Episode 222. Shirley Verrett, Falcon Sfogatissima

Episode 222. Shirley Verrett, Falcon Sfogatissima



It is hard to believe that it’s already been 13 years since the death of Shirley Verrett on November 5, 2010. It has also already been four years since I did a pair of episodes on this extraordinary and beloved artist, and this anniversary gives me the perfect excuse to revisit the work of this mezzo-soprano turned soprano who more than any other singer in my experiences (even soon-to-be birthday girl Maria Callas) was capable of singing nearly anything. This type of singer is sometimes referred to as a soprano sfogato (or a falcon, after the 19th century French mezzo-cum-soprano Cornélie Falcon. Since Verrett, like Falcon, sang both mezzo and soprano, I instead coin the term falcon sfogatissima to describe her vocal magic. This episode is chock full of examples of Verrett’s impassioned yet technically-grounded vocalism, from art songs by Brahms and Pasatieri to operatic roles by Handel, Gluck, Cherubini, Bellini, Puccini, and Verdi (including both soprano and mezzo roles in Aida and the Messa da Requiem and soprano roles in Ballo in Maschera, Macbeth, Don Carlo, and Otello). I close the episodes with Verrett’s astonishing but limited forays into the German operatic repertoire. Her collaborators on this episode include conductors Seiji Ozawa, Claudio Abbado, Bernard Haitink, Zubin Mehta, Eve Queler, Georges Prêtre, Sarah Caldwell, and the late Kenneth Montgomery; and fellow operatic greats Sherrill Milnes, Luciano Pavarotti, James McCracken, Robert Massard (last week’s featured artist), and her frenemy the late Grace Bumbry.


Pete Seeger: Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Shirley Verrett, Orchestra arranged and conducted by Leonard de Paur [1966]

Vincenzo Bellini, Felice Romani: No, non tremare (Norma). Shirley Verrett, Orchestra conducted by Jan Behr [live Boston 19.IV.1976]

Vincenzo Bellini, Felice Romani: Mira, o Norma (Norma). Shirley Verrett, Grace Bumbry, Eve Queler, Opera Orchestra of New York [live Carnegie Hall 31.I.1982]

Luigi Cherubini, François-Benoît Hoffmann [after Euripides]: Euménides, des argonautes (Medée). Shirley Verrett, Pinchas Steinberg, Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris [Paris 10.III.86]

Camille Saint-Saëns, Ferdinand Lemaire: Il faut, pour assouvir ma haine (Samson et Dalila). Shirley Verrett, Robert Massard, Georges Prêtre, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano [live 25.I.1970]

Johannes Brahms, I Corinthians 13 [German translation by Martin Luther]: Wenn ich mit Menschen und mit Engelszungen redete [excerpt] (Vier ernste Gesänge, Op. 121/4). Shirley Verrett, Marius Nygaard [live New York 15.III.1957]

Thomas Pasatieri, James Agee: Sonnet (Three Poems of James Agee). Shirley Verrett, Warren Wilson [live New York 13.IV.1974]

George Frideric Handel, librettist unknown [after Ludovico Ariosti]: Mi lusinga il dolce affetto (Alcina). Shirley Verrett, Warren Wilson [live Edinburgh 1969]

Christoph Willibald Gluck, Rainieri de’ Calzabigi: Numi! Barbari numi! (Orfeo ed Euridice). Shirley Verrett, Seiji Ozawa, Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI [live 30.VI.1970]

Christoph Willibald Gluck, Nicolas-François Guillard [after Racine and Euripides]: Ô malheureuse Iphigénie (Iphigénie en Tauride). Shirley Verrett, Kenneth Montgomery, Orchestre et Choeur de l’Opéra National de Paris [live Paris 1984]

Christoph Willibald Gluck, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, François-Louis Gand le Bland du Roullet [after Euripides]: Je n’ai jamais chéri la vie (Alceste). Shirley Verrett, Michael Schønwandt, Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris [live 1985]

Giuseppe Verdi, Antonio Ghislanzoni: Sacerdoti: compiste un delitto! (Aida). Shirley Verrett, Edward Downes, Omroeporkest and Groot Omroepkoor [Amsterdam 18.XII.1971]

Giuseppe Verdi, Antonio Ghislanzoni: Là, tra i foreste vergine (Aida). Shirley Verrett, James McCracken, Sarah Caldwell, Opera Company of Boston [live Boston 08.VI.1980]

Giuseppe Verdi, Arrigo Boito [after William Shakespeare]: Mi guarda! il volto e l’anima ti svelo (Otello). Shirley Verrett, James McCracken, Sarah Caldwell, Opera Company of Boston [Boston 31.V.1981]

Giuseppe Verdi: Liber scriptus (Messa da Requiem). Shirley Verrett, Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Chorus [live Tanglewood 11.VII.81]

Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem aeternam [from Libera me] (Messa da Requiem). Shirley Verrett, Claudio Abbado, Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milano [live Budapest 16.VI.1981]

Giuseppe Verdi, Antonio Somma [after Eugène Scribe]: Oh, qual soave brivido (Un ballo in maschera). Shirley Verrett, Luciano Pavarotti, Claudio Abbado, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano [live 30.XII.1977]

Giuseppe Verdi, Francesco Maria Piave [after William Shakespeare]: Ma dimmi, altra voce non parti d’udire? (Macbeth). Shirley Verrett, Sherrill Milnes, Orchestra conducted by Anton Guadagno [live New York 1989]

Giacomo Puccini, Luigi Illica, Giuseppe Giacosa [after Victorien Sardou]: Orsù, Tosca, parlate (Tosca). Shirley Verrett, Sherrill Milnes, Veriano Luchetti, Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra [live 26.VII.1980]

Giuseppe Verdi, Joseph Méry, Camille du Locle [after Friedrich Schiller; Italian translation by Achille de Lauzières: Tu che le vanità (Don Carlo). Shirley Verrett, Stefan Soltesz, Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique [live Paris 02.II.1987]

Verrrett as Eboli [Wien 1970]
Shirley Verrett and Edward Sooter in Fidelio

Ludwig Van Beethoven, Joseph Sonnleithner [after Jean-Nicolas Bouilly]: So leuchtet mir ein Farbenbogen… Komm, Hoffnung… Ich folg’ dem innern Triebe (Fidelio). Shirley Verrett, Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink [live New York III.1982]

Richard Wagner: Mild und leise [Liebestod] (Tristan und Isolde). Shirley Verrett, Zubin Mehta, New York Philharmonic [live Avery Fisher Hall 24.IX.77]

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