Yesterday, La Scala celebrated Fiorenza Cossotto’s 80th birthday with a conference in the Toscanini Foyer. Joining her were Sabino Lenoci and Giancarlo Landini from L’Opera Magazine.
The idea of celebrating the ‘grandi voci’ that this theatre has witnessed started with the celebration of Mirella Freni’s 80th birthday in February. The meeting with Cossotto kicks off a series which will celebrate artists no longer with us – Mario Del Monaco, Carlo Bergonzi, Piero Cappuccilli – as well as the over-eighties such as Renata Scotto and ninety-year-old Virginia Zeani.
The idea of ‘celebration’ has never been high on La Scala’s agenda until now. The last performance of the millennium – the ballet Excelsior on 31 December 1999 – passed without an ‘auguri’ or a glass of bubbly… just another day at La Scala. The new Sovrintendente, Alexander Pereira, seems to have brought about this change, wanting a Christmas tree in the foyer during December (another first), and he obviously adores these great singers, dropping to his knees in front of Cossotto, just as he’d done with Freni.
If this was a one off event, I wouldn’t be critical but, as this may be the format for the following encounters, I should say that there was not enough space for Cossotto to tell her story. Landini filled us in with dates, casts, repertoire and other useful information, and we heard long-ish extracts of her – glorious – singing. This left very little time for Cossotto herself during a one hour encounter. The audience consisted of fans, many of her generation, so they already knew that she started singing important roles at a very young age, they knew of her various débuts, and they have her recordings at home. What was interesting was to hear Cossotto’s personal recollections. Here are a couple of the few she managed to get in.
I actually ‘lived’ at La Scala. When I first came to Milan I was afraid to go by myself to a hotel. I was only used to the three or four streets between my home and the railway station [in Crescentino, near Vercelli in Piedmont, where she still lives] to go to the Conservatoire in Turin, so to arrive in Milan…! The porter at the time used to live with his family in an apartment above the theatre and he offered me a bed. So I ‘lived’ at La Scala until I found a room in a house with a lady from Piedmont.
She was just 21 when she made her début in Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, and just a month later in January on 1957 she created the role of Sister Mathilde in Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des carmélites. She sang continuously at the Piccolo Scala (an intimate theatre housed in the main building which no longer exists) and on the main stage, but in 1962 her big break came at the theatre which firmly established her as one of opera’s brightest stars. By this time, she had had ready made her Covent Garden début and recorded a Madama Butterfly with Renata Tebaldi, La Gioconda with Maria Callas and Principessa d’Eboli in Don Carlo. However, this last minute substitution in 1962 really made waves.
I was rehearsing Serse for the Piccolo Scala with Mirella Freni, Luigi Alva… we were all young. I had already attended a rehearsal of La Favorita for the main house as the protagonist [Giulietta Simionato] was not feeling well. After a day of rehearsing, I arrived home tired and my Mother had prepared something hot for me to eat. As we were starting to eat the Sovrintendente phoned and said “Cossottina…”, and when he called me Cossottina I knew he wanted something. He said that the mezzo was ill and could I go on. I said that she’d been ill for days, so couldn’t he have asked me before so I could have relaxed during the day. I told him I was about to eat. “Eat? No! If you eat you won’t be able to sing!” I rushed to La Scala and went straight on stage. There was an announcement that I was the replacement and there was a groan from the audience. But as I was so tired, and I remembered all the sacrifices my parents had made so that I could study, I didn’t let it get to me.
At the end of the first act I belted out a high-C that I held on to as long as the tenor. The audience were amazed… they had only heard me in Mozart, Handel or singing Suzuki before. Maestro Bianchi came to me and said, in the Milanese dialect, “So Cossottina, you’ve got a high-C!”
That is how she came to sing the opening night of La Favorita and show the Milanese audience what she could deliver. The 7 December of that year, the opening night of the season, was a Trovatore, and Cossotto was the Azucena!
I remembered the gypsies who came to our town to mend boilers and do odd jobs when I was a girl. One had all these gold and silver medals, they were enormous! We would ask each other if they were real. She was the Queen of the gypsies. When I was to sing Azucena I remembered this and so I said that I wanted gold everywhere, so I had gold medals around my neck, around my waist and on my forehead. The experience of a small town brought to the stage of La Scala.
What Pier Luigi Pizzi, the meticulous designer, though about this input is unknown!
Cossotto is renowned for her strong character, sometimes difficult. But she is a woman who says what she thinks.
If I had been a little smarter, I wouldn’t have said what came in to my head. But I was infantile, a girl, and said what I thought, things that others wouldn’t have… I should have kept my mouth shut.
So playing a strong woman like Amneris fitted her like a glove.
I always played her as a woman in love who felt betrayed… I tried to make her human not a statue, a woman who was suffering. I don’t know whether this came over to the audience, but…
Extracts of her Amneris floated through the corridors of La Scala once more, and at the end, once again, she had the audience on its feet.