Renata Tebaldi - opera's Madonna She and Maria Callas were rivals and yet artistic kin.

Posted: December 21, 2004

Opera star Renata Tebaldi, who died Sunday at age 82 at her home in the republic of San Marino, represented more than Italian singing at its greatest. In the opera world and beyond, she was the Madonna - with all that the archetype implies.

Even in her later years, when the long-retired diva made courtesy calls in cities of past successes - with little resemblance to the ample, dimpled woman of her prime - Tebaldi created a stir tantamount to that of heads of state.

The archetype seemed no illusion. In real life, Tebaldi lived quietly, discreet and unmarried, while onstage her characterizations had a sincerity that was blissfully untouched by complication. In her American career, Philadelphia was a stronghold: She made at least 10 appearances between 1955 and 1973, either in opera or in concert.

It is a mistake to say, as many have, that in contrast to her rival Maria Callas, Tebaldi was the old-fashioned diva who epitomized stand-and-sing opera devoid of dramatic values. It's clear now that Tebaldi shared with Callas a musicianship and integrity that firmly places her, artistically speaking, in the post-World War II generation. Significantly, Tebaldi was hailed and hired by conductor Arturo Toscanini, who defined the clean, straightforward tone of postwar orchestral performance.

Also, Tebaldi's use of tone as a primary expressive device dictated much of what opera singing is about today. While Callas' voice was the messenger of her character (often with a dark message, indeed), Tebaldi's rich, sumptuous soprano was an end in itself. Kiri Te Kanawa and Kathleen Battle are her descendants, as are, to a lesser extent, Jessye Norman and Ren┬Łe Fleming.

The downside of Tebaldi's approach is its emotional limitation. In popular arias such as the tragic "La Mamma Morta" from Andrea Chenier, Tebaldi's sun-drenched tone doesn't accommodate the despairing bleakness projected by other singers.

Though many of the stock obituaries of Tebaldi characterized her rivalry with Callas as trumped up by the press, there was, in fact, much truth behind it - and it says much about who Tebaldi was and what she represented.

Problems started in 1950, according to Robert Levine's clearheaded book Maria Callas: A Musical Biography (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers), when the two were alternating performances of La Traviata in Rio de Janeiro. At a gala concert, they sang their scheduled arias, and despite a no-encores agreement, Tebaldi sang two. When the two appeared at social occasions, it got ugly. Later, management favored Tebaldi over Callas, and the latter was fired - no doubt traumatized.

After the two became more established, Callas was quoted as saying, "If the time comes when my dear friend Renata Tebaldi sings Norma or Lucia one night, then Violetta, La Gioconda or Medea the next - then and only then will we be rivals. Otherwise, it is like comparing champagne with cognac. No, with Coca-Cola."

In a sense, Callas was right: Tebaldi didn't tax herself in that way. Callas worked with revisionists such as Leonard Bernstein and filmmaker Luchino Visconti; Tebaldi mostly stuck with traditionalists and basic, lyric-soprano roles. While tenor Franco Corelli used Philadelphia as a place to sing repertoire not easily available to him elsewhere, Tebaldi's appearances were a repeating cycle of La Boheme, Tosca and Aida. As a result, Tebaldi had more than 30 years in the sun, from her 1944 debut to her 1976 retirement; Callas had only half that.

As for the rivalry, Tebaldi was mostly aloof, though there was one rebuttal: "The signora says that I have no backbone. I reply that I have one great thing that she has not: a heart."

Performing artists tend to be remembered by the final third of their careers, which in Tebaldi's case is unfortunate, because she experienced a subtle loss of artistic balance. Two videos of live, full-opera productions illustrate the shift. A 1958 La Forza del Destino from Naples shows Tebaldi's acting to be physically stylized with deliberate, old-school gestures. The face, however, is what's important, and all the emotional range you could want in a Verdi characterization is in hers, as well as in the voice.

The 1961 Tosca, however, catches her breaking character to rearrange her dress. She's often stationary, and, upon singing a spot-on climactic note, she smiles with the knowledge that she has nailed it. All this is evidence of two looming life-changing factors: a vocal crisis, one from which she recovered, but that seemed to leave her preoccupied with the mechanics of singing - and the possible aftereffects of her childhood affliction with polio.

This factor hasn't been much discussed, but in her later years, opera productions were restaged to accommodate her physical needs, no doubt contributing to the stasis of her characterizations.

Like many things in her life, such personal matters were not for the public to know. Though her voice seemed to be a doorway into her soul, it delivered few, if any, elements of autobiography. The archetype she represented remained uncomplicated and in place, literally to her dying day.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or dstearns@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://gophilly.com/davidpatrickstearns.

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