One of the great Italian mezzo-sopranos since the Second World War, Fedora Barbieri served her operatic apprenticeship during the 1940s in Italy, then in the 1950s began to appear in the United States, in Britain and in South America. She sang mainly in Italian opera, with a distinct preference for Verdi, whose writing for the mezzo voice could have been tailored expressly for her, but the title role of Bizet's Carmen provided her with one of her greatest successes. She was also much admired in Gluck and Handel.
Barbieri was born in Trieste, and first studied there with Luigi Toffolo. She then worked with Giula Tess in Florence, where she made her début in 1940 as Fidalma in Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto. The following year she created the role of Dariola in Alfano's Don Juan de Manara at the Maggio Musicale in Florence, returning for the next three years in revivals of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria and Orfeo, and Pergolesi's Flaminio. In 1949 she scored a triumph as Gluck's Orpheus.
Meanwhile she had already made her début at La Scala, Milan, in 1942 as Meg Page in Falstaff. She returned frequently to La Scala throughout her career, in roles as different as Angiolina in Rossini's La Cenerentola, and Néris in Cherubini's Medea, which she sang with Maria Callas in the title role. In 1950 the company from La Scala visited London and gave a short season at Covent Garden. Barbieri sang Mistress Quickly in Falstaff, a wonderfully detailed comic performance, and also took the mezzo soloist in the Verdi Requiem.
Later that year, she made her Metropolitan Opera début as the Princess Eboli in Verdi's Don Carlos, directed by Margaret Webster. This was the opening night of the season and of the first new production in Rudolf Bing's management of the Met. Barbieri sang for nine seasons there in all. In 1952 she appeared in San Francisco, singing Azucena, Amneris and Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana.
Barbieri returned to Covent Garden in 1958 to sing Princess Eboli in the production of Don Carlos, directed and designed by Luchino Visconti, which celebrated the centenary of the opening of the present Covent Garden Theatre, the third on the site. With a cast that included Jon Vickers, Tito Gobbi, Boris Christoff and Gré Brouwenstijn, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini, this was a performance that no one lucky enough to have been there will ever forget. No matter how often we have since seen and heard the opera, that night is what we remember.
Barbieri made many recordings during her career, and to understand the overwhelming excitement generated by her performances, particularly in Verdi, it is only necessary to play the spine-tingling duet between Azucena and Manrico (Jussi Björling) from Act ii Scene 1 of Il trovatore.
Fedora Barbieri, opera singer: born Trieste, Italy 4 June 1920; married 1943 Luigi Barlozzetti (died 1986; two sons); died Florence, Italy 4 March 2003.
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