Katia Ricciarelli’s early years were marred by tragedy: her father died when she was young and the other members of her family, apart from her mother, were killed in a car accident. After completing her schooling she worked to earn the money to allow her to study singing at the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory in Venice, where she was a pupil of Iris Adami Corradetti, a notable soprano of the inter-war years. During 1968 Ricciarelli won several vocal competitions and made her operatic stage debut in 1969 at Mantua as Mimì / La Bohème. The following year she appeared in Cherubini’s Anacreon in Siena, attracting considerable interest which increased when she won the Verdi Award at Parma in 1970 and the Voci Verdiane competition in 1971. She subsequently sang Leonora / Il trovatore at Parma as well as the title role in Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco in Rome and Medora / Il corsaro in concert with principals of La Fenice at Frankfurt, all in 1971.
In America Ricciarelli first appeared with the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1972 as Lucrezia / I due Foscari; this was followed by her debut at La Scala, Milan during the following year in the title role of Suor Angelica. At the Royal Opera House, London her debut came in a new 1974 production of La Bohème, opposite José Carreras as Rodolfo. She proved to be extremely popular with English audiences, returning frequently to sing with the Royal Opera Company: as Amelia / Un ballo in maschera (1975), Elisabetta / Don Carlo (1977), Alice / Falstaff (1982), the Trovatore Leonora (1983), Desdemona / Otello (1983, 1987, 1990, 1993), Giulietta / I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1985) and in the title roles of Luisa Miller (1978, 1979, 1981), Lucia di Lammermoor (1980) and Aida (1984). She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1975 as Mimì and returned to sing Micaëla / Carmen in the same year, followed by Desdemona and Luisa in 1978 and 1982 and Amelia in 1980.
By the mid-1970s Ricciarelli was a major international star, singing in Barcelona, Berlin, Geneva, Moscow, New Orleans, Paris and San Francisco; appearing at the Verona Festival in 1973, 1978–1979 and 1984; and performing frequently at the Pesaro Rossini Festival between 1981 and 1989: roles here included Ellen / La donna del lago, Amenaide / Tancredi, Madama Cortese / Il viaggio a Reims, Bianca / Bianca e Falliero and Ninetta / La gazza ladra.
During the 1980s, at the urging of Herbert von Karajan, Ricciarelli recorded several heavier than expected roles, such as the title parts in Tosca and Turandot (which she did not sing on stage). Karajan defended his encouragement in significant words, saying that it was exactly the ‘cry of desperation’ that Ricciarelli evinced as Turandot that would distinguish ‘his’ Turandot from others. It was widely felt, however, that the assumption of such roles came at the cost of the initial soft-grained quality of Ricciarelli’s voice.
Nonetheless she continued to sing widely during the 1980s, for instance in a staging of Aida before the temples of Luxor in 1987. A notable exponent of Donizetti’s three queens, she sang Anna Bolena at the Bregenz Festival and at Stuttgart (1987), Elisabetta / Roberto Devereux at the San Carlo, Naples (1987) and Maria Stuarda at Reggio Emilia (1991). Other memorable assumptions included Marguerite / Faust (Munich and Paris, 1988), Maddalena / Andrea Chénier (Versailles, 1989), Iphigénie / Iphigénie en Tauride by Piccinni (Rome, 1991), Valentine / Les Huguenots (Novara, 1993), Liù / Turandot (Torre del Lago, 1996) and the title role in Handel’s Agrippina (Palermo, 1998), as well as the title parts in the Donizetti operas Caterina Cornaro, Maria de Rohan, Lucrezia Borgia and Imogene in Bellini’s Il pirata. She made her final appearance at the Met as Desdemona in 1990, with Carlos Kleiber conducting.
Having established the Accademia Lirica di Katia Ricciarelli in 1991 she was responsible for the artistic direction of the Teatro Politeamo Greco in Lecce from 1998 to 2003 (appearing there as Giordano’s Fedora in 1998) and between 2003 and 2005 was the artistic director of the Macerata Opera Festival. In 2005 Ricciarelli won the best actress prize, Nastro d’argento, awarded by Italian film journalists for her role in Pupi Avati’s La seconda notte di nozze. She remains an outspoken commentator on artistic matters in Italy.
With her tall elegant figure, beautiful features and convincing acting, Ricciarelli cut a superb figure on stage which, especially in her early years, was ideally matched by her delicate and sensitive singing. An ideal exponent of several major Verdi roles, for instance Luisa Miller, Amelia and Desdemona, she recorded extensively.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).