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The Opera News Awards: Fiorenza Cossotto
| mezzo-soprano |

By F. Paul Driscoll

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Cossotto’s incomparable Amneris, in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1963 La Scala production
Erio Piccagliani © Teatro alla Scala
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Cossotto's Amneris in the Met’s John Dexter staging in 1984
© Beth Bergman
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Cossotto as Leonora di Gusman, one of her favorite roles, in Donizetti’s Favorita at La Scala, 1974
Erio Piccagliani © Teatro alla Scala

FIORENZA COSSOTTO'S  reign as queen of the world’s dramatic mezzos extended more than forty years, beginning with her overwhelming overnight success as Leonora in La Favorita at La Scala in 1962 and extending well into the twenty-first century. Cossotto’s robust, passionate, womanly performances as Amneris, Santuzza, Azucena, Princess Eboli and the Princess di Bouillon were in demand at every major opera house in the world; no other singer of her generation imbued the mezzo roles of Verdi and the verismo composers with Cossotto’s biting, red-blooded italianità. 

Cossotto was a force of nature, a singer who could summon torrents of sound in Act IV of Aida or deliver the Easter-morning curse in Cavalleria Rusticana with such vehemence that it surely could have been heard in heaven. But Cossotto was more than just a voice: she was an artist who could break an audience’s collective heart with the humanity and compassion of her singing. Nobody could deliver the devastation of love refused better than Fiorenza Cossotto. Her scorching “Voi lo sapete” was unforgettable, its every note an expression of profound grief; her agitated, aching “Acerba voluttà” could stop Act II of any Adriana Lecouvreur cold, the audience stunned into silence by the sensuous, tawny beauty Cossotto brought to the ascending phrase of “O vagabonda stella d’Oriente.”

When Cossotto achieved international prominence, she was regarded as the latest in the glorious series of Italian mezzos who had achieved primacy in the Italian repertoire—an honor roll that included Irene Minghini-Cattaneo, Cloe Elmo, Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato and Fedora Barbieri. But few would disagree that Cossotto was and is the last of her line in Italy. While many wonderful singers have triumphed in the roles that were Cossotto’s calling cards, no other Italian artist has emerged to succeed her—a distinction that makes the memory of her performances all the more treasurable and authentic. We are fortunate that Cossotto’s artistry was so well documented on recording, beginning with a number of performances of smaller roles on EMI sets during the late 1950s—the Madrigal Singer in Manon Lescaut, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, Teresa in La Sonnambula—and continuing with more important assignments, such as Cherubino on Carlo Maria Giulini’s beloved 1960 recording of Le Nozze di Figaro. Although there is nothing remotely boyish about Cossotto’s juicy timbre, it is salutary to hear Mozart’s arias for the page sung with such sunny, crisp, Italian flavor.

Educated in Turin and Milan, Cossotto made her debut as Sister Mathilde in the 1957 world premiere of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites at La Scala and attracted early international attention as Giovanna Seymour at the 1958 Wexford Festival and as Neris in Cherubini’s Medea at Covent Garden the following year. One night in January 1962, Cossotto was at home eating supper when she received a telephone call from La Scala informing her that the great mezzo Giulietta Simionato—one of La Scala’s most important stars, and one of Cossotto’s most admired colleagues—was ill and would be unable to sing Leonora in Donizetti’s Favorita. With no time to be nervous, Cossotto took a taxi to the theater, sang the performance and triumphed. From that evening on, Cossotto was a star; within a few seasons, her success took her to Vienna, Chicago, Barcelona, Paris and Venice. Her repertoire extended from Bellini’s Adalgisa and Rossini’s Rosina to Orfeo, Handel’s Atalanta, Urbain in Les Huguenots and Carmen. 

Cossotto’s Met debut was one of the most anticipated events of the New York season; her first Met performance, as Amneris, on February 6, 1968, was a critical and popular knockout success, as was her Laura in La Gioconda a few weeks later. During her fifteen seasons on the Met roster, Cossotto gave 148 performances of ten roles with the company in New York and on tour in Japan and North America—and sang everything with unrelenting commitment and incomparable style. She was her own law, and she was glorious.  —F. Paul Driscoll 

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