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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Renata Tebaldi:  She Lived For Art!

Renata Tebaldi was born in Pesaro, in 1922.  The daughter of  musically gifted parents,  she dedicated herself as a young child to musical studies, not only because she was herself musically gifted, but because, having had an attack of polio at age 3, her physical activities as a child were limited.  By age 13, she had begun to study piano and voice seriously.  Her original hope was to be a concert pianist,  and she studied diligently, almost obsessively.  It eventually became apparent that her future lay in singing, which she approached with the same seriousness with which she had approached the piano.  After intensive study with Carmen Melis, herself  a well known and highly respected singer, Tebaldi made her debut in Rovigo as Elena in Boito's Mefistofele.  She went on to Parma, where she sang Bohème,  Chenier, and L'amico Fritz.   From there it  was on to Trieste, where she debuted as Desdemona.  It is interesting to note the fairly heavy roles she sang in her youth,  at least apparently without problems.  I say "apparently."  I tend to doubt it.

From this time on, her rise was rapid. After auditioning for Toscanini, who was impressed, she debuted at La Scala in 1946, in a concert celebrating the re-opening of the theater after WWII. She learned new roles, and by 1950 Toscanini had convinced her to make her role debut at La Scala as Aida, with Mario del Monaco.  She was—not surprisingly—hesitant to make a debut in such a huge role, and she took a lot of convincing (to her credit) from Toscanini.  But it went off well, and basically launched her international career.

Tebaldi made her American debut in 1950 as Aida at the San Francisco Opera, and  her Met debut took place on January 31, 1955, as Desdemona opposite Mario del Monaco's Otello.  The Met was to be her artistic home for the next 18 years, and she was a perennial favorite.

Tebaldi always considered herself a lyric soprano, but others disagreed, and from her youth she was pressed into big operas, with very dramatic and demanding soprano parts—Chenier, Aida,  Lohengrin and Otello principle among them.  Her voice had an uncommonly rich, chocolate-like quality that may possibly have given the impression of size and depth when it was in fact only a characteristic of the voice's essential color.  Perhaps not surprisingly, she had some vocal problems later in her career, and was obliged to withdraw from the Met for more than an entire season at one point.

The famous and on-going feud with Callas (whether real or calculated) might be interesting to some, but  I find it meaningless and distasteful and have chosen to ignore it. It is easily consulted in any biographical study, which abound on the web.

To the voice and the art!  This is the real Tebaldi story.  Here is a woman who, unlike the fictitious Tosca, did in fact live for art! :

Isn't that something!  Here is the essential Tebaldi.  The first thing that catches one's attention is the extreme beauty of the vocal color; so rich in texture!  The next thing that calls attention to itself is the musicality.  The sheer musicianship here is in every way inspiring—the legato line, the absolute control of dynamics and the textual sensitivity revealed in perfect style.  This is perhaps the ultimate verismo soprano.  It is hard to imagine the aria better done.  I know the contenders would be many, but one could not deny Tebaldi a position among the very best!

To all these vocal and musical refinements, add acting:  Here, in a remarkably beautiful video, observe the careful study that has gone into the acting, including the gestures from Japanese theater, which lend great veracity to the characterization:

Simply beautiful!  This is the kind of care with which Tebaldi approached everything she did.  He life was completely dedicated to art.  She never married, and there were no children.  What there was, from earliest youth, was constant attention to study, and to aesthetic perfection.  So admirable!  And the results always demonstrate the value of a life so dedicated; her work is immaculate.  This was one of the great careers in opera.  There is simply no question about it.

We should not think that verismo opera was all Tebaldi could do, however.  Even with the big and richly colored voice, she was capable of embracing classical style, with all the refinement and nuance that this implies.  Here is Gluck's "O del mio dolce ardor" from Paride ed Elena.  I don't usually encourage this, but take a look at the first comment under the video.  It sums up perfectly what I have been saying about her musicality and artistic refinement.  It's not only my opinion! :

This speaks for itself.  A life dedicated to great music and great theater.  This was a woman and an artist who could serve any aspiring singer, anywhere, as a perfect model.  She lived for art!


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much, Edmund, for doing a piece on Tebaldi. She was always one of my very favorite sopranos. As you said, the color and the richness of her voice was just wonderful. I thought she was the best Tosca ever.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Jeff. You won't get much argument from me on her Tosca:-) It was certainly one of her bet roles. She was brilliant as Tosca. Thank you very much for the comment. I appreciate it!

Anonymous said...

I kind of hoped you'd say something about the Callas spat. I nver could figure it out.

Edmund St. Austell said...

You and a lot of othr people, my friend! I chose not to talk about it because I never understood it either. Some say it was a tempest in a teapot, and was only kept alive by a press eager for scandal. I just don't know. Two such famous singers hardly need to antagonize each other for no ostensible reason. My understanding is they ended up just ignoring each other.

Anonymous said...

My goodness! You are right about that Butterfly video! That was absolutely beautiful! All those Japanese gestures seem very authentic. She must have made a real study of them.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Hobbes. Always nice to hear from you. Yes, I have the same feeling of authenticity there. That is a particularly beautiful video, and gives a real impression of the elegnace and sincerity of her acting. Thanks so much, as always, for the comment!

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

Tebaldi did sing many spinto roles, but she was wise and decided to reject offers to do Leonora (Trovatore) and Amelia (Ballo in Maschera). There were, as you said, a few little problems in her career, but I think that they were as much personal as vocal.

Callas-Tebaldi: not relevant. What did they share? Tosca? Forza Leonora? Each soprano's best roles were not commonly sung by the other. More relevant to me is Tebaldi-Milanov and Tebaldi-Stella. Callas-Tebaldi sold records.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my dear friend! "Callas-Tebaldi sold records." Yes! i think that, as you usually do, you have nailed it with one sentence! That's what it was all about! Thanks for a precise and penetrating comment! Much appreciated, as always!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article on this brilliant singer. To my taste Tebaldi and Sutherland had the most beautiful voices of “warm” type. It seems to me that it’s difficult to compare Callas and Tebaldi, because they are too different. Callas had very ‘tragic’ timbre, while Tebaldi’s voice can be called ‘joyful’, 'warm', 'soft'. And it’s interesting how she could make her singing so expressive in tragic roles with her timbre. All these recordings are absolutely brilliant.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Natalie, as always. You instinctively go right to the heart of the matter, and with well chosen words fix exactly upon what is crucial. Yes, indeed--the color, the timbre, the expressevity in tragic roles---to which I would only add extraordinary musicianship--all combine to make here one of the great opera singers of all time. Thank you, my friend, for a fine comment!

DanPloy said...

What can one say, she is defintely one of the very best, the order is just personal preference.

It is interesting that she studied piano to a high level. Singers who have studied another musical instrument or can read music sometimes (not always) bring something different to their singing, I believe.

I think it may be in their phrasing, They see opportunities where others, reading just the words and singing by ear, perhaps do not. That word musicality seems to be associated with them. Perhaps by being able to visualise the music they free up some resources for other things (if you know what I mean).

That is not to say they are to be preferred, they just bring something else to the table.

p.s. My Andrea Chenier with del Monaco and Tebaldi may not be the best, but boy is it thrilling.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Dan, for a very well spoken and interesting comment. I agree with you about the piano definitely brings some musicality to things, which is almost invariably reflected in style, both musical and dramatic. Galli Curci was another good that she was offered a professorship of piano at somewhere around 27 years of age. These are extraordinary musicians! Thanks again for a great comment!

Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

A further comment, Edmund. Your fine article me gave the prompt for some research into her live performances. Puccini is only a little behind, but Tebaldi gave the most performances in Verdi. Her most frequent Verdi role was Violetta, which she represented 102 times. After comes Desdemona, which she did 101 times. Forza Leonora recalls only 52 performances and Aida only 44.

In Puccini, had her most frequently performed role: Tosca. She sang it 162 times, followed by Mimì, which was represented 111 times. Cio-Cio San was done only 31 times, and Manon 37. The cruel role of Minnie was only six times.

Outside these composers, Maddalena of Chénier was presented 88 times and Gioconda 39.

Besides this, she also did 27 performances as Elsa and very interesting, 10 times in L'Assedio di Corinto and 7 in Guglielmo Tell, as well as 5 times in Faust.

I find these statistics very interesting. Her performances certainly reflect her own lyric assessment of her voice. Tebaldi identified congenial roles and as can be seen, was very cautious about performing others! If only many artists could be so thoughtful.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Fascinating! Thank you very much for that mine of information, my friend! That is a very interesting bit of research, and absolutely backs up your assertion. She was careful indeed, and that seems to fit perfectly with her serious and dedicated musicianship and her exedmplary self-discipline. What a woman! What an artist! Thank you so much for that major contribution!

Jing said...

Great article and excellent and comprehensive comments from your discerning and intelligent responders. I especially like what you write about Tebaldi's life as one devoted to art. It makes me wonder about the difference between such clear and intentional devotion, and something else that moves over the line into obsession.(Or perhaps it's all obsession!) I would tend to see Callas as over that line, but it is unclear to me whether that was better or not for the great roles. Someone once described opera as, at its height, portraying people in "extreme emotional states." Tebaldi's femininity was secure and restrained. Her emotional containment is interesting to think about given the preponderance of Verdi and Puccini roles she sang. Thanks again. Your articles, Edmund, would make a great book.

Edmund St. Austell said...

And your comments, my dear friend, would need to be included in it! Excellent observations, and I wish I had answers. I suppose I tend to see the dividing line as "clear and intentional devotion" to use your excellent phrase, as over and against cynicism endlessly playing to stereotype. I have a few individuals in mind, but I would never mention them:-) We probably all have a few. But Tebaldi is a class act from beginning to end, on that we can certainly agree. Thanks for your email the other day, btw. I wrote back---don't know if you got it yet or not. Thanks again for the comment--absolutely superb.

Verdiwagnerite said...

Excellent as always Edmund. And the comments are always so informative, too.
I agree with Natalie about the differences in vocal timbre between Tebaldi & Callas. Straight away one notices the warmth in Tebaldi's voice.
I especially was impressed with her acting in the "Un bel di". She conveyed the youth of the character very well, particularly at one point where she seems to gasp or sigh just like a teenager probably would.
Also her stillness in the beginning of Vissi d'arte - very affective. I was wondering to myself, will she stay seated for the whole aria , but of course she does get up after about 2 minutes or so.
Regarding Callas - Tebaldi,I don't know much about it but just because they sang in the same era and sang some of the same roles, it doesn't mean they have to be friends. So they had (maybe) a falling out. So do plenty of others. They didn't even have the link of the same nationality.

The same goes for any other of the so called operatic rivalries.
There's no rule book that says all sopranos who sing Aida or Manrico singing tenors must be pals! It's unrealistic for a variety of reasons.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Kate. An excellent comment, as always. I share your enthusiasm for those arias...they are simply magisterial! Re: spats. I agree with you!

Anonymous said...

One cannot think about Madama Butterfly without associating it with Tebaldi, or remembering her Tosca performance or even for "youtuber's" to remember her La Boheme with Jussi Bjorling (sorry, my keyboard doesn't have nordic characters).
But my favourite role of her is as Elisabeth de Valois in Don Carlo, Verdi. For me she is eternal in that role.
May I beg you pardon for exceeding myself for inserting a "commercial" link, but this is a very good acquisition, in my humble opinion:

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for the comment and the information!

Hildegerd said...

I adore her Liu with Jussi Bjørling in the recording of Turandot with Birgit Nilsson and Erich Leinsdorf as the director.

No one of them can be described as lazy, boring or without passion.

racheleleeba said...

A friend who frequented the Met throughout the sixties told me the role she seemed to throw herself most into emotionally and dramatically was La Gioconda.

Edmund St. Austell said...

That is very interesting indeed!

Gerhard Santos said...

Hi Sir Edmund! Thanks for such an informative article! Thank you, More Blessings and *GOD BLESS*