Renata Tebaldi sings Puccini and Verdi Favourites
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
In quelle trine morbide (Manon Lescaut) (1893) [1:15]
Sola, perduta, abbandonata (Manon Lescaut) (1893) [4:07]
Si, mi chiamano Mimi (La Bohème) (1896) [5:30]
with Carlo Bergonzi (tenor)
Donde lieta usci (La Bohème) (1896) [3:28]
Signore, ascolta! (Turandot) (1924) [2:39]
Tu che di gel sei cinta (Turandot) (1924) [2:55]
Un bel di vedremo (Madama Butterfly) (1904) [4:49]
Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio (Madama Butterfly) (1904) [5:12]
Vissi d'arte (Tosca) (1900) [3:16]
Che tua madre dovrà prenderti in braccio (Madama Butterfly) (1904) [4:55]
with Enzo Sardelli (baritone)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Son giunta … Madre, pietosa Vergine (La Forza del Destino) (1862) [6:22]
Pace, pace mio Dio! (La forza del destino) (1862) [5:52]
Ritorna vincitor! (Aida) (1871) [7:13]
D'amor sull'ali rosee (Il Trovatore) (1853) [3:36]
Renata Tebaldi (soprano)
rec. 1954-1959, stereo
ALTO ALC 1133 [67:46]

Recitals like this, so long after the event, can perhaps allow us to question some of the assumptions that were held so dear at the time. Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas were frequently compared and contrasted. With the passing years Callas has become a cult icon with her image famous throughout the world. Tebaldi is far less well known to the common man or woman than Callas and this has been the case since the 1950s and 1960s – especially when Callas’s private life with Aristotle Onassis made headlines across the globe. However, Tebaldi’s achievements should not be underrated.

Tebaldi had a fresh, vibrant and smooth voice which had an unusual carrying power – fans reminisce about how large her voice sounded in the opera house. One can sense that in 'Signore Ascolta' when the tone grows on the last phrases up to the high note. She was, in this regard, a step ahead of Maria Callas who, for all her insight and determination, was not born with a naturally beautiful voice except perhaps in the middle registers. Tebaldi’s time as a premier soprano was a bit longer than that of Callas. Tebaldi’s great breakthrough was in 1946 at the reopening of La Scala; Callas was Gioconda at Verona in 1947. Although Callas continued to make recordings until the late 1960s and enjoyed a worldwide tour in the early 1970s her voice was rather threadbare and troublesome for most of the 1960s onwards. Tebaldi’s vocal prime was also quite short but her decline was not quite so great and she continued performing in opera until the 1970s. Looking back at their 1950s/1960s heydays it is no wonder that people found it difficult to be objective about their achievements.

It almost goes without saying that Tebaldi had one of the most naturally beautiful voices on record. The best example here is probably 'Si mi chiamino Mimi' or 'Vissi d'arte'. Her big break came when Toscanini chose her for the reopening of La Scala in 1946. Many of these records are from over a decade later in the late 1950s when she was at the peak of her fame. They date from before the voice became darker and more steely – especially after the mid-1960s when she changed her technique and found success in roles like Gioconda and Fanciulla Del West which demand a great strong sound in the middle registers of the voice. The voice was initially quite lyrical and flexible; she performed many roles in this time which she abandoned for the more standard fare included here as well as other Verismo works by Giordano and Catalani.

Callas was a very different performer from Tebaldi. Her voice was dark and steely and used with virtuosity – especially in the bel canto operas of Bellini and Donizetti. This was foreign to Tebaldi. However, Tebaldi was not eclipsed. She could ‘float’ high notes with a facility missing in Callas’s work. She employed a vibrant and ringing voice in Verismo repertoire with class and a deal of style. She could be in touch with the listener without resorting to too much sentimentality. Try 'Tu che di gel sei cinta' from Turandot (Track 11). Her art was perhaps more ‘straightforward’ than that of Callas. Her gifts could be enjoyed for the beauty of her tone and the confidence of her technique. You did not wonder if the next high note would hit its mark except during the very final stages of her career.

Tebaldi wisely avoided the heaviest Verdi/Puccini roles on stage - Abigaille (Nabucco), Lady Macbeth and Turandot - but she proved well suited to a wide variety of Puccini and Verdi roles. Included here are extracts from Tebaldi's stereo recordings of Tosca, Aida and Madama Butterfly. The earlier mono versions from 1951-1952 may have caught her in fresher/more lyrical voice but there are a significant improvement in terms of recorded sound. Only the extracts from Manon Lescaut shows signs of a little distortion - they are the earliest of the recordings included here.

The arias from La Forza del Destino are especially successful. The voice is strong and focused while the phrasing is smooth and even. The sound is very good here and allows the voice to ‘bloom’. Although Tebaldi belonged to a tradition of Italian sopranos such as Maria Caniglia and performed this role and other verismo roles she is not as vivid an actress as her predecessor. Caniglia did not have the smoothness or beauty of Tebaldi but she inhabited the role to a greater extent. Caniglia’s fierce ‘Maledizione!’ at the end of 'Pace mio dio' is not pretty but the drama is very exciting. Tebaldi tried a different course – she excites through singing with a really big, powerful tone but without going beyond the scope of her voice. She phrases grandly such as at 'Deh, non m'abbandonar' in 'Madre, pietosa vergine'. She is still more successful here than Zinka Milanov who sounds matronly on the 1957 studio recording. In the next decade Leontyne Price arrived on the scene and perhaps eclipsed Tebaldi with a more luscious tone and vibrancy. This was allied to a dramatic sensibility - without the excesses of her late performances in the 1980s when she really chewed up the scenery - which Tebaldi does not command here except perhaps in the Aida selection 'Ritorna Vincitor!'; for that you need to try one of her live recordings. Tebaldi was more idiomatic than Price being a native Italian speaker and that marks out her strengths especially in Madama Butterfly.

In the Gramophone review quoted on the CD cover they describe Tebaldi as ''surely [standing] head and shoulders above the present generation [of Italian sopranos].'' This is generally true in terms of consistency but if we are going solely by studio recordings I suggest that, from the next generation, Renata Scotto, Mirella Freni and Maria Chiara could also be extraordinary. Also there was the rise in non-Italian sopranos such as Leontyne Price, Margaret Price, Montserrat Caballé, Martina Arroyo, Régine Crespin, Victoria De Los Angeles and Anna Moffo. Rather like Luciano Pavarotti, it is the consistency of her recordings which is so remarkable. The technical demands of the heavy aria 'D'amore sull'ali rosee' are handled as confidently as the famous aria from Act 1 of La Boheme. However, unlike Pavarotti, Tebaldi's best form was not always caught in the studio. The voice rarely floats as it does caught live in the theatre, and only occasionally is her dramatic talent shown off. Her complete Tosca recording is a rare example which is actually very good irrespective of the competition.

I suggest that Tebaldi’s achievement – although perhaps less startling than Callas’s resurrection of forgotten repertoire – was considerable. Her recordings included finely schooled performances of Verdi and Puccini that in terms of the marriage of tone, diction and style are very consistent. If Tebaldi’s live recordings were afforded the same level of interest as those of Callas I’m sure that the portion of Tebaldi’s art which was sometimes missing in the studio – namely charm or at times a dramatic declamatory presence – would be better appreciated.

This CD, in excellent sound, is another fine recording from Alto who put to shame some of the bigger companies releasing vintage recordings. There is an interesting essay in the booklet and the track details seem accurate. Really excellent.

David Bennett

One of the most naturally beautiful voices on record. Tebaldi’s achievements should not be underrated.