Divas preserved at their peak

By Don Milne

According to popular legend, one great operatic soprano comes along every generation. The years directly following the end of World War II were singularly blessed with the emergence of no fewer than three great divas.

The tempestuous and too-short life of Maria Callas, regarded by many as the greatest, ended in 1977. But her two greatest rivals lived into old age, by strange fate - the force of destiny? - dying within less than a month of each other.

Pesaro-born Renata Tebaldi died at her home in San Marino last month, aged 82, while Barcelona-born Victoria de los Angeles, a year younger, died this month in Spain.

Tebaldi, who was a mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Scala and Covent Garden, never sang here.

But those who heard de los Angeles on a recital tour in the 1950s confirm what world audiences appreciated - she sang like the angels her name suggested.

Tebaldi's radiant voice, superlative musicianship and warm personality made her a legend in Italian opera. Those qualities also contributed to a distinguished recording career, as her vocal peak coincided with the introduction of the long-playing, 33rpm record.

Opera-lovers gloried in that revolution - no more changing the record every three or so minutes to experience a full-length Tosca or Trovatore. Artists and works could be heard in comfort at home, and with a quality of sound never experienced before.

The introduction of CDs years later had nowhere near the same impact on music-lovers, whose live experience of opera was minimal.

Fortunately, many of those early LP recordings have been transferred to CD - and with notable success. They offer a fine sampling of the work of two great divas at their peak.

Two useful guides to performances are Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic of the New York Times, with his Essential Library of Opera, and Matthew Boyden, in The Rough Guide to Opera.

Tommasini is an unashamed Tebaldi fan - he records that his first live introduction to La Boheme in the old Met in 1965 "could not have been more glorious".

Tebaldi sang Mimi, "and I remember everything about that enthralling performance, even that Tebaldi appeared to be actually eating vanilla ice cream during the scene at the Cafe Momus".

Not surprisingly, Tebaldi's 1959 recording of La Boheme, with Tullio Serafin and the orchestra and chorus of the Academy of St Cecilia in Rome (Decca), makes his list.

De los Angeles' version of Mimi from 1956, with Sir Thomas Beecham and the RCA Victor orchestra and chorus (EMI Classics), also qualifies, with de los Angeles "disarmingly lovely".

Boyden's choice is also the Rome recording - "one clear leader . . . which stands out for its integrity, Serafin's vital conducting and its peerless cast".

The two are in agreement again with Tebaldi as Madam Butterfly and the same forces (Decca), from 1958. Tebaldi, says Tommasini, "shapes gentle phrases with supple grace, tenderness and touching restraint". But he also has a place for the EMI recording a year later, with "the sweet-voiced and innocent Butterfly of Victoria de los Angeles and the charismatic Pinkerton of Jussi Bjorling, so vocally gleaming you don't care he's a louse".

Still with Puccini, Tebaldi scores with Tommasini again in the "dream-cast" 1959 RCA recording of Turandot, with the great Wagnerian Birgit Nilsson in the title role. Bjorling sings Calaf - "lyrically impassioned, throbbing with vocal intensity".

Tebaldi, writes Tommasini, "brings her honeyed voice and tremulous expressivity to the vital role of the slave girl Liu".

Switching to Verdi, Tommasini praises Tebaldi in her 1959 recording of Aida with Karajan (Decca).

"Those who associate Tebaldi with sumptuously beautiful singing may be surprised at how impassioned she sounds as Aida, surely the result of good chemistry with Karajan," he writes. However, he suggests, every opera collector should have at least one of Leontyne Price's Aida recordings (Decca, 1962, with Solti, and RCA Red Seal, 1970, with Leinsdorf.

Boyden opts for the same Decca set, "a classical interpretation, remarkable for the warmth and conviction of the singing and the intensity of the conduction".

Karajan and Tebaldi reunited in London in 1961 to record Verdi's Otello, another of Tommasini's choices (Decca).

Desdemona was her debut role at the Met, in 1955, and among her most popular. After singing the role one night, the ovations for her were so prolonged she finally appeared in her coat, signalling it was time for everyone to go home.

For a few lesser-known offerings, Tommasini picks as one of two preferred versions of Giordano's Andrea Chenier the 1957 Decca recording with Mario del Monaco in the title role and Tebaldi as Maddalena. The other, RCA Victor 1976, features Placido Domingo and Renata Scotto.

De los Angeles features in one of his choices for Massenet's Werther - "a disarmingly melancholic, vocally honey-toned and lyrically sensitive portrayal" as the heroine Charlotte (EMI Classics, 1969).

And Boyden favours de los Angeles in Gounod - her Marguerite in EMI's 1953 recording of Faust, with Nicolai Gedda and Boris Christoff, is described as "almost hypnotically sweet".

There are, of course, many other recordings featuring these two singers - a personal favourite is the 1955 Carmen of de los Angeles, with Beecham conducting. But those listed are a lasting tribute to two superb voices at the peak of their form.

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