I seem to have spent the week writing about bel canto singing without posting a single aria from the bel canto era. Let’s rectify that with this beauty I found online: the young Renata Scotto singing the Mad Scene from “Lucia di Lammermoor.” It was filmed in Tokyo with what look like the Metropolitan Opera sets and costumes. An Italian conductor, Bruno Bartoletti, led the local forces (NHK Symphony, Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus) in a beautiful performance. Back in 1967, audiences were still happy to see operas in their traditional setting—this was before the modern craze for updating the bread-and-butter rep. We are treated to two plump Italians wearing tartans as they play out Sir Walter Scott’s tragic love story. Scotto and her Edgardo, Carlo Bergonzi, were in a state of grace that night.
As a young woman, Scotto had a voice like a lemon meringue pie, a delicious combination of tartness and sweetness. There was color and a certain amount of punch in the lower octave, and (on a good night) a free, lofting quality as the voice ascended. She had a special gift for musical spacing, and an especially eloquent way with words. No, this was not the Gothic cathedral sound of Maria Callas or the Peggy Fleming virtuosity of Joan Sutherland, but a touching combination of the intensely human and the otherworldly (just listen to that cadenza!). I have been known to tell my students, “In bel canto, Always Be Doing Something.” What I mean is that a constant play of dynamics and a strong sense of musical destination are crucial for the vitality of the phrasing. Of course this can be carried to fussy extremes, but it’s a helpful motto for singers who are just discovering bel canto. They are usually told that this style is all about legato—tying one note firmly to the next, “going from vowel to vowel.” Not untrue, but a sure recipe for being boring and monochromatic if that’s your only directive. Bel canto needs strong declamation, along with the butter-cream fantasy of a cake decorator.
Scotto sings with artistry. She’s direct—and exalted—and ravishing—and acid—simple—complex—selfless—egocentric. Mostly she’s intense, a great musician, and at least for these seven minutes a superb technician.
From Steven Blier:
Today I want to honor Renata Scotto in honor of fiftieth anniversary of her Met debut. Her singing has meant a great deal to me in the course of my life. I was lucky enough to hear her at the old Met as Lucia. A friend of my parents offered to take me on her subscription, and we sat in Row H of the Orchestra. I was 14. In the car ride down to 39th Street, Mrs. Lesnick said to me, “You’re awfully quiet, Steve!” And I said, dreamily, “I’m just thinking about…tonight…!” She later told my mother that she hadn’t heard those words from a young man in quite some time, not delivered with that kind of faraway fervor. (At that age, I was still capable of diva-love.)
Scotto was always a fiercely committed and deeply musical performer. She had a gift for matching verbal nuance to the contours of the vocal phrase, giving her singing a kind of eloquence that burned itself into your memory forever. She wasn’t always in perfect voice, but when her throat was behaving itself she could make time stop. Her sense of musical structure was that of a great conductor, and she had a supreme understanding of musical spacing, of how to time cadenzas, and of the weight and color of recitatives. She essentially taught me Italian opera, and her lessons have stood me in very good stead. I loved her best in those early years when she still sang with more purity than force. But even when her ambition took her into repertoire she really shouldn’t have tackled, there were always moments of revelation.
Here’s Scotto singing the last part of the Mad Scene from Lucia. (Her wig is based on a hairdo Liz Taylor was sporting in some contemporary movie—Scotto was later rather rueful about that piece of vanity.) For once, “Spargi d’amaro pianto” is not a diva’s virtuoso turn, but the real deal: a sad, lost girl bidding goodbye to life, only dimly aware of her own suicide.
And here she is singing Adina’s aria from The Elixir of Love, another time-stopping performance—with the young Carlo Bergonzi:
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