A Tale of Two Divas - Part I


While on vacation in San Francisco, I received an e-mail from Norris asking me if I was interested in contributing to Opera Jamboree.  Norris's offer was irresistible.  I could write about anything operatically that interested me.  He did nudge me a bit in the direction of recordings, as I'm an avid (some might say out-of-control) collector of CDs.  My collection currently hovers in the area of about 5,500 CDs.  Much of it is operatic.  And I hope to do record surveys of well-loved singers.  But two recent recordings featuring the work of two singers of quality--one a beloved diva from the past, and the other, a current coloratura much in demand, offer an opportunity to explore two remarkable singers who communicate in very different ways.

Richard Wagner
(sung in Italian)
King Henry:
The Herald:
  Renata Tebaldi
Gino Penno
Elena Nicolai
Giangiacomo Guelfi
Giulio Neri
Enzo Viario
Orchestra & Chorus of the Teatro San Carlo, Naples
conductor:    Gabriele Santini
Live/December 26, 1954
Hardy Classic (HCA 6010-2)

By the time the operatic bug bit me in the late 60s, Renata Tebaldi's great career was winding down.  When I arrived in New York from San Francisco in the winter of 1971, Tebaldi's Met repertoire had shrunk to only a few roles--Alice Ford, Adriana Lecouveur, and Desdemona.  My first encounters with her singing were from her stereo recordings made during her late prime.  I was a vocal neophyte.  My vocal heroines included the quicksilver dazzle of Beverly Sills, a coloratura who had no connection to Tebaldi's spinto supremacy.  Leontyne Price, another favorite, had a repertoire that was in some ways similar to Tebaldi's but in 1969 Leontyne Price was a reigning diva on the world's opera stages with a gorgeous top voice she could spin out endlessly.  To my ears, Tebaldi sounded hopelessly matronly, heavy and old fashioned.  Sills and Price were the very models of modern divas.  Tebaldi's top, long her vocal Achilles' heel, sounded labored and hard to my young ears, and in those days, I found her chest voice unpleasantly harsh.  My voice teacher who adored Flagstad, Lilly Pons, Tebaldi and Callas in equal measure, was appalled that I found Tebaldi's voice matronly.  He made me sit down to listen to Tebaldi, and impatiently, I resisted.  Silly, stupid, arrogant me.

I could appreciate the richness of the middle voice and it's utter femininity.  But she couldn't sing any difficult coloratura whatsoever.  She lacked a trill.  The so-called chest voice was pushed up very high (not as high as Callas, however), and that problematic top.  It just refused to bloom.  Now after more than 30 years of listening to Tebaldi recordings, I eventually learned to love her stereo remake of Tosca.  But the live Maggio Musicale Fiorentino La Forza del Destino, which I initially encountered on budget Vox vinyl LPs, made me sit up and really pay attention.  1953 was a pretty good year for Tebaldi.  And in the company of Del Monaco, Christoff, Protti, Barbieri and Mitropoulos, Tebaldi was inspired.  This may be the finest performance of La Forza del Destino I've ever encountered--live or recorded.  Another live Tebaldi performance is the Pinkerton/Cio-Cio San duet with Giuseppe Di Stefano from Act I of Madama Butterfly, which I've owned for years.  It's taken from a live 1950 concert they sang in San Francisco, and it's a desert island performance.  Both singers are in superb form, hurling their big, lustrous voices around with sweet abandon.  There's not a wrong note to be heard from either singer.

I knew Tebaldi had sung some Wagner early in her career.  Elsa, Elisabeth and Eva were in her rep.  What I didn't know was that by the time Tebaldi arrived at the Met, she would be leaving these roles behind her.  The Met's policy, unlike many European houses, demanded that singers perform their roles in their original language.  Never comfortable singing in German or French, Tebaldi resigned these roles from her repertoire.  What a pity.  From the evidence of this new Hardy CD set taken from live performances in Naples (which were to be her last in this role), Tebaldi's Elsa is ideal.  Like her signature role of Desdemona, Elsa suits Tebaldi to a tee.  Elsa doesn't require an extensive range, nor does it demand any coloratura.  The simple and devout aspects of the role suit Tebaldi's gentle nature, and she pours out torrents of gorgeous, seamless and breathtakingly beautiful sound.  So much of the role lies in the middle of Tebaldi's soprano and this is the glory of this instrument.  Furthermore, her singing of her native language is a consistent joy--clear and utterly unaffected.  What she lacks is the strong rhythmic pulse of a singer such as Callas.  Tebaldi will never win you over with dramatic insight.  But her sincerity is never in doubt.  Nevertheless, this is a deeply musical portrayal.  And the listener is amply compensated by the deluxe quality of this huge instrument.  You can truly get a sense of this voice's ability to bounce off the space it is aimed at--and the results are truly thrilling.  It's fun to speculate how she might have fared as Sieglinde.  Tebaldi is the only soprano of my experience who could match Flagstad for sheer vocal opulence in the middle voice.  Hardy has also released an Italian language performance of Tebaldi's Elisabeth in Tannhäuser.  I'm anxious to hear it.

She is ably partnered by Gino Penno, a tenor with a large and exciting sound.  His voice didn't last too long, but he's a fine, poetic presence here singing with a firm line and musical restraint.  Giangiacomo Guelfi is a gruff, though vocally confident Telramund, singing with point and a big dramatic sound.  Here's a Telramund who can occasionally stand up to his bossy wife.

Nearly as good as Tebaldi's Elsa is Elena Nicolai's malevolent "Ortruda." Another gigantic voice, here was a mezzo who could blow the walls off of opera houses.  A dark, rangy voice, Nicolai is all insinuation in her great duet with Elsa.  And Nicolai is not content to simply sound evil.  This is a deluxe instrument, and she's a consistent pleasure to hear.  And when Ortrud has to thrill, Nicolai pours it on.  "Entweihte Gotter!" ("O dei oltraggiati!") simply rings the rafters, and this fine mezzo hurls her top Bs out with confidence and glee.  Guilio Neri is a fine King Henry, his dark tone full of depth.

Gabriele Santini, a conductor I'm not much familiar with, is fully in command of his orchestra, which plays quite well (a few intonational slips aside).  The chorus is lusty with the sopranos not always in tune, but committed.

The sound for this era is a bit more than acceptable.  But if you demand full, modern digital sound, this recording will not do.  Remember, this is the early 50s and it's not a radio broadcast.  It is more than acceptable and shouldn't impede the listener's enjoyment of a truly memorable evening.

As a collector, this is my fourth or fifth Lohengrin on CD.  (I know, my collecting bug is out of control).  This Italian performance would certainly not be my first choice.  Top of the list would be Rudolf Kempe's classic EMI recording with Elisabeth Grümmer, Christa Ludwig, Jess Thomas, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gottlob Frick.  I'm also fond of Solti's recording on London with Domingo, Norman, Randova, Nimsgern and Fischer-Dieskau.

Other Tebaldi recordings worth seeking out include her monaural recordings of Puccini's La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly.  I've always enjoyed her idiomatic Minnie in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West.  In the early 90s, London, Tebaldi's long-time record label (now Decca), reissued a number of Tebaldi's recordings on CD, and a lovely recital can be found on the label's Historic mid-price line.  It included the early recordings of this wonderful singer and it's a thrill to hear her sing arias from Aida, Il Trovatore, Faust, Madama Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, and La Bohème.  The generous disc also includes a complete Act III Aida with Stignani, del Monaco and Aldo Protti, which was the basis of a soundtrack from a studio film version of the opera starring the young Sophia Loren.  There's a splendid live Tosca from the Met in 1955 with Tucker and Warren that finds Tebaldi in gorgeous form (available on CD through the Met and also issued on the Nuova Era CD label).  And if you can find it, try the truly thrilling 1958 San Carlo Opera video of La Forza del Destino (in rather crude black and white) with Corelli, Bastianini, Christoff, Dominguez, and Capecchi.  All the principals are in superb shape here (the last time I checked, it was available on the Bel Canto Society label).

Continue to Part II...

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