Anna Moffo

Enchanting, warm-toned soprano


Anna Moffo, opera singer: born Wayne, Pennsylvania 27 June 1932; married 1957 Mario Lanfranchi (marriage dissolved 1972), 1974 Robert W. Sarnoff (died 1997); died New York 10 March 2006.

A beautiful woman, as well as the possessor of a lovely, warm-toned lyric soprano voice, Anna Moffo was the perfect interpreter of those innumerable operatic heroines who are dying of consumption or some other disease, or just from unrequited love: Violetta in La traviata and Mimi in La bohème are two typical examples in Italian opera, Massenet's Manon and Antonia in Les Contes d'Hoffmann in French.

Although the greater part of her career was spent in America - she sang for 17 seasons at the Metropolitan in New York - Moffo also appeared in many of the capitals of Europe, including London, where she sang Gilda in Rigoletto at Covent Garden, as well as several music festivals.

Anna Moffo was born in 1932 at Wayne, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Italian parents. Her father worked as a shoemaker. She studied singing with Eufemia Giannini at the Curtis Institute and later gained a Fulbright scholarship for further study in Italy, where she worked in Rome with Luigi Ricci and Mercedes Llopart.

She made her début in 1955 at the Spoleto Festival, singing Norina in Donizetti's Don Pasquale. Moffo's spectacular good looks ensured a great interest from film and television cameras alike, and in 1956 she sang Madama Butterfly for Italian television. This was directed by Mario Lanfranchi, who later became Moffo's first husband and her manager.

The following year Moffo sang Nannetta in Verdi's Falstaff at both the Salzburg Festival and at La Scala, Milan. Seldom can Shakespeare's "sweet Anne Page" (as she is in the original play) have had a more enchanting interpeter. After these European triumphs, Moffo returned to the US to make her début in Chicago, as Mimi in La bohème. Her Rodolfo was Jussi Björling. Though nearly twice her age and at the end of his career (he died three years later), he was vocally a perfect partner for the young soprano.

Moffo returned to Italy in 1959 to make the first of two films in which she appeared, Austerlitz, directed by Abel Gance. The multi-national cast of this epic account of the defeat of the Austro-Russian armies by Napoleon included Leslie Caron, Claudia Cardinale and Orson Welles among its guest stars. Moffo's second film appearance was for Paramount in 1970, when she played a small role in The Adventurers, directed by Lewis Gilbert. Of rather more importance to her growing reputation as an opera singer was Moffo's début at the Metropolitan on 14 November 1959, as Violetta in La traviata.

In many ways, Violetta was her finest role. Most singers who tackle Verdi's frail heroine excel either in the coloratura of the first act, or in the lyrical music of the second and third. Moffo, who could let off vocal fireworks with the greatest ease, and whose lyrical phrasing was a constant delight, excelled in both. The complete authenticity of her appearance naturally added a great deal of pathos to her interpretation.

Moffo acquired a new role for her San Francisco début in 1960, Amina in Bellini's La sonámbula, which suited her so well, temperamentally as well as vocally, that it might have been especially composed for her. Amina, the sleepwalker of the title, is a very gentle character, but shows an unexpected degree of courage in adversity. Moffo displayed the same traits in Lucia di Lammermoor, which she sang at San Francisco and the Met. At the time the stronger interpretations of Lucia by sopranos with much larger voices, such as Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland, were in vogue, but Moffo returned to an older tradition and her Lucia was greatly admired.

Gilda in Rigoletto, which she sang at Covent Garden in 1964 to much popular acclaim, was another perfect balance between the various vocal aspects. Verdi always insisted that Gilda was a lyric role and on that occasion so it certainly was. Moffo did not often get the chance to appear in comic operas, but she displayed a nice sense of comedy as Adina in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore and also in the title role of Offenbach's La Périchole.

By the end of the Sixties the soprano's voice was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. This blew up into a full-scale vocal crisis in 1974, when Moffo realised, too late, that she had sung far too much, far too soon. At first it was thought she might never sing again, but she persevered, retraining her voice and in 1976 she returned, with a small new repertory. She also made her farewell apearance at the Met on 15 March 1976, singing Violetta, as at her début in New York.

Later in the year she sang the title role of Massenet's Thaïs in Seattle. Another beautiful courtesan, but one with a much less demanding vocal line than Violetta, Thaïs was just right for Moffo at that time. So was Adriana Lecouvreur, the actress heroine of Cilea's opera, which she sang at Parma in 1978.

Elizabeth Forbes

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