Anita Cerquetti died last week at her home in Rome, at the age of 83. She had surfaced in a few documentary films in recent years, a cheerful, hefty old lady who spoke intelligently and passionately, not about her career but about music, text, and singing.
Far from being a curiosity, Cerquetti had a fine career for the decade on the 1950s. Her debut at age 20, to her final appearances in 1961 had her singing all over Italy, South America and Europe. In the States she appeared with the Chicago Opera, and I believe there were concerts in New York and Philadelphia. This was a brief career, Euro-based. Of commercial recordings in the age of Tebaldi and Callas, there are only two: La Gioconda with Del Monaco, Simionato and Bastianni, and an aria recital.
The record companies weren't interested. The public was. Cerquetti excelled in the big Verdi girls: Aida, the Leonoras, Abigaille and Elena in I vespri Siciliani. Bellini's Norma was a specialty. Cerquetti it was who replaced Callas when that singer abandoned a run of Normas in Rome in 1958, to international fury (de Gaulle and the President of Italy were in the audience. It was thought Callas 'walked out', thus insulting the heads of state, when in fact she was ill and simply could not sing)
Cerquetti was a big woman with an expressive face and a large, gleaming voice. There as a certain huskiness to the tone which helped give the voice originality. The tone was even thought the scale. Norma's rage was no problem for Cerquetti, nor was Norma's ecstasy. This was a huge talent with a very brief career. Why?
Cerquetti spent her life explaining her early retirement, and fighting off rumors from cancer to insanity. By 1961 she was tired. In an interview with Lanfranco Rasponi, she stated:
"When my father became hopelessly ill, I cancelled ll my performances so I could be with him, as I loved him with all my heart. After the shock of his death, my beloved maestro Mario Rossini, to whom I owed everything, passed away. I kept postponing the signing of contracts, then I found myself pregnant. After the birth of my daughter Gioia, once more I could not make up my mind to resume. She needed love, attention and care, and who was going to give it to her with a mother always on the go?"
So she stopped. Raised her daughter and enjoyed her home and family. Interest in her singing never wavered. Cerquetti was always the source of rumor and musical journalists often rang the doorbell. Rasponi, in the aforementioned interview in the elate 1970s tell us, "At first Cerquetti was not eager to see me, but eventually received me in the most cordial manner."
Thanks to recorded broadcasts, we have complete performances of Aida, Norma, Ernani, I vespri Siciliani and Guglielmo Tell. Cerquetti's singing is all over youtube. Her biggest hit is the aria O re dei cieli from Spontini's Agnese di Hohenstaufen. Get going.