Letter from Renata Tebaldi






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This is an article from Gramophone (June 1998) by Patrick O’Connor

The distinctive voice of Renata Tebaldi was not done full justice by the recording technology of her day, one which served Callas so much better. But, as Patrick O’Connor argues, Tebaldi’s legacy on disc has as much to offer and deserves proper recognition.

Each generation has its own prima donnas, and their admirers always lament the decline of vocal technique, wallowing in nostalgia for the glories of a golden past. Renata Tebaldi stood out in the 1950s as the standard-bearer for an old-fashioned, Italian style rooted in the traditions of the 1920s and 1930s, a vocal production that can be recognized through recordings by Claudia Muzio, Gina Cigna and Maria Caniglia. It is a type of voice we hardly ever hear today, a lyric soprano that is anchored in a splendid, contralto-like lower register that seems to act as the launch pad for high notes that were of such power that studio technicians had to instruct Tebaldi to turn away from the microphones every time a climatic phrase was approaching.

No matter how sophisticated the recording, great, luxurious voices such as Tebaldi’s can never really be contained by records, and in the 25 years since she gave her final performances on stage, her reputation has been increasingly overshadowed by that of her rival, Maria Callas. Callas’s analytical, Freudian approach to her roles has proved perfect for listeners who never saw her, whereas Tebaldi’s more natural enunciation of Italian and her emotion-packed, but more generalized, interpretations are held by some to be too bland on disc. As Paul Jackson writes in his monumental study of the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts (Sign-Off For The Old Met; Duckworth: 1997), "One is very often beguiled into acquiescence as that glorious voice streams forth… but one’s interest can wane by the end of a Tebaldi performance".

Tebaldi’s career fell into three distinct periods. The first, from the time of her professional début in 1944 until she joined the roster at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, found her singing a wide repertory, ranging from Handel and Mozart to Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. Early reviewers, covering her performances in Rossini’s L’assedio di Corinto, praised her florid singing, which seems surprising if one only knows her later manner, when the voice always seemed too heavy even for the slight coloratura to be found in La Traviata or Manon Lescaut. From 1955 until 1963 her career became more centred in the USA, and she gradually dropped parts like Violetta, the Figaro Countess and Elsa in Lohengrin that made demands on the upper part of her voice. In 1963 she retired for a year, re-structured her technique and came back, using a darker range of vocal colours which gave her one of the outstanding successes of her career in the title-role of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. After her final opera appearances, in 1972 and 1973, as Alice in Falstaff and Desdemona in Otello, she gave concerts for another three years, and then, as Sir Georg Solti wrote in his memoirs, she had the wisdom "to retire at the right moment… leaving the public with memories", as he put it, "of full vocal bloom". That isn’t strictly true, since to anyone it must have been obvious that by the 1970s she was experiencing problems, but at her last London appearance, at the Royal Albert Hall in 1973, the power and splendour of her voice was still something to wonder at. Her attack on the final phrases of Santuzza’s "Voi lo sapete" remains in my memory, as does the expansive charm and tenderness of her contribution to the Act 1 finale of La bohème with her partner, the dashing Franco Corelli.

Tebaldi sung with the leading tenors of her time – Bergonzi, di Stefano, Del Monaco, Corelli, Tucker, Kraus and, eventually, Domingo, who was often her partner in the late 1960s, before his recording career began. On disc, however, she was most often paired with Mario Del Monaco, and their partnership was set up by Decca to rival EMI’s Callas/di Stefano. For all Del Monaco’s magnificent tone and fiery manner – and I am not someone who dismisses him completely – he isn’t the ideal tenor for Tebaldi and a lot of their recordings have not weathered the years happily. The engineers never seem to capture the beauty of Tebaldi’s soft singing, something which again and again reviewers in the 1950s commented on, and even at such an obvious moment as the climax of Adriana Lecouvreur’s "Io son l’umile ancella" one misses the expected floating quality. On both her studio recordings of La bohème, the final note of the Act 1 duet seems to be a problem. But turn to the film "The Art of Singing", recently issued by NVC Arts (1/97), that has her in this duet with Jussi Björling and one hears what she could achieve here – it is exactly as she describes it herself in an interview: "The voice and breathing are like a glass containing a drop of oil floating on water. The oil does not drop into the water, it remains floating".

Tebaldi has often said that Puccini was her favourite composer; as well as Bohème she recorded Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Liù in Turandot each twice, and also all three soprano parts in Il Trittico and the title-roles in Manon Lescaut and La fanciulla del West. Of these, her own favourite is the second Butterfly, in which her Pinkerton is Carlo Bergonzi, but even more satisfying to my ears are her contributions on the Trittico. Though she never sung these roles on stage, her voice seems exactly right for both Giorgetta in Il tabarro and Suor Angelica. Tebaldi has often been accused of being less dramatic than Callas, but if you want to hear what she is capable of, go to the moment in Suor Angelica when she rounds on her aunt with the words "Sorella di mia madre, voi siete inesorabile!" ("My mother’s sister, you are unrelenting!"). These sudden, vehement dramatic outbursts from Tebaldi can sometimes sound as if they’re coming from another voice; on disc it can be disconcerting, in the theatre it must have been enthralling.

Of her Verdi recordings the most celebrated are the two sets she made with Karajan, Aida and Otello. Tebaldi has complained of the agonies Karajan put her through for Aida, repeating one passage 12 times until she felt there was nothing left. Despite the many other interpretations that have come later, the Otello remains a great achievement, the Decca sound, and even Del Monaco, all at full strength. Tebaldi recorded three Verdi roles in which she never appeared on stage – Leonora in Il Trovatore, Elisabeth de Valois in Don Carlos (with Solti) and – her last complete opera set – Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, with Pavarotti. Of these, Amelia would have suited her best, but by the time the set was made, in 1970, her ‘new’ voice was showing signs of coming apart – the hefty chest register not altogether making up for an increasingly perilous sound above the stave.

If Tebaldi’s reputation is to be restored for a new generation, Decca ought to do for her what EMI have done for Callas, and issue some of the many live recordings that exist; not only of roles that she never recorded commercially – of these they might begin with the searing account of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco, with Bergonzi, recorded in Naples in 1951 – but also key operas from her main repertoire. There is a 1960 Vienna performance of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, with Corelli and Bastianini, conducted by Lovro von Matacic, that seems like a definitive interpretation, and only three months ago AB, in his survey of the Verdi Requiem (Gramophone "Collection", 3/98), hailed Tebaldi’s performance in the 1951 de Sabata recording from La Scala as "the most compelling account of the soprano part on disc". How wonderful it would be if this could be given a proper release. The one live performance that is officially available is a Tosca from the Met, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos, on January 7th, 1956, with Tebaldi, Tucker and Leonard Warren (on the Met’s own Historic Broadcast CD series). This was the role she sung most often at the Met – 45 times – and it is not difficult to understand why.

As people used to say, "A good soprano is worth a ton scenery", and even if you don’t altogether go along with that notion, there is a grandeur and solidity about Tebaldi’s performances from which singers and listeners alike can learn a great deal. Just as spontaneity and charm can’t really be taught, neither can sincerity. Tebaldi said that when she sang, she "felt that I was speaking with each person present in the theatre", and that is exactly how she seemed.

Patrick O'Connor

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