Of the many memories Renata Tebaldi created for me, one stands out. It is from a performance of La Fanciulla del West at the Metropolitan Opera, when in Act II, she played poker for the man she loved. No one has ever played poker like that. Her entire body shook, her beautiful face was full of emotion, her eyes were huge. Minnie in fact loses that game and has to cheat. Miss Tebaldi, trembling from head to toe fished the cards out of her stocking and slammed them on the table. "Three aces and a pair!" She thundered, shaking the walls. The villain jammed his hat on his head and stalked out. Tebaldi threw the cards high in the air and laughed in unfeigned, immense triumph. The audience went completely mad and stamped and cheered throughout the next intermission.
Tebaldi had a huge international career, and the receptions she received in Europe, throughout South America, in Tokyo, and around the United States are well documented on tapes and recordings of her appearances. But at the Metropolitan Opera I suspect there are few singers that have been so adored by so large a public. Others certainly got great and long ovations. But a Tebaldi crowd was special. The way the house would hang on every note, hushed, in reverence. The cries of emotion that would greet her. The sense of an extra warmth among the audience. These were things no one else created. They were there when she was in great voice, and also when the passage of time told in her singing. Sometimes she lacked confidence; her vast public never did.
Her voice was very special. It was a gorgeous sound, enormous and easily produced. One would have to search hard to find another voice so large and creamy. Perhaps Rosa Ponselle at her very best is one similar singer. There is certainly a magical quality in Claudia Muzio's tone. And there were certainly other Italian sopranos who had outstanding voices with qualities Tebaldi had: size, an imposing lower range, melting pianissimi. But no one had that almost tangible sweetness; an enveloping warmth in the middle register that she kept to the very end of her career. I think her passionate fans had the strong feeling that this magic came not from a set of vocal cords or a teacher or hard work, but that it came from something we all hope we have, a soul. They felt that the sound was Tebaldi herself, it was the sound of her heart, and it spoke directly to people without anything getting in the way. Not a throat, not sinuses, not a right or wrong vocal position, not a press agent, not a record company. It was just Tebaldi herself breathing.
She was born Renata Ersilia Clotilde Tebaldi in Pesaro, Italy, February 1, 1922. Her mother adored her, and was always a powerful presence in her life. Her father was evidently more distant. There was a serious crisis when Tebaldi was stricken with polio at the age of three. Since there wasn't much that could be done at the time, Tebaldi and her mother prayed. She actually survived and her health became robust, though she always would walk with some difficulty. From her experience of the disease Tebaldi became intensely devout, but she also discovered music. In the long period where her movements were restricted she would sing and hum to herself‹she has said that music saved her life. And it may have been that life or death sense of music coursing through her being that people heard in her sound.
In her early teens, Tebaldi began studying music at the Conservatory of Parma. Among her teachers was Carmen Melis, a famous exponent of verismo roles, and a friend of Puccini's. It was she who helped Tebaldi develop her individual sound and who taught her what Italians call the "accenti": a way of inflecting the line that must be right. In Tebaldi's case it became memorable. She could pick out a line and just spin the words magically on that tone of hers. I remember catching my breath at the way she 'said', "Poscia a Civitavecchia, una tartana e via pel mar," in the last act of Tosca, putting a lifetime of longing into those words as Tosca imagines escaping with her beloved Mario.
But what produced sobbing around me was a little moment that is easily over-looked in Madama Butterfly. It was when Cio-Cio San, who has lost everything and knowing she will have to give up her child, says to Pinkerton's American wife, Kate, "under the great bridge of heaven there is no one happier than you, may you be so forever." In my experience, Tebaldi's utter sweetness and simplicity at that moment has never been matched by anyone else.
At the age of twenty-two, Tebaldi made her debut as Elena in Boito's Mefistofele in Rovigo. Then, amidst much fear and trembling, she was called to audition for Arturo Toscanini in Milan. Toscanini was proper with her but told her he was looking for someone with a "voce d'angelo," for the opening of La Scala after World War II. "I'll do my best, Maestro," she said, and promptly got the job. That started the rumor that it was Toscanini himself who called her, "the voice of an angel," a misimpression Tebaldi was always quick to squelch.
Tebaldi made her American debut in the title role of Aida at the San Francisco Opera in 1950 and made her Metropolitan Opera debut on January 31, 1955, as Desdemona in Otello.
Jet travel made hers a truly international career. She sang in 1,262 performances, 1,048 complete operas, and 214 concerts. She had a broader repertoire than many people know. Among her great successes were three Wagner roles (sung in Italian), Eva in Meistersinger, Elsa in Lohengrin, and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. The famous German conductor Karl Böhm begged her to learn German and sing more of this repertoire. Walter Legge, Maria Callas' record producer, went so far as to suggest that Tebaldi sing Sieglinde in Die Walküre to Callas' Brünnhilde at La Scala (both ladies declined). Tebaldi also sang in the Saint Mathew Passion, and there is a noisy and distant but very lovely recording of her as Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare.
But it was in the central roles of the Italian repertoire that she shone. In her 111 performances as Mimi in La Bohème she was always heartbreaking, always simple and sincere. But there is a wonderful bit of film of her with a rehearsal pianist taken in the early fifties. She's at La Scala, in street clothes. And she sings‹and the word seems a poor one‹"sono andati," the beginning of Mimi's death scene. She does so with such a gorgeousness of tone, a suppleness of line, a beauty in the words, with such soul, that one literally is struck dumb hearing it. This film clip is too good for the bad world we all know, and yet for a while we had that voice, often, at the Metropolitan Opera.