Cher Public

Dames and divas

Since the unveiling of Claus Guth’s “One small step for man” La Boheme at the Paris Opera, which he had the audacity to set in space, opera fans of a certain era world wide have suffered a myriad of complaints including feigned coronary angina, pseudo ocular migraine, and apoplexies of every sort imaginable. I read one comments section on the interwebs where a veritable Cassandra of theatrical trend righteously swore that this was precisely the reason they decided to stop going to the opera decades ago

Those opera folk who weren’t reduced to floods of tears because of this artistic inhumanity I’m certain found solace, as many of us do, in the familiar. Desperately clinging to their vinyl box-sets and treasured momentos, if now care worn and faded from age, that fill their heads with the glories of opera seasons past. Like the proud ostrich we staunchly bury our heads in the sand to dampen the roar of the present and listen in vain to the echoes for the past.

The Eloquence label of Australia, the down under-arm of Decca and now by extension Deutsche Grammophon, seems to specialize in the re-release of many of these “Auld Lang Syne” treats. It’s where you can find highlights from the Sutherland-Bonynge faux-baroque Don Giovanni (cause who could take the whole thing?), the complete Irmgard Seefried oeuvre, and Leona Mitchell’s (treasured beyond rubies) debut album.

Two of their recent releases may be of great assistance in allowing our sisteren and bretheren to find their way back into the fold after “le traumatisme de Paris et Puccini.”

The first is a curate’s egg of sorts in the reissue of Dame Nellie Melba’s Covent Garden farewell concert recorded live by The Gramophone Company in 10 excerpts on the 8th of June, 1926. The most interesting part of this reissue is the adherence for the first time to the actual pitch of 435 hz which Dame Nellie preferred (it was called ‘French pitch’ back in the day) as opposed to pitching the 78’s at 440 hz’s as all previously releases have been.

If sources are to be believed Dame Nellie was 65 years old on the occasion of this concert and it can seem hard to believe after listening to her. The Gala consisted of Act II of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, the opening of Act IV of Verdi’s Otello (no need for an Otello to portion the spotlight) and Act’s III & IV of Puccini’s La Boheme. Unfortunately the evening’s Romeo, Charles Hackett, already had a recording contract with another label (in 1926!) so that portion is lost to posterity but what we do have is “cherce” as they say.

Melba was a towering figure both in music and in British society by this point and her most recent biographer, Ann Blainey in Marvelous Melba makes a point of showing how Dame Nellie fostered young, and in particular Australian, talent throughout her career since she herself had faced much prejudice because of her antipodean origins (and just as long as they weren’t lyric sopranos).

Not surprisingly the Rodolfo, Marcello, and Schaunard that evening all hailed from down under. Melba even fought to secure John Brownlee, the evening’s Marcello, his debut since he was deemed too inexperienced by management. He went on to the big international career that spanned 30 years at Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, and the Metropolitan proving Melba’s initial impression and astute eye for talent.

The eight musical excerpts from the evening prove telling in various ways. Dame Nellie was a student of the great vocal pedagogue Mathilde Marchesi and her singing sounds almost like an inverted pyramid of sound: very strongly supported at the top with a heavy reliance on chest resonance, but not support per se, on the bottom. There’s also quite a bit more straight tone than you might expect.

She’s touching in the Otello excerpts although her Italian is noticeably accented. Surprisingly this was a characteristic she carried over into all the languages she sang. I”m not sure if her occasional deficiencies of legato and pitch are stylistic or due to maturity but the top the voice has a bell-like quality that obviously carried well into the theatre.

It’s astonishing to discover that La bohème wasn’t initially the great success in London that you’d naturally assume and it took Melba’s insistence on singing the role of Mimi (which she had learned from Puccini himself) at Covent Garden before it captured an enthusiastic British public. The opera was barely a few years old when she sang it first and it was a bold step in her career to move into “modern” music from her generally bel canto-ish background.

The excerpts captured this night find her at her best. The duet with the aforementioned Marcello is especially fine and her “Senza rancor” is particularly moving with its closing phrases very distinctive. There’s an individuality to her singing that I think the modern critics of today would find unmusical yet it’s what makes her who she is.

The former Governor of the Australian State of Victoria makes a (silly, puffed-up) speech and then Melba herself bids her audience a brave but ultimately teary farewell. Musical cut-offs and entrances can be abrupt because of the primitive recording techniques and I would suggest listening on headphones to help diminish the ever present surface noise which can be tiring on the ear. Still the sound itself is shockingly immediate for its time and you really feel the moment.

Filling out the release is a handful of selections of song and opera recorded mostly in 1905 and 1910. A Jewel Song from Gounod’s Faust with piano accompaniment starts us off well. Dame Nellie sings with a very light touch on the ascending phrases and flaunts a tommy-gun perfect trill that most sopranos would kill their own mothers to posses. There follows on a very righteous final trio with orchestra and no less than John McCormack as Faust which is undistinguished by being sung in Italian.

Also among the collection is a very showy piece from Massenet’s Don Cézar de Bazan which would make some ambitious (and fearless) coloratura a wonderful party piece. Dame Nellie lays on the stacatti and trills like it’s a vocal fire sale. I’m afraid not all of them hit their intended mark but her target ratio is very high. She may be wrong but she’s never in doubt. A rather unremarkable “Vissi d’arte” is forgiven after hearing two completely charming Tosti songs.

Finally from 17 December 1926 La Melba’s very last recording which turns out to be a wildly incongruous but touching “Swing low, sweet chariot” in a slightly jazz age-tinged piano arrangement that’s lovely and all wrong at the same time. I don’t think I owned any Melba recordings before this but I’m happy to have this souvenir now of this great artist.

I’m saving the best for last because now Eloquence has brought us to the Windy City for An Evening at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on 10 November 1956. Headlining was Renata Tebaldi, Giulietta Simionato, and Ettore Bastianini. Sadly Jussi Bjorling was supposed to have appeared as well but was “fighting an illness” and asked to withdraw under doctor’s orders.

His last minute substitute was none other than Richard Tucker but since Mr. Tucker was under contract with RCA his contribution to the evening’s festivities couldn’t be included on the original vinyl release in 1957 or the first CD reissue in 2009. All of it recorded in glorious mono sound. So, hooray!

Conducting this gala affair was none other than Georg Solti in his single season as the Music Director for Chicago Lyric. He leads the resident orchestra in a rip-roaring rendition of Verdi’s sinfonia to La forza del destino which proves once again why it’s more popular than the opera that it precedes. This track is also making its CD debut because of time constraints on the original LP’s.

Then Giulietta SImionato renders up Saint-Saens famous “S’apre per te il mio cor” because this is the 50’s and they were still singing Carmen in the vernacular in Italy, let alone Samson et Dalila. She’s got all the breath she needs and also disdains to borrow the tenor’s B-flat at the finale which makes for a lovely and pensive ending.

So I’m certain no one present was surprised then when La Tebaldi took the stage and sang the Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin in Italian too. The liner notes say that Rudolf Bing had actually offered the role of Tatyana the Italian diva but she turned it down because she was afraid her English wasn’t good enough because we were still performing Tchaikovsky in the vernacular.

I can confess this now because I’m among friends. I’ve never really been a fan of Renata Tebaldi and this performance handily proves why. She just doesn’t have the smile of youth in her voice. I certainly recognize that it’s a gorgeous, voluptuous, instrument but she sounds matronly and brittle in a part that wants an extra dollop of juice and youth. I do love the way the composer wrote the quill dipping into the ink for the harp. For fans of the diva though I think this is a must have.

Mme. Simionato then graces us with back to back arias. First from Cavalleria rusticana with Santuzza’s “Voi lo sapete” and then Le Nozze di Figaro with Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete” which must qualify as some sort of party trick.

What a difference a “che” makes! For the Mascagni she’s all open throated glory and really slams into the chest voice at the finale to spine-tingling effect. The Mozart finds her beautifully judged and with a delicious restraint. It’s big house Mozart, no doubt about that, but still it proves beyond doubt, right there in front of you, what a spectacularly versatile artist she was.

Next we have Ettore Bastianini with the great monologue from Andrea Chenier, “Nemico della patria” and he’s well represented in this part both in live relays and the classic Decca set. I think he may be my favorite baritone because he really has a basso tonal quality but can thrillingly meet a baritones tessitura. Plus he’s got that gorgeous snarl in the voice that puts all his words across al dente. By this point you can tell the Chicago audience is really starting to get hyped.

Tebaldi offers up a sumptuous “L’altra notte” from Boito’s Mefistofele next and she’s near perfection even if she’s a mite hard on the top and with a sketchy trill. She’s surprisingly fleet in the rest of the fioratura bits and this is really what her voice was meant for. Needless to say the “bravo’s” rain down from the heavens.

Then you need to tuck in because these last two selections are going to finish you off but good. First we’ve got the “Who you calling a hussy?” duet from La Gioconda with Simionato and Tebaldi going tusk to tusk. For anyone who involuntarily flinches when they read the words, Tebaldi and Gioconda in the same sentence, I want to remind you this is 1956 not 1966.

They just tear the place up. Tebaldi starts plowing through her chest voice so hard (God bless her) Simionato starts sounding like the soprano in the equation. They even go for a little competitive note holding at the finale. There’s serious cheering from the crowd.

Then Richard Tucker shows up for the finale from Andrea Chenier and you’re ready to be taken to your reward. I have a good friend who was an Assistant House Manager at the Met back in the day and she says Tucker had the loudest voice she ever heard in the house.

He’s surprisingly poetic in the opening phrases but then the two of them start loosing what can only be described as a fussilade of vocal artillery on an audience that must already suffering from tinnitus. No one can touch Tebaldi in those ascending phrases on,”…il trionfo dell’amor!” She’s a beast.

No calling of the names at the end, just straight to the ”Viva la morte insiem!” The audience immediately starts applauding and can’t stop applauding all the way through the postlude. Solti continues to play on long after most conductors would have just given up. But posterity and all that.

I want to say just for the last four tracks on this it’s probably the best CD in your collection. I’m sorry I discovered this so late because it should have been my Christmas present to everyone I know.

  • CKurwenal

    Very enjoyable piece, you make me want both of them.

    • Me too!

    • Porgy Amor

      Me three. This was so much fun to read.

  • grimoaldo2

    I suppose this is the piece from Don Cézar de Bazan you refer to, splendidly sung by Sumi Jo here-

    • southerndoc1

      Melba made several recordings of it, some better than others. All of them showed her strongly separated registers, with the chest punched out with amazing glottal attacks. Very different from Tebaldi in her prime, who had a nearly ideal evenness of tone from chest to head.

  • southerndoc1

    Always thought that Chenier duet was the most exciting vocal recording I’ve heard. What a feast the audience had that night.

  • Thanks for this enjoyable review, Patrick.

    Speaking of La Gioconda, l’ve never heard Tebaldi in the role other than “Suicidio”.

    Any recommendations from parterrians on the best recording with La Tebaldi?

    • southerndoc1

      Tebaldi live is almost always better than Tebaldi studio -- it’s thrilling to hear how she and her audiences fed off each other -- so I’d try to track down one of the pirates from the first or second season of the Met production (66 and 67 I think).

      • Thanks. I’ve checked a few sites — amazon, Presto, Arkhiv — and none of them has it. Will keep my eyes open but.

        • Armerjacquino
          • Thanks, AJ. I did not check opera depot!

        • Porgy Amor

          I have the 2 March 1968 broadcast (Cossotto, Dunn, Bergonzi, MacNeil, and Giaiotti). Tebaldi is the worst thing about it, unfortunately, top notes screamed, poor pitch throughout the range, huge “belched” (tm Innaurato) chest tones at every opportunity. The in-house audience obviously loves her, but I don’t think it’s a good performance as we can experience it today. I like the others very much, and Cossotto and Bergonzi sing their loverly episode very beautifully.

          • Tamerlano

            Except that AI would never have talked about Tebaldi that way. Callas, yes.

            • Porgy Amor

              I don’t know what he thought of the Giocondas, but he said very similar things here about her Met Minnies of the same period. He went as far as “ghastly,” and while I knew I was borrowing “belched” for the chest tones, I did not remember that he had also noted the screamy top and the poor tuning. He did allow that it was fun to see in person. “I was thrilled to see them and am still thrilled to have those memories but the tape that circulates documents much truly awful singing and doesn’t alas capture her presence and personal impact.”

            • PATRICK MACK

              I love Nilsson in her book remembering her first Turandot recording and how it took a staff to keep Tebaldi on pitch.

            • Luvtennis

              It’s true that he adored Big Renata but he was very open about her technical difficulties. Mostly, he hated how folks overlooked things in Callas -- whose voice he felt deteriorated earlier and more severely than Tebaldi -- while focusing on Tebaldi upper register challenges.

              And I recall him talking about BR’s faults using terms similar to those used by Porgy.

            • Tamerlano

              Thanks…I love AI’s writing, but there is a lot of it and he does sometimes contradict himself.

          • I’d probably enjoy the live energy of it. I do love Tebaldi live. But I am concerned about her screamy, flat top. I’m wondering if I’d be better off getting her studio recording. Her top is under control in the studio Solti Don Carlo from 1966.

            • Luvtennis


              Her performance on the studio shares many of the faults and virtues of the Solti Don Carlo.

              I would urge everyone to look at the reviews on the met website. I was very surprised at how mixed the reviews were for Tebaldi. Ditto Milanov. Indeed, Milanov’s “first Met career” -late 30s to late 40s -- was marred by numerous negative reviews. With Tebaldi, the critics began noting her uppervregister difficulties very early on…. I find this surprising given how beloved both singers were by the met audiences of the day.

              By contrast, Sutherland, Price, and Nilsson received raves pretty consistently throughout their met careers.

              I would also urge you to review the reviews and performance history for Ponselle. You will note how many of her performances of the “high note” roles took place on tour. One wonders whether this was due to her use of transpositions (and her concomitant desire to avoid the New York critics who might have noticed!).

            • Dude, I’m looking for Tebaldi Gioconda recommendation, not reading material. LOL

              I know you love Sutherland, Price and Nilsson above all.

              I recently heard the Milanov/Martinelli 1939 broadcast and found Milanov rather glorious. That’s what made me want to hear Tebaldi. Until recently, Callas was my only Gioconda.

            • Luvtennis

              Lol! Actually, Nilsson, whom I know only thru recordings, is not my go to Wagnerian soprano. But really the gap between critical and audience reactions to some of the most famous singers is very interesting. Should you ever need some reading material! ??

              That said, if you like Tebaldi on the Don Carlo, then you will probably enjoy the studio Gioconda. The rest of the cast is quite good although Horne is an odd choice for Laura….

            • Thanks. I know that I’m not going to get a flawless Gioconda from Tebaldi. By the time she took the role on, the voice was compromised. But I know I will get temperament and vocal glamour even with the obvious flaws.

              I’ve heard Horne sing a couple of excerpts of Laura in her 1980 Lincoln Centre concert with Sutherland/Pavarotti. I actually don’t mind that bit of casting. I like a Laura to sound youthful and early Horne is my favourite (less a fan of her singing from the 80s onward, when she sounded like was pushing the voice).

            • Luvtennis

              Understood! If you want a mostly vocally flawless Gioconda you should check out the Farrell/Corelli live recording. You may get a sense after listening as to why Farrell’s operatic career was not more successful, but the singing is very assured.

              I think Horne is very interesting in the role in the studio, but I cannot imagine her making much of an impression in the flesh, especially in a large opera house.

            • Armerjacquino

              I thought Farrell’s career was limited by her lack of desire to travel?

            • Luvtennis

              Her engagements may have been limited by her (or her husband’s per Mrs. JC) desire not to travel, but her relative lack of success on stage seems more to do with the fact that she appears to have been more comfortable in concert or in the recording studio. It’s amazing how little spark she shows in her stage performances. I get the impression from in house recordings that she thought opera as drama was … not for her.

            • Yes, I have the Farrell/Corelli recording but had forgotten I did. I only listened to it once or twice many years ago. My impression of her live Maddalena was that the inspiration seemed to come and go and I think I had the same impression of her Gioconda but it was ages ao. The voice was deluxe as they come and when she was on, she was imply glorious.

            • Armerjacquino

              You can never tell with Horne. I love her except for when I don’t. Her ‘Abscheulicher’ somehow manages to be both utterly terrific and utterly filthy at the precise same time, for example.

            • Luvtennis

              Lol! I have avoided her non-bel canto stuff for years. I will have to search out the Beethoven. While there are other voices I prefer in the heroic Rossini roles -- hello Podles! -- Horne’s rhythmic verve and sheer technical saavy are irresistible to me!

              I adore her Italiana on the old ERATO/RCA recording with Battle as Elvira and Ramey as Mustafa! Breathtaking singing and genuine hilarity!

            • Tamerlano
            • Tamerlano

              She’s an exasperating singer. I am never sure with her. Is she going to blow me away or make me uncomfortable? When she’s good she is so uniquely herself…the tone bity and warm and utterly devoid of malevolence. It’s such a sunny sound! Very American.

            • Bill

              Luvtennis -- we must remember that many of the older audience who witnessed Tebaldi’s first Desdemonas, Toscas, Forzas Cheniersm etc had also seen Ponselle with and were very used to Milanov. Tebaldi’s first Desdemonas at the Met in 1955 were radiant and I believe I saw Tebaldi in all her Met roles save Aida and Butterfly. After her vocal and personal crisis (her ailing mother who often traveled with her) was ill and she returned to the Met first in Adriana then 3 years later in Gioconda (1966) and then another 4 years later in Fanciulla with a few late Desdemonas thrown in, the entire voice had hardened -- the sweetness had disappeared, top notes were available but were pushed and hardened -- not dulcet. One could note that Tebaldi was
              pushing her voice and it no longer sounded
              effortless, digging into chest tones far more regularly. This is not so uncommon with spinto sopranos who had a short top mid-career but continued to sing the same repertory until the end. The fact is though that few Italian sopranos since have had the sumptuous tone quality combined with a certain vocal power that Tebaldi possessed in her prime. Cerquetti had a very short career.
              Stella was indeed a rival but also sang
              Ballo and Trovatore which Tebaldi did not on stage. Later Mara Zampieri, who was very exciting to hear on stage, had 3 different voices in different registers. Tebaldi in my lifetime of opera going in the spinto Italian repertoire was vocally unique for the richness of tone she could produce and the loveliness of voice she had at her disposal.

              It is interesting to note that in 1958 Tebaldi made her Vienna Opera debut in a new production of Tosca led by Herbert von
              Karajan. That same 1958 production of Margarete Wallmann (sets by Benois) has remained in repertoire in Vienna ever since and will have its 600th performance this month (Gheorghui). Countless Toscas have sung the title role in that production over 60 years and most of them have appeared in the same costume design that Tebaldi did at the premiere. Apparently Vienna has no inclination to replace the production and I only mention it due to all the palaver regarding the various more recent Tosca productions at the Met.

            • Camille

              Maybe the Viennese are of the opinion that “if it ain’t broke…”. Palaver, indeed. I am so sick of hearing about it I dread going at this point, particularly because of some of the singing — but am curious to see how Jennifer Rowley fares, after her very promising and accomplished performances here last spring.

            • Bill

              Camille The Viennese have a number of productions that have continued for decades their Butterfly from 1957, Barbieri from 1966, L’Elisir, Rosenkavalier, Fidelio from 1970, Boheme from 1963 -- they do not seem to be so strict regarding the actual staging -- some Toscas sing their Vissi d’Arte from the floor, others not. and with their vast repertoire
              each season obviously have less rehearsal time for familiar revivals than the Met does.
              Budapest has a Boheme which has been done since 1937 -- simple and very telling but most of their singers are standard members of their ensemble. I know nothing of Jennifer Rowley but looked her up and she has sung a variety of largely spinto roles both in the USA
              and in Europe and studied at Indiana University among other places -- I did not like the opera Cyrano much previously at the Met and did not go last season when she sang. It would be nice if she has a success as Tosca and indications are she has been booked for several forthcoming seasons at the Met.

            • Camille

              Well I did not care for the Cyrano either, in its former incarnation! While Alagna is a specialist, and I mean special in this role and he saved what is otherwise a rather mediocre work with loads of recycled pucciniana. She is young(er) and I’d become aware of her first of all when she was dismissed from the London Robert le Diable production in a rather unceremonious and abrupt fashion (the conductor promptly brought in the soprano he’d previously worked with in the Opera in Salerno so it seemd a little bit OFF to me). Next, I happened to hear her in Charleston a couple summers ago, in two veristic minor works Le Villi and a Giordano monstrosity Mese Mariano, an utterly misbegotten work. She was notable there in that she worked very hard with limited material and followed stage direction very carefully and completely, or so it appeared to me.

              This Roxane in the past spring, though, was a highly accomplished piece of work, both musically and dramatically, and while keeping up with a seasoned pro many years her senior. She did not seem at all like the cover nor the junior partner, but entirely his equal in this work and that is of critical importance as elsewise the play won’t work! So, as I get so sick of all these over-promoted Met Pets and Lindemanners who come and go, not to mention the inexplicable foreign imports, it was quite satisfying to hear a young American singer who actually took to the stage like a real Pro and really made the MOST of her opportunity. Now, I think the voice is a little high and bright for Tosca (I like Yoncheva’s vocal coloring a lot for this role), and up to this time her carte d’entrée role has been Musetta—usw.—but we shall see what she does to vary her voice. I hope she doesn’t do that vulgar shouting Yoncheva did to create effects in Act Two.

              You say she shall be singing more at the Met in future? That is good news. The Met needs more singers like her.
              Bis später!

            • PATRICK MACK

              My theory on that was the menopause. I think the same thing happened to Teeny although she managed to cover a whole lot better.

            • Camille

              But Tebaldi was born in February 1922. That makes this concert in Chicago happening in what rightfully should have been her prime, for she was 34, and that is nowhere near menopause, the *mean* age of which is calculated as 51. As a survivor of same, let me say that age is pretty much on target.

              What Tebaldi seemed to me to do too much of, and I find it interesting that you should note this—and this is well before the crisis with the mother and the subsequent voice refashioning—was to dig into the chest voice, something which is the surest and swiftest path to toppling down the high notes.

              Clita del Toro, our former correspondent here in parterre, had heard her at the Met on many occasions since her debut. He said that, after about the first two seasons, it changed, hardened, and gradually was never the same. That was the Tebaldi I first heard in the early sixties and why I never liked listening to her. Only after discovering her glorious Giovanna d’Arco, many years later, did I begin to understand the phenomenal endowment she had been gifted with. There is also that AbFab Aïda movie with Loren, the ne plus ultra of ideal role assumptions. I own three separate recordings of La Wally, and each one is quite a different sounding approach. Lucky the Scala one was recorded.

              Certainly, by 1970(!) menopause, or perimenopause, could certainly be the culprit for the infelicities in her Fanciulla. That, and who knows what else?? A tenor friend of mine once told me on the Q.T. that the reason Tebaldi’s voice had problems was because she fell in love with some coach on 72nd Street and, first he f***ed her, and then, her voice. That story is as plausible as any other of the dozens of the reasons for her lamentable decline. She had been singing since the war years, however, and I am certain the grief visited upon her via the great Callasian Wars was absolutely no help to her calm and equanimity.

              Whatever it all was, I’m grateful for the years in which she was untouchable and a paragon of both vocal and personal beauty, matchless. Sorry to ramble on in alte Frau fashion, but, you know, after all these years I’m still wondering.

            • PATRICK MACK

              Don’t get me wrong she’s in magnificent form for this concert. I was talking about those late ’60’s early 70’s performance where things were just going all wrong. Listen to her ‘Ballo’ with the Pav. Oh, the horror.

            • Camille

              Aha. Gotcha. I’ve always been afraid, very afraid of that Ballo and have never gone near it. Thanks for letting me know it is as scary as I suspected.

              Back in the day, ah jest lurved “Tebaldi Festival”, but mostly for her magnificent helmet hair--a construct of utterly magnificent proportions. And the “Eef Ahi LUFFED IIIUUUUU” was worth the price of admission alone.

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              Yup, that Ballo is alarming to hear, and the varied lyric-dramatic outbursts of “Teco io sto!” etc. are a particular tightrope walk.

            • Armerjacquino

              I was intrigued by the talk of this BALLO so I went to Google Play and had a listen and, well, she’s still pretty damned good, isn’t she? The top is stressed but it’s just about there, and there’s some glorious singing in the middle and bottom registers. You’re right that the yikes moments occur mostly in the duet, but there’s some really lovely singing in both arias, Ve se di notte, etc.

              And I feel as if not enough is made of how Tebaldi’s dramatic commitment increased during the 60s and until she retired- those incendiary Met TOSCA broadcasts, the famous ‘tre assi e un paio’ and the urgency of her singing on this BALLO- all miles away from the sweetly sung but sometimes placid work of her early Decca recordings.

              But I don’t think this set falls into the trainwreck category of some other studio recordings (I’ve never dared check out the Moffo THAIS: I think the saddest late-career recording I’ve heard is a Gueden ‘Depuis le Jour’ from 1973 where the voice just isn’t there any more).

              The real reason to listen to the BALLO is Pavarotti, who I’ve always appreciated without ever being fully sold on: he is beyond spectacular here.

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              No I’m sure you’re right, and my memory of it is no doubt worse than it objectively was, because I came to it with unthinking expectations of what it would sound like. In my memory, it wasn’t really the top that was the trouble (a case perhaps of expectations lining up calmly with events, and also of making allowances for studio conditions that always made large voices sound harder than they were). I just remember feeling that she had (suddenly?) less voice there than previously, and listening with a sense of uncertainty that there was enough tone, even in the middle, to last from moment to moment, through a strenuous role. But I might turn to it and hear it quite differently now.

            • Armerjacquino

              I mean, I don’t want to send expectations too far in the other direction! It’s not her best work. But there’s some really good stuff in there, among the more unfortunate moments.

            • southerndoc1

              Mrs. JC said that through the late sixties her vocal problems were fixable, but that she was just “too lazy” at that point to put in the hard work required.

              The very last recitals, just singing songs with piano, show that there was a lot of beauty left in the tone.

            • Luvtennis

              He also stated that singers of her era in Italy did not receive the technical training that “Anglo” singers received and that as a result, they struggled when the inevitable stresses of a career took a toll on the voice.

              I also think Renata, again like many Italian sopranos of her era, carried too much weight into the upper register. The sound was glorious but a price was paid for that extravagance. I also agree with Camille’s comments re the chest.

              But, of course, those singers were trained in a living tradition that had embraced verismo. It’s not their fault that by the late 50s that tradition, outside Italy, was declining as opera began to look backwards rather than to new music.

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              Hmm, yes, but he also cited her as an example of a singer who restudied in the 60s and made a new voice for herself mid-career as Callas for instance could not, and an example of a singer who didn’t crack under the pressure of her personal problems unlike Eleanor Steber. Renata T was something of a stick (yard- and clobbering-) for Mrs JC with regard to other singers.

            • Luvtennis


              Lol. Bill’s Post is so wide ranging that your comment is … interesting. Do you mean Tebaldi menopause? I would doubt that since her vocal issues seem to have started when she was in her late 30s.

            • Rowna Sutin

              Bill, you are a priceless treasure to those of us who were not able to hear the greatest voices of the past. Your ability to describe so many aspects of their vocal production/color/technique is awesome. And I can’t remember what I had for breakfast after I eat it, and here you are with the names of directors, set designers etc of operas performed decades ago. I often look up performance details on the Met archives. Do other opera companies offer this as well?

            • grimoaldo2

              Royal Opera House and San Francisco Opera do, those are the ones I know about, there may be more.

            • CKurwenal

              The ROH one is seriously incomplete, but still useful nevertheless. Vienna has a good online archive too.

            • The Opéra National de Paris has an online database going back only to the early 70s. La Monnaie used to have one but today, on the current version of the website, I couldn’t find it.

            • Tamerlano

              Sutherland, Price and Nilson all had easy tops and sang very well for an awfully long time.

  • WindyCityOperaman

    I’ve been living with the “Great Evening at the Lyric Opera of Chicago” LP for sometime, including an electronic stereo reissue that came out in the 70s. I was hoping that after all this time (and most of the recorded items would now be in public domain) that the entire concert could be published, including Yugoslav bass Miraslav Cangalovich and other items conducted by Emerson Buckley. I think that Bastianini and Tucker had more to do than is represented here. The same wish holds for the Met Bing Gala as well.


      They do mention Cangalovich in the liner notes and that the conducting duties were shared with Emerson Buckley. I can’t imagine that Tucker and Bastianini only sang one item a piece but there it is. Someone must have the entire Bing Gala intact and what about the Centennial? I’d sit through most of that again with glee. That was one of the greatest days of my life and I think I was 17.

      • Betsy_Ann_Bobolink

        The Centennial Gala video is available at House of Bobolink

        • CKurwenal

          Betsy, can you remind me how to find House of Bobolink? I’m not finding anything by googling it and can’t see a link from parterre.

          • manou


            ditzbobble at gmail dot com

            should get you there.

          • Betsy_Ann_Bobolink

            I need an address REVP ditzbobble@gmail dot com

  • Dan Patterson

    Great review, thanks so much!

  • Camille

    As a survivor of Post Traumatic SCHREI Syndrome as experienced in Tebaldi’s live 1970 broadcast of La Fanciulla del West, let me just say that it was awful enough for me to avoid her singing for the next thirty years (excepting a pirate tape purchased at Porta Portese of a mid fifties Met Tosca--delectable--including the Schrei as she lept from the parapets of Castel Sant’Angelo!).

    Around about the commencement of thr 21st c. i began a remedial course of education and discovered the Tebaldi I have grown to love and cherish. It is kind of heartbreaking. There was never a texture and colo(u)r and creaminess like hers, like mother’s milk, but when that cream curdled…it was very heavy sledding, much like that which we find ourselves with today in La Grande Mela Stregata.

    Yes, AlbertONE loved her and maybe acknowledged some of her faults—others in my experience were totally incapable of doing so!—but did launch himself on a disgusting and deplorable tirade against Cerquetti Farrell when he dared to assert his lack of enthusiasm for RT. I’ve always recalled it as it was the sad demise of a beautiful online acquaintanceship and, as such, lamentable.

    Mr Patrick! Tons of fun! Just recently was thinking about Melba as Mr Dan posted something about a Mapleson cylinder controversy involving she and Suzanne Adams. There is a wonderful anecdote to be accessed by nonetheless than Signor Gatti-Casazza Herself, AKA Frances Alda, recounting a performance of Bohème she heard with Melba. It was HIGH praise indeed, from one diva to the next.

    Especially enjoyed the altogether adroit and amusing image of RT and GS going “tusk to tusk” in the “Hey Byotch! Getya filthy mitts offa MY Man!” Duetto, which is nearly always a riot near the end of it.

    • Rowna Sutin

      Always love to read your recollections, Miss Cammy. So I heard RT in that run of Fanciulla. I was friendly with one of her most ardent fans, who cajoled me into getting a ticket, and then meeting the great lady at the exit of the house. Glamor personified. I was very young (22) and pretty green, but I knew a vocal wreck when I heard one. However, since I already loved her voice, it didn’t sway me against her. There are several clips of her singing Io sono umile which I will post separately, which I think are heavenly.
      I didn’t hear you chiming in on the Tosca (an audio is available) and I value your opinion. Would be fun to trade thoughts. I will be there for the Sat matinee -- Jan 27.

      • Rowna Sutin
        • Camille


      • Camille

        My condolences on that performance as the sound she emitted in Act One was so terrifying—it was as if she had been attacked by a troop of marauding Cossacks. It was too bad she did not get to this role a lot earlier at the Met as it would have been absolutely adorable.

        The chats are too fatiguing if I really want to listen to the music. As I was trying to deal with two entities I don’t care for and pay attention to Yoncheva’s maiden Floria, there was a lot to think about. Even without the score out, there were quite a number of mishaps and I’m hoping that repetition will even things out.

        I feel it a bit unfair to judge and go on and on and on about it all, as it is a very compromised production and will get better as time passes. And Netrebko should likely give an enormous shot in the arm to the entire proceedings in the spring and perhaps Maestro de Billy will have a better handle on this score? I was quite dismayed, what with his rather fine Thaïs, with the apparent lack of coordination evidenced by Maestro Villaume, but frankly, we do not know what all are the pressures he is under at the moment, trying to bring this blighted production into existence.

        I will not be toeing the line to hear SY in this production even if now I feel I might like it, (as it certainly sounded better than certain other of her roles), since she is the one and only Luisa in Luisa Miller coming this spring. Once a season is plenty, even if I suspect her Floria will be better than the Luisa (too much fioriture). Have a good outing at the Met, Rowna, and just know I never, ever attend Saturday performances. Not my thing.

  • Ivy Lin

    My favorite Melba recording is “Depuis le jour.” There’s just absolutely no straining — it really sounds as if she opened her mouth and sound poured out. That kind of vocal mastery is impressive in and of itself.

    • southerndoc1

      Henderson (who heard them all) on Melba’s “attack”, and her singing in general:

      “The Melba attack was little short of marvellous. The term attack is not a good one. Melba indeed had no attack; she opened her mouth and a tone was in existence. It began without ictus, when she wished it to, and without betrayal of breathing. It simply was there. When she wished to make a bold attack, as in the Trio of the last scene of Faust, she made it with the clear silvery stroke of a bell.”

      “The quality of musical tone cannot be adequately described. No words can convey to a music lover who did not hear Melba any idea of the sounds with which she ravished all ears … It has been called silvery, but what does that signify? There is one quality which it had and which may be comprehended even by those who did not hear her; it had splendour. The tones glowed with a starlike brilliance. They flamed with a white flame. And they possessed a remarkable force which the famous singer always used with continence. She gave the impression of singing well within her limits.”

      • Ivy Lin

        Wow thanks for that description. First of all: what fine vocal writing. Henderson’s writing is so descriptive and it’s clear he really LISTENED to the human voice.

        I always think that castrati sounded like Nellie Melba. the descriptions of some of their singing could have applied to Melba: purity of tone, brilliance, a sound that was neither feminine or masculine.

        Another recording that gives an idea of the brilliance of Melba’s voice:

      • Luvtennis

        This is why I think the Mapleson is Melba not Adams!

  • Anders Barfod

    Yes,,, Pitch in Europe was mainly 435Hz before 1940. Only England ha changed to 439Hz in 1896 as a temperature conversion of the french diapason at 435.4Hz to 439Hz. I think voices sound better at 435Hz than modern 440-442Hz.. Especially 442/443Hz rubs me the wrong way.. The passaggio is shifted up to high when A4 gets above 438Hz with 12-TET.

    • agh1

      If I have not been misinformed some of today’s leading orchestras still tune to different pitches. Is there agreement between the leading opers houses? I always recall that Marianne Schech was never very well received at Covent Garden in the 1950s -- she was often criticised for still sticking to Munich pitch (which I was told differed from that at Covent Garden at that time)..

    • Camille

      Bravo, and thank you for speaking up.

  • Camille

    “No one can touch Tebaldi in those ascending phrases on,”…il trionfo dell’amor!” She’s a beast.“.

    Well, yes, that has been pretty much the way it has been up to now, but I must say this for Mme Netrebko, she is now in concurrence for that state of monstre sacré as she was absolutely outstanding in that particular monstrous phrase, at least as recently heard in the Scala transmission. I’m hoping, with repetition and practice, all the rest of it will line up to equal that last duet and that particularly notorious and treacherous phrase.