indulged in provincial breast-beating or arm waving. She was economical in her movements and when she turned her head or raised her hand, you knew she meant it.

Her formidable colleagues at her U.S. debut included Jussi Bjorling in the title role and her compatriot, Cesare Siepi, making his first American appearance. Some weeks later, when her half-savage Azucena came around, Barbieri's conquest of the New York public was virtually complete.

Thirty-seven years later, age 67 and still singing, the mezzo takes command of a room and a situation with all the confidence of yore. She is here as a judge of the Rosa Ponselle International Voice Competition and pretty depressed about the whole thing, or at least as depressed as anyone as ebullient as she can be.

Why are there no dramatic mezzos around anymore? Speaking in rapid-fire Italian--she never learned English--she attempts to explain.

"Perhaps there are physical reasons, I don't know. But I think the main problem is there are no more teachers.

"I coach a few people who interest me, you know. A few years ago, one of my sons said I should at least try to give advice if I'm asked. I heard one girl who told me she had been studying for six years. I asked her to sing a scale and she couldn't do it. She sang some ridiculous exercises.

" Mi-mi-mi-mi-mo-mo-mo . . . ." She imitates the student mezzo in mock horror.

"And it's not just the mezzos," Barbieri continues agitatedly, "where are the basses? Many call themselves that, but they're bass-baritones. I don't know of any young ones like Siepi or Christoff. This competition I just judged had nothing but mediocrity.

"The conductors are at fault too. Even Karajan recorded a 'Turandot' with Katia Ricciarelli, of all people. (Mirella) Freni singing Aida, (Renata) Scotto singing Gioconda!

"I remember watching Serafin working with Callas on 'Norma.' He stood her up, with her face to the wall, with no piano, making her sing all the cadenzas. He held on to her arm and squeezed every time she was to take a breath. Callas worked like a madwoman. No one wants to work like that anymore. When you think what she accomplished with neither a natural voice nor a beautiful one. Yet in roles like Norma or Medea, she was spectacular. I never cared much for her Aida."

Barbieri pauses to take a call from an agent. Would she like to sing Quickly in "Falstaff"? She belts out a " Reverenza " that must have shattered an eardrum on the other end of the line.

She continues. "After studying only nine months, I made my debut at the Teatro Communale in Florence in 'Matrimonio Segreto.' It was 1940 and I was 20. A few days later, I sang my first Azucena."

An eyebrow is raised at that thought of her taking on one of the heavyweight pieces in the repertory at such a young age. She shrugs as if one would be crazy to question her judgment.

"Why not? I knew how to sing. I was only 22 when I recorded my first Ulrica in 'Ballo,' the one with Gigli. Things began to fall into place," she says. "Victor de Sabata called to ask me for a Beethoven Ninth at La Scala. He then asked me for a Meg in 'Falstaff' and for the first and only time I did the part, but only for him. Afterwards it was always Quickly.

"When I first began, there were Pederzini, Stignani, Elmo and Nicolai, all important mezzos. Now who is there? I've heard good things about this Dolora Zajic. I've been asked to help her. I hope it will be possible.

"Otherwise, today I don't hear much soul or heart. Toscanini used to say the words were all important, they should be like bronze. People sing all the wrong repertory. Anything I say about Pavarotti you can't print. I don't want to have to hire a lawyer. How can someone like Leo Nucci sing Di Luna? After Warren and Bastianini?

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