Notations for an informal biography
It was 23rd May 1944 and she, on the first of February of that very year, had just turned twenty-two. Incredibly, not much later than that, she herself, an Italian, would have caused the wavering of the unshakable Republican faith of the least monarchical among all Americans, yes, the New Yorkers, who, having become persuaded subjects, had placed her for at least twenty years upon the sought after throne of their temple of opera, the Metropolitan (also known, for their use and perhaps misuse, of initials, abbreviations, and acrostics, as the MET).
On that now long ago date – still a day of war, when hunger and blanket bombings forced Italians to take into account almost exclusively the problem of survival – she was none other than a young debutant on the operatic scene, that of Il Sociale in Rovigo, a not negligible theatre in the melodramatic local geography.
She was tall, thin, with brunette hair loose upon her shoulders, with extremely white skin and eyes the colour of precious sapphire: in short, she was beautiful, but not that she noticed very much. Instead, she worried about her stately gait, at times uncertain and weak, an after-effect of infantile poliomyelitis, overcome in any case by the cunning and sacrificed assistance of her mother. It was in fact sufficient to camouflage it with little sagacity and to make it so that her confident beauty radiated without a shadow.
However, the love of two somewhat special young men that chose her and whom she allowed herself to love with that fresh transport allowed girls of that time was insufficient to make her feel beautiful.
The very first, Mario (just like the handsome painter in Tosca) – he too a student of voice as was she, at the Conservatory of Pesaro of the famous Carmen Melis – was handsome and contested by all the female voice students both in his and in other classes. Incredulous, she saw him choose her, somewhat intimidated by the close approaches that he wished to allow himself. She then was a bit restrained by the thought of her mother who stayed beside her, “breathing down her neck” so to speak, in order to protect her from any pain that men, untrustworthy by nature, could have caused her.
As for the mother, it wasn’t as though she was lacking reasons to be mistrustful of men! And so, the daughter, devoted and obedient, let her loved one go. What’s more, from her Mario she didn’t receive “più novella”, further news, just as she recounts of her Maurizio la Lecourvreur in the first act of the opera by Cilea.
Only a few years later, a sister of the young man recounted the sad end of the young who – having enlisted in the army of Salò in obedience of superior orders that many disoriented soldiers considered not evadable – was snared in a patrol of partisans. He quickly hid but had with him a wolfdog who growled in the direction of the menacing men. Singled out, the young man was eliminated without pity.
In that same year, 1944, the heart of the unknowing debutant was turned elsewhere, with well-bred transport, upon her second young man, Antonio: even he as handsome as a Spanish movie actor, a medical student only in his spare time, given that his family’s land possessions, so extensive that one needed to go on horseback to cross them, filled most of his time. What’s more, Antonio was the trustworthy son of a friend of her mother’s who was most happy with the positive evolution of the first serious liason of her much guarded daughter.
Antonio, well backed by his future mother-in-law, did not consider the start of a theatrical career by his fiancée to be opportune: for her a diploma in piano should have been more than enough. On the other hand, as an external student (!) in Parma, she had already passed the fifth year piano exam with the maximum possible grade given to her by an examiner of the caliber of Carlo Vidusso.
However, there were already those who noticed the really beautiful voice that she let them hear in her sung solfeggi or when she indulged, sentimental as she was, in singing melodies sung by ear from the phonographs of street musicians who came to the markets of the Parma region where she spent her childhood, adolescence, and early part of her youth.
Following are all those who put pressure upon her mother: first, her piano teacher; then Carmen Melis from the top of her teaching post (she listened to the young girl in a private audition tasting the malleability of a privileged vocal instrument and the recepetivity to hoarding technical and interpretative advice); and finally, even the great Riccardo Zandonai, director of the Conservatory of Pesaro, who admonished her mother for depriving the world of music of a voice of such value that it would not find its equal if not in every fifty or one hundred years. And so the woman, stunned, gave her consent for her daughter to study voice in Pesaro.
And then she accompanied her to Rovigo so as not to leaver her alone, and Antonio remained on his land, perhaps sulking a bit, awaiting news: perhaps he expected that, having been somehow satisfied to have treaded the stage, she would return home, tired of daily vocalises and exercises finally ready to be content as a bride and a mother.
At any rate, in Rovigo, on that 23rd May 1944, the mother chose for her daughter a bouquet of white roses and sent them to her, trembling and moved, with a note of sincere wishes: “Each petal is a wish and a kiss from your mother”.
This was the first in a myriad of floral tributes that the young woman, who had soon become a famous diva of song, would have seen delivered to her even beyond the conclusion of her career, when the dedication of innumerable admirers, appraisers, lovers, it would seem if at all possible, actually multiplied by ten.
And yes she spent 32 years in her career, exactly and roundly, as round and perfect as were the sounds of her voice.
On that being her very first performance, she found herself engaged in the part of Elena in Mefistofele by Boito, a role of considerable weight, which required her to venture with a young timbre of pure lyrical soprano beyond the thresholds of lirico spinto, almost to the registers of dramatic. But her teacher nursed no doubts regarding the possibilities that she would arise uninjured from the test.
She sang beside Tancredi Pasero, a name of La Scala resonance, and Giuseppe del Campo, who while on the podium guaranteed her trust, and was actually cited by Carlo Maria Giulini as being among the greats of the first half of the century during an interview in the 1990’s, years which were still to be.
And so the young woman debuted and anxiously wrote to her Antonio. He delayed for months before responding coldly. He had seen patient maneuvers for her possible renouncement thwarted and, by that time, a normal matrimonial future presented itself, to say the least, as problematic: it was unbelievable but at the first listening to her one could already count some fanatics – and how many more there would be in the future! – ready to invoke loudly the name of the debutant, to applaud her again at the front of the stage, to be moved by her tears of acknowledgement, to enjoy again the smile with two dimples in her cheeks: “Renata, RENATA, RENATA!” and again for minutes upon minutes, tireless and enthusiastic.
And yes, because the debutant was she, the great Tebaldi, an authentic legend-to-be of the opera theatre.
And so, even within the full existential tragedy of an Italy confined between two fires, ready to succumb without redemption, the sumptuous fairy tale, completely real and home grown, was beginning: that of Renata Tebaldi, Italian soprano.
Vincenzo Ramón Bisogni