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.
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?
"As for my own contemporaries, there hasn't been a voice since as beautiful as Tebaldi's. And Jussi! You know, my favorite recording is the first one I did of 'Trovatore' with him, Warren and la grande Milanov. The other one (with Callas, Di Stefano and Gobbi) was all right, but not like the first. I preferred the RCA 'Aida' too."
Barbieri is tireless as she rattles on, the conversation punctuated with laughter. What about her own competition? "They didn't exist," she smiles impishly. The smile completely disappears and the jaw becomes very firm when questioned about Giulietta Simionato, her only real rival.
"I never heard her."
During her first six seasons under Bing, the mezzo had first call on all the big Italian dramatic parts. After Eboli and Azucena, she added Amneris, Laura, Santuzza and Adalgisa, even singing four performances, and her first ones in French, of Carmen. She very badly wanted Gluck's Orfeo, and says Bing promised it to her. But Rise Stevens got the part. Barbieri was offered repeats of Amneris and declined the contract.
Although she doesn't say so, she was doubtless miffed that Orfeo had been contracted to Simionato before she canceled at the last minute and Stevens took over.
In 1952 Barbieri made her debut with the San Francisco Opera. She treated the West Coast to her Azucena, Santuzza and Amneris, and repeated all the parts in Los Angeles. She says she loved the beauty of the Bay City and felt particularly at home, since ". . . everyone there speaks Italian."
"I had a much more varied career in Italy," she says. "There was more to me than what you people heard in America.
"I did my only Mozart in Italy: the Requiem conducted by Guido Cantelli with Tebaldi, Siepi and Giacinto Prandelli. I sang Brangane in 'Tristan' with Callas and Christoff under Serafin in Venice. I even did a Mahler Third, my first and only time singing in German. I loved Marfa in 'Khovanshchina,' especially with that marvelous conductor, Issay Dobrowen.
"I have beautiful memories," she goes on. "Christoff was really the only one who wasn't very nice. I adored Siepi. I never saw the dark side of Callas. She wasn't exactly the dearest colleague, but I had no trouble with her.
"I think when Onassis married La Kennedy , Callas really died. It was a great love and her life was over when he left her. La Kennedy couldn't give up her money, position and power when your president was killed. She had to have Onassis."
As the years passed, Barbieri gradually slipped into character parts. With Bing long departed, she came back to the Metropolitan in 1967--after a 10-year absence--to sing Quickly in a revival of the Zeffirelli "Falstaff."
Donal Henahan in the New York Times hailed the return of ". . . that adorable foghorn of a voice. . . ."
She added La Vecchia in "Gianni Schicchi" and, perhaps most memorably, the Zia Principessa in "Suor Angelica." Her backward glance to her niece as she exited would have made the Titanic iceberg pale in comparison.
She returned sporadically over the next 10 years. Her last performance at the Met took place on Feb. 28, 1977. She hasn't been asked back since.
"So much the worse for them," she says matter of factly.
"I was widowed two years ago. I have two wonderful sons. One is a stage director, the other a professor of art history. They are happy and successful. They think it's too big for me, but I still keep my beautiful apartment in Florence. From my terraces you can see everything for miles." She claims to make the best bistecca fiorentina in Italy.
Even now there are new challenges for Barbieri. Only a few seasons ago Claudio Abbado asked her to learn the part or the Innkeeper in "Boris" in Russian for La Scala. This summer she will be in Glasgow for the part of the Old Lady in Bernstein's "Candide," her first part in English, to be staged by Jonathan Miller.
"Do you know anything about him?" she asks. She looks heavenward when Miller's Little Italy Mafia "Rigoletto" production is described.
Also in the summer she will sing another new opera, Mussorgsky's "The Marriage" in Genoa.
Why all this new work at this stage of her life and career?
"I want to work. The theater is my life. I am healthy, thank God, and people still want to hear me, still ask for me.
"Come see me and hear me, you'll understand."