On 12 January 1844, the Teatro San Carlo in Naples presented the first performance of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro, its composer’s penultimate opera (his final piece, Ne m’oubliez pas, was never completed), written when Donizetti was succumbing to the disease that would prematurely end his life. The title role was sung by Fanny Goldberg, about whom little is remembered other than her participation in the first production of Caterina Cornaro and the exasperation she inspired in Donizetti. ‘I wrote for a soprano, and they give me a mezzo,’ the frustrated composer wrote to a relative before the Caterina Cornaro premiere. Donizetti’s anxiety was ultimately proved to be justified: Caterina Cornaro pleased neither the Neapolitan audience nor critics and was withdrawn after six performances. Revivals during the Twentieth Century – first with the fiery Leyla Gencer, again at the San Carlo in 1972 and then with the Opera Theatre of New Jersey at Carnegie Hall in 1973, with Montserrat Caballé in several European venues, with Brazilian soprano Auréa Gómez at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in 1982, with Matile Rowland (replacing Aprile Millo) for Opera Orchestra of New York in 1994, with Denia Mazzola-Gavazzeni at the Teatro Donizetti di Bergamo in 1995, and with Julia Migenes (conducted by Richard Bonynge) at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1998 – failed to fully reverse the opera’s fortunes, as did a 1974 RAI Torino broadcast (and recording) with the unjustly-neglected Italian soprano Margherita Rinaldi. Despite passages of acknowledged musical distinction, the score was regarded largely as it was in 1844, as a failed effort by an important composer. On 20 March 2010, however, in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Donizetti’s opera seria swansong received the invaluable attention of a remarkable soprano whose career has contained many triumphant forays into rare bel canto repertory: Nelly Miricioiu. Even the insights of this committed singer likely will not restore Caterina Cornaro to the repertory, where indeed it perhaps does not truly deserve to be, but her performance further secured her throne as Amsterdam’s Queen of Bel Canto.
Hailed by Italian audiences as ‘La Unica’ for her unique dramatic gifts and remarkable musical versatility, Nelly Miricioiu was born in Adjud, Romania, which is also the hometown of opera-singing sisters Elena Dan and Angela Gheorghiu. Sadly, Ms. Miricioiu’s early life paralleled the history of her fatherland during the years of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s brutal Marxist regime: first enduring the persecution of her family by Ceauşescu’s government, she then fell victim herself to abuse and imprisonment by the fearsome Securitate, Romania’s Communist secret police. Inevitably, the emotional scars of this existence affected Ms. Miricioiu’s development as an artist and as an individual. ‘The main experience [from my early life] was the pain from being a sensitive child and having my dreams and individuality suppressed by the cruel regime who at that time controlled the lives of everyone in Romania,’ she recollects. ‘To change this I needed to rework and find again the emotions and belief within myself in order to experience the freedom to explore what was possible in my greatest passion in life – music.’
Singing was the young Ms. Miricioiu’s connection with the happier life that she sensed could be hers. ‘I lived for music because it connected me to Mother Nature and the love of trying to make people happy,’ she says. In a sense, music was Ms. Miricioiu’s means of emotional escape. Still, opportunities for honing her art under the tutelage of great artists of her own and other countries were limited by the repressive environment in which she came of age. ‘I was not particularly influenced by opera singers in my youth,’ she remembers. ‘Having said that, I always strongly recommend to young singers that they should take for inspiration what is best from artists and performances both past and present,’ she adds. After having displayed prodigious talent for singing as a young girl and winning her first singing competition at the age of fourteen, Ms. Miricioiu studied in her native country at the Conservatory of Iaşi (now the George Enescu Universirty of Arts of Iaşi). A string of victories in international singing competitions, including the inaugural Maria Callas Grand Prix in 1975, launched her career. After making her main-stage debut as the Königin der Nacht in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Ms. Miricioiu was cast in leading roles in theatres throughout Romania. The political atmosphere in Romania only continued to deteriorate in the decade prior to Ceauşescu’s ouster in 1989, however, and the world beyond Romania’s borders beckoned Ms. Miricioiu.
Still only in her late twenties, Ms. Miricioiu gave one of her first performances outside of Romania at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila in 1980. Tumultuously cheered by the Filipino public, she was likewise lauded by the Philippines’ First Lady, Imelda Marcos. The success of her performance in Manila inspired Ms. Miricioiu to the harrowing decision of affecting her defection from her homeland. Unfortunately, the Marcos government maintained diplomatic ties with Ceauşescu’s Romania, and the Filipino government were compelled by protocol to reject Ms. Miricioiu’s request for political asylum.
In 1982, Ms. Miricioiu experienced a milestone in her fledgling international career when she made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as Nedda in a production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci opposite the Canio of Jon Vickers, the Tonio of Piero Cappuccilli, and the Silvio of Sir Thomas Allen. A short time before, she had enjoyed another triumph in her debut with Scottish Opera in Glasgow as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, a role that became one of the most frequent in Ms. Miricioiu’s diary. The beauty and dedication of her singing impressed the legendary patron of the arts Lord Harewood, who took up her cause. She was granted asylum by the British government, and the United Kingdom became her new home.
Additional international successes followed Ms. Miricioiu’s Covent Garden debut in rapid succession. In 1983, she was called upon to introduce herself to the legendarily demanding public at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala as Donizetti’s Lucia, replacing Luciana Serra. Her magnificent performance was rapturously received by the often-merciless denizens of La Scala’s loggione. Her success as Lucia was repeated two years later in Modena, when she sang the role alongside the Edgardo of celebrated tenor Carlo Bergonzi. Ms. Miricioiu’s debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera followed four years later when, on 28 October 1989, she sang Mimì in Franco Zeffirelli’s famed production of Puccini’s La Bohème. Further debuts and performances brought delight to audiences throughout Europe, the United States, and South America.
The early years of Ms. Miricioiu’s international career were marked by her uncanny ability to adapt her technique to a wide array of repertory, ranging from Mozart to verismo, without compromising the quality of her singing. In addition to roles such as Lucia and Violetta, she was praised for performances of Cio-Cio San and the soprano heroines of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. One of the most interesting aspects of Ms. Miricioiu’s artistry is the way in which she sang such a broad repertory without damaging her voice. ‘In some ways, it’s not good to continue to sing operas that maybe stretch your possibilities too much, but by the same token I also needed to first push my limits in order to find out what I can do. I also wanted in those early years to find out what my journey was supposed to be, and by allowing myself a little freedom to explore repertories from which I could learn, I always felt this would eventually help me to come closer to revealing my true dramatic possibilities,’ she says. Recalling the roles that she was offered in the early years of her career, she adds, ‘Still, choice was not a luxury I always had available.’
These experiences shaped Ms. Miricioiu’s concepts of her own artistry and approach to singing. She suggests that singing is a dual exercise for both body and soul. ‘Technique being to the Body what musical expression is to the Soul, what else can there be?’ she asks. ‘Above all, I need to make the art of singing part of my own spiritual life and experience.’ This centrality of singing in her emotional life is evident in the way in which Ms. Miricioiu approaches the roles that she sings. ‘I am totally committed to the music, but in many ways what you see onstage is part of my personality, and I always need something through which I can channel my energy, my imagination, my need to work, my love for my fellow man, my curiosity, and my interest in diverse subjects. Singing was always the center of my life and shaped the way I viewed art and humanity both on and off stage.’ Her vast repertory led her to believe that a singer’s trust in his or her own intuition is the key to pursuing a long and meaningful career. ‘Be honest with yourself and [with the] music,’ she muses. ‘Listen, learn, practice, test for yourself. The single most important piece of advice for anyone with a passion to sing and a natural voice,’ she states, ‘is never to believe that there is only one possible journey for the voice; or to accept that any magic formula can replace the dedication needed to build and sustain a singing career.’
Despite the necessity of understanding and respecting one’s own abilities and limitations, opera is an essentially collaborative art, and Ms. Miricioiu has participated in one of the most significant artistic collaborations in operatic history. Even considering the importance of Maria Callas to EMI/HMV/Angel and of Dame Joan Sutherland and Renata Tebaldi to DECCA/London, the fortunes of a recording venture have scarcely ever relied as prominently as have those of the Opera Rara label on the singing of Nelly Miricioiu. Founded in 1970 by Americans Patric Schmid and Don White, Opera Rara began as an organization dedicated to giving performances of long-forgotten, lesser works of the bel canto period. The Company gave their first concert, dedicated to the music of Saverio Mercadante in celebration of the centenary of his death, on 17 December 1970, and their first performance of a complete opera – Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto – followed in 1972. By the end of the decade, Opera Rara had brought out their first recording, an exciting account of Donizetti’s sprawling Ugo, Conte di Parigi. With an ambitious desire to produce more recordings of overlooked bel canto works, Opera Rara needed a diva who could convincingly sing the roles created for some of the most renowned and musically adventurous sopranos of the Nineteenth Century. In 1993, they planned a studio recording of Mercadante’s Orazi e Curiazi in which the role of Camilla would be sung by Ms. Miricioiu. With this recording began a fruitful collaboration that continues more than a decade later. The success of Ms. Miricioiu’s singing in the Orazi e Curiazi recording led to her singing of the barnstorming role of Eleonora in Opera Rara’s 1994 recording of Donizetti’s Rosmonda d’Inghilterra, in which the title role was sung by the young Renée Fleming. When Ms. Miricioiu duplicated her superb performance in her first outing on the Opera Rara label both in Rosmonda and in the following year’s recording of Rossini’s Ricciardo e Zoraide, Patric Schmid knew that he had found his diva.
‘Patric once said to me that he [had] been waiting for thirty years to find the soprano who could sing some of the roles of operas he had been collecting over the years. He gave me a “platform” and showed that he believed in me and loved my artistry and commitment,’ Ms. Miricioiu remembers wistfully. ‘He inspired me with his own knowledge of those rare operas, and singing for him enriched my life in many ways. I shall never forget this.’ Pursuing his passion to the last moment of his life, Mr. Schmid passed away suddenly on 6 November 2005, only a short time before a performance of Donizetti’s Il Diluvio Universale that followed recording sessions for Opera Rara. ‘We shared tears and laughter,’ Ms. Miricioiu says, ‘and I miss him!’
Even viewed in the context of her searing performances in Verdi roles and in operas such as Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (in the title role of which Ms. Miricioiu made her warmly-received return to Romania after an absence of nearly thirty years), Respighi’s La Fiamma and Marie Victoire, and Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, it is as an interpreter of bel canto roles that Ms. Miricioiu has achieved her greatest successes and assumed her place among the ranks of such legendary singers as Maria Malibran and Giuditta Pasta, Luisa Tetrazzini and Dame Nellie Melba, and Maria Callas and Dame Joan Sutherland. Often compared to the great Callas, Ms. Miricioiu has displayed throughout her career a consistent affinity not only for the complex vocal requirements of bel canto but also for the dramatic intricacies – far too often disserved in the performances of lesser artists – of even the ignored operas by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. Her performances of the title roles in Rossini’s Armida, Bellini’s Norma, and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia, and Maria Stuarda, as well as Amenaide in Rossini’s Tancredi and Imogene in Bellini’s Il Pirata, have electrified audiences at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, inspiring the typically subdued Dutch patrons to Italianate expressions of feverous appreciation. The somewhat smaller scale of bel canto productions, and the theatres in which they are most often presented, contributes to Ms. Miricioiu’s effectiveness in this repertory. ‘I am not truly comfortable in very large theatres,’ she states. ‘I believe in the possibilities of expressing intimate emotions from the opera stage [just as they are] found in plays and cinema, and I particularly don’t like being presented on any stage in the sort of semi-obscurity that you find in some productions, which feels like an attempt to reduce and homogenize the individualities of artists.’ It is the communication that must develop between the artist and an audience that is vital to her singing, not only of bel canto roles. ‘It’s only through connecting inner experiences with the music that an artist can truly convey any close-on emotions of opera to the audience – and certainly not through vocal technique alone,’ she continues. ‘I suppose [that] in this respect the only real differences between bel canto and verismo repertories are the styles and periods of the orchestration, but generally my approach to both is the same whether the theatres are large or small.’ Bringing this dedication to connecting with her audience to her Amsterdam performance of Caterina Cornaro, she also recalls a similar artistic experience in a vastly different score. ‘One recent great challenge was learning and performing on stage, from memory, Poulenc’s one-act, one-woman opera La Voix humaine, which lasts fifty minutes. [Singing is] gratifying when I can make the composer happy, the public happy, and myself happy.’ With typical good humor, she adds, ‘and maybe some critics, too! I have plenty more to keep me challenged, though, and to [help me] to remember always to have the humility to never stop learning.’
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Ms. Miricioiu’s artistry, not least in bel canto, is her ability, virtually absent from the world’s stages since the retirement of Maria Callas, to portray the often outrageous situations in which her characters find themselves with dramatic veracity that derives from organic responses to emotional stimuli. This was memorably apparent even in a concert performance of Bellini’s Il Pirata for Washington Concert Opera that the present author attended. Rather than seeking inspiration from external sources, Ms. Miricioiu looks to the music itself to find the cornerstones of her dramatic portraits. ‘We should remember that without composers and librettists, particularly those of great genius, opera would have no stage on which to work,’ she insists. ‘I feel [that artists] should therefore try as much as possible to find the humility and integrity to serve the music and drama in the manner in which [the composers and librettists] originally intended. At least artistically, I believe [that] this is the only way that opera can really survive. Although it may endure different forms in terms of exciting designs and lighting, dramatic settings, and theatrical movements, the emphasis on music must still always reign supreme.’ That musicality and innate respect for the endeavors of composers and librettists are vital to Ms. Miricioiu’s singing is obvious in any of her performances or recordings. Perhaps what sets her apart from so many of her contemporaries who have sung a similar repertory is that deep concentration on the music and text are for her liberating rather than confining.
Above all, singing is for Ms. Miricioiu not a chore or merely a career, not a task undertaken out of the obligation created by the recognition of a genuine talent, but the fulfillment of dreams and bottomless founts of desire. ‘I cannot just exist, as life for me is an active thing, not simply living without challenges,’ she says. ‘I am an insatiable “doer” in music and in life, and only death will end my passion.’ Looking to the future, there is another seldom-heard Donizetti opera on her horizon – Belisario, which she will sing in February 2011 for London’s Chelsea Opera Group, an underappreciated staple of London’s operatic community for which she has already sung an assortment of roles including Rossini’s Ermione and Semiramide, Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda and Imogene (Il Pirata), Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia, Verdi’s Odabella (Attila) Lady Macbeth, and Violetta (La Traviata), and Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. She also returns to her native Romania again in April 2010 to sing Adriana Lecouvreur.
Many youngsters who faced the hardships that Nelly Miricioiu endured in her youth would have abandoned their dreams, succumbing to the routines that too readily absorbed them or simply fading into the oblivion of faceless existence. From Providence Ms. Miricioiu received the gift of a sublimely beautiful voice, and from her own inner determination she drew the strength to carry on despite crushing adversity. Her modesty permits only fleeting glimpses of this legacy of resilience, but it can be heard in each of her performances. Belief in the power of music was the path that she followed to freedom from the oppression that imperiled not just her artistry but also her life, and the greatest single measure of her enduring accomplishments as a singer is the fact that, after years of happiness, safety, and success, she continues her journey along that path with untarnished conviction.
I am deeply indebted to Ms. Miricioiu for her exceptional candor and grace in responding to my questions and to her publicist, Ms. Maria Mot, for her kind and thorough assistance, as well as for permission to use the photographs included in this profile.