Jean-Jacques Hanine Vallaut
How Cinderella Became Queen
Baskerville Publishers, 1997
Giulietta Simionato is considered one of the greatest mezzosoprani of the 20th century and her vocal style, characterized by caressing timbre and exceptional elegance, makes her something more than the point of passage between the illustrious interpreters of the decades between the two wars and those who made a name for themselves in the second half of the century. She was among the first singers who performed Mozart without questionable effects and was among the first mezzosoprani to sing Rosina from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia in the original version, being this part usually sang only by sopranos before her. She was also a remarkable singer of Verdi roles and her Carmen (despite some critics find her too much demure for this part), Charlotte (in Werther) and Giovanna Seymour (Anna Bolena) are milestones in the history of opera.
This modest and hurried summary of Simionato’s qualities is extremely lacunose (it does not comprehend, for example, the stunning performances of Valentina in Les Huguenots or Adalgisa in Norma) and it is necessary to fill it with information that only an extensive and well researched biography can provide. Anyway, Jean-Jacques Hanine Vallaut’s Giulietta Simionato. How Cinderella Became Queen only partially fulfil a reader’s expectations, but unfortunately it is necessary to rely upon this work as this is the only one source about Simionato’s life that is available nowadays (I know there is at least another monography devoted to her, written by Naomi Takeya, but this book is virtually impossible to find).
It is undeniable that this book is very well documented. In two long chapters devoted to Simionato’s career (one for her performances at La Scala and one for her presence on different stages), it collects many significant reviews on almost every roles she sang, giving prominence to the most important ones, as the famous Mignon in 1947 that finally launched Simionato’s career or the equally celebrated Norma and Anna Bolena with Maria Callas. There is also the chance to follow the development and continuous perfecting of characters as Carmen and Santuzza (Cavalleria rusticana) as these are roles that Simionato sang many times during her career. The problem is that How Cinderella Became Queen focuses only on this matter with the addition of just few examples of Simionato’s kindness and irony and of other trifles happened on stage or behind the scenes. The mezzosoprano’s private life (her childhood, her three marriages and her friendship with Maria Callas) is related in three short chapters that are not enough not only to entertain the reader after many and many pages of reviews, but that do not add anything about Simionato’s personality.
I suppose that this structure is due to two reasons: the first is probably the fact that Simionato was still alive when the biography was written and that the indefiniteness of some details is a kind of respect towards her; the second is that Vallaut must have been very busy finding out the material for the book as he himself stated in the introduction that Simionato did not have any document about her career and that he had to discover them alone. This research is reflected by the disposition of the text.
These are two understandable reasons, but I think that something to revive the narration was still possible to do. In fact, many tributes to Simionato from colleagues, conductors, critics and collaborators of all kinds are collected in a long (maybe too long) chapter at the end of the book. In my humble opinion, it would have been sufficient to move some of them (those telling anecdotes referred to a precise opera or situation) into the “principal” narration and to leave the merely commendatory ones into this “place of honour” to achieve a better, more balanced outcome. In the way the material is presented, instead, it happens that the reader has to do this work himself or herself after the end of the official biography. Moreover, some of the anecdotes told by more or less illustrious people as Leyla Gencer, Tito Gobbi’s widow and Marisa Morel are sometimes more agreeable than the few revised by Vallaut in the chapters he wrote. This is something that an easy expedient could have completely avoided.
Giulietta Simionato. How Cinderella Became Queen is therefore an exhaustive book for those who are looking for information about Simionato’s career, but for more avid readers and even for Simionato’s fans this is not sufficient to satiate the curiosity towards one of the most important singers of the last century.