Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi: the historical rivalry of Opera music

What is the point of talking about these two extraordinary interpreters nowadays? Of a rivalry that attracted worldwide attention on post-war Italy?

Well, the meaning lays in its representing a model, an eternal archetype of art: Charisma versus Purity. A never-ending challenge.

On the one hand the art as transcendence, as a leap into the sublime, and on the other the art embodying the whole existential load, representing it even in the darkest folds: the tonal purity, the formal clarity of Renata Tebaldi, “in opposition to” the elusive genius and the evocative appeal of Maria Callas.

Two mermaids, two enchanters: mysticism or evocation. In short, an “Angel’s Voice” and a grecian “Daimon“: candor and ardor.

History, especially the musical one, has continued undaunted to propose this dualism in no uncertain terms: Bach’s rigor and Mozart’s explosions, Liszt allowing himself to Wagner until Satie’s emotional and tonal deconstruction. An eternal battle, up to the present times, for which still in 1972 we pined for the Lou Reed of A Perfect Day or were fascinated by the geometries of progressive rock: without middle positions.

Not even the ’80s glitter was pardoned: it was 1985 and radio and television were playing Madonna’s urban charm with Into the Groove or, otherwise, the ephebic transparency of Annie Lennox, a new Tebaldi singing There must be an Angel. And the story goes on: rap elbowing with the patina of pop, hardcore punk versus AOR… Which side are you on?

From Milan to New York and backward: “nemo proheta in patria”.

New Yorker by birth Maria Callas, after homeland’s countless misadventures, arrived in Italy and conquered the temple of Opera, the Scala in Milan, blowing it right to the italian born diva “forced” to flee to the Big Apple, becoming immediately the queen of Metropolitan where Renata played in 1955 an unreachable Desdemona, the summit of her career: “Già nella notte densa…” (Otello – Giuseppe Verdi), on that “te ne rammenti…” (2’45” on the video below) we can touch the sky with a finger.

A sort of emotion far from the cords of the greek singer, whose charismatic presence combined with the hypnotic timbre, conferred a renewed truth to the heroines of the Opera: from Verdi’s Traviata to Puccini’s lyricism, they acquired an unusual, forceful, female dignity yet unexpectedly adherent to the authorial designs. A human binomial of “misery and nobility”, experienced firsthand and then always brought on stage.

Let’s take Puccini’s Bohème: the Mimì forged by Callas is a perfect modern heroine, dramatically real. Contrarily, leading an unattractive private life for magazines, for Renata Tebaldi the role identification regularly ended at the closing of the curtains: the Tebaldian Mimì is a jewel of purity set in a cruel world, from which she ascends.

Maria Callas was always “herself”, regardless of the works and the authors: a prevaricating personality, not reproducible on vinyl. A question of style: a beautiful technique at the service of an oscillating emission and the dry, essential mimicry were more suitable for the european mentality that sought a definitive release from the baroque era.

Her particular timbre, defined as “metallic”, embarrassed critics and experts: even on her debut at the Metropolitan in 1956, after she conquered Europe, vegetables flew. Literally.

Paradoxically it was the same Norma that, a year earlier, made the Scala go crazy on the cantabile “Oh rimembranza“, starting on a prodigiously toned high pitch, ended in an absolute descending control; many say it is the best Norma ever interpreted. Unreachable, his Casta Diva remains a lyrical emblem; a charismatic priestess, vibrant, evocative.

A paradigm for the modern artists, she was a delight for the detractors in their constant defense of the “sacredness” of the Opera scores, but certainly not an obstacle for those who sought the renewal of the Tradition: a wind of life-giving modernity capable of bringing the whole deal finally into the new century and above all of revealing its psyche buried by the orthodoxy preached in conservatories.

The ideal medium to attract an ever wider and “pop” audience. And so it was…

That Milan-New York exchange was the origin of a rivalry expertly fueled by magazines, at the service of a business living its own “golden age”.

The personal bitterness, to tell the truth, ended much earlier with a noble gesture by Maria Callas. A reconciling visit in the dressing rooms in a “tebaldian” Metropolitan, an expression of sincere (mutual) admiration.

Who is more suitable for Verdi?

Renata had a rare character and communicative strength which she domesticated in the bearing of her voice, sublimating it. The sweetness of her Norma would have succeeded in taming Gauls’ minds, rebels against the roman yoke.

So let’s not make the mistake of imagining the langhiranese (she lived in Langhirano, Parma, Italy) as a cold perfectionist, immersed in a technical soliloquy: certainly in Madama Butterfly, her “pièce de résistance”, she would have persuaded every sailor to return: “un bel dì vedremo…”.

Prooved in the physical by polio at 3 years old, she came out after years of treatment in the same way she left the province afterward: working hard and meticulously, the peasant mentality.

Grown strong without a father, fed with the delicious Prosciutto ham by a loving mother and the precious Tina, she was aware of her voice’s depth, of the adamantine caliber in all registers, of the unique mastery in the high notes. In 1946 after WW2, rebaptizing the Scala Theatre, the great Toscanini himself baptized a young Renata “Angel’s Voice”: the name that will accompany her forever.

Verdi’s purists still prefer Renata Tebaldi. But time and modernity have completely clarified the interpretations of Maria Callas even among critics and music lovers, who frequently have proclaimed her best interpreter of the Swan of Busseto. Certainly a question of popularity, but also of the unique experience that the encounter with such a phenomenon aroused: so rare in becoming itself an icon, a myth.

It saddens that a troubled and short life prevented her from fully seeing the furrow she traced in history: muse of countless artists with tormented humanity, she taught them how to channel it. Life in art and art as a saving grace.

Exactly the Grace that flowed freely through the voice of her eternal “rival”: and i like to remember both this way, eternal.

 To my beloved mother Marisa Cavalli: a strong, loving woman



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