Queen of Queens

The Royal Family of Opera is a fickle bunch. I know one Marchioness (he only qualifies as such because he lacks the objectivity of an Empress and the experience of a Duchess) who flits from one soprano diva to another as if they were discarded lovers. Yet we all exhibit this behavior once in a while don't we -- moving on to the fresh, new blood once others retire? Often it is only when we decide, on a whim, to re-visit their recorded legacy that we are reminded of just how irreplaceable they were. Now, my dears, I am very fond of Hildegard Behrens' work. I am probably one of the few people left in New York who is. Why you ask? Because she is, after all, the Frida Leider of our day. Just as Luciana Serra is the Miliza Korjus of our day. Don't get huffy. Think about it. Anyway, we have become accustomed to Behrens' "version" of Brunhilde during the last two decades. However, re-visit a Ring cycle with Birgit Nilsson and you will understand the difference between a singer who manages to get through a role and someone born to sing it.

One thing about true divas - they are unique. Bartoli, although a definite "personality" and a "star" doesn't count as a diva. She was the first victim of the current direction in public relations to create trendy, slickly-pretty divettes and divettos. She is too single-faceted to qualify for the title diva. To be a diva one must have at least five roles in one's repertoire.

It seems now that physical type and its selling power are considered more important than vocalism by those in positions of power. Get a pretty boy with a body of death, have him pose, pouty-mouthed, for provocative CD covers, put him in a costume and you have an opera singer. Who cares if he has a voice - or if what voice he has lasts only five years. If he manages to sing a few notes on pitch - great! Or, even better, find a soprano who is an excellent musician, woo her with visions of stardom and then, because it is cheaper for the recording company, convince her to record everything under the sun -- whether it suits her voice or not -- and you have a star. Or do you?

It is a reaction to this dearth of artistic individuality that one often gets a craving to revisit former artists, to remind oneself that at one time opera singers exhibited temperament and individuality. It is then when we realize how lucky we were to have an artist like Renata Scotto. Today, in certain circles, Scotto is often the target of raised eyebrows, indulgent sighs and catty comments. Most of this ill-feeling stems from the latter years of her soprano career when she made some tactless comments during American interviews. Members of the operatic royal family are loath to forget slights to their favorite singers. Callasites also resent what they perceive as Scotto’s copying of blessed Maria's weight loss in order to transform herself into an elegant performer during the later part of her career. Gencerians are convinced that Leyla better upheld the traditions of bel canto and realism and did so with more memorable individuality. Oliverians consider Scotto a poor man's copy of Magda while Tebaldiani find Scotto too squally.

But Scotto, like the other ladies named above, stood for a certain spark of creativity that seems to have retired as they have. She was the first Scotto not the second Callas. I suspect her artistic juxtaposition with the Greco-American singer rankled her no end -- thus her double-edged tributes to Callas. And some of the reasons for Scotto's behavior can undoubtedly be traced to her constant struggle to express herself without the inevitable comparisons. When all is said and done, however, it is her art that concerns us here and it is her art that will survive us all - whether you like it or not.

Although some readers may not realize this, Scotto is still performing (she is booked through May 1999). And, as anyone who has heard the live tapes of the Act II of Parsifal or the Berlioz Nuits d"Ete of a few years back will tell you, she is singing well. For an opera singer who made her professional debut in 1952, she is singing miraculously well. Always a musician of the first rank, Scotto has proven to have been an extremely clever, resourceful and highly instinctive singer and, perhaps not surprisingly, has traveled through a number of fachs towards her career's conclusion. She has come full circle: beginning as a mezzo-soprano she has successfully returned to that voice range to conclude her career, most recently in her first performances of Menotti's Medium.

Unfortunately, like Maria Callas many people first learn of Scotto's art from her later recordings. Despite the excellence of such video/recorded documents as Francesca da Rimini, Adriana Lecouvreur, Il Trittico, Otello, Andrea Chenier, Manon Lescaut and Tosca, they only tell part of the story. It is easy to forget that in the decade of 1960-1970 Scotto was the reigning Italian queen of bel canto. Her performances of Lucia di Lammermoor giving everyone else in the world (including the wonderful Australian diva) a run for their money. An extremely versatile singer within the Italian repertoire, Scotto was the focal point for a number of bel canto revivals: Roberto il Diavolo, (admittedly an Italian translation of a French work), Capuletti ed i Montecchi, Zaira, La Straniera, Maria di Rohan, La Vestale, I Lombardi, Macbeth, I Vespri Siciliani and The Siege of Corinth (although she withdrew from that production to kindly allow Beverly Sills to make her La Scala debut).

Actually, in many instances, Scotto bettered her rivals since she was the real thing - an Italian born and trained diva who specialized in Italian operatic music. You can't get any more indigenous than that my dears. I have decided to primarily concentrate on items from her bel canto years with two, specific examples from her commercial operas because it was in the ottocento repertoire that Renata Scotto truly shined. Ironically, she did not record any of her belcanto specialties during her prime (1965-1970). An early Lucia (1959) was competent and elastic but shrill and not as refined as it was to become. This was followed by a single aria recital on EMI which displayed her already impressive versatility.

A switch to DGG found recordings of Traviata, Boheme, Rigoletto and a pseudo recital on a Monte Carlo Gala. Yet none of these recordings capture the particular, sweet float of luminescence that one can hear on live performances taped during the late 1960s. The reason was that, unfortunately her top register did not reproduce well on recording. It's unique, compact quality completely eluding the recording apparatus. Like Elvira De Hidalgo and the Spanish virtuoso, Maria Galvany, contemporaries Roberta Peters and Sylvia Gestzy, and the yet to come Ruth Welting, this was a physiological idiosyncrasy of vocal placement that, when recorded, emphasized an inherent wiry quality. Recently Scotto performances of Bellini's Zaira, Sonnambula and I Capuletti, (with not only a young Pavarotti but also Jaime Aragall) Anna Bolena, I Lombardi, a 1958 Barber of Seville with Kraus, and an L'Elisir d'Amore on the budget line of Opera D'Oro, have been released.

Even inexperienced Baronesses should have these Scotto operas in their collection:

The work that should be at the top of any list of Scotto performances to own is Lucia di Lammermoor. 1967 seems to have been a "Lucia Year" for Scotto with at least four major stage or radio productions. Most are now available on CD and to be truthful any of them display the special qualities she brought to the role. But one performance out-distances all others in elegance and vocal perfection. Ironically, many members of the operatic royal family drool over the Tokyo performance (now on Arcadia CD) from September of 1967. Some even consider it Scotto's definitive statement on the role. But vocally there are a number of mishaps and the top register is not as lambent as it was two months later for the La Scala opening night of December 7, 1967. Released on Nuova Era CD (it will probably appear on Gala or Opera D'oro at some point in the future) this performance is a fine addition to anyone's library for a number of reasons. First of all it opens many of the cuts found on other live recordings of the tme - including the opening scene-duet of Act III and the center of the Mad Scene - although the Raimodo-Lucia scene is not present. Second, it has the elegant, warm-toned Edgardo of Gianni Raimondi and the blustery, huge-voiced and perfectly-in-character Enrico of Giangiacomo Guelfi.

Add to this an Arturo sung by no less than Beniamino Prior and excellent, supportive conducting by Claudio Abbado and you have a remarkable listening experience. From her first entrance there is no doubt as to Scotto's concept of the character - a portrait that is carefully refined as the opera progresses. By the end of Act II there is no doubt that this Lucia has gone over the edge - Scotto's (very long) final high D a cry of desperation. Interestingly, with Scotto, such final top high notes tend to take on definite emotional characteristics, rarely emerging as display or vanity notes. Whereas in the Tokyo performance some of her notes in alt. were abbreviated, not so here. The voice is completely responsive to all her demands both dramatically and pyrotechnically. Coloratura is sung with remarkable élan and high Ds and E flats are easy and potent. Always a singer that specialized in haunting moods, the Mad Scene is mesmerizing for her lyricism, telling use of pianissimo, and her masterly use of rest or dramatic tension. Although Scotto-bashers might complain that the final top E flat develops a slight beat, it is brilliantly sustained - its release perfectly timed for the maximum rhythmic impact. No libretto is provided but that should not be a problem. Just borrow one from the Callas.

OK, forget about the fact that this is an Italian translation of a French opera and that the opera is cut to ribbons but rather concentrate on the fact that it is one of the few pairings of two dynamic singing-actors, Boris Christoff and Renata Scotto. Both are in rare form and their scenes alone are worth the cost of the 3 CDs. (Even so, as filler Hunt includes nine delectable selections from various Christoff Concerts.)

This is actually an important document and we are fortunate it exists. It is also probably the most impressive example of Scotto's florid capabilities. Taking place eight months before the Straniera above, it gives an excellent idea of just how fleet and accurately Scotto could move her voice. Although she excelled in portraying elegiac characters (Desdemona, Violetta, Gilda, etc) few remember that she was also a remarkable technician. Act II is primarily Isabella's act and the singer portraying her has quite a workout. First there is a long opening aria and cabaletta followed by a duet with Robert. The second part of this duet ("Il core in sen mi palpita") is quite tricky, yet Scotto glides through it with tremendous verve and then elects to cap its finish with a spectacular penultimate E above high C.

This is followed by a large ensemble in which Isabella's florid call to arms ("Della pugna il segno e questo cavalieri") is the centerpiece. During this impossible music Scotto's voice glitters through complex configurations with a machine-like accuracy. Arpeggios, scales, trills and high notes - all are thrown off with audacious ease making this a vivacious example of brilliant coloratura singn. The famous Act IV "Roberto tu che adoro" is exquisitely sung. In obviously good voice, Scotto even treats the listener to an interpolated pianissimo high D and finishes the aria with a penultimate high C, also pianissimo. Remarkable singing.

One of the important Bellini revivals during the 1960s, this performance has many fascinating features as well as being a preview of some of the more dramatic heroines Scotto would undertake during the following decade. This work has been revived to highlight the art of such singers as Caballe (1969), Suliotis (1971), Shimada (1983), Aliberti (1989) and Fleming (1993). But it was Scotto's performance that initiated interest in the work. Whereas Gencer was considered a Donizetti expert, Olivero a verismo specialist, Scotto was the Bellini expert. His intimate mode of composition suiting not only her voice and lyrical instincts but also her distinctive manner of conveying them to an audience.

Scotto puts forth the opera's cause with discretion, dignity and elegance - even in her selection and execution of interpolations. Just listen to the finale to Act II, with her perfect entrance on a penultimate high E flat which rides over the chorus and orchestra as a harmonic part of the entire ensemble, not as ansolated circus-act high note. From her first entrance - a difficult, unaccompanied cadenza sung off stage - one is immediately struck by Scotto's artistic individuality and her absolute control of what she is doing. One may not agree with her at times but there is no denying her personal conviction. I have always been partial to this particular performance - even if some of her colleagues do not match her expertise.

Let us not bother with the plot - just listen to the exquisite melodies Bellini wrote and appreciate how Scotto enhances them with her unique art in each of her four scenes. A year later, almost to the day, from the Milan Lucia, her voice remains buoyant and dramatically vital. Especially fine are her gradations between forte and piano which Bellini so effectively incorporates into Adelaide's noble music. I especially like Scotto's exciting rendition of the long final scene with its furious cabaletta which she imperiously embellishes and caps with a long, high D flat. Although, as I mentioned in the Lucia above, she is often criticized for a "beat" on some of her highest tones during this period (due to pressure she put on the top register) in this instance I find it perfectly suits the dramatic situation.

  • Verdi: I Vespri Siciliani (Milan, 1970) Myto 905.24 with Gianni Raimondi, Piero Capuccilli, Ruggiero Raimondi-Gavazzeni

Although put together from two performances of the same 1970 run: December 4 (Acts 1, 2 &3) and December 10 (Act 4&5) this excellent recording is a fine demonstration of the petite Italian diva's charismatic qualities. When first released the critic from Fanfare found the performance rather dull. Compared to much of the drek one hears today I find it a breath of fresh air. Partnered with Gianni Raimondi, Ruggero Raimondi, and Piero Cappuccilli, Scotto's finest moments take place are during interaction with other performers. Her first entrance and the power-packed "In vostra man!" immediately draws one's attention. There is an undeniable power in her singing that will not be ignored. You can even see her clenching and shaking her fist at her startled listeners. The top register is secure and telling, all the way to a sustained high E she successfully interpolates into the end of the Act V "Bolero." (When hearing Scotto's success with his note - and remembering Callas' debacle with the same tone during a1951 performance - Callasians are often heard to mutter under their breath, "Bitch!")

At the other end of her scale Scotto uses her impressive chest register to great effect in order to underline dramatic moments. Perhaps her most unearthly singing during this performance can be found during the Act II duet with Arrigo, "Presso alla tomba ch'apresi." Never a singer to just sing a phrase, she gives each one its own weight within the context of its importance in the libretto. Like Callas (here we go with comparisons again) Scotto's phrases all lead somewhere. They have a beginning, a middle and a conclusion. The two, long duets with Raimondi are among this set's most attractive features. Attentive to Scotto, yet always aggressively masculine, he provides a fine artistic foil for her to play against (as he also does in the Lucia). The Act IV duet finds Scotto at her most refined, floating a seamless legato with sweet piani during her pleading. She alters the infamous cadenza to better suit her voice. (Stop wagging your heads - she was smart to do so. How many times have you heard an othrwise fine performance of this "aria" ruined by the singer gobbling like a turkey during the cadenza?) Here all is refinement, repose and sweetness - all conveyed in an honest, alluring manner -just the way it is supposed to be. You couldn't ask for more. Most of you shameless hussies will be pleased that the ballet was cut but I always lament when these works are omitted from performances in which they belong. As a bonus, however, Myto offers the Act IV duet from a performance the next year with Leyla Gencer (another great Elena) and Giorgio Castello Lamberti, proving what a fertile period this was for imaginative soprano Verdi singing.

Puccini: Madama Butterfly - EMI 7696542 with Carlo Bergonzi, Rolando Panerai, Anna di Stasio-Barbirolli

From at least 1965 to 1987 Scotto was one of the leading international interpreters of this complex role. What can one say about this recording? It is a classic for the rare combination of Scotto's superbly constructed and articulated heroine, Bergonzi's ardently masculine, Italianate Pinkerton and Barbirolli's masterful leadership.

I confess that until a few years ago I did not care for this work. That changed one afternoon when I decided to finally listen to a tape of a Met broadcast of Butterfly (1/1/66) that had been given to me by a friend. So as not to completely waste time, I was typing while I half-listened. Scotto was Butterfly, John Alexander was Pinkerton, Joann Grillo was Suzuki and Schick conducted. By the end of Butterfly's entrance I had stopped typing and had turned in my seat to face my speakers, awed by what I had heard. I typed no more that day.

Butterfly has been recorded many times (twice by Scotto herself with at least one other 1967 performance available on live CD). I have come to believe that the true test of a Butterfly is not in her handling of the set pieces but rather her excellence can be determined by her handling of the private, intimate moments - such as the Act II finale (the scene with Suzuki, between the Flower duet and the Humming chorus). It is there, in that scene that a truly great Butterfly should arrive at the crux of her interpretation. If you don't believe me, do a little test yourself. Play that short scene with all the Butterflys you own. (I am assuming, of course, that if you are an authentic member of the operatic royal family you will own CDs with the following singers: Anna Moffo, Victoria De los Angeles (1 or 2), Mirella Freni (1 or 2), Leontyne Price, Maria Callas, Toti Dal Monte (you may not listen to it but you will have it just because you should) and Renata Scotto. If you are a completist, or merely compulsiv queen you will also have Pampanini, Sheridan, Steber, Tebaldi (with that terribly dowdy cover) Chiara, Gencer, Caballe, Gauci, Kinces, Spacagna, Moldoveanu and Kabaivanska.

After you have done this little comparison I think you will find that only three singers manage to communicate the difficult - admittedly almost impossible - mixture of extreme emotions Butterfly is feeling concurrently at that time - excitement at Pinkerton's eminent arrival and a sudden, private, nostalgic sorrow that she is no longer the simple girl she once was. Ah, but here is the hard part. Mixed in with this must be a subtle influence of anxiety that perhaps he might not like her now as she is. And then, coloring all these emotions must be Butterfly's inherent and exquisite innocence. Without costumes, sets or any other visual stimulation, only Toti Dal Monte (1939), Maria Callas (1955) and Renata Scotto manage to transmit this elusive balance on recordings through imaginative and, in each case, remarkably vivid tone painting. This is art that comes from secret places deep inside the singer.

Puccini was commercially rather than artistically clever.Occasionally, however, he hits upon a use of music that simply cannot be bettered. Butterfly's phrases at this moment are a perfect example. " Non son piu quella! Troppi sospiri la bocca mando....E l'ochio riguardo nel lontan troppo fiso." These few phrases are shrewdly constructed by Puccini to reflect Butterfly's private emotions; the gentle, wistful, descending lines into the lower register perfectly translating these thoughts into musical substance. The success of these three singers is due to the combination of the inherent timbre of their voices, their "working" of the consonants of Butterfly's words and, very importantly, their individual manner of descending into their lower registers. Although on paper that hardly seems moving, listen to the scene again but with that knowledge and you will see what I mean. Even Dal Monte, hampered by time restrictions of the 78 rpm medium, manages to get this across with staggering clarity.

Although Scotto herself prefers her second recording this, her first effort, has the edge for its faithful reproduction of her voice and histrionic talent at their peak. She is arresting and unforgettable. Make sure you have a box of Kleenex nearby.

  • Verdi: Nabucco - EMI 747488 8 with Matteo Manuguerra, Veriano Luchetti, Elena Obraztsova, Robert Lloyd-Muti

Members of the operatic royal family unfamiliar with this recording are undoubtedly cowering behind two dainty fingers held up in the sign of the cross but take my word for it you do not want to miss this. Visceral and heated to boiling temperature this atmosphere of earthy heat is all accomplished "come scritto." Muti, Scotto, Manuguerra and the rest of the cast prove what a powerful work this can be - just as it is.

Some critics felt that Scotto's decision to record Abigaile was foolish since it obviously was not a role she would ever sing on stage and was (even at her most dramatic) a role that did not suit her. Well be prepared for a surprise! You forget we are dealing here with that rare artistic combination - a singer who uses not only her instincts but also her intelligence. Her clever but white-hot and completely abandoned characterization will melt the insides of your stereo system long before the opera is over. There are too many wonderful moments in this performance to single out one or two. Just spend the money and get it. If you know and/or like Nabucco you won't be disappointed. Since she never commercially recorded her riveting Lady Macbeth complete (there was a pirated LP of a performance a decade ago) Nabucco will help fill in some of the blanks for the curious. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of her performance is that every facial gesture, every thought, even every motivation of Abigaile is vividly portrayed, not in self-aggrandizing gestures but in wide, comprehensive sweeps enhanced by countless vocal nuances. It will get your nipples hard.

Verdi: Arias from Battaglia di Legnano, Nabucco, I Vespri Siciliani, Otello, Traviata, I Lombardi - Gavazzeni - Sony CD SBK 67 180

Because Scotto recorded so few aria albums this one is especially important. One of the most satisfying solo albums released in 1974, it remains an exciting experience today. It is a perfect demonstration of the remarkable moods Scotto was able to establish within a few bars of music - a gift few singers have. Crisp, accurate rhythm, solid, imaginative vocalism, sweet lyricism contrasted by earthy dramaticism and an engaging manner that changes from aria to aria - each a gem. Occasionally one gets the acrid taste of a tight, wiry manipulation but it is a small price to pay for such creative, supple singing. Especially rewarding is the rarely heard aria from Battaglia di Legnano for Scotto's exquisite phrasing of one of Verdi's loveliest arias from that period and a scintillating cabaletta of rhythmically-propelled, clean coloratura and solid, exciting high Cs. The ten-minute Nabucco scena (with the both verses of the cabaletta and an added high C at the end) is a peek at what she will more fully accomplish on the Muti recording. The centerpiece of the recital, however, is the volatile I Lombardi scena with its visceral thrust and remarkable vocal accents. Scotto’s cries of "Vendetta!" are primal stuff and to top everything, she interpolates a superb high D at the end of the aria. Bet you can't listen to it just once! Now available on Sony's budget label, Essential Classics, this is one of the better deals one can find at the record store.

— Leila de Lakmé

 

The recordings that never were: Impossible Discs.