Renata Scotto, ‘la mia Divina Assoluta’, was born on 24 February 1934 in Savona. She made her opera debut at the age of eighteen as Violetta (La Traviata). Her ‘official’ debut was the next day in Milan. Shortly afterwards, she sang Madama Butterfly in Savona.
Because there was no chance to hear her in the Netherlands, I travelled with a few friends, they were also great fans, to Paris, where she gave a recital. It was sold out and I really only remember the huge queue in front of her dressing room: people wanted her autograph, they came with flowers, chocolates, gifts…. I had never seen anything like that in the Netherlands.
But the day finally came and she sang in Amsterdam! On 19 October 1996 she performed in the Netherlands for the first time since 1963. During the Amsterdam Saturday Matinee she sang before the interval Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et la mer and after the interval Poulenc’s La voix humaine. She made a real performance out of it: there was a table with a telephone on it, and with the telephone cord she strangled herself at the end. Those who were there will never forget it.
This recording comes from Barcelona 1996:
During her long career, Scotto performed in operas written by 18 composers and her repertoire included some forty-five roles. And then there are the studio recordings. I cannot possibly discuss everything, so I will restrict myself to a few recordings.
The order is random.
In 1953 she auditioned at La Scala for the role of Walter in Catalani’s La Wally with Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco, amongst others. Giulini was to conduct. It is told that afterwards Victor de Sabata, one of the jury members, said: “Forget about the rest.”
La Wally premiered on December 7, 1953, and Scotto happily accepted fifteen curtain calls. Tebaldi and del Monaco got seven each.
In Edinburgh, Milan’s La Scala staged Luchino Visconti’s production of La sonnambula, with Maria Callas as Amina. The production had been so successful that La Scala had decided to add another performance. But Callas was tired, and besides, she wanted to go to the party that Elsa Maxwell was giving for her in Venice. So she told the Scala people that she would definitely not be singing this. Nevertheless, La Scala announced the extra performance with Callas. And Callas refused. With only two days’ notice, Scotto took over the role of Amina and replaced Callas on 3 September 1957. The performance was a great success, and the 23-year-old Scotto became an international opera star overnight.
This recording with Alfredo Kraus is from 1961:
My all-time favourite is a Ricordi recording from 1960 (now Sony 74321 68779 2), with Ettore Bastianini in the lead. Renata Scotto sings a girlishly naive Gilda, who is transformed into a mature woman through her love for the wrong man. She understands better than anyone that the whole business of revenge can lead nowhere and she sacrifices herself to stop all the bloodshed and hatred.
Bastianini and Scotto in the finale:
Renata Scotto has (or should I say had?) something that few other singers possessed: a perfect technique that enabled her to sprinkle her coloraturas like it was nothing at all. Her high notes sounded a bit steely but they were undeniably flawless. She possessed the gift of acting with her voice (and not only with her voice!), and because of her perfect articulation you could not only literally follow what she was singing, but also really understand it.
Her perhaps most beautiful (there are several recordings) Violetta she recorded in 1963 (DG 4350562), under the very exciting direction of Antonino Votto. Alfredo is sung by the sweet-voiced Gianni Raimondi, and Ettore Bastianini is a warm, indeed fatherly, Giorgio Germont.
And don’t think that in the old days, when everything was done by the book, the performances were static and boring! In 1973, La Scala was on tour in Japan, and there, in Tokyo, a legendary performance of La Traviata was recorded (VAI 4434).
The leading roles were played by the then still ‘curvy’ Scotto and 27-year-old (!) José Carreras. DVD does not mention the name of the director, perhaps there was none, and the singers (and the conductor) did it all themselves? Anyway, the result is really beautiful, moving and to the point. I am not going to say any more about it, because this recording is an absolute must for every opera lover.
Finale of the opera:
To the younger generation I would especially recommend the DVD with Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi and Giuseppe Taddei (Hardy Classic Video HCD 4014). It is not only the beautiful voices of the past that impress (Scotto, Bergonzi, Taddei – who can still sing like them?), the eye is also given a lot to enjoy.
Do not think that they just enter the stage, sing an aria facing the audience and then take a bow. It is theatre pur sang and a better acting singer than Scotto has yet to be born.
Renata Scotto sings ‘Prendi, per me sei libero’:
I can be very brief about this: there is no better Liu. Renata Scotto is a very fragile and moving Liu, which is in stark contrast to Corelli’s macho and seductive Calaf and Birgit Nilsson’s chilling Turandot.
For me an absolute ‘numero uno’ is the 1966 recording by EMI (now Warner 0190295735913) under Sir John Barbirolli. One might imagine a more lyrical or alternatively a more dramatic Cio Cio San; one with less metal in her voice or maybe one with a more childlike voice. But no other singer was able to grasp the complex nature of the girl so well and to characterise her change from a naive child into an adult woman, broken by immense grief, so impressively
LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR
Renata Scotto never recorded the role in the studio. However, there are several pirate recordings of her in circulation, with Luciano Pavaratti, Alfredo Kraus, Carlo Bergonzi and Gianni Raimondi as Edgardo.
Of these four, the recording with Raimondi is dearest to me, not least because of the very energetic and dramatically balanced direction by Claudio Abbado. It was recorded at La Scala in December 1967 and it once appeared on Nuova Era (013.6320/21). Unfortunately, that recording is very difficult to obtain, but those who search….
Scotto’s interpretation of the tormented heroine is available on DVD (VAI 4418). The production was recorded in Tokyo in 1967. It circulated for years on pirate video, but since the sound and picture quality was particularly poor, the commercial release has made many opera lovers very happy. The sound is a little sharp, making Scotto’s high notes sound even more metallic than usual, but who cares?
Her interpretation is both vocally and scenically of an unprecedented high level. With a childishly surprised expression (my brother does this to me?) on her face, she agrees, albeit not without grumbling, to the forced marriage with Arturo (an Angelo Marchiandi who is hideous in every way).
Below, Scotto sings ‘Il dolce suono’. Try to follow her example!
History was made with La Bohème from the Met in 1977 (DG 0734025): it was the very first direct transmission from the New York opera house on TV. The production was in the hands of Pier Luigi Pizzi, who at that time was not yet obsessed with excessive ballets and the colour red.
Although I was never a big fan of Pavarotti, I cannot deny that he produces a fresh sound here and that his high notes stand like a house. Acting was never his cup of tea, but here he does his best.
It becomes really exciting when Mimì enters: in 1977, Renata Scotto was at her unprecedented peak. She spins the most beautiful pianissimi and her legato and mezza voce are so beautiful they make you want to cry. The rest of the cast is no more than adequate, but the young James Levine conducts as if his life depended on it!
Scotto sings ‘Si mi chiamano Mimì’:
Musetta was not really a role with which we associate Scotto. Neither did she herself, but she accepted the challenge with both hands. In the Zefirelli Met production of 1982, she sang a Musetta to die for. Alongside the very moving José Carreras and Teresa Stratas, she was the undisputed star of this recording (DG 073 4539 9).
Scotto as Musetta:
In 1979, Renata Scotto sang her first Luisa at the Metropolitan Opera and she did so with her usual devotion. But before she could start her first big aria, a ‘joker’ caused a scandal by shouting ‘brava Maria Callas’ at the top of his lungs.
Sherrill Milnes, here in the guise of Luisa’s father, took the emotional Scotto in his arms and so saved her concentration. And the performance. And the day.
All this was broadcast live on TV and thus it ended up on the pirate videos in circulation. I had been cherishing mine for years, and now the performance has been released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon, with the necessary cuts, including that famous incident. A pity, but after all it is not about the incidents but about the opera and the performance. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
In the video below, the main actors (Scotto, Domingo, Milnes and Levine) discuss Verdi’s opera and the 1979 production:
My favourite CD recording was recorded by RCA (GD 82046) in 1976. The cast is delightful: Renata Scotto sings Maddalena, Plácido Domingo Cheniér, Sherrill Milnes is Gérard, and in the minor roles we hear Jean Kraft, Maria Ewing, Michel Sénéchal and Gwendolyn Killebrew, among others. James Levine, who conducts the National Philharmonic Orchestra, understands exactly what the opera is about. It is so beautiful that it will make you cry.
Scotto sings ‘La Mamma morta’:
Here I can be very brief: buy the Menotti production with Renata Scotto and Plácido Domingo from the Metropolitan Opera (1980) and you are set for life. There is no other production that even comes close to it and I don’t expect that to happen any time soon. Scotto sings and acts Manon as no other has done before and together with Domingo she provides us with an evening of old-fashioned weeping. Menotti’s very realistic, true to life and oh so exciting production simply could not be any better. (DG 0734241)
In November 1981, Scotto sang all three heroines at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with Levine conducting. Once a pirate released it in its entirety and it was briefly on YouTune. Too briefly, unfortunately. It is possible, however, to find fragments of all three.
On CD, the recording under Maazel from 1977 is my first choice. Certainly because of Scotto’s Angelica, nobody comes close to that. Add to that Marylin Horne as her evil aunt and the young Cotrubas as the quick-witted sister Genovieffa. In Il Tabarro, too, it is Scotto who demands all the attention as Giorgetta, helped along by a very macho Domingo and Ingvar Wixell in one of his best roles.
But don’t forget La Gioconda from San Francisco 1979! For her interpretation of the role, Scotto received an Emmy award. It also meant a violent quarrel with Luciano Pavarotti, whom she did not even mention by name in her autobiography “More than a diva”. He became “A certain tenor”.
FRANCESCA DA RIMINI
And no one should miss Francesca da Rimini by Zandonai from the MET: