Cher Public

That is what fiction means

scotto_thumb“As beautiful as her singing was, [Renata Scotto] never was much of an actress.” — Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey

Oh, and there’s this:

Unfortunately, shortly before leaving Italy [to go to San Francisco to rehearse La Gioconda], Renata came out for a curtain call after a performance of Un ballo in maschera at La Scala, and some of the audience booed her, to which she responded with an unmistakable hand gesture, in a sense telling the ingrates what they could do with their disapproval. As a consequence, several of them decided to repeat their catcalls at the stage door, to which she replied by calling them “finocchi di Milano!” (Milanese faggots.)

This slur made all the papers and actually preceded her to San Francisco, which is just about the last city in the United States where you can get away with a remark like that, as we discovered when the production opened.  This indiscretion was only one reason our Gioconda laid a huge egg….

Great story, except for one or two little things. For example, Scotto never sang Un ballo in maschera at La Scala. For another, her last performance in a staged opera at La Scala (I vespri Siciliani) was January 29, 1971, i.e., more than eight years before Gioconda in San Francisco.

As a journalist, Mansouri makes a great impresario. For once.

  • Olivero is my Drug of Choice

    Scotto ACTS and sings the shit out of the Finale of Francesca da Rimini(Domingo is no slouch either in this clip) Watch Mme. Scotto’s facial expressions and how intently she “LISTENS” when Domingo is singing.

    • Arianna a Nasso

      Technically, it’s not the finale of the opera, rather than climax of the love duet. How lucky we are that so many of Scotto’s performances are preserved on video. This production captured Domingo at his hunkiest (age 45) -- no wonder she couldn’t keep her hands off him!

    • La marquise de Merteuil

      Re Scotto in this clip. That’s not acting. That’s being!!!!

  • Wash fennel stalks thoroughly under cold water, remove tough outer leaves, cut tender leaves in half, and cut hearts into quarters. Bring salted water to a boil, add fennel, cover, and cool slowly until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain.

    Pat the fennel hearts dry, salt them lightly, dip them in egg wash, dredge them in the bread crumbs, pressing down to make sure the crumbs stick, and shake them gently to remove excess.

    In the meantime melt butter in a skillet, and when it begins to crackle add the fennel. Cook quickly, turning once so both sides brown, and serve hot, garnished with parsley and with lemon on the side.

    • havfruen

      Great recipe. Is it true that Mansouri makes it with pine nuts so that Finocchio becomes Pinocchio?

  • chaka

    Silly, Lotfi. In actuality, Scotto is one of the greatest dramatists to grace the operatic stage. Her acting in the video of OTELLO, alone, catapults her into the Callas arena. I completely believe every performance Scotto gives because she is immersed in her character.

    More recently, I’ve seen artists like Lauren Flanagan and the late Lorraine Hunt have this same commitment.

    • mrmyster

      Well chaka, I would agree that Mme Scotto was a fine actress
      with a strong sense of the dramatic, even over-dramatic. However,
      and here is the rub, she was not a dramatic soprano. She debuted
      as a lyric coloratura, and I think that was her real voice. To my
      taste it is unfortunate that she rather soon took on spinto, even
      dramatic soprano repertory, which wrought havoc with her vocal
      ease and command. She gave a lot of bad vocal performances
      later on, which just could not be compensated for by vivid
      impersonation and acting. It’s too bad, for in her Gilda days
      she had a lovely tone and wondrous pianissimo -- great
      treasures. But the personality, alas, overcame the voice. That
      happens a lot; Steber another prime example.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        I’ve heard this often about Scotto, but to be honest I much prefer her in bigger, stronger repertoire, and find her lyric coloratura stuff to be terribly brittle sounding. In terms of Gildas and Aminas etc, I can’t find anything in Scotto that would make me choose her over Moffo. But in Puccini, Verdi etc, I’m finding more and more things to love about Scotto. The hardness in the timbre could frequently be used to her advantage, and her sheer artistry needs characters who are in extremis to really reach its full potential. That’s how I’m experiencing it all anyway, as a newcomer to Scotto’s charms (I’ve really only started to get her in the last 6 months or so).

        • Gualtier M

          Actually, Cocky, Scotto’s Amina is really magical. I have wonderful recordings from Venice in the early sixties with Kraus and later ones from London and the Met in the 1970’s. She really floats the line sensitively and the tone is colored by the words. I also adore her Giulietta in that weird version concocted by Abbado with a tenor Romeo. Mostly her solo bits as the duets are ruined by the musical adaptation.

        • I agree. I think that lyric coloratura roles were better suited to the size of Scotto’s voice (and she sang them very well). But her temprament was better suited to the bigger roles. Hearing her Trittico, one thinks: “THAT’s how verismo should be sung!”.

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          In your opinion, Gualtier M -- I have actually heard it, hence my comment.

    • MontyNostry

      This sounds strange, but I find Scotto’s acting performances on video both somewhat stilted AND deeply moving. You can see that she’s thought about the acting and is thinking about the acting. A sort of stylised naturalism, if such a thing could be said to exist. It’s the analogue of her singing style. It works marvellously. I would rather watch (and listen) to her than the overwrought Mesdames Dessay and Fleming any day …

      • mrmyster

        Nice, Monty! I love “stylized naturalism!” But, then, isn’t much acting just that? I’ve been claiming there really isn’t much new in the arts of acting and
        theatre since electricity hit Bdwy in the late 1800s, and I’ve used the phrase “refreshed clichee” to describe what we generally consideral “new” or “original.” I am not at all sure there is anything new at all, for centuries, in acting -- but styles and times differer, so your term is interestingly
        ambiguous and relevant. Ta!!! MrM

        • MontyNostry

          “Commosso, lusingato a tanti complimenti e a questo, più, che omaggio … (cerca la parola adatta) amabil persiflaggio!”
          Grazie, myrmyster.

  • chaka

    Previously, I always wondered what I would be more satisfied with: a performance where the vocalizing was perfect and the acting rudimentary or one where the vocalizing was okay but the acting perfect.

    Having gone to numerous shows over lifetime, I can say, for me, it is the latter that I find more fulfilling.

    • Amen.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      Strongly agree -- first time I saw Calleja live was his Macduff, and I was bowled over by the singing, but I absolutely hated his performance overall because he simply didn’t act at all -- occasionally he strode from one side of the stage to the other, but that was about it.

    • I disagree. It’s not just about “vocalizing”, rather acting with the voice. If the drama is there in the singing itself, it can accomplish more than stage acting. I love good stage acting — don’t get me wrong. But fine stage acting can only redeem a mediocrely-sung performance so much.

      And if I can take your example one step further, which would you prefer? Atrocious singing or atrocious acting. For me, no amount of good acting can make up for lousy singing.

      • SilvestriWoman

        From my experience, both on-stage and in the audience, there are good singers who are bad actors, but rarely lousy singers who are good actors. If the technique is poor, the singer has to spend too much time thinking about their production to truly inhabit the role. (Same reason why some lovely voices can’t act -- they’re too wrapped up in how the sound’s produced.)

        The only singers I’ve seen who were wonderful actors but sub-par singers have been once-great voices past their prime. (Ultimate example? Dame Gwyneth’s Lady Macbeth in 1994 -- directed by Lotfi Mansouri!)

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        I don’t think there is any need to take the debate as far as you do Kashania, with greatest respect -- we were talking all along about the singing being ‘okay’ in Chaka’s words. Of course, faced with the choice of atrocious singing or atrocious acting, I’d pick atrocious acting and sit back and enjoy the voice.

        Following up on my Calleja example, the problem there was that no attempt whatsoever was made to act, it wasn’t just that the acting was bad. I don’t mind a bit of bad acting because it does at least imply a level of commitment to the job at hand, and good intentions etc, but with Calleja he just seemed a bit like he didn’t even acknowledge that that side of things should be part of his craft, and he came across as a little contemptuous. I think La Cieca expressed it best when she was talking about the likes of Jessye Norman being physically identified with and committed to what they were singing, even if they didn’t move a lot. Had Calleja got that across, I wouldn’t have minded what he did.

      • luvtennis

        I agree Kashania, but I might express it a bit differently.

        For me the score/libretto are the only FIXED components of opera. I judge a performance by how well those components are managed. Most operatic acting, especially today, has more to do with the particular production. WHile there are certainly riveting PERSONALITIES that come thru regardless of the production, the singing ACTOR can only be judged thru the prism of the production.

        After all would Callas be Callas “The Tragedienne” if she had been asked to wear a tutu, deelyboppers and 8″ platform shoes as Anna Bolena? I wonder. She would still have been Callas the great singer and musician though.

        As for Scotto, I believe she was an extremely committed performer and her discipline and dedication as an actress are obvious. That said, she was short and dumpy, but she insisted on taking on rolls that called for sensuous and regal. As a result, I often feel she looks a bit ridiculous. It’s not fair, of course, but I don’t place much value on acting anyway. (The incongruity is similar to that created by having a relatively small (albeit sharply focussed) lyric singing Gioconda or Tosca.) Sometimes, we have to accept our limitations, no matter how unfair they might seem.

        Hell, I don’t see how ANY actor could take too much pride in what they do given how many models, prostitutes, singers, athletes and children have had wonderful careers as actors.

        Operatic singing? Until recently, that was a much more rarefied accomplishment.

      • It’s a good point that one rarely encounters truly lousy singing (unless the singer is having an off night and needs to be replaced) whereas one sees lousy acting all the time. However, even if one doesn’t encounter terrible singing often, I think that taking the argument to that extreme helps to clarify (for me, anyway) which is more valuable.

        For me, when one has bad singing but good acting, one gets Nadjia Michael’s Salome. No thanks! I’d much rather have a well-sung performance.

  • Clita del Toro

    Scotto was a very moving, wonderful singing-actress, imo. She was the best Gilda (1962 Florence) and Butterfly (Met) I have ever seen--not that other efforts are chopped liver--like the Trittico, Mimi, Lucia, Traviata, etc..

    As Monty writes, I too would rather see/hear her than Fleming. A no brainer!

    • armerjacquino

      Fleming really does get dragged into everything, doesn’t she? Lofti Mansouri says something dumb about Scotto, and within a few threads we’re into ‘She’s better than Fleming’.

      Yep, and Jussi Bjorling was better than Laura Aikin. What shall we do now?

      • MontyNostry

        I was just citing Fleming **and** Dessay as examples of current, supposedly telegenic top sopranos who don’t know when less is more. Scotto is really very restrained by comparison (even if she does tend to push her pelvis forward when she needs to take a big phrase).

  • Belfagor

    It’s the specific moments that mark her out -- the attention to detail in the in-betweeny bits. The only time I ever saw her live in an opera was at Covent Garden in 1981 as Lady Macbeth: it was hit and miss vocally I suppose but enthralling, and she had an outsize presence. In the Act 3 duo in the witches cave there is a line where she wishes to exterminate all of Malcolm’s house: normally it’s passed over as a monotone recit, but she invested it with such fury, such manic determination that it revealed the roots of the character: her goading of Macbeth and her incipient insanity -- no one, not even my fave Verrett comes anywhere close. And the way she coloured the innocuous little phrase ‘Vergogna signor’ after Macbeth’s second outburst at Banquo’s ghost in the banquet scene was chilling: their whole relationship was laid bare at that point -- a sort of folie a deux where couples who are so close sort of take each other over.

    On the late Traviata recording with Muti -- which is effortful, a triumph of will, and not always a pleasant listen, the verbal insights are tremendous -- no one has coloured that tiny moment where Violetta in the last act reunion with Alfredo, has a moment of introspection murmuring that if Alfredo’s return can’t help her nothing will -- it’s devastating.

    Even a very rocky Fedora from 1988 -- there’s a pirate DVD doing the rounds from Barcelona, with Domingo, in which she is in a really tattered vocal state, even distressing at times, offers moments of high tragedy, and she has the courage to make her an unsympathetic character, grand, self-obsessed and forbiddingly regal. The late Met account with Freni: fun, full blown and she has much more vocal resource, is generalized in comparison, in both verbal and physical respects. The piece is grand-guignol and a roller-coaster ride, but Scotto somehow lives the experience more and makes it universal. For me, and I understand it’s not for everyone, it gets to the heart of what opera should be about.

    • rapt

      Beautifully said, Belfagor. You put me there!

      • Belfagor

        Why thank you -- it’s 29 yrs ago (eek!) and I still hear it: I can’t recall another artist I heard live who minted phrases so indelibly……..

  • All-Knowing Seashell

    Mansouri is beneath contempt.

    Anyone remember the original unveiling of the old Met “Trittico” in the 1970’s, with penny-plain designs by David Reppa, and mostly “house singers” (Kubiak, Theyard, Cruz-Romo, Chookasian, Blegen, Gibbs, et al)? Lots of complaints back then about how dreary the physical productions were, how the three operas never really worked together, how “Angelica” was treacle, how endless an evening it seemed.

    Then, c. 1976, Scotto performed all three “Trittico” heroines in the house for the first time: totally music as theater, and totally theater as music. The audience went nuts. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, dwelt on the shortcomings of the productions, but lots of people suddenly thought that “Trittico” had been sorely under-rated. Just one small example of how, at her considerable best, Scotto could single-handedly LIFT an entire production.

    • marshiemarkII

      That Trittico traveled to Boston in the spring, to the mostruously ugly and acoustically dead Hynes Auditorium, and to this day I cannot forget that performance, Scotto was beyond sublime, one of the truly greatest nights of my entire opera going life. Of course the singing and the acting were ONE, as it should be!

  • sfmike

    This is one of the most deliriously back-stabbing, getting-even tomes since Julia Philips wrote, “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again.” In this case, Mansouri’s book should have been subtitled “You’ll Never Direct Opera in This Town Again” since it’s so bizarrely score-settling. Plus, it’s filled with typos and inaccuracies on just about every page which is sort of disturbing for a University Press book. Most of the inaccuracies could have been easily checked via Google.

    The weirdest thing about the book is that you keep expecting him to come out of the closet, but he never does. His style is taken from 1940s Hollywood movies, and his adoration of those camp classics is straight out of “Myra Breckinridge.” His opera directing style never much advanced beyond the style of those dumb movies. Lotfi’s greatest tragedy is that he wanted to be Alan Ladd and instead grew up into somebody who looked like Akim Tamiroff.

    I was wondering when La Divina La Cieca would get around to this irresistable piece of trash, and I think it would make a great Book Club discussion selection.

    • MontyNostry

      It’s clearly time once again for a clip from Cobra Woman — an inspiration to both Myra and Lotfi.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        Crikey, they don’t make them like that anymore!

      • The Sunday night drag shows were always something else!

  • Noel Dahling

    In the doctors office today and picked up a copy of TIME from 2007(!). It had a memorial section in the back, and Beverly Sills was there. It said she sang at “New Yorks ‘second’City Opera”(when has it ever been called that?!)and that she “performed in such shows as Manon and CLeopatra”. (WTF?!) It then said she “ran” NYCO and the Met.

  • Clita del Toro

    There is a connection between Scotto and Fleming, I hear. Did not Scotto coach Fleming? If so, it didn’t rub off.

  • jatm2063

    And that is a good thing too. If Fleming tried to emulate Scotto’s vocalism with her much more delicate instrument, she wouldn’t last five years.

    • Yes, but Fleming could learn a ton from Scotto when it comes to style. And she clearly hasn’t.

      • thomas

        To my knowledge, Scotto coached Renee for her debut as Violetta, but I’m not aware they’ve worked together on anything else.

        Renee has her own style and it has served her well for 20 years and counting, like it or not. The last thing she needs is advice from people who don’t attend her performances anyway.

    • dame ernestine sherman tank

      And she didn’t last, did she?

  • Clita del Toro

    I don’t think that Fleming should emulate Scotto technically or vocally. What Fleming needs is training in interpretation an style issues—artistic issues.

  • jatm2063

    It took some looking, but I thought I had live a recording of this production, and I found it. After listening for about an hour, I can say that, personally, I feel their Gioconda laid a huge egg because the singing was pretty ugly overall from everyone involved, sometimes disastrously so. Although the sound is not particularly great, in that you get no sense of resonance or spaciousness, it’s pretty obvious that it was still pretty bad in the voice department.


    There is no choir school at Hogwart’s. Have you noticed? It would be comforting to know that there was one place in England where Dido and Aeneas had never been performed. On the other hand, we are robbed of the inevitable Yum-Yum from Hermione, opposite the rather gawky Nanki-Poo from Ron Weasley. (The self-effacing Harry would work backstage.)

    Perhaps it was not part of J.K. Rowling’s education, but what a scene she could have written as the Omniscient Syllabus presents an applicant with the following choice:

    “If you study with Professor Dulcibello, you will be legendary. You will sing exactly three Normas that will be perfection. Women will faint and brave men will weep. A hundred years from now musicologists will study the recording and ponder how you achieved your magic. Duels will be fought over you. The Paris Opera will be gutted and rebuilt because it will be structurally unsafe due to the pandemonium after your performances. But that’s it. After the third night you will lose your voice and never sing again.

    If you study with Mme. Frumpsted, you will have a long career in second-rank opera houses around the world. Your repertoire will be wide, applause will be polite, but by the time they get into the their cars, patrons will have forgotten your name.”

    I know which one I’d choose. Do you?

    • luvtennis

      Not a fair comparison, BABSY!

      Firstly, there would be precious little opera without the second-rate work horses! We need them to fill out the casts and place our faves in just the right flattering light.

      Secondly, just how much does our aspiring sorceress singer like the MUSIC, as opposed to the fame? If you love the music, then a three day career would likely lead to later drug and sex addiction issues, don’t you think?

      Thirdly, I have studied with La Frumpsted and can assure that you all her second raters are truly first rate.

    • No Expert

      I think it depends on whether the student is motivated by recognition and acclaim, or just by the joy of performing in opera.

      • CruzSF

        I hope the student motivated by recognition and acclaim realizes that starting 5 years after the 3 perfect Normas, the fans will start tearing her apart for not fulfilling her potential, for having poor technique, giving in to mental problems, for being too fat or too skinny, or for sitting on her laurels and denying the rest of us — her adoring fans — that which we are OWED.

        • richard

          CruzSF, I read your comment and it reminded me of a profile of a rising (and falling) diva from one of our beloved doyenne’s earlier web incarnations.

          Look at this page from an earlier incarnation of Parterre and scroll down to “This Year’s Callas”

          It’s well worth reading and synchs up with your comments. The other outputs by Dr Repertoire (I’m sure others will also remember him fondly) are decidedly chuckle worthy too!

        • CruzSF

          Thanks for the pointer, richard. I’ll check it out. :-)

        • CruzSF

          I couldn’t get through the very first entry (“ANECDOTE, DIVA”) without laughing out loud.

    • Belfagor

      “my candle burns at both ends
      it will not last the night
      but oh, my foes, and oh, my friends
      it casts a lovely light”

  • Rex Tremendae

    I was in that SFO Gioconda, and thought Mansouri did a fine job of directing. It was a memorable production also featuring fine performances by Pavarotti and Toczyska, and a rather vocally-constricted but deliciously malicious one by the young Furlanetto.

    A story circulated at the time which may be apocryphal: Apparently Mansouri was working with Scotto and had been patiently explaining his interpretation of a particular scene and trying to persuade her to perform it consistent with his vision. She listened patiently to his entreaty and finally replied, “This is very nice…but not for me” End of conversation.

  • Scotto not much of an actress? Balls! She was one of the best operatic actresses ever.