Anita Cerquetti’s childhood and youth were spent in Città di Castello, where for eight years she studied the violin as a pupil of Luigi Mori while singing for her own pleasure. She later suggested that playing the violin made her at ease with florid music and helped her to sing with focussed tone. Certainly the quality of her voice caught the attention of her teachers and she was encouraged to audition for the Morlacchi Conservatory in Perugia, which accepted her as a student. Cerquetti’s concert début came at Città di Castello in 1949 and was followed by two more years of study at the Conservatory. After giving a concert of Verdi excerpts in Perugia in 1951 she was approached by the Teatro Nuovo of Spoleto to sing the title rôle in Aida, winning praise for her tone and diction. During 1952 she sang Leonora/Il trovatore at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan, catching the attention of several critics, and immediately afterwards was invited to sing in concert with Beniamino Gigli; but no further offers of work were forthcoming.
At the beginning of 1953 Cerquetti once again sang excerpts from Verdi operas in concert in Perugia and in Busseto and was offered representation by several potential managers. These she turned down, deciding instead to continue her studies at the opera school of the Teatro Communale in Florence. In the summer of the same year she made her début at the Verona Arena as Aida and Leonora/Il trovatore, repeating the latter rôle in Sardinia at the end of the year. Throughout 1954 she combined her studies with appearances at Reggio Emilia, Mestre, Pisa, Bologna and in Belgium, with casts of increasing celebrity.
Cerquetti’s breakthrough occurred during summer 1954 at the Flegrea Arena in Naples, where she sang Aida and achieved national press coverage. At the end of that year she appeared in Florence as Abigaille/Nabucco conducted by Tullio Serafin, who became her mentor. She had an even greater success, again in Florence, during the summer of 1955, when she sang the title rôle in Norma for the first time. Major assignments now followed quickly: Aida at the Caracalla Baths in the summer, followed by an historic radio recording of I vespri siciliani, one of her finest performances. Carol Fox of the Chicago Lyric Opera offered Cerquetti a contract for the autumn of 1955 and she made her Chicago début as Amelia/Un ballo in maschera, singing opposite Jussi Björling. Her performance elicited a standing ovation from the normally phlegmatic Chicagoans.
During 1956 Cerquetti continued to make Florence her artistic base, appearing there as Elisabetta/Don Carlo (having already sung this part in Lisbon during the spring) and in the rarely heard Gli Abencerragi by Cherubini, with Giulini conducting. This was followed by Rossini’s Mosé for the Rome branch of Italian radio. During the summer she also sang in the two major Italian arenas: Verona (Abigaille) and Caracalla (Aida). That winter Cerquetti gave what are reputed to have been her finest stage performances: as Norma in Barcelona. These were described by the tenor singing opposite her, Mirto Picchi: ‘There was delirium preceding the exit from the theatre and police were summoned to act as a cordon when (Cerquetti) made her way to her hotel. Hers was the ultimate lyrica-drammatica Italian voice…’
The following year was full of highlights: Un ballo in maschera in Florence, Aida in Rome and Don Carlo in Palermo (both the latter opposite Corelli) and for Florence’s Maggio Musicale Festival an unforgettable Ernani, with Mitropoulos conducting. During the summer Cerquetti made her only commercial recording of a complete opera: La Gioconda, for Decca in Rome, as well as two significant radio broadcasts (La forza del destino and Oberon), before marrying and departing for performances in Mexico City, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago.
On her return, while singing Norma at the San Carlo in Naples in December 1957, Cerquetti was asked to stand in for Maria Callas, following the notorious ‘Rome walk-out’ when Callas abandoned a performance of Norma even though the Italian president was in the audience. Cerquetti undertook the three further performances at Rome alongside her commitments in Naples, at considerable personal cost and with enormous publicity. After a further Norma at Palermo, she took a long rest to prepare herself for her début at La Scala as Abigaille. Although extremely successful, this too was followed by a prolonged break. In the autumn Cerquetti was back at Mexico City, Philadelphia and Barcelona, but then virtually retired from the operatic stage. After complete silence during 1959, concerts at La Scala in 1960 were followed by a Ballo in Lucca and a Nabucco in Amsterdam, after which she withdrew completely.
The causes of Cerquetti’s sudden retirement have never been made clear, although the most likely reason, excessive stress, has been hinted at by the singer herself. She subsequently lived in Rome where she developed a second career as a teacher of opera. In her prime Cerquetti was unquestionably one of the most exciting singers on the operatic stage, possessed of an extraordinary combination of vocal power and flexibility, with tone that has been likened to ‘molten lava’. Fortunately several notable recordings remain.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist