Eddie Pensier writes:
She never got the press or fame of Maria Callas, whom she famously replaced in a Rome Norma in 1958. She only made two official recordings, both for Decca: an aria recital and a complete La Gioconda. She retired at the unheard-of age of 30, when most opera singers are just about getting going.
And yet, her legendary status among opera fanatics is, well, legendary. Prior to the advent of YouTube, pirated tapes of her live recordings were swapped like precious jewels. Debates about the relative merits of Cerquetti vs Olivero got even more heated than those of Callas vs Tebaldi. Like Mozart, James Dean, or Buddy Holly, the “What If?” chatter made for delicious, catty speculation. What exactly, was the nature of the “health problems” that sent her into retirement?
Her fame was esoteric enough that her death has not attracted a single English-language obituary that I can locate in four pages of Google News results, major newspapers or any of the classical music magazines, opera sites, or blogs that I haunt.
Fall in love with the burnished-velvet beauty of Cerquetti’s tone in this 1958 recording of “Casta Diva” from Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, and notice how the vibrato is close and even from bottom to top. This might, just might, be the definitive version of this infamously difficult aria.
More Anita, you say? Here you go. “Ebben, ne andrò lontana” from Catalani’s La Wally. The opera itself is rarely done anymore, but the aria is a soprano staple. Can you tell that Cerquetti’s pianissimo is almost not really a piano, in a strictly dynamic sense of quieter, but rather just closer and more intimate? Strange and indescribable, but I find I don’t mind.
“La mamma morta” from Andrea Chénier…in my opinion, superior vocally to the Callas version that famously reduced Tom Hanks to tears in Philadelphia. Dramatically…we can quibble about that. You might have noticed that Cerquetti was a lady of operatic proportions, physically, but you really shouldn’t care about that at all when your ears are being treated like this.
And holy cow, her Verdi was demented. Listen to this clip of Cerquetti singing the beginning of Act 3 of Un ballo in maschera…with the bonus appearance of another standard-setting Italian singer, baritone Ettore Bastianini.
It seems appropriate to end with her “O patria mia” from that dramatic-soprano touchstone, Aida. Somehow it manages to be plaintive and heartrending and blow the roof off the place…her opening note at 1:54 will give you goosebumps, guaranteed.