In my post on the 10 Best Sopranos of the 20th Century I failed to include Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004). Inadvertance is the only reason I can offer for her omission. She came to prominence in the years following the second World War. Toscanini hired her to perform in the reopening of La Scala and her international career was launched. She debuted to great acclaim at the Met in January 1955 as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. Mario Del Monaco was the Moor and Leonard Warren was Iago. She appeared in 269 performances with the Met. Her last in January of 1973 was in the same role as the first. In her final show, James McCracken was Otello and Sherrill Milnes was Iago. Interestingly, James Morris was Lodovico a role he sang today in the broadcast of Verdi’s penultimate opera.
Tebaldi’s singing was much more effective and persuasive during the first half of her New York years. I heard her there many times. If you only listened during the last years of her appearances at the Met you’d wonder what the fuss was about. She was often off pitch and shrieked any note at or above high B flat. But before she took a year off to regather her diminishing vocal resources – between 1955 and the early 60s she had a lush and beautiful lirico-spinto soprano that caused a permanent love affair between her and the Met audience – a love that was requited even after her best years.
Terbaldi was very tall and statuesque. She had the biggest lirico-spinto voice I ever heard. You never had any trouble hearing her no matter how far from the stage you were. She also could caress the notes which was one of the reasons she was so popular in New York. She was also a bit on the lazy side never bothering to sing anything not in her native Italian. But if you have”the voice of an angel”, Toscanini’s famous quip, you can go a long way with Italian alone which after all is “La lingua degli angeli.”
There was a mostly made up rivalry between her and Maria Callas, Fake News in today’s parlance, that got a lot of attention from the press. It was mostly ignored by the Met regulars. There was some rivalry during yer early years at the house between her and Zinka Milanov. They shared a few operas in common like Forza, Aida, Gioconda, Otello, Tosca, and some others; but Tebaldi’s career was centered around verismo opera. She did, however, sing La Traviata an opera that was not part of Milanov’s territory. Tebaldi sang Violetta 21 times at the Met – all in 1957.
The first act of Traviata obviously gave her the most trouble. She does pretty well with Sempre libera considering that fioratura was not her strongest attribute. If she’d wished to focus on this type of singing I’m sure she could have mastered it. Her laugh is closer to a cackle than a giggle and she does not take a high note at the end, but this is a fine rendition of Verdi’s number which has technical problems out of place with the demands of the rest of the part.
A few Verdi selections. She performed her debut and farewell role at the Met, Desdemona, 25 times. The Ave Maria from the last act shows her at her very best – beautiful phrasing, a lovely sound, a fine pianissimo high note at the aria’s end. She sang Leonora in Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino six times at the Met, including the aborted performance during which Leonard Warren died. The role was dropped from her Met repetoire after 1960. The thunderous concluding high note in the following recording gives you an idea of how big her voice was. Tebaldi Pace, Pace mio Dio. She sang 4 Aidas at the Met, all in 1955. She was the voice of Aida in the 1953 film starring Sophia Loren. O patria mia
Puccini was at the center of her work. Here are five selections presented in the order of their composition. Sola perduta, abbandonata from Manon Lescaut. O soave fanciulla from Boheme with Jussi Bjorling is from a TV broadcast. Tebaldi and the great Swede sang only one performance together at the Met – Tosca in 1957 – Vissi d’arte. Un bel di vedremo from Butterfly. O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi
Finally Adriana Lecouvreur. Cilea’s guilty pleasure was brought back to the Met after 50 years of neglect for her or more accurately at her demand. The Met had done the work only three times before Tebaldi along with Franco Corelli resurrected it. Caruso wasn’t strong enough to make a case for the piece. This time Adriana made an impact and has stayed around. Placido Domingo made his Met debut in the opera in 1968 with Tebaldi in the title role and was still singing the tenor part more than 40 years later. This season Anna Netrebko is doing the star turn. The critics think opera mostly fluff, but with the right cast it attracts a big audience. Io son l’umile ancella is from the first act.
Tebaldi at her best was a great artist who had what only God can give – charisma. Audiences could never get enough of her. More than 20 years after she left the Met she returned to the house to sign autographs on copies of an authorized biography. The line of fans stretched across Lincoln Center Plaza and up Broadway. She was a star.