Skip to comments.Renata Tebaldi -- obituary
Posted on 12/22/2004 5:37:18 PM PST by dighton
Renata Tebaldi, the operatic soprano who died yesterday in San Marino aged 82, was one of the two great prima donnas of the early post-war era; with Maria Callas, whose style was vastly differerent, she was in demand in every opera house worth its salt.
The Royal Opera House, unfortunately, was slow on the uptake; Renata Tebaldi appeared at Covent Garden only with the company of La Scala on its famous visit to London in 1950, and in Puccinis Tosca with the then resident company in 1955. Her dominance throughout Italy, however, was complete, and she was greatly admired and sought-after in the United States.
Her fame rested on her glorious voice, a lyric-dramatic soprano displayed in almost all the major roles of Verdis and Puccinis operas. Her tone was rich and refulgent and, for such a large instrument, reasonably flexible. She was a dignified, natural rather than commanding, actress and that was where she differed from Callas; but her technique and sound were more reliable than those of her more volatile and exciting rival, and nobody in the past 30 years has equalled her very special achievement.
Stories abounded of the rivalry and feuding between the two divas. Rudolf Bing, who had to cope with them both at the Metropolitan opera house in New York, recorded in his memoirs that Callas cancelled her Traviatas for the 1957-58 season simply because Tebaldi had been allowed to cancel hers. It is therefore logical, Callas informed Bing, that I should not perform this role either, since Tebaldi has dared to impose the above-mentioned cancellation on you.
For a long period there existed an undeniable froideur between the two; Callas once compared Tebaldi to herself as Coca-Cola to Champagne, and for nearly 16 years they barely spoke. But they were reconciled in 1968, and by and large it was the rival groups of supporters who fanned the flames, not the sopranos themselves.
Tebaldi once reproved the New York representative of her recording company because he did not dare to tell her that Callass was the best recording of La Gioconda to study before making her own; and the public was lucky to have two such contrasting divas before them, and to be able to compare their respective merits and defects, role to role, aria to aria. On the whole, their gifts were complementary.
Renata Tebaldi was born at Pesaro, Rossinis birthplace on the Italian Adriatic coast, on February 1 1922. Her father was a professional cellist from whom Renata and her mother became estranged.
As a child, Renata overcame polio, and for six years she studied piano. When it was discovered that she had a good voice she commenced voice training. She studied at the Arrigo Boito Conservatory in Pesaro and then at the Gioacchino Rossini Conservatory in Parma. Aged 18, she became a pupil of the celebrated operatic soprano Carmen Melis, and later she studied with Giuseppe Pais.
Her professional debut, in 1944, was at the northern Italian town of Rovigo, as Helen of Troy in Boitos Mefistofele. In December 1945, at Trieste, she sang Desdemona in Verdis Otello, and word began to spread of her inordinate talent and her beauty. She came to prominence when she was invited by Arturo Toscanini to take part, as the only newcomer, in the re-opening celebrations for La Scala in 1946; she was heard in excerpts from Rossinis Moïse.
Toscanini described her voice as angelic and Renata Tebaldi went on to sing for him in Verdis Requiem, and then in the same work under Victor De Sabata. Her soaring phrases and beautiful sound are preserved on recordings of both occasions in 1950.
After her great success at La Scala, she sang the length and breadth of Italy before embarking on her international career. At this stage, besides Italian opera, Renata Tebaldi also sang Mozart and Wagner.
She had made her stage debut at La Scala, Milan, as Mimi, in Puccinis La Bohème - the role that was to become her calling-card in opera houses around the world. Her London debut in 1950, as Desdemona, caused something of stir: it was a role in which her sympathetic interpretation and loving treatment of the text were most compelling. She recorded it twice, the second time under Herbert von Karajan.
She first appeared in the United States in San Francisco, as Aïda, another of her best parts, also in 1950. Her New York debut, as Desdemona at the Metropolitan, followed - to acclaim - in 1955 and she remained at the Met for the next 20 years. Over that period she sang more than 250 performances of a dozen roles, most often Mimi, Maddalena in Giordanos Andrea Chénier and the title part in Ponchiellis La Gioconda.
One New York critic compared her, at recital, with Botticellis Primavera: Botticelli would have rushed for his brushes had he seen her. Her sincerity of purpose and well-nigh faultless style were the secrets of the publics veneration. She also possessed the popular touch. Long before Pavarotti had been heard of, Tebaldi filled the vast Lewisohn Stadium in New York and had her admirers in thrall in everything from Aïda to If I loved you from Oklahoma!
A vocal critic called her The Goddess of Song. In America she was revered for being a warm and lovable person as much as for the intense humanity that made her so suited to portraying Puccinis heroines: her impulsive Tosca, warm Mimi and tragic Butterfly. She was a straightforward person who responded readily to the adulation she received.
At the same time, with opera managers, such as Rudolf Bing at the Met, she showed her mettle, always refusing parts that might not suit her, and continuing - very sensibly - to interpret those that did. Bing once said that he found Maria Callass forthright self-expression much easier to deal with than Renata Tebaldis reserved, but inflexible, will. She has, he commented, dimples of iron.
In Italy she was just as much admired and dubbed La nostra Renata. When she returned in 1967 to Naples, scene of some of her early triumphs, as Gioconda, she was showered with praise. And there would always be something specifically Italian about her voice production and her generous, expansive manner of singing.
She sang her final role at the Met, again as Desdemona, in 1973, and retired from performing publicly in 1976. Thereafter she devoted much of her time to teaching.
In the late 1940s she had signed an exclusive contact with Decca. She remained loyal to Decca for many years, recording virtually her whole repertory for the company, many of her roles twice over. The recordings disclose her consistency of style and, until some late offerings, her beauty of tone.
Even better are some live recordings, such as Leonora in Verdis La forza del destino in audio from the Florence Festival of 1953 and on video at Naples in 1958. These performances, which caught Renata Tebaldi at the height of her powers, are the most memorable souvenirs of a remarkably distinguished career.
She was marvelous, her voice a gift from God which we all we able to enjoy.
her performance as Liu in Turandot, with Jussi Bjoerling, was extraordinary. Another great voice gone, thank God for recording.
Glad you agree. I wish my typing was better. we=were. Must be the fumes from the Christmas cookies.
My son told me over the telephone. He remembers listening to Tebaldi as he fell asleep in his little cot wnile her marvelous voice filled the quiet house. Her Tosca, especially Vise d'Arte, can still move me to tears.
How fortunate we humans are that some will spend their days and nights at the piano or cello or violin in bare practice rooms, year in and year out. Singers like Tebaldi discipline themselves to return to a libretto to study how a phrase or pause will enrich the aria they have practised all day.
There are young people doing this today so that my son's children will listen to a new voice, as rich as Tebaldi's, but different, her own.
Thank you for posting this, Dighton. b
if you are interested in listening to some great voices of the past, go to bassocantante.com and
Thank you for the link. salebooks.com (Daedalus books)carries original recordings of classical musicians and singers done with new technology. b.
Was there not also an Aïda movie with (a very young) Sophia Loren as Aïda backed by Tebaldi's singing?
I will check them out. Thanks.