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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Renata Tebaldi's Last Tosca


It was hardly the end of her career; she sang opera until 1973 and retired from concerts three years later. On January 10, 1970 Renata Tebaldi sang her last Tosca. She had given over eighty performances of the role in twenty years and I doubt she expected this last leap into the Tiber was to be her last. It just happened that way. Tebaldi continued to sing in Otello, La fanciulla del West, La boheme, Andrea Chenier and Falstaff. I bring this up because in digging through the avalanche of Met broadcasts I came across this Tosca performance, and was able to really listen to it for the first time.

I must have heard it live on my transistor radio (If you're reading this blog and you're under forty, God bless you, you don't know from transistor radios. Think I-pod with a battery). Tebaldi was forty-seven and her voice was in decline. She was still a gorgeous woman-I saw her in 1973-and there's a lot of the old velvet left to the middle of her voice. Unlike Callas, her press fueled nemesis, Tebaldi's voice didn't separate. There were no glaring holes, but it became more difficult to sing in tune. The sound remained huge, and often very beautiful. You can hear the effort it was taking her to make this sound-she really worked to get the voice to flow. But the unmistakable timbre remained. Hers remained a very great personality-a vocal personality clearly identifiable. And what commitment! She had to know the top notes weren't going to be pretty, but she shirked nothing, and every sound she made served the drama. I was drained after listening to this Tosca. Thank God for transistor radios. I wish I could have been there (I was thirteen). Her colleagues were the Hungarian tenor Sandor Konya, having a nasal day. I think he was pushing his beautiful, lyrical voice into the Italian parts without the Italian cojones-and the great American baritone Cornell MacNeil. He was another one who always used text to propel the stage action. His voice lacked the sensuousness and beauty of Robert Merrill's. Merrill on record sounds too good to be a convincing Scarpia. MacNeil is terrifying. I saw him in the role later in his career and from all the way up in standing room you FELT him.

I have cases of Met broadcasts, going back to 1934. They are my baseball cards. I especially like to revisit the performances, like this Tosca-from my earliest listening days, which began in 1968. Back then, whether you liked the voices or not they meant what they were singing.Most of the great names of the 1950s, like Tebaldi, were fading when I got to hear them-but they bring joy and pain both forty years later.

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