Turning the pages of the press

Tebaldi – Butterfly, that is, Noble Innocence

Many know with certainty – or perhaps even intelligently foretold – that Renata Tebaldi, summarily attached both vocally and psychologically to Puccini, nourished more than one doubt before owning on stage a role that, visibly, seemed to oppose the credibility of an artist who possessed the ideal quality for Floria Tosca, for Minnie, and, why not, even for a not impossible Turandot, completely rethought, locked in a regally distant woman, yet already fragile foreboding the winning passion of her Unknown Prince.

The decision arrived at the end of 1957 when, the insistence of many theatre managements – very sure of an exceptional vocal outcome and respective audience appeal, as it had already occurred in a fortunate recording of the opera in 1951 – easily won over the resistances of the soprano, who desired to finally try a really loved role, in spite of surmountable objections all extramusical in nature.

At the beginning of 1958, it was the fortunate Catalans of the Gran Liceo of Barcelona to enjoy the theatrical debut of the soprano dressed in a kimono when the predictable musical charm was added to the affective participation caused by the recent death of the soprano’s mother; she was so touched by the event that her definitive farewell to singing was feared.

The next summer followed a re-recording of the opera with partners (firstly Bergonzi and Cossotto) completely different from those who encircled her in 1951, and a series of extremely crowded performances in Naples in the enlarged spatiality of the Arena Flegrea, with privileged acoustics. In the new year followed performances at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma and then, many others in America with the guarantee of Kondrashin, Mitropoulos and Leinsdorf on the podium. Here vocal conviction was joined to the perfection of an admirable gestural competence, suggested by a Japanese conductor of authentic ranking. Unfortunately, the emotional stress that enveloped the soprano in the expression of the role (and certainly she was not the only that suffered) produced her abandonment of the stage as of 1961.

A CD reprint documented again the undeniable importance of the remembered Neapolitan recitals and we already transcribed the flattering review by Stephen Hastings in a recent issue of “Musica”. And now, always regarding the Tebaldian outcomes such as Butterfly, we do not mind quoting an extract in the remembered Decca recording of 1958 by Anna Angelini, the mourned journalist from Bologna, who was, among other things, special correspondent of Il Giornale Nuovo in the glorious Montanelli era. We read it turning the quick-witted pages of a monograph dedicated to Puccini’s masterpiece for the “Invito All’Opera” series of the editor Mursia (in addition, the volume also availed itself of precious notes by Piero Mioli):

Tebaldi is the total Butterfly…the Puccinian song, stripped of coloraturas and ornaments, deprived of closed pieces such as recitative and cabaletta arias, subdued in the rhythmic vigour of tradition, all develops as a long arioso, melting in the voice’s central register and ascending to the high range with the freest demonstrativeness: meanwhile being ideal for the bright voice of Renata Tebaldi, along with the late Verdian song that precedes it precisely in the dissolution of the coloratura, of the ornamentation, of the closed and impermeable piece, of the rhythmic vigour (undisputed masterpieces of the “romantic” Tebaldi are La Forza del Destino, Aida, Otello). Add the sentimental character, slightly pathetic dolcissimo of Puccini’s heroine, and you will have an irreprehensible image of the complete interpretation; but do not forget the expressive class, stronger compared to Victoria de Los Angeles, if not for the wonder of her voice, nor are the very precise reading, the technical assuredness and the naturalness of the legato negated. And so the arrival of Cio-Cio-San seems insensible, because of the intentionally low sonority, but soon the timber magnificence procures with a fuller voice the extremely beautiful arioso “Spira sul Mare” even the beginning of the aria “Un bel dì vedremo” seems casual in the ease of the emission, that then, ever so slowly exhales an expressive unheard-of gentleness, united with technical wisdom; the conversation with Sharpless sounds simple and natural exactly conversational, but never does one notice a crack, an uncertainty, a difference in the phenomenal voice and in the extremely overseen emission. The second finale and then the apotheosis of what must be qualified as the most beautiful vocal timbre in artistic music of the twentieth century, because “Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio” expects from the voices which interpret it a precisely floral tonality, decorative but languidly, spectacular but simply, modern style but without artifice. As for the third finale…, her monogram is the proposal of a greater dramatic fervour, which Tebaldi exceeds charmingly – as always – with the admirable continuity of colour let alone the volume and great technical mastery.
This is all and it seems that more or better just cannot be said. Moreover, it perhaps would be useful to add something that few are aware of, to inform those who have repeatedly expressed the regret that a desired collaboration between Tebaldi and Karajan in Madama Butterfly never came to be. In fact, there actually was a contract signed by both artists, but during the production misunderstandings which caused contrast between the soprano and the conductor during the recording of Aida in Vienna intervened, bringing them to renouncement. And now, in any case, we can maybe be aided by the well known saying, “it’s of no use to cry over spilt milk”causing us to be content (so to speak!) of the most beautiful documents that have arrived to us up until now.

Vincenzo Ramón Bisogni