Renata Tebaldi

Soprano of vocal splendour and striking stage presence

On 11 May 1946, the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, which had been badly damaged during the Second World War, re-opened with a concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Among the singers was a 24-year-old soprano, Renata Tebaldi, whose glorious voice and magnificent singing made an indelible impression on anyone who heard the concert, which was broadcast throughout Europe.

Renata Tebaldi, operatic soprano: born Pesaro, Italy 1 February 1922; died San Marino 19 December 2004.

On 11 May 1946, the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, which had been badly damaged during the Second World War, re-opened with a concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Among the singers was a 24-year-old soprano, Renata Tebaldi, whose glorious voice and magnificent singing made an indelible impression on anyone who heard the concert, which was broadcast throughout Europe.

Tebaldi rapidly became well known all over Italy and soon afterwards in the major cities of Europe and America as a wonderfully sympathetic interpreter of the operas of Verdi, Puccini and the Italian veristic composers. She lavished all the vocal splendour at her command, as well as the warmth of her personality and the vocal attraction of her striking stage presence, on Violetta, Aida and Desdemona, on Mimi, Tosca and Butterfly, on Madeleine de Coigny, Gioconda and Adriana Lecouvreur. Tebaldi was not a great actress - for her the music always came first - but she had a unique power of dramatic expression, obtained through purely vocal means.

Renata Tebaldi, born in Pesaro, was brought up in Parma, where she studied at the Conservatory. On the advice of her piano teacher, she took singing lessons with Carmen Melis. When the Conservatory had to close because of the bombing, Tebaldi left without a diploma. She made her début on 23 May 1944 at Rovigo, as Helen of Troy in Boito's Mefistofele. After the reopening concert, during which she sang in the Prayer from Rossini's Mosè and the Verdi Te Deum, the young soprano was engaged at La Scala, where her roles included Mimi in La Bohème, Eva in Die Meistersinger, Marguerite in Faust, Tatiana in Eugene Onegin and the title role of La Wally. She also sang at Venice, Rome, Naples and Bologna. At Florence, where she became especially popular, she sang Elsa in Lohengrin, Pamira in Rossini's Assedio di Corinta, Mathilde in Guillaume Tell and the title role of Spontini's Olimpia.

Having made her first appearance outside Italy in 1949 at Lisbon, singing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, she accompanied the Scala company to Edinburgh in 1950 for the Verdi Requiem and then to Covent Garden, where she sang Desdemona in Otello, one of her most admired interpretations. She also made her US début in 1950 as Aida at San Francisco.

Now at the height of her powers as a singer, Tebaldi took part in a production of Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco in 1951 at the San Carlo, Naples, where she also sang Amazily in Spontini's Fernando Cortez. In 1955 she began a 20-year association with the Metropolitan in New York, making her début as Desdemona. She also returned to Covent Garden to sing Tosca with the resident company.

In Italy the bitter rivalry between Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi - or more accurately, the rivalry between the singers' respective supporters - had grown to huge proportions. During May 1955, Callas sang Violetta in a new production of La traviata, directed by Luchino Visconti, at La Scala, winning tremendous acclaim from the Milanese. In May 1956, Tebaldi too sang Violetta, at the Florentine maggio musicale, sparking off a pitched battle between the fans in the upper balcony of the Teatro Communale that for sheer viciousness was equal to any fight between soccer hooligans in later years.

With hindsight it is easy to realise that Callas and Tebaldi, although they shared many roles, had totally different qualities and that the world of opera was quite large enough to hold them both. At the time it was impossible to be so dispassionate. Although Callas may be said to have won the Traviata battle on points, Tebaldi made a spectacular come-back a week or two later when she sang Leonora in La forza del destino with an opulence of voice, a beauty of tone and a subtle command of phrasing that completely swept one's breath away. Leonora's repeated cry of " Maledizione" at the end of her fourth-act aria must still be ringing round the Communale.

After 1960, when she sang Madeleine de Coigny in Andrea Chénier at La Scala, Tebaldi's career was spent chiefly in America. She returned to San Francisco, where her repertory included Tosca, Madeleine and Amelia in Simon Boccanegra. She became very popular in Chicago, where she sang the title roles of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur and Giordano's Fedora, as well as Boito's Margherita. At the Metropolitan her roles included Alice Ford in Falstaff, Ponchielli's Gioconda, Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Butterfly and Minnie in La fanciulla del West.

Tebaldi recorded a large number of the Verdi, Puccini and other Italian operas in her repertory, many of them with the tenor Mario del Monaco. The best of her non-operatic recordings is undoubtedly the Verdi Requiem; made in 1951 under the baton of Victor de Sebata, it perfectly demonstrates the ravishing sound and smooth, secure vocal line of the soprano at the zenith of her career.

In May 1974, at the end of a world recital tour, Tebaldi appeared in Milan for the first time in 14 years, when she gave a concert at the Piccola Scala. In fine voice, the soprano was received by the audience with rapturous cheers and prolonged applause. Renata Tebaldi had returned home.

Elizabeth Forbes



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