Giulietta Simionato - who died in Rome on May 5, a week before her 100th birthday - had abandoned the stage some 44 years earlier, but for decades afterwards her presence was strongly felt in Italian musical life. With her inimitable chignon, her unfailing smile and melodiously youthful speaking voice, she seemed an eternal reminder that a legendary past was not entirely over.
Born in Forli on May 12 1910, Simionato was the most versatile of the great 20th century Italian mezzos. Her voice, not enormous in volume but uncommonly well-projected, spanned two and a half perfectly equalised octaves. The timbre was attractive, with plenty of high overtones, and although she didn't employ a wide range of dynamics, she could mould a line expertly and brighten and darken the sound at will. While not genuinely virtuosic, her coloratura was fluent and she contributed significantly to the re-evaluation of the bel canto repertoire. Even in her fifties she alternated Amneris and Cherubino, Dalila and Cenerentola.
Cinderella's story was in many ways her own, for although - while still studying with Ettore Lucatello - she made her operatic debut in Padua (as Lola in Cavalleria rusticana) as early as 1932, she then signed a contract with La Scala that kept her away from leading roles. Her talent was only recognised there when she scored a big success in Thomas's Mignon in 1947, and from then on she never looked back, dominating the mezzo repertoire on the world's stages for almost two decades, becoming a favourite in Vienna (with Karajan) and in the major American houses.
Although decidedly petite, she was a resourceful actress (as videos prove). She recorded 22 complete operas for Decca and other labels, while incandescent live recordings document performances alongside Callas in Norma and Anna Bolena at La Scala as well as a Coronation season Aida at Covent Garden (Testament).